LYNCHBURG, Va. — The night before Shane Claiborne came to town to preach at a Christian revival, he received a letter from the chief of police at Liberty University warning that if he set foot on the property, he would be arrested for trespassing and face up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
At first glance, Claiborne hardly appeared a threat to Liberty University, a dominant force in Lynchburg, Virginia, and a powerful engine in evangelical Christianity. Wearing baggy clothes that he sews himself, Claiborne preaches the gospel, lives among the poor and befriends prisoners on death row, modeling his ministry on the life of Jesus.
But to the leaders of Liberty, he was a menace to their campus. He and his national network of liberal evangelicals, called the Red Letter Christians, were holding a revival meeting to protest in Liberty’s backyard. Their target: Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty’s president and a man who has played a pivotal role in forging the alliance between white evangelicals and Donald Trump, who won 81 percent of their vote.
Claiborne and his group are the other evangelicals. The Red Letter Christians, a reference to the words of Jesus printed in some Bibles in red type, are not the evangelicals invited for interviews on Fox News or MSNBC. They don’t align neatly with either political party. But they have fierce moral and theological objections to those evangelicals who have latched onto Trump and the Republican Party.
“Let’s go where the Christians are, go where toxic Christianity lives,” Claiborne said last year, when proposing the idea for a revival in Lynchburg at an annual retreat for the Red Letter Christians.
The revival last month was the most energetic of several recent attempts by Christians in various camps to confront what they see as Trump’s “court evangelicals” selling out the faith. The critics have written columns, and a book called “Still Evangelical?” They convened a closed-door summit last month at Wheaton College. A number of bereaved, eminent elders went to the White House last week and handed over their manifesto, “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.”
Claiborne and his group were far more audacious, but they also faced disappointment, resistance and fear. They were taking on Lynchburg, a company town where Liberty University is the biggest employer. Their “Red Letter Revival” revealed the state of the evangelical church in 2018: The loudest voices and institutional power and money are with Trump; the dissenters are fired-up, underfunded and scattered; and the vast majority of pastors are silent for fear of dividing their congregations or risking their jobs.
“There is another gospel in our country right now, and it is the gospel of Trump,” Claiborne preached at the revival in his Tennessee drawl. “It doesn’t look much like the gospel of Jesus.”
Lynchburg sits at the heart of pro-Trump evangelical Christianity. Liberty University’s commencement speaker last year was Trump, a personal friend of Falwell’s. Fox News hosts are frequent speakers at chapel services.
Trump has retained the loyalty of conservative white evangelicals because he is delivering on their political priorities: appointing conservative judges, moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and allowing religious entities to opt out of serving gay people or providing birth control in insurance plans. This record has enabled them to look past Trump’s personal scandals, including allegations of extramarital affairs.
But Red Letter Christians and other evangelicals have increasingly become frustrated that their church appears to be endorsing Trump’s program of deporting immigrants, fanning racial tension and passing a tax deal benefiting the rich.
“This is not of God,” thundered Barbara Williams-Skinner, an influential black evangelical elder in Washington, D.C., as the audience stood and clapped at the revival. “This is not worthy of our savior. This is not what he died for.”
Beginning in January, Don Golden, the executive director of the Red Letter Christians, visited Lynchburg seven times in three months to try to recruit like-minded leaders and Liberty students.
Golden had done refugee and missionary work in 70 countries. At age 51, with three daughters in college, he had left behind a fat salary in large ministries he called “Evangelical Inc.” and was on contract for the Red Letter Christians, without health insurance. Each morning he prayed to God to help him make it through the day without a mishap.
In Lynchburg, Golden began following the approach of the mass revivals honed for decades by the Rev. Billy Graham, in which organizers from out of town recruited local ministers to help turn out crowds and engage new believers. But Golden quickly learned how challenging his task would be.
When the president of Lynchburg College, Kenneth R. Garren, learned that some of his chaplains and faculty had hosted a Red Letter meeting on campus, he told them the college could not sponsor the event or host meetings.
“We didn’t want to take sides. We have a fine relationship with Liberty,” said Michael Jones, a spokesman for Lynchburg College, also a Christian school.
Three days before the revival, Golden met for breakfast with a leader of a local evangelical church in the dim, empty back room of a downtown cafe, so as not to be seen together. The church leader, who spoke on the condition that neither he nor his church be identified, said he believed in the Red Letter campaign because he was concerned about white evangelicals’ bond with Trump.
But the leader said that his church could not participate in the revival. He and three other elders at the church had jobs at Liberty University.
Still, Golden and the Red Letter Christians found small signs of support. The local organizing committee for the revival included three Liberty students, a Native American minister, and a few black pastors and church leaders. They held different views on homosexuality, but decided to work together in the interest of Christian unity.
“We need to break out of our silos,” said Anne Boynton, an elder at First Christian Church, who was a local co-chairwoman for the revival. “This is an aspirational moment, an opportunity to experience what the kingdom of God looks like.”
But there was still the question of how Falwell himself would react to the event. Ten days before the revival, Claiborne wrote a letter to Falwell inviting him to join. Claiborne was not entirely a stranger — he had preached at Liberty after writing his book, “Jesus for President.” And Claiborne asked if he could bring some of the participants onto the Liberty campus for a prayer vigil. He asked Falwell to join them.
“I already pray for you, but I would love to pray with you,” Claiborne wrote, signing off, “Your brother in Christ.”
Falwell never responded, though in addition to banning the Red Letter Christians from campus, he forbade the Liberty University student newspaper from covering the revival. When Erin Covey, the student assigned to the story, asked Falwell to comment on the revival, she received a text from him that said: “Let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.”
Falwell’s brother, the Rev. Jonathan Falwell, agreed to meet with Golden, though, at Thomas Road Baptist Church on the Liberty campus.
“We really didn’t ask permission to come to Lynchburg,” Golden said in the meeting. “But we weren’t asked permission for evangelical leaders to say that Donald Trump is the president for evangelicals.”
In an interview later by phone, the Rev. Jonathan Falwell said he disagreed with Golden’s premise that evangelicalism has been compromised by backing Trump. “I think the condition of the church today is strong,” he said.
And he said Liberty was justified in barring the Red Letter Christians because Claiborne had threatened to commit civil disobedience.
“An organization has a duty to the parents to protect their kids,” he said.
When the day of the revival came, the mood and the music inside the cavernous auditorium was upbeat, but began to deflate as the 2,000 seats failed to fill. About 350 people from 28 states attended over two nights. Many said they felt alone in their home churches and had come to find their tribe. Another 3,500 watched a livestream. Roughly two dozen students from Liberty University came.
Claiborne still wanted to lead a group onto the Liberty campus and hold a prayer vigil — or at least leave a gift for Falwell, who had just opened a new $3.2 million gun range on campus. Claiborne had ready a hand plow that he made from a melted-down handgun, a literal following of the Bible’s instruction to “beat swords into plowshares.”
They decided instead that the Liberty police would not dare arrest an 83-year-old. So that afternoon, the Rev. Tony Campolo, co-founder of the Red Letter Christians, entered the front door of Thomas Road Baptist Church, and left a red box with the bewildered receptionist.
Inside the box, tied with a ribbon, was a stack of prayers, written on index cards, from the participants of the revival.
“Dear Liberty, I am praying for your campus,” said one. “The Jesus in the Bible speaks of love and acceptance. I hope you learn to speak of this too.”