(RNS) — To attack Jerry Falwell Jr. right now is all too easy. There’s no need to pile on. But still, there are some things that must be said.
On Tuesday (Aug. 25), finally, Falwell managed to disgrace himself badly enough to lose control of his birthright, the university founded by his late father.
Junior’s inherited status, wealth and power were his to enjoy for as long as he could keep his personal life within hailing distance of the professed standards of Liberty University, which aims to train “champions for Christ.”
But this he could not manage to do.
As of Tuesday morning, after a tussle with the Liberty trustee board, he supposedly, finally, really, resigned, telling The Wall Street Journal that “pressure from self-righteous people” led to his downfall, rather than his own missteps. His comments show little self-awareness about how he finds himself where he does.
How did the world’s most visible fundamentalist leader come to this sad place?
Because unlike his controversial father, Jerry Falwell Sr., the younger Falwell gives little evidence of being a serious Christian.
Whatever else one might say about Jerry Falwell Sr. — and there is much that needs to be said — I think the evidence shows that he really believed in the fundamentalist Christianity that he proclaimed. This included his conservative theology and strict personal moral standards with a focus on sexuality and a disdain for alcohol.
Falwell Senior was a preacher at heart and cared about the spiritual atmosphere of the school he founded.
Falwell Junior was a lawyer who took over his father’s university in 2007 and drove it hard to numerical growth, but never much worried about its soul.
Of course, Falwell Senior’s Christianity came embedded in a Southern white reactionary cultural package. Like so many passionate Christians of his time and place, he was both devout and committed to resisting every progressive social change movement of his time. Eventually he latched onto partisan GOP politics as a primary vehicle for advancing his goals.
Falwell Junior had all the flaws of his father’s version of Christianity with none of the redeeming qualities. Junior oozed the politics of white reaction and engaged actively in Republican electioneering, using his school as a convenient backdrop.
A prime example: After a mass shooting in 2015, Falwell criticized President Barack Obama for promoting gun control, encouraged his students to get concealed-carry permits and said that if more people packed heat as he did, they could “end those Muslims.”
His remarks were met with cheers and laughter.
Falwell happily enjoyed his access to Donald Trump and his status as go-to “evangelical” commentator even when the evangelical part had for him been reduced to its worst husk of contempt for various enemies of conservative white Christian America. The fact that none of this posed a serious problem to his trustees says quite a bit about the state of white American fundamentalism-evangelicalism.
Some have suggested that Falwell did pretty much everything he could to get fired, like a preacher who really hates his job but can’t quite admit it.
Islamophobia, racism and a lawsuit over Falwell’s close business ties with a former pool attendant who co-owned a youth hostel in Miami – as well as allegations that Falwell had enlisted former Trump associate Michael Cohen to cover up “racy photos” — were not enough to put his job in jeopardy.
But then came Instagram photos of Falwell with unzipped pants, dark brown liquid in one hand, the other hand perilously near a female breast not belonging to his wife.
The final straw was “pool boy,” Parte Deux — allegations that Falwell and his wife had a long-term, sexual relationship with a former business associate whom they met when he was a pool attendant at a Miami hotel.
Falwell barely hid his sexual appetites and taste for a high-end party lifestyle. Even as a mid-50-something university president, he used his social media feed to “like” pictures of barely clad young women. Reports from Liberty University alleged his interest in sharing questionable pictures of his wife and talking about their sex life with his underlings there, to the great discomfort of all but himself. And his Florida vacations certainly appeared both expensive and more than a little bit worldly.
Sunday night, Falwell — in one of the most ham-handed efforts at Christian public redemption known to modern man — decided to begin his tour by offering a 1,200-word statement claiming that his recent questionable actions had been motivated by depression related to what for the first time he named as an affair by his wife, followed by the man’s extortionate threats.
It quickly became clear that Falwell’s statement was an effort to get ahead of Monday’s Reuters story, which cited evidence provided by the young man, Giancarlo Granda, including texts, screenshots and audio, and in which Granda claimed a consensual seven-year sexual relationship with the couple.
Think about this end game for just a minute.
If Granda is to be believed, Falwell was attempting to save himself by blaming his wife. Perhaps he hoped Granda would stay quiet or would decide not to tangle with him any further. But alas, the young man was offended and came forward with evidence. The accounts, of course, conflict, but all in all it is a sordid business.
It seems to me that Jerry Falwell Jr. is to American Christianity what Donald Trump is to American politics.
Both appear more concerned with power than with principles. Both hide their private sins behind a veneer of wealth and reactionary claims of Christianity’s persecution. Both took proud old movements in America and visibly advanced their moral deterioration.
Fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity used to be tethered to biblical wisdom, at least to some extent. That’s because evangelicals were Bible-reading, personally pious kinds of people. They didn’t get everything right, for sure. But there was something redemptive there. They usually could smell religious fakery and moral corruption when its whiff came their way. They knew that claiming to be a Christian was supposed to mean something for how Christians actually lived.
Indeed, what survives of this spirit of real Christianity, including at Liberty itself, helped bring Falwell down.
But overall, evangelical noses do not appear to be as sensitive as they used to be.
Some of Falwell’s fakery and corruption has been revealed, and he has fallen.
Much of Trump’s fakery and corruption has been revealed, and he has not yet fallen.
Both have led their movements — which are now, basically, one single movement of white “Christian” reactionary politics — into a ditch.
Both need to depart the scene for there to be a new beginning.
But that new beginning depends on whether the movement has the capacity to tell the truth about what it has become, and to repent.
In other words, it’s time to “come to Jesus.”
(David P. Gushee teaches Christian ethics at Mercer University. He is the author of “After Evangelicalism,” released Tuesday by Westminster John Knox Press. The views in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)