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A Tale of Three Falwells

It is understandable, but still disappointing, how often the national media goes for the “quick and dirty” interpretation of a complex story. Given the myriad news organizations now crowding the Internet and TV landscape, getting the story out first is often more important than getting it complete. Or, in some cases, even getting it right.

Although I’m free to express my opinions on the war in Afghanistan, or the rioting in Kenosha, or the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, they would be only that — opinions. I haven’t been to Kenosha recently, or Afghanistan ever, and I don’t know anyone personally who has been a coronavirus patient. All I know on those issues is what I read and watch, filtering that through my own memory and personal philosophy to come up with an editorial comment.

However, there is one current news subject that I do know something about — the Falwell family of Lynchburg, VA. Because I worked for over 30 years as a reporter and columnist for the daily News & Advance in that city. Since the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. was the city’s main newsmaker, our paths crossed frequently. In the process, I had the opportunity to learn a lot about him and his family, much of which I found intriguing.

However, very little of this background made its way into the current articles about the fall from grace of Jerry Falwell Jr. True, the story was irresistible — here is this Bible-thumping preacher passing himself off as a righteous example to a host of Christian college students, then getting involved in a sordid three-cornered affair involving him, his wife, and a young man they met when he was a pool attendant in Miami. Great stuff — self-righteousness punished.

I have no inside information about this “threesome” revelation. I do know Jerry Jr., but we’re hardly confidants. We’re not even Facebook friends.

Still, I feel compelled to offer a little context. For one thing, Jerry Jr. is not a preacher. He’s a lawyer by trade, and while he makes no secret of his religious views, his primary motivation has always been to continue turning the college his father founded into an academic powerhouse. He took over Liberty University after Jerry Sr. died in 2007. As the university leader, he bought up a lot of local property, renovated the campus, pioneered building a massive internet outreach, and left the college with an endowment of over a billion dollars.

In other words, Falwell Jr.’s “extracurricular” activities, while certainly counter to Biblical teachings, had little to do with his day job. Nor, as far as I know, did he ever hold himself up as a paragon of virtue. He’s now been banished from Liberty University not so much because of what he admitted doing, but because it embarrassed the Liberty’s board of directors, not to mention the students.

Liberty University, by the way, it not a Christian cult. It may have fit that description initially, but the push for larger and larger enrollment has resulted in a much more diverse student body. It didn’t hurt that Falwell Sr. first repudiated his prior racism, then made peace with Christian rock and roll.

Indeed, Falwell Sr. was a fascinating character. The son of a bootlegger who once killed his brother, he started his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg with 12 members, used a defunct soft drink bottling plant as his first sanctuary (it took months to wash all the sticky residue from the walls) and spent eight hours a day knocking on doors to introduce himself after first doing a morning radio show on a small local station. His dynamic personality soon created a following that transcended his hometown, and the Virginia Republican Party noticed. Eventually, Falwell became a national figure with millions of TV viewers, and his Moral Majority organization helped forge a new alliance between the political right and conservative Christians.

Which brings us back to the issue of why Jerry Jr. came to strongly support Donald Trump, who isn’t exactly a poster boy for conservative Chrisitan ideas and behavior. I suspect it had a lot to do with the striking similarities between Trump and Falwell Sr.

Both were large men who openly disdained exercise and healthy food. Both ran into financial speed bumps at times (Trump had several well-documented bankruptcies, Falwell once had to be bailed out by a consortium of local banks ). Both had their own solid “base” to which they mostly appealed. Both loved to say outrageous things to test the public reaction.

Unlike Trump, though, Falwell Sr. was never touched by personal scandal. His primary MO fit into the general televangelist appeal of the 1980s, which went something like this: “There is something out there you should be very afraid of. God can save you from that, with my help. But to do that, I need money.”

In Falwell’s case, that “something” morphed from black people to Communists to gays to Muslims. He was nothing if not adaptable.

That was Falwell the “conservative firebrand.” Falwell the pastor, however, was a different animal. Despite his church’s size and his frequent travels, he almost always made it back to officiate over the weddings and funerals of his flock. He faithfully visited the sick.

So how did his empire wind up in the hands of an apparent dilettante like Jerry Jr.? It didn’t, not completely. One lengthy background story I read recently about Jerry Jr. never mentioned the other Falwell son, but the Rev. Jonathan Falwell is a big part of the picture. Just as Jerry Jr. took over the university, Jonathan inherited Thomas Road Baptist Church. In his ministry, he projects a deep spirituality but also forgiveness. He uses the word “love” a lot. He is essentially apolitical and never says anything controversial.

In other words, the two sons divided their famous father between them — Jonathan became Jerry the Pastor, but Jerry Jr. became Jerry the Politician. Falwell also had a daughter, Jeanne, but she left town after her graduation and became a surgeon in Richmond.

By the way, most people don’t know that Jerry Sr. was an identical twin. While he was becoming a national figure, brother Gene was running a mobile home park in Campbell County, VA.

None of this affects the lurid gossip about the three-way relationship, which both parties still deny. As always, sex sells.

Beyond that, Jerry Jr. has aggravated many people in the Lynchburg community with his outspoken views on guns (he thinks everyone should have one, even college students) and COVID-19 (he’s a skeptic).

Nevertheless, if those supplying us with the news spent more time changing their quick and easy media caricatures into real people, we might start understanding each other a little better.

Darrell Laurant
Founder at Snowflakes in a Blizzard | + posts

Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."

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