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.

What a Fundamentalist College Might Look Like: Part 2

I think Bob Jones University might qualify as a fundamentalist college. 

I wrote about BJU in my M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (thanks Darryl Hart for being my second reader on that beast), but if you want to learn more about this school I recommend Mark Dalhouse’s Island in a Lake of Fire: Bob Jones University, Fundamentalism, and the Separatist Movement.  BJU no longer seems to use the term “fundamentalist” to describe the university. For example, the short “History” section on the university website never mentions the “F” word. 

But it goes without saying that BJU has long been a flagship college in the American fundamentalist movement well after the F-word fell out of favor among conservative American evangelicals.

Bob Jones and Bob Jones Jr., the first two president’s of the college, were pretty hard-core when it came to their fundamentalist beliefs.  They were orthodox Christians who thought that a true believer needed to separate from the world and from other Christians–such as Billy Graham–who did not separate from the world like they did.  This was often described as “second-degree separation” and I recently discussed this phrase in relation to Union University’s decision to leave the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Bob Jones III became president of BJU in 1971.  Under his watch the college began admitting African and African-American students, as long as they were married.  In 1975 the marriage requirement was lifted and African-American students who were single were admitted.  In 2005 Jones III dropped the university’s ban on interracial dating.  He announced this decision on Larry King Live!


Bob Jones III is currently the chancellor of his grandfather’s school.  He also speaks in chapel.  In an October 6, 2015 chapel sermon Jones called attention to a 2011 New York Times op-ed written by (then) Eastern Nazarene College professors Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson titled “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason.” The argument of this op-ed appeared in larger form in Stephen’s and Giberson’s book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

You can listen to the sermon below.  The stuff about Stephens and Giberson comes beginning at the 24 minute mark.  We have transcribed the pertinent part of the sermon below the video.


I want to leave you with something that appeared as an op-ed piece in The New York Times in 2011. It was written by two professors at a college calling itself Christian–Eastern Nazarene College.  I want you to hear the hiss of the serpent.  I want you to hear the scorn in their voices. This is what I am talking about when I say many deceivers…going around in the world who are preaching science falsely…doing the work of the devil from within the church.  They’re everywhere.  The Lord said they were going to be. The apostles said they were going to be.  The epistles they wrote to the churches warned of them in the very day of the early church.


Here is what this op-ed said: “The rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism. It’s textbook evidence of unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious. and one fundamentalist slogan puts it ‘the Bible says it, I believe it, and the settles it.’ But evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism, and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most Republican candidates have embraced.  Like other evangelicals we accept the centrality of faith in Jesus and look to the Bible as our sacred book though we find it hard to recognize our religious tradition in the mainstream evangelical conversation.  Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblical-grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectual engaged, humble, and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, over-confident, and reactionary. Fundamentalist appeals to evangelicals who have become convinced that their country has been overrun by a vast secular conspiracy.  Denial is the simplest and most attractive response to change. They have been scarred by the elimination of prayer in schools, the remove of the nativity scenes from public places, the increasing legitimacy of abortion and homosexuality, the persistence of pornography and drug abuse, the acceptance of other religion and of atheism.  In response many evangelicals created what amounts to a parallel culture nurtured by church, Sunday school, summer camps, colleges, as well as publishing houses, and broadcast networks.” (And then he names some of them).  These are charismatic leaders and they project a winsome personal testimony as brothers in Christ, there audiences number in the tens of millions, they pepper their presentations with so many Bible verses that their messages appear to be straight out of scripture.  To many they seem like prophets, anointed by God. But, in fact, their rejection of knowledge amounts to what evangelical historian Mark Noll (who by the way is a professor at Wheaton College) in his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind described as an intellectual disaster. calling evangelicals to repent of their neglect of the mind.  There are signs of change within the evangelical world. Tensions have emerged between those who deny secular knowledge and those who have kept up with it and integrated it with their faith.” (Did you get that? The faith they believe and preach and embrace is not a biblically-mandated faith but one that has been ameliorated, has been infiltrated with unregenerate intellectualism, and their faith has accommodated the embrace of anti-biblical concepts.  There faith is a Christianity that doesn’t come out of the Bible alone, but out of the infusion with the Bible of anti-biblical intellectualism.)

I continue: “Almost evangelical colleges employee faculty members with degrees from major research universities, a conduit for knowledge from the larger world.  We find students arriving on campus tired of the culture-war approach to faith in which they were raised, more interested in promoting social justice than opposing gay marriage.  They recognize that the Bible does not condemn evolution.  It says next to nothing about gay marriage.  They understand that Christian theology can incorporate Darwin’s insights and flourish in a pluralistic society.”  

