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FALWELL, FUNDAMENTALISM AND FATAL ATTRACTION

FALWELL, FUNDAMENTALISM AND FATAL ATTRACTION
It's not just about sex

NEWS ANALYSIS

By David W. Virtue, DD
www.virtueonline.org
August 25, 2020

Revelations that Jerry Falwell Jr., got into a 'fatal attraction' situation with a pool boy and his wife, resulting in adultery, voyeurism, a failed business deal and more, dropped like a bombshell on America's evangelical community. Falwell has gone from an 'indefinite leave of absence' to resignation at Liberty University.

In fact, it is the equivalent of a Beirut explosion because of the wider personal association Mr. Falwell has with President Donald Trump.

What the mainstream media does not understand, and will never truly get, is the how and why this came about.

It starts with the nepotism of Liberty University. Falwell Sr. hands off his institution to his son. This is not unknown in evangelicalism. Oral Roberts handed off his university to his son, even though Richard had a sleazy divorce and he and his wife treated the university as a personal ATM. Robert Schuller handed off his empire to his children, which ultimately failed. His son left him and the cathedral was sold to the local Roman Catholic diocese. There are other dynastic names including Lyman Beecher, Bob Jones, Billy Graham, and Jim Bakker: all had sons who became ministers. On a personal note, I once sat on the board of Tony Campolo's organization EAPE and when Tony set about retiring, his son Bart's name came up to succeed him. The board wisely rejected him. In hindsight, we were right. Bart later renounced the faith and became an atheist.

No business is more defined by dynasties and nepotism than evangelical preachers.

Billy Graham carefully avoided political statements and prayed with presidents never telling us how he voted. His son Franklin has unwisely put all his cards onto the table in full support of Trump. His father would never have done that.

There are several lessons to learn from all this.

The first is that evangelical leaders are just as prone to play the same power game as secularists do because a lot of money is at stake. If you have an evangelical empire worth millions of dollars you want to protect it from outsiders even though you have a board which is supposed to be independent but basically rubber stamps whatever the builder, owner and president wants. Admittedly it is hard to stand up against the visionary/founder, but there it is.

Secondly is the belief that 'like father, like son' and 'my son will carry on my mission, legacy and vision to the world.' Well how has that worked out for Liberty University and the Falwell dynasty!

Thirdly, and this is where the rub comes in. Evangelicals are very cued to hearing certain words that make them think in pavlovian terms. Full disclosure, my wife says I am guilty of this. We evangelicals are used to giving people a pass when we hear words like "Jesus saves" or "born again" or "precious Jesus" or "bless you brother, you really love Jesus". Now Anglican evangelicals are less prone to use this language, it is mostly reserved for the wider evangelical world of which there are tens of millions.

Years ago, I got suckered by a businessman into investing in a real estate venture just because he was an evangelical Christian who had worked with WYAM and had a degree in business. My wife warned me that this might not work. I charged ahead because I thought I knew the man. He knew all the "right" evangelical language and pressed all the right buttons in me. When it all fell apart and I challenged him, his response was "business is business". Nowhere does the Bible draw such a conclusion. He should have taken a course in Biblical ethics. He didn't. I lost. Lesson learned. Maybe. Another evangelical friend of over 25 years was found to be watching child porn all that time. My life fell apart for a while after I heard the news.

Then there is religion as business. Too many evangelical businesses are more focused on profit and self-aggrandizement. One has only to think of the prosperity preachers. For them it is all about money, nothing about the salvation of souls. "All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," said Lord Acton. This is especially true of evangelical Christian businesses.

And then there is the culture of celebrity; evangelicals have fallen for this big time. If you become a "name" like Ravi Zacharias you can do no wrong, even if it is proven that he has done wrong.

It is an easy seduction for millions of evangelicals. When they hear certain words, they roll over. Consider this paragraph from the leaders of Liberty University after Falwell's behavior was exposed.

"For years, Liberty's Board of Trustees allowed Falwell to frequently, publicly harm Liberty's reputation. The Board permitted Falwell and his family to run the school like a personal business at the expense of its faculty and students. Board members sat by while Falwell's words and deeds disgraced the Name of the Lord again and again."

There you have it. The Board of Trustees knew and did nothing. Perhaps they feared public opprobrium. But they were victims of their own internal failure. How could someone like Jerry Jr., not be as good as his father, or was his father not really that good to begin with, and perhaps the son was really a lot like the father! Narcissism can run in the family it would appear.

And what of the thousands of parents who sent and who continue to send their sons and daughters there because LU is a "safe" harbor from the raging secular world outside that might contaminate their children's minds?

They saw a package deal. Conservative Christian Faith, Republican politics, middle class values, (but not necessarily Biblical values), a nice job, happy marriage, 2.5 kids, a family dog and all the blessings of suburban America. It was Ossie and Harriet. Ironically, just before his death, Ozzie Nelson published his autobiography, in which he shocked many of his Bible-belt fans by revealing that he was a lifelong atheist. No matter image is more important than substance.

The Beirut bomb Falwell has set off, complete with pics, must be shaking up millions of evangelicals today. Initially one Falwell sycophant tried to deny the truth of the pics and then had to back track.

Falwell's very public alliance with Trump may have opened the eyes of many fundamentalists and evangelicals that conservative politics and evangelical Christianity is not the Good News of Scripture. Many are whispering that Falwell might just be a mini version of Trump in his business and personal life. Getting close to Trump can be a personal COVID moment and contamination is possible.

The lessons are many; here are a few. Don't believe everyone who says evangelical words unless you know for sure there is substance behind those words in their personal lives.

Remember the gospel stands above all political systems, and nepotism is not to be found in the Bible. There is no one perfect political and economic system that Christians can confidently sign off on.

Finally learn the lesson from the Psalmist when he wrote, "Put not your trust in princes." How quickly we forget.

END

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