The Dark Domain, or a queer ex-evangelical looks at an agent of intolerance and his scandalous heirs
One day in the summer of 1981, I was walking around the inside of a huge church sanctuary in Virginia, every now and then stopping to clap once, then listen to the echo. It was something I did just about every day that summer—each day in a different church. I was a member of an evangelical inter-denominational youth choir. I was one of the singers, but I was also the Lead Sound Technician. And while a bunch of the singers were carrying in the sound equipment, our risers, and other parts of our touring program, I would do this exercise to figure out where I wanted to place our speakers and where to aim them. I took this part of the job very seriously.
I was 20 years old. I was a deeply closeted gay guy who for several years had been struggling to reconcile my love of science and my sexual orientation with the religion I had been raised in (Southern Baptists) which is extremely anti-gay, anti-evolution, anti-birth control, anti-modernity, et cetera and ad nauseam. Only eleven years before that day had the Southern Baptist Convention adopted its resolution on race, which was intended to end segregation in Baptist Churches themselves. At the denomination’s founding in 1845, 12 of its 14 statements on faith had been explicitly in favor of slavery, the segregation of the races, and the supremacy of the white race.
That 1970 resolution didn’t make Baptists pro-equality. The very church that my parents had been members of when I was born, for instance, split after the resolution. A number of members forming a new “Bible Baptist” church the aligned itself with one of the other conventions that had split from the Southern Baptist in the previous couple of decades. And at the 1972 convention the convention adopted a resolution condemning public school de-segregation.
One of the pastors leading that charge to re-assert the church’s racist past in 1972 was Jerry Falwell, Sr. Falwell was the pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was also the host of the syndicated radio program, the Old Time Gospel Hour, which my grandmother listened to faithfully, where he frequently preached against the civil rights movement, women’s rights, gay rights, and a boatload of other topics. In 1971 he founded Liberty University, which to this day still forbids students of differing races to date. And in 1979 he founded the so-called Moral Majority, a political organization bent on supporting conservative Republicans and rolling back what rights women, racial minorities, and queer people had won in the 70s.
In the mid-80s Falwell infamously lost a lawsuit to one of his former classmates from Baptist Bible College, Jerry Sloan. Sloan had come out of the closet after leaving Baptist Bible College, and had become active with Metropolitan Community Church, which was one of the few explicitly gay and lesbian inclusive denominations at the time. Sloan and Falwell participated in a television debate about, among other things, gay rights. After Falwell insisted that he wasn’t at all prejudiced against gay people, Sloan quoted Falwell as having publically called the MCC “brute beasts” and “a vile and Satanic system.” Further, he said Falwell had predicted “one day they will be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven.”
Falwell said that it was a lie. And when Sloan said he had it on tape, Falwell bet him $5,000 (on television with millions of witnesses) he couldn’t produce it. When Sloan did produce the tape, Falwell refused to pay. So Sloan sued him, won the $5,000 plus court fees, and he donated it all to a queer community center: Falwell Pays $8,900 to Homosexual Activist.
Jerry Falwell, Sr, was a bigot and a liar (not to mention a chisseler for not paying his bet). And he became a multi-millionaire by preaching hate and promoting hate through his radio show, university, and his political organizations. And I, for one, did not shed a single tear when he died in 2007.
So, back to 1981. Earlier in that year, the Director of the touring choir mentioned that he was “this close” to getting us a tour date at Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. And without thinking, I blurted out, “if you do, I quit.” The Director was flabbergasted and tried to explain how much exposure we would get there—and possibly be on the Old Time Gospel Hour. I said, “I refuse to have anything to do with that evil man. I refuse to do anything that implies I support his divisive, hateful theology.”
A member of the board of directors who was literally helping me untangle some microphone cables when this exchange happened, chimed in, “Me, too. Falwell preaches the opposite of Christ’s teaching, and if you’re going there, I’m resigning from the board and pulling my kids out of the choir.”
The director made some sort of joke to diffuse and change the subject. Later he made sure to inform both of us that he had decided on his own against pursuing the Thomas Road gig because the strict dress code would, among other things, force us to change our uniform and force a lot of the guys to get extremely short haircuts. I like to think that excuse was his way of saving face, and that my threat had been effective.
And so while later that summer in 1981 we did perform at a Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, it wasn’t Falwell’s—it was a beautiful historical building, which is still there, though it has since merged with another church and changed its name and denomination. And I’m glad I didn’t have to quit the chorus over it.
