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Jerry Falwell Jr. and the cult of personality

Falwell’s 13-year tenure as president of Liberty University ends in personal scandal

Jerry Falwell Jr. and the cult of personality

Jerry Falwell Jr. (Steve Helber/AP Photo)

Nearly five years to the day after his father died and he became president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr. told a local newspaper his leadership style differed from that of his father, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell Sr.: “I think it’s good that my profile’s lower because the less dependent Liberty is on a family or personality, or a name, the healthier it is for the school.”

But by the time Falwell Jr. resigned on Aug. 25, Liberty University was most often in the news because of his personal scandals.

Even at the end of his tenure, Falwell Jr. grabbed attention with his on-again, off-again resignation—first indicating to Liberty officials he was resigning on Aug. 24, then withdrawing his resignation, then telling a Wall Street Journal reporter he was resigning after all, then on Aug. 25 submitting that resignation to Liberty’s board of trustees.

The last scandal was the most salacious: Reuters reported on Aug. 25 that a former pool boy from a luxury hotel in Miami says he carried on an affair with Falwell’s wife, Becki, for seven years. He also claimed Falwell would sometimes watch the two have sex. Both Falwells denied Jerry Falwell’s involvement but admitted the affair. (Becki Falwell did not return my phone calls and text message. Jerry Falwell Jr. told me he couldn’t talk when I reached him.)

Three weeks before Reuters published Giancarlo Granda’s claims, Liberty’s trustees placed Falwell on an indefinite leave after he posted to Instagram a photo from on board a yacht. The photo showed Falwell draping an arm around an assistant to his wife. Both had their bellies exposed and pants unzipped. Falwell later deleted the photo and said it was for a spoof movie trailer they filmed and admitted he shouldn’t have posted it.

But Falwellian scandals had snatched headlines long before his resignation, with Falwell’s brand overshadowing Liberty’s. His personal business dealings with Granda—the two bought a Miami hostel together—and Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s involvement in helping cover up racy photos of Jerry and Becki Falwell attracted criticism. The fight spilled into Florida courtrooms before the two settled in late 2019.

Falwell repeatedly jabbed at Christian leaders and shunned his role as a spiritual leader. He told Pastor David Platt on Twitter to “grow a pair” in 2019. He removed the tweet but in response said he’s not a spiritual leader: “I have never been a minister. UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs,” he tweeted. “The faculty, students, and campus pastor … are the ones keeping LU strong spiritually.” 

In May 2020 he faced more backlash when he protested Virginia’s COVID-19 face mask mandate: He tweeted a photo—showing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in medical school dressed in blackface, standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe—superimposed over a face mask. Black Liberty alumni responded with a letter asking Falwell to apologize and retract the tweet. He did so more than a week later, after several black employees resigned. Several student-athletes also transferred from Liberty.

When confirming his resignation on Aug. 25, Falwell said: “The quote that keeps going through my mind this morning is Martin Luther King Jr: ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last.’” Former longtime Liberty English professor Karen Swallow Prior—who this year joined Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s faculty—said Falwell’s behavior didn’t match a Christian university president’s: “It’s a great relief that Liberty no longer has a leader who clearly no longer wants to be in that position. … His behavior for a long time has not been that of a spiritual leader.”

With Falwell’s larger-than-Liberty behavior behind it, the school’s board of trustees now faces the task of choosing a new leader. But given Falwell’s longtime behavior and the $10.5 million Liberty’s board of trustees allowed him to walk away with, many question whether the board is up to the challenge. Mark DeMoss, who chaired the board’s executive committee, resigned in 2016, and Forbes reported in 2019 that “remaining board members appear to have let Falwell reap personal profit from the university and have kept silent, having signed non-disclosure agreements that remain in effect even after leaving the board.”            

Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau is WORLD’s deputy editor based in East Tennessee. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelReneau.

Comments

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  • AlanE
    Posted: Wed, 08/26/2020 03:49 pm

    $10.5 million severance? Maybe it's time Christian institutions do away with the severance package. On top of limiting what the rich and famous can walk away with on the way out despite tarnishing the name of the institution, it might be a worthwhile witness to the watching world that we don't do business that way. NDAs can join severance packages walking out the door. No leader is worth all that. And no Christian leader has any business asking for that.

