Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. Why Jerry Falwell Jr. telling Vanity Fair he’s not religious ought to prompt some evangelical self-reflection … How I failed to love Falwell all that well … What Bambi has to teach us about a theology of the Cross … And a Desert Island Bookshelf … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
Jerry Falwell Jr. Is No Hypocrite

Over the past week, countless friends texted me a Vanity Fair profile of former Liberty University chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., featuring an extended interview with the man who went from being a kingmaker in the 2016 presidential election to resigning after a series of scandals.

What most people highlighted was not the salacious recounting of the stories but one particular quote from Falwell: “Because of my last name, people think I’m a religious person. But I’m not. My goal was to make them realize I’m not my dad.”

For some, this shows the problem: hypocrisy. If only it were.

When I say that Jerry Falwell Jr. is no hypocrite, I mean it in only one sense. Obviously, Falwell was hypocritical in, among other things, allegedly engaging in behavior that, for even the smallest of the offenses, would have led to fines or expulsions for his students. In that sense, the scandal is similar to the revelations that British prime minister Boris Johnson attended Downing Street cocktail parties while the public was forbidden by law to gather due to COVID-19 public health measures.

And, of course, beyond that is the much more fundamental matter: How can the chancellor of one of the world’s largest Christian universities justify his behavior by saying he’s not religious?

That’s precisely the point, though. Hypocrisy is an ongoing and always-present danger in the church. Jesus warned us to beware of hypocrisy—charging the religious leaders of his day with maintaining piety out of pretense.

For Jesus, the congruence between the inner and the outer—the heart and the mouth, the motivations and the behavior, the public and the private—is a crucial matter of integrity before God. The warnings were needed, Jesus told us, because hypocrisy is, by definition, crafty and hidden. Wolves look like lambs, which is why they are able to ravage the flock.

For such hypocrisy, Jesus used the metaphor of yeast (Luke 12:1)—a metaphor he also used for the kingdom of God (13:20–21). In other words, both hypocrisy and the kingdom work powerfully but invisibly, under the surface of perception. Only in the very long term are such hidden realities brought to light (12:2).

Hypocrisy typically leaves people vulnerable to deception and predation precisely because it is so carefully hidden. I often find churches or ministries unable to discover horrific things done in their ministries because they assume that evildoers in the church give off a creepy vibe or have a supervillain’s sinister laugh.

The most dangerous hypocrites, though, are those who are actually skilled at hypocrisy—at pretense, at hiding, at mirroring the look of true fidelity.

Yet Jerry Falwell Jr. told us repeatedly how he saw the world. When confronted with the immorality and scandals of his preferred presidential candidate, Falwell didn’t seek to measure the moral deficiencies against what he saw as the greater good as much as he ridiculed the premise of the question. To him, Trump was moral because he had created jobs and made payroll. Unlike some other Trump evangelical supporters—with whom I disagreed but whose positions were reasonable and understandable—Falwell didn’t try to measure the business leader’s intemperate and crass attacks on people with some other objective, judicial nominations, for instance. Instead he often mimicked such attacks, right along with the cartoonish and bullying tone of them.

Falwell Jr. frequently spoke not in terms of the gospel or the way of Christ, even parenthetically, but in terms of decidedly Machiavellian political aims and objectives. When individuals questioned the cost to Christian witness of merging evangelicalism with populist demagoguery, he often dismissed them as though they were morally preening puritans, out of touch with the real world.

When his own scandals started to proliferate, Falwell did not defend himself as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. He didn’t even (as do so many scandal-ridden Christian leaders) present himself as a repentant David in the middle of Psalm 51. Falwell said that he was a lawyer, not a preacher—as though the commands to integrity, obedience, repentance, and mercy were ordination vows, not the call of Jesus on every one of his disciples and, even before that, written by God on the consciences of every human being.

In many ways, Jerry Falwell Jr. did not hide from us who he was. He told us, over and over again.

If the problem were his hypocrisy, we could blame him. We could absolve ourselves of responsibility. After all, how could we know? We knew enough to know that something was wrong here. When some of the details of the final days of the Falwell Jr. era were revealed, lots of people said, “How could he be this stupid and self-destructive?” But I don’t think many said, “How could this happen? He was such a godly man.”

That is a crisis of accountability, yes. If we cannot see the problems even when a leader is telling us (at least the roots of) them outright, how can we expect to keep watch for leaders who actually are skilled at mimicking discipleship and sanctification?

