White evangelicals have developed the dubious reputation of championing morally compromised political candidates – ones who seem to run afoul of their professed values. They overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, and on Election Day this year almost nine out of 10 White evangelicals in Georgia voted for the supposedly antiabortion rights Herschel Walker – who allegedly paid for two abortions and once put a gun to the head of his ex-wife while threatening to kill her – over Baptist minister Raphael G. Warnock.
A new documentary on Hulu focusing on former Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., the first major evangelical leader to endorse Trump in 2016, also reveals that some of the religious right’s most influential leaders are as morally questionable as the politicians they support. But for many evangelicals, the ends always justify the means.
“God Forbid” chronicles how Falwell, at the same time he was playing presidential kingmaker, engaged in business ventures with Giancarlo Granda, a former pool attendant who allegedly had a seven-year sexual relationship with Falwell’s wife, Becky – one Granda charges Falwell encouraged.
While on the surface this looks like the same old tired story of religious hypocrisy, it is much more than that.
When one digs beneath the tawdry bedroom shenanigans, the story exposes how leadership sometimes functions in the religious right, and how Christian activists’ obsession over political power has transformed American culture.
Despite some claims to the contrary, fundamentalists and their evangelical successors always engaged in politics. By the mid-1970s, they focused on issues including rolling back the power of the state, removing sex education from public school curriculums, opposing gay rights, fighting feminism and, as abortion became a priority of feminists, restricting the procedure.
But they had not yet linked those issues to the success of a particular political party.
In fact, in 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter looked to white evangelicals like a godsend. When reporters on the campaign trail asked the Southern Baptist about religion, he claimed to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. On the heels of the Watergate government corruption scandal, Carter seemed to be exactly what the country needed. As one minister famously exclaimed, his initials were even the same as Jesus Christ’s.
Once in office, however, Carter disappointed many evangelicals. Federal agencies under his jurisdiction including the Internal Revenue Service threatened the autonomy of racist, segregationist private religious schools like the one run by Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr., a prominent televangelist. Carter’s sponsorship of a White House Conference on Families backfired when social conservatives claimed that liberals had refused to let “pro-family” activists speak. The president’s support of the Equal Rights Amendment and gay rights and his conviction that abortion should be legal (even though he was personally opposed to the practice and supported enough restrictions to infuriate feminists) further soured many evangelicals on the Georgian.
As the 1980 presidential campaign heated up, New Right activists sensed an opportunity. They aimed to reduce the size and power of the federal government, free up businesses from regulation and reduce taxes. They recognized that if they tied these priorities to the social and cultural issues evangelicals cared about, they could draw millions of new voters to their side.
A small group of activists including conservative Republican politicos Howard Phillips, Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie met with Falwell Sr. During a break in the meeting, Weyrich and Falwell discussed their mutual interests. “Jerry,” Weyrich said, “there is in America a moral majority that agrees about the basic issues. But they aren’t organized. They don’t have a platform. The media ignore them. Somebody’s got to get that moral majority together.” Falwell agreed and launched the Moral Majority.
Ronald Reagan understood the political opportunity Weyrich and Falwell laid before him. During his 1980 presidential campaign, the Republican nominee attended a revival meeting in Dallas, where he addressed an enthusiastic crowd of 15,000 flag-waving, Bible-carrying Christians. “I know you can’t endorse me,” he began. “But I want you to know I endorse you and what you are doing.”
Reagan was a former actor and divorcée who did not regularly attend church. But he spoke the language of evangelicalism fluently and he supported many of the positions that white conservative Christians prioritized. He hated communism, denounced the “decline” of the family – by which he meant the nuclear family consisting of a breadwinner father, a stay-at-home mother and children – praised “old time religion” and criticized the permissiveness of the ‘60s generation. He called evolution a theory and supported the teaching of creationism in the public schools. Despite signing a bill as governor of California that dramatically expanded abortion rights, in 1980 Reagan denounced the practice of abortion.
The grassroots movement Falwell and his religious right allies built helped put the former actor into the Oval Office. The minister called the election of Reagan “the greatest day for the cause of conservatism and American morality in my adult life.”
At that moment, the goals and agendas of religious right leaders crystallized. They proved far less interested in electing a president who they could worship side by side with, or who might share their love for the Bible – like Carter had.
They were playing a different game.
They wanted a man in the White House who would implement their agenda in policy and especially in choosing nominees for the Supreme Court.
Yet despite Falwell and his followers’ high expectations, Reagan disappointed. The president focused on the economy and on Cold War national defense. He always treated leaders of the religious right with respect, but their agenda was not his. When he had an opportunity to appoint a new Supreme Court justice, he chose Sandra Day O’Connor, who had a record of supporting abortion rights.
Jerry Falwell Jr. learned this history at the feet of his father. He was never the pastor in the family (which was the job of his brother Jonathan). He was the savvy political operator. He used Liberty University – established by his father – as a tool for building Republican loyalty to the religious right. Everyone who was anyone in the GOP spoke there, including John McCain, who viewed the religious right somewhat skeptically.
For Trump, a relationship with Falwell Jr. provided a way to gain legitimacy among White evangelicals – a crucial Republican constituency skeptical of the libertine New Yorker. He needed Falwell’s blessing to absolve him of his well-known sexual affairs, divorces and other moral foibles. He first spoke at Liberty in 2012, where Falwell praised him for compelling President Barack Obama to release his birth certificate and joked that Trump should run for president.
Re-enter Granda – the pool attendant having an affair with Falwell’s wife. In 2014, sexually explicit pictures of Becky Falwell fell into the hands of some of Granda’s business partners, who aimed to use them to shakedown the Falwells for cash. According to Trump-fixer Michael Cohen, Falwell turned to him for help and he made the pictures disappear.
Falwell’s own alleged moral failings – and his willingness to use one of Trump’s fixers – crystallized the reality about the religious right: personal morality and behavior mattered little to the movement. Its leaders were running a political crusade and embraced any candidate who championed their policy priorities.
In supporting Trump, Falwell and the religious right got exactly what they had spent two generations working for. Trump gave them three new Supreme Court justices willing to ignore popular opinion, throw out precedent and overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed a right to an abortion. Today’s Supreme Court is their court.
We can laugh all we want at Jerry Falwell Jr., who often appears on social media as little more than a disgraced cuckold and meme. But it may well be that he will have the last laugh, helping masterfully complete the mission his father launched more than 40 years ago.
Matthew Avery Sutton is the author of multiple books on religion and politics. He is the chair of the history department and the Berry Distinguished professor of liberal arts at Washington State University. The views expressed here are his own and do reflect those of WSU.