Jerry Falwell Jr.’s coronavirus response shows his staggering level of ignorance

After learning of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s decision to partially reopen Liberty University, my thoughts turned to the biblical account of Balaam’s ass.

According to the Hebrew scriptures, the children of Israel were on the verge of engulfing another Bronze Age tribe. Lacking recourse to the United Nations, the Moabites turned to a diviner named Balaam to curse the Israelis. But on the way to the cursing, Balaam’s conveyance, an ass, saw an angel blocking the path ahead, turned hard into a wall and crushed Balaam’s foot. Unable to see the celestial creature himself, a frustrated Balaam beat his ass. But God permitted the wounded animal to speak, mock her rider and explain the divine roadblock. The eyes of a chastened Balaam were finally opened and he took the Israeli side. And the rest is Middle East history.

Students at Liberty University are more likely than most to understand the specialness of this biblical lesson. It is one of the few stories in which Falwell should not be assigned the part of an ass. For that matter, he does not even deserve the role of Balaam, who at least was open to instruction. Instead, Falwell has charged the angel straight on and — in defiance of nearly all public health experts — reopened the Liberty dorms in the middle of a pandemic. Now, according to the New York Times, at least one student has tested positive and several more have shown coronavirus-like symptoms.

Falwell played down the risk to students who might get the disease. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk,” he argued last week, “and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”

But this public response indicates the staggering level of ignorance that informs Falwell’s leadership. It is possible for students with mild or unnoticeable symptoms to spread the disease. And once cases are discovered, it is generally too late to take preventive action. Yes, the fatality rate of infected college students is likely to be low. Yet places with broad community spread are more likely to see infection of the elderly and vulnerable, who are more likely to fill premature graves. Since when has Liberty University embraced the teaching of Social Darwinism in Ethics 101?

What can’t be disputed is the constant churn of mixed messages that Falwell has contributed to our national debate. His stated intention has been to concentrate Liberty’s student population: “I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together.”

It can’t be disputed that Falwell personally welcomed hundreds of students back to campus after Spring Break. “They were talking about being glad to be back,” he recalled. “I was joking how they pretty much had the whole place to themselves, and I told them to enjoy it.”

It can’t be disputed that Falwell has called the national pandemic response an “overreaction” with political motivations. “Impeachment didn’t work,” he claimed, “and the Mueller report didn’t work and Article 25 didn’t work, and so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump.”

It can’t be disputed that Falwell went on Fox News and speculated that the coronavirus might have been the work of the North Korean military.

It can’t be disputed that Falwell called one critic a “dummy,” even though he is the parent of Liberty students. Or that Falwell has dismissed a critical professor named Marybeth Davis Baggett as “the ‘Baggett’ lady.’ ”

There is an old Bob Dylan song titled, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Who is Falwell serving instead of students, parents, staff, his board and the Lynchburg, Va., community? Let’s see.

  • Falwell has contempt for the weak. He is
  • dismissive of experts. H
  • traffics in conspiracy theories. He
  • attacks his critics with infantile putdowns and demeaning names. And he
  • refuses to admit when he is dangerously wrong.

Who does that sound like? It is on the tip of my tongue.

In this case Falwell has gone even further than the president, who is occasionally forced, under duress, to say sane things about the virus. Falwell seems to want credit from President Trump for drinking the most distilled, concentrated, rotgut form of the Kool-Aid.

He blunders toward blasphemy by insisting that he is being persecuted for his religious beliefs. “We’re conservative,” he claims, “we’re Christian, and therefore we’re being attacked.” But any path that ignores the truth and endangers the vulnerable can’t be called the way of Christ. No, there is only one explanation: Falwell has laid down the cross to follow Trump.

Former Liberty University Executive on Jerry Falwell: “He doesn’t think anyone should be able to tell him what to do, and he’s going to do whatever he wants…”

This article packs an even stronger punch now that we know Liberty University is probably dealing with an outbreak of coronavirus. Liberty is an unhealthy place. And now people are getting sick.

Here is Brandon Ambrosio at Politico:

Lynchburg, Virginia, isn’t a stereotypical college town. It isn’t politically liberal. It doesn’t have the crunchy affect of an Ann Arbor or even a Charlottesville.

But even here, where Liberty University drives a large part of the economy—and where school president and chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. strides across the landscape as a local grandee—anger over Falwell’s decision to bring university students back amid a coronavirus pandemic is boiling over.

“Remember when people wanted to tar and feather folks? That’s about the level it’s at in the Lynchburg community right now,” a former longtime Falwell associate told me over the phone. “You have … 16,000 petri dishes he’s inviting back to Lynchburg, who have gone out all over country for spring break—he’s inviting them back into our city, our community, knowing that at some point they’re gonna have to interact with the public.”

Throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus have led colleges to upend their plans for the semester by moving classes online, canceling commencement ceremonies and—critically, from a public-health perspective—moving students out of dorms. Virginia Tech is practically begging students to stay away, enticing them with cash rebates. The University of Virginia has shut down its dorm system, save for those few students “who have no other option.”

Liberty University, meanwhile, has invited its students to return to the dorms, whatever their circumstances might be. Falwell has said this decision was in students’ best interests—that students would be better off if they returned to campus before the coronavirus spread—but that suggestion has met with exasperation by public health experts, state and local officials, and many residents of Lynchburg.

