In Defense of Jerry Falwell, Jr’s “Theological” Apostasy
Salon.com said Jerry Falwell, Jr, president of Liberty University and son of Jerry Falwell, Sr, had a very bad week.” Other left-wing rags echoed in.
You see, Falwell and other evangelical leaders have refused to condemn Donald Trump based on an allegation about some porn star named Stormy Daniels having had a fling with him while married to Melania.
This is why I’ve always been a fan of Salon, HuffPo, Vox, Newsweek, et al, for they are always interested in my soul even as they don’t believe in morality, or the soul, so don’t have to squirm over issues such as extramarital sex. To them, morality is like acne, it’s a skin condition about which one can stand from a distance and poke fun.
Unlike those of the political world, those in the spiritual world are far more nuanced in their judgments as they are taught to hate the sin but love the sinner.
This is why we are enjoined to love a couple of editors at National Review, David French and Jonah Goldberg, who joined in to echo the chorus at Salon, by chastising Mr Falwell for finding “forgiveness” of an “alleged” sin of doing the down-and-dirty with a woman who apparently made a living being down-and-dirty. Their crimes; theological apostasy and rationalization.
Mine? Well, theological apostasy and rationalization.
“Judge not lest ye be judged” Jerry Falwell is quoted as quoting. None of the writers acknowledged, and those at National Review should know better, is that Jerry Falwell Jr is not a minister of the church, or even a seminary graduate, but rather a graduate of the University of Virginia Law School, (where I did my Army legal training in the early 70s) and a fine law school it is.
And at UVA and in most courtrooms, the legal version of Christ’s “Judge not” admonition is “Judge not until there’s some real evidence offered.”
Since the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and actually the Russia probe into Trump collusion as well, we’ve been treated to what has become a mainstay in media reporting, and that is the power of the unproven allegation; the condemnation of people by facts not yet in evidence. A favorite subject of mine, actually, I’ve made a lot of reassessments of some of my favorite writers and publications based solely on their ability to “rationalize” (Goldberg’s words, not mine) their understanding of unproven allegations into near morally-certain probabilities, and then move ahead armed with a vision of truth no one else around them has. Jonah’s right, it can rise to disease-level in short order, and there is actually no vaccine that can contain it. We just have to let it run its course.
Still, we try.
In Jerry Falwell’s case, he followed his secular legal training correctly, but with the added ability to cap it off with Scripture. A two-fer, only the onionheads on the Left never caught on. But neither did our be(k)nighted friends at NR, who should’ve known better. I think someone out there should send Mssrs French and Goldberg #MeToo ribbons to pin on their NeverTrump sash at the St Patrick’s Day Parade in March.
Other than the childish use of the word “beclown” in a title, which I think is unbecoming a person of his age and education, (same as my son, and a fine Biblical scholar in his own right), French launched straight into the theological paucity of Falwell’s arguments, indicating his own limited understanding of the evangelical essence of Christian theology. I think of Michael Novak, NR’s religion editor for many of years when I knew NR best, who once asked the question (my words) “Wouldn’t it be nice if we (Catholics) could swap some of our quiet reason about God with (evangelicals) who could give, in return, some of their exaltations for Christ?” He passed away about a year ago, and I think NR gave him half a page. WFB would have published a Novak Number.
I confess a bias against theologians, in part because so many aren’t even Christian, at least the practicing variety and certainly not the heartfelt kind. I read Elaine Pagel’s great work on the Gnostic Gospels in the 80s. It was academic and theological and very informative. I love it. It told me things about the Greek worldview, and how they generally disliked anything, including religion that did not involve an element of exclusivity, just so they wouldn’t have to practice it while rubbing shoulders with lesser forms of humanity, e.g. Romans and Jews. Had she only shifted her focus a bit she could have turned that into a grand anthropological work, detailing much as animal biologists might, why some aberrant deviations of a breed simply die out, while others grow and prosper. The Gnostics died out, (rather quickly) although the need for exclusivity survives and prospers.
A splendid historian, she’s chaired various seats in major university religion departments, but I could not tell from her manner of writing whether she is a practicing Christian or not, or has any religious passion at all.
But what we know of the Christianity that has survived is one that attached itself to the largest part of the breeding population, in a splendiferous araay of colors, and practices, from Mike Novak’s Church of Rome (thankfully not quite the same as the real Church in Rome) to the little charismatic congregation on Bear Creek in Green County, Kentucky, who can’t make it through a week without being slain in the spirit at least once.
