American evangelicalism has a problem with authority, and the resignation of former Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. has forced it to the surface.
Falwell's departure and the ignomious circumstances that prompted it were met by some evangelicals with protest: Why is the media saying he's our guy? What makes Jerry Falwell Jr. an "evangelical leader"? I don't follow him.
For an outsider looking in on the movement, this may seem like a protest in bad faith. It's not. "I've been in evangelical circles for 30 years," says a representative tweet. "Falwell's dad certainly was someone who had a vision for Liberty and had a lot of influence, but I have never heard anyone EVER refer to Falwell Jr. as a leader in evangelicalism. I'm not trying to be combative, just honest."
I could say exactly the same, and for most, I think this protest is sincere. But I also think it's entirely fair to call Falwell an "evangelical leader" because of how leadership is often developed and authority asserted within American evangelicalism. It's a problem that makes the movement prone to exactly the sort of scandal we see with Falwell this week.
To understand this problem, you have to know a little bit about church governance. Some denominations, like the Catholic Church, have a strong system of top-down control. If Pope Francis were caught in an illicit liaison à la Falwell, no Catholic could respond by denying the pope is properly deemed a "Catholic leader."
Evangelicalism has no comparable hierarchy, and many Christians within it worship in groups that are also light on top-down authority. There's no Baptist pope, and many evangelicals are in nondenominational congregations whose governance is entirely self-contained.
Thus can anyone start their own church — and they do. Anyone can launch a blog or podcast or YouTube channel and build a digital congregation — and they do that, too. There's a real sense of spiritual entrepreneurship in evangelicalism, as indeed there always has been. There's also a real sense of unaccountability, now made riskier by the sheer reach the internet allows such leaders to garner.
That isn't news to evangelicals. In 2017, Christianity Today (where I am also a columnist) published an article by Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, titled, "Who's in charge of the Christian blogosphere?" Warren focused on the blogger as a "new kind of Christian celebrity — and authority" who accrues a "huge [following] based on a cult of personality and hold[s] extensive power and influence, yet often lack[s] any accountability to formal structures of church governance."
Parsing the raging controversy Warren's argument occasioned, historian Daniel Silliman, who is now a Christianity Today editor, explained "authority has always been contested and in crisis" in evangelicalism. "That's the history," he wrote. (Other scholars agree and link evangelical debate about theological and ecclesial authority to debates about political and scriptural authority, too.)
Liberty sits squarely in this freewheeling milieu: The university has a relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention, but particularly in recent years, Falwell has taken a contentious attitude toward the denomination and insisted he should not be thought of as a pastoral figure. So what makes Falwell an "evangelical leader"? Simply the fact that he claims the evangelical label and is (or has been) a leader.
For better or worse, there's no more rigorous test. Anyone who becomes famous in an evangelical capacity can be called an evangelical leader, even if the source of that fame is nothing more substantive than personality, wealth, or family connections. In Falwell's case, it was all three.
"There is a long history of evangelicalism conflating success, authority, and fandom," said a Liberty University faculty member who spoke with me on condition of anonymity. (Liberty professors typically don't have tenure, and it's not uncommon for faculty and staff to request anonymity when speaking with the press.) "That element of 'fandom' is under-discussed," the faculty member continued, both in general and where the Falwell family specifically is concerned. Fixation on individual personalities like this happens, my source theorized, because "evangelicalism has always struggled with a clear identity," and people like Falwell combine visibility with a degree of success assumed to be "entwined with God's will."
The trouble is that a movement which chooses its leaders this way — and "chooses" is maybe too strong a word for such a democratized, organic, and sometimes hereditary process — will end up with a decidedly mixed bag. Some are "good and faithful servants." Yet hucksters and shameless partisans take advantage, and the most well-intentioned leaders may become corrupt without institutional and spiritual safeguards.
Falwell's is hardly the first scandal of evangelical celebrity. He's not even the first prominent evangelical to be involved in a financial and sexual scandal involving two men, one woman, and an accusation of blackmail. That dishonor, Silliman notes, goes to televangelist Jim Bakker, whose downfall coincided with Falwell's first year of work at Liberty.
In a bizarre symmetry, Falwell has now left Liberty under allegations of remarkably similar circumstances. He seems to have learned no lessons from Bakker's disgrace, but the evangelical movement would do well to learn from his.
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