The Decline and Fall of Jerry Falwell

Is the Evangelical comfort with crassness finally cracking?

If you know anything about American Evangelical higher education, the shocking thing about the board of trustees’ decision to place Liberty University president Jerry Falwell on an “indefinite” leave of absence isn’t that it happened, but that it took so long. And no, I’m not naïve. I know full well that Evangelical educational institutions have often suffered from low-integrity leadership in the past. But the general rule has been clear—misdeeds must be done in secret for the leader to survive. He must conceal his sin. The instant his wrongdoing becomes open and notorious, the leader must leave. 

Jerry Falwell, however, was blazing a new trail. He was living his sin out loud, careening from controversy to controversy even as his students and faculty lived under the traditional, strict moral rules of Christian education. In response, Falwell didn’t bother pretending to be a spiritual leader. Instead, his argument was the higher education equivalent of “scoreboard!” His success excused his sin.

Make no mistake. Those are impressive stats, the envy of countless Christian college presidents. But these presidents—including men I know—without fail believe their highest calling isn’t raising money or building an athletic program, but rather demonstrating (as best they can) Christlike servant leadership for students, faculty, and staff and preserving the spiritual integrity of their institutions from the top-down. 

They understand that in God’s economy, faithfulness trumps endowment. 

But for too long, in Liberty’s economy, that priority was in doubt. To be clear, thousands of members of the Liberty community were living faithful lives. But the person at the pinnacle of the university found himself lurching from scandal to scandal.

It’s easy to get inoculated against outrageous public conduct in the age of Trump, but even by the new standards, Falwell’s public conduct was simply extraordinary for a Christian leader. 

He was placed on leave after he briefly posted a picture with a woman he said was his wife’s assistant. Their pants were unzipped, and he appeared to be holding an alcoholic beverage (though he denied it). He then conducted a truly bizarre short interview apologizing and promising to be a “good boy.” He slurred his words. He sounded drunk. You can see the picture (and hear the interview) below:

But this is the tip of the iceberg of outrage and sometimes outright weirdness from Falwell. I could spend the rest of the newsletter detailing his various scandals, but I can recommend this comprehensive report from Brandon Ambrosino at Politico, detailing Liberty’s culture of fear and Falwell’s pattern of self-dealing, and two short summaries--one from Ruth Graham at Slate, and the other from former Liberty student Calum Best at The Bulwark. And then there is the lingering, incredibly strange controversy surrounding Falwell, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, a pool boy, and alleged racy photographs of Falwell’s wife:

Mr. Falwell — who is not a minister and spent years as a lawyer and real estate developer — said his endorsement was based on Mr. Trump’s business experience and leadership qualities. A person close to Mr. Falwell said he made his decision after “consultation with other individuals whose opinions he respects.” But a far more complicated narrative is emerging about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the months before that important endorsement.

That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.

I’ve spent my entire life in American fundamentalism and evangelicalism. I attended an Evangelical college (and loved it), and I’ve worked for Evangelical institutions. There is one thing you’ll always find—a tension between the incredible aspirational ideals of Christian behavior and the messy sinfulness of all men, including Christians. We aspire to holiness, yet we can never come close to perfection

In high-functioning Christian organizations, the institution attempts to resolve that tension by defaulting toward seeking to uphold the aspirations—and the higher the position and the greater the responsibility, the more the aspiration controls. There are higher expectations for presidents than members of the faculty, and members of the faculty live with greater expectations than students.

This pattern has biblical roots. Elders—those who govern the church—must possess greater minimum qualifications than deacons, those who are more apt to manage the logistics of the church. Indeed, this pattern is so deeply ingrained that low-functioning Christian organizations will often go to great lengths to maintain the trappings or appearance of executive integrity. They know the instant the con is truly exposed, the leader falls.

For several years, however, Liberty flipped this script. The president lived life with greater freedom than his students or his faculty. The message sent was distinctly unbiblical—that some Christian leaders can discard integrity provided their other qualifications, from family name to fund-raising prowess, provided sufficient additional benefit.  

