Traversing the Fantasy of Jerry Falwell Jr. and American Politics?

Fantasy is what obscures or covers over the inherent antagonism or contradictions in our personal or national identity. This antagonism is the force which pits one race and class against another culturally but it is also the antagonistic force at work within the individual. The fantasy of personal identity covers over the incongruence and contradiction which plagues us, and the fantasy which holds a culture together functions like a mass delusion to hide the inherent contradiction of a people. Every individual and culture is structured around its fantasy, covering points of contradiction or impossibility. When the fantasy fails, the points which might seem to have been disrupting the culture, are exposed as the structuring principle of the culture. Fantasy does not resolve or reconcile but obfuscates the inherent antagonism. For example, the fantasmatic Jew in anti-Semitism (hoarding the wealth conspiring against and blocking the Aryan race) covers class antagonism, in the same way the phantasm of black jouissance in American racism projects onto blacks or people of color the disturbance of what would otherwise be a harmonious social organism. The foreign element (the Jew, the black, the foreigner, etc.) “disrupting the harmony” creates the lure of this harmonious fantasy. The pain, disruption, disharmony, which we are now experiencing might evoke a “traversing” or exposure of the fundamental fantasy or it might result in the compounding of commitment to the lie. To put the question in perspective we can turn to a more controlled and limited instance, a smaller instantiation, of what plagues the nation. What is wrong with Jerry Falwell Jr.?

The success of Jerry Falwell Jr. has far exceeded the vision cast by his father, and there is a sense in which his vision brings together the inherent antagonism erupting around us.  It is not just that his support of Donald Trump was key in swaying evangelicals to support Trump, it is not just that his school and family have been key in the rise of the rise of the religious right, but his vision fixed upon the figures of his father and Donald Trump explains not only his own contradictions but the unfolding national implosion. As the president of Liberty University (the most ironic of names) Falwell Jr. unleashed the business, sports, and political potential of an institution founded upon the repression his father institutionalized in the school, in the Moral Majority, and in the wedding of right-wing politics and religion. Falwell’s embrace and promotion of Donald Trump is a natural, if not necessary, extension of his father’s vision but it is also speaks of his private perversity.  It is no accident that law and order, racism, and sexuality of the repressed and transgressive sort, have taken center stage in the man and in the movement, which characterizes a large portion of the country.

As Paul (and Žižek) describe it, there is always a split in the law in which the law would repress or forbid jouissance and in the process creates the seeming possibility of a transgressive enjoyment. In Paul’s description it is this very prohibition that brings about jouissance or forbidden desire (“I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET” (Ro. 7:7)). In turn, the repressive figure of Jerry Sr. does not preclude but entails the necessity of a Trump like figure (the restriction of the one points to the enjoyment of the other). Trump, with his wealth, transgressive sexual practices, racism, and open agitation of violence, is the tangible empowerment of those who support him. (As I have described elsewhere (here), the power to discipline, punish, penetrate, demarcate, and procreate, whether by judicial decree, military might, or sexual prowess, is, by definition, physical; a pure biopolitics in that it is synonymous with an incarnate power.) Trump is the incarnation of evangelical desire for power. The inherent racism (the original impetus of Jerry Sr. to form a political lobby so as to maintain both racial discrimination and tax-exempt status for his school), the repressive sexuality (no prolonged hugging, anti-homosexuality) leading to sexual perversion, the promotion of violence and guns, and the financial and business success, describe not only Liberty but the dynamics driving evangelical’s support of Trump.

Jerry’s perverse sexual activity is no more a betrayal of his father than his support of Trump. His is an unquestioning acquiescence to the fantasy of an absolute law. By the same token, the transgressive life Jerry seems to have enjoyed was his means of establishing the puritanical law.  He would establish this binary law (doing evil that the good may come) in the same way he would establish the law of his father through Trump. Of course, just as black people, foreigners, and liberals are the perceived gap or enemy of a balanced culture, the enemy in Jerry’s world was the transgressive desire of his wife for Giancarlo Granda.  This foreign sounding name, of this almost colored pool boy, provided prohibited pleasure (jouissance) from the underside of the law. All blame lies with the pool boy in the same way the Jews, blacks, people of color, or the foreigner, are to blame. These foreign elements simultaneously disrupt and indicate there is more pleasure to be had.  