  • MD
    Posted: Fri, 08/28/2020 03:15 am

    Amen; projecting such a materialistic witness to unbelievers makes zero sense. Shame on the board for cutting that deal.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Mon, 08/31/2020 12:11 am

    As a general principle, some level of support for a transition period could be a reasonable and kind thing to do, especially if a leader left on good terms. (Not multiple millions worth, though.)

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Wed, 08/26/2020 04:51 pm

    His father would have been crushed to see how he turned out. It is unfortunate that many children of prominent Christian leaders wash out along the way. As a president of a Christian college, he should be removed for his behavior. 

  • Big Jim
    Posted: Sun, 08/30/2020 03:14 am

    One notable exception being Franklin Graham. I always liked him.

  •  Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Thu, 08/27/2020 11:33 am

    Falwell Jr's parting words, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I'm free at last." May those words burn in his soul that God would have His way with this couple. Ten million dollar severance ... non-disclosure agreements for the board of directors ... shameful.

    Wake up, Christians! Where is your stewardship over God's money?

  • Allen Johnson
    Posted: Thu, 08/27/2020 02:50 pm

    Why would Libert University alumni donate to the university after the Falwell's depart with a $10.5 million severance?
    As for Christians forgiving, how about the Falwell's repenting in sackcloth and ashes and refusing all the payout! 

  • Ann Marshall
    Posted: Thu, 08/27/2020 09:40 pm

    Exactly, if Falwell were actually repentant, if he were actually re-thinking the trajectory of his life up to this point, he would decline the huge payout. He would still be a very wealthy person anyway.  Forgiveness as a talking point is just a smoke screen: I think they want to make us all afraid to say the Lord's prayer unless we robotically repeat, "Jerry Falwell, Jr. should not suffer earthly consequences for his outrageous behavior". Right. 

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Fri, 08/28/2020 01:41 am

    I think they would want to help Liberty University recover and move on. Unfortunately, the contract was written in such a way that he had to be paid the $10.5 million to move along. If we have love in our hearts, we should pray for both the Falwells and Liberty University. We should also pray for those who would use this situation to attack Trump since Falwell Jr supported our President. 

  • not silent
    Posted: Fri, 08/28/2020 10:00 am

    I couldn't help being reminded of James 3:1-2, 5

    "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  For we all stumble in many ways.  And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.

    So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things."

    Whether we like it or not, people who are leaders or celebrities tend to have a larger impact-for good or bad.  I've seen it in my life and in the lives of others. I pray that God would help us all to be the people he intended us to be and that we would keep him first in our lives.

  • wmrench
    Posted: Fri, 08/28/2020 04:09 pm

    Mr Falwell's appalling lack of Christian character has been known for many years and yet the school has chosen to disregard the outcries and the appeals to take action, until this. To reward perversion by making this man a millionaire times ten, in addition to all the millions already given him, is a great reason supporters ought to be very concerned about their ongoing support of that school. What portion of the support you sent has gone into the former president's pocket? Why does a supposedly Christian school  have severance packages in place that involve tens of millions of dollars? What began nobly, as a Bible College, training those called to ministry, has become just another liberal arts and career school, following in the same pattern as places like Harvard and Yale Brown, etc. which are all now ashamed and embarrassed about their once Christian origins. Sadly, the presidents of those now secular schools have brought less shame and disgrace upon their schools than this supposed Christian has brought on his. Being a Christian does not mean "I can do anything I want because I can get forgiven if I say (as he did) 'I'll be a good boy now."'

  • SonoitaMike
    Posted: Mon, 09/07/2020 11:52 am

    As a Christ follower I try to be more discerning about the organization's I support. Liberty has had too many 'red flags' for too many years for me to view it with any credibility as a Christian University.

    To think the board approved a contract that didn't contain a clause that allowed them to dismiss a person that has caused harm to the university shows their lack of wisdom.