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Thomas White, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and the Breathtaking, Awe-Inspiring Heights of Fundamentalist Hubris | Righting America

by Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger

One of the primary reasons that some 46,000 undergraduates attend Liberty University is that the institution obliges all of its students to adhere to a set of rules called “The Liberty Way.” That means that in addition to pledging not to cheat or plagiarize others’ work, students promise that they won’t have sex until they’re married and won’t drink alcohol. The rules are pretty strict for a campus about as big as a Big-10 school of 18 -to 21-year olds who are ready to experience adulthood. But, following these rules, so the thinking goes, will keep them safe for serving Christ. 

So, it was rather shocking when Jerry Falwell, Jr (president of Liberty University and son to the man who created it in 1971 and the Moral Majority in 1979) posted this photograph on his Instagram account. 

Facebook post of Jerry Falwell standing next to a young woman with both their pants unzipped.
Photo courtesy of Instagram/Jerry Falwell, Jr.

So, what do we have here? Okay, it might be pretty obvious. But we are going to spell it out. We have an image of Jerry Falwell, Jr. on a yacht. He is standing with a very attractive young woman (is she wearing a wig?) who is sporting a midriff shirt so that her lovely midsection is visible. She has a pair of shorts on and they are unbuttoned and unzipped. Jerry Falwell, Jr. has his arm around her waist, a glass in his hand (rum and coke?), and pants that are unbuttoned and unzipped so that viewers can see his underwear (and more—we’ll leave the details to the viewer). They are both smiling and looking very festive. 

Later, after removing the photo from Instagram, Jerry Falwell, Jr. would attempt to make sense of the phot by saying that she was pregnant and so needed to unbutton and unzip her shorts. And he was just trying to be in solidarity with her. 

One would imagine that – for so blatantly violating the code of conduct that applies to Liberty students, and for his history of inappropriate actions and statements — Jerry Falwell, Jr. would have been summarily fired. But Liberty University is a fundamentalist institution, and at such schools the supreme Patriarch operates with impunity. 

So instead of being fired, Falwell has been placed on “indefinite leave.” What exactly does that mean? Who knows. But for a very close analogy, all we have to do is look at another fundamentalist university: Cedarville.

Here’s a greatly compressed review of the Cedarville scandal (and if you want the full story, replete with squalid details, see: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here):

Between 2012 and 2014 hard-line fundamentalists took over the Board of Trustees and initiated a widespread purge of faculty and staff who were insufficiently fundamentalist, while at the same time hiring Paige Patterson-protégé Thomas White as Cedarville president. Cementing the fundamentalist takeover, in 2017 the school established the “Biblically Consistent Curriculum Policy,” which requires faculty, under threat of firing, not to show or assign 

images, movies, songs, plays, or writing that may be considered “adult” in nature, that represent immorality, or that may be a stumbling block to students . . . “Artistic bareness” [?] may be appropriate in courses studying art . . . [but] the use of images should be handled judiciously.

Just after White imposed this policy, he hired his old friend Anthony Moore to serve as Cedarville’s Multicultural Recruiter and Biblical Research Fellow at Cedarville. He and other Cedarville administrators did so knowing all the while that Moore had just been fired from his pastor position at a Fort Worth megachurch for having – on at least five occasions — secretly videotaped the church’s male youth pastor while showering.

(For those who are flabbergasted that White and his compatriots could miss the irony of imposing their  “biblically consistent curriculum” – with its singular fixation on maintaining sexual purity – while simultaneously hiring a known sexual predator, see this video of Jordan Klepper at a Trump rally. Start at about the 4:25 mark.)

Moore soon acquired more roles at the school, including faculty rank in the Biblical and Theological Studies Department, assistant coach on the Cedarville basketball team (!), and special advisor to President White. White and company neglected to tell faculty, staff, students, and other Cedarville constituents what Moore had done . . . which was a brazen act of hubris, given that one could easily find on the internet a statement by the lead pastor of Moore’s former church that he was fired for “grievous immoral actions against another adult member that disqualify him as an elder and staff member.” And this is the same pastor who informed White precisely what led to Moore’s dismissal.

When the story became public last April, Moore was summarily fired. White defended his hiring with the ludicrous statement that, when he hired Moore, he only knew about two instances of videotaping, not five. In fact, and as brilliantly explained here, White not only did not issue anything in the neighborhood of a real apology, he worked to present himself as a victim.

As a “Former CU Parent” noted on an earlier post, what White should have said is: “I was wrong and shouldn’t have brought Dr. Moore to Cedarville because two cases of a felony are enough to disqualify someone from ministry.” But such a confession would require humility.

At a normal university White would have been summarily fired. But instead of firing White – think Liberty and Falwell – Cedarville’s Board placed White on “administrative leave.” After a seven week internal investigation (and given what was and is known, we are at a loss to understand what they were “investigating”), White was reinstated, with the proviso that he take victim awareness webinars this summer. 

So the point of these webinars was to educate White that it’s not a good idea to hire sexual predators? Did he really need webinars to help him understand this? Did he really need webinars to tell him that his university should not shame women who talk about sexual abuse, that his university should actually enforce Title IX, and that his university’s Counseling Center should care for and protect students who have been sexually assaulted and harassed?

Not everyone at Cedarville is pleased with the whitewashing of the school’s president. Two trustees resigned in protest of the Board’s decision to reinstate White. Moreover, a survey of nearly 550 Cedarville stakeholders – alumni, students, parents, current and former faculty and staff, local residents, pastors, and donors – found that 

  • 81% disagreed with the statement, “Are you in agreement with the Trustees’ decision to reinstate the president?”
  • 87% agreed that the “trustees should reconsider their decision to reinstate White.”

In the land of fundamentalist hubris, none of this matters. White and his wife have moved into their 9000 square foot (!) house, using (so we were informed) the school’s international students to do the heavy labor. The colonialist optics seem problematic, to say the least.

Rumors have it that in the past few days White has declared to the Cedarville faculty and staff that – thanks to the webinars – he is now “woke,” realizing that there really are people who have been sexually abused (this was a revelation?), to the point that Cedarville will now have a legitimate Title IX coordinator and a part-time victim’s advocate. 

Of course, White gave no real apology for his hiring of Anthony Moore, and his failure (and the failure of his compatriots) to alert students, faculty, staff, and constituents that he had hired a sexual predator. Moreover, all indications are that, as Cedarville prepares to open for fall semester, White and company are assiduously working to quash any dissent on campus. The great man must be free from criticism, must be free from any suggestion that he failed the university’s students, faculty, and staff. 

As for those Cedarville faculty members who are suffering from the ways in which their administration has failed them, the Vice President for Academics has reportedly told them to take their grief to God, and get over it – suffering is part of life. Be quiet, and let the great man do his business. 

It’s an old story. The fundamentalist patriarch – be it Jerry Falwell, Jr., Thomas White, or hundreds of others in various schools, churches, and parachurch organizations – is free to do as he pleases. This story is as old as William Bell Riley and his fundamentalist empire in the 1920s and 1930s. 

There’s no getting around it. Patriarchal hubris is baked into fundamentalism.