Salacious details and cover-ups make for good television -- but it goes against everything evangelicals preach
The visceral reaction such revelations inspire made for a compelling dramatic backbone for "The Righteous Gemstones," a Danny McBride-led HBO satire series that debuted in August 2019. It's also what makes Liberty University President Jerry Fallwell Jr.'s current tumble from grace feel more worthy of notice —and, honestly, more salacious — than your typical ousting of a university leader.
The stories mirror each other in obvious ways: In the television series, Pastor Jesse Gemstone (McBride) and a few of his fellow church leaders got "dirty, dirty for sure-y" at an Atlanta prayer conference, hiring hookers and doing cocaine. This week, Reuters reported that Falwell both approved of and observed his wife's sexual relationship with former pool attendant-turned-Miami businessman Giancarlo Granda. These encounters took place multiple times between 2012 and 2018.
"Becki and I developed an intimate relationship, and Jerry enjoyed watching from the corner of the room," Granda said.
There are other superficial similarities; both the fictional Gemstones and the Falwells are families of multigenerational evangelical leaders whose legacies are built on hell, fire and brimstone — though perhaps replace "brimstone" with "clogging" for the Gemstones. Jesse and his wife, Amber, (Cassidy Freeman), are an evangelical power couple, just as many have described the Falwells. And, in both cases, video and photographic evidence (allegedly, in the case of Falwell) exists of their indiscretions.
But on a deeper level, both of these narratives are knitted together by a series of escalating scandals that were known, or at least suspected, internally, by family or followers who helped keep the puritanical conceit alive through their silence. While this tangle of deceit, French maid costumes, and cover-ups makes for good television, it flies in the face of everything evangelicals preach about Biblical values and church discipline. It's life imitating art, imitating life again.
Church discipline is the practice of rebuking congregation members when they have sinned with the ultimate goal of repentance and reconciliation with God and the greater church body. There are several steps for appropriate church discipline, as outlined in the New Testament: a church leader should arrange a private meeting with the offender; if that fails, they should approach them again with witnesses; if the offender still doesn't repent, the matter may be brought up with the entire congregation. Excommunication is typically the last resort if the person does not repent of their sin.
"Our purpose in church discipline is positive for the individual disciplined, for other Christians as they see the real danger of sin, for the health of the church as a whole, and for the corporate witness of the church to those outside," wrote Mark Dever, senior pastor of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., in his book "Nine Marks of a Healthy Church."
He continued: "Most of all, our holiness is to reflect the holiness of God. It should mean something to be a member of the church, not for our pride's sake but for God's name's sake. Biblical church discipline is a mark of a healthy church."
In the "Righteous Gemstones," immediate church discipline isn't even a consideration; if it was, there wouldn't be enough meat for a nine-episode season. The drama is in the avoidance of being outed.
After Jesse is blackmailed for a large sum of money by a mysterious masked man in a van who has a copy of the "Atlanta tape," he turns to his siblings — also church leaders — for assistance. They help him and keep quiet along the way, largely because of their own hidden lives. Judy Gemstone (Edi Patterson) is "living in sin" with her fiancé, BJ (Tim Baltz), while Kelvin Gemstone (Adam Devine) has palpable sexual chemistry with his ex-Satanist "roommate," Keefe (Tony Cavalero).
All of them, including patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) and his brother-in-law, Uncle Baby Billy Freeman (Walton Goggins), are so blinded by their desire for more — more power, more money, more prestige — that they allow the ruse to continue. Because if one Gemstone goes down, so goes the empire they've constructed on a foundation of holy rolling, built with congregants' tithes.
In the case of Jerry Falwell, Jr., we can only imagine what happened behind the scenes and what prevented concrete disciplinary action from being taken earlier — but we do know that students at his university have been expelled for far less egregious violations. The student honor code is called "The Liberty Way," and according to it premarital sex is forbidden, as are same-sex relationships. Drinking alcohol and "obscene language" are infractions, and students are instructed to "dress modestly at all times."
Falwell's past scandals have been blips in the news cycle over the last year. As Politico reported in September 2019, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen helped Falwell "clean up racy 'personal' photographs" of his wife, Becki; at least one of these showed her dressed in a French maid costume. Allegedly, Falwell sent the image to a number of Liberty University employees.
Additionally, Liberty employees detailed other instances of "Falwell's behavior that they [saw] as falling short of the standard of conduct they expect from conservative Christian leaders, from partying at nightclubs, to graphically discussing his sex life with employees." A former senior university official told Politico about a car trip with Falwell, during which "all he wanted to talk about was how he would nail his wife, how she couldn't handle [his penis size], and stuff of that sort."
