Why the Recent *Politico” Piece Will Not Hurt Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Standing Among Many Conservative Evangelicals

Senator Bernie Sanders Speaks At Liberty University Convocation

Yesterday I posted about Brandon Ambrosino’s Politico piece exposing Jerry Falwell’s lies, shady business deals, sex life, and the tyrannical power he holds over his employees at Liberty University.  One of Falwell’s employees called the president a dictator who propagates a culture of fear at the Lynchburg, Virginia school that claims to be the largest Christian university in the world.

Two things are worth noting about this story.

First, anyone who has studied the history of American fundamentalism will be familiar with the kind of power Falwell Jr. wields.  Falwell Jr. inherited Liberty from his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of the school.  Falwell Sr. was the product of the separatist fundamentalist movement, an approach to conservative Protestantism that continued to cling to the label “fundamentalism” long after other mid-twentieth-century conservative Protestants had abandoned it in favor of the term “evangelical.”  Liberty University (originally Lynchburg Baptist College) was born out of this movement.

Falwell Sr.’s brand of fundamentalism not only opposed secular humanism and liberal Protestantism, but it also refused to fellowship or cooperate with conservative Christians willing to participate in religious services and events with liberal Protestants.  This was known as “second-degree separation” and, as I argued in several essays in the 1990s, it was a defining characteristic of the fundamentalist movement in the years following the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s.

When so-called “neo-evangelicals” such as Billy Graham, Carl F.H. Henry, John Harold Ockenga, and others sought to forge a more irenic brand of conservative Protestantism after World War II known as “neo-evangelicalism,” other alumni of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies such as John R. Rice, Carl McIntire, Robert T. Ketcham, and Bob Jones Jr. continued to cling to the label “fundamentalism.” (Falwell Sr. was a disciple of Rice, a Wheaton, Illinois and later Murfreesboro, Tennessee -based evangelist who parted ways with Graham over the latter’s willingness to allow liberal clergy to pray at his crusades).

These separatist fundamentalists were known for empire building.  Rice built his empire around his newspaper The Sword of the Lord, a weekly publication that had over 100,000 subscribers in the 1950s.  McIntire’s built an empire around his popular radio broadcast, his Collingswood, New Jersey-based weekly newspaper The Christian Beacon, his conference-center properties in Cape May, New Jersey, and Shelton College (first in Ringwood, NJ and later Cape May) and Faith Theological Seminary (Elkins Park, PA).  Ketcham was a leader of the General Association of Regular Baptists, a denomination formed in the wake of the modernist takeover of the Northern Baptist Church.  Bob Jones Jr. presided over Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina.  All of these men were autocratic leaders who wielded immense power among their followers.  They spent much of their time railing against their many enemies–modernism, mainline Protestantism, communism, the civil rights movement, feminists, and the counter-culture.  And they became experts at sniffing-out those in their ranks who they believed to be compromising their faith by working with Graham or other neo-evangelicals.

When Jerry Falwell Sr. formed the Moral Majority in 1979, many self-identified fundamentalists rejected him.  Falwell Sr.’s willingness to work with like-minded Catholics and Mormons  on moral issues was just too much for separatists such as Bob Jones Jr.   Yet Falwell Sr. never really joined the neo-evangelical fold.  Since the 1980s, Falwell Sr and the empire he created in Lynchburg has remained in a kind of no-man’s land–situated somewhere between the culturally-engaged evangelicals and the old separatists.

Though Falwell Sr. eventually parted ways with his separatist fundamentalist roots, he never abandoned the empire-building mentality of the religious culture in which he came of age as a minister.  Falwell Sr. ran Liberty University like a dictator.  So does his son.  In this sense, there is more continuity between father and son than Ambrosino allows.

