Male authoritarian figures presiding over regional empires were an important part of 20th-century Protestant fundamentalism. I began to think historically about these empires during divinity school when I first read William Trollinger’s book God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism.
For a long time I thought I would write a similar book about Carl McIntire, a South Jersey fundamentalist who was able to expand his empire across the nation through radio. (See Paul Matzko’s book The Radio Right). In 2001, while I was doing a post-doctoral fellowship at Valparaiso University, I drove to Trollinger’s house in Bluffton, Ohio to talk with him about fundamentalist empires and learn more about how he used questionnaires in his research. (Do you remember this, Bill?). I also used questionnaires (and oral history interviews) as I started work on a potential McIntire biography, but Philip Vickers Fithian kept calling me back to the eighteenth-century. I have a few boxes of research on my McIntire project sitting under a table in my home office. Some day I may open the boxes and get back to work.
Who were these fundamentalist emperors? The Bob Jones (and Bob Jones Jr.) empire was based at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina and it was sustained through a host of fundamentalist Christian schools. John R. Rice started out in Wheaton, Illinois and eventually moved to Murfressboro, Tennessee. His empire revolved around evangelism and The Sword of Lord, the most widely-read fundamentalist periodical of the age. McIntire’s empire was complex. It included radio, colleges and seminaries, hotel conference centers, and a popular newspaper called The Christian Beacon. Earlier fundamentalist emperors included Riley, J. Frank Norris, and Mark Matthews.
Most of these fundamentalists taught the doctrine of biblical separation. Drawing upon 2 Corinthians 6:17 (“come our from them and be ye separate, says the Lord”), they preached personal holiness and the rejection of “worldly” activities such as movie-going, dancing, card-playing, alcohol use, and smoking cigarettes. They guarded their understanding of biblical orthodoxy like 17th-century Massachusetts Puritans. They were especially concerned with defending the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus, and a dispensational view of the “last days.” Historian George Marsden has described them as “militant” in their defense of these doctrines.
When mainline Protestant denominations strayed from fundamentalist orthodoxy, these leaders led their followers out of the denominations. Some of them created their own sectarian denominations–many of them personality driven. Others started independent congregations. In both cases, these emperors presided over their empires with little accountability. They were their own religious authorities or, as they might have put it, their authority came directly from God.
Separation was one of the ways these leaders kept their empires under control. Sometimes they even separated from other fundamentalist or evangelical Christians who did not separate from liberal theologians. This was often referred to as “second-degree separation.” (Many of these fundamentalist emperors broke with Billy Graham when they learned the evangelist was working with Protestant mainline churches and pastors during his mass crusades).
Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, came of age in this era of independent empire builders. He started his ministry as a young pastor connected to John R. Rice’s empire. Falwell once described Rice as a father figure and mentor. Rice provided Falwell with networking opportunities and the young pastor used these connections to build his fiefdom in Lynchburg, Virginia. When Falwell was trying to get Liberty Baptist College (later Liberty University) on the map, he asked Rice for the names and addresses of those on his massive Sword of the Lord mailing list.
By the mid-1980s, Falwell ruled over one of the nation’s most recognizable fundamentalist empires. He continued to serve as the pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church. Liberty University was growing. And he was leading the Moral Majority in a fight to restore America to it supposedly Christian roots. Falwell Sr. was the king of Lynchburg, Virginia and America’s most well-known culture warrior. And, unlike many other fundamentalist emperors, he became a fixture on the national scene. When older fundamentalist leaders like the Bob Jones Jr. and McIntire criticized Falwell for working with non-fundamentalists–Catholics, Mormons, and others–who shared his moral concerns, Falwell ignored them.
The older fundamentalists eventually died off. Rice’s empire had no clear successor. A member of the Jones family no longer serves as president of Bob Jones University. At the end of his life Carl McIntire was preaching to a few people in his living room in Collingswood, New Jersey. Even Falwell, the author of a 1981 book titled The Fundamentalist Phenomenon, abandoned the label “fundamentalism.”
But Jerry Falwell had two sons. After his death in 2007, Jonathan Falwell took over his father’s post at Thomas Road Baptist Church and Jerry Falwell Jr. became the president of Liberty University.
Jerry Falwell Jr. did not posses his father’s gift for communication. That gift seems to have gone to Jonathan. But Jonathan was not a culture warrior. Nor did Jerry Jr. seem drawn to his father’s moral crusades. He was a lawyer and a businessman. He would use these skills to lift Liberty out of financial debt and turn it into the largest and wealthiest Christian university in the world.
In the end, a successful fundamentalist empire requires a leader who can do four things:
- Defend doctrinal orthodoxy.
- Cultivate a culture of personal holiness bordering on legalism.
- Rule with a strong authoritarian personality.
- Go on the attack against outside threats from theological and political liberals, communists, socialists, and other forces of secularization.
In the case of Jerry Falwell Jr., it seems as if the limits of his skill set clashed with profound changes in American culture that made the world a very different place from the one in which his father ruled. Let’s take these one-by-one:
By all accounts, Falwell was not interested in theology, the defense of evangelical doctrine, or even the meaning of Christian higher education. Unlike his father, he did not have to stand behind a pulpit every Sunday morning and deliver a sermon. He did not have to shepherd a flock. He left the spiritual life of Liberty University to others. Falwell Jr. ran Liberty University like a business. He seemed unconcerned with integrating faith and leadership and never engaged with what has become over the last couple of decades a robust and vibrant conversation about the purpose of church-related higher education. He never considered bringing Liberty into the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), a clear sign that separatism and the independent spirit of fundamentalism are hard to shake once they have been embedded in an institution.
Almost every person I know who left Liberty University after a semester or two has complained about the strict rules. The rules are also a remnant of Liberty’s fundamentalist past. We can criticize the legalism of American fundamentalism, but this call to personal holiness generally served as a moral check on fundamentalist emperors. As conservative evangelical leaders became more “culturally engaged,” and began to loosen their moral grip on their students and congregations, they were faced with new temptations. In the last several years, it became clear that Liberty’s rules did not apply to Jerry Falwell Jr. But as we learned this week, his libertine spirit could not escape the ghosts of fundamentalism, particularly the movement’s longstanding commitment to personal holiness and codes of behavior.
If Falwell Jr. inherited anything from his father, it was the old fundamentalist propensity for authoritarian leadership. From most reports he tolerated no dissent. But we live in different times. 20th-century fundamentalist authoritarianism is no longer acceptable in an age of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, corrupt CEOs, and shared governance in higher education.
Finally, Falwell Jr. tried to be a good culture warrior. His efforts at living up to his father’s legacy on this front partly explains his support for Trump. But Jerry Jr. couldn’t pull it off like his father did. Again, he just didn’t have the skill set. Moreover, he could no longer get away with saying the kinds of things about race, social justice movements, sexual ethics, and the LGBTQ community thae Falwell Sr. always ranted about while seated on his Lynchburg throne.
Perhaps Jerry Falwell Jr. was the last fundamentalist emperor.