Two weeks ago, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, the largest evangelical college in America, posted an Instagram photo of himself on a yacht with his arm around a young woman whose midriff was bare and whose pants were unzipped. This would have been remarkable by itself, but it was all the more so because Falwell’s midriff was also bare and his pants also unzipped. In his hand, Falwell held a plastic cup of what he described winkingly in his caption as “black water.”
The aesthetics of the photo would be familiar to anyone who’s ever been to a frat party, but they were jarringly out of place for the son of Moral Majority cofounder Jerry Falwell Sr. and a professional evangelical Christian whose public rhetoric is built on a scaffolding of sexual conservatism and an antagonism to physical pleasure more generally.
The backdrop of a yacht represents an entirely different hypocrisy, arguably a more egregious one: the embrace of materialism and the open accumulation of enormous wealth. Falwell, who has a net worth estimated to be more than $100 million, is not formally a “prosperity gospel” adherent, but he has nonetheless jettisoned those inconvenient parts of Christian theology that preach the virtues of living modestly and using wealth to help the less fortunate.
But for his public, the problem with the photo was the optics of carnal sin—the attractive young woman who was not his wife, the recreational drinking, the unzipped pants—none of which would be acceptable at Liberty University, where coed dancing is penalized with a demerit. In the moral hierarchy of white evangelical Christianity, carnal sin is the worst, and this thinking drives the social conservatism that allows evangelicals to justify persecuting LGBTQ people, opposing sexual education in schools, distorting the very real problem of sex trafficking to punish sex workers, restricting access to abortion, eliminating contraception from employer-provided healthcare, and prosecuting culture wars against everything from medical marijuana to pop music. Evangelicalism’s official morality treats all pleasure as inherently suspect, the more so when those pleasures might belong to women or people of color.
Fortunately for Falwell, evangelicalism has built-in insurance for reputational damage, should a wealthy white man make the mistake of public licentiousness widely shared on the Web: the worst sins make for the best redemption stories. Even better, a fall from grace followed by a period of regret and repentance can be turned into a highly remunerative rehabilitation. That, in fact, has been many a traveling preacher’s grift from time immemorial.
I grew up hearing such “testimonies,” personal stories that articulate a life in sin and a coming to Jesus, firsthand. I was raised in the 1980s and 1990s in a family of Southern Baptists who viewed Episcopalians as raging liberals and Catholics, of which we knew precisely two, as an alien species. These were perfectly ordinary sentiments in the rural Alabama town we lived in. My dad was a local lineman for Alabama Power, and my mom worked at my school, first as a janitor and, later, as a lunch lady. Nobody in my family had gone to college.
Besides school and Little League, church was the primary basis of our social existence. As a child and into my early teens, my own religiosity was maybe a tick above average for our community. I went on mission trips to parts of the US that were more economically distressed than my hometown, handed out Chick tracts (named for the publisher and cartoonist Jack Chick) with as much zeal and sincerity as a twelve-year-old could muster, and on one occasion destroyed cassette tapes of my favorite bands (Nirvana, the Dead Kennedys, the Beastie Boys) in a fit of self-righteousness, only to re-buy them weeks later because, well, my faith had its limits.
All the while, I was—to use a word evangelicals like to misapply to any sort of secular education—“indoctrinated” by teachers, family, church staff, ministry organizations, and other members of the community to view everything I encountered in the world through an evangelical lens. If I went to the mall and lost my friends for a few minutes, I briefly suspected everyone had been raptured away except me, a particular brand of eschatological fantasy that we were taught was perpetually in danger of happening. Even my scandalous moments, which, do-goody overachiever that I was, were few and far between, were colored by the church. My first real kiss, at fourteen, was an epic make-out session on a sidewalk during a mission trip to a suburb of Orlando, with an eighteen-year-old assistant youth pastor named Matt.
I was ten or eleven when I was baptized—or in Southern Baptist parlance, “born again”—and part of this process involved constructing my own redemption narrative: I lived in sin and would be saved by Christ. I recently rediscovered my own handwritten testimony on a visit to my mom’s house. In a child’s rounded, looping handwriting, I had confessed that I used to “cheat at games,” something I don’t remember doing at all. The likely explanation for this is that because sin is such an important prerequisite for redemption, my ten-year-old self had to fabricate one to conform to the required convention (never mind that such a falsification would be sinful itself).
And so I “gave my life to Christ” one Sunday during a regular church service—though it was also common for people to do so during revivals, where itinerant preachers and musicians would visit and deliver proselytizing sermons. These evangelical ministers were indeed charismatic, polished from years of practice. They came bearing branded merchandise and a well-honed redemption story that almost invariably included a brush with carnal sin. The standard plot involved a nihilistic pursuit of pleasure—generally, some combination of money, sex, and drugs—as a reaction to spiritual bankruptcy that only ended…when I hit rock bottom. But Jesus was there to pick me up, repair me with His love, and invest me with self-worth.
