Bad Religion, Good Story

Bad Religion, Good Story

If Charles Dickens were writing a modern day tale about a family of power-hungry evangelicals brought down by their own hypocrisy, greed, and a hint of pool boy sex scandal, you have to figure he’d consider calling them the Falwells. I mean, it’s perfect. Because the Falwells are, well, falling.

Jerry Falwell Jr. is both the anchor and the drag on this family. Not content with his father’s accumulation of wealth and power, Junior wants to build an empire. As soon as Papa Falwell died, he pushed out his pastor brother (how biblical!) and turned Liberty University into a political powerhouse and real estate hedge fund mostly designed to separate Christians from their money. Junior really has a knack for this sort of grift.

Falwell defends Trump against scandal allegations on a 2018 interview. Now the scandals are closer to home.

Junior isn’t merely greedy; he is a man with strong carnal appetites. His colleagues report that he likes to brag about his sexual prowess and has shared provocative photos of his wife with everyone from the personal trainer to the provost. Becki Falwell hasn’t spoken out about her husband’s penchant for photo sharing, but the family hired Trump fixer and convicted felon Michael Cohen to keep those photos out of the media. Say what you will about Cohen, sometimes he was good at his job.

In a ripped-from-a-TV-show plot line, there are also photos circulating of Junior and his son partying on the dance floor at a Miami nightclub, something that would be no big deal if the family didn’t spend so much time shaming others for drinking, dancing, and having a bit of fun. And Jerry Falwell III, who goes by Trey, has not fallen far from the proverbial tree. Trey is VP at Liberty U and he also manages most of the real estate his dad snaps up, nepotism be damned.

Trey also seems to the be the mastermind behind illegal activities like poll rigging, which he apparently hired a man to do in the lead up to the most recent presidential election. The family denies any knowledge of this, but the money trail is clear. The Falwells don’t seem overly concerned with following the law. They use the university coffers as their private lending tree. Their hiring and firing practices are sketchy at best. Further, they have no qualms about violating the law that says a non-profit university cannot endorse or oppose a candidate. Junior has been openly supportive of Trump, going so far as to sell co-branded MAGA/Liberty U swag at the university gift shop.

And while the recent reports on the Falwells have been sensational, much of it is old news or, at the very least, a poorly kept secret. And yet the evangelicals of this country don’t seem to waver in their support of a man and an institution breaking not only man’s laws, but also the laws of the God they profess to worship. It’s beyond baffling, but it is compelling. And now Junior is threatening retaliation against the people who said mean things about him, even going so far as to get the FBI involved.

Not even Dickens could come up with such a compelling plot. It has everything: hypocrisy, deception, greed, sex, betrayal. It may be bad religion, but it’s a hell of a good story, one I suspect we’ll see play out in real time and in screen time. I wonder who’ll play Junior in the HBO miniseries? I’m rooting for Bradley Whitford.

Praise the Lord and pass the popcorn. I can’t wait to see how the story ends.

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Tiffany Quay Tyson

THE PAST IS NEVER is the winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, the Mississippi Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, and the Mississippi Author Award for Adult Fiction (selected by the Mississippi Library Association). The novel is shortlisted for the prestigious Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. This southern gothic novel steeped in local lore was selected as an "Okra Pick" by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. Tyson's debut novel THREE RIVERS was a finalist for both the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction and the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction. She was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi and now lives, writes, and teaches in Denver, Colorado.
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