Second, I am afraid that Ambrosino’s Politico article will do little to damage Jerry Falwell Jr.’s reputation among his followers.  Falwell Jr. will just claim that Ambrosino is a disgruntled former student and Politico is part of the mainstream media out to get him because of his support of Donald Trump.  Yes, there may be some evangelical parents and high school students who will take Liberty University off their short list because of this article and others like it, but I imagine that many students and alumni at Liberty will see Falwell Jr. and Liberty as victims of the liberal media and other forces trying to undermine evangelical Christianity, religious freedom, and Christian nationalism in America.  Liberty will remain a safe place for these parents and students.

Falwell Jr. is no dummy.  He knows that his administrative staff and faculty are expendable. In his mind, they are interchangeable parts.  He once said that he has “tamed” them.  Someone, after all, has to teach the classes.  In the end, Falwell Jr. is betting that as long as he takes his cultural war vision for Liberty University directly to the people through social media, conservative political outlets like Fox News (where Liberty advertises), and court evangelical appearances with Trump, and as long he suppressed dissent among his staff and the student body, he will continue to fill seats in the Liberty University classrooms and online venues. Many evangelicals will overlook his indiscretions in the same way they have overlooked Trump’s indiscretions.

Pence’s Space Theology

Buzz-Aldrin-notes

Buzz Aldrin’s notes from Apollo 11

Marina Koren has a really interesting piece at The Atlantic on Mike Pence’s use of religious language in describing space exploration.  Here is a taste:

 

And when Pence speaks of space exploration, he speaks not only of the frontier, but of faith. His speeches sometimes sound more like sermons.

Here Pence was at the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council, in October of last year:

As President Trump has said, in his words, “It is America’s destiny to be the leader amongst nations on our adventure into the great unknown.” And today we begin the latest chapter of that adventure. But as we embark, let us have faith. Faith that, as the Old Book teaches us that if we rise to the heavens, He will be there.

And then, in April of this year, at a gathering of space-industry professionals:

And as we renew our commitment to lead, let’s go with confidence and let’s go with faith—the faith that we do not go alone. For as millions of Americans have believed throughout the long and storied history of this nation of pioneers, I believe, as well, there is nowhere we can go from His spirit; that if we rise on the wings of the dawn, settle on the far side of the sea, even if we go up to the heavens, even there His hand will guide us, and His right hand will hold us fast.

And earlier this month, at a press conference about Trump’s proposed Space Force:

Just as generations of Americans have carried those who have taken to the skies in the defense of freedom borne upon their prayers, I want to assure all of you, who will be called to this enterprise, that you can be confident. You can be confident that you will go with the prayers of millions of Americans who will claim on your behalf, as generations have claimed before, those ancient words, that if you “rise on the wings of the dawn, if [you] settle on the far side of the sea,” even if you go up to the heavens, “even there His hand will guide [you], His right hand will hold [you] fast.” And He will hold fast this great nation in the great beyond.

Read the entire piece here.  I am always struck by the way Pence incorporates evangelical language into virtually every policy announcement he makes or social issue on which he comments.  Yesterday I was talking to a reporter who is writing a biography  of Pence. We discussed how the Vice President’s faith became central to his political career after he embraced the narrative of the Christian Right sometime in the 1980s.  (As a college student, Pence had an evangelical conversion experience at a Christian rock festival in 1978).

Koren starts-off her piece by comparing the way JFK, LBJ, Bush 1, and Bush 2 talked about space exploration with Pence’s language on the subject.  JFK talked about space exploration in terms of the liberal progress.  LBJ compared space exploration to the settlement of the American colonies.  George H.W. Bush compared astronauts to Columbus and the travelers on the Oregon Trial.

The language of Manifest Destiny–whether applied to the American West, the globe, or space– has always been saturated with Christian, religious, spiritual and providential themes.  As Koren shows, when Pence talks about “rising to the heavens” he is tapping into the language of evangelical astronauts like Buzz Aldrin, Jeffrey Williams, and Jim Irwin.

And speaking of space exploration and evangelicals, there were also fundamentalists who were fascinated with UFOs.

