Sometimes I see something a fundagelical wrote and just laugh, because it’s either that or get angry. Today’s laugh is provided by Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University. And I know that Liberty University generally provokes that kind of reaction from everyone except fundagelicals, for whom it is Most Serious Bizniss, but this was more WTF than even usual.
Jerry Falwell père died in 2007, passing his vast empire to his son–Jerry Falwell Jr.1 The son promptly went about the task of assuring fundagelicals that he wouldn’t be softening his father’s patented brand of hateful, ignorant, xenophobic insanity. Oh no! If anything, he’d be even more WTF than his father ever was. One gets the impression that Junior was champing at the bit to let loose his inner Toxic Christian.
A Brief Rundown of Toxic Christianity.
It’s been a few years since I devoted time to this particular topic, so let me briefly outline what I mean by this term.
In chemistry, a toxic chemical is anything that would be very harmful to either the environment or living things. Toxic chemicals include things like bleach and battery acid–substances that are helpful when harnessed and used correctly, but which could literally kill a living thing that encountered it. Other toxic chemicals can poison the ground (like arsenic) or make life in that area all but impossible (like radioactive particles).
In the same way, religious people can become toxic when their zealotry gets out of control. Religious zealots can make life very difficult for others, as they seek to control, obliterate, and dominate everything that might push back against their takeover.
But religion itself isn’t the enemy. It’s just the window-dressing that these people use to rationalize away their behavior and justify their power grabs. People like that get attracted to extremist forms of religion because that’s where they can most easily find what they seek. That’s where the easiest prey grazes; that’s where the most accessible rationalizations live. The form of religion that terrible people gravitate to is their excuse–their permission slip–to behave in the ways they like best, and even spurs them on to worse and worse behaviors.
That said, if religion vanished tomorrow–if every religious person alive right now suddenly realized that there’s no such thing as the supernatural, that there won’t be a Heaven or Hell awaiting anybody after death, that no gods are doing anything for or to anybody on this good dark earth–then there’d still be terrible people creating and joining terrible ideologies and using those as their rationalization and justification to become worse and worse until they take their final form.
That’s why just about every large group has at least a few terrible people in it, playing politics and grabbing for control and domination wherever they can. The less tethered to reality a group is and the more tribal its outlook, the harder it is for that group’s leadership to identify and expel such people–and the further up the ladder those people can get, and the more victims they will trample along the way. It’s a vicious cycle: once one of these people reaches a position of real power in the group, they can start driving out or silencing those who’d ordinarily oppose them if they could, which effectively means that more of those people will be able to bob their way into other positions of power. Those new leaders will care more about their own power than they do about whatever the group’s ostensible purpose is–and far more than they ever would about protecting those who are exposed to the group’s most toxic members.
It is essential for any group to have a solid, reliable, and effective way of identifying and ejecting terrible people before they can reach positions of power–and the group must actually use it to remain safe for its members. The group must be willing to openly admit when a terrible person has been discovered–and to present its level of safety (whatever it might be) to newcomers in an honest way.
But Christian groups typically can’t do that. In recent years even the hardest-nosed fundagelical groups at least do background checks on childcare volunteers, but that doesn’t stop steeplejacking, which is when a determined group of ultra-conservative extremist Christians join a more moderate church and infiltrate its leadership, then vote to make the church more like what they want–in the process driving out existing members who aren’t on board with becoming extremists.
Worse, a significant number of child abusers don’t have criminal records, which means their background checks will look fine. And if the group is especially toxic, any abusers who do get discovered might well just be shuffled to another church in the denomination or group. A toxic group cares far more about its image and its street cred than it does about protecting the vulnerable members of their group.
The best predictor of a group’s toxicity is its focus on power and dominance. The more focused on these goals the group is, the worse it’s going to be. That’s why when we encounter a religious group that actually handles a sex abuse accusation extremely well, we know in advance that that church is probably not focused on power and dominance. I wrote about one of these a while ago. But when you hear about a Christian group battling sex abuse scandals, one after another after another (like a Christian-dominated town in Texas is right now), you can tell a few things about that group right off the bat: it’s probably a group that is very, very concerned about grabbing power for themselves at the expense of women, non-Christians, people of color (POC), and LGBTQ people. The group probably feels very self-pitying because of Christianity’s fast decline in power and dominance in America. They’d probably just love it if their Great Orange Hope enshrined Christianity into power before it’s too late to be acceptable. And there are probably a lot of people in that group who have been seriously burned by the hypocrisy of their more toxic brethren.