Theologically, they are not the same, but somehow, I get from Christ’s Great Commission that it was never intended to be “universal” in the manner Rome declared it to be after Nicea. He sent 120 followers in 120 different directions, without a playbook, but instead 120 slightly different versions of what they knew of Him and what He had taught. Christ wasn’t just rolling the dice there. I think there was a purpose in these differences.
In an earlier essay, about the American theology, I offered a “parable of the parallel” about the nature of transcendence in the Christian faith and in the “pursuit of liberty” in America’s design, and that the process of passing the love of liberty on is indeed much like being born again…even for Roman Catholics, for my wife converted at age 63, and the transformation has been well, miraculous. What joy she brings to our lives and to everyone who knows her. She radiates it. And yet I dislike the front office of her Church as much as I ever did.
Over the years I have seen this radiance of faith in other Christians as well, and indeed, believe it is what the Left hates most about Christians. As Ayn Rand said, they “hate the Good because it is Good.” Haters.
This single characteristic places “Jesus’ base” above all the rest, and pound for pound I’ll wager evangelicals own the lion’s share.
So I want to put to rest this notion that theological scholarship, the deep thinkers, sit atop the Christian pantheon, or that dispassion is the key to Christian scholarship. True, it’s what distinguishes the theologian from “Jesus’ base.” But Christ’s commission, and who He issued it to, leaves no doubt as to who He intended to carry His message forward and build a church.
A few individuals can stand a’straddle those two worlds, CS Lewis comes to mind, who can pray in the one world while still speak with the authority of a 32nd Degree Christian scholar in the other. I think Mike Novak figured this out, too.
My bias against Christian theologians began while still in law school, when I was hardly a collector of great Biblical one-liners. It was late-night TV, where ordinarily you’d find Joe Pine, and my wife and I were laying in our little two room apartment watching a little black and white Zenith on a stand. We were both reading, using the TV for background noise, and the show was a discussion by religious scholars. My attention from my reading was diverted not by the discussion but by the baritone voice of George Beverley Shea singing “How Great Thou Art” – the famous Hine-Boberg hymn, still among the most popular hymns. The song was followed by a man who professed to be a theologian as well as a Methodist, who proceeded to pronounce that hymn, “theologically shallow.” In fact, very shallow. My wife, not a practicing Christian at the time, was unmoved and continued to read “The Shining.” But a mountain Methodist all my life, and with images of hundreds of people coming out of their seats toward the altar at a Billy Graham crusade, as Mr Shea sang that tune, a big “what the hell’s he talking about?” just leaped from my mouth. And I got out of bed, went to the front window, opened the curtains, and with no particular Methodist official within miles, or up at that hour, renounced my membership in that church.
(I pulled a similar stunt in 1976, while in the Army, when a DC columnist declared in an Arizona op-ed that “liberalism” no longer stood for the ideal of loving America or all those things the Founders had talked about. “Modern liberalism” in fact was quite its opposite. I quit being a liberal right there on the spot, in the JAG office at Ft Huachuca.)
Neither the Methodist Church nor Liberalism ever noted my absence.
That atheists pretend concern for souls they don’t even believe exist, I’ve always found it amusing. But when conservatives (I now use “self-described conservatives” until there is some meeting of the minds as to just what a conservative really is anymore) resort to theology as David French did in his “Beclown” piece at National Review, to not so much make fun of Jerry Falwell Jr, as to mangle Christ’s Commission of Christians in order to justify a kind of class distinction between a self-appointed high priesthood of conservatism and the masses it has ordained itself to lead, well I see an inversion in the way God and Nature designed it.
The notion of “evangelicalism” isn’t new. In fact, it was Christ’s first commission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 28:18-20) Jesus calls all His followers to act and share the Good News of salvation throughout the world. After Pentecost, when the 120 marched out into the world in 120 different directions, this was their single marching order, along with their personal knowledge of the Man, who had lived and died, and been raised from the dead. A pretty flimsy satchel of tools if you ask me, to frame a message to get them through the next town, or the next province, much less the next decade or next century, while avoiding being hung, which many were unable to do.
The theology came much later, and it would take many years, and quite a few hangings. For years Christians practiced their faith underground. (Want to know what’s that like, go to China?) The first above ground church would not be built until the 3rd Century (except for the legend of Glastonbury in England built by Joseph of Arimathea.)
