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).

Is Evangelicalism Imploding?

The Netflix documentary, The Family, demonstrates the way in which the name “Jesus” has been deployed as a Master Signifier (an empty marker holding ideology together) by one of the most prominent Christian organizations. The documentary hints at a conspiracy but what it demonstrates is the replacement of doctrine and specific teaching (the organization produces its own version of the Bible, entitled Jesus, consisting only of the Gospels) with ideology. Doug Coe, the primary force behind the Family or Fellowship, understood that the work of “Jesus” was most effectively done the “more you can make your organization invisible.” Invisibility and plasticity (a willingness to welcome everyone with power into the fellowship) has made of “prayer” and “Jesus” the all-inclusive tent which has not only included every sitting president dating back to Dwight Eisenhower (all have attended the National Prayer Breakfast) but has included operatives from Russia (e.g. Marina Butina, the Russian woman who pleaded guilty last year to acting as an illegal foreign agent), genocidal dictators, Muslim potentates, as well as being connected to the crushing of organized labor domestically, and an international effort to promote “family values” (an anti-gay/lesbian agenda).  

The invisible center to the Family may be the factor which the documentary misrepresents. That is, we keep watching the documentary expecting there to be some final disclosure, some secret essence, some “it” factor to the Family. As with every ideology, there is nothing at the center other than the presumption that there is some essence which escapes full disclosure. It is the function of ideology which Jeff Sharlet (the author of the books on which the documentary is based and the central voice in the film) describes but fails to name.  In his description, the organization revolves around “Jesus” as an empty center but mainly functions as an organization of political power. The agenda of the group is to connect with, among others, “financiers and industrialists, congressmen, television industry, news industry, state governments, seminaries and churches, junior executives.” Power and influence will cover a multitude of sins – most visible in the organization’s endorsement (anointing) of Donald Trump. As the group previously demonstrated with Mark Sanford (the governor and congressman who went missing for 6 days and later admitted he was with his girlfriend) once the group decides God has chosen you, most anything goes (Sanford was persuaded by the Family not to resign and is now considering a run for president).

The film, like the Trump presidency, is a demonstration of the manner in which conservative American Christianity coalesces around an absence. Evangelicalism, with its focus on future heavenly rewards, imputed or theoretical righteousness, penal substitution, and faith devoid of works, presents the perfect empty vessel. The ethics of the meek and lowly Jesus is as disconnected from the Family’s pursuit of power as sexual purity is from Jimmy Swaggart or nonviolence from Jerry Falwell Jr. or identity with the poor from Joel Osteen.  A religion with an empty center reveals its structuring principle by what it pursues. Power, sex, money, represent the object of desire (objet petit a or the impossible object of desire), which indicates ideology reigns in place of the anti-ideology of the faith of Christ; which is not to say those in the Family understand ideology anymore than Jimmy can understand illicit sexual desire, or Jerry can understand violence and power, or Joel can understand love of money.

The Family, like the evangelicalism from which it springs, reproduces forms of idolatrous religion because it is of the same mold (nothing is made an absolute something). The presumption of a fundamental antagonism (whether between foreigners and citizens, liberals and conservatives, heterosexuals and homosexuals) means definition by opposition or by what it is not. The Family, as with evangelicalism, takes as one of its primary tenets the opposition to illicit sexual pleasure (gay/lesbian sex). Think here of Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and the endless line of hell fire preachers condemning the lurid sex of the sinners – a sex that clearly structures their own desire. The gay/lesbian is representative of the intolerable sin in evangelicalism – the unobtainable object structuring desire. The Family has journeyed over land and sea (Mt. 23:15) to promote their anti-gay agenda in Romania and Africa.  

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, focused on condemning homosexuality in his preaching while having a homosexual affair. When confronted with the inconsistency by Larry King, Haggard explained 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.”[1] In this understanding, belief is one step removed from identity. The faith of Christ makes no room for desire (a way of life which takes account of embodiment) while allowing desire to implicitly structure the religion. In this sense, Donald Trump is the ideal representative of evangelicalism in that he puts on full display the transgressive pleasures his followers can vicariously enjoy. A brief but telling scene in the documentary has Pat Robertson smiling with delight as he describes the sexual exploits of “God’s anointed,” Donald Trump.

Perhaps one of the key figures demonstrating the inherent antagonism in evangelicalism and in the Family is Mark Siljander, whom I interviewed (here). Congressman Siljander made the mistake of identifying too closely with purported Family values, of welcoming everyone to the table. He describes his shift from fundamentalism to “common sense American values” and a growing appreciation for common ground with Muslims. The Family was always willing to meet with and associate with anyone in power – Doug Coe proved this in accompanying Siljander to meet Muammar Gaddafi. Siljander began to study the Koran and to restudy the New Testament, but while working to embrace Muslim leaders and declared “war criminals” in the Middle East, Dick Cheney and the Bush administration were fueling the war on terror. American religion had a new enemy.

 Siljander is one of those good (naïve?) souls who miss the inherent distance created in ideology between belief and practice. Overidentification with ideology exposes its absurdity. Like the soldier that identifies too closely with the rhetoric of boot camp – the ridiculous obscenity of “kill, kill, kill” repeated outside of bootcamp is exposed by one who misses the necessary irony. Like the patriot that too obscenely identifies with love of country (I once heard a Japanese minister describe the atomic blast over Hiroshima as the light sent from God – the obscene side of America as a Christian nation), Siljander exposed the limits of the Family version of the gospel by affirming it too strongly.

His realization that Muslims also follow Jesus and worship God came at an inopportune time. His work with “war criminals” or the new enemies of the American establishment during the “War on Terror” meant his efforts for peace were now “ties with terrorists.” As Ted Haggard explains to one of his gay lover victims, “You know what, Grant, you can become a man of God and you can have a little bit of fun on the side.”[2] Siljander missed the slippage of the ideology of “common sense American” religion and (through a seemingly contrived set of circumstances) ended up serving a year in jail due to the manipulations of those in power. The religion which primarily espouses power on the one hand cannot do without its enemies on the other.

Where the real-world engagement of Christ’s ethics, his challenge of the principalities and powers, his overcoming of death, is not put into place ideology is at work – enforcing the law, denying the desired illicit pleasure to others, oppressing in the name of freedom, creating identity by what it opposes. The Family simply illustrates the ideological nature of evangelicalism and perhaps is one more sign of its implosion.


[1] David E. Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions) (p. 96). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid