Recently, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and his wife, Becki, were interviewed in the pages of Vanity Fair about their precipitous fall from grace. The former president of Christian college juggernaut Liberty University drew ire for his vociferous support for Donald Trump as president, often reliant upon social media bombast.
Not all Falwell critics were secular. Many conservative evangelicals found his conduct unbecoming of a Christian. Eventually, his wife’s marital infidelity (plus other scandalous behavior) came to light, resulting in his ouster from both Liberty and the wider evangelical community.
The story itself is sordid, and the writer betrays progressive biases in its myriad digs at the Moral Majority and the Religious Right. One worries that the Falwells are attempting a rebrand. Their words betray a desire to put some daylight between themselves and conservative church-going Christians, with Franklin Graham cast in a villainous role, excommunicating the Falwell family from the evangelical movement.
Periodicals found on the shelf of grocery store check-out aisles are to be taken, not with a pinch, but with an entire ocean’s worth of salt. However, important themes came to the fore in reading the interview.
For one, a man not well-established in his faith was tasked with leading a large, important evangelical institution. Falwell goes to some lengths to express how he was a bit of a spiritual free-spirit and how he finds “institutional religion” distasteful. He does recount a sort of conversion experience, but his frustrations with religious “fuddy-duddies” are made prominent and apparent. He comes across as shackled with the legacy of his father, among the most prominent religious and political leaders of the late 20th century.
Revealingly, Falwell admitted to the interviewer, “[P]eople think I’m a religious person. But I’m not.” I would hazard a guess that many Christian critics of the younger Falwell threw up their hands in frustration and responded, “Oh, don’t worry, we knew! At least after a while.”
Regardless of what one thought of his political sensibilities or skills as a college president, the man’s public words and actions were not in keeping with mature Christian leadership. This is not to dismiss him, his wife, or their family. Everyone is a sinner; everyone needs to repent of sin; sin is destructive; we must forgive others as the Lord has forgiven us. But there is no shortage of folly and willful ignorance when it comes to this story, especially when it comes to Falwell’s enablers.
There are at least two big takeaways for traditional Christians. First, Falwell was upsettingly consistent with the “it’s a relationship not a religion” mantra repeated in the interview. Religion entails virtuous conduct and holy living, calling into question our habits with regard to alcohol, sex, speech, money and how we speak of dead parents. Yes, teetotalist culture has dysfunctions, folks misfire on biblical principles because they are foolish and plenty of groups wrongfully suppress Christian liberty. But that doesn’t mean that intemperance, dishonoring parents, uncontrolled speech, a neglected marriage and a whole spate of other things aren’t huge problems destroying our lives and the lives of others, regardless of whether we’re a Christian college president or not.
Our identity as adopted heirs in Christ makes a demand upon us. It’s not merely a static thing we think about or agree upon as a matter of opinion. It entails a certain kind of life — one of holiness and wisdom, almost always marked by frequent repentance for our many sins.
Thankfully, as Joshua Gibbs has pointed out, evangelicals are inconsistent with their language. They talk good sense about wisdom and morality, at least until a Bible opens up. Then, suddenly, we are incapable of holiness, even though it’s actually what we’ve been made for and what God’s indwelling grace makes possible.
It doesn’t take long before a sort of despairing antinomianism takes over, with church attendance serving as emotional therapy and a coping mechanism for this insubstantial spiritual life. This sort of rhetorical double-mindedness needs to be abandoned. We do well to recover a language of virtue and confident exhortations to practical holiness, all without ineffective school-marmishness. Evangelicals used to be — and, in some circles, still are — good at this sort of thing. We do well to recover and maintain this.
Second, churches, Christian schools, and ministries must be discerning in leadership. Christians may feel pity at Falwell's attempts to put on an act while assuming leadership at LU when the family patriarch passed away.
Jerry Jr. exhibited great entrepreneurial gifts (particularly when it came to distance learning in the age of high-speed internet), but was holding the office as president necessary for him to exercise those gifts to Liberty’s good?
The Falwells did not speak up about their sense of inadequacy and poor fit for the role right after Jerry, Sr. suddenly passed away. But one wonders if the “father-to-son” dynamic couldn’t have been questioned and reevaluated by the board of trustees and other university leaders. It may be that Jerry Falwell, Jr. wouldn’t have engaged in such public, embarrassing examples of self-sabotage; it may have left Liberty in a better position and state of spiritual health. These are hypotheticals, but the Falwell implosion was very real. Ministries must take such an example under advisement.
It’s painful to see scandal afflict the church. It’s also painful to see those who profess Christ fall into destructive life choices that hurt not only themselves but many others. Schadenfreude is not the appropriate response to the Falwell scandal. Repentance and vigilant sober-mindedness are.
Originally published at Juicy Ecumenism.
Barton Gingerich graduated in 2011 from Patrick Henry College with a B.A. in History. He serves as a priest at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Richmond, Virginia, and previously served on the staff of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.