When the faith of so many Americans become an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous, and even dangerous ideas, we must not be afraid to speak out even it means criticizing fellow Christians. What did Eve do in the garden?  She heard the hiss of the serpent that said “if you disobey God, if you will resort to your human reasoning, you can become a god yourself and you don’t have to follow God. You become God.”

Ladies and gentleman, there is treachery abroad in the church.  Their is treachery abroad in this land. And if you and I are not daily constant seekers of God…our fervor disappears, our minds get in mutual, and we become sponges to absorb whatever floating around out there in the name of Christ thought it may have nothing to do with Christ and may even be a denial of Christ.  Do not let that happen to you.  I beg you.

This is classic Bob Jones.  The same sermon could have been delivered by Bob Jones Sr. in the 1925 or Bob Jones Jr. in 1965.

I think it is stuff like this that qualifies Bob Jones University as yet another fundamentalist institution of higher education. 

Adam Laats: I think we found another one.

Having said that, several evangelical scholars, myself included, were also critical of Stephens and Giberson’s op-ed and book (but not for the same reason as Jones III was critical).

See Baylor’s Thomas Kidd here.

And here is what I wrote in the wake of Kidd’s post:

Like Kidd, I also consider Randall Stephens to be a friend.  And like Kidd, I corresponded with him as he wrote The Anointed.  I am also sympathetic to his (and Giberson’s) desire to let the world know that there are evangelical Christians who do not embrace the views of people like Ken Hamm and David Barton.  I find myself doing this all the time.

But I can’t help but agree with Kidd’s review.  Is The New York Times the best place for evangelicals to decry evangelical anti-intellectualism? Indeed, anti-intellectualism is a problem in the evangelical community.  But I wonder, to quote Kidd, if the New York Times op-ed page is  “the most promising way to start addressing that failure?” 

To be completely honest, I also wonder if a book published by Harvard University Press is going to have any impact on rank and file evangelicals.  It seems to me that two kinds of people will read The Anointed:  1). Non-evangelicals who want ammunition to bash evangelical intellectual backwardness and 2). Evangelical intellectuals who already agree with Giberson and Stephens.  I wonder if ordinary evangelicals–the folks who actually listen to Barton and Ham and Dobson–will read the book or even know that the book exists.

In the end, I agree with Kidd.  The anti-intellectual problem in American evangelicalism needs to be addressed in our churches. It is going to require evangelical thinkers to engage congregations in a more purposeful way and give some serious thought to how their vocations as scholars might serve the church.  As I have learned over the years, this will require building trust and listening to and empathizing with the concerns of those whom we want to challenge to think more deeply about the relationship between their faith and the larger culture.

Chris Gerhz Responds to Remarks By President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University

Oklahoma Wesleyan University

I have said it before and I will say it again, Chris Gehrz, the chair of the history department at Bethel University and the man behind The Pietist Schoolman blog, is emerging as one of the most important voices in the Christian college world today. I hope you have been reading his posts on Union University’s decision to withdraw from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).  (By the way, we have covered this issue here and here).


Today Chris responds to Everett Piper, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University (OWU).  OWU, led by Piper, has threatened to pull out of the CCCU unless the the organization expels Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University by August 31 for their stand on gay marriage.

Here is a taste of Piper’s recent remarks to the faculty at OWU:

This past week, I was quoted in several different national periodicals primarily because of my opposition to the actions of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), an organization of which OKWU is a member. The reason for my disapproval is quite simple. After two longstanding CCCU member colleges recently announced their intent to begin affirming gay marriage, the CCCU’s immediate response was not to remove these two schools from membership, but rather, to issue a call for “discussion and deliberation.”
Why do I oppose the CCCU’s action? Put concisely: There are times when the discussion becomes the offense.
Presumably there are some things within any organization that are not—and should not be—subject to deliberation and any discussion to the contrary simply betrays a telling lack of conviction.  For example, would anyone expect the Anti-Defamation League to “discuss” whether or not Jews are human beings, worthy of the same dignity and rights as Germans or Iranians?  Would anyone dare challenge the NAACP for its predictable reluctance to “deliberate” the Dred Scott decision’s definition of a black man? Would any of us seriously condemn the National Organization of Women because it doesn’t want to seek “counsel” on whether or not women ought to be subjugated to the power and privilege of men? Would PETA “deliberate” the health benefits of eating meat? Would we expect Green Peace to “discuss” the advantages of harvesting whales?
I surely hope the answer to all these questions is no. I would assume that all the aforementioned organizations would consider some agendas to be so abhorrent (presumably including the examples I mention) as to be beyond dispute. In like manner, I would argue that any organization claiming the adjective “Christian” should consider certain ideas so far outside the boundaries of any definition of Christianity that they would simply say: “Some things are just not debatable, the discussion is over.”
Ouch!
Here is part of Chris’s response to Piper:
If readers would like to respond to Piper’s argument, the comments section is available. Just don’t expect me to join in. I’ve said enough on the particular topic of marriage and its status as an issue of primary or secondary importance for a Church that is made for unity. If I don’t agree with another CCCU president that our view of marriage “is at the heart of the Gospel,” I’m certainly not going to agree that opposition to same-sex marriage is so central to Christian identity that questioning it is akin to the ADL questioning the humanity of Jews!
But offensive as I find the line of argumentation here (a barely veiled Holocaust allusion!), let me pull apart one of Piper’s rhetorical questions, since it unfortunately pits against each other two words that actually belong together:

