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Jerry Falwell Jr.: The Latest in a Century of Fundamentalist Autocrats | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Photo of Donald Trump dressed in a blue tie and black sports jacket laying hand on his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance standing next to a man dressed in red tie and blue sports jacket also laying his hand on his heart.
Donald Trump attends the Liberty University Commencement Ceremony and delivers remarks Saturday, May 13, 2017, Lynchburg, Virginia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Over the past few months, the lid on the inner workings at Liberty University has been lifted a little. And these glimpses have revealed some seamy doings, including the fact that in 2014 and 2015 Michael Cohen hired a Liberty official to rig polls in Donald Trump’s favor, followed by (according to Cohen) the former Trump aide’s successful effort to suppress racy personal photos that would have embarrassed Falwell. 

But now, the lid is coming off.

In a remarkable Politico article that appeared yesterday, “‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence,” Brandon Ambrosino draws upon interviews and documents provided to him by more than two dozen past and present Liberty University officials to reveal “how Falwell presides over a culture of self-dealing, directing university resources into projects and real estate deals in which his friends and family have stood to make personal financial gains.” As one university official observed, “we’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund.” 

These insiders are deeply distressed by the fact that “there’s no accountability, [as] Jerry’s got pretty free reign to wheel and deal” as he wishes. More than this, Falwell punishes anyone who dares question or criticize his decisions or statements. Here are three quotes from three different university officials:

  • “It’s a dictatorship. Nobody craps at the university without Jerry’s approval.”
  • “Everybody is scared for their life. Everybody walks around in fear.”
  • Liberty is “a totally dysfunctional organization. Very similar to Trump’s White House.”

All of this is remarkable. And yet, it is important to keep in mind that Falwell is not an anomaly. In fact, for the past century it has been a feature of fundamentalist institutions – colleges, churches (particularly megachurches), apologetics organizations, and the like – to be run by a male autocrat who holds almost total sway over his fiefdom.

In fact, and as I discuss in God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism, the founder of the fundamentalist movement was the original fundamentalist despot. In 1919, William Bell Riley created the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, which he dominated for a decade while leading national crusades to eliminate liberal ideas and pastors from mainline Protestant denominations, ban Darwinian evolution from the public schools, and Make America Christian Again. 

Not only did these national crusades fail, but Riley struggled to maintain control over the movement, given all of the other equally ambitious dictatorial wannabes who were determined to run their own piece of the fundamentalist movement. (Note: this sort of competition between autocrats remains a feature of fundamentalism.)  

But while Riley failed to establish total control over the fundamentalist movement, he succeeded fabulously at the regional level (Chapter 5, “The Empire”). Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, in 1902 he founded Northwestern Bible School, which had 1700 full- and part-time students in 1946. Riley’s primary goal was to train men to serve as fundamentalist ministers or missionaries. By 1940 he had placed 220 “Riley’s boys” in churches throughout the upper Midwest, churches that were tightly linked to Riley and his school, as Northwestern provided these churches with speakers, Vacation Bible School workers, and various forms of religious literature, and as Riley routinely made the circuit to check on his preachers and their churches. Strongest in Minnesota, in 1936 (with Riley pulling the strings) Northwestern graduates grabbed control of the Minnesota Baptist Convention; one decade later he led the state convention right on out of the Northern Baptist Convention. 

In short, Riley created the prototypical personality-driven fundamentalist empire. And of course, there are great advantages to such organizations, including the fact that – as with all autocratic structures – they can be extremely efficient. So, for example, when a local church needed to fill a pastoral vacancy, all it had to do was contact Riley, and the position would be immediately filled with a “Riley’s boy.”  

But as is the case in these organizations, as is the case at Liberty today, there were no checks on the Great Fundamentalist Leader. He said what he wanted, did what he wanted, and there was no one there who could stop him, no one who would dare challenge him. There was, for example, no one to suggest that his behind-the-scenes scheming to take control of the Minnesota Baptist Convention was unseemly and unethical. 

Worse, there was no one to put the brakes on Riley’s anti-Semitism. As I detail in God’s Empire (chapter 3, “The Conspiracy”), throughout the 1930s Riley wrote and preached about the international Jewish-Communist conspiracy that sought to enslave Gentiles and establish complete control over the world’s finances and governments. In fact, according to Riley, Jews had successfully taken over most of American corporations, arts, and colleges – and, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, they had placed in the presidency a puppet they could easily control. In contrast with his attacks on Roosevelt, Riley was effusive in his praise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, seeing them as divinely-ordained instruments to save Germany from the Jews who had corrupted the German “race.” Riley’s anti-Semitism became increasingly vicious as the decade progressed – not surprisingly, his First Baptist Church was frequented by members of the Silver Shirts, perhaps the most virulently anti-Semitic organization in the U.S. in the 1930s – and it was not until America’s 1941 entry into World War II that Riley ceased his praise of Hitler. 

In my work on Riley I was struck by the apparent failure of folks within his church and school and regional empire to speak up against his vicious anti-Semitism. Surely there was some opposition from within, but it is easy to imagine that – as at Liberty – the fear of provoking the wrath of the Great Fundamentalist Leader made it very difficult to suggest that Riley had gone too far. In the epilogue to God’s Empire I suggested that 

It is quite possible that Riley’s position as czar of midwestern fundamentalism contributed to the vicious anti-Semitism of his later years. Alone at the top of his personal religious empire, the unquestioned hero for truth with an army of devoted followers, Riley was without peer or restraint. Perhaps the decades of unchecked power and the unrestrained adulation of his followers corrupted his thinking, thus contributing to the elderly Riley’s tendency to view farfetched and horrible ideas as reasonable. But whether or not Riley’s role as fundamentalist autocrat contributed to the vicious anti-Semitism of his later years, the fact that he perpetrated and promoted such notions is prime evidence that Riley . . . should not have been trusted with an inordinate amount of religious authority (157).

It’s not only Riley who should not have been trusted with inordinate authority. Today, the same point applies to Jerry Falwell, Jr., James Dobson, Ken Ham, and hundreds of other fundamentalist autocrats running big or small institutions. 

But as Falwell is now learning, once in a while there are people within a fundamentalist organization who finally have had enough, who finally screw up their courage and tell the truth about the Great Leader. Of course, that is the day the dictator fears. Uneasy is the head who wears the crown.