Why the ‘Confession & Redemption’ Path is Unlikely to Help Falwell Recover from Sex Scandal

Businessman and Lawyer, and certainly not a preacher, Jerry Falwell Jr.

Yesterday, August 24, 2020, was the first day of classes at right-wing evangelical school Liberty University. It also turned out to be the final day of the scandal-prone Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s professional implosion, much to the delight of liberals and moderates on Twitter, who followed the unfolding trainwreck closely all day. Indeed, the exciting conclusion of the Falwell “pool boy” saga upstaged the first day of the Republican National Convention to some extent, at least on political Twitter.

On Sunday night Falwell apparently attempted to get ahead of Reuters’ explosive scoop dropped Monday morning by blaming everything on his wife Becki, claiming she’d had an affair with business partner Giancarlo Granda (now forever known as the Falwells’ Pool Boy), “in which I was not involved.” Granda, however, claims that the Falwells exploited him when he was young and naïve, and that Jerry would watch him have sex with Becki. The text messages and audio he provided to Reuters seem quite damning, making Falwell look only more ridiculous in his denial of Granda’s narrative.

Monday offered plenty of exciting will-he-or-won’t-he drama around Falwell’s resignation, which Liberty’s board claimed had been tendered, only to have Falwell deny the claim and insist on further negotiations, after which Falwell reversed himself late Monday night and announced he was resigning after all. But mostly it offered schadenfreude, resulting in plenty of jokes from those who find catharsis in seeing hypocrisy catch up with an authoritarian Christian leader. 

Particularly amusing was the trolling of the official Liberty University Twitter account’s tweet (deleted this morning) asking students what they were most looking forward to this semester:

Evangelicals themselves seem divided. For example, cantankerous Christian radio personality Janet Mefferd, a woman who considers Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore “too liberal” despite Moore’s conservative devotion to “biblical patriarchy,” took to Twitter to lament “that evangelicals have become numb to celebrity sex scandals,” from which the celebrities in question are generally able to recover. She even went so far as to state, with an odd air of fatalism, “The Evangelical Industrial Complex is corrupt to the core. We hate it, but here we are. Jesus is still LORD.” 

Other evangelical Twitter users denied that Falwell was ever really considered an evangelical leader at all, and in an apparent snub of Falwell, Charlie Kirk, speaking at the RNC, made no mention of Liberty University’s new Falkirk Center, an organization dedicated to combating secularism that he co-founded.

But to return to Mefferd’s tweet, is the Falwell story indeed just another run-of-the-mill evangelical celebrity sex scandal? To be sure, there is a pattern of such scandals, and worsesexual assault and abuse, and coverups—in evangelical institutions, precisely because of their strict patriarchal norms backed by the conservative theology that Mefferd shares. 

Meanwhile, the redemptive arc that Mefferd decries is indeed often available to male evangelical leaders caught up in sex scandals, and most commentators predicted this same cheap grace for Falwell when he was recently forced to take an indefinite leave of absence from Liberty after posting a picture of himself with his pants unzipped, his arm around the waist of a similarly (un)dressed woman who was not his wife, and a glass of something that looked suspiciously like alcohol in his hand.

According to two experts on evangelicals and gender, however, Monday’s revelations have likely significantly damaged Falwell’s prospects for redemption. When the news about the tasteless picture broke on August 7, Christian author and historian Diana Butler Bass tweeted, “Jerry Falwell Jr. will be back at Liberty,” suggesting he’d hire a ghostwriter “and publish a memoir about growing up under the shadow of his dad, how he never really knew Jesus personally, that he sinned, and then found true forgiveness for the first time in his life.” 

She added wryly in a second tweet, “if “Jerry” had been “Jenny” instead and done even 1/10 of this stuff, she’d be banished forever from the face of the earth.”

When I asked her on Monday whether she still expected redemption for Falwell, Bass replied, “I can’t see that evangelicals would be forgiving of a threesome,” although “some cases of sexual misconduct and even abuse are forgiven in evangelical communities.” According to Bass, “the Ted Haggard scandal showed that evangelicals are less-than-forgiving with same-sex affairs. Falwell’s actions fall into the same category.”

Calvin College Associate Professor of History and Gender Studies Kristin Kobes Du Mez, who recently published a book on evangelical masculinity, was less emphatic than Bass about what may happen to Falwell from here. Asked to comment, she began by contextualizing Monday’s bombshell reporting with Falwell’s earlier attempt to frame the story:

Falwell’s initial claim, that his erratic behavior had resulted from depression caused by his wife’s affair, seemed at first to fall into familiar patterns of confession in cases of evangelical sex scandals. He seemed to be largely dodging personal responsibility and placing the bulk of the blame on his wife. This confession appeared to be perfectly designed to serve as the first step of his rehabilitation by situating him as a longsuffering and forgiving husband.

But now? “His redemption in evangelical circles will likely depend on which version [of the story] evangelicals accept,” says Du Mez. “If they go with Falwell’s, his path to redemption is fairly straightforward. If Granda’s version gains traction, it not only undermines any claim Falwell can make to exemplifying noble Christian manhood, but it’s likely so far outside the realm of experience of most evangelicals that they may no longer see him as one of their own.”

Falwell, who became president of Liberty University in 2007, always made a point of the fact that he was a businessman, not a pastor. There can be no doubt, however, that thanks to the empire he inherited and expanded at Liberty, one of the largest evangelical Christian institutions of higher education in the world, Falwell was an extremely influential evangelical leader. Once known for the masculine swagger he exhibited in behavior like his infamous “end those Muslims” comments, evangelicals will hardly be able to view him in the same light now that it seems he likes to watch as he’s cuckolded.