Jerry and Becki vs. Jim and Tammy

Over at Religion News Service, University of Missouri historian John Wigger compares two evangelical sex scandals separated by 33 years. Wigger is the author of PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire. Here is a taste of his piece at Religion News Service:

Is there a road back for Jerry and Becki Falwell?

The second acts of Jim and Tammy Bakker suggest that there is. Irrepressible and unfiltered, with big hair and outrageous lashes, Tammy’s focus was never solely on the church, so it was easier for her to branch out. While she never lost her faith, after the collapse of PTL and her divorce from Jim, she ventured beyond the borders of evangelicalism, becoming an icon of the gay community, the Judy Garland of televangelism.

After prison, Jim initially rejected the prosperity gospel that had been so much a part of his success and downfall at PTL. But it was not long before he returned to his roots. He and his second wife, Lori Bakker, have built a new ministry called Morningside on 700 acres near Branson, Missouri. There Bakker has exchanged the prosperity gospel for doomsday apocalypticism, finding a way to turn a profit by selling freeze-dried survival food and gear to preppers. He has also turned to conservative politics, aligning with Donald Trump. It is brilliant, in a way, connecting to current trends and a new base of support.

Whichever path the Falwells choose, they will not be the last of their kind.

Much of American evangelicalism’s success rests on its close connection to American popular culture. But appropriating cultural expectations is risky business. Lines blur and compromises are ignored until scandal erupts.

Read the rest here.

There is nothing new about what happened to conservative evangelicals this week. But how will they respond?


It was a rough week for conservative evangelicals in the United States. The president of the largest Christian university in the country resigned after a sex scandal. A popular evangelical radio host and author was caught on tape punching an anti-Trump protester. The vice-president of the United States gave a speech in which he replaced the words of the New Testament with references to American nationalism. The president of the United States, in an attempt to appeal to his evangelical base, gave a speech that celebrated Christian participation in Manifest Destiny.

None of this is new. Evangelical leaders have been part of sex-scandals before. Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and Bill Hybels come immediately to mind. Fundamentalist churches have a history of sexual abuse. In the early 1970s, Billy James Hargis was accused of having sex with male and female students at his American Christian College.

Evangelicals and their fundamentalist heirs have acted violently toward their enemies before. Texas fundamentalist J. Frank Norris was charged with murder when he shot and killed a lumber worker who came to his office to complain about something Norris wrote in his religious newspaper.

Ministers and politicians have been twisting scripture to serve political ends since the American Revolution. I wrote an entire chapter about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Finally, presidential candidates have often blown racist dog-whistles, sometime disguised as history, to rally their white supporters. Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon all come to mind.

How will conservative evangelicals, especially those who support Donald Trump, respond to all this? Rather than seeing what happened this week with Jerry Falwell Jr., Eric Metaxas, Mike Pence, and Trump as part of a long history of hypocrisy and moral failure,  I am afraid most conservative evangelicals will ignore these issues, fail to see the continuity between past and present, and reject any claim that these events reflect deeper, more systemic problems within evangelical Christianity.  Instead, they will continue to believe that another four years of Donald Trump, a president who has exacerbated and exposed the darkest parts of American evangelical history, will somehow bring revival to the church and restore America to a golden age that probably never existed in the first place.

When it comes to Supreme Court decisions, context matters. But whose context?


Earlier today, I published two posts on yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on LGBTQ rights. The first post addressed the politics of the decision and what it means for white evangelical support for Donald Trump. The second post dealt with the religious liberty issues at stake. I encourage you to look at them to get up to speed. Here and here.

In this third post, I want to think historically about both the majority and dissenting opinions.

Over at Think, Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, explains the conservative judicial philosophy Justice Neil Gorsuch employed in coming to his decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia and the other consolidated cases. Title VII of the Act forbids “discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex , or national origin.” The debate, of course, is over the meaning of the word “sex.” Gorsuch interpreted “sex” to cover LGBTQ rights.

In another piece, Levinson describes Gorsuch’s textualism. She writes,

Typically, conservative judges and lawyers adhere to the idea that in determining the meaning of words in a law, you look only at those words. You do not look at the context in which the law was passed, or congressional intent. This is called textualism.

