Christians and their scandalous photos

If you follow Christendom in the news, you’ve probably heard that Liberty University, one of the country’s leading conservative Christian colleges, placed its president Jerry Falwell on an indefinite leave of absence for posting this controversial photo to Instagram.

Falwell with his arm around a woman. Both have their shirts rolled up to expose their stomachs. Their pants are unbuttoned.
And, no, that’s not his wife.

It’s got me wondering: of all the despicable things Falwell has said and done — among them, endangering students by keeping Liberty open when COVID-19 cases spiked in the spring, making racist tweets, hiring questionable candidates (including Ian McCaw, the guy who covered up an alleged gang rape at Baylor), and touting the same hateful politics as Trump — why is this the thing that gets him in trouble?

Of all the horrible behaviors Christians are willing to overlook, why is this the instance where they say, “Okay, now you’ve crossed the line”?

We’ll get back to that.

But first, let me tell you my own controversial photo story:

Ten years and some months ago, I got fired from my job as an Resident Assistant at Cedarville University, a similar conservative Christian school, for taking a shot with my high school friends at a going away party. I was 21.

The author (left) stands with four friends holding shot glasses that contain a pink beverage. They are at a bar.
That’s me on the left with four high school friends.

Shortly after the photo went up on Facebook (and before I had even seen it), I overheard a conversation where a girl who lived in my hall said she was going to report me for breaking the community covenant. (My classmates and I all signed statements saying we wouldn’t drink — or have sex, for that matter. Or watch rated R movies. Or dance.) I didn’t want to get snitched on, so I turned myself in.

From there, my life tipped into chaos. I knew I would be punished for breaking a rule, but the response (in retrospect) was disproportionate. Dean Bates, who had been tasked with interrogating me about the situation, told me she questioned whether or not I was a Christian and implied I was going to hell. There was talk of me getting suspended or expelled, which terrified me because I was in the middle of a student teaching assignment, and I didn’t know if I would have to redo the whole thing. My parents were flabbergasted. My mom, who thought everyone at Cedarville was ridiculous and that I was ridiculous for wanting to join them, said “I told you so.” I had my first ever panic attack. I tried to schedule an appointment with a campus counselor and was denied.

Their bullish allegiance to preserving the status quo, even at the expense of my mental well-being, was a taste of what would come years later when I began to question Christianity and then drop out of church altogether.

Here’s what the Falwell photo had in common with mine: Both had the power to, without needing any explanation, upend the carefully constructed narrative Christians have put together about themselves, in which purity and sobriety (and let’s be real, heteronormativity) are central to maintaining an acceptable facade.

Photos that illustrate something far more dangerous, like racist or xenophobic beliefs? Not so much. And that’s the problem with white evangelical Christianity: It is possible for its followers to prop up cruel institutions and still maintain a facade of godliness.

Here’s the difference between Falwell’s photo and mine: Falwell, at 58 years old, is the most powerful person at a Christian institution that punishes students for being in a state of undress around members of the opposite sex. ($150 or 15 hours of community service, pls.) At this institution, Falwell has the biggest voice and the greatest amount of power — and he continues to test the bounds of that power by doing stuff that 58-year-olds should know better than to do.

At 21, I was a new transplant from Catholicism, and as a woman, I didn’t have much of a voice. I was still getting the hang of adulthood and evangelicalism with its bizarre rules. I wasn’t in a position of power; I — in my desperation to please a god I didn’t fully understand — was in a position to be indoctrinated.

I will be fair: For as many people who gave me hell over that photo, there were just as many who were kind and reasonable. Marlena Graves and Dr. Carl Ruby advocated for me and said it would be ridiculous to suspend or expel me, so I wasn’t suspended or expelled. But even they wouldn’t last much longer when Cedarville began its witch hunt.

Here were the RAs for my dorm, Murphy, that year, and that’s Marlena in the center with the green necklace.

Now that I am ten years removed from all that, I oscillate between being amused and infuriated. I still feel ashamed about what happened, even though I know l wasn’t in the wrong. Patricia Bates is dead. And people who would rather protect the system than protect the well-being of vulnerable people within it are still in power.

When I look back on that picture of myself, here’s what I think: either the Christians in power didn’t know what the fuck they were doing (at best) or (at worst) they knew exactly what they were doing.

When I watch the news, I think they still don’t. Or maybe they do.

Originally published August 9, 2020 at https://lyndsey.substack.com.

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I am a journalist and former evangelical Christian writing about my experience of leaving the church.

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Lyndsey Gvora Brennan

Lyndsey Gvora Brennan

I am a journalist and former evangelical Christian writing about my experience of leaving the church.

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