Thoughts on Jerry Falwell Jr. and Guns

Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remarks about guns at Liberty University have been nagging me all day.  This is because I know some Liberty faculty, know people who currently attend Liberty, know parents who have sent or are sending their kids to Liberty, and know many Liberty alums.  Last night I reached out to some of my Liberty connections. Some responded. Some did not.  

In case you haven’t heard, on Friday during the university convocation Falwell Jr. told the Liberty students and other members of the community–some 12,000 of them were in attendance–that they should arm themselves in order to protect the campus from potential “Muslim” intruders.  Here is what he said.

If some of those people in that community center had had what I’ve got in my back pocket right now [applause] … is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know. I’ve always thought that if more people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill. So, I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. Let’s teach ’em a lesson if they ever show up here.”

These remarks were greeted with loud applause in the arena.  If Twitter is any indication, the Liberty community seems to be supporting their president on this issue.  Check out Falwell’s Jr.’s Twitter feed.  He is retweeting all of the positive tweets.  In fact, he claims that he has never received more positive feedback.

I understand that Falwell Jr. has made efforts to bring Liberty out of the separatist, fundamentalist, politically conservative world of his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of the institution.  Liberty has a long way to go on this front, but Falwell Jr.’s decision to invite Bernie Sanders to speak on campus was a step in the right direction.  This kind of gesture will never be enough for hard-line liberals and secularists who despise the very existence of a place such as Liberty University, but the invitation of Sanders, when taken in historical context, was a significant breakthrough.

I am thus sympathetic with the thoughts of evangelical monastic Shane Claiborne. Perhaps Falwell Jr. just got caught up in the moment, like his father did on more than one occasion. His father was not above apologizing for his brash comments, including his remark that gays and lesbians were responsible for the terrorist attacks on 9-11-01.  

I hope that Falwell Jr. eventually realizes that his words were poorly formed and that he needs to apologize. To do so would be an act of Christian courage far more meaningful than the arrogant remarks he made last Friday.  Perhaps he could also admit that his remarks were the unfortunate product of a nasty, politically-charged culture war mentality that has defined the Lynchburg campus since its founding.  Old ways die hard.

But if Falwell Jr. apologized he would disappoint the Liberty faithful who are currently praising him for his remarks.  His followers might think that he is a coward who is caving in to attacks by the “liberal media.”  How the president responds in the next few days will tell us a lot about the direction he wants to take Liberty University. 

I am also afraid that Falwell Jr. may have hurt Liberty University’s reputation as a “safe” place for young conservative evangelicals to attend college.  Schools like Liberty are advertised as “safe” because students are taught correct doctrine, meaning that there is a good chance that they will graduate with their faith in tact.  But Liberty is also “safe” because the parents of young evangelicals believe that their children will be protected from the evils and dangers of the outside world.

Is Liberty as safe today as it was before Falwell Jr.’s “bring it on” convocation address on Friday morning?  It is a question worth asking. I know that there are  many on the Liberty campus who are asking this question right now.

I also wonder about the wisdom of encouraging college students to carry concealed weapons. From what I understand, guns are allowed on the Liberty campus, except in the dorms.  Why not in the dorms?  And why doesn’t the logic that keeps guns out of the dorms apply to the campus as a whole? Where do students put their guns when they are in their dorm rooms?  Just curious.

There also seems to be a theological issue here.  I am guessing that Liberty University teaches that human beings are born sinful and are thus prone to act in sinful ways.  If they really believe this doctrine, wouldn’t arming the student body be a bad idea? 

In conclusion, I would encourage the Liberty University community to read Marilynne Robinson’s recent essay on fear.  (She is one of my favorite Calvinists!)  Here is just a small taste:

There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.

These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. John’s First Letter proclaims “the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.

Who is Jerry Falwell?

Who is that guy holding Tinky Winky?

The other day in my Introduction to History class at Messiah College I was talking about a former student who wrote her senior honors thesis on Jerry Falwell and the rise of the Moral Majority.  (I discuss this student in chapter 7 of Why Study History?)

As I began to explain how my former student had to put aside her liberal politics and beliefs in order to empathize and understand the world according to Falwell, I noticed that many of the 20 students in the class were giving me strange looks.

After a few minutes I figured it out. I asked the students how many of them had ever heard of Jerry Falwell.  Only two hands went up.  I then told them that Falwell was the founder of Liberty University and nearly everyone nodded.

Here are my initial thoughts about this conversation:

1.  Evangelical students today do not identify with the Christian Right’s founding generation.  They really have no clue about Falwell apart from the school he founded.

2. Evangelical students really have no understanding of the history behind the movement in which many of their parents came of age and which probably informed the kind of households in which their parents raised them.

