How the demise of Jerry Falwell Jr. reflects the pandemic infecting our politics…
The Liberty Way… a true blue School for Scandal
So, the son of the founder of the Moral Majority is not so, well, moral. Surprise, surprise! In a Vanity Fair article by Gabriel Sherman ( Inside Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Unlikely Rise and Precipitous Fall at Liberty University, January 24, 2022) Falwell Jr. reveals a former culture warrior taken down by his inner demons. Frankly, the article did little more for me than to suggest that Falwell Jr. was just another spoiled scion of wealthy parents. The difference, of course, is that daddy’s day job was preaching the gospel of cultural warfare. Falwell Sr. founded Liberty University in the early 1970s hoping to create an evangelical Notre Dame. The school would be a vehicle for Falwell’s dream of turning out “moral revolutionaries.” He introduced a strict code of moral conduct for students known as “The Liberty Way” which
“…forbids students from drinking, attending dances, or being alone in a room with a member of the opposite sex. Students can be fined $250 if they are caught attending events where alcohol is served. So there were nightly jazz concerts, bingo, and movie screenings.”
— Inside Jerry Falwell…, Vanity Fair, by Gabriel Sherman
-a code of conduct his namesake found hard to follow as he noted in the Vanity Fair interview. Junior was, at best, a reluctant fundamentalist-a conscript into his father’s revolutionary moral army.
The Falwell family bible contained chapters ripped from the headlines just like those of many of his evangelical pharisaic friends who worked the faithful for “alms with psalms.” Not quite Tammy Faye and Jim Baker, a bit more sophisticated than a Jimmy Swaggart, Falwell Sr. was in a pitched battle for souls with the Billy Graham family. Billy Graham was the polite and politically connected repository of the Christian Right who followed the Golden Rule while practicing the strangely misogynistic “Graham Rule,” which simply stated was “… a man should never be in a room alone with a woman to whom he is not married. “ Billy Graham was America’s pastor to presidents and evangelical faithful of his time. Falwell Sr. on the other hand was more traveling salesman/televangelist type pastor-a sort of Graham bete noire- a B-rated rival with a message that matched the times:
By the 1970s, Jerry Falwell Sr. was a national celebrity due to the popularity of his television show, The Old Time Gospel Hour.Whereas Billy Graham preached a gospel of redemption, Falwell saw himself as a field marshal in a cosmic battle between God and Satan. Jerry, then a teenager, frequently traveled with his dad to the front lines of the culture war. “We’d fly around on these old DC-3s from city to city. It was like the movie Almost Famous, “ he recalled. “I’d be the kid in the back of the auditorium selling my dad’s books and records to people while he preached. I would have all this money stuffed into every pocket. That was my life.”
— Inside Jerry Falwell…, Vanity Fair, by Gabriel Sherman
But Falwell Sr. was a mess of contradictions. While demanding religious fervor from others, he didn’t particularly care if his son followed suit. Jerry Jr. relates the facts that his father was a pushover at home who tolerated his own son’s drinking and carousing while damning the behavior in others. He didn’t even require his son’s attendance at church. What did seem to separate Falwell from the Graham’s during this time, was his rather overt racism and homophobia:
In a 1958 sermon, Falwell inveighed against the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that, on paper, integrated public schools: “The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line,” Falwell said. During a 1976 service, Falwell preached: “The idea [that] religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to prevent Christians from running their own country.”
He ranted against gays in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11:
And days after 9/11, Falwell went on television and blamed the terrorist attacks on gays, lesbians, feminists, abortion doctors, and the ACLU. “I point the finger in their faces and say, ‘You helped this happen,’ “ …
The reach of the fundamentalist influence stretched beyond the homes of their faithful and into the statehouses and political organizing. After Graham was forced to pray with Nixon during his fall from grace, Falwell hit the jackpot with the formation of the Moral Majority the faith-based backbone of the Reagan candidacy a few years later. It mattered little to both Graham and Falwell that neither of their political mercenaries were particularly religious or ethical-in truth, virtues not particularly required by the Founders in their imagining of presidential criteria.
Quite the opposite, the political mantle has been used by the holy and the profane to burnish the reputations and coffers of these modern-day money-changers. The Founders understood the incendiary effect that religion posed to the palaces of Europe. Notably, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 about “the wall of separation” he felt should exist between a government and religion:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” (emphases mine)
The Falwells and the Grahams worked in earnest to break down that wall. Today’s religious right and their alliances with white nationalists and nazi’s, bigots and racists, are proof of the wisdom of Jefferson’s words and account in large part for the basis of modern-day Christian Right’s hypocrisy.
The Jerry Falwell, Jr. story is tragic in its inevitability. Sustaining a veneer of moral superiority-of exceptionalism in any form — while dealing with the imperfections of humanness is a form of hubris if one believes in redemption. It is the flaw that even caused angels to fall if you believe such parables. If you are unaware of the sordidness of Falwell Jr.’s fall from grace, I will ask that you read the Vanity Fair piece (here) and judge for yourself. The credit atop the diary gives a pretty accurate clue. While some might take great joy from the humiliation of a religious warrior who never really wanted to engage in the fight, I find the hypocrisy that exists in such close proximity to virtue is the real harbinger of the dangers confronting democracy. It is the recruitment of what had been rational thinkers into its army of conspiracists, zealots, and religious charlatans that stokes the hate and anger of native terrorists — providing cover for their anti-democratic attacks on the homeland.
People who make mistakes aren’t the problem, we are all human. Similarly, those who are truly evil are a concern to be sure, but they do not tip the balance between good and evil. No, it is the wolf in sheep’s clothing that poses the more serious threat. While Falwell Sr. was always a hustler and intolerant from his earliest beginnings, Billy Graham was thought to be different. Known for his crusades, his foray into national prominence was unique. His crusades were the first among the deep south fundamentalist preachers’ that were integrated. In fact, at his historic Madison Square Garden crusade in 1957, Graham invited Martin Luther King to offer a prayer, declaring “There is no room for segregation at the foot of the cross!” Yet, it is Graham who most disappoints, knowing that he knew better and had been for the most part on the right side of history and who preached a gospel of redemption and tolerance:
Once the Freedom Buses started rolling South, and civil disobedience spread in the early 1960s, Graham’s support for civil rights dissipated. When King wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jailin 1963, Graham told reporters the Alabama preacher should “put the brakes on a little bit.” He began to criticize civil-rights leaders for focusing on changing laws, rather than “hearts.” He mocked King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, saying, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” And he broke with King altogether over his opposition to the Vietnam War, which Graham enthusiastically championed. — Bob Moser, The Soul-Crushing Legacy of Billy Graham, Rolling Stone, 1/23/2018
It is a peculiar form of hypocrisy that exploits the pretense of virtue as an excuse for injustice. And so today Republican hypocrites side with white supremacists against democracy. They protect and support bigots who wage war on black lives and those who protest against injustices. They support voter suppression efforts while their governors rip away women’s right to choose to control their own bodies, while they ignore the constitution they swore to defend. Hypocrisy is the other American pandemic still looking for a vaccine — — the American virus being spread from pulpits and naves, infecting the very soul of America.
Originally published at https://www.dailykos.com on January 27, 2022.