For his admirers like Falwell, Trump is representative of the obscene pre-Oedipal father partaking directly of the jouissance or excess enjoyment of the law they are denied. As the very embodiment of law, Trump need not hesitate (he can directly “grab them by the pussy”), while Falwell requires a mediator (a pool boy) to enjoy for him, as he has access to jouissance only through the “big Other” behind the law. The repression of the father means repression is part of his own possibility of phallic enjoyment, which is to be had in the simultaneous pleasure in pain or guilty enjoyment. His father, Jerry Senior, serves as the prime figure behind the public presentation of the law but Trump provides the sort of access to the powerful underside of the law that Jerry Jr. embraced.

As in the Fall, the knowledge of good and evil is itself an indicator that there is more to the prohibition of the Father than appears on the surface. As the serpent indicates, it is not death but life that is accessed through transgression. The perverse orientation presumes the law is itself the indicator that something more is available – it points to the opportunity for more (excess) life and knowledge. The perceived disruption, lack, or absence must be filled in on the other side of the law. Pursuit of forbidden desire is the force of lack (sin) as it takes control: “sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind” (Ro. 7:8). The command not to covet or desire gives rise to desire. “Thou shall not,” is the imperative to enjoy (to really live) by means of transgression.

The theology of Jerry Falwell, like the theology of evangelicals, seems to follow, and not contradict, the logic of the serpent. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals indicated as much, when confronted with the inconsistency of preaching against homosexuality while having a homosexual affair (see here). Haggard explained to Larry King that Christianity is a “belief system” (not “a way,” an ethic, or set of practices) which not only takes into account but is marked by the expectation of sin: “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous, I knew Jesus had come for me.” The sin confirms the grace; the evil establishes the good. Pat Robertson has confirmed in his vision of heaven, Donald Trump sits in the place of Jesus, at the right hand of God, and in his description of his approval of Trump, it was precisely his lurid sexual adventures Robertson smilingly approved of.  As Dallas megaChurch Pastor and Trump supporter Robert Jeffress has put it, Trump is preferable to a candidate like Jesus (or Jesus-like) for President as Christ’s Lordship and ethics (as described in the Sermon on the Mount) do not pertain to governance of an earthly nation. We need an unrestricted ethic to engage the realities of the world; one that is not bound by the inherent weaknesses of mere love of neighbor and God. The exposure of the sexual perversity in Falwell and Trump are not then, an obstacle, but a perverse sort of confirmation.

It is evangelical theology that partly sustains the fantasy (a future heavenly harmony disconnected from earthly ethics) obscuring the antagonism erupting before us. Doubling down on the racism, squelching the protestors (equating all protesters with rioters), and reinforcing the demand for law and order, is the equivalent of blaming and punishing the pool boy. The evocation of fear on the part of President Trump is precisely what is called for in warding off the choice being posed in this moment. Fear of immigrants, fear of open borders, fear of an uncontrolled black population, fear of rioters and violence, are the only thing inhibiting confrontation with the antagonisms constituting the social body. It is a real question whether the culture can hold together without its fetishes of fear, but clearly the lie (the fantasy) can no longer contain the antagonism, so that this moment is providing the opportunity to traverse the fantasy and expose the lie. At the least, we need to turn to face reality, and abandon a politics that continues to obfuscate the antagonism of racism, classism, and sexism (the structuring principle of this social order).

Forsaking Christian Ideology

It was a hot summer night in Texas when my family, including my grandmother, went to hear the evangelist, James Robinson.  He was holding a city-wide revival on the high school football field and had spoken in an all school assembly earlier in the week. The country had just passed through the most turbulent and traumatic year of the 20th century, with the Vietnam War heating up (with the Battle of Khe Sanh and Johnson’s increase of U.S. troop levels to half a million), with the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and with the eruption of violent protests across the country. The underlying antagonisms within the culture were erupting, and though it was partly beyond my conscious awareness and seemed to be a world apart from this little town in Texas, our move from Phoenix to Dalhart had set our family into the midst of this rift. Culturally and ideologically this revival marked my point of separation from my brothers, who had not made the move to Texas. I believe the political/cultural split of 2020, is the culmination of the divide that was opening up in the country, in our family, and within myself, in 1968.  

