Jerry Falwell Jr. and the Evangelical Playbook for Wealthy Well-Connected White Men

Jerry Falwell Jr. and the Evangelical Playbook for Wealthy Well-Connected White Men August 17, 2020

I haven’t written about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent fall from grace after posting … strange … pictures while at a party on a yacht. Maybe that’s why I haven’t written about it—he was at a party on a yacht. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with yachts necessarily, but doesn’t the Bible instruct the wealthy to sell all of their possessions and give the money to the poor?

Increasingly, white American evangelicalism feels like little more than a scheme that protects well-connected wealthy white men. Again, and again, and again. Wealthy well-connected white Christian men get away with murder. It’s absurd, and it’s such a mockery of phrases like “blessed are the meek” that it starts to feel like nothing more than a well-orchestrated farce.

Jerry Falwell Jr. was in a position of power because of nepotism, and nepotism alone. He showed no particular talent for organizing, for leading, or for religion. But it did not matter. He was given riches and power, and his foibles were overlooked again, and again, and again. It’s an absurdity. An utter absurdity.

The truth is this: Falwell’s recent photograph scandal and temporary removal from power comes in the midst of so much of the same that it almost feels uneventful. It’s not surprising or out of the ordinary; it’s typical. My compulsion is to yawn. And you watch, he’ll be back—this temporary suspension won’t last. It’ll be a temporary measure, followed by Falwell’s repentance and return to power. Wealth well-connected white male Christian leaders have more hail mary passes than cats have lives.

Perhaps that’s why this feels so uneventful. Jerry Falwell Jr. has been doing problematic things for a long time—I don’t mean problematic from a secular outsider standpoint (although some have been), I mean problematic from a Christian standpoint, which is what is supposed to matter given Falwell Jr.’s role as president of Liberty University. This incident just happened to be a bridge too far—unlike the nightclub photos, the weird relationship with the pool boy, or the self-dealing.

Perhaps what we should be asking is: What happened to make white American evangelicalism like this? Why does it foster and then cover up for this kind of behavior, over and over and over again? I can imagine a setup where the accruing of personal wealth alone would raise questions—and even lead to a decline in a leader’s image and respect. But that does not happen. Even a whiff of indiscretion could lead to a leader’s permanent removal from power—but that, too, does not happen. Why?

We’re talking about a world where a girl who wears tank tops can be branded a slut—a world where a woman who starts building a following runs the risk of being condemned as a Jezebel if she makes the slightest wrong move (or even any move at all). How can a world that is so cruel to women and girls—and to queer teens and so many others—be so forgiving of well-connected wealthy white men? We’re talking about a world where a child who accuses an evangelical leader of sexual abuse is more likely to be condemned as a lying attention whore than they are to be listened to and believed.

The consequences are profoundly tragic. The victims are real people.

White American evangelicalism is about empowering the powerful, not the meek. It is about enriching the wealthy, not serving the poor. It is about uplifting the well-connected, not the down trodden.

For many years, I suspected the above but was still capable of being surprised or shocked by the latest scandal. Perhaps that is what has changed: I have finally moved from suspicion to conviction, and I have lost the ability to be surprised.

Of course Jerry Falwell Jr. posed for inappropriate pictures and posted them on Instagram. Did anyone really expect otherwise of him? Of course Liberty University responded only by temporarily suspending him, and nothing more permanent. Did anyone actually expect permanent consequences? I know this playbook. I’ve seen it play out too many times to be surprised.

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