The Meaning of the Jerry Falwell, Jr. Scandal

The Meaning of the Jerry Falwell, Jr. Scandal September 1, 2020

Some observers of evangelicalism are obsessed with Falwell, in part seemingly because he is another reason to discredit a flawed president and his born-again supporters. Some of these observers also engage in schadenfreude (pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune). For instance, from a few weeks ago, to the question of why Liberty University’s trustees put Falwell on an indefinite leave of absence:

Was it because he created a Blackface face-mask and tweeted about it?

Was it because the aforementioned tweet hurt Liberty’s athletic program?

Was it because Black students and employees were leaving Liberty?

Was it because African-American alums could no longer endorse the school?

Was it because he supported Donald Trump’s idea about delaying the 2020 presidential election? …

[about twenty questions left out]

Was it because he advised Donald Trump to fire Jeff Sessions as Attorney General?

Was it because he censored the Liberty University student newspaper?

Was it because he refused to let progressive evangelicals hold a religious revival on Liberty’s campus?

Was it because he said that Christ “did not forgive the establishment elites?”

Was it because he said that Donald Trump “has single-handedly changed the definition of what is ‘presidential’ from phony, failed & rehearsed to authentic, successful & down to earth”?

Was it because he defended Roy Moore when he was accused of molesting teenage girls?

Was it because he said he would join alt-Right Trump adviser Steve Bannon in driving “fake Republicans” from office?

Was it because he called Donald Trump a “dream president?”

Was it because he praised Trump’s Charlottesville comments?

Was it because he defended Trump’s comments on the Access Hollywood tape?

Was it because he told Liberty University students who were protesting Trump’s visit to campus that they “are going to be making fools of themselves?”

While I am sure some people at Liberty University were troubled by all these things, it was a photo with a glass of wine, unzipped pants, and his hand around a woman’s waist that FINALLY got the Liberty Board of Trustees to act. This is classic evangelicalism.

Falwell’s sins are many, always remembered, never forgiven.

But other observers of evangelicalism think Falwell is no big deal:

It is critically important to note that, for millions of evangelicals, the beating heart of the faith is deeply personal. For them, the movement is about private prayer, Bible study and quiet witness to neighbors, along with missions in the form of humanitarian organizations such as World Vision International. This is the river into which all these other tributaries flow. The diversity of members, motivations and inspirations provides the movement with tensile strength.

So, who does Falwell represent? More important, who has he disillusioned? Surely thousands, possibly millions. But if the tradition’s long history and contemporary multiplicity serve as an index, millions more, plus the great majority of Americans of other religious persuasions, could care less. Falwell’s shenanigans don’t count because they don’t count for them.

Years ago, J. C. Massee, the irenic, conservative pastor of the historic Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston, quipped that there were fundamentalists and damned fundamentalists.” If he were around today, I am pretty sure he would say Falwell falls in the latter category. And that Massee would shrug, with bemused dismissal, and turn his hand to things that really matter.

A generational tussle is going on in the study of evangelicalism. The older scholars regarded it as basically a form of Protestant Christianity. A younger group, but established in their fields, see evangelicalism as an extension of the Republican Party’s worst features. It seems like a pretty easy call on who will win since the older generation is retired and not on social media. The irony, though, is that the younger scholars looked up to and trained with the older scholars.

Trump blew that generational succession up.


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