Jerry Falwell’s Fall Puts Fundamentalism in a New Light

Jerry Falwell’s Fall Puts Fundamentalism in a New Light August 8, 2020

2020 continues not to disappoint, as Liberty University recently announced that Jerry Falwell, Jr. would be taking a “leave of absence” from the school. This announcement came in the wake of a now-famous photo where Falwell was comparing bare bellies with a woman not his wife, fly unzipped. His bizarrely slurred, disjointed radio call-in explanation thereof only made matters worse. Liberty gently took away his mike not long after.

For many observers, this is not a shocking development. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back after an accumulation of accusations that Falwell was running the school in a bullying fashion while not holding himself to the student code of conduct. Here I should probably confess that I’ve been more impressed by some of these accusations than others in the past. Depending on specifics, I sometimes found that my own sympathies tended with Falwell’s, particularly when it came to resisting the encroachments of woke culture on the campus. But being annoyed by some of the same enemies does not an ally in the culture wars make, and it has now become sadly clear that Falwell truly is the evangelical Trump. For the sake of other, much more honorable staff at the school whose reputations he was dragging down, I’m glad to see him removed.

Junior is not expected to return any time soon, though some will say this is wishful thinking. But personally, I suspect the age of the Ghost-Written Memoir Cum Comeback is passing away. The school will move on with a new president and re-shape itself, no doubt in some ways for the better, though possibly not all. It could be that, unfit and dishonorable as Falwell was, a new president will be less willing to push back as loudly against the new woke religion, and thus in that respect could make the school more vulnerable. This is not to say it wasn’t good and necessary that Falwell step down. I’m merely pointing out that these things are complicated.

But this is a side point. For now, one thought has been going through my mind as I watch this slow-motion train wreck: A little fundamentalism could have prevented that.

I was not raised a fundamentalist. My parents had already made their own considered exodus out of fundamentalism after discovering the power of liturgy and sacrament. Consequently, I occupied something of a “bubble in a bubble” within my homeschooling community. I still remember the local talent night where a group of very earnest teens put on a sketch about the dangers of using the word “darn.” (No, not a typo. Even “darn” was anathema.) One family I knew was leery even of Tolkien, because “magic.” Another family (who remain dear friends to this day), always fast-forwarded through even the most chaste of movie kisses.

In short, I recognize that fundamentalists can be odd, that they have their foibles, that they put up unnecessary barriers, etc., etc. But the older I get, the less impressed I am by how the wider culture casts them as the Rodney Dangerfield of Christianity: They don’t get no respect. Fundamentalists are weird. They’re weird about sex, weird about alcohol, weird about everything. As my friend E. Stephen Burnett likes to say, fundamentalists are “The Church Back Home.”

For Falwell, Jr., of course, fundamentalism was Dad: Falwell, Sr. Naturally, Dad Falwell wore that appellation with pride, and has gotten the sort of snide treatment by “cool” evangelicals and ex-vangelicals that you would expect when such figures spin out their Grand Unifying Theories of American Evangelicalism. Still, you gotta give Dad Falwell this much: Nobody ever caught him swilling “black water” with his fly unzipped next to a hot babe on a yacht.

This is the thing about fences. As Chesterton taught us, they’re there for a reason. That’s not to say there could be no prudent, controlled way of taking them down. But you need a good reason, and you need a plan. I’m not quite sure what Junior’s plan was, but prudent and controlled, it was not.

This is not me calling for a return to ye olde days of record-burning, etc., etc. It’s just me making the cautious suggestion that from where we sit today as American evangelicals, maybe in hindsight our fundamentalist forebears weren’t quite so thick as all that. Maybe, if we can bring ourselves to admit this, I know it’s hard, but maybe they even made some good points—about temperance, about self-control, about lust of the flesh, and, you know, all that.

I have no idea where Jerry Junior goes from here. I don’t know if he will disappear to serve God humbly in obscurity, or if he will rise again, phoenix-like, having learned precisely nothing. But as a start, he might try being a fundamentalist for a day and see how it goes. It might help. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

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