Hi and welcome back! The other day, I heard a quote that sounded for all the world like snark. But it turned out to be a direct quote from evangelicalism’s latest scandal-causer, Jerry Falwell Jr. He told his children, he said, that he’d ‘try to be a good boy from here on out.’ He can’t ever fulfill that promise, however. Not with his current toolkit. Today, let’s explore why Jerry Falwell Jr. said that, and why he can’t do it.
(Previous Jerry Falwell Jr. posts: The Short and Self-Serving Memory of the Religious Right; Leadership 101; A Flip-Flop That’ll Cost Evangelicals; Struggling With a Tainted Brand; So Now Evangelicals Are ‘Forgotten People’; What Jerry Falwell Jr. Does in the Darkness; More Bad News for Jerry Falwell Jr. This post makes some guesses about motivations that represent only opinions.)
The Sitch: Not “A Good Boy” At All.
For months now, Jerry Falwell Jr. has been a new blight on the face of evangelicalism. But this last thing finally iced the scandal cake for evangelicals. Amazingly, this August 3rd Instagram photo is what it finally took for them to finally put a fork in this guy’s leadership of one of the biggest, best-known evangelical colleges in the country, Liberty University:
Can that possibly be the guy in charge of that big-name evangelical college, you know, the one with the super-strict conduct rules for students?
Who oh who is that guy, the one who seems to be barely standing upright under his own power?
Is that Jerry Falwell Jr. holding a cup of dark liquid in one hand and a pretty redhead with a bare midriff in the other? Are those his fingers touching her bare skin as she stands with her Daisy Duke shorts unbuttoned? And oh my gosh are his pants also unbuttoned as well as unzipped, letting his very godly gut pooch out over the rim of his briefs?
Why yes, yes it is.
That, my friends, is Jerry Falwell Jr.
He released that pic on his Instagram account on August 3rd.
Of course, he quickly deleted it. But the damage was done.
(Captain’s Confidential to “Blitzed and Red-Faced AF On A Yacht”: Size up, mah dude. It’s okay. We’ve just about all been there, especially lately. Your time as a 34″/36″ waist is done. Just accept it — or else start doing some of that fasting stuff y’all are supposed to do. Also wear a goddamned mask, you idiot. HTH!)
The Fallout of PhotoGate.
As mentioned, Jerry Falwell Jr. removed the photo from his feed very quickly. He defended the photo, according to the BBC, saying it was “weird” and “all in good fun.” He took it down because he got worried about maybe embarrassing the woman with him, identified as his wife’s “assistant.” So chivalric!
But a lot of people saw it before its removal. And nowadays, people keep receipts of Christian hypocrisy. So before long, the picture popped back up — and errywhere.
Evangelicals flipped out over the picture. No less than the chairman of the House Republican Caucus suggested he “step down” from leadership.
Finally, Liberty University’s leaders decided they’d had quite enough of their Dear Leader. They released a statement last Friday:
“The Executive Committee of Liberty University’s Board of Trustees, acting on behalf of the full Board, met today and requested that Jerry Falwell, Jr take an indefinite leave of absence from his roles as President and Chancellor of Liberty University, to which he has agreed, effective immediately.”
Oh, how the mighty have fallen!
So Jerry Falwell Jr. has lost his leadership title — for now at least.
Evangelicals seriously have the weirdest priorities, don’t they? You might remember that it was Josh Duggar’s revealed infidelity that finally made evangelicals drop him as a mascot for KRISCHIN PERSICOOSHUN. That this was the outrage-too-far for Jerry Falwell Jr. isn’t super-surprising, really.
Now for the “Good Boy” Crack.
When I first heard this quote, as I said, I thought it was snark. Here it is, courtesy of Politico:
“And I’ve promised my kids I’m going to try to be — I’m gonna try to be a good boy from here on out.”
The world has become so topsy-turvy. Never would I ever have dreamed of hearing such a thing from a major leader in a world religion known for its oppressive rules and hypervigilance about sex. I don’t think any Liberty student would get away with such a statement after turning up in a similar photo!
But no. Jerry Falwell Jr. himself uttered this sentence during a radio interview. He’s used the term “little boy” as an insult before, so it’s doubly weird he’d call himself any permutation of “boy” now. It’s a particular insult in the Deep South. I just wonder if someone important called him that recently.