Think about this mathematically. Believers and families of Believers who would go about their daily chores, then meet secretly, in houses, or in groves of trees, or underground (in Rome it was the catacombs) to worship for a few hours. It would be 350 years before a Church would be formed to cover about half of them, and codify a Book to guide them. It would be 800 years (a long time in America-years) before they could find the protection of the powerful, and then to damn-near destroy itself by the power-sharing agreement they made with those kings to gain that protection. (America plays prominently in Christianity’s rescue of itself, but for another day. Some even say it may have been planned.)
So then, logically and historically, at the grass roots, for half a millennium before there were any high castles to house the learned of the “church” – that first evangelical Commission spread the faith and tended the flocks without any front office to report back to.
That evangelical mission still comes first, and it as always found at the base of the thousands of churches, where the faith is still passed on, one-soul-at-a-time.
About this process, it’s interesting that American historians have long acknowledged a peculiarity in America that had never existed in other parts of the world. They called these “Great Awakenings” in which the more staid Christian sects, e.g. Church of England, and later the Presbyterian Scot-Irish, were contested, especially in the borderlands, by Baptists and Methodists and other feisty sects.
America may be in yet another Awakening now, especially since so many of the old urban “respectable” churches are dying out due to creeping liberalism and humanism – but also because their children are moving onto smaller congregations seeking nourishment that the old church can no longer provide. So Christ’s Commission is doing well in America, I think, and probably even growing, if it’s true that America is at an almost 50-50 split with people having no religious belief at all. For polling purposes our half is “invisible” in much the same way Trump’s “lost army” was that brought him to victory in 2016; while hiding in plain sight. They really are hard to count, because pollsters have no earthly idea how, or where, to find them.
What Christianity has largely lost in America was what Mark Twain called “professional Christians” around 1900. The number of true “professing Christians” probably hasn’t diminished much in over a century, so don’t let polls or pundits fool you.
What Jerry Falwell Jr did in in 2016 was bring the evangelicals out of their self-imposed exile from politics to do battle with a “new Left” that has given every indication of wanting to wipe them from the face of the earth. It was a bold move, witness my article in Feb, 2016. Rather than go their own way they are sallying forth to engage these hostile bands with a smile and a gentle heart. You hear motorcyclists and rough edged oil workers using terms like “God bless you” so I know it’s rubbing off. I expect to see tent meetings crop up all over the landscape in the next few years.
The Grand Game for the soul of America at its base is back on, and this is a good thing.
And yes, Donald Trump is their champion. He is still plowing the row.
So, we’ll have no more talk here about whether the theological outranks the evangelical. Christ has spoken as to which Commission is of the first rank.
Theology has its place, even its respected place. But is always a second place. Jesus’ “base” – and its growth and nurture, will always be the principle purpose of Christianity, if it, and its surrounding culture, is to survive.
Dispassion. Intellectuals are content to carve up and dissect American institutions as if they were cadavers on a coroner’s table, while Jerry Falwell Jr is clearly defending the subject while it is still alive and walking among the living.
Franklin Graham once said about Christianity, “If you’re going to call yourself Christian, it would be nice if, from time to time, you would mention the name of Jesus”. And I would add, “with some true meaning”…a thing which most theologians don’t do.
It’s easy to understand why the mockers of the Left find an easy target in evangelicals. But trying to understand the Trump-hating right is quite another thing. They are wearing their “want-to” on their sleeve, as if driving a wedge between Trump and the evangelical wing of his base will ever return their intellectual wing back to power. Sorry, no, that won’t happen. But that is largely because they lost their own bearings as to what really matters in a republic of free men and women. Evangelical faiths are not new. They are not the invaders of a conservative intellectual domain that never existed just 40 years ago.
So Jerry Falwell gave exactly the correct answer about an allegation of Trump infidelity lacking any substantive proof. It was not a rationalization, nor was it theocratic apostasy. The “want-to-believe” in the manner this claim has been reflected by many on the right only highlights the lengths they will go to drive a wedge between Trump and his base. These are many of the same people who wanted to believe the charges against Roy Moore in Alabama simply because he looked too much like George Wallace.
The renewed enthusiasm for America today is a “new Awakening” and is partly religious. It is hardly nativist, or even anti-intellectual, but simply returning power to people who can tell the difference between a horse and a mule, which is infinitely more difficult to do once that animal has been sliced and diced, and spread out on an examination table. It is simply an understanding and acknowledgement as to which comes first, and is the “reason for the season.” Many churches lose sight of that and slowly fade away. Many political ideologies do the same.
What lasts is always that fire that burns at the base.
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