There would have been ample opportunity for university officials or church leadership to confront Falwell, and perhaps they did behind closed doors, but it's obvious that any requests for repentance and better behavior didn't stick.
On Aug. 7, photos surfaced of Falwell with his pants partially unzipped with his arm around a woman whom he later claimed was his wife's assistant. He was holding a glass of dark liquid in the photo and joked in the caption that it was "just black water." The photo was quickly deleted, but screenshots were widely circulated.
Then on Aug. 23, the night before Granda's revelations about his relationship with the couple, Falwell released a statement to the Washington Examiner claiming that his recent behavior was due to depression over his wife's affair with Granda.
"It was like living on a roller coaster," he said in the statement. "While completely dedicating ourselves to Liberty, we were also suffering in silence during our personal time together, while simultaneously trying to manage and deal with this increasingly threatening behavior, which only worsened over time. We were doing our best to respectfully unravel this 'fatal attraction' type situation to protect our family and the university."
There was no mention of the fact that Falwell approved of the relationship between Granda and his wife. Instead, he claimed that Granda was trying to extort the couple for a large sum of money in exchange for keeping the affair secret; Granda denied these claims. In an interview with Reuters, he said he was seeking a buyout from a business arrangement he had with the couple.
Typically, how and with whom couples engage in the privacy of their own bedrooms should be just that — private. But a cornerstone of Jerry Fallwell Sr.'s rise to power in the conservative cultural space was in his condemnation of acts that he declared to be sexually immoral, including same-sex relationships (he once stated, "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals") and premarital sex.
His legacy allowed megachurch pastors and writers like Joshua Harris to preach purity culture as the ideal state for Christian relationships. Harris, who announced in 2019 that he was no longer a Christian and apologized for the harmful views he spread, was known for his books "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" and "Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship."
Harris wrote both books — which emphasize the idea of courting with the intention of marriage, as opposed to casual dating — when he was in his early 20s. They both held the idea that the best way to preserve one's purity was to stop dating altogether. "Dating was a game," Harris wrote. "It hurt people and it was practice for divorce and a distraction from preparing for life."
The books also introduced some concepts, like abstaining from all physical touch before marriage and the idea of "giving one's heart away," that hold no real scriptural basis, but mirror the message found in "The Liberty Way." Followers of both Harris and the Falwells may be in the world, but not of it.
The moral duplicity that underlies evangelical leaders' willingness to paper over scandal in effort to put on a holy face is the same that allowed them to campaign — like Falwell did — for a thrice-married man who pays off porn stars and brags about grabbing women by the pussy.
Would Jesse Gemstone have voted for Donald Trump? I don't know. That was one question the series left me with when I first viewed it. But I'm relatively confident that he wouldn't have condemned Trump's behavior because it would have led to an interrogation of his own. And when your financial stability is intrinsically tied to how righteous you are, why risk it? Judge not lest ye be judged, and all that.
Perhaps that was the thinking at play at Liberty University, as fellow college leaders seemingly did nothing for so long in the face of Falwell's sin. If the Falwell legacy fell, would they — and their jobs — go along with it?
As I wrote in 2019, one of the other questions that "The Righteous Gemstones" left me with was what would the congregants of the family's gigantic megachurch think of Jesse's fall. "Other than brief snippets, we don't know what the pastors preach from the pulpit," I said. "We don't know who their congregants are, what they want out of their relationship with God, and even how they'd feel if their pastors proved to be hypocrites."
I would have loved to know how they feel, and perhaps we will in a second season. I say this as someone who grew up in the church and watched as leaders skated around hard discussions and concrete action when a youth pastor was found to be involved an "emotional affair" with a 15-year-old member of the congregation, but were quick to excommunicate a congregant who came out as gay.
Conspicuously absent from both the Falwell fallout and "The Righteous Gemstones" is an examination of the ways in which their "flocks" will be impacted by not just the indiscretions of their leaders, but by the hypocrisy. I'm not talking about shame or embarrassment. I'm talking about the inevitable deep questioning of values and self that accompanies the realization that perhaps your entire worldview has been shaped leaders engaged in willful deceit.
Over the last 48 hours, there was a lot of back-and-forth uncertainty about Falwell's future at Liberty. According to a report from CNN, Falwell agreed to resign and then quickly rescinded his resignation, only to resign again. If this was "The Righteous Gemstones," this quick turn would likely signal a last-minute plot twist. Perhaps the Atlanta tape was destroyed or Walton Goggins had another trick up his sleeve. But in the case of Falwell, it likely speaks to a latent grasp at maintaining power. After all, pride goeth before a fall.