No historian would treat a text this way. Frankly, I am not entirely convinced that Levinson offers an accurate description of how most textualists interpret a text. As we will see below, it is certainly not how Justice Samuel Alito or Justice Brett Kavanaugh understand textualism.

But historical context can also be a tricky thing. Gorsuch appears to have ignored it. He writes in his majority opinion:

Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids

Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination of the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. When the express terms of a statue give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.

A couple of quick observations about these two paragraphs:

  1. Does the meaning of a word really exist outside of its historical context? Are we to assume that all words have universal meanings across time? A historian would answer both questions with an emphatic “no.” Historians do not subscribe to the kind of textualism that Gorsuch describes here.
  2. Is Gorsuch correct when he says that the “those who adopted the Civil Rights Act” could never have imagined it being applied to the gay community? This is an honest question. I am assuming Gorsuch is correct, but I am not up to speed on the scholarship here.

In their dissenting opinions, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh also appealed to the text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but they interpreted the meaning of the word “sex” in historical context.

Here is Alito:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on any of the five specified grounds: “race, color, religion, sex [and] national origin. Neither “sexual orientation” nor “gender identity” appears on that list.

Alito argues that unless the document specifically says “sexual orientation” or “gender identity,” the Civil Rights Act could not have encompassed these things. He suggests that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” do not fall under the category of “sex.”

Alito challenges Gorsuch’s textualism with the ideas of the late Antonin Scalia:

The Court attempts to pass off its decision as the inevitable product of the textualist school of statutory interpretation championed by our late colleague Justice Scalia, but no one should be fooled. The Court’s opinion  is like a pirate ship. It sails under a textualist flag, but what it actually represents is a theory of statutory interpretation that Justice Scalia excoriated–the theory that courts should “update” old statues so that they better refelct the current values of society.”

Alito argues that we need to understand the meaning of the word “sex” in the context of the 1960s. He writes:

Determined searching has not found a single dictionary from that time that defined “sex” to mean sexual orientation, gender identity, or “transgender” status. In all those dictionaries, the primary definition of “sex” was essentially the same as that in the then-most recent edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed. 1953): “[o]ne of the two divisions of organisms formed on the distinction of male and female.”

Alito continues:

Thus when textualism is properly understood, it calls for an examination of the social context in which a statue was enacted because this may have an important bearing on what its words were understood to mean at the time of enactment. Textualists do not read statues as if they were messages picked up by a powerful radio telescope from a distant and utterly unknown civilization. Statutes consist of communications between members of a particular linguistic community, one that existed in a particular place and at a particular time, and these communications must therefore be interpreted as they were understood by that community at that time.

For this reason, it is imperative to consider how Americans in 1964 would have understood Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination because of sex. To get a picture of this, we may imagine this scene. Suppose that, while Title VII was under consideration in Congress, a group of average Americans decided to read the text of the bill with aim of writing or calling their representatives in Congress and conveying their approval or disapproval. What would these ordinary citizens have taken “discrimination because of sex” to mean? Would they have thought that this language prohibited discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity?

The answer could not be clearer. In 1964, ordinary Americans reading the text of Title VII would not have dreamed that discrimination because of sex meant discrimination between sexual orientation, much less gender identity. The ordinary meaning of discrimination because of “sex” was discrimination because of a person’s biological sex, not sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Alito is writing like a historian here. He wants to understand the 1964 Civil Rights Act in context. This is historical thinking 101. But while judges use historical thinking skills, they are not historians. They are tasked with applying the past to the present.

Brett Kavanaugh’s dissent is shorter, but it also draws on historical context. Here is a taste:

As to common parlance, few in 1964 (or today) would describe a firing because of sexual orientation as a firing because of sex. As commonly understood, sexual orientation discrimination is distinct from , and not a form of, sex discrimination.

He adds:

[The majority opinion rewrites history. Seneca Falls was not Stonewall. The women’s rights movement was not (and is not) the gay rights movement, although many people obviously support or participate in both. So to think that sexual orientation discrimination is just a form of sex discrimination is…a mistake of history and sociology.