But this is also a crisis of love. As evangelical Christians, it is a scandal that we didn’t hold Jerry Falwell Jr. accountable for all the vulnerable people who suffered because of his decisions. And yet it’s more than that: It’s a tragedy that we did not love Jerry Falwell Jr. enough.

My reaction to some Christian scandals—the Ravi Zacharias revelations, for instance—is a kind of simmering anger at the leader. In the case of the Vanity Fair profile, though, I fail to see how anyone can read it and not come away with at least some compassion for Falwell.

When asked whether he was seeking to self-destruct, he said, “It’s almost like I didn’t have a choice.” And then he disclosed, repeatedly, how he identified with the wilder side of his family—the atheists and bootleggers—rather than with what he seems to resentfully consider the puritanical piety of his mother.

In this, he does not appear to be a prodigal son, rebelling against his father, as much as a son who loved his father and who counts him as being on his side. He and his father understood each other, he said. They shared an irreverent sense of humor and a knack for institution building.

While Falwell Sr. was building a Religious Right empire, the younger Falwell’s description of his role is telling: “I’d be the kid in the back of the auditorium selling my dad’s books and records to people while he preached. I would have all this money stuffed into every pocket. That was my life.”

Indeed it was. And, later, when the university his father built was in financial trouble, Falwell Jr. was tapped to help lead them out of it. In the article, he discloses how his father affirmed and admired his business savvy. And he was successful at that. As chancellor, Falwell Jr. built Liberty’s enrollment, campus, and financial reserves into a powerhouse. Even to the end while someone else was preaching, he was right there, selling.

In some ways, the Jerry Falwell Jr. story is emblematic of the state of American cultural Christianity. If, as the old saying goes, hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, then the older form of American cultural Christianity was genuine hypocrisy. Some people belonged to churches so they would be seen as good people. Even if they never believed, they sang the hymns and prayed the prayers and played on the church softball teams. The adulterer would pontificate on family values, and the embezzler would teach Sunday school classes on the Ten Commandments.

In time, as always happens, politicians sought to make this kind of religion a political force—a moral majority—that could de-emphasize the less popular aspects of Christianity (Trinity, incarnation, blood atonement, carrying a cross) and emphasize the more marketable aspects (fighting for the soul of America, reclaiming the culture, saving Western civilization).

Now, though, cultural Christianity seems to have evolved to the state where many people don’t even have to pretend to belong to churches. They just need to know how to post Facebook memes about Christian values right along with profane slogans about the president of the United States.

And behind all of that are real people—created in the image of God, destined for an eternity of glory or damnation. The consequences aren’t just societal or even just theological. They are strikingly and tragically personal.

Is it possible that Jerry Falwell Jr. could never see himself as anything but someone who had to succeed, who was trapped into leading a family business bound up in a religion he didn’t really embrace? I don’t know.

I do know that when a man tells us he was in such a desperate, self-destructive place for so long, we owe it to him—and to ourselves—to ask, “Were we so deceived that we couldn’t help him? Or did we turn our attention away as long as he was succeeding?”

If the latter, the problem isn’t Jerry Falwell Jr.’s hypocrisy. The problem is us.

My Own Personal Falwell

One more note on this subject. I was reluctant to write the piece above because of my own personal interactions with Jerry Falwell Jr. As you know, we came down on decidedly different sides of the questions not just about Donald Trump but about the nature of evangelical Christianity itself.

For a while in the Trump era, it seemed that every family vacation was interrupted by someone texting me, “Did you see what Jerry Falwell Jr. said about you on Twitter?” I was “deep state” or “an employee,” or I had “never made payroll.” None of this bothered me, because I never really took it seriously. It all seemed kind of clownish and sad to me. Some people made “Deep State SBC” T-shirts, which made me laugh.

At some point in 2018 or so, I was at the White House for a dinner timed with the National Day of Prayer. If you ever moved to a new town in middle school, then maybe you understand the feeling I had, sitting among the religious leaders in attendance. That might be the case, I guess, if at the new middle school the principal had called you a “nasty guy with no heart” and you had said that his attitude toward women was that of a Bronze Age warlord. I was not the most popular guy in the room.

But then vice president Mike Pence had invited me, and since it was a civic event, not a political event, I went. A pastor in a different ecclesial tradition talked to me on the way in, saying, “I’ve never been in the White House before. Can you tell me what to do?”

I responded, “Well, here’s a tip. I’m not the most popular person in this room, so you might not want to be seen talking to me.”

Several people in the room had tried unsuccessfully to have me fired. The person who greeted everyone was a prosperity gospel preacher whom I had publicly called a heretic and a huckster. (And I would say it again—in fact, I just did.) Like I said, it was awkward.