Power trumps every other care in a toxic group–and in the minds of toxic Christians. Their singular goal is to find a group that will allow them to get the most personal power possible, and from there to keep that power and gain ever more of it–while denying power to everyone else they can. They make the entire group unsafe–and they indelibly taint that group’s image.
I use the term “toxic” for these people not only because of their cruelty and power-lust, but also because they spread foulness wherever they go, ruining every group they join and every project they touch.
Obviously, it’s not just Christians who can be toxic. Richard Nixon was arguably one of the most toxic people in the American government for the years he was active, and his conniving and open pandering is a big part of what got fundagelicals revved up for their coming politicization. Not for nothing did Hunter S. Thompson eulogize him thusly, lamenting that “Nixon’s spirit will be with us for the rest of our lives,” even in the upcoming generation of “your fiancee’s 16-year-old beer-drunk brother with his braided goatee and his whole life like a thundercloud out in front of him.” But worse, far worse in this gonzo journalist’s eyes, was what Nixon tainted and forever destroyed:
He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man sh*tting in his own nest. But he also sh*t in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.
That extending rippling-out effect is really the difference between someone who’s simply a really bad example of Christianity, a garden-variety hypocrite if you will, and a truly toxic Christian. The one doesn’t really affect that many people; the other produces a never-ending stream of dangerous black sludge that poisons everything they ooze across. And because toxic Christians gravitate to power and have a single-minded focus on gaining as much of it as they can, they have the potential to affect thousands–if not millions–of people both in and out of whatever group that person’s slithered their way into.
Which brings us very neatly back around to the topic of Jerry Falwell Jr.
Power-Hungry People Hate Sharing With Others.
A few days ago, a fundagelical preacher named Jonathan Martin decided to go preach at Liberty University. He’s basically a standard-issue fundagelical hipster with a fondness for dramatic-sounding prose. He pastors a church in Charlotte called Renovatus, a name which isn’t in the least pretentious, with an also-totally-not-pretentious “manifesto” page that doesn’t give anybody a single clue as to what on earth this group actually believes–which almost certainly means they’re a basic fundagelical group, just one that realizes that saying out loud what groups they marginalize, hate, and seek to control and strip of rights would alienate a lot of potential new members.2
The main reason that Jerry Falwell Jr. doesn’t like him appears to be that Martin’s basically come up with a homebrew version of theology that conflicts with his. More pressing, Martin opposes Donald Trump and thinks fundagelicals did wrong in supporting him in such overwhelming numbers.
They were in fact wrong to do this, but that’s hardly the point. The opposition is the real problem here. When one fundagelical criticizes the other in this way, there’s a little squabble going on in higher pitches that only dogs and fellow fundagelicals can hear: a fight about who’s really got the divine discernment on the matter, whose doctrines are actually the correct “biblical” ones, and ultimately who’s doing Christianity right. Both Martin and Falwell are well aware of what they’re really fighting about here. It’s not so much the miniscule differences in beliefs and theology; it’s the establishment of primacy.
See, Jerry Falwell Jr. preaches at others. He does not get preached at by others. That’d put him on a lower rung of the power ladder. The people in power do not get preached at.
The Other Big Problem.
In that same exact way, Falwell decided that “God” had told him to support Donald Trump. When Martin comes along and says that “God” said not to support Donald Trump, that was a glove to the face to Falwell. They can’t both be right; one of them must be wrong–and therefore not in keeping with their god’s true will.
So when Martin got a wild bee up his butt about going to Falwell’s bastion of power, Liberty University itself, that was no different than him walking up to the podium while his enemy preaches at others and taking a big wet greasy dump on his shoes. It was a show of defiance, one aimed right at the heart of Falwell’s power: his indoctrination center, where many thousands of young impressionable Christians are carefully herded through the learning of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s universal message of hatred, exclusion, rights-trampling, misogyny, cruelty, bigotry, and racism.
Jerry Falwell Jr. is a chip off the old block as well as a nasty piece of work in his own right, the bottom-line result of all the greed, grasping, and choking of liberty that fundagelicals love most, and perhaps even a worthy successor to Richard Nixon. He is exactly why the Founding Fathers thought it necessary to keep religion well away from government. He has not one single redeeming feature of interest to anyone outside of his own family, though they probably despise him too. He has no idea how to deal with criticism or pushback except to stomp on it as hard as he can. And he’s been busy trying to parlay his ghoulish support of various Republican wackadoodle extremists into a shot at real power.
The problem is, he and Jonathan Martin are probably way more alike than they are different; most fundagelical leaders who opposed Trump did so because he just didn’t seem extremist enough to them, after all.