Again, any historian would have to agree, to some extent, with Kavanaugh’s logic. We try to get our students to see that Seneca Falls and Stonewall were indeed different movements in the same way that the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution were fundamentally different “revolutions.” We resist the social scientist’s tendency to clump all “revolutions” or “reform movements” together. Each movement took place in a particular time and place amid a different set of circumstances.

At the same time, we also treat Seneca and Stonewall as part of a larger story of American reform. It is appropriate, at times, to talk about common themes–such as the appeal to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence–that drive this larger and broader story.

But, again, historians are not justices. We are not primarily in the business of telling people what to do with the information we provide and the skills we teach. Kavanaugh was a history major at Yale. During his years studying history, he no doubt learned about Seneca Falls and Stonewall. He also learned to think critically,  make an argument, understand historical context, and reflect on the many ways the past relates to the present. He is now using those skills, guided by a particular judiciary philosophy, to make Supreme Court decisions. His professors at Yale taught him these skills, but they could not tell him how to use them in service to the law. (Although I am imagining that some of them tried).

What strikes me about yesterday’s Supreme Court decision is the fact that it played out, at least in the opinions, as a debate over how to interpret Antonin Scalia’s judicial philosophy . This happened because Chief Justice John Roberts assigned the majority opinion to Gorsuch rather than to one of the Court’s liberal justices.

If Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, or Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion, I imagine it might have also appealed to historical context, but in a much broader way.  Levinson suggests what such an interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might look like in this case if one of the liberal justices had weighed-in:

Liberal judges and lawyers, however, generally believe that it is appropriate to look beyond the words of the law and at the history and context around the law. But there was no such thing as sexual orientation protections in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, so “sex” in the history and context of the law was not meant to apply to LGBT Americans.

As a matter of policy, LGBT rights should be situated clearly within the larger struggle for civil rights, and discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation  should be outlawed in every workplace in the nation.

Again, context is tricky and this case shows that much of the law rests on how much weight a given justice gives to this important “C” of historical thinking.

Episode 32: The Politics of Sex

uploads_2F1517801018608-g7jadvnppfm-49f71c59cada623d3fc8cd64f18ad36b_2FwoiHost John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling continue to explore the many facets of the Culture Wars. Today, they tackle the often taboo subject of sex and politics. John discusses how sex was politicized in colonial America. They are joined by R. Marie Griffith (@RMarieGriffith), author of Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics.

Does Sexual Indiscretion Matter Any More?


john Edwards

Earlier today I was reading a Newsweek article titled “America’s Disgraced Politicians: Where Are They Now?”  Several of these disgraced politicians were forced to leave office or surrender influence in society because of sex scandals of one variety or another.

Idaho congressman Larry Craig solicited sex in a men’s restroom. John Edwards had an affair and a baby with a campaign staffer.  Congressman Mark Foley sent sexually-explicit photos to teenage boys.  Dennis Hastert paid millions of dollars in hush money to a boy he sexually abused.  Congressman Eric Massa sexually harassed members of his staff.  New York Governor David Paterson had a long history of extramarital affairs.   His predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, made regular visits to high-priced prostitutes.  Congressman Anthony Weiner sent inappropriate selfies to a woman who was not his wife.

And I am sure we can add more to this list.

As I noted above, the careers of these men suffered as a result of their sexual indiscretions.  For many of them, their careers in the public eye came to an end.  They suffered the consequences of their actions.

But that was then.

Today we have a president who has had multiple affairs, brags about his sexual prowess, and dismisses sexual harassment charges from his past as politically motivated.

And then there is Bill O’Reilly.  Though he is not a politician, his case is still worth noting.

It was recently discovered that five women have accused the Fox News personality of sexual harassment.   Yet his recent book, Old School: Life in the Sane Lane, is a best-seller, currently #8 at Amazon.  As this Boston Globe article points out, the book “is billed as a defense of traditional values and includes advice on how men should treat women respectfully, not as sex objects.”

Though politicians and public figures have always done this kind of thing, there was a time, even recently, when such behavior, if made public, was detrimental to one’s success or career ambitions.  No more.  I guess we can no longer expect character to be a qualification for office.

