by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – for which he has a contract with Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
The photo of Falwell and the young woman is both damning and pathetic. It’s damning because there are no tricks in the rhetorical bag of “dark arts” arguments that can justify what has been seen in the light of day. But it’s also pathetic, in that Falwell seems to think that this perverse joke of a photo is actually humorous and hyper-masculine.
There’s a diabolical trope in play: the “bad boy” trope. It’s the American obsession with outlaw heroes, with bad boys with power and wealth. The “bad boy” image helped Donald Trump win the election. Trump campaigned as a transgressive outsider who developed a profile of power by building up his masculine image. “The result is a Janus-faced masculinity of outsider-yet-insider, bad-boy-yet-good-father” (Betul Eksil and Elizabeth A Wood, “Right-wing Populism as Gendered Performance”).
Being a “bad boy” is heralded by evangelicals as a virtue, as a good thing, but publicly flaunting a “bad boy” image is not the same genre. Falwell may have presented the “bad side” of the “bad boy image.” The “strongman” is not a university president who has unzipped his pants for the camera, but a tough guy who can kick dirt in the eyes of tormentors who have pushed them around all these years and not allowed them entrance into the halls of prestige and power.
Any effort to understand Falwell Jr.’s “lifestyle” (the photo merely sums up years of aberrant, arrogant behavior) needs to deal with the rhetorical implications of the fact, that Falwell, Jr., like Trump, desperately tries to project an image of hypermasculinity, heteronormative authority, a sense of an overpowering male presence that stands up to all the demonic forces tempting to take away their masculinity. The argument can be made that Falwell thought he was imitating Trump.
Falwell’s transgression is not about sex. Pay no attention to the porn-like photo and all of its sexual innuendos. It’s about unbridled power, and a narcissistic evangelical leader who believes that “’I can do whatever the hell I want’ because I am the president of Liberty University and my daddy gave it to me.” In the dark souls of evangelicals like Falwell, Jr., there really is an authoritarian, hypermasculine, heteronormative desire to be the king and do as they please, including unzipping for the camera.
The real embarrassment for evangelicals is that it demonstrates that they don’t actually care about anything other than “appearances.” Evangelicals are all about “feeling good” and “looking good.” This suggests a meme for Falwell, Jr.: a human-bodied frog character, created by the cartoonist Matt Furie in 2005, named “Pepe the Frog.” Pepe is a sad-clown figure who finds himself in embarrassing situations, like being caught urinating with his trousers around his ankles. He waves off all embarrassment with a stoner smile and his catchphrase, “Feels good, man.” Jerry Falwell, Jr. is Pepe the Frog before the Alt Right turned Pepe into a hate symbol.
Jesus says in Matthew 23:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
The evangelical “inside” – the ugliness, crudity, profanity, nastiness – has been revealed again and again and again, especially since the ascendancy of the Christian Right. And yet, evangelicals always find a way to cover up the “inside.” Somewhere in the secret enclave, where evangelical leaders convene to make plans to “save” the sinners of their ilk, a plan is probably being hatched on behalf of Jerry Falwell, Jr., a plan whereby he will return as Liberty president in two months, and all will be forgiven.
Now, I’m not saying this will happen, but it could happen. It certainly did happen at Cedarville University, where President White is “back in the saddle” (and in his gigantic McMansion) after knowingly hiring into a sexual voyeur (and then not telling anyone, except a few of his administrative compatriots).
And Falwell, Jr. is far more powerful and famous than White, so of course he could be back. Sure, all the tricks in the bag will be needed to rescue the poor little boy who has promised to be a good boy next time. But there are good reasons to think that this will be a minor pothole on the Falwell evangelical college super highway. The media’s reasons for attacking Falwell for hypocrisy are expected, but rather dated. The Age of Trump has put an end to Aristotelian notions of ethos – credibility, good will, appropriateness, decorum, and propriety. It’s not so much that Falwell himself posted the picture, it’s that he happily had the picture taken. He so obviously flouts what was once the rules of decorum and appropriateness, one can only conclude that at the moment such categories didn’t even occur to him.
In the past fifty years, we have gone from a culture that allows a few renegades, a handful of “bad-boy” politicians, to a society numbed by explicit sexuality. When Edwin Edwards ran against former KKK leader David Duke, he wisecracked, “The only thing we have in common is that we are both wizards under the sheets.” Gary Hart’s bid for the Democratic nomination ended with a photograph of him and a woman on a boat named “Monkey Business.” The photo turned out to be fake, but the damage was real.
But all of this is old and no longer applies. There’s a new ethos in town, an ethos of sizzle, media, television, shock, and the flouting of the rules. Decorum, appropriateness, modesty, propriety – boring! Falwell’s disturbing lack of traditional qualities expected of the president of a fundamentalist Christian university will be frequently noted, but may not garner enough votes to get him sacked.
Falwell has the secular nature of culture and evangelical faith on his side. We are, after all, a thoroughly secular culture and evangelicals are as secular as everyone else. Evangelicals are not only secular, but in a term I have phrased just for Jerry, they are “sexular, sexularized.” Our culture is immune to sexually suggestive pictures, charges of sexual misconduct, and lewd sexual language. None of this excuses Falwell unzipping his pants for the camera, but he doesn’t really need excuses. He only needs votes.
Evangelicals, having already rewritten their code of ethics for President Trump (Randall Balmer) will gladly make the same adjustment for Mr. Falwell, Jr. After all, in the total identification of Trump with his evangelical followers, the two have become one and what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Kenneth Burke defined this as “consubstantiality.” For Burke, this names a way of being together in language in such a way that it is also material and physical. Falwell and Trump are “both joined and separate” – they are substantially entwined by being placed with one another.
Even if Falwell returns to Liberty, what really is at stake here is the reality that Jerry Falwell, Jr. is not one bad apple; he’s one bad apple in an entire spoiled barrel of evangelical apples. His actions will be roundly criticized and publicly denounced. This is how the “bad boy,” “rotten apple” trope works. His supporters will be dismayed and disgusted, and then they will vote in secret to return him to his throne.
Falwell unzipping for the camera reflects the crisis of our culture.
In the Age of Trump and Falwell and the Christian Right, is there any there, there?