So I’ve got to wonder who was surprised at how Falwell handled the idea of someone holding a protest on a university he very much regards as an extension of himself and a ready-made vehicle for his ultimate ambitions.
Freedom For Me, But Not for Thee.
Jonathan Martin showed up at Liberty University on the evening of October 30th. His story is that he was attending a concert on-campus and was backstage talking to band members when campus police showed up to eject him from the university. He had stated on social media that he’d be holding a prayer meeting on the 31st on-campus, as well, citing “overwhelming support” from students about the idea. He particularly wanted to stage a protest of Falwell’s decision to help with Steve Bannon’s recent effort to eject “fake Republicans” in Congress from the party’s power structure and membership (his definition of “fake Republican” being, of course, anyone who identifies as Republican but doesn’t support or slobber over Donald Trump like he does).
Jonathan Martin had legit been a frequent critic of Falwell’s longstanding and firm support of Donald Trump on social media–and also, it seems to me, of Falwell’s pressing of Liberty University into service as a stump for Donald Trump’s campaign, with him going so far as to stop the university’s journalism students from criticizing Donald Trump in the campus’ official newspaper.
(I’m guessing he also didn’t like Falwell’s similar support of Ted Cruz by forcing students to attend the guy’s farcical political rallies or else face a fine, nor for being on record, as The Atlantic reveals, as saying some really extortion-reminiscent and frankly condescending things to journalists criticizing anything he supports–like Hobby Lobby, whose owners are big donors to Liberty University.)
Jerry Falwell Jr. made the decision to eject Jonathan Martin from campus that night (the 30th) even though the band he was visiting stated clearly to the campus police that they wanted him there. The next morning (the 31st), Martin did have his prayer meeting–but it was held off-campus, with only about 20 students attending.
Wherein Jerry Falwell Jr. Makes An Ass Out of U and Me.
Jerry Falwell released an absolutely hilarious series of tweets after having Jonathan Martin removed from the Liberty University campus. In it, he dogwhistles to his master in the White House that he is once and for all and forever Donald Trump’s lapdog and that not even members of his own tribe would ever make him falter or weaken in that support. (Pride’s a sin, last I checked. So is lying.)
I’ll post the screengrabs at the end of the post; NPR also has a transcription of Falwell’s official statement here. There’s comedy gold all over the statement, starting with his declaration that Liberty University totally cares and is committed to “peaceful debate, intellectual inquiry and protest.” (Since when?) See, the whole problem, he claims, is that Martin didn’t go through the correct channels on campus to register his intended event. That’s all that happened. Yep. That’s it. Totally. It’s weird that he doesn’t remember that he allowed non-students to meet on campus after LU’s win against Baylor University, as one commenter claims in response to the other Twitter burst.
So really, Falwell was just worried that Martin’s prayer session might have turned into a violent riot. The arrest threat made on the 30th was standard protocol, nothing to worry about. Remain calm! All is (Fal)well!
We only wish.
But there was more to see in these tweets.
Falwell says he had people “monitoring social media closely,” which I do believe is the only totally truthful thing he says about the entire mess, but it wouldn’t take a rocket surgeon to know about what Martin had in mind, since he directed some of these tweets directly at Falwell himself. These mystery agents “noticed that a person named Jonathan Martin was threatening on Twitter to stage a protest on Liberty’s private campus.”
Now, I sure wouldn’t expect a fundagelical bigot-for-Jesus to misrepresent anybody, I mean gosh, no way! But he does it again at the end of his tweets, referring to Martin’s proposed prayer meeting as an “invasion” of the campus, so this weirdly-militaristic violence-evoking terminology was no accident. He wants people to think of Martin as a dangerous ideologue, and to that I say: it takes one to know one, Sparklepants.3
He goes on: “[Martin] called Liberty University one of the most hostile environments to the gospel in the U.S. [Maybe. But when someone defines “the gospel” however he likes, one can arrive at any conclusion he likes. — CC] and he tweeted about how destructive the nationalism of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and me was to evangelicalism.” [Well, yes. Absolutely. It is. But maybe evangelicalism needs to be destroyed anyway.– CC]”
Then he called Martin “a globalist.” For those not used to hearing fundagelical dogwhistles, “globalist” means someone who objects to MAGA-style alt-right white supremacism, particularly when that style of politics furthers far-reaching dominionist ambitions like Falwell’s. Fundagelicals commonly use the term as a pejorative. Falwell is insulting and denigrating Martin by claiming, with no evidence of course, that his enemy is in bed with anti-Christian, possibly even demonic forces. And really the jokes write themselves on this one.