Personally, and for the culture as a whole, the full-blown ideology of today would come gradually throughout the ensuing decades. The fusion of right-wing politics with Christianity was still a work in progress for the culture and for me personally, as I was only thirteen years old and I would remain mostly unchurched and unindoctrinated for several years. The journey of James Robinson points to the fact that the ideological trajectory we have reached was not a foregone conclusion. At age 25 in 1968, his was a powerful and ecumenical message of redemption. In the 1970’s, like many others nationally but especially in Texas, he began to focus on homosexuality (for which he was forced off his television station). By 1980 he declared he was “sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals, and the perverts, and the liberals, and the leftists, and the communists coming out of the closet,” and called for “God’s people” to fight back. But then in the mid-1980’s he withdrew from this sort of rhetoric, only to be drawn back into right wing politics with the rise of Barack Obama. When I went forward at his revival, religious nationalism, the John Birch Society with its anti-communism, the anti-Civil Rights racism, were there as background but these were the days before Jerry Falwell (to say nothing of Junior) and the Moral Majority, before Ronald Reagan and the rise of the religious right. The religion I imbibed in the 1960’s was far from uncorrupted but in my naïveté, I remained innocent for several years of the ideology that was overtaking evangelicalism. I say this, as I presume that mine was an eventual recovery of a faith that was gradually and only partially corrupted by ideology (which I admit, may be too presumptuous).

This ideology is like every other in its basic shape, and the point of Christianity is to name this idol, not to worship it. The problem is that the very nature of ideology blinds us to the fact that we are believers and practitioners of ideology. My education in bible college and seminary had largely numbed me to any distinction between Christianity and nationalism. It was only as a missionary in Japan that I became fully aware that my religious faith had been subverted. I began to recognize that the basic elements of Christianity, the doctrines which many would claim are at the core of the faith (e.g. inerrancy, America as a Christian nation, conversion, personal faith) had been hijacked.  

This became clearest to me in my encounter with Japanese nationalism, in which I began to recognize my own religious nationalism. The religion of Japan, inclusive of Shintoism and Buddhism, was a support of Japanese nationalism and the resurgence of the Japanese economy after the War. In an oversimplified but true illustration of this, in the case of a shoe manufacturer in Tokyo, the company got its start by working young country girls, sometimes literally to death, under the guise of serving the nation. The propaganda was something like, “All good Japanese people want to better their country and it is their patriotic duty to work for low wages, seven days a week, without benefit of health insurance or benefits, so that together we might make Japan great again.” This is a simplified version of this trickle-down economy deployed throughout Japan in the postwar period. Enriching the owners of the company was equated with enriching Japan and this was part of one’s patriotic duty as a good Japanese citizen. I was familiar with this nationalistic call to work for God and country and this trickle down economy. (On my return to the States, I was surprised to see the same propaganda put out in “right to work initiatives” in Missouri. In short, the bill threatened unions and was supported by corporations in a cynical move to limit collective bargaining.) These crude ideologies point to the same basic structure.    

The simplest way to understand ideology is to take note of all of its elements as it first appears in the biblical story in Genesis 3. (The point here is illustrative, so that as we come to the ideologies which have a grip on evangelicalism, we can begin to identify the same elements.) The serpent inspired ideology in Genesis, “You will know good and evil and you will be like gods” seems to be saying something positive and grand, but of course it is a lie, and as with any lie, this one covers over what is absent in the lie. It is this negation or absence that stands at the center of ideology, and this is key. What does not appear or what is directly denied and displaced is death. Good and evil and being like God are known primarily on the basis of this absent center. So too, the “right to work” is a positive way of saying no union. It is primarily identified through what it is not.  In Stalinist Russia, the will of “the Party,” is on the order of the way “Freedom” is deployed in America, or the way “Jesus” is deployed by the National Prayer Breakfast (the “Family” – see here). A word, concept, or master signifier can be imagined to have a profound significance while it is an empty center which provides the object around which people can unite and to which they can provide their allegiance. The resulting group might be considered political or religious, but the sure sign that it is an ideology is that the signifier is so malleable as to be empty.

