In 2016, Jerry Falwell Jr. took the stage at the Republican National Convention to help deliver evangelical voters—and, ultimately, the presidency—to a philandering tax cheat named Donald Trump.
On Monday, as Republicans were preparing to open their 2020 convention in all of its in-person and maskless COVID-19 super-spreading glory, Falwell resigned as president and chancellor of Liberty University, following news that he and his wife were in a years-long, consensual affair with a former pool attendant turned spurned business partner. It’s a story that proves evangelical sex panic is always just a grift.
The story of the Falwell affair is both titillating and transactional, as evangelical sex scandals go.
Giancarlo Granda told Reuters he met the Falwells when he was 21 and eventually entered into a sexual relationship with them that spanned nearly a decade. Granda told Reuters that during that time, he had sex with Becki Falwell while her husband would watch from the corner of the room; the relationship eventually soured. Granda claims the couple backed out of a business deal, while the Falwells claim Granda tried to blackmail them. Lawsuits were filed. BuzzFeed News started sniffing around. And then Reuters published this piece.
Let me say this out of the gate: I don’t care what kind of consensual sex the Falwells have, and neither should anyone else. Jerry Falwell Jr. could be a Tobias Funke never-nude, and it would be nobody’s business but his own. The Falwells and Granda could have been a righteous throupledom for Jesus and none of it should matter because what two or three or more consenting adults do with their bodies is their own damn business.
Or at least it should be, but evangelicals like the Falwells have made being sex scolds into a lucrative and powerful enterprise, and so this isn’t a sex scandal as much as it is a power scandal.
First is the banality of it all. The Falwells were engaging in behavior that would have gotten them kicked out of Liberty University for violating the school’s ban on “sexual relations outside of biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman.” That they did so for nearly a decade while punishing queer students and students of color simply for existing shows that these kinds of honor codes are only about strictly enforcing social norms. Evangelicals maintain power and control by dictating who can screw—and screw over—whom.
Then there are the players involved. It was Jerry Falwell Jr.’s endorsement of Trump that brought evangelical voters into the fold during the 2016 Republican primary. Becki Falwell herself is a power broker in conservative circles, serving on the advisory board of the group Women for Trump, an organization of conservative women dedicated to reelecting Trump.
Together the Falwells have told evangelicals a story of Trump the candidate and Trump the president steeped in sin and salvation and filled with enough fire and brimstone that white evangelicals didn’t just show up to vote for Trump, they did so overwhelmingly, and they continue to be Trump’s most reliable constituency. Sex and power. Power and sex. This is the essence of the evangelical relationship with President Trump, and it always has been.
When pressed into a corner and facing the potential loss of his career and public humiliation, Falwell blamed his wife for both the affair and its fallout. Falwell may have been a willing and eager participant in his cuckolding, but when the time for judgment came, he made sure that was all reserved for his wife. Women remain responsible for the bad behavior of men like Falwell because keeping judgment squarely on the women in these situations is the only way these men can ever be redeemed.
Let’s be real. It’s not a question of if Falwell will find himself at the center of an evangelical redemption narrative, but when. And the best way to fight back against his inevitable attempt at political resurrection is to keep the story firmly grounded in its origins of power, not sex.
Falwell’s entire career—hell, his entire existence—is made possible by evangelical Christians’ persistent sex hypocrisy and panic. That it may have finally caught up with Falwell definitely feels good to those of us who have witnessed lives ruined thanks to the policy of hate he advocates.
Schadenfreude in 2020 is about all the sport we have. But we can drag Falwell for his hypocrisy without kink-shaming him; we can enjoy his potential downfall without sex-shaming his wife. Theirs is a power scandal, not a sex scandal, and the surest way to keep them out of public life moving forward is by being very clear about that fact.