Then Jerry Falwell Jr. lied: “Mr. Martin seems to believe that it is impossible to be a Christian and support Donald Trump’s America First agenda.” I don’t think Martin ever actually said that, but Falwell is happy to accuse him of it. Gosh, he loves accusing people, doesn’t he? He goes on to claim that “Liberty University’s leadership believes that good Christians can be Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, globalists, nationalists and can support whatever political cause they see fit.” Really? As long as they listen to whatever wackadoodle Republicans Falwell likes and only write what he tells them to write in the student newspaper, I guess, and accept that he’s going to torpedo their post-graduation lives if he can possibly help it, just as he does to anybody else criticizing his masters.
The Major Trump Dogwhistle came shortly afterward: “We understand that it is upsetting to leftist leaning and progressive Christians to see so many Evangelicals supporting Donald Trump but many at Liberty University believe Evangelicals are among the forgotten men and women in this country who voted for change in 2016.” Now, this part is not only a jeering slam of his enemies in Christianity, but also a direct callback to a speech Trump gave a while ago telling “forgotten men and women” that he’d forget them “no longer” if they somehow made him president. Trump lied about that promise just like he lied about everything else he promised to do, but Falwell doesn’t care; he’s clearly just hoping Trump remembers whatever he said he’d do for the Christian Right leaders who humped his leg all through his campaign.
Far from being ashamed of supporting someone as repulsive and grotesque as Donald Trump, Jerry Falwell Jr. is damned proud of his support of someone who should be completely antithetical to everything Christians like him claim to hold dear. He’s hitched his wagon to the gold veneer of the Trumpian star, for good or ill. He likely knows what he stands to lose if fundagelicals completely turn against Trump.
And he ended on a totally ironic note: “If Liberty began allowing uninvited groups to protest on campus, the next group might be the KKK, the Nazis, white supremacists, or Antifah [sic].” Yes, he said that. He totally doesn’t get that those groups are actually totally aligned with his brand of hatred. The KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists are pretty much all fundagelicals. Antifa might well show up to protest against those groups if they descended upon Liberty University, but they don’t tend to demonstrate on their own and they are substantially less likely to commit violent acts than any of those other groups are. It’s disingenuous at the least for Falwell to ignore fundagelicals’ link to alt-right hate groups–but sheerly dishonest of him to put counter-protesters on the same shelf as those hate groups belong on. You’d usually expect more out of someone involved in higher education, especially one who postured about white supremacists being “pure evil,” but we are talking about fundagelical leaders here.
I don’t think very many folks are buying Falwell’s excuses. The Twitterverse is not amused–in fact, the people writing to oppose him and his actions have dozens of more likes each than anything written in support of him. I don’t think he cares, though. He’s got the Falwell empire under him and a pretend-university to run and a president to badger for political gain. Dude’s busy these days.
Christians like Jerry Falwell Jr. are exactly what’s causing their religion to implode from within. Yes, it’s scary to see such naked greed, dishonesty, power-lust, and self-delusion all colliding in the same person, especially when it’s someone who cozies up to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon on the regular.
No matter how Christianity fares after this period of time is over, Jerry Falwell Jr., his father, his pals, and his very earthly overlords are going to remain in our memories for generations–and in the memories of people who are right now just kids with their whole lives like thunderclouds out in front of them. He’s a stain upon his religion, one that future Christians will have to account for in the decades to come. He’s why his religion is failing, and why it deserves to fail.
We’re overdue for a movie review. I’ve got the Christiano Brothers on my mind lately, for some strange reason. See y’all next time!
1 Liberty University’s site says not to use a comma in the name. I just wish Falwell knew how to use an Oxford comma, myself. I’m wondering now if the reason fundagelicals don’t tend to use it is because Liberty University doesn’t do it.
2 Captain Cassidy’s Constant of Christian Concealment: If a Christian group is trying their best to conceal their beliefs on their website, they are as standard-issue-fundagelical as it gets. If the site doesn’t specifically say that they support women’s rights and LGBTQ equality, they oppose them. If they don’t specifically reject extremism and zealotry, they’re extremist zealots. Generally, the more confusing a given church’s website is and the more meaningless blathering is on it, the more negatives the group is trying to hide from prospective new members. Consider such obfuscation-happy churches as basic Southern Baptists, and be accordingly cautious around any of their members. (In the case of Jonathan Martin, eventually I happened across his blog, which reveals that he is a Church of God guy who refers to himself as “Pentecostal.” But you will not find this information anywhere on his church website.)