Perhaps this will be a question of “change over time” for future historians.  Perhaps they will see the change as having something to do with the election of Donald Trump.

The Author’s Corner with Abigail Chandler

Abigail Chandler is Assistant Professor of History at University of Massachusetts at Lowell. This interview is based on her new book, Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England 1650-1750: Steering Toward England (Ashgate Pub Co., 2015).

JF: What led you to write Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750?

AC: When I was seventeen, I came across an account of another seventeen year old named Rachel Atkins who purchased much of modern day Small Point, Maine, from three Abenaki in 1675. Several years later, I read that her older sister took their father to court on incest charges in 1668 and that led to my wider research in the colonial New England court records, where I began noticing both changes over time and differences between the individual colonies. If Massachusetts was founded by colonists seeking to rewrite English law and English society, colonists in both Maine and Rhode Island modeled their early legal systems more closely on English common law. Maine colonist Thomas Gorges wrote in 1642 that he wanted Maine’s law “to steare as neere as we could to the course of Ingland” and this idea of law steering towards or away from England is what pulled all the different trials together into a larger story about the shifting role of English law in colonial New England’s sexual misconduct prosecutions.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Law and Sexual Misconduct, 1650-1750?

AC: Law and Sexual Misconduct is about the legal process used to prosecute sexual misconduct in the colonies of Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island between 1650 and 1750. It argues that John Murrin’s “Anglicization” thesis, the idea that the English colonies were at their most English on the eve of the American Revolution, is better described as a process of “Alternating Anglicization” as each colony considered its own relationship with English law differently at different times.

JF: Why do we need to read Law and Sexual Misconduct, 1650-1750?

AC: There have been many books written about growing imperial control over the British North American colonies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and this is a topic we know a great deal about. What we know less about is how this process felt to ordinary colonists experiencing it on the ground in North America. My research demonstrates that both sexual misconduct laws and the resulting courtroom procedures shifted in response to these wider imperial changes. And because sexual misconduct was a crime which was consistently tried over long periods of time and which targeted both men and women, examining sexual misconduct trials in relation to the imperial process provides a window onto the impact these changes had on the daily lives of colonists, particularly women, in the New England colonies.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AC: Finding that account of Rachel Atkins’ land purchase when I was seventeen started me reading colonial New England history in high school and, eventually, drew me to graduate school and my work as an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. My first history conference in graduate school was the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture conference, which was held in Boston that year. I gave my paper in a building opposite the street from the Granary Burying Ground where Rachel is buried. After giving my paper, I crossed the street to the Granary to say thank you.

JF: What is your next project?

AC: At first glance, my next project has nothing to do with this first book as it’s a comparative study of the Stamp Act crisis throughout the British North American colonies in 1765 and the Regulator Rebellion in North Carolina in the late 1760s and early 1770s. However, my interests in the shifting role played by English law in the wider Anglo-American world and in the lives of ordinary colonists play an equally large role in this project and so it does feel like something of a sequel to me.

JF: Thanks, Abigail!


The Author’s Corner with Amy DeRogatis

Amy DeRogatis is Associate Professor of Religion and American Culture at Michigan State University. This interview is based on her new book, Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, November 2014)

JF: What led you to write Saving Sex?

AD: My interest in this topic began with a question by an undergraduate in my Religion and Gender class at Michigan State University. In the course we had been reading a book that discussed some ritual practices around marital sexuality in Orthodox Judaism. One student raised her hand and asked, “Where do Christians go to read about the proper ways to have sex?” I made a quick reply about evangelicals publishing lots of material about how not to have sex and returned to the topic of discussion. The question stuck with me and after class I ran a few Internet searches. I was unable to find any secondary material, such as a scholarly article that surveyed and analyzed the literature. I did eventually find lots of primary sources, and many of them were in Special Collections in the Main Library at MSU. This began a long process of reading many types of prescriptive literature about sex written by and aimed towards American evangelicals.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Saving Sex?

AD: In Saving Sex I argue that rather than denying the sexual body, evangelical sex writers present distinct visions of how sexual acts and rituals can be productive for individual and world salvation. Talking about sexuality allows evangelicals to carve an identity for themselves that sets them apart from secular American culture, even as they fervently embrace many aspects of that same culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Saving Sex?

