The conservative Christian education world is experiencing one hell of a circus this week. Its principal star, now-former Liberty University President and all-around terrible human being Jerry Falwell Jr., fell right off the tightrope. The usual evangelical safety nets couldn’t save him this time.
He’d already been teetering after foolishly posting a photo of himself, pants unzipped and holding what appeared to be a mixed drink, clutching his wife’s pretty, young, not-married-to-him assistant. Either of these violations of the Code of Conduct would be enough to get a Liberty University student in serious trouble; both together could get them suspended or expelled. It was too blatant for even evangelicals to ignore. Falwell took an indefinite leave of absence from his position in early August after that fiasco, and he promised he’d “try to be a good boy.”
Unfortunately, he’d been a bad boy for a very long time, and it’s finally caught up with him.
Evangelicals will put up with a lot of hypocrisy in their leaders, because their strict rules are mostly meant for the peons. But their leaders have to walk that wire very carefully. They have to engage in only so much vice as their position of power allows, and not an iota more.
The type of vice is also important. The fundagelical masses will wink away behaviors they’d like to (openly) engage in, if only they weren’t powerless wretches who must at least pretend to follow the rules in order to remain members in good standing in the tribe. But leaders indulging in behaviors they find actually abhorrent probably won’t find much grace, especially if the wretches aren’t fond of them to begin with.
Falwell failed on both counts.
He’s been riding the wave of Daddy’s popularity for decades, but he overestimated the size of the wave and his surfing skills. He and his family got sloppy with their hypocrisy. There were too many nightclub scenes, too many sweetheart money deals, too much bleeding students dry while living like unaccountable royalty, and too much mucking about with dirty politics for the underlings to ignore forever.
Without years of pissing people off, he would have easily survived the “scandal” of posing suggestively with a pretty young woman. And even with all of that, a minor bit of repentence, bringing Jesus out of the cupboard he’d been stuffed in, and a few pointed references to verses on forgiveness would have allowed Falwell to return from his leave of absence and start abusing his power again. It wasn’t enough to bring him all the way down.
But evangelicals expect men to rule their wives with an iron fist. A man having an affair is an unfortunate lapse, just the usual stumble one might expect from a poor saved sinner who fell prey to the temptations of the female flesh (which that hussy was displaying in a most unchristian manner). But the wife cheating on the man, with the hotel pool boy, for nearly a decade? Not supposed to be happening in a godly man’s house. And then you get to the reports that Falwell liked to watch, and the good godly people lose the last of their shit.
Their world is not one in which a woman can choose to make sexual conquests. It’s absolutely not one where three consenting adults can ever agree to let the husband sit and watch the wife get it on with her much younger side piece. They don’t understand the concept of consent. They refuse to countenance the idea that a woman can be polyamorous, that a couple can have an open marriage, and that a man can get off watching his wife enjoy herself with another man, and still be good Christians. Females are meant to be controlled by the male they’re married to, and woe betide the man who lets his wife control her own sexuality. Even if the Falwells had gone about all of this perfectly ethically, evangelicals couldn’t stomach it.
The fact that Falwell deserved to fall for causing real, actual harm to people less powerful than him isn’t even a consideration for most of them. It’s not even the hypocrisy that truly bothers them – most of them have no problem accepting do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behavior from their dear leaders. And of course, the vast majority of them are just fine with the harm Liberty University under Falwell did to its LGBT students, its female students, its students of color, and the nation as a whole. They don’t care that Falwell charged premium prices for a travesty of an education. They’ll happily carry on doing all of that damage.
No, they just mind that Falwell got too big for his britches, flaunted the rules too openly, and let his wife find sexual fulfillment outside of their marriage.
Now that he’s been taken down several pegs, he’ll doubtless fade from sight just long enough to be able to claim repentance, and then pop up like a weed somewhere else in the evangelical world, current wife optional. Liberty University will find someone with equally abhorent views to take his place. They’ll continue delivering the same shitty, overpriced education to students who will continue to risk expulsion for having a drink and a cuddle with someone they love, while the leadership frolics in forbidden ways behind barely closed doors. None of this will make them question their ethics. They’ll continue to care not one tiny iota for consent.
But it will take them at least a minute to regain the kingmaking power of the Falwells. And if we’re very, very lucky, that might help spare us from another four years of misrule by evangelicals’ favorite flaming hypocrite.
Sources and Further Reading
Love, Joy, Feminism: Jerry Falwell and the Pool Boy
Roll to Disbelieve: Why Jerry Falwell Jr. CAN’T ‘Be a Good Boy
The Freethinker: Liberty University ‘ruining lives’ in its bid to turn gays ‘straight
Save 71: Liberty U Dissenters