Chris Gehrz

Could it be that the CCCU’s openness to dialogue has actually become the offense because its ambivalence demonstrates an apparent lack of conviction in favor of consensus?
Now, I need to acknowledge that I instinctively incline to seek consensus — and that instinct is fallible. Indeed, I’m sure that I occasionally confuse conflict-avoiding with consensus-seeking.
But knowing that those moments are few and far between, let me suggest a few theses — not 95, just thirteen — about what it normally means when Christians talk about holding to their convictions:So I’m probably the kind of person Piper has in mind when he thrice complains about Christians who lack conviction. As Protestants we ought to know that there will be moments when we need to say — against the consensus of the present, and perhaps the past — that our convictions, like our consciences, are captive to the Word of God. Here we stand. We can do no other. God help us.
  1. Consensus is not the enemy of conviction, for
  2. convictions are not meant to be held in isolation, but in community.
  3. (My Latin is virtually non-existent, but doesn’t convictus imply something like “living with”?
  4. Also, the verb from which it descends means first “to convince” and only secondarily “to conquer.”)
  5. We hold convictions about what is true not as private property, to be protected from threats, but as public goods, to be shared as part of life together.
  6. Holding convictions defiantly might feel more emotionally satisfying than seeking the subtle, slow-arriving, and inevitably compromised joys of consensus — but that feeling isn’t always trustworthy.
  7. (As Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” when “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Too many people who think they’re holding convictions courageously are really just full of “passionate intensity.”)
  8. To hold convictions as a way of “living with” others requires more conversation than declaration.
  9. Conversation requires time, but what’s the hurry?
  10. Shouldn’t a deeply held belief sustain more, rather than less, patience?
  11. A dialogue might reveal what you’ll rarely realize in the middle of a monologue: that your belief is misheld.
  12. Which should remind us that we use the word “conviction” far too often to label a strongly held belief and too rarely in the sense of being convicted of our own shortcomings (including shortcomings of understanding and belief).
  13. So finally, conviction is less something that you decide to hold to and much more something that happens to you, a sinner.
Nice work, Chris.  

As I wrote in an earlier post, the decisions of Union and OWU to leave (or threaten to leave) the CCCU are an example of “second-degree separation.”  Back in the day I actually wrote an M.A. thesis on this phenomenon as it developed among self-described “fundamentalists” in the middle-decades of the 20th century who were unwilling to cooperate with liberal Protestants (“modernists”) and those conservative evangelicals who cooperated with liberal Protestants in theological and evangelistic matters.

For example, Billy Graham regularly invited liberal clergy to participate in his evangelistic crusades. According to Grant Wacker’s new biography of Graham, the evangelist often insisted that he work with mainline and ecumenical Protestants wherever he set up a crusade.  Such cooperation would have certainly taken him outside the bounds of traditional Christian orthodoxy.  In 1960 Episcopalian Bishop James Pike prayed at Graham’s San Francisco crusade.  Pike rejected the doctrine of Virgin Birth, believed that Hell did not exist, rejected the Trinity, and supported LGBT causes.  

As Wacker writes: 

…horizontal cooperation [with liberals or modernists] was not minimalist cooperation.  It required fellowship, a genuine exchange of hearts, not just a polite shaking of hands.  Graham said that he had studied what Scripture had to say about the relationship of orthodox to fellowship.  On the eve of the 1957 New York crusade, Graham told the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals…that the “one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy, but love. There is far more emphasis on love and unity among God’s people in the New Testament than there is on orthodoxy, as important as it it.” These may have been the most widely quoted words Graham ever uttered. (Wacker, America’s Past: Billy Graham and Shaping of a Nation, 182).

Self-styled fundamentalists such as Carl Mcintire, John R. Rice, Robert T. Ketcham, and Bob Jones were furious about this kind of cooperation with the theologically unorthodox.  In response they refused to cooperate with Graham. Second degree separation.

I bring up Graham here because a certain faction of the Southern Baptist Church–the faction that is in control–claims to carry the torch of Graham and his neo-evangelical movement.  Union University is a Southern Baptist school in this tradition.

Is cooperating in an organization of Christian colleges with institutions that uphold gay marriage worse than cooperating in an evangelistic crusade with people who deny certain orthodox doctrines such as the Trinity?  I will let my readers decide.