Let’s start with the easiest case. Brandon Ambrosino’s big Politico article from last week reported a wide array of allegations of serious wrongdoing by Liberty University president and court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. The long headline offers a sense of the sort of behavior alleged in the very long, extensively reported article: “‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence.” The subhed continues: “More than two dozen current and former Liberty University officials describe a culture of fear and self-dealing at the largest Christian college in the world.”
Phew. It’s quite a read. The article suggests all manner of personal and financial shadiness. And it’s all underscored by the damning realization that dozens of people who know this man were eager to talk about how awful a human being he has shown himself to be.
But one strange aspect of this story — and of the weeklong media splash it made last week — is something that doesn’t involve anything harmful or shameful or sinful or scandalous in any normal sense of the word. It’s a weirdly innocent bit of scandal, yet it’s also the thing that provoked the angriest, loudest, and most specific denials from Jerry Jr.
Imagine that on a family trip to Miami you and your spouse and your adult children check out the spectacle of that city’s world-famous nightlife by visiting a dance club. It’s not one of the really over-the-top wild places — no foam parties or nude dancers or decadent bacchanalia. It’s just your basic 21st-century disco. In photos from the nightclub, you and your family can be seen standing around and smiling, modestly dressed, not drinking or dancing or in any way running wild. You look like you’re all just sort of taking it in, thinking “Wow, look at all these people and lasers and stuff.”
Nothing about that would be even remotely “scandalous” — not even for a family of Mormon elders.
But when photos exactly like that surfaced last week showing Jerry Falwell Jr, his wife and adult son at a Miami nightclub, Falwell freaked out and reacted like he was Eli Gemstone responding to blackmail videos of him snorting blow with topless sex-workers.
That was kind of weird. So what was going on with that?
Well, partly this was because Falwell is the president of Liberty University, the fundamentalist undergrad segregation academy founded by his father that he’s trying to refashion into a white evangelical Notre Dame. Liberty, as an institution and as a culture, does not approve of nightclubs. The school forbids its students and faculty from dancing and drinking. Even just visiting a nightclub could earn a Liberty student enough demerits (yes, they have those) to get kicked out. Even if photographs proved that the student wasn’t drinking or dancing, just standing around inside such a place would get them in trouble.
No reasonable person would look at any of the photos of Jerry or the other Falwells there at the nightclub and regard them as evidence of wrongdoing. The pictures don’t show them doing anything wrong or immoral or unethical — not to a normal human. But the culture and cultured religion of Liberty University was not designed by or for normal humans. Liberty has rules, and the photos from Miami show the school president and his family violating those rules.
And the religion of Liberty University does not allow for or acknowledge any understanding of morality or ethics or of right and wrong apart from its own rules.
From a normal human perspective, we might argue that an otherwise morally benign action becomes immoral if that action violates a set of amoral and arbitrary rules that the actor has previously committed not to violate. We might say that setting foot in a nightclub is not, in itself, immoral, but that it was immoral for Falwell to do so because of his prior commitment to abide by and enforce his school’s morally irrelevant rule against setting foot in a nightclub. He is not morally guilty because he entered the Wall Lounge in Miami Beach, but he is morally guilty because he broke his promise not to do so.
But that kind of normal, mature consideration of morality and ethics is beyond anything encouraged or permitted at Liberty University, where the school’s ever-mutating rulebook is thick, strange, elaborate, and totally authoritative. According to that rulebook, merely being present in an establishment based on co-ed dancing, secular music, and the consumption of alcohol is a sin, and sinners must be punished. Thus Jerry Jr. treated the question of his presence at a nightclub as an accusation of grievous sin and responded with what seemed to him to be a proportionately defensive denial.
In his defense, Jerry Jr. has spent his entire life inside Liberty World — a baroque white fundie subculture in which, at any moment, any otherwise innocent behavior or remark might be construed as “unbiblical” sin and apostasy. I imagine that would make one reflexively defensive and paranoid. So much so that if someone says, “I hear you ate a bagel for breakfast” you’d instinctively panic, thinking — Oh no! Is bagel-eating a thing now? They’re kind of Jewish and New York-y and cosmopolitan and … oh God, this is bad! I’ll have to deny it, deny ever eating one!
That, I think, was part of why Falwell freaked out so much at the suggestion that — gasp! — his family visited a Miami nightclub. I think it’s part of why he went immediately into attack mode, insisting that photographs of him there must have been Photoshopped by a conspiracy of enemies that he began vaguely threatening with legal action. (This foolishness, predictably, produced an immediate Streisand Effect — resulting in multiple additional reports revealing plenty of additional photos of Jerry Falwell Jr. and his family absolutely, undeniably hanging out at that nightclub.)
I suspect that this hyperdefensive, baldly dishonest denial was also prompted, in part, because anything involving South Florida nightlife is something Jerry Jr. regards as dangerously close to other activities he’s desperate to keep hidden. I have no idea — or too many ideas — what those other activities might be, but after years of Florida-based stories involving the Falwells and handsome young strangers, weird financial investments, gay-friendly hostels, decadent resorts, lawsuits, racy photos, and Michael freaking Cohen, I’m guessing it involves something more consequential than a violation of Liberty’s no-dancing policy.
That no-dancing policy still pertains, though. Jerry’s dad wrote Liberty’s prohibitions against dancing, drinking, and nightclubbery and Jerry Jr. stands by those rules, insisting they are right and just and necessary. He defends and enforces them — for other people. This behavior, claiming that the rules pertain to others but not to himself, is the very definition of hypocrisy.
Being caught in such flagrant hypocrisy is, obviously, another factor explaining Falwell’s aggressively defensive response to those photos of him in the nightclub. But it’s worse than that. The problem for Falwell is not just that his hypocritical disregard for his own rules is indefensible, but that it exposes those rules themselves as indefensible.
As the famous saying goes, “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” But there is no tangible virtue at stake here. The rule that Falwell hypocritically violated is not virtuous or even virtue-adjacent. Setting foot in a Miami Beach nightclub is not wrong. Doing so entails nothing vicious and refraining from doing so involves nothing virtuous.
So why, then, would anyone set about constructing an alternate moral universe consisting of arbitrary, amoral rules? Why would anyone choose to substitute that construct for actual, substantive moral considerations?
Start to answer that question, start to think about it at all, and Liberty University’s entire universe falls apart.
That’s why Jerry Falwell Jr. felt forced to pretend that he never committed this pretend sin. He felt he had to treat the pretend vice as though it were vicious in order to defend the pretend virtue as though it were virtuous. Because without those pretenses, all that would be left would be real considerations of real morality, real justice, real harm. And thus Falwell’s whole life — the Liberty empire and everything it stands for — might be exposed as the sinful cesspool of carnal injustice it has always been.