AD: No one needs to read Saving Sex. If you decide to read it you will learn about some of the most popular evangelical writers and speakers on sexuality and some of the most pressing topics regarding evangelical sexuality and salvation. If you have ever wondered about chastity balls, why some evangelical youth make courting lists, what marital sexual practices are believed to be sanctioned by God, why illicit sexual practices might invite demonic forces, or why contraception is rejected in some evangelical circles, then this book will be of interest to you.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AD: I didn’t. I earned a PhD in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC-CH. My field is American religious history. I think of myself as primarily a religious studies scholar rather than a historian. I do, however, examine religious texts, groups, rituals, etc. within a historical framework. I didn’t have a moment when I decided to become an American historian, but I did realize that I wanted to study religion in combination with history, literature, art, and architecture when I spent a college year in Seville, Spain and wrote a research paper on the Jewish community in Seville prior to the Reconquest. After I returned for my last year at college I came to understand that my academic interests revolved around questions of religious identity. During that year I became interested in religious movements in the United States, and focused on that area of study when I attended Harvard Divinity School. The rest is history!

JF: What is your next project?

AD: In my next project I have returned to the nineteenth century the time period of my first book Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries and the American Frontier. The book, Mormon King, will tell the story of the Mormon prophet James Jesse Strang who claimed to be the rightful successor to Joseph Smith. Strang saw and spoke with angels, found golden plates with new scripture, and received a highly contested letter of appointment from Joseph Smith. He eventually convinced over 12,000 people of his rightful position and led 2500 people to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan where he established a kingdom. While on Beaver Island, he crowned himself king, built a temple, established the Law of the Lord, and instituted plural marriage. He petitioned the Michigan State Legislature in Lansing to shift voting lines based on changed demographics and was subsequently elected to the Michigan House of Representatives two times. This may be the only time in U.S. history that a crowned monarch has also served in a state legislature. For many reasons he angered gentiles living on Beaver Island, Mackinac Island, and what is now Charlevoix in Northern Michigan. A few disaffected followers, with the implicit support of gentiles and the federal government, assassinated him in 1856. Within a few weeks, all of his followers were forcibly removed from the island and their land and property repossessed by the mob that pushed them out at gunpoint. 

I plan to examine Strang in the context of succession claims among the Latter-day Saints, and in relation to other millennial groups in Michigan and the Great Lakes region. I am interested in both the daily practices prescribed by Strang for how saints dressed, worked, ate, worshipped, and married as well as his larger theological views of the place of the gathered saints on Beaver Island for the spreading of the kingdom of God to the world. There are still Strang descendants living in Michigan, and I have had the opportunity to interview his great, granddaughter who descends from the youngest child of Strang’s first plural wife. Besides being a fascinating American religious history subject, for me, it has the added benefit of local significance.
JF: Thanks Amy, sounds intriguing.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

"Only John Adams Seems to Have Escaped Any Hint of Scandal"

Thomas Foster’s book Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Readable Past is getting a lot of attention in the blogosphere these days. The book appears to be a good reminder that the founding fathers were human beings.  Over at Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee provides a review.     Here is a taste:

The men who established the republic were no plaster saints of Red State moral uplift. Only one of the half-dozen figures Thomas A. Foster writes about in Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (Temple University Press) would escape denunciation by the Traditional Values Coalition if the Founders were around today.
Accusations of adultery or of fathering children out of wedlock (or both) were made against George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton; the last two admitted the truth of the charges. Gouverneur Morris managed to draft the Constitution between rounds of frequent, strenuous fornication — exercise he pursued despite having a severely mangled right arm and amputated left leg.
Only the the tightly wound John Adams seems to have escaped any hint of scandal. By all evidence, he and Abigail were strictly monogamous and not averse to finger-wagging at the other Founders’ morals — especially Franklin’s, which were particularly relaxed. Besides writing a notorious essay on selecting a mistress, Franklin lived with a common-law wife; later, he conducted a good deal of his work as ambassador to France either in bed with well-born Parisian ladies or trying to get them there.