When family values meet political reality  

28 June 2019

PA

Jerry Falwell, Jr. (right) with President Donald Trump in 2017

Jerry Falwell, Jr. (right) with President Donald Trump in 2017

I HAVE been in Singapore, and on my return was struck by an eldritch coincidence: here is Tim Stanley, a clever young Roman Catholic, writing in The Daily Telegraph: “In this unique historical context, the private life of the next leader of the Tory party doesn’t matter a jot to most Tories, however much they do care about family values. All that matters is they get a leader who they think can, almost by a miracle [secure Brexit], because the alternative, from the look of the polls, is certain destruction.”

And here, from The Straits Times of Singapore, is a report from the national congress of Malaysia’s Islamist party: “The party president Hadi Awang . . . told 3,000 party delegates and observers at the opening of the party’s annual three-day assembly. . . ‘Integrity without Islam is not accepted by Allah, and a person with faith who has no integrity is still better than someone with integrity but no faith.’”

 

THIS leads, irresistibly, to the consideration of Jerry Falwell, Jr., the son of the founder of the moral majority, whose surprise endorsement of Donald Trump — when he was expected to go for the more conventionally Evangelical candidate Ted Cruz — was one of the factors which swung the 2016 presidential election.

There has been considerable puzzlement ever since about why he would do so, and The New York Times had a long piece that circled the question without ever quite delivering an explicit answer: “Mr Falwell — who is not a minister and spent years as a lawyer and real estate developer — said his endorsement was based on Mr Trump’s business experience and leadership qualities. A person close to Mr Falwell said he made his decision after ‘consultation with other individuals whose opinions he respects’. But a far more complicated narrative is emerging about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the months before that important endorsement.

“That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.”

The NYT went on to report: “Mr Falwell has said there were no compromising photographs.”

Much is still unclear, but earlier versions of this story have appeared in The Washington Post and on the political website TPM, from which the next excerpt comes: “Falwell and his family — royals of a vast Fundamentalist empire and head of Liberty University — were the owners of a tumble down, flea bag hostel in one of the seedier parts of Miami.”

They had installed as a manager a then 21-year-old pool boy from the very much grander hotel which they had stayed at when they met him in 2012. Despite his complete lack of experience in management, they spent more than a million dollars renovating the hotel, and gave him an equity share in it. Later, it turns out that Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer (who is now, of course, on his way to prison) had helped the Falwells to recover from an unnamed party in Florida some photographs “of the sort that should only be shared between man and wife”, Reuters was quoted by the website as saying, some months before Mr Falwell gave his valuable endorsement to Trump. No doubt more will emerge in time.

 

IT SEEMS obvious from stories like this that the once mighty edifice of American conservative Evangelicalism is going to come crashing down in the next ten or 20 years. The leaders will lose their moral authority just as surely as the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has done, and, once that goes, the political authority will wither as well.

Just ask an archbishop what happens when “robes of office” are disenchanted into “dressing up”. Moral authority is best understood as power over the imagination of your followers. As a leader, you can change the world, or you can change how people see the world, and the second power is greater and lasts longer.

 

THIS power to change how the world appears can survive quite a lot of bruising contact with the world as it is. The readers of the Telegraph believe that Boris Johnson can deliver them from “Europe”, however often he is led into temptation; and they will continue to believe this for some time after he has failed to do so — but they won’t do so for ever.

What makes the present moment so confusing, though, is that there is no obvious successor to old, and failing, imaginative pictures. The corruption and moral bankruptcy of traditional Conservatism is not balanced by a surge in Liberal values but by its opposite: a huge emotional revulsion from Liberalism, and a sense that people are really not atomic particles whose connections with each other can be broken and remade as if they were only contracts.

I don’t think the answer can be ideological. It must involve, on some level, the rediscovery or emergence of rituals and liturgies: ways to anchor the imagination into the quotidian. Perhaps the thing for which Archbishop Welby will be longest remembered is his Community of St Anselm.

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