Jerry Falwell Jr., recently deposed as president of Liberty University, is a new type of Christian sinner. The figure of a pious hypocrite is as old as religion itself, an inevitable by-product of the fact that any moral system will be upheld by flawed people. But usually godly miscreants try to keep their transgressions secret.
A prime example is Jimmy Swaggart, who was disgraced and defrocked after revelations of hiring sex workers in 1987. Furtive, sweaty, twitchy, and given to wailing, “I have sinned,” Swaggart acted like an escapee from the fictions of Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Flannery O’Connor: a God-haunted and superstitious primate driven by compulsions he could neither understand nor control. As creepy as he is, Swaggart has given every evidence of a complex and tormented inner life.
Falwell Jr., by contrast, is a shallower creature who has not tried to hide his misdeeds. Rather, he has flaunted them. The latest scandal involving Falwell Jr. grew out of a photo he posted on Instagram that shows him with his arms around a woman who was not his wife, both parties with their pants unzipped. “Yeah, it was weird,” Falwell admitted in a radio interview. “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.”
This explanation wasn’t sufficient, coming as it did on top of a long list of previous scandals, including still-unexplained land deals he made with his pool boy and photos in which he appears to be drinking and dancing at a Florida nightclub. These photos were a problem because Liberty University holds its students and staff to strict moral standards. Students can receive demerits if they dance with a partner of the opposite sex and be expelled for drinking. Sex outside of marriage is prohibited for students.
As Politico reported last year, Falwell Jr. was notorious for flouting these rules, taking an exhibitionist’s glee in lewd conversations: “At Liberty, Falwell is ‘very, very vocal’ about his ‘sex life,’ in the words of one Liberty official—a characterization multiple current and former university officials and employees interviewed for this story support.” Falwell Jr. reportedly circulated to Liberty University staff photos of his wife dressed as a French maid.
Falwell Jr.’s behavior was certainly in bad taste and in violation of not just his own evangelical code but also secular rules about workplace sexual harassment. It’s not appropriate for an employer to talk to his staff in explicit detail about his sex life, as Falwell reportedly did. The latest scandal proved a bridge too far for the board of trustees at Liberty University, which placed him on an indefinite leave of absence.
Falwell Jr.’s exhibitionism, his compulsive need to publicize his sexual antics even at the cost of his job, helps illuminate his fateful political alliance with Donald Trump. Falwell Jr. was among the earliest major evangelical leaders to embrace Trump and has remained a steadfast supporter. During Trump’s highly publicized visit to Liberty University in January of 2016, Falwell Jr. stated, “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.” Two weeks later, Falwell Jr. enthusiastically endorsed Trump for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
The alliance between Trump and white evangelicals has puzzled many observers. “Evangelicals for years have defined themselves as the values voters, people who prized the Bible and sexual morality—and loving your neighbor as yourself—above all,” notes New York Times reporter Elizabeth Dias. “Donald Trump was the opposite. He bragged about assaulting women. He got divorced, twice. He built a career off gambling. He cozied up to bigots. He rarely went to church. He refused to ask for forgiveness.”
Yet, as Dias observes, this seeming contradiction disappears when we realize that “evangelicals did not support Mr. Trump in spite of who he is. They supported him because of who he is, and because of who they are. He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly.”
This argument echoes a case made in greater detail by reporter Sarah Posner in her compelling new book, Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump. Posner places the story of Trump and white evangelicals within the larger history of the backlash against civil rights, feminism, and LGBTQ rights that gathered force in the 1960s. This backlash, Posner demonstrates, fueled both the religious right and Trumpism.
The real driving force of the Christian right, Posner contends, “was not religion but grievances over school desegregation, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, affirmative action, and more. Trump became their hero despite being a thrice-married philanderer who talked about dating his daughter, paid off a porn star to keep quiet about an affair, and was terrible at God talk. He became their savior because he spoke the language that tied them and him…together against ‘political correctness,’ civil and human rights, and at its core, the entire arduous project of maintaining a pluralistic, secular, liberal democracy.”
One of the best examples of how the religious right emerged out of the backlash to the freedom movements of the 1960s is Jerry Falwell Jr.’s illustrious father. Jerry Falwell Sr. often claimed he was politicized by his opposition to abortion. But as Posner documents, the earlier impetus to Falwell Sr.’s career was his hostility toward the civil rights movement. In 1964, Falwell Sr. described the Civil Rights Act as a “terrible violation of human and private property rights.” According to Posner, Falwell Sr. “helped distribute literature disparaging Martin Luther King, Jr., by then–FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who oversaw agency surveillance, including wire-taps, on the civil rights icon.” In 1968, Falwell Sr. invited leading segregationist George Wallace to address his church.
If we see the Christian right and Trumpism as products of the same backlash, their convergence becomes easy to understand. Trump is the leader of the secular wing of the backlash and Falwell Jr. is the leader of its religious wing. But they share the same agenda of preserving the privileges of straight white well-to-do men from social movements pushing for greater equality.
As part of Trump’s anti-feminism, he’s fashioned a public persona of gleeful chauvinism, offering an unapologetic sexism that refuses even to wear the mask of chivalry found in early forms of patriarchy. Trump’s sleaziness is very much a part of his political identity. It shows that he’s a real man, not one who’s cowed by feminist criticism.
Being a louche politician has cost Trump few votes among white evangelicals because many of them secretly admire such behavior. Lewdness is proof of heterosexual virility. Perhaps the final temptation that Jerry Falwell Jr. fell into was to go beyond envying Trump’s decadent lifestyle and openly try to imitate it.