3.  Messiah College students, while no less pious, tend to be a bit less connected to the evangelical “movement” or “subculture” than students at other Christian colleges. Falwell and the other founders of the Christian Right did not have a great influence on many of them.  I compare this to the couple of visits I have made to Wheaton College in the last few years where there is a definite sense that “evangelicalism” is a major part of the identity of the college and the students who attend it.  (But to be fair, most at Wheaton would not identify with Falwell as much as Billy Graham or Christianity Today).

For the record, I also asked them if they had ever heard of Billy Graham.  Almost all the hands went up and no one thought he was a professional wrestler.

What else should I make of my students’ failure to know anything about Falwell?

Michael Sean Winters on Journal of Southern Religion Podcast

I am really enjoying these Journal of Southern Religion podcasts with Art Remillard.  Art should get a job for NPR or perhaps pinch hit for the American History Guys.  His latest interview is with Michael Sean Winters, the author of God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right.  I have seen a lot of good press related to this book and I hope to get to it at some point this summer.  In the meantime, enjoy the podcast.

What Evangelicals Learned from the Religious Right

Writing at The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt reminds us that the Religious Right turns 33 this month.  I am not sure why this anniversary is worth celebrating apart from the fact that Merritt has a book on the subject to promote, but he does make some astute observations about how the Jerry Falwell and his colleagues (and followers) have affected American evangelicalism.  Merritt concludes:

First, partisan religion is killing American Christianity. The American church is declining by nearly every data point. Christians are exerting less influence over the culture than even a few years ago, organized religion no longer garners the respect of the masses, and two in three young non-Christians claim they perceive the Christian church as “too political.” Church attendance is declining, and the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation is rising.

As sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue, the church’s partisan political alignment is at least partly to blame. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs they write, “In effect, Americans (especially young Americans) who might otherwise attend religious services are saying, ‘Well, if religion is just about conservative politics, then I’m outta here.'”

The question we must now answer is not, “Can we save this nation?” but “Can we save our faith?” And the only way it seems we will be able to do the latter is through abandoning the partisan, divisive strategies adopted by the Christian right and begin engaging the public again in more prudent ways.

Second, we learned that partisan Christianity cannot effectively change our culture. When the religious right formed, conservative Christians were energized around restricting abortion and same-sex marriage, reducing the size of government, and protecting religious freedom. More than a quarter-century later, these same debates innervate the movement. Little progress has been made despite their best efforts, and an increasing number of individuals now recognize the religious right strategy has largely been a failure. The irony of this turn of events is that Christians above all others know that true change must occur in hearts — not just the halls of power.

Jerry Falwell: Founder of the Megachurch

First off, let me say that I have become slightly addicted to Religion & Politics, the new online journal from the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.  They are publishing some really good stuff by some excellent authors.  (One note:  it might be helpful to have a link to the Center somewhere on the Religion & Politics homepage).  I am really eager to see how the Danforth Center grows, especially after they did a national search last  season for scholars who study religion and politics. (Have the new hires been announced?).

I think the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will find today’s piece by Michael Sean Winters to be particularly interesting.   Winters argues that Jerry Falwell is the founder, among other things, of the present-day megachurch movement.

Here is a taste:

But for all his political influence, Falwell should also be remembered for his role in shaping another major development in the life of American evangelical religion: the megachurch. Before he created a political dynasty, before he founded a university, before he molded the Republicans’ base of social conservatives, Falwell built a church. Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, was his base, one that now boasts 20,000 members. It was from there that Falwell’s influential political and educational dynasty would grow. And it was from there that he learned the models of fundamentalist insularity and evangelical outreach that would mark his later endeavors.

Evangelicals have long liked crowds, and Falwell was not the first evangelical preacher to lead a church that held thousands. The Cane Ridge revival in 1801, which ignited the Second Great Awakening, reportedly attracted more than 20,000 people, but that was for a revival, not for establishing a permanent church. In the 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson built the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, seating 5,300 people, filled three times a day with members of her Foursquare Gospel Church. But she did not host a variety of ministries attached to her worship services. In 1956, when Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist with only 35 members, he would, over the next fifteen years, build it into what would become one of the first modern-day megachurches in the country.

A megachurch is not simply a large church. If it were, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome might qualify. Rather, megachurches are large Protestant enclaves—averaging 2,000 or more on a Sunday—and are usually located in the suburbs or exurbs of cities, where they cater to congregants through a host of ministries and services, schools, and day care centers. True to this mold, over the years Thomas Road Baptist had to build four different sanctuaries to accommodate its growth. More importantly, Falwell continually added new ministries to his church, creating a sub-culture for his parishioners.

This is a nice piece of religious journalism, but is it true?  Can anyone point to other evangelical churches that predate Thomas Road Baptist Church and can be defined, by Winters’s standards, as a megachurch?