Jerry Falwell Jr., though, did not glare at me or avoid me. He walked right up and gregariously said, “Russell! Have you converted?”

I knew that he meant from my NeverTrump political views (spoiler alert: I had not), but I responded, “Oh yes! I converted to faith in Jesus Christ a long time ago, as an 11- or 12-year-old.”

He said, “You know what I mean.” Indeed, I did.

And then I stood there talking to him, thinking the whole time that, though I found him a tragic figure, I actually liked him. I could see another timeline where I would have actually enjoy talking to this person—not as a political player but as a human being. If he worked at the hardware store in my neighborhood or the coffee shop down the street, I would probably find myself hanging around to catch up and laugh at his jokes.

After I left, I waited for the next time he would attack me on Twitter—knowing that it would probably come when I was on vacation, so I could look forward to that.

When I say “we” didn’t love Jerry Falwell Jr. enough, I don’t mean “y’all.” I mean “me.”

I realize that, even in our interaction in the East Room, I more or less saw Falwell as an avatar of his public presence. I did exactly what I have spoken or taught against many times: Except for a flash here or there, I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that this was a real person—maybe a person in great pain, hiding behind a tough, quarrelsome persona. I was seeing him too much as “Jerry Falwell” and not enough as “Jr.”

What if I had said, “Hey, let’s step over here out of public view. Are you okay? What’s going on with you?” Probably nothing would have resulted from that. I hadn’t earned the right to that sort of personal access in his life—in the same way that my friends can confront me in all sorts of ways that my (for lack of a better word) enemies never could.

But, still, at least I would have recognized that this was not just a collection of tweets and TV appearances and fundraising letters but a person—and maybe a person who, inside, was feeling no choice but to self-destruct.

Maybe my reaching out would have made no difference to that hurting, self-destructing person. But it just might to the next one. I pray I pay attention.

A Theology of Bambi

Years ago, I saw a short film, not even two minutes long, called Bambi Meets Godzilla. It consisted of the opening credits, a young deer nibbling on some grass and flowers, a huge reptilian foot flattening the deer, and the closing credits. The joke works only because of the incongruence between a nuclear-powered alpha predator (Godzilla) and the symbol of naïve and (kind of literally) doe-eyed innocence.

After reading an analysis of the book behind the animated Disney movie Bambi, though, I wondered if the Godzilla version might be more faithful to the original than the movie-length cartoon.

In this week’s New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz profiles Felix Salten, the author of Bambi, which was recently translated into a new English version. (The original was translated by Whittaker Chambers, of Alger Hiss trial fame.) Schulz quotes Stephen King as calling Bambi the first horror movie he ever saw. That’s because, of course, almost every child who saw the film remembers the scene of (spoiler alert, but good grief, the movie released in 1942) Bambi’s mother being shot and killed by a hunter.

Yet Schulz argues that the book on which the movie was based was far bleaker. In the book, multiple anthropomorphized animal characters die, in the grisliest ways possible, all while relaying what Schulz calls “the ultimate message of Bambi: anything short of extreme self-reliance is shameful; interdependence is unseemly, restrictive, and dangerous.”

Schulz writes, “This is The Fountainhead with fawns.” Salten wrote Bambi not, she says, as a romanticization of nature but as just the reverse: to show nature “as it really is: a place where life is always contingent on death, where starvation, competition, and predation are the norm.”

Most interesting to me was Schulz’s presentation of what can only be called a theology of Bambi. “Man” is the silent but ever-present force in the novel. When the animal characters speak of “Man,” they do so as the capitalized “He.” The conflicts are between those animals who see “Man” as benevolent and wise and those who know the truth: that they will be hunted and killed by this enemy. The headline of Schulz’s piece in the print edition is, brilliantly, “Eat, Prey, Love.”

The picture is bleak indeed. And to some degree, that’s what nature looks like if all that we see is the fallen universe that the apostle Paul tells us is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:22), waiting “in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (v. 19).

The real Story of the universe is not as bleak as Bambi the book or the movie. It is, in fact, good news. What seems to be a law of the survival of the fittest, the rule of the predator over the powerless, is all undone by the Cross.

The picture that John received in the Book of Revelation—of Christ as a lamb against a beast, a baby fighting a dragon—would have seemed as outmatched as Bambi versus Godzilla, especially to people living in the Roman Empire where the state’s intimidating power was seen in a cross. “If you step out of line, we can crucify you” was the message of those wooden stakes.

And yet the Lamb is triumphant. Godzilla is thrown down.