All of these memories came to mind this week as there is a new (and to me totally unsurprising) development in the story of Falwell’s heir, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and his pool boy scandals: ‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence – More than two dozen current and former Liberty University officials describe a culture of fear and self-dealing at the largest Christian college in the world.
You may remember that the two pool boy scandals of which I’ve written before — besides having a lot of sexual innuendo — involved Falwell, Jr. finding ways to finance multi-million dollar real estate deals for the benefit of the handsome young men after spending a lot of time flying each young man to various luxurious places along with Falwell and his wife on their private jet.
The new article (interestingly enough written by a journalist who attended Liberty University) lists other financial deals, including loans of $300,000 and more to Falwell’s friends, funneling lucrative contracts related to the university to businesses owned by his son, and more. Plus, apparently Falwell is very fond of talking about his sex life with colleagues. With a lot of crude details of the things he and his wife do.
And most tellingly, in one incident involving the guy many of us have referred to as “the other pool boy” (though he was employed as a personal trainer when he met Falwell, Jr). Junior texted pictures of his wife in sexual fetish costumes—to a bunch of staff members, plus the trainer. He claimed afterward that he had meant to just send it to the trainer (I believe that), but he also tried to claim to the people accidentally included on the wayward message that the purpose of sharing the pictures was not actually sexual. No! Falwell, Jr sent the personal trainer pictures of Mrs. Falwell in fetish gear because the trainer had helped her lose a lot of weight.
Um, yeah, no I don’t believe that.Listen, hot-wifing, threeways, and cuckold fantasies are all perfectly healthy sexual things that a committed couple who are into ethical non-monogamy should be able to engage in without shame. But when you run a couple of massive non-profit organizations (and draw more than a million dollars in salary between those jobs) that explicitly condemn homosexuality, family planning, women’s rights, sexual liberty, drinking, and dancing (yes, dancing!)—well, then this kind of scandal becomes of interest to the public. Because remember, those non-profit organizations are tax exempt, and therefore all of these shenanigans are being subsidized by our tax dollars.
On top of that, Falwell, Jr effectively swung the evangelical base of the Republican party firmly behind Trump (and all of the evil, non-Christ-like policies that has unleashed on us). And apparently he did so because Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, made a blackmailer with more of those kinds of pictures of Mrs. Falwell go away.
You should go read the Politico story. It is full of fascinating details (and keeps the sexual stuff, as much as it could be, more tasteful than I would). The amount of information that people were willing to give the reporter is amazing, given that Liberty University and the associated businesses famously have very strict non-disclosure agreements that claim to stay in force even after a person leaves.
Speaking of those agreements: Jerry Falwell: I Called The FBI On Liberty U Traitors. That’s right! Junior has called the FBI on people for tattling on him.
Listen, some of those financial deals are clearly prosecutable crimes. Junior’s using tuition funds and donations to finance his jet-setting lifestyle and that of his friends—and probably sex partners.
“We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,” said a senior university official with inside knowledge of Liberty’s finances. “We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”
Given that he’s been flying some of these people across state lines in his private jet to close some of these deals, Junior maybe should have thought twice before calling the Feds.
Maybe he thinks that his buddy, Trump, will bail him out. After all, Trump’s very fine lawyer, Michael Cohen, helped get rid of that pesky blackmailer right? Except now Cohen is cooling his heels in federal prison, convicted of financial crimes on Trump’s behalf. Trump hasn’t shown any sign of being willing to pardon Cohen. Or any of the four other people Mueller got to plead guilty to related crimes, nor the four people Mueller got convicted, nor the 19 other people still under indictment whose cases are on-going.
So, Junior may need to start prepping for some less luxurious accommodations than those he is currently accustomed to.
(Part of the title of this post comes from the hymn, “Up from the Grave He Arose (Low in the Grave He Lay),” by Robert Lowry. It was hymn number 113 in the 1956 Baptist Hymnal.)
Anyone who has ever dealt with an internet troll has seen this tactic.
Unfortunately, anyone who is paying attention to Seattle politics right now are witnessing a particularly loathsome use of the tactic. I’ve written before about the allegations that Mayor Murray hired teen-age prostitutes and/or sexually abused teens in his care 30-some years ago in Oregon. The allegations came to light because of a suspiciously timed lawsuit filed on behalf of an anonymous man, and the lawyer pressing the case behaved strangely—filing motions with the court that weren’t legitimate filings but rather press releases citing strange gossipy items about the mayor (leading the judge to both warn and fine the lawyer). The mayor decided not to seek re-election. When, not long after the filing deadline to run for mayor and one day before the first sworn answers to question were to be given by the plaintiff/accuser, the lawsuit was suddenly withdrawn, a lot of us thought that maybe there wasn’t anything to the allegations.
