Thoughts on the Fall of the Falwells

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!

– 2 Samuel 1:25

Baptist minister Jerry Falwell Sr., leader of a megachurch in Lynchburg, Va. since the 1960s, founded Liberty University in 1971. In 1979 he founded the Moral Majority as a political movement opposed to abortion, homosexuality, feminism, and liberal, socialist thought; it was dissolved within a decade due to competition, infighting and mounting irrelevance. But the university became maybe the world’s largest Christian academic institution, with tens of thousands of resident and online students.

Falwell died in 2007 and his oldest son Jerry Jr. (then 46) was appointed as his successor as LU president. (The second son is a pastor at a large church attached to the institution.) A University of Virginia-trained lawyer, Falwell was not a minister but active in the Evangelical community and had been selected by his father to maintain his policies. The university retained its strict bans on homosexuality, premarital sex in general, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, etc.

Fast-forward to 2012 when Jerry Jr. and his wife Becki were vacationing in Miami.

There she met a handsome pool attendant named Giancarlo Granda (20) and invited him to have sex with her. He agreed and met her later at a hotel where she offered him whiskey and introduced him to her husband sprawled out on the other bed. Falwell assured him that he didn’t mind him pleasuring his wife and told him that he should just “go for it.”

Granda states (to CNN’s Anderson Cooper) that the couple seemed accustomed to this type of activity and recruiting young men for this purpose. He did not know at the time who who they were. But this became a regular thing for some years, Granda telling Reuters that the trysts took place “multiple times per year” from 2012 to 2018 at hotels in Miami and New York, and at the Falwells’ home in Bedford County, Virginia. Meanwhile the Falwells made Granda a business partner in a gay-friendly hostel in South Beach now co-owned by Jerry’s son Jerry Falwell III (known as Trey).

Falwell in recent days acknowledges that Becki had relations with Granda but states that he himself was “not involved” whatever that means. Granda for his part says Falwell is now “throwing his wife under the bus.”

These revelations came after embarrassing reports of Falwell’s attendance at rock concerts, evidence of drinking, sharing nude photos of his wife with male confidants, and the unzipped photo on social media. A Liberty University student claimed that when he stayed over at the Falwell home (after a band practice in 2008 when he was 22), Becki “was the aggressor” in joining him in bed and performing oral sex on him. In the wake of such reports the Trustees forced Falwell to step down from his position, exposed as a total hypocrite.

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Now, what does this mildly interesting tale have to do with Donald Trump?

In 2016 Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen did some work for the Falwells, trying to “retrieve photos” in the possession of a former friend of Granda’s involving the couple’s relationship to him. This suggests that Trump himself knew that the Falwells, like him, had sexual baggage they needed to conceal. He was perhaps happy to lend his “fixer” Cohen help in return for some kind of “deal.”

Trump was invited to deliver a speech at Liberty University on January 18, 2016. It was a major event in the campaign, a rare semi-prepared talk (as opposed to his typical rambling homily). That’s the address in which Trump famously cited a verse from “Two Corinthians” occasioning a ripple of laughter among the students at the mandatory assembly.

“Two Corinthians 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame. … Is that the one you like? ‘” asked the smirking president, who proceeded to quote it with affected gravity: “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

The pandering reference to the school’s motto, the failure to address the meaning of the Bible verse, and misidentification of the text’s very title (Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, or for short Second Corinthians) indicated that Trump had minimal understanding of, or sensitivity to, the Christian religion.

But Falwell on Jan. 26 issued a ringing endorsement of Trump. “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” he declared. “He cannot be bought, he’s not a puppet on a string like many other candidates … who have wealthy donors as their puppet masters And that is a key reason why so many voters are attracted to him.”

I can’t help but wonder what the pool-boy who’d been servicing the Falwells for over three years thought when he heard that about Trump’s life of loving and helping.

This ongoing scandal kind of recalls the affair of the megachurch evangelist Ted Haggard and male prostitutes in 2006, and TV evangelist Jim Swaggart with prostitutes in 1991. Such events can disillusion believers.

Yes of course Christians believe in forgiveness, because God is infinitely forgiving (1 John 1:19). Disgraced evangelists usually bounce back and retain their fan bases and income flow. But exposed hypocrisy has contributed to the sharp statistical decline of Christianity in this country. It has dipped while support for gay marriage (that central target of the religious right) has become generalized.

Liberty University is in my opinion a fundamentally reactionary institution, requiring of its students a course on Bible-based “creationism” and another on evangelism; it is dedicated to the inculcation of an especially backward form of Christianity. I think it wrong to subject young minds to that kind of indoctrination. But those who want to do it should at least observe their own rules. What is the Liberty University student to think now, about the founder’s family?

The Old Testament is pretty clear about adultery (Deuteronomy 22:12) . But Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” As serious Christian students know this story occurs only in John (John 8:7) and not in the synoptic gospels. It has a Gnostic feel to it, in Jesus writing something in the dirt that causes the accusers to slink away. The usual interpretation is that Jesus was rejecting the “old covenant” based on Mosaic Law (that among other things prescribed death for adulterers) and establishing a “new covenant” based on forgiveness and grace at the center of Pauline theology. (See the above-mentioned Second Corinthians, chapter 3).

So sure, the wife can be forgiven for her lustful sins. But the Bible doesn’t really address the cuckold fetish; it doesn’t say, “You must not let your wife have sex with another man while you watch.” There is “the sin of Onan” (Genesis 38:8) and that term has been used historically as a euphemism for masturbation. But the text actually refers to conscious withdrawal to prevent impregnation so it’s not really relevant here.

The Christian student can just accept the fact that we’re all born in sin and the Falwells have paid the price for their sins. At the same time the student might wonder why, if Falwell and his wife could have bi threesomes at a hostel, I can’t do that in my dorm? Or if he can watch and beat off, why can’t I?

That is, this episode both causes the Liberty University community to once again, as Christians always do, forgive sin—but it might also cause it to think more rationally about sexuality and in particular its institutional homophobia.

But sex issues aside, what do the Falwell’s business dealings tell you about capitalism? Christian students, can you really serve God and Money at the same time? (See Matthew 6:24). Why is Falwell retiring with a severance package of $ 11 million? And what does Falwell’s relationship to Donald Trump tell you about Christian evangelism and politics?

May all Liberty University students be asking these questions!

“How are the mighty fallen!” grieved David, soon to be king, after the death of his beloved Jonathan at the battle of Mt. Gilboa against the Philistines (1 Samuel 28). One doubts many will mourn the fall of a power-couple unmasked as hypocritical hedonists. But it’s an occasion to reflect on that fact that the Trump era has both elevated the Christian right to unprecedented heights and seen its most spectacular humiliation.

Liberty University gave Trump credibility among evangelicals. Now it itself is tainted by scandal. Falwell was among Trump’s most powerful Evangelical supporters. Now he is disgraced. Just as other major figures associated with Trump (like former campaign manager Stephen Bannon) are charged with serious crimes, Jerry Falwell, Jr. bites the dust. Meanwhile Trump’s older sister and a niece reveal Trump’s religiosity as a sham.

For those who fear that Trump relying on “Christian fascist” support will win the election, all this should be good news.

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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