Falwell’s Fall Was Unrelated to the Anti-Science, Racism, and Patriarchy Trifecta that Built Liberty

3/15/1983 President Reagan Meeting with Jerry Falwell in Oval Office. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Four years after he played a key role in shifting white evangelical support from Ted Cruz to Donald Trump Jerry Falwell, Jr. is absent from the Republican Convention and has resigned in disgrace from his powerful position as president of Liberty University. His vertiginous fall began earlier this month with a scandalous yacht party photo posted on Instagram, which required him to take an indefinite leave, but that indiscretion has now been swamped by allegations of a tawdry adulterous affair that lasted for years and involved Falwell’s wife having sex with a pool attendant while he looked on

Why, we might ask, did his departure take so long? Why was it kinky sex that took him down when he risked lives to reopen the university in the midst of a pandemic, offended Black alumni with his creation of a blackface face mask, and made a mockery of Christian ethics with his support for a thrice-married president who boasts of sexually predatory behavior? Because Falwell’s worst offenses didn’t violate core fundamentalist principles that define Liberty University’s understanding of the Bible: disbelief of science, racism, and male domination of women—the trifecta on which they’ve bet their future. 

The first core principle was solidified in 1925 by the Scopes trial, when fundamentalist Christians opposed the teaching of evolution, which challenged the bedrock Genesis texts holding up white male supremacy. Then, after the Supreme Court mandated the desegregation of public schools in 1954, white Christians started creating thousands of private religious schools. Fundamentalist Jerry Falwell Sr. founded the whites-only Lynchburg Academy in 1967 (which later became Liberty University) to avoid desegregation. But once segregation carried serious tax penalties for these schools, racist fury was re-routed into the third principle via control of women’s reproduction. In 1980 anti-abortion politics took the trifecta lead in building a loyal Republican voting base that would advance white male supremacy. 

The pressures on Falwell to shift from opposing desegregation to weaponizing abortion began in 1969, when a group of African-American parents in Holmes County, Mississippi, successfully sued the U.S. Treasury about three whites-only religious schools that operated tax free. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision in their favor in Green v. Coit, saying that such schools, having been founded in the wake of the desegregation mandate, “cannot demonstrate that they do not racially discriminate in admissions, employment, scholarships, loan programs, athletics, and extracurricular programs.” 

The Nixon administration demanded information from schools about their race policies for hiring and admissions, using the IRS to force desegregation. Bob Jones University, originally founded to oppose evolution in 1927, remained determinedly segregationist, lost its nonprofit tax status in 1976, and had to pay a million dollars in back taxes. As Falwell himself faced IRS pressures, he furiously whined, “In some states…it’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school,” a telling comparison suggesting that racism was respectable but non-marital sex was not (which may explain his son’s fall from grace). Falwell eventually caved and shifted the rationale for his religious school from defending segregation to religious freedom, arguing that, because the school received no federal funds, federal laws did not apply, omitting the fact that it paid no taxes. 

Other white supremacist leaders such as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Ralph Reed were also apoplectic about desegregation. But it took Paul Weyrich, who was described by admirers as the “Lenin of social conservatism,” to realize he could use segregationist anger as a political opportunity. Weyrich had noticed that in the 1978 election, a few legislators won in the upper Midwest, based on opposition to the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. 

Weyrich seized on abortion as the issue to channel racist rage and reached out to leaders like Falwell while ignoring two politically inconvenient truths: 1) he blamed the last Democratic candidate to receive significant white evangelical votes, Jimmy Carter, for Bob Jones’ fate, even though the Republican Nixon administration was responsible, and 2) virtually all Protestants, including the Southern Baptists, supported Roe v. Wade

Weyrich promised the conservative fundamentalist and evangelical groups that if they turned opposition to abortion into a moral issue, their reversal on abortion would lead to political power that “could well exceed our wildest dreams.” To achieve this, the anti-abortion agenda had to be “packaged in non-religious language, propagated throughout the country, [and] defined in moral terms.” If this was accomplished and “political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.” In 1979, conservative theologian Frances A. Schaeffer teamed up with pediatrician C. Everett Koop to tour the country with a series of anti-abortion films, while Weyrich and Falwell created the “Moral Majority” to protect white male supremacy, with abortion as the flagship wedge issue. 

For forty years, women have been collateral damage in a well-funded, deliberate war to return the country to the white evangelical trifecta of science-aversion, racism, and male dominance that props up the religious arm of the Trump presidency. Though evangelicals mostly avoided explicit reference to segregation as the original reason for their opposition to abortion, their bet that it would be the winner strategy has not been a secret. According to Randall Balmer’s account of a Religious Right conference in 1990:

Weyrich tried to make a point …Let’s remember, he said animatedly, that the Religious Right did not come together in response to the Roe decision… what got us going as a political movement was … the IRS [decision] to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University [for] its racially discriminatory policies. 

In the face of failed attempts to reverse the Roe decision and despite enduring majority support for it, anti-abortion white supremacists have worked to escalate their efforts using an unscientific concern for women’s safety to deny life-saving reproductive health care to women and to demonize reproductive justice advocates, despite the fact that abortion is medically safer than having a wisdom tooth pulled. They have sought to deny women our religious freedom as moral agents of our own lives and inflicted untold suffering on the colleagues, friends, and families of assassinated doctors and clinic workers, on their harassed patients, and on women without the resources to travel to states or countries that offer abortion services. 

The trifecta that Weyrich, Falwell, and their allies bet on appears headed toward major stumbles this fall. Science-aversion can be fatal in the midst of a pandemic that’s now surging in states that are crucial to the aging, white evangelical Republican base. The country has a good chance of electing an administration and legislators who support reproductive justice and women’s equality. And the murder of George Floyd has convinced a white majority that racism is a serious problem. The Fall of Falwell Jr. at Liberty because of sexual misbehaviors doesn’t address the rotten moral core of their founding trifecta, but the next election may finally enable us to begin to address the decades of harm it has inflicted.