And since time immemorial, people have accused all queer people of being pedophiles or other kinds of sexual predators, so it was easy to see this as just another example of that prejudice, right?
Murray maintained that when the accusations came to light about 33 years ago and were investigated by both the police and other agencies, he had been cleared—investigators, he said, had all agreed that the accusations from the teens were unfounded. We knew the country prosecutor had declined to file charges. Oregon’s child protective services said that the case had been closed and that most of the files related to the case had been destroyed some years ago. Given how anti-gay the police and prosecutors in that part of Oregon were known to be in the 80s, it seemed that there must not have been any evidence to sustain the charges.
Well, now we know that’s not quite true.
Some of the records that were thought to be destroyed have been found. And after getting permission from the person who was the teen-age accuser at the time, redacted versions of the files have been released. Murray had been a foster parent at the time of some of these accusations, and one of the people who alleged he had sexually abused him was a foster teen in his care. The agency investigated and concluded that there was reasonable cause to believe abuse had occurred. Murray’s certification to be a foster parent was therefore revoked, with the agency officially finding that he should never be allowed to be a foster parent again.
The mayor’s response to this revelation has been to claim he had no idea of the finding and then argue that child protective services always errs on the side of believing the child, therefore the accusations shouldn’t be believed. There have been a series of statements from his lawyers in which the goalposts have been moved a few times while trying to draw a distinction between the criminal law standard of guilt of “beyond a reasonable doubt” and the standards adhered to by agencies like child protective services.
It is technically true that the standard for conviction in a criminal case is higher than the standard used by child protective services. But statistically it is absolutely not true that those sorts of agencies believe the kids all of the time, or even most of the time. The vast majority of the time when such accusations are investigated, the agencies determine that the allegations are probably unfounded. Unfortunately, other statistics indicates that they reach this conclusion erroneously more times than not.
We also now know that at least one prosecutor was convinced that Murray was guilty. She withdrew charges related to the foster child not because there was insufficient evidence, but because the troubled teen ran away from the group home he’d been moved to, and was literally unavailable to testify.
The teens were all kids who Murray had encountered because they were already troubled. They were in the system because of parental abuse, neglect, or abandonment. They had drug issues. They were exactly the sorts of kids that people wouldn’t believe. We know now from numerous studies that they are exactly the sorts of victims certain types of abusers seek out, precisely because of that lack of credibility.
When the agency concluded the allegations of abuse by the foster teen were founded, they were required to notify Murray that his certification was being revoked and offer him a chance to appeal the finding. Murray didn’t appeal. He instead left Oregon and returned to his home town, Seattle. Given the timing of his departure, I’m having a very hard time believing that he never received the notice and the offer of an appeal. So I don’t believe him when he says he never knew about the finding.
And that throws a shadow of doubt over the rest of his denials.
Each time the allegations were brought up to him over the years, his first reaction was immediately attack the credibility of each teen involved. Then it was to attack the credibility and question the motives of any lawyers or investigators who were looking into the allegations. And now, by asserting that child protective services always errs on the side of believing the accuser, he’s attacking the credibility of the agency.
And what makes it loathsome, is that each day he remains in the office of Mayor and gets away with attacking the credibility of the accusers, investigators, and agency charged with protecting kids has a chilling effect on other abuse victims out there. It sends a clear message that if they come forward, they will not be believed. If anyone believes them, those people will be discredited.
Whether Murray committed the abuse or not, the chilling effect helps abusers and hurts abuse victims.
So much time has passed and the waters have been so muddied that these allegations from 30-some years ago probably couldn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal court (which we’ll never know because of the statute of limitations). But “charges dropped because the witness went missing” is not the definition of exonerated. And “reasonable cause to believe the abuse had occurred” sure as heck isn’t the definition of unfounded. It doesn’t have to reach the criminal law definition of Guilty for reasonable people to conclude Not Innocent.
It has been argued that the city council can’t impeach the mayor because the charter only allows them to do that if he commits a willful violation of duty, which in general meant violation of his duties as mayor while serving in office. But the charter also says the mayor may be removed over an offence involving “moral turpitude.” Turpitude, according to my dictionaries, is “an evil way of behaving.” Whether he committed the abuse or not, I certainly think his behaviors of lying about knowing that the charges had been found as probably true and attacking the standard of proof that a child protective agency should use could be described as evil, don’t you?