And the “my kids” in question? At least two (and probably all three) of those kids are grown adults with their own families and children. He’s a grandpa.
So. This moral failure says he told two, probably three adults that he was “gonna try to be a good boy from here on out.” It’s a bizarre sentiment even if he used more-mature words at the time.
And I wonder if they believed him.
In fact, I don’t.
I understand the broken system from which he hails very well. Thus, I know exactly why it produces as many moral failures as it does, why he worded this promise as he did, and most of all why he will fail at it.
Power and Rules-Following.
Authoritarian children learn some very costly lessons. One of the main ones involves how power works in their tribe. They learn the rules to survive. Those rules become gnarled thorn-thickets that protect them at their most vulnerable in childhood, even if in adulthood they harm more than help. Everywhere except in their own broken system (or systems very similar to their own), these rules fail. But there, they mean everything.
At its most basic, the word “power” to people in broken systems means the ability to boss other people around and make them do stuff they don’t want to do. It also means the ability to shrug off attacks of any kind and then retaliate against those who tried to pull them off their throne.
Thus, power represents both a shield and a sword to those who possess it.
But power means nothing if it is not flexed. It’s like the tree that falls down in the forest, in its way. If someone with power never uses it, the rest of the tribe won’t respect them as much — and will attack if they can to take that power for themselves. So powerful people must be constantly watching out for power-grabs, while also forcing their will on unwilling subordinates.
The more unwanted the tasks or behavior demanded, the more power is required to gain buy-in.
When A Good Boy Is A Bad Man.
So in this world, those who follow the tribe’s rules show themselves powerless.
Only the powerless follow rules in a broken system. To follow rules at all announces one’s powerlessness. Rules get imposed upon the powerless by the powerful. That is why the powerful do not follow the rules they themselves create and impose on others.
Authoritarian leaders ignore or even flout their group’s rules, flagrantly disobeying them constantly and ignoring any potential repercussions. The followers see this display and think those folks must be very powerful indeed!
This is how authoritarian leaders maintain their positions despite causing scandals galore, and why it takes a lot to topple them.
Jerry Falwell Jr. hails from a very authoritarian home. One cringes to imagine the lessons he learned. But he clearly learned them well. His family name, if nothing else, represented power of its own kind — and he used it to its fullest extent.
If his underlings at Liberty University rankled under the weight of his shenanigans, then good. All the better, really. The more subordinates despise their leader and the more he gets away with, the more power he holds.
Drama Drama Drama.
If you’ve ever marveled at how small-town churches can be such festering hotbeds of drama and hypocrisy, or why evangelicals have always behaved so nastily toward foodservice workers and laborers and poor people, this is why. When an authoritarian lacks power in almost every area of their life, they learn to flex and seize and use it wherever they can.
Even authoritarian followers join this game — but they must do so carefully.
Power games represent everything to everyone in the broken system. Anyone who tries to stop these reindeer games — like a well-meaning new pastor, perhaps, or those using a hashtag that draws attention to wrongdoing and hypocrisy — becomes not only the enemy of the tribe’s real leader, but also that of the tribe itself.
Broken-system groups lurch from problem to problem and drama to drama. Every time a new scandal erupts, they must stop whatever they were doing to deal with it. In so many ways they represent their own worst problem. Imagine what damage they’d do if they weren’t always so distracted and divided!
Those with power like being able to impose their wills on others. They like knowing those subordinates don’t like what they’re being told to do, but must obey anyway. And everyone else, well, they obey with varying grudging degrees of hostility and wait for their chance to retaliate.
Wherever they are along the tribe’s hierarchy of power, its members flex theirs at those beneath them. That’s the only pleasure they have, the only light in their darkness. They can move up the ladder to at least some extent, but if the system is dismantled then they lose all of their progress along with every bit of power they’ve cobbled together so far.
Give up their broken system? Oh honey. They’d rather stop breathing.
When the Points Don’t Matter and the Score’s Made Up.
So yes, of course Jerry Falwell Jr. has not been “a good boy.” He can’t be “a good boy.” His entire system, as created and refined by men just like his daddy, is not geared that way. An authoritarian leader has no respect for anybody who could be accurately called “a good boy.”
Evangelicals’ entire roadmap functions as a guidebook to submission and domination (and not the fun kind that operates safely, sanely, and consensually). They’re not interested in becoming better people who live according to rules they really think a god gave them for their ultimate benefit.
Hey. You know what you call those sorts of people? The ones who try to live like Jesus and follow all the rules they think he set? Subordinates in the broken system. Fodder. Targets.
I strongly suspect that Jerry Falwell Jr. feels about as strongly about becoming “a good boy” as I do about becoming a professional thrill-ride reviewer, and probably for many of the same reasons.
And lookie there, we both have about as much chance of achieving those respective dreams/nightmares, and for many of the same reasons.
A Good Boy Doesn’t “Try.”
That’s why Falwell added the already-counting-on-failure modifier to the promise. He’s “gonna try to be a good boy from here on out.” That modifier says he knows he’ll fail. He’s already built failure into his future.
If I had a dime for every time I heard that exact modifier from various partners I’ve had (except my current one!), I would already have that wondrous castle full of SCA friends and constant parties that we all fantasized about during weekend events. But no. I have no castle, because I never thought to demand a dime for each “try” I cringed to hear. I should have. And here we are instead.
If Falwell tries too hard to be “a good boy,” he will lose the respect of his tribe. He helped make them the belligerent, chest-thumping band of blustering blowhards and craven lickspittles they are today. He can’t pull them back from that brink to suddenly start demanding their leaders follow all of their rules — that is, he couldn’t if he even wanted to do that.
I assure you, he does not. If Jerry Falwell Jr. had ever wanted to, if he’d ever even been able to be “a good boy,” he’d already have done it. He’s lived a totally opposite life for his entire adulthood because that is what he’d rather be doing.
The Line, Crossed.
No. Evangelicals will continue to see their favorite leaders’ flagrant disobedience of their own tribal rules as displays of power.
Falwell himself simply mis-estimated exactly where the line was between acceptable shows of flagrant disobedience and uh oh way too over the line there, mah dude. This line has always existed. It’s a hard line to perceive in the best of times, and their Orange Calf Idol has blurred it considerably more.
But don’t mistake this next point. Jerry Falwell Jr. has never been as good as his daddy at managing that line. It’s always been crystal-clear that after his daddy died, his generals transferred allegiance incompletely to the son. They allowed him to swan around in power, spend money like water, cavort like a drunken college boy in bars, make some bizarre decisions regarding his pool boy, and just generally act like a total malignant trust-fund caricature.
They let him play-act as the figurehead Dear Leader of Liberty University because it wasn’t impinging on their own bottom lines and because it’d be too costly to themselves to formally fight him for ownership of his daddy’s legacy.
But I’ve been hearing deep rumors of a political coup bubbling under the surface of that place for years. Remember last year when he accused unnamed Liberty leaders of trying to mount an “attempted coup” against him? It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you, mah dude.
When he finally did do something that made Liberty look ridiculous and also threatened its real masters’ bottom lines, he found out toot dee sweet exactly who held the real power at Liberty University.
It wasn’t him.
It was never him.
He was a placeholder and nothing more, a burden his daddy’s generals endured rather than enjoyed. With this photo, he finally lost enough personal power to lower the cost of fighting him to acceptable levels.
A Grudging Capitulation.
That interview Politico covered? It was made on a local station near Liberty University, WLNI 105.9FM (they linked it here). Listen to it if you can. It’s not too long. It’s also an incredibly grudging, self-conscious self-abasement. I can’t help but think it’s a performance.
In my opinion, this thing he said about becoming “a good boy” was made for the benefit of those who do hold power: the real masters of Liberty University. I think he hoped they’d hear it and take it seriously.
See, those real power-holders forced him to do something he hated. So he did it as grudgingly and incompletely as he dared. Hopefully that’ll be enough, I think he thinks, to persuade Mommy and Daddy to give him back his car keys. Then he can go back to being a malignant trust-fund caricature.
I think he’s wrong, though. I think he’ll need to go find something else to do to get his power back. And I think he’ll find it. The tribe will always find room in their hearts for a bad man.
“Real Good Man,” by Tim McGraw. Sorta the opposite of this song I guess?
Don’t be surprised if this one tries to run for President one day. He might even get a lot further with that bid than anybody expected. His daddy and the rest of the tribe’s leaders set that precedent long, long ago.
Broken systems love bad men in leadership, and y’all, it doesn’t get much worse than evangelical leaders.
NEXT UP: The main questions asked by Christian Smith in Atheist Overreach are not good questions. Ohhh, my head. Seeya tomorrow!
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