In the Theological Sense, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Scandal Is Profoundly Sad

Catholicism defined scandal as being not about the person committing the sin but about the rest of us. It’s a useful lens for understanding our present predicament.

Becki Falwell and Jerry Falwell stand side-by-side smiling.
Becki Falwell and Jerry Falwell Jr. in 2018. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images.

Jerry Falwell Jr., early apostle of Donald Trump and happy scourge of the libs, has finally resigned as president and chancellor of Liberty University. A former friend of the couple who might or might not have been extorting them, Giancarlo Granda told Reuters he had an ongoing sexual relationship with Falwell’s wife, whose name, of course, is Becki. And Jerry sometimes liked to watch. It’s the kind of smug bully’s humiliating comeuppance that makes a perfect scandal.

But this scandal goes deeper than that—and I don’t mean the possible Michael Cohen connection. In the old theological meaning of the word, scandal isn’t really about what happens to the person who does something wrong. It’s about what happens to everybody else, those left in the scandal’s wake, wondering if there’s anything left to believe. In that sense, Falwell’s scandals are of a piece with Trump’s. Falwell makes people wonder if religion is actually just jerks reciting pieties and making money; Trump makes people wonder the same thing about democracy.

There isn’t any one correct way to define the word scandal, and words change meaning all the time. Even within the Catholic Church, where the term took on much of its theological valence, there is some debate about precisely what scandal entails. Yet the important distinction is that, for the Catholic Church, the scandal is not the heinousness or infamy of the sin itself but the effect it has on other people, leading them toward similar sins or the more existential wrongdoing of simply walking away. As Thomas Aquinas put it, to scandalize someone is to cause their spiritual downfall. This is why the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis was a scandal in both senses: not only was it a devastating blow to the reputation of the church, but it also led many to stop believing in the existence of God, or at least in the necessity of the Catholic Church.

So why was what Jerry Falwell Jr. did wrong? Delicious as a culture warrior undone by his kinks might be, progressives are struggling with their schadenfreude. If it’s nobody’s business what you do with other consenting adults, then should a little friendly nonmonogamy really undo anyone’s career? The scandal, they say, is not the sex. It’s the hypocrisy. After all, Falwell runs a university where even the most vanilla of unmarried straight sex is verboten.

For conservatives, though, it’s the sex that’s the scandal. Despite racist rants that threatened his university’s long-fought efforts to be a sports powerhouse, despite suspicious business deals and behavior not allowed for a Liberty first-year let alone a chancellor, Falwell seemed able to avoid justice until he got caught with his pants down.

But if we look at what’s scandalous about Falwell, what’s wrong changes somewhat, at least for conservatives. White evangelicals like Falwell and the majority of Liberty’s leadership recognize that we’re all sinners, all of us needing, as Falwell once put it, “second, third, fourth chances.” So the problem isn’t necessarily the sin; it’s the effect the sin has, leading others into the same sorts of sexual heterodoxy Liberty and other evangelical universities worry so much about. Ironically, Liberty employees seems much less concerned about the role they might play in the greater scandal of lost belief more broadly. This lines up with something I’ve found in my own research with conservative Protestants: I heard over and over about their worries young people would walk away from their relationship with Christ, yet they placed blame for that almost exclusively on secular professors and the liberal media. They shouldn’t: As various social scientific studies of “religious nones” (nonbelievers) have shown, people are increasingly leaving Christian belief because of the politics and hypocrisy of Christians like Jerry Falwell Jr.

Progressives are probably not scandalized—in the traditional sense—by Falwell’s undoing. They’re not more likely to sin because of his actions, not least because they think drinking and kinks aren’t sins to begin with. But sociologists like me are interested in scandal because it connects to our social construction of reality, the idea that just about every social thing, when you get down to it, is rooted in beliefs we all work together to maintain. Money’s only money because we say the numbers means something. Voting only counts because a bunch of people agree it should. And while this is largely a collective effort, some people have more power over what we believe than others. For evangelicals, it’s people like the son of Jerry Falwell Sr., the president of Liberty University. And Falwell’s scandal isn’t just a religious scandal—his downfall can cast doubt on religion and broader themes of authority. And for just about all of us, people like the president of the United States have a similar broader influence. So when these powerful figures scandalize us, we lose our faith in our social world, or in our capacity to govern it.

What’s interesting is how much Trump has already diminished the office of the president. That’s why the latest Steve Bannon scandal is not, well scandalous, at least not in the way I’ve been describing. Perhaps it’s a sad indication of how inured we’ve become to Trump’s associates’ many criminal actions, a list of lock-him-ups almost too long to count. Is anyone surprised Bannon is a grifter? Does this knowledge make anyone any more cynical than they were before? For those he ripped off, the answer might well be yes. But at least for progressives like me, Bannon’s a crook who has already done terrible things (far worse than stealing some border wall donations, for what it’s worth). This particular terrible thing does not scandalize me. It does not make me doubt the foundations of democracy, at least no more than Bannon’s original orchestration of Trump’s 2016 win.

To the extent Bannon has been part of a scandal in the traditional sense, it is how he has made so many of us lose faith in American democracy. This is part of the lingering doubt many have had since Trump’s election, even if many people—perhaps particularly women, queer people, and people of color—didn’t necessarily see anything surprising about 2016. If Trump and his enablers in the media and Senate are simply more of the same, then there is nothing especially scandalizing about our MAGA moment. Yet for many, watching Trump and the third or so of the country who will never give up on him has been an experience of ongoing existential anxiety. Was everything we believed about America hopelessly naïve? What if democracy will never actually work?

One of the old theological problems of scandal was that it might prevent people from recognizing God’s grace. That is what makes scandal an instrument of evil rather than simply a manifestation of sin. And the secular translation of this—grace as a brief epiphany of human goodness—seems just as true about Falwell, Bannon (at one point), Trump, and all of their assorted sinners. These people have done terrible things, but someone doing a terrible thing is not alone reason to doubt. It’s the impunity, the cynicism, the cruelty as its own end.

There are plenty of evangelicals—including those at Liberty—who never much liked Falwell, a man who seemed both incapable and uninterested in the ministerial skills of his brother and father. But the scandal isn’t just about the man; it’s about the role. Secular progressives might look at the Falwell story as the just deserts of yet another Christian hypocrite, but for the conservative Protestants I know, this hurts. Scandals, of the traditional sense, always do. Here’s another leader they believed in, struck down by a culture besotted with sin. Here’s another reason for the liberal media to make fools of them (which, as my respondents told me, they’re looking for any excuse to do). It makes it tempting to lose faith, to give in to the sin of despair. And that, at least for those evangelicals, is what would make Falwell’s story a scandal in the old sense of the word.

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