By any reasonable measure, the racy photos that led him to take a leave of absence from Liberty, and the reports of an extramarital affair involving Falwell, his wife and a young business partner of the couple that hastened his dismissal, were a punch in the nose for evangelical Christians in America — and everywhere else, too.
Yet, a year from now, most Americans, including evangelicals, will not remember, let alone care, about Falwell’s transgressions. The flexible structure of the evangelical Christian movement in America means it can survive even a scandal of this magnitude with little long-range damage. The tradition is too big — something like 80 million strong — and fed by too many fast-flowing intellectual and spiritual tributaries to be brought down by the tawdry deeds of one man.
From the beginning, the movement held certain boundaries inviolate, especially probity in sexual matters. That particular code acquired greater visibility just after World War II with the rise of the Rev. Billy Graham.
In 1949, Graham articulated a set of four key types of behavior for leaders to avoid: financial deceit, sexual immorality, misleading publicity about themselves and their works and incivility toward others (especially critics). The second prescription, known simply as the “Billy Graham Rule,” took on special significance: Never travel or dine alone with a woman outside your family. For Graham, it was just common sense to avoid tempting situations.
Through most of the second half of the 20th century, many evangelicals defined themselves by their proximity to Graham’s message and ideals. The historian George Marsden aptly jested that an evangelical could be defined as anyone who liked Billy Graham.
But Graham was hardly the only source of evangelical Christian thought or influence — not then and not now.
Evangelicals lack an overarching institutional structure — there’s no address to send a resignation letter — instead boasting mega-denominations such as the mostly White Southern Baptist Convention and the mostly Black Church of God in Christ, which enroll millions of members apiece.
The wider tradition has produced its own celebrity figures, from mega-church pastors Joel Osteen and T. D. Jakes, to popular inspirational figures Juanita Bynum, Joyce Meyer and Beth Moore.
The movement’s defining periodical, Christianity Today, is influential but hardly speaks for everyone.
The Christian Broadcasting Network and countless social media platforms have replaced syndicated national radio broadcasts such as Charles E. Fuller’s “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” and Graham’s “Hour of Decision.”
And Liberty University is not alone: The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities includes more than 180 accredited, comprehensive institutions worldwide, while two-thirds of the members of the Association of Theological Schools, the graduate seminary accrediting agency of record, identify as evangelical.
Anxiety about gender fluidity, sexual license and abortion on demand play prominent roles for some. So does nostalgia for a supposedly lost America of small towns and stable values. Though masters of media and marketing, they fear secularization and think “color blindness” is the key to racial justice.
The conservative evangelical Christian movement offers its adherents community. Partisans marry each other, attend approved schools and read books published by sanctioned top-dollar presses such as Zondervan and Thomas Nelson.
It is critically important to note that, for millions of evangelicals, the beating heart of the faith is deeply personal. For them, the movement is about private prayer, Bible study and quiet witness to neighbors, along with missions in the form of humanitarian organizations such as World Vision International. This is the river into which all these other tributaries flow.
The diversity of members, motivations and inspirations provides the movement with tensile strength.
So, who does Falwell represent? More important, who has he disillusioned? Surely thousands, possibly millions.
But if the tradition’s long history and contemporary multiplicity serve as an index, millions more, plus the great majority of Americans of other religious persuasions, could care less. Falwell’s shenanigans don’t count because they don’t count for them.
Years ago, J. C. Massee, the irenic, conservative pastor of the historic Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston, quipped that there were “fundamentalists and damned fundamentalists.” If he were around today, I am pretty sure he would say Falwell falls in the latter category. And that Massee would shrug, with bemused dismissal, and turn his hand to things that really matter.