The question either infuriates or intrigues tens of millions of Americans: Did God play a role in the victory of Donald Trump? The debate will soon be presented in movie theaters across the country, as evangelical megaschool Liberty University is making and releasing a film called “The Trump Prophecy.”
The film, which will be released in 1,200 theaters this fall, is Liberty’s largest production to date, and it pairs the university with an independent Christian filmmaker who raised $1 million for the project — a sum its director says could double with postproduction and distribution costs.
Those who share Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s belief that Trump is a “dream” president for evangelicals will probably make up a large part of the target audience — conservatives 55 and older.
But others — including many evangelicals — call the project anti-Christian for what they see as its implicit endorsement of a president who fosters attitudes and policies toward immigrants, minorities and the poor that they think contradict Jesus’ teaching to prioritize the marginalized.
More than 1,900 people, some who identify themselves as students or graduates of the Lynchburg, Va., school — one of the largest Christian universities in the world — have signed a petition demanding the cancellation of the project.
Liberty’s mission statement and purpose it is “to be a light on a hill and to train champions for Christ,” the petition says. The film centers on a firefighter who in 2011 said God told him Trump would be president, and the petition rejects this idea of a modern-day prophet. It also rejects what it describes as the film’s open support of Trump.
As one signatory, Benjamin Rogers, who identified himself as a Liberty student and a Christian, said: “What is the point of making this movie other than to further push Donald Trump up on a Messianic pedestal?”
But Stephan Schultze, the film’s director and head of Liberty’s Cinematic Arts program, said the film was not made to raise up Trump. His primary goal, he said, is to make great filmmakers out of his students. Viewers themselves, he said, can decide whether Mark Taylor, played by a Liberty theater professor, is a true prophet (as Taylor purports to be). Many critics who have heard of Taylor’s story don’t understand it, Schultze said. He describes the film as a “living room drama” about a man connecting to God, and how the story eventually sparked a prayer movement for the country and a candidate.
Schultze, who came to Liberty six years ago after working as a director of photography and scriptwriter, declined to state whether he believes that Taylor’s predictions amount to prophesy. He did say he feels a calling to his work in Lynchburg.
“I feel [the reason] why the Lord’s brought me here to Liberty is very specific . . . to help students who are interested in having a career in cinema have a place that’s safe for them to practice their faith and learn the craft of filmmaking,” Schultze said.
But it’s not just the movie’s seeming endorsement of Trump that rankles those who take issue with Falwell’s commitment to the president. Many are also offended by the idea that God would favor one candidate over another.
“It’s putting politics over the Gospel. It’s putting political ideology over faith,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive Christian group Sojourners. He called “The Trump Prophecy” “heretical” for trying to link God with a particular electoral outcome.
But the idea that God has a political preference makes sense to many Americans, even some who don’t like Trump but still believe God was trying to send a message with his election.
In post-election interviews in 2016, voters often expressed a belief that God had some role in the dramatic, unexpected outcome. For the many people of faith who see God’s hand in their own lives — from their triumph over alcoholism to their luck in finding a parking spot — it’s not such a stretch to believe that God has a hand in determining who wins the Super Bowl or the White House.
that may help explain why Taylor’s and Mary Colbert’s 2017 book, “The Trump Prophecies: The Astonishing True Story of the Man Who Saw Tomorrow . . . And What He Says Is Coming Next,” won a following.
Taylor in the book recounts his traumatic experiences as a firefighter, and how, suffering from anxiety and depression, he began to hear from both God and evil spirits.
God told him in 2011, he wrote, that Trump would win the election, though he expected that to happen in 2012.
Trump won in 2016 despite widespread belief among pollsters and voters alike that Hillary Clinton would beat him easily. He won in great part because of the support of more than 80 percent of white evangelical voters. Taylor gained attention and made more predictions. Trump will win a second term, he said.
God has also told him, he said, that the dollar will become the strongest currency in the world and that the news media will come to see that Trump is in the right.
Producer Rick Eldridge and his Charlotte-based ReelWorks Studios heard Taylor’s story and imagined it as a compelling movie for Christians who feel secular filmmakers offer them too few choices. Over Thanksgiving, he met with Schultze, who was visiting family in Charlotte. The two talked about a collaboration with Liberty in which students would get weeks of hands-on experience doing such tasks as camera work, lighting and makeup.
During the projects, students do two separate filmmaking-related jobs. With such experience, Schultze said, they have the credentials to enter the competitive film industry not as coffee fetchers for directors, but as professionals who can contribute creatively to a production.
The country is ready for more films like “The Trump Prophecies,” he said, which take what he sees as a Christian world view. Major movie studios, he said, have created Christian film divisions in recent years, such as Sony’s Affirm Films and Twentieth Century Fox’s FoxFaith.
“Every single one of them recognizes that there’s an underserved audience,” he said.
The number of faith-based films released in theaters annually has about doubled to a dozen since 2012, according to a recent Los Angeles Times report, which also said that the genre has been in a slump in the past year or so.
Schultze is not concerned with critics who say “The Trump Prophecy” is a vehicle for Falwell’s endorsement of Trump, support that has led some Liberty students to return their diplomas. The director said Falwell has made it clear that he speaks for himself, and not Liberty or the people who work and study there.
The relationship between Trump and Falwell remains strong. The college president gave Trump a rousing endorsement at the 2016 Republican National Convention, sits on his informal evangelical advisory board, defended him after he made comments deemed bigoted about the Charlottesville protests last summer, and landed him as a speaker at Liberty’s commencement ceremony last year.
Liberty film students were given the option of not working on “The Trump Prophecy,” and one decided not to take part, Schultze said. He said he not know the student’s particular reason for declining, though he said he thought it had to do with personal or political views. That student created a promotional film for a local fire department instead.
Falwell declined to be interviewed for this report but said in a statement that the film gives students “a real world opportunity to gain professional experience in moviemaking” and that “Liberty strongly supports academic freedom and the free expression of ideas, especially in the field of cinematic arts.”
“The Trump Prophecy” can be seen in theaters across the country on Oct. 2 and 4. Depending on turnout, there may be encore performances, Schultze said. The film’s website will list theaters showing the film, which will often sponsor discussions after showings.
“The Trump Prophecy,” Schultze said, is Liberty’s sixth film. If it makes money, it would be the first for a Liberty movie.