At the end of the sermon, congregants would be asked if they, too, would like to experience this kind of redemption. And many people did, tearfully but gratefully supplying their own testimonies of sin, emptiness, and regret. It’s an effective story because who doesn’t want to be rescued from their failures? Who doesn’t want an opportunity to be forgiven and start over?
One of the more memorable itinerant evangelicals I heard was Rick Stanley, whose mother had married Elvis Presley’s father, Vernon. In his telling, Stanley’s experiences with carnal sin and untoward materialism were largely a function of being Elvis’s stepbrother, and as the “sin” part of the narrative went, it was certainly more salacious than cheating at games. I even bought a copy of Stanley’s self-published memoir, The Touch of Two Kings. As adjacent-to-celebrity testimonies go, it was only outstripped in my memory by the visiting youth pastor who claimed to have almost converted Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor at a backstage party (which even then I assumed was news to Reznor).
I would expect, then, that Falwell’s fall is unlikely to be permanent. Indeed, Falwell has been forgiven by evangelicals before. He’s bragged about his penis size, and “nailing” his wife. There was the thing with the pool boy. According to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, there are lots more racy personal photos—in clubs, at parties, on yachts. Until the world was forced to gaze at Falwell’s navel on Instagram, the reaction from the evangelical community was largely a shrug because men are allowed, even expected, to behave this way from time to time.
But judging from the demographic composition of the evangelical redemption circuit, this sort of reputational refashioning is uniquely accessible to white men. Unsurprisingly, there is no big traveling evangelical circuit for reformed female libertines. Men are readily forgiven, in particular, for sins of the flesh, whereas women are uniquely punished for them.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the abortion debate, which is not really about abortion at all. If you take the right’s claim about valuing life—a concern that seems rarely to extend to, say, the death penalty, or people’s access to affordable health care—the contradictions becomes clear. An antichoice movement that really valued life, on its own terms of reducing resort to abortion, ought to support two of the things most likely to prevent abortions: sex education and freely available contraception.
They don’t, because the point is not to prevent abortion but to police sex. The religious right is invested in sexually controlling women, and one way to do that is to make the consequences for sex outside of marriage for women who do not want children, or who are not ready to have them, so dire and onerous that no one has sex outside of marriage. The message I got in abstinence programs as a teenager was that if I didn’t want to run the risk of needing an abortion, I should “keep my legs shut” until marriage. Teenage boys are generally told to keep their pants on, in these programs, but are not shamed when, inevitably, they don’t.
Purity culture thus dictates that sexuality belongs to men, that they are its custodians. Teenage girls do not own their sexuality; their fathers do. (I’m grateful that my dad considers my sex life none of his business and always has, so I was never the recipient of a father-daughter “purity ring,” which, even at the height of my religiosity, I would have found creepy and inappropriate.) Even adult women do not own their sexuality; their husbands do. A Bible verse roughly translated as “wives, submit to your husbands” is routinely wielded to justify authoritarian marriages where the needs of women are never considered to be on a par with the needs of men.
This willingness to forgive powerful white men and allow them a standard that doesn’t apply to others also benefits Donald Trump, who has shamelessly pandered to white evangelicals while garbling their theology and citing “Two Corinthians” rather than Second Corinthians. Trump supporters—and I count some among my relatives—have used redemption theology to argue that Trump, despite what they generously refer to as his “flaws,” is a vessel for God’s work, simply because he endorses their biases and is willing to pantomime outrage over sins, carnal and otherwise, even as he personally continues to sin with impunity.
Trump also speaks to evangelicals’ resentments, the sense that they are a persecuted minority. In a pivotal early campaign speech at an evangelical church, a particular line stuck with the audience. “I will tell you,” he said. “Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it.”
Christianity is, of course, under no such thing. At least, not in America, where it is the majority religion and is so freely practiced that it permeates even parts of the US—government offices, public schools, courtrooms—where it ought to be barred by the Constitution. What white evangelicals perceive as under attack is a faux Christianity of manners, very often at odds with a Christianity that espouses justice. The redemption stories peddled by the evangelical right are never about a sinner who repents after a lifetime of exploiting renters as a landlord, after being horribly racist to black people or abusive toward women. The Christianity evangelicals care about disdains vulgarity more than it disdains injustice.
For now, Jerry Falwell Jr. is laying low. To execute the formula correctly, you need a period of contemplation and regret. And after that brief intermission, you can start selling tickets for the redemption tour.