McIntire UFOS

On Misspelling George Whitefield’s Name

ebb68-georgewhitefieldTwenty-five years ago I was writing an M.A. thesis on separatist fundamentalism in twentieth-century America.  One of the key figures in my research was a mid-century fundamentalist named Carl McIntire.  (I actually published an article about him in 1994).

As I read secondary sources that mentioned McIntire I was struck by how so many scholars–very good scholars–misspelled his name “McIntyre.”  But I digress.

I thought about the McIntire-McIntyre issue when I saw the title of Thomas Kidd‘s recent post at The Gospel Coalition: “The History of Misspelling George Whitefield’s Name.”  Kidd, of course, is the author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.

Here is a taste:

Whenever the topic of George Whitefield comes up in my classes, I always have to tell the students, “I know it looks like you’d pronounce his last name White-field, but it is pronounced Whit-field.” Therein lies the reason why Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the 18th century, also has one of the most misspelled names in history. In one of the odd accidents of English pronunciation, Whitefield’s name was not pronounced the way it is spelled. Thus from the beginning of his public career, people have been misspelling Whitefield’s name as “Whitfield….”

…One of the first misspellings of Whitefield’s name came in one of his first published sermons. In 1737 in London, a publisher produced an edition of what would become one of his signature sermons, The Nature and Necessity of the New Birth, but misspelled his last name. After that, most publishers were clued in to the correct spelling as he became arguably the most famous man in Britain and America during the mid-1700s.

But misspellings continued to pop up occasionally. Sometimes the name would be spelled correctly on the title page but wrongly within a publication. A 1771 Boston edition of John Wesley’s memorial sermon for Whitefield misspelled the name on the title page. (Ironically, Whitefield died in the Boston area in 1770. When word arrived in London, Wesley gave a memorial sermon at Whitefield’s Tottenham Court Road chapel, and the text of it made its way back across the Atlantic, where it was published in Boston, with Whitefield’s name misspelled.)

Read the rest here

The Papers of David Hedegard

In another manifestation of my scholarly life I did a lot of work on American fundamentalism.  My master’s thesis, which I spun into a couple of articles, focused on the separatist fundamentalism of mid-20th century figures such as Carl McIntire, John R. Rice, and Bob Jones Jr.  Somewhere along the way I became an early American historian, but I still have aspirations to write a biography of McIntire, one of the most interesting and entertaining Protestant fundamentalists to ever live.  We will see if it ever happens.  (About one-third of the research is done.  It is sitting in a couple of boxes in my basement).

With this in mind, I was very intrigued by Marrku Ruotsila’s recent post at the blog of the American Society of Church History.  Ruotsila, who teaches church history at the University of Helsinki, has found a small treasure trove of material in Sweden’s Lund Archives on David Hedegard (1891-1971), a Swedish fundamentalist who corresponded with McIntire, Francis Schaeffer, and other fundamentalist leaders.  Here is a taste of her post:

Among the first things you notice when starting to go through the more than six archival meters of boxes that constitute the Hedegård collection is a treasure trove of late 1940s and early 1950s correspondence by Francis Schaeffer. The authors of recent biographies of this luminary of the American evangelical movement were apparently unaware of this collection. Consequently they missed on aspects of Schaeffer’s activities and aspirations in the early years of his career when he worked for the ICCC’s separatist fundamentalists.

From these materials it becomes abundantly clear that from almost the moment that he landed in Europe in 1946 Schaeffer identified with European evangelicals and acted as their interpreter to his superiors in the United States. He also schemed – a lot and right from the beginning of his European sojourn. He tried feverishly to recruit supporters for a bid to take over the ICCC through his secretive “European Friends of the ICCC” opposition group.

I think there is much potential in Ruotsila’s work on global fundamentalism.  As the field of American history becomes more oriented toward the global, it  makes sense that American religious historians, and historians of American fundamentalism, take up the task of thinking more broadly about this movement.  McIntire’s International Council of Christian Churches is certainly one window into this global movement.