Because I feel a special bond with people who’ve made empty threats to sue me, I always like to hear about what Jerry Falwell Jr. is up to these days. But a detailed profile that Vanity Fair published last month, “Inside Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Unlikely Rise and Precipitous Fall at Liberty University“, surpassed my wildest imaginings.
Let’s start with the biggest bombshell of them all. Jerry Falwell Jr., scion of Jerry Falwell Sr., former president of Liberty University, erstwhile darling of the Christian right, says—openly, to a journalist—that he never believed any of it:
“It’s almost like I didn’t have a choice.” He went on: “Because of my last name, people think I’m a religious person. But I’m not. My goal was to make them realize I was not my dad.”
By his account, his brother Jonathan was the pious one. (He’s now head pastor of his father’s Thomas Road Baptist Church.) Jerry Jr., the family wild child, was temperamentally more like his father. Another of the eye-popping revelations this article hands out so casually is that Jerry Falwell Sr., despite his reputation as the fulminating hatemonger-in-chief of the American religious right, never took Christianity all that seriously either. His wife Macel was the true believer, and he chafed at her expectations and demands:
Looking back, Jerry said that his father’s peripatetic lifestyle provided a reprieve from an oppressive marriage. “My dad wanted to travel the world as an escape,” Jerry said. He recalled that his mother’s provincial worldview grated on his father. “She wanted to live a small-town preacher’s life. She didn’t let him mess around,” Jerry said. Divorce was out of the question. According to Jerry, his dad found ways to take the edge off at home, even though Macel never allowed alcohol in the house. “Sometimes he would drink a whole bottle of Nyquil. He called it Baptist wine,” he remembered. Jerry grew up to learn that he too could have a private life that didn’t align with his public persona.
This sounds very Machiavellian. However, lest you think the Falwells are a dynasty of malicious atheists exploiting the faith of the simple to support their debauched lifestyle—not so. Falwell Jr. avows that he is a Christian, as was his father. They’re just not the kind of Christians they presented themselves as.
Falwell Jr. says that he believes in the Bible and the divinity of Jesus. However, he’s not a censorious, puritanical rule-follower—in other words, not the kind of person that Liberty University, with its rules against drinking and mixed-gender socializing and un-Christian media consumption, seeks to mold its students into. Rather, he’s a hedonistic, party-loving, “Jesus forgave my sins so I can do whatever I want” Christian:
It was during a course on apologetics — the study of defending Christianity to nonbelievers — that Jerry said he was persuaded it was “rational” to believe Jesus was literally the son of God and the miracles of the Bible happened. “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.
Similarly, when Falwell Sr. converted, it wasn’t because God touched his heart and convicted him of his sin. Rather, to put it bluntly, he had a crush on a church girl and wanted to get into her pants:
On Falwell’s first visit to Park Avenue Baptist in 1949, he fell for the church’s piano player, a devout auburn-haired girl named Macel Pate. Falwell joined the congregation so he could date her, even though Macel was engaged to a man studying at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. Falwell devised a plan to sabotage the competition. He enrolled at Baptist Bible College and arranged to be roommates with Macel’s fiancé. Falwell told the fiancé he could mail his love letters to Macel. Instead, Falwell threw the letters in the trash. Macel broke off the engagement. Months later, Falwell and Macel were going out.
Falwell Sr.’s ultra-conservatism was a classic example of overcompensation. He wanted to prove to Macel Pate that he was Christian enough for her. But because his own life didn’t reflect that, he became a rabid, bile-spitting fundamentalist, hoping he could make up with rhetoric what he lacked in piety. It worked, thanks in part to his sabotaging her prior relationship (I wonder if she ever found out about this).
However, one thing that Falwell Sr. couldn’t fake was business acumen. In 1988, Liberty University and his entire empire was heavily indebted and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Falwell Jr., who did prove to have a knack for business, stepped in and righted the ship. He might have been content to work behind the scenes indefinitely, but when his father died, he was faced with a dilemma.
He was his father’s heir apparent, but he didn’t consider himself a fervent Christian, at least not in the way that rank-and-file evangelicals thought he was. But to admit this and step down would have meant giving up the wealth, the power and the prestige that the job afforded, and that was something he couldn’t bear to do.
Instead, he made the choice to craft a false persona for himself. In public, he pretended that he was the fire-and-brimstone Bible-thumper his father’s audience believed him to be—even as, in private, he and his wife Becki jetted off to Miami to drink and dance the nights away, far from the prying eyes of his fellow Christians. For years, he carried the burden of that dual life… but, like an infection concealed under a bandage, the hypocrisy continued to fester and spread.
We already know the rest of the story. The public image that Jerry Falwell Jr. built up for himself came crashing down after he posted a photo from a raunchy costume party, followed by revelations of an alleged three-way sexual relationship between him, Becki, and Giancarlo Granda, a Miami pool boy. (The only thing that Falwell Jr. still denies is that he was part of this relationship all along. He insists that Becki cheated on him and he was an innocent victim; although this doesn’t explain why the Falwells entered into a multimillion-dollar investment in an LGBTQ-friendly Miami hostel with a college kid they had only known for a few months.)
The only question is why the mask finally came off. It’s possible, as I’ve speculated before, that Donald Trump’s success convinced Falwell Jr. that he no longer had to pretend; that leaders of the religious right could openly ignore the rules they imposed on their followers. Alternatively, it’s possible that he was sick and tired of the act, and he started flaunting his behavior because on some level he wanted to be caught. Falwell Jr. himself seems to favor this explanation.
Whatever the reason, he’s clearly relieved that he no longer has to keep up the act. But he doesn’t seem to feel at all remorseful or apologetic for the deception he practiced. On the contrary, his stance seems to be that it’s what was expected of him, so he played along, regardless of whether he believed it personally or not.
I don’t doubt that there are many ordinary Christians—including at Liberty University—who sincerely believe in these rules and try their best to live by them. How does it make them feel, I wonder, to see their former leader exposed as a massive rules-for-thee-but-not-for-me hypocrite? What conclusions do they draw from the fact that these lurid scandals happen over and over and over and over and over? Do they ever begin to suspect that maybe they’ve been conned, that the preachers they looked up to are living it up and laughing at them behind closed doors?
The Falwells’ story is American evangelical Christianity in microcosm. The leaders of the faith—the preachers, the politicians, the pundits, the theologians—style themselves as godly warriors of righteousness, battling against a sinful culture. But it’s all for show. It’s an act, a script they’ve memorized because it gets results. If they truly cared about what they say they care about, the practice of their faith would be very different. Their real objective, often only thinly disguised, is to get the masses to fall in line behind them, to rise to a position of fame and influence, and then exploit it for wealth and power and the indulgence of their every sexual desire, whether merely kinky or outright predatory. It’s a vast funnel of grift, and it goes all the way to the top.