As President Donald Trump pumps out messages that fears of the coronavirus are overblown, and Americans try to square that with their local regulations and personal worries, Liberty has become an even more intense version of the national conflict, with students and faculty left trying to weigh their own interests against a defiant leadership with a constantly pivoting message—in this case, a person who is used to having total control of the institution.

For people who’ve traveled in Falwell’s orbit, the decision is classic Jerry.

He doesn’t think anyone should be able to tell him what to do, and he’s going to do whatever he wants,” a former Liberty University executive told me.

He’s very defiant,” said another longtime Falwell associate with close ties to the Falwell family. “It’s very much in his character. That’s a family trait. His father was the same way.”

Now, Falwell has maintained that people have this all wrong: Liberty simply allowed students to return to live in the dorms, if they so choose, while finishing up the semester in online courses. “We think Liberty’s practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall, if Coronavirus is still an issue,” Falwell told the school’s news service in a March 23 statement.

Liberty University set to welcome back thousands of students amid coronavirus outbreak

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. confirmed that the school will reopen this week despite social distancing guidelines from both the White House and the state of Virginia. “I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together,” Falwell said in a statement.

What is a Post-Jesus Christian?

 

Post-Jesus Christians are “Christians” who have decided to postpone following Jesus’s teaching until Jesus returns and ushers in 1000 years of peace.

Post-Jesus Christians hold that Jesus’s teachings do not need to be followed in our present era if they are a hindrance to obtaining the power they fear they need to help usher in the Kingdom of God.

Post-Jesus Christians (privately) hold that Jesus’s teachings are a nice thing to follow when dealing with the in-group of their fellow PJCs but may be disregarded when dealing with non-PJC neighbors.

Prophecy: What God Can Do For You

Post-Jesus Christians talk a lot about about prophecy, and unlike the Biblical Prophets, when they do, they punch down, rather than up:

You will know them by their fruit, because they only have one key message – God is going to “enlarge your tent” and “expand your influence“, he’s going to “give you great favor” and “bless you mightily”.

Later Craig Greenfield writes:

In Biblical times, there were two types of prophets.

  1. Firstly, there were those who feasted at the King’s table because they had been co-opted to speak well of evil leaders (1 Kings 18:19). They were always bringing these smarmy words of favor and influence and prosperity to the king. And the king lapped it up. Like a sucka.
  2. Secondly, there were those who were exiled to the caves, or beheaded (like John the Baptist) because they spoke out about the injustice or immorality of their leaders (1 Kings 18:4). The king didn’t like them very much. He tried to have them knee-capped.

An Inversion of Ben Franklin’s Morality

While many Post-Jesus Christians appeal to a historical “Christian Nation” , Post-Jesus Christians appear to be an inversion of founding father Ben Franklin, who in historian John Fea’s description, wanted to discard Jesus’s Divinity but retain and celebrate his ethical teachings.

Examples:

So what does this look like in practice?

Below are public quotations from prominent Court Evangelicals.  These quotations are less extreme that I would expect to hear in private.  A friend of mine speaks to supporters in private.  He reports that they would (privately) celebrate the stuffing of election ballots in favor of their preferred candidate as a righteous act.

1) Court Evangelical: Anti-Sermon on the Mount


John Fea wrote about a conversation he had with Rob Schenck  for the “Schenck Talks Bonhoeffer” podcast @ 19:27.  Here’s a quote from Schenck talking about a conversation he had with a prominent evangelical at the Trump Inaugural Prayer Service:

I must tell you something of a confession here. I was present at the Trump Inaugural Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral — not the smaller one held  at  Saint John’s Episcopal church across from the white house, but the one following the inauguration at the National Cathedral and I saw one of the notable Evangelicals that you’ve named in in our conversation. One of them, I won’t say which and we had it short exchange and I, I suggested to him that we needed to recalibrate our moral compass and that one way to do that might be to return to The Sermon on the Mount as a reference point. And he very quickly barked back at me. “We don’t have time for that. We have serious work to do.”

2) Jerry Falwell Jr:  Anti-Turn the other cheek

John Fea writes:

We have blogged about Liberty University’s Falkirk Center before.  The more I learn about this center the more I am convinced that it does not represent the teachings of Christianity.   Recently someone on Twitter pointed out this paragraph in the Falkirk Center mission statement:

Bemoaning the rise of leftism is no longer enough, and turning the other cheek in our personal relationships with our neighbors as Jesus taught while abdicating our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield is no longer sufficient. There is too much at stake in the battle for the soul of our nation. Bold, unapologetic action and initiative is needed, which is why we just launched the Falkirk Center, a think tank dedicated to restoring and defending American ideals and Judeo-Christian values in all aspects of life.

John Fea’s Update:

Several smart people have suggested that I may have misread Liberty University’s statement.  They have said that the Falkirk Center was not denying that Jesus’s call to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individuals.  Instead, the Falkirk Center is saying that we should not “abdicate” (the key word here) our responsibilities to engage on the “culture battlefield.”

I think this is a fair criticism, and I indeed may have misread the statement.  For that I am sorry.  But I don’t think I want to back away too strongly from what I wrote above.  While several have correctly pointed out that Liberty University is not saying Jesus’s command to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individual Christians, the Falkirk Center does seem to be suggesting that it is “insufficient” for culture engagement.