The 2018 Netflix documentary Behind the Curve looks at the internet-advertising-driven phenomenon of 21st-century “Flat Earth” enthusiasts. One highlight of the film involves the flat-Earth proponents scraping together $20,000 to purchase a state-of-the-art laser gyroscope that they are convinced will prove once and for all, scientifically, that the planet we all share is neither round nor rotating.
This foray into actual science does not go well for the science-denying (and sailing-denying and Dante-denying) conspiracy theorists:
This is a humiliating moment for poor Bob Knodel, a man whose career and reputation were built on the popularity of his flat-Earth videos online. What he had hoped and expected to be his moment of glorious victory turns, instead, into categorical defeat as his expensive gyroscope demonstrates — conclusively — that our big blue marble is spinning in space.
Knodel staked his credibility on a factual claim that was conclusively proved to be false. This was a major blow not just to him, but to the entire flat-Earth “movement.”
Something similar happened in 2012 for adherents of the equally bogus “birther” conspiracy hoax. The foremost proponent of that theory, Donald J. Trump, had — just like Bob Knodel — wagered his reputation and a big pile of money on a single high-stakes experiment that he claimed would prove, once and for all, that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. To prove this Trump wouldn’t need a laser gyroscope, he just needed to get his hands on Obama’s long-form birth certificate. Everything hinged on that long-form birth certificate, Trump said, claiming to have hired a squadron of private investigators to track it down. Once that long-form birth certificate was made public, Trump assured his followers, he and his birtherism would be proved correct.
This played out for Trump exactly the way the gyroscope experiment played out for flat-Earther Knodel. President Obama got the original, official, notarized “long-form” birth certificate from the Hawaii hospital where he was born and released it publicly, conclusively proving that Trump and his “birther” theories were utterly wrong.
So what happened when Trump’s claims and assurances were proved to be utterly, humiliatingly wrong? Well, among other things, he was invited to Liberty University to address its students at a mandatory convocation and receive an honorary business degree.
This is recounted in a sweeping Politico report on Liberty’s travails following the ouster of long-time school president Jerry Falwell Jr., “‘They All Got Careless’: How Falwell Kept His Grip on Liberty Amid Sexual ‘Games,’ Self-Dealing“:
Trump travelled to Liberty to speak at its biweekly convocation, where Falwell called him “one of the most influential political leaders in the United States,” lavished praise on him for having “single-handedly forced President Obama to release his birth certificate” and considering a run for president, and presented him with an honorary Liberty business degree.
This seems bizarre. No one “lavished praise” or bestowed honorary degrees upon Bob Knodel for having “single-handedly forced” science to prove he was a foolish, dishonest man. Yet there were Jerry Falwell Jr. and the full institutional weight of Liberty University doing exactly that for Donald Trump — and doing so not in spite of, but because of his abject humiliation.
This doesn’t seem to have been a quid pro quo gesture by Liberty, the kind of sleazy-but-conventional conferring of an honorary degree that sometimes follows a large contribution from a wealthy donor. It was just something the school chose to do, as an expression of its values, after months of Trump publicly accusing the president of dishonestly before, ultimately, being exposed himself as a shameless liar and a fool. Falwell and Liberty, the school’s board members, administration, and academic leaders all witnessed Trump’s epic failure and fraudulence and they thought to themselves: Let’s reward that. Let’s affirm that. Let’s bring some of that here, as a model for our students.
Liberty University, in other words, didn’t even have as much good sense as members of the flat-Earth “movement” demonstrated when they sidelined Knodel for his version of Trump’s historic own-goal.
Adam Serwer doesn’t mention Liberty’s 2012 celebration of Trump or its endorsement of his birtherism in “Birtherism of a Nation,” his Atlantic essay from earlier this year, but what he writes here explains the white evangelical school’s otherwise inexplicable decision. It did not matter to Liberty’s board members that Trump and his birtherism had been proved false, because the whole “theory” never had anything to do with the actual facts of Obama’s birth (in the United States, to a mother who was a U.S. citizen). Liberty’s endorsement of birtherism was, Serwer writes, “a statement of values” — of explicitly antebellum, white-supremacist values:
Birtherism was never meant to answer a factual query. Birtherism is not trying to explain some purportedly mysterious phenomenon, like Tupac Shakur’s unending posthumous releases, the lingering sight of water condensation behind aircraft, or how 19 hijackers evaded detection and managed to execute the most successful terrorist attack in American history. These theories are outlandish, weird, and offensive, but they are all attempts at answering actual questions, even if those questions are stupid. Birtherism was, from the beginning, an answer looking for a question to justify itself.
Birtherism was a statement of values, a way to express allegiance to a particular notion of American identity, one that became the central theme of the Trump campaign itself: To Make America Great Again, to turn back the clock to an era where white political and cultural hegemony was unthreatened by black people, by immigrants, by people of a different faith. By people like Barack Obama. The calls to disavow birtherism missed the point: Trump’s entire campaign was birtherism.
Trump won the Republican primary, and united the party, in part because his run was focused on the psychic wound of the first black presidency. He had, after all, humiliated and humbled Obama. None of the other Republican candidates could make such a claim. None could say, as Trump could, that they had put the first black president in his place. And so none could offer an answer to the anguish that produced birtherism. That very same anguish helped Trump win the presidency.
You could call birtherism a conspiracy theory, sure. But in 2020, looking at the Trump administration’s efforts to diminish the power of minority voters, imprison child migrants, ban Muslim travelers from entering the country, and criminalize his political opposition, it could be more accurately described as the governing ideology of the United States.
Liberty university’s “allegiance to a particular notion of American identity” was not a product or result of Trump’s birtherism. That allegiance pre-existed Obama’s presidency and Trump’s recent turn toward the religious right. It was the purpose and cause of the school’s founding: Christian nationalism. Which is to say, always, white nationalism.
That is the cause for Liberty University’s existence, the “spirit” of its founding that the Liberty alumni group “Save71” hopes to restore in sweeping Jerry Jr.’s scandals under the rug. What happened in ’71? Jerry Falwell Sr. founded a college in defense of “a particular notion of American identity.”
And everything about Liberty University ever since has been in service to that particular notion.
BWAA? (But What About Abortion?) What about the purported flagship issue of Falwell’s Moral Majority, and of the rest of the religious right, and of the entirety of white evangelical identity, white evangelical doctrine, piety, and practice for the last 40 years?
This is no different from birtherism and Trumpism. It’s always been all about “judges” — about the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court above all, the pious purpose of appointing “pro-life” justices there who would overturn settled laws and interpret the Constitution in such a way as to “protect the unborn and the sanctity of life.”
But every single judge white evangelicals have ever supported in the name of that cause also just so happened to be a judge who was committed, above all, to “a particular notion of American identity.” Which is to say that every single one of them seeks to downplay, dismiss, disregard or demolish the Reconstruction Amendments and their unqualified, emphatic expansion beyond that cramped antebellum and explicitly white definition of legitimate American identity. (Nowadays these nominees are not even judges — they’re lawyers or lobbyists or professors or even recent law school grads. The pool of plausibly qualified actual judges willing to ignore 150 years of black-letter constitutional law was long ago depleted.)
Birtherism was never about the obviously false claim that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii. Nor was it about the obviously false claim that his mother was not an American citizen. It was simply a racist howl of protest against the 14th Amendment — a rejection of its blanket statement that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”
That same howl of protest, dressed up in fancier language, is the paramount concern of two-thirds of the justices now sitting on the Supreme Court. And it is the paramount concern of the white evangelical Christian nationalism that put them there.