If we see Bambi as symbolizing not ignorance but wisdom, not impotence but an altogether different kind of power, then we can somewhat appreciate the surprise of first-century believers reading that Bambi defeats Godzilla after all.

Desert Island Bookshelf

This week’s submission comes from reader Justin Erwin, whose wife said he was “on an ‘Ortlund kick’ this summer/fall,” but he didn’t care. No apologies needed here! We are always on an Ortlund kick at the Moore house. Here are Justin’s picks:

  • The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter—It’s a reminder to “take heed to myself” in all aspects of life. Great book, even with ye olde English.

  • Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy by Mark Vroegop—My wife and I walked through a hard season in our lives in 2019–2020, and we’re still growing from it. I recognized in reading through this that I had no idea what it meant to lament to God. Reading through it (and watching the sermons) gave me a beautiful understanding about the okay-ness to ask God, “Why did you let this happen?” and to then, in turn, lean in all the more to his grace and trust in his sovereignty and love for his children.

  • Weep with Me by Mark Vroegop—A follow-up to Dark Clouds, Weep with Me steps into the world of racial reconciliation in the United States and gives a biblical perspective on lamenting the sins of racism. I loved that it included prayers from various pastors of churches around the US that tied so well into the themes of the chapters. As a white dude, it was convicting and yet so eye-opening.

  • Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper—I read this book in undergrad ten years ago, and I never made it through the whole thing. I thought then that I knew what living a life that mattered meant. I see now how wrong my perspective was, and reading Piper’s call to arms this year, at the precipice of thirty, helped me rest knowing that the years ahead, whatever they might hold, are for God’s glory and can’t be wasted.

  • Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund—The copy pictured was tasted for quality by my dog, Cooper, and it makes me love it all the more. Every believer needs to read this book. Every nonbeliever should read this book. Everyone who thinks they know who Jesus was and is should read this book.

  • Deeper by Dane Ortlund—As I read this, time and again my heart pointed back to a hymn from my childhood: “O soul, are you weary and troubled? / No light in the darkness you see? / There’s light for a look at the Savior, / And life more abundant and free. / Turn your eyes upon Jesus, / Look full in his wonderful face, / And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, / In the light of his glory and grace.”

  • The Death of Porn by Ray Ortlund—My wife joked that I was on an “Ortlund kick” this summer/fall, but I don’t care. Ortlund writes from the position not only of a dad to a son but also of an imperfect sinner to imperfect sinners. It’s straightforward, loving, stern, and kind all at once. It’s the book I needed my dad to write to me.

  • Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel by Ray Ortlund—See? Ortlund kick. Ray Ortlund looks at the concept of marriage across the writings of Scripture from Eden to the new heaven and earth and ties it to how we should see marriage in our day. I love my marriage, and this book made me love marriage as an institution that much more.

  • The Lord of the Rings set by J. R. R. Tolkien—I’ve loved the movies my whole life and had never read the books. To be fair, I’ve still never “read” the books, but the audiobooks narrated by Robert Inglis were so much fun to listen to. Tolkien’s magnum opus is just that: a magnum opus. It’s definitional literary beauty and accomplishment and will go down in history as my favorite fiction of all time. (And that’s coming from a kid who grew up wishing he’d get his letter from Hogwarts when he turned 11.) Plus, Samwise Gamgee is perhaps the most loyal example of a friend anyone could ever ask for.

  • The Messiah Comes to Middle-Earth by Philip Ryken—Ryken examines the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King from the writings of Tolkien’s tale of the One Ring. It led me to conclude that, for a man who would vehemently tell you he was anti-allegory, Tolkien sure had a lot of allegory in his books.

Thanks, Justin! What do you think?

If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one bookshelf or one playlist with you for the rest of your life, what books or songs would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of up to 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

Send your list to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the moment

Toby Ziegler: “Hey, your favorite movie was on TV last night.”

President Josiah Bartlet: “By God, I’m fifty, alive, and a king all at the same time.”

Ziegler: “I turned it on just as they got to scene when Richard, Geoffrey, and John were locked in the dungeon, and Henry was coming down to execute them. Richard tells his brothers not to cower but to take it like men, and Geoffrey says, ‘You fool! As if it matters how a man falls down.’ And Richard says …”

Both together: “‘When the fall is all that’s left…’”

Bartlet: “‘…it matters a great deal.’”

Ziegler: “‘It matters a great deal.’”

Bartlet: “You trying to tell me something?”

Ziegler: “No, Mr. President. Of course not.”

—from West Wing, season 3, episode 11

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