For example, prayer, in the National Prayer Breakfast, takes that most pious act and detaches it from any particular notion of God, Jesus, or petition, so that an all-inclusive group of believers, non believers, atheists, and concerned citizens (i.e. those seeking political influence) can be joined together under the master signifier of prayer. To whom prayer is directed or the purpose the prayer might immediately have, is secondary to the fact that this master signifier unifies. The ideological and empty core is covered by a master signifier (which might be called “I,” “freedom,” “Moloch,” or “Jesus”) which seems to promise something positive but is empty. Key elements of evangelicalism have been made to play the role of a master signifier where the faith functions ideologically. Biblical inerrancy, which displaces “mere” inspiration, is a negative statement (no errors) which signifies nothing. Accepting Jesus into your heart, devoid of ethics and church, is made into an amorphous inward event signifying nothing at all. The biblical significance is displaced with a sign unattached to its original signified (significance).[1]

The classic biblical and secular example is the signifier “I,” which might seem to be the most concrete thing in existence. In the Cartesian phrase, “I think, therefore I am,” the thinking thing, as pointed out by Kant, is an inaccessible placeholder which is only known through what it is not – thought itself. Adam is the discoverer of this absent “I” in that with the Fall, he can only identify himself through what he does: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Gen. 3:10). What this signifier “I” signifies has been lost, and the repetition tied to a verb seems to be the attempt to obtain what has gone missing. Yet, this absence is given the sign “I,” which does not appear in the Bible prior to Adams first fallen sentence. Adam is a bundle of conflict, much like Paul will describe his “I” (in Rom. 7). This antagonism or conflict is not a secondary part of ideology, the antagonism is at the core of ideology.

The knowledge of good and evil names nothing other than the fact that one thing is defined over and against the other. It is not that the original pair discover truth in their knew knowledge but just the opposite; they have relinquished access to truth (God, or the fact that life is in and from God) for a lie. Where their original relationship to God was a relationship to ontological truth, their new truth is a circulating system of differential signs. Good is known through its Other, evil, and evil is known over and against its Other, the good. The mistake would be to assume that the trauma they experience (shame, alienation, antagonism, internal dividedness) is an exposure of the emptiness of this lie. Rather, the lie, with all of its antagonism and trauma now functions as truth. Fear and insecurity, the “I” against the Other or the “we” against God, now constitutes their system of identity; so too every ideology.

The great Other for American evangelicals was communism, which posed a threat so vast that it became the primary defining element against which Christianity came to be defined. Communists are tricky, as they may pass themselves off as trade unionists, black people in favor of civil rights, liberal academics, or as women libers. The war on “cultural Marxism” (a term not coined until the new millenium) had begun in the 1950’s and 60’s with the presumption that liberalism, socialism, the civil rights movement and atheism were all part of a unified communist front opposing the Christian Nation.

A key example (but one of many) of this anti-communist form of the faith is William F. Buckley, a conservative Catholic and eventually the best-known public intellectual of his day. He accused liberal historians of a “conspiracy” and he outlined how academic freedom was a shield for left-wingers, and thus an open door for the communists. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and had written in 1957 the “advanced” white race in the South was justified in taking “such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally,” in areas where “it does not predominate numerically.” Like nearly every conservative politician of the day, Buckley defended Joseph McCarthy for recognizing that “coercive measures” were necessary to enforce a new anticommunist “conformity.” His publication, National Review, suggested the civil rights movement was communist inspired, riddled by communists and composed of communist front organizations.[2]

