The President of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, has resigned. It matters. Why? Not just because it is yet another religious leader falling because of a sexual scandal. Not just because the US media and internet are going to have a field day mocking, gossiping and judging. Not even because Liberty University is one of the largest, if not the largest, evangelical Christian college in the world. What makes this matter is because of who Jerry Falwell is and what he represents.
I won't go into the details about the scandal – they are freely available. But suffice it to say that Mr Falwell has resigned after his wife admitted to an eight-year long affair with a young man, who alleges that Falwell not only knew about this but approved and liked to watch. He has apparently received a $10.5m settlement because he left without a formal accusation or admission of wrongdoing. This comes after Falwell was lambasted for sharing a photo of him 'inappropriately' dressed with a young woman, and afterwards posting what were construed as racist tweets.
It's a sadly all too familiar story – the corruption of a 'Christian' leader through the unholy trinity of power, sex and money. Falwell's father, Jerry Falwell senior was one of the most influential figures in the American church in the 20th century. His 'moral majority' set the tone for much of the evangelical church. In today's world, where we like to demonise or eulogise people a hundred per cent either way, it is hard to get a more nuanced approach – but let me try.
Falwell senior did a great deal of good – his establishment of Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University being just part of his legacy. But fundamentally, I think he set large parts of the church on what has proved to be a disastrous course, using the weapons of this world for the advancement of the Gospel. Karl Rove, the Republicans' brilliant strategist in the last three decades of the 20th century, realised that there were perhaps as many as 25 million evangelical votes, which could be harnessed for the Republicans, and so a kind of Faustian pact was established between much of the evangelical world and the Republican party.
I once heard a former drug addict from the US give his testimony where he came out with the astonishing line: "so I became a Christian and a Republican." As if the two were obviously synonymous. Today there are many evangelical Christians who think they are.
I once spoke at a gathering of Presbyterian church leaders in the South and afterwards an elderly black elder stood up and thanked me for speaking and for being "the first white Democrat" he had heard in his church! I pointed out to him that I was not a Democrat (nor a Republican!) to which his retort was: "well, you sure sound like one."
The trouble is that Karl Rowe was a genius (and an atheist/agnostic) who realised that he could weaponise moral issues such as abortion and gain substantial political advantages. The tragedy of American politics is that there were progressives on the Left who were doing exactly the same to the Democratic party. As a result, there were those in the leadership of the Evangelical Church who gave up the prophetic for the political. They then enjoyed the privileges of access to power and favoured treatment by those they endorsed. This helped their bank balances as much as their ministries – the two were often interlinked.
The Jerry Falwell Jr scandal is one tragic fruit of that ungodly and unhealthy alliance. When the preaching of the Gospel goes along with political and business deals, it soon ends up compromised. When church leaders and politicians use moral issues as leverage for either the Gospel or politics, it ends up a disaster which usually includes the sin that Jesus condemns the most – hypocrisy.
One of the most excruciating videos I have seen is of Becki Falwell speaking about 'traditional family values' at the same time as she was having an affair. An affair her husband, who was head of a university demanding that all students and staff not have sex outside marriage, knew about. What's worse is that staff complained about the authoritarian bullying of the Falwells and it has been asserted that Falwell Jr used sexually inappropriate language in staff meetings. Why was this not dealt with?
Falwell was the first public evangelical leader to endorse Donald Trump in 2016. According to President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, this was because Cohen had helped Falwell recover 'compromising' photos.
If Liberty University cared about the honour of the Lord and the reputation of the Gospel, then they should not have paid out the $10.5m severance according to the employment contract. That contract also mandates Falwell to behave and speak in accordance with the values and ethos of Liberty. Those 'traditional family values' do not include going into partnership with your wife's lover, posting photographs of yourself standing unzipped beside a young woman also unzipped, or posting racist tweets. Liberty University would undoubtedly discipline its students for breaching their code of conduct. In rewarding their President for being in an even greater breach, they are making a mockery of the Gospel they profess to teach. Whatever happened to biblical discipline?
It's not only that the name of God is 'blasphemed amongst the Gentiles' (Romans 2:24) but that the moral causes that Falwell publicly espoused are severely damaged. Hypocrisy negates the message. The Catholic Church in Scotland usually had a strong and influential voice on social and moral issues until the Cardinal O'Brien scandal. When I asked a Catholic leader why they were so quiet now, he said no one would listen to them after O'Brien. He was right.
Those of us on the other side of the pond (or the Pacific) should not indulge in schadenfreude. We have the beams in our own eyes to deal with. However, we can and should learn from the sad experience of the American church over the past few years and resist every temptation to go down the 'Moral Majority' route. We cannot bring about the Kingdom of God through money, celebrity, moralism and political power.
On the other hand we should not become pietists and bury our heads in the sand, but we should always be aware of the teaching of Paul in Romans 2: "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgement do the same thing."
Lord deliver us from our own hypocrisy.
Let's remember that we are here to proclaim and live the Gospel. As such, we must live lives worthy of Christ and seek to use his methods to bring the Good News to a society that would rather mock in its despair, than believe in hope. Let's live such good lives amongst the pagans that, though they accuse us of doing wrong, they may see our good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Peter 2:12).
David Robertson is director of Third Space in Sydney and blogs at www.theweeflea.com
Views and opinions published in Christian Today are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.