In this way, Falwell functioned as an uncanny Evangelical mini-me to President Trump and served as a symbol of the extent to which the spirit of Trumpism could leak into important Evangelical institutions. Like Trump, Falwell inherited a portion of his father’s empire. Like Trump, Falwell was a roguish departure from the more-dignified norms set by their predecessors. Like Trump, Falwell’s scandals and outrages multiplied right alongside a measurable record of accomplishment. 

In fact, for a time it seemed that—like Trump—Falwell prospered not in spite of his outrageous conduct, but because he disregarded norms. As with many of Trump’s most prominent Evangelical defenders, his gleeful defense of the president—and his own imitations of Trump’s combative style—gained him more power and more prominence. Compromise often carried with it an immediate benefit. Take this anecdote, from a Ringer profile of Falwell’s attempts to transform Liberty into a football powerhouse: 

“I’ll tell you a funny story,” Jerry Falwell Jr. says.

It’s about his school, Liberty University, and about its football team, the Flames, and about his friend, the most powerful man in the world. “My wife and I attend a lot of Friday-night dinners with recruits,” says Falwell, the president of Liberty, the conservative Southern Baptist university that ascended in 2018 from FCS to FBS football and will play in its first-ever bowl game this Saturday. We’re talking last August, a few days before Liberty’s first FBS game.

“We’re sitting around a table like this one,” Falwell continues, gesturing to our table in a conference room high above Liberty’s Lynchburg, Virginia, campus. “It’s me and my wife, and it’s the recruit’s father and his son, who’s a running back.”

He leans forward. He has a gray beard, blue eyes, and a charmed bluster. He smiles. The story is just getting good. “And then my phone rings,” he says. “It’s an unknown number. And I answered it.” His eyes brighten.

“It was the president.”

The president of the United States was calling Falwell to congratulate him on a CNN appearance. That’s access. That’s a measure of success. 

But isn’t this the same with virtually every temptation and moral failure? There is an immediate reward to sin. The drug addict gets his high. The adulterer has the sex he wants. The con man makes his money. The abuser achieves domination over his victim. 

It is thus strange to watch political Christians exulting in the short-term fruits of their manifold moral compromises. Yes, we know that sin has its benefits. Otherwise there would be no temptation. 

Yet there is no avoiding the ultimate consequences. As with Trump, there are signs that character is, in fact, destiny. No, Falwell isn’t facing anything like the academic equivalent of the death toll, economic ruin, and social upheaval that’s now occurring on Trump’s watch, but beneath Liberty’s gleaming exterior, there are signs of trouble. 

In fact, if you’re an academic, you’ll recognize the significance of numbers like these. Here is the shocking decline in Liberty’s freshman applications:

Transfer applications declined significantly as well:

Liberty’s vaunted online program declined by almost 10 percent between 2014 and 2018 before surging back in 2019. And the campus was rocked by the recent departure of high-profile black athletes, setting back Falwell’s dream to become the Notre Dame of Evangelical sports. 

Yes, Liberty is still wealthy—wealthy enough to spend millions of dollars sponsoring one of its students in NASCAR—but Liberty is relearning an old lesson. Money is not the only (or main) metric of academic success. It’s certainly not the main metric of Christian academic success. 

But here’s the good news. The university’s Christian conscience is awakening. Many of its students and professors have recoiled in shame and horror at the conduct of their president and grieve for the reputation of their institution. Last week even Falwell’s friends on his previously loyal board have said, “Enough.”

Enough for now, at least. We don’t know the length of Falwell’s “indefinite” leave. And we don’t know if Falwell’s own Christian conscience will awaken. We can pray that it will. But I know enough about Liberty to know that there is a deep well of faith at that school. And now there is an opportunity for a new beginning.

It is part of the majestic grace of Jesus Christ that those new beginnings can be glorious. They can eclipse the pain and shame of the past. Beauty can come from ashes. One of the most reassuring and mysterious verses in the Bible is Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Liberty University is chock full of thousands of men and women who love God and are called to serve him. Goodness awaits. 

One last thing ... 

In the last few weeks, hundreds of thousands of readers have come to this Sunday newsletter for the first time, and many of them probably wondered why I’ve attached a YouTube at the end of each one. I love Christian music—especially praise music—and I do it to add a dash of encouragement after writing about often tough and painful subjects.