A few highlights of the ensuing decades makes the point which is now glaring. In 1961, the American Medical Association produced an LP by Ronald Reagan, warning that the domino effect (one country after another going communist) could also play out in the realm of ideas. Any fragment of the socialist program, such as the passage of Medicare, would lead to adopting the whole socialist program.[3] Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Francis Schaeffer (perhaps driven right by his politically conscious son), codified this religion, defined by its antagonism. The fusion of the Republican party with evangelical religion under Ronald Reagan (coinciding with the rise of the Christian Coalition and with Pat Robertson designating Ralph Reed as its leader), was finalized by George W. Bush who, three days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, assured the nation that America’s duty was clear – not only to “answer these attacks” but also to “rid the world of evil.” What he meant, as indicated in his rhetoric, was the Christian Nation was now involved in a religious crusade – a literal war (as I describe it here). This is a story that could be told in multiple volumes with countless examples (e.g. the John Birch society, Anita Bryant, Robert Bork, Cecil Todd), with the characters and causes changed only slightly. The point is evangelicalism devolved into an ideology defined by its antagonisms.  

In addition to a master signifier (freedom, prayer, democracy) and the inherent antagonism between opposed poles (good/evil, communists/Americans), the real power of ideology is the force which it seems to ward off but which it unleashes. Shame and death were taken up and contained as part of the original ideology, but this is not simply the first of many kinds of ideology, this is the heart of every ideology. Death denied, negation negated, makes of an absence a seeming positive presence. The problem becomes the solution under a different name, but the inherent antagonism and the empty center cannot endure. The “I” of Adam is an empty identity; a name that refers to nothing. As Paul explains, this body of death shows itself in the struggle and the suffering. The slave, in every master/slave relationship, will struggle against normalizing this identity. The Civil Rights Protestors, the draft age youth, the veterans of the Vietnam War, erupted in the 1960’s. The failure of the ideology was made apparent and is always made apparent in its eruptions.

The problem is that even when it erupts, even when practitioners of ideology know what they are doing, they continue to do it. Cain is a naive murderer who does not seem to understand the import of what he is doing. God exposes the murder of Cain, along with a mark to protect him from revenge. Lamech takes this promised revenge, displaces God, and enacts the divine promise. He bragged of his enactment of his own justice and his killing power, celebrating it in verse, and this led to the sociopathic killers of Noah’s generation. Those seeking revenge replace and become the new sociopaths. The slaves may revolt only to become the new masters. The Marxist exposure of capitalism as the exploitation of the working class gives rise to a new form of the ruling class, the Party elites. By the same token, the anti-communism of the Cold War culminates in the weaponizing of the world and the possibility of mutually assured destruction. The anti-brand of Christianity needs its evil enemy – the communists, the Muslims, the liberals, the homosexuals, so as to define itself, but it unleashes the antagonism which defines it, and even the awareness of this false consciousness does not bring it to a halt. A good therapist can expose the antagonism, which is preferable to the continued reinforcement of the normalizing lie, but the psychoanalytic cure is simply a manipulation of the same structure (the master signifier, the antagonism, and the reality (the real) of death).

The promise of Christ is that the blood of Abel, which cries out through the generations in the voice of all oppressed peoples, will be heard. His promise fulfilled is when the cry of those on the underside of ideology, or those who are lied about and suppressed by the antagonism, are relieved of their suffering. This is the core factor which separates Christian ideology from an authentic form of the faith. Does the form of belief challenge or support the cultural status quo? Does it side with the oppressed or the oppressors? Does it support putting people on crosses or does it identify with the crucified? Anti Communist Christianity and right-wing political Christianity have as their underside the cry of black suppression, the open oppression of immigrants, and the destruction of budding democracies and popular movements throughout the world.

Fifty-two years from the time I became a Christian, after the most turbulent year in the 20th century, the turbulence of the inherent antagonism of a false faith is decisively boiling over. Donald Trump is, in many ways, the ultimate embodiment of this long-standing antagonism and emptiness. The false center of an ideological faith will no longer serve to suppress some and comfort others. For those who can read the signs, it is time to relinquish the ideological form of the faith for the religion of the Crucified One.


[1] David Fitch demonstrates in The End of Evangelicalism? how key elements of the evangelical faith have been reduced to ideology.

[2] https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2018/how-the-right-wing-convinces-itself-that-liberals-are-evil/

[3] Ibid.