Saturday, March 12, 2016

Why Troubles Come, or "And the Brook Dried Up"

As Tom sorted through his records yesterday, he came across this one, acquired in some bargain bin or other when he was in his stage of bringing home 70s-era gospel albums, mostly for the sake of their remarkable covers.

Nearly all of these albums feature groups no one has ever heard of--say, the Singing Sigrist Family (We've Come Too Far To Ever Turn Back), and Free Spirit (They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love), and Sing With Young America! (The Newest Adventure In Sacred Music). Many are family bands. A number feature elaborate homemade costumes. A few are disguised as hip.

Troubles, however, is an undated LP recording of a sermon by "Dr. Jerry Falwell, Pastor, Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia." Above is a photograph of the front cover, but the back cover shows that the jacket was also designed to serve as a mailing envelope. It features space for a mailing address,  a printed prepaid postage mark, and alarmist handling instructions: "PHONOGRAPH RECORD / DO NOT DROP OR CRUSH / KEEP AWAY FROM / EXCESSIVE HEAT." The back cover also informs me that "The Thomas Road Baptist Church . . . was established June 21, 1956. Christian Life Magazine, September 1971 issue, stated that Thomas Road Church 'is the fastest growing church in America.'" The church's address is printed twice on the back cover so that no one will overlook it.

But the most notable feature of the back cover is the Falwell family portrait: "Dr. Falwell, (wife) Macel / Jerry Jr., Jeannie, Jonathan." The family seems to be posing in front of a large, shadowy Christmas tree. Dr. Falwell, looking a bit like Ted Cruz but with less hair, is natty in a blue suit jacket and dark red tie. (Wife) Macel, smiling but slightly haggard, as if she's been up all night crying, wears a red sweater dress. Jeannie and Jonathan, standing in front of their mother, look like regular third graders in 1970s church clothes. But Jerry Jr. is a different story. He appears to be 12 or 13 in this picture. He stands in front of his father, whose hand is gripping his shoulder, yet he is leaning away from the rest of the family. His mouth is tight. He is the only unsmiling Falwell.

Let's return to the front cover. In the bottom photo, we see "Doug Oldham" posed with "Jerry [Sr.]" "on the Mount of Olives." Behind them is a blurry collection of buildings that is apparently "the Old City of Jerusalem." Doug and Jerry are both wearing suits and trenchcoats and seem to be competing with a stiff wind. They look like car salesmen on vacation. In fact, however, Oldham was a singer who performed frequently on Falwell's television program The Old-Time Gospel Hour and on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's show The PTO Club. (Remember Jim and Tammy Faye?)

The top photo shows "Jerry, Sr. and Jerry, Jr. in the wilderness near the Dead Sea." Once again Jerry, Sr., is gripping his kid, this time clasping his child's chest and staring (reverently?) into the blurry beige landscape. Jerry, Jr., looks happier than he does on the back cover, but maybe that's because he's holding a large camera of the sort that few children ever got to hold in the 1970s. Still there's something odd about the photo. Is this love, or is Jerry, Sr., planning to throttle Jerry, Jr., and push him off the cliff?

Though this album is undated, I suspect it slightly predates the meteoric rise of the Moral Majority, which Falwell founded in 1979 as "God's Own Party" and which became the evangelical blueprint for how to interfere in government, social, and cultural affairs. Falwell himself died in 2007, but the family business lives on. Little Jonathan Falwell is now the senior pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church. Jerry, Jr., is the chancellor of Liberty University, founded by his father. Jeannie, intriguingly, is now chief of surgery at a Virginia medical center. (Wife) Macel, who, according to her obituary, "described herself as a prim and proper lady who'd been raised in the arms of a protective Christian family," died in 2015. "Throughout our marriage," she once wrote, "I was shy, fearful, and even certain that none of Jerry's wild ideas would work."

All of this has led me to mull over the curious the fact that Jerry, Jr., recently endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency . . . not Ted Cruz, as his family background might have led one to guess. How does a little prince of the Moral Majority decide to back a candidate with none of that coalition's touted values? It's easy to be cynical about his rationale, and perhaps the cynical answer is the true one. But when I look at the photos on Why Troubles Come, I have to wonder about that child, about his relationship with his father, about the thoughts running through in his middle-school mind. I wonder what else he was doing in the Holy Land while his father was posing on the Mount of Olives?

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