Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Essay: Falwell Jr. and Religious Right Show When ‘Heaven is Not Averse to Compromise’

“Some joys, it’s true, are wrong in Heaven’s eyes
Yet Heaven is not averse to compromise;
There is a science, lately formulated,
Whereby one’s conscience may be liberated,
And any wrongful act you care to mention
May be redeemed by purity of intention.”—French playwright Moliere (1622-1673), Tartuffe (1664; English translation by Richard Wilbur, 1965)

Religious hypocrisy—the target of Moliere’s sharp satire in 17th century France—remains just as powerful, perhaps even more so, in 21st century America. That is the only way to view the news coming out of the evangelical world, starting—but by no means ending—with Jerry Falwell Jr. (pictured).

The son of the founder of the Moral Majority has taught all too many Americans, like Moliere’s scoundrel, that “Heaven is not averse to compromise.” That is benefiting him at the most opportune time: When he has jeopardized his job as president and chancellor of Liberty University through colossal folly.

How many male educators who take it on themselves to guide the morals of young people—and are not shy about doing so—then turn around and post, for all the world to see, on Instagram, a picture of themselves in unzipped pants, with one hand holding a glass and the other around the waist of a young woman whose shorts are also unzipped?

What could that educator have been thinking when he tapped out this caption to the picture? “More vacation shots. Lots of good friends visited us on the yacht. I promise that’s just black water in my glass. It was a prop only.”

That caption only makes matters murkier. What, for instance, is “black water”? What was it a “prop” for? And if this was a yacht, was it the “Monkey Business”—that vessel where, before the 1988 primary season began in earnest, Democratic candidate Gary Hart was photographed with his arm around a young lady not his wife?

At this point, perhaps when the stuff in the “black water” wore off, someone must have persuaded young Falwell to try to contain the damage. It began promisingly enough, when he deleted the post. But then he gave an interview to a local radio station in Lynchburg, Va., and—well, read what he said:

“Yeah, it was weird. She’s pregnant. She couldn’t get her pants zipped and I was like trying to like… I had on a pair of jeans I haven’t worn in a long time and couldn’t get zipped either. So, I just put my belly out like hers. She’s my wife’s assistant, she’s a sweetheart. I should have never put it up and embarrassed her. I’ve apologized to everybody. I promised my kids I will try to be a good boy from here on out.”

Jeans he “couldn’t get zipped”—one too many Taco Tuesdays for the school president? Isn’t that a product of one of the seven deadly sins—gluttony? 

But the clincher in this statement is that phrase “good boy”—a final flippant note that falsified the hymn of contrition.

These days, most authority figures—particularly those at an institution ostensibly dedicated to moral formation—would find it impossible to survive a sex scandal. Even at a secular school, they would be forced to resign immediately, with the board of trustees proclaiming that it’s retained outside counsel to investigate the leader’s misbehavior and the toxic environment he fostered.

But most authority figures also have not labored for Liberty University, with a board of trustees that, with many members loyal to Falwell through friendship (William E. Graham IV, grandson of Billy) or blood (Falwell’s brother Jonathan, also a minister), were willing to overlook “Junior” Falwell’s previous transgressions--numerous enough that I'm not sure why the school wasn't renamed Libertine University.

The so-called “mainstream media” such as The New York Times have been endlessly derided (and yes, let’s stipulate not without reason) for their bias against religious organizations such as Liberty University.

But I must say that these outlets pulled their punches in reporting on other Falwell controversies in the coverage of this recent incident. Invariably, they have listed only two or three.

Chalk it up to impulses toward charity, or, if you insist, the need not to strain the eyeballs of time-pressured readers. 

But no such constraints exist for Messiah University historian John Fea, who, in a blog post after the latest incident, listed three dozen examples of objectionable Falwell statements or actions that could have--but didn't--bring the hammer down on him (e.g., Falwell “created a Blackface face-mask and tweeted about it” and “Michael Cohen had ‘racy photos’ of him and his wife”).

This latest controversy—created, be it noted, entirely through Falwell’s insane Instagram post—proved a bit too much even for the executive committee of the board, which forced him to take an “indefinite leave of absence” even as catcalls from the student body were so loud they could have brought down the walls of Jericho.

(Who could blame these youths who, after being hectored to adhere to “The Liberty Way”—an honor code prohibiting premarital sex and private interactions between members of the opposite sex—now had to watch when the same proscriptions did not apply to their president? Like Bill Murray being pulled towards a seductive Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters, Falwell Jr. seems to think that, when applied to himself, “it's more of a guideline than a rule.”)

Clearly, the board was playing for time—time either to announce, after a decent interval, that Falwell had undergone some combination of 12-step program and spiritual counseling to announce that he’d been “redeemed,” or—if the outrage and ridicule still hadn’t subsided—to have a successor in place if Falwell is forced to step down permanently.

Don’t be surprised if Falwell survives this. What others might view as rank pretense, the religious right writes off as a redemption story in the making.

Why should they be put out when Falwell grabs a single woman by the waist when they have already excused a Presidential candidate who’s boasted about grabbing women “by the p----y?”

Unfortunately, Falwell’s not the only one willing to wink at “boys will be boys” behavior—and even engage in some of his own. Far too many evangelicals—and the entire religious right movement—have compromised their stress on personal integrity to win and keep access to power.

It was one thing to support the divorced movie star Ronald Reagan, who secured the allegiance of Falwell’s father and other key evangelicals in the 1980 election when he told them at a major Dallas confab,  “I know you can’t endorse me, but I can endorse you.”

But they could console themselves with the notion that Reagan’s second marriage had endured for nearly 30 years, that there was no serious question that he adored wife Nancy, and that he had a record of public service that could be analyzed.

But they had to shut their eyes far more to Donald Trump, who was unapologetic about his two divorces, exhibiting no real interest in atonement, and—unlike most of the other GOP candidates—lacking any governmental record to prove his fidelity to conservative ideals.

But, as recounted in a New York Times article this past weekend, he told them something, in a Dordt University address, they dearly wanted to hear:

“Christianity will have power. If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”

The same address became notorious in non-evangelical circles for another Trump statement: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”

Ever since then, evangelicals have gone a long way towards confirming Trump’s boast. It doesn’t matter to them that in the process, they demonstrated that their most telling contention about Bill and Hillary Clinton—that character counts—was utterly hollow as they followed someone who far surpassed them in moral turpitude.

Indeed, they exiled anyone who dared to question their passionate embrace of this President with no solid religious or even moral anchor—including at (surprise!), Liberty U., where, four years ago, Mark DeMoss was forced off the board of trustees for criticizing Falwell for personally endorsing Trump for President.

Enjoyment of the kind of power promised by Trump parallels the religious right’s sense of aggrievement and encirclement. All their gains in positions filled and right-wing Supreme Court justices are being jeopardized now through their overreach.

No longer are evangelicals content with debating issues that, no matter what else one might think of them, are indisputably moral in nature, such as abortion and gay rights. Now, they are forcing stalemates on issues of public safety and personal security: gun control, climate change, even COVID-19.

Religious conservatives on social media have raised hackles about politicians like California Gov. Gavin Newsom being “anti-Christian” for restricting indoor religious gatherings during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

It’s too bad these religious hand-wringers don’t spend as much time denouncing leaders like Falwell whose serial offenses have led more people to question the value of Christianity than an entire school system of secularists.

Tell me: Why do the loudest shouters about others’ sins get caught engaging in them so often themselves?

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