I’m ending with this song for three reasons. First, it’s a song of true gospel deliverance. Second, I love Brooke Ligertwood’s voice. And third, the tens of thousands of young arms raised in worship at the Passion conference serve as a sign of hope and promise. There is a generation of young Christians—at Liberty and elsewhere—who love God and need good shepherds. It’s my generation’s sacred obligation not to fail in that most vital task.

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Remembering John Lewis, and the Political Theology that Changed a Nation

In the face of lesser challenges, we demonstrate less virtue.

My father is an incredibly gifted teacher. Until he retired to become a cattle farmer (true story—that’s what he does now), he was a math professor. He spent most of his career at Georgetown College, a small Baptist college near Lexington, Kentucky. At one point, he was so popular that when students were asked to vote on a faculty member to give the commencement address, he received an absolute majority of votes cast (not a plurality) in spite of competing against dozens of colleagues.

In church, his Sunday School classes were always packed. I’ll never forget his biggest class. After multiple ordeals within the strange hothouse of faculty infighting, he developed a curriculum for a class called, “The Christian and on-the-job politics.” It was a great idea (I’ve got a strong pro-Dad bias here, so hang with me), and it created an actual buzz in the congregation. I skipped my youth group to attend the first class. There weren’t enough seats. Folks lined the walls.

He started the class with something he called the “LBALAG principle.” When confronted with the “Lesser Bad,” he asked, “Shouldn’t the Christian be at Least as Good?” He walked through verse after verse of Christ and the Apostles advocating love in the face of hate, blessings in the face of persecution, kindness in the face of intolerance, put it in the historical context of violent, state-sanctioned murder of Christian believers, and said, “Given our far lesser challenge in our own workplaces, can’t we be as least as loving and at least as kind as these first Christians?”

He took a lesson about “dealing with” or “coping with” bad bosses or malicious co-workers and transformed it into a lesson about loving bosses and caring for co-workers. He made the point that you can never, ever divorce goals from methods, ends from means. It made a powerful impact on my high-school mind. It convicted me. How fragile was my love for others when I struggled with basic kindness even while living a life of ridiculous privilege?

I think of that lesson often. I thought of it again when John Lewis was laid to rest

My Sunday newsletter two weeks ago argued that all too many Christians lack a robust political theology. We think of political engagement primarily through the prism of issues and secondarily (if at all) through serious consideration of methods. In politics, we tend to ask far more, “What should a Christian believe?” than consider, “How should a Christian behave?”

I touched on this on the weekend when Lewis died, but how many times in American life have we seen a better marriage of Christian belief and Christian behavior than the nonviolent resistance to segregation and Jim Crow in the American South? Remember Lewis’s own words, from a 2004 interview:

During those early days, we didn’t study the Constitution, the Supreme Court decision of 1954. We studied the great religions of the world. We discussed and debated the teachings of the great teacher. And we would ask questions about what would Jesus do. In preparing for the sit-ins, we felt that the message was one of love — the message of love in action: don’t hate. If someone hits you, don’t strike back. Just turn the other side. Be prepared to forgive. That’s not anything any Constitution say anything about forgiveness. It is straight from the Scripture: reconciliation.

In his legendary “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just deliver a master class on the injustice of segregation, he also delivered a lesson in the method of nonviolence, of the graduated approach before he took to the streets. “In any nonviolent campaign,” King wrote, “there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”

And he appealed of course to scriptural principle and scriptural example:

One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

Moreover, it’s important to remember that the civil rights movement’s success was hardly assured. In other words, the fact that the tactics “worked” is not the reason they were justified. They were right regardless of the outcome. And they were pursued against great odds.

What looks inevitable in hindsight was anything but certain. In fact, if you were placing contemporary bets on a political outcome, would you guess that some version of a three-century status quo would prevail, or that the civil rights movement would achieve a legal revolution nearly on par with emancipation itself? 

At the same time, can we even recall a modern Christian political movement so consistent with the upside-down logic of biblical Christianity? To gain your life you must lose your life. Bless those who persecute you. Love your enemies. The last shall be first. 

