Over the past week, countless friends texted me a Vanity Fair profile of former Liberty University chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., featuring an extended interview with the man who went from being a kingmaker in the 2016 presidential election to resigning after a series of scandals.
What most people highlighted was not the salacious recounting of the stories but one particular quote from Falwell: “Because of my last name, people think I’m a religious person. But I’m not. My goal was to make them realize I’m not my dad.”
For some, this shows the problem: hypocrisy. If only it were.
When I say that Jerry Falwell Jr. is no hypocrite, I mean it in only one sense. Obviously, Falwell was hypocritical in, among other things, allegedly engaging in behavior that, for even the smallest of the offenses, would have led to fines or expulsions for his students.
In that sense, the scandal is similar to the revelations that British prime minister Boris Johnson attended Downing Street cocktail parties while the public was forbidden by law to gather due to COVID-19 public health measures. And, of course, beyond that is the much more fundamental matter: How can the chancellor of one of the world’s largest Christian universities justify his behavior by saying he’s not religious?
That’s precisely the point, though. Hypocrisy is an ongoing and always-present danger in the church. Jesus warned us to beware of hypocrisy—charging the religious leaders of his day with maintaining piety out of pretense.
For Jesus, the congruence between the inner and the outer—the heart and the mouth, the motivations and the behavior, the public and the private—is a crucial matter of integrity before God. The warnings were needed, Jesus told us, because hypocrisy is, by definition, crafty and hidden. Wolves look like lambs, which is why they are able to ravage the flock.
For such hypocrisy, Jesus used the metaphor of yeast (Luke 12:1)—a metaphor he also used for the kingdom of God (13:20–21). In other words, both hypocrisy and the kingdom work powerfully but invisibly, under the surface of perception. Only in the very long term are such hidden realities brought to light (12:2).
Hypocrisy typically leaves people vulnerable to deception and predation precisely because it is so carefully hidden. I often find churches or ministries unable to discover horrific things done in their ministries because they assume that evildoers in the church give off a creepy vibe or have a supervillain’s sinister laugh.
The most dangerous hypocrites, though, are those who are actually skilled at hypocrisy—at pretense, at hiding, at mirroring the look of true fidelity.
Yet Jerry Falwell Jr. told us repeatedly how he saw the world. When confronted with the immorality and scandals of his preferred presidential candidate, Falwell didn’t seek to measure the moral deficiencies against what he saw as the greater good as much as he ridiculed the premise of the question.
To him, Trump was moral because he had created jobs and made payroll. Unlike some other Trump evangelical supporters—with whom I disagreed but whose positions were reasonable and understandable—Falwell didn’t try to measure the business leader’s intemperate and crass attacks on people with some other objective, like judicial nominations, for instance. Instead he often mimicked such attacks, right along with the cartoonish and bullying tone of them.
Falwell Jr. frequently spoke not in terms of the gospel or the way of Christ, even parenthetically, but in terms of decidedly Machiavellian political aims and objectives. When individuals questioned the cost to Christian witness of merging evangelicalism with populist demagoguery, he often dismissed them as though they were morally preening puritans, out of touch with the real world.
When his own scandals started to proliferate, Falwell did not defend himself as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. He didn’t even (as do so many scandal-ridden Christian leaders) present himself as a repentant David in the middle of Psalm 51.
Falwell said that he was a lawyer, not a preacher—as though the commands to integrity, obedience, repentance, and mercy were ordination vows, not the call of Jesus on every one of his disciples and, even before that, written by God on the consciences of every human being.
In many ways, Jerry Falwell Jr. did not hide from us who he was. He told us, over and over again.
If the problem were his hypocrisy, we could blame him. We could absolve ourselves of responsibility. After all, how could we know? We knew enough to know that something was wrong here. When some of the details of the final days of the Falwell Jr. era were revealed, lots of people said, “How could he be this stupid and self-destructive?” But I don’t think many said, “How could this happen? He was such a godly man.”
That is a crisis of accountability, yes. If we cannot see the problems even when a leader is telling us (at least the roots of) them outright, how can we expect to keep watch for leaders who actually are skilled at mimicking discipleship and sanctification?
But this is also a crisis of love. As evangelical Christians, it is a scandal that we didn’t hold Jerry Falwell Jr. accountable for all the vulnerable people who suffered because of his decisions. And yet it’s more than that: It’s a tragedy that we did not love Jerry Falwell Jr. enough.
My reaction to some Christian scandals—the Ravi Zacharias revelations, for instance—is a kind of simmering anger at the leader. In the case of the Vanity Fair profile, though, I fail to see how anyone can read it and not come away with at least some compassion for Falwell.
When asked whether he was seeking to self-destruct, he said, “It’s almost like I didn’t have a choice.” And then he disclosed, repeatedly, how he identified with the wilder side of his family—the atheists and bootleggers—rather than with what he seems to consider the puritanical piety of his mother.
In this, he does not appear to be a prodigal son, rebelling against his father, as much as a son who loved his father and who counts him as being on his side. He and his father understood each other, he said. They shared an irreverent sense of humor and a knack for institution building.
While Falwell Sr. was building a Religious Right empire, the younger Falwell’s description of his role is telling: “I’d be the kid in the back of the auditorium selling my dad’s books and records to people while he preached. I would have all this money stuffed into every pocket. That was my life.”
Indeed it was. And, later, when the university his father built was in financial trouble, Falwell Jr. was tapped to help lead them out of it. In the article, he discloses how his father affirmed and admired his business savvy. And he was successful at that.
As chancellor, Falwell Jr. built Liberty’s enrollment, campus, and financial reserves into a powerhouse. Even to the end while someone else was preaching, he was right there, selling.
In some ways, the Jerry Falwell Jr. story is emblematic of the state of American cultural Christianity. If, as the old saying goes, hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, then the older form of American cultural Christianity was genuine hypocrisy.
Some people belonged to churches so they would be seen as good people. Even if they never believed, they sang the hymns and prayed the prayers and played on the church softball teams. The adulterer would pontificate on family values, and the embezzler would teach Sunday school classes on the Ten Commandments.
In time, as always happens, politicians sought to make this kind of religion a political force—a moral majority—that could de-emphasize the less popular aspects of Christianity (Trinity, incarnation, blood atonement, carrying a cross) and emphasize the more marketable aspects (fighting for the soul of America, reclaiming the culture, saving Western civilization).
Now, though, cultural Christianity seems to have evolved to the state where many people don’t even have to pretend to belong to churches. They just need to know how to post Facebook memes about Christian values right along with profane slogans about the president of the United States.
And behind all of that, are real people—created in the image of God, destined for an eternity of glory or damnation. The consequences aren’t just societal or even just theological. They are strikingly and tragically personal.
Is it possible that Jerry Falwell Jr. could never see himself as anything but someone who had to succeed, who was trapped into leading a family business bound up in a religion he didn’t really embrace? I don’t know.
I do know that when a man tells us he was in such a desperate, self-destructive place for so long, we owe it to him—and to ourselves—to ask, “Were we so deceived that we couldn’t help him? Or did we turn our attention away as long as he was succeeding?”
If the latter, the problem isn’t Jerry Falwell Jr.’s hypocrisy. The problem is us.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.