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What the Jerry Falwell Jr. scandals tell us about religion

Across its long history, religion has produced both beauty and scandal, enlightenment and ignorance, encouragement and dismay.

Jerry_Falwell_JrThat's no doubt because human beings have had a lot to do with how things go in religion. And human beings are, well, nothing if not fallible, no matter how resilient they can be after they fail and fall and lie and make a mess of things. I find it helps to remember that in one of the creation stories in Genesis (there are two, and they don't match up all that well), we find God declaring the creation "good." Notice that the word used wasn't "perfect."

I've been thinking about all of that after having read this Vanity Fair article about the spectacular collapse and disgrace experienced by Jerry Falwell Jr., (pictured at left) who was forced to resign from the presidency of Liberty University (which his famous father ran before him) on Aug. 24, 2020, after what the author of the magazine's long story says was a resignation "in the wake of a sensational tabloid scandal that could have been dreamed up in the writers’ room of The Righteous Gemstones."

It involved sex, lies and embarrassing nude photos of Jerry Jr.'s wife Becki taken while she was having an affair with a former Miami pool boy.

In some ways, what Falwell Jr. did was similar to some things his father did -- though they were quite different people. But each of them in his own way failed to live up to the obligations Christians take on when they declare themselves followers of Jesus -- obligations of love, compassion, truthfulness, mercy and justice, to name a few of the most important. (Yes, all Christians fail at that.)

One of the differences, it turns out, between the two Jerry Falwells is that the younger one took quite awhile to come to faith. As the Vanity Fair story, written by Gabriel Sherman, reports: “'I became a true Christian in college,' Jerry told me. Newly confident in his faith, Jerry decided believing in Christ didn’t mean he had to follow the evangelical rules. After all, Jesus was a rule breaker too. 'Organized religion says you have to earn your way to heaven. What Jesus said was, "You just have to believe,” he said'."

So it's clear from the get-go that Jerry Jr. didn't understand the essential Christian concepts of either grace or faith. He blamed "organized" religion for what theologians call "works righteousness," which is to say the idea that God accepts you into an afterlife of bliss only if you earn it through your good works. That concept is rejected by Christianity. But was Falwell Jr. right to say that Jesus said you just have to believe? Well, not exactly. Belief is simply where you start. But if belief doesn't get metabolized and turn into good works and a life of love and compassion, it's essentially useless. Somehow Falwell Jr. missed all that.

When Jerry Sr. realized he was making a financial mess of Liberty University, he asked Jerry Jr. to join the staff and help to rescue the place. In that time, Sherman writes, "Falwell often invited his son to join him and his chief of staff, Mark DeMoss, for lunch at the Holiday Inn near campus. Jerry rarely went. Instead, he often ate alone in a Wendy’s parking lot, listening to Rush Limbaugh (pictured at right) in his car. Talk radio became Jerry’s political religion. 'Rush is the reason I became a conservative,' Jerry told me."

Rush-LimbaughThe late Limbaugh, a former employee of the Kansas City Royals (director of group sales and special events) and former talk show host on a Kansas City radio station, KUDL, eventually developed a huge following nationally. He was not so much a political wizard as an entertainer. He would say all kinds of crazy stuff just to keep his audience tuning in. Jerry Jr. might have done better spending his lunch hour reading the Bible with interpretive help from someone qualified to do that.

Sherman writes that "Jerry told me he supported (former President Donald) Trump because he was a real estate developer and a populist. But I also couldn’t help but see the Trump endorsement as a continuation of Jerry’s rebellion against evangelical pieties. . .

"Jerry even defended Trump when almost no one else would. After the Access Hollywood tape leaked, in October 2016, Jerry told a radio interviewer: 'We’re never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot.' It provided cover for evangelicals to excuse Trump’s utter lack of decency or morals. 'After that, Steve Bannon called me and said, "You won the election for us,”' Jerry recalled."

And now Jerry Jr. has essentially divorced himself from the evangelical branch of Christianity. Sherman writes that "being on the receiving end of evangelicals’ moral opprobrium has fundamentally turned him away from the movement. He believes in Christ, he said, but not the church. 'Nothing in history has done more to turn people away from Christianity than organized religion,' he said. 'The religious elite has got this idea that somehow their sins aren’t as bad as everyone else’s,' Jerry said. Listening to Jerry, it made me think he convinced himself Liberty wasn’t the fundamentalist school that it is."

Well, there certainly can be a significant difference between the life of faith that Jesus modeled and taught and what the institutional church sometimes has taught and even become. But any time now that you hear the term "organized religion," you can pretty well bet that the next words will be dismissive of faith. In some ways, it's like comparing real Major League Baseball to what the Kansas City Royals played between their 1985 World Series win and their 2015 win.

One of the saddest parts of this story is about Jerry Jr.'s wife and her destructive decision to have an affair. She seems honest in explaining what happened to Sherman and she and Jerry still are together. But what a terrible choice she made, and surely Jerry knows he wasn't the best husband he could have been.

Sherman writes this about all that: "Becki, though, has struggled. She said she’s battled depression over the past year and gained a significant amount of weight. They’re both grateful they still have their marriage. 'We’re together more than any couple you will ever meet in your life,' Becki said, as she sat on a stool at the kitchen island. 'He forgave me, and that’s what Jesus teaches, forgiveness.'”

In the end, the battlefield is littered with wounded bodies and reputations. And religion itself has been a casualty, too, its already oft-maligned reputation for high moral values beaten further about the head and shoulders by the actions of some of its noisiest and gaudiest proponents. And yet Christians should not have been surprised. As Richard D. Crane, a theology professor at Messiah College, wrote in a February 2019 article in the theological journal Review & Expositor, "A Christian account of humans as entangled in sin should lead us to recognize all human constructs. . .are flawed and corrupted. This conviction should render Christians alert for systemic injustices and distortions." Exactly.

With Crane's reminder front and center, perhaps all of us can learn something redemptive from this sad, sad story.

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A newly published list of Muslim startup companies offers another example of why immigration is both necessary and economically advantageous to the U.S. This RNS story about this notes that these startups range "from new Islamic seminaries and Muslim-focused smartphone applications to fintech (finance/technology), media and fashion." Good thing former President Trump's Muslim ban didn't work.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column -- about Black people with ties to Indigenous people -- when it posted Sunday, you can find it here.


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