In fact, the turning point of the movement came in 1963, in the Birmingham “Children’s Crusade,” when the least-powerful members of Southern society, the black children of Alabama, confronted Bull Connor’s dogs and firehoses, and—finally—shocked the conscience of a nation chock full of Christians and moved it to take decisive legal and political action. 

That’s what a Christian political theology looks like in action. Both ends and means are suffused with Gospel truth.

Now, let’s return to the LBALAG principle and reflect just a bit on contemporary Christian political action. In the face of less evil than the systematic segregation, lynching, and comprehensive violation of basic human rights that characterized the Jim Crow South, are America’s contemporary political Christian leaders behaving at least as good as these civil rights-era heroes? 

Or are we frequently responding with a degree of fear and panic and compromise that’s mystifying in its historical context?

In 2016, one of the things that we learned was that Donald Trump’s rise first owed its real strength to the irreligious right—the segment of the Republican electorate that attended church the least. For example, in March 2016, a Pew poll “found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.”

In early 2017, The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart wrote a prescient, important essay noting the negative cultural effects of our increasingly secular politics, on both the left and the right. Far from ushering in a new, more tolerant political dawn—secularization was creating a far more vicious political reality.

Here’s Peter, first speaking about the right:

Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

And next, speaking about the left:

The decline of traditional religious authority is contributing to a more revolutionary mood within black politics as well. Although African Americans remain more likely than whites to attend church, religious disengagement is growing in the black community. African Americans under the age of 30 are three times as likely to eschew a religious affiliation as African Americans over 50. This shift is crucial to understanding Black Lives Matter, a Millennial-led protest movement whose activists often take a jaundiced view of established African American religious leaders. Brittney Cooper, who teaches women’s and gender studies as well as Africana studies at Rutgers, writes that the black Church “has been abandoned as the leadership model for this generation.” As Jamal Bryant, a minister at an AME church in Baltimore, toldThe Atlantic’s Emma Green, “The difference between the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil-rights movement is that the civil-rights movement, by and large, was first out of the Church.”

And given the tenor of the times, these words from Beinart are downright prophetic:

Black Lives Matter activists may be justified in spurning an insufficiently militant Church. But when you combine their post-Christian perspective with the post-Christian perspective growing inside the GOP, it’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious.

It is now increasingly clear that the un-Christian de-linking of ends and means is working its dark magic on the United States of America, including on the American church. When confronting lesser evils, our political selves are behaving far worse than we should, and there’s strong evidence that the religious right is now joining the irreligious right on the march down that dark path. Rather than resisting the de-linking, it’s advancing the degradation of our political culture.

Remember the statistics about churchgoing Republicans rejecting Trump more than their non-churchgoing peers? Well that changed, dramatically. By the time Beinart wrote his essay, white churchgoing Evangelicals supported Trump more than nonchurchgoing Evangelicals, and that gap has now persisted for years. Rather than presenting the last line of defense against his rise, churchgoing Evangelicals are now the foundation of his political power.

What’s the old saying? “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” That’s exactly what white Evangelicals did. They didn’t change the post-Christian ethos of Trump’s movement. All too many times they embraced that ethos. And in so doing they have often shocked the conscience of the nation, but sometimes in the worst ways.  

As a nation says farewell to John Lewis and is saying farewell to his peers in that great generation of black Christian political leaders, it’s worth remembering that there is a better way. Christian political engagement can look very different than it so often looks today. Yes, later in life John Lewis could be bitterly partisan and sometimes deeply uncharitable, but in those most crucial years, he showed us what Christian political courage looked like. May we remember, and may we learn.

One more thing ... 

Speaking of Christian charity, I’d urge you all to watch George W. Bush’s brief eulogy at Lewis’s memorial service. It pays proper tribute to Lewis, without keeping any record of personal wrongs. Lewis, remember, famously boycotted Bush’s first inauguration. This is how to lay down partisan differences to celebrate the best memories of a great man:

One last thing ... 

In my quest to send you good music that nourishes the soul, I’ve neglected to send along the best beard in Christian music. I love this song—it communicates the power of encountering Christ in scripture. It’s a power that can transform a person and a nation. Enjoy:

Photograph by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images.

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