Maybe you’ve heard about the recent troubles of Jerry Falwell Jr. After a string of scandals, he has now been ousted as the President of Liberty University, the school his father founded. The whole story has given Christianity yet another black eye in regards to public opinion.
What I’d like to do with this post is provide the basic information concerning the rise and fall of Falwell Jr. This information will set the stage for my followup post, which is the one that I really want to write. Please know that it is not my intention with either post to bash Falwell Jr. or pile onto him after he has been tackled. Rather than do that, what I want to do is attempt to explain how a Christian leader such as him can get tackled so hard.
Falwell Jr. graduated from the Virginia School of Law in 1987 and worked as a lawyer for twenty years before becoming the President of Liberty University in 2007. Him becoming the school’s President was part of a succession plan that his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., had announced before Sr.’s death. Per the father’s wishes, Falwell Jr. inherited the presidency of Liberty University while the younger brother, Jonathan Falwell, inherited the Senior Pastor role of Thomas Road Baptist Church, the church Falwell Sr. founded. Obviously this was all a colossal case of nepotism, but the plan worked well for several years as both the school and the church flourished under the new leadership. For that matter, the church continues to thrive under the leadership of Jonathan Falwell.
As for the university, however, things have now hit the skids concerning Falwell Jr.’s leadership. Actually, there had been rumors and allegations before about problems with him. For example, in 2019 Politico ran an article that accused him of bringing profits into the school by selling merchandise that promoted Donald Trump’s campaign and of ruling over Liberty like a dictator. A Reuters investigation that same year accused him of taking part in a strange real-estate death whereby he apparently signed over ownership of the university’s sports facility to the personal trainer employed by him and his wife Becki. There was also a letter that certain members of Congress drafted in which they asserted that Falwell Jr. made a habit of personally blocking students from writing student columns that were critical of Donald Trump.
Nothing, however, ever seemed to touch Falwell Jr.’s leadership of Liberty. Whatever issues he had, none of them affected his ability to bring in money for the school. He had been, after all, a lawyer in his previous life and knew his way around the ins and outs of how to conduct big business.
Unlike his brother Jonathan, Falwell Jr. wasn’t an ordained minister and never claimed to be one. For lack of a better term, he was a “player” who knew how to get over with people and make money. His father put his abilities to good use in the mid 1990s when Liberty found itself more than 100 million dollars in debt. Falwell Jr. began the school’s financial comeback by renegotiating financing packages with Liberty’s creditors and pulling off a series of successful real-estate deals, all of which helped the school climb out of its financial hole. Next, he vamped up the school’s online distance-learning programs, a move that caused thousands of new online students and their tuition money to come pouring into the school. At one point, Liberty had over 100,000 students involved in its online distance-learning program.
By 2012, five years after Falwell Sr.’s death and Falwell Jr’s ascension to Liberty’s Presidency, the school had over 1 billion dollars in assets. The school’s Board of Trustees loved Jerry Jr. for the cash cow that he was for the school, and every major Republican candidate made his or her way to him to seek his endorsement. Not only did he regularly hobknob with America’s leading evangelicals and most powerful Republican politicians, he also lived the life of a millionaire king. What could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong was a certain trip to Miami that Falwell Jr. and Becki took in March of 2012. While staying at a posh hotel there, they met a 21-year-old pool attendant named Giancarlo Granda. Shortly after meeting Granda, Becki had an affair with him. Granda claims that Falwell Jr. knew all about the affair, and even enjoyed watching Granda and Becki engage in sexual relations, but Falwell Jr. denies these claims. What isn’t in dispute is that Granda quickly became a part of the Falwell’s inner circle as he began taking frequent trips with them in their private jet. Also, the Falwells put up almost 2 million dollars to buy and renovate a Miami Beach hostel (a lodging establishment similar to a hotel but cheaper) so that their son Trey could run it with Granda.
The deal for the hostel became a problem a few years later when a friend of Granda’s, Jesus Fernandez Jr., claimed that he and his father had helped Falwell Jr. choose the hostel site and that Falwell Jr. had promised them part ownership of the establishment. The father and son sued Falwell Jr., and things turned really ugly when rumors began to circulate that someone involved in the lawsuit was blackmailing Falwell Jr. with some type of sexually compromising photos. At that point Michael Cohn, who was well known as being Donald Trump’s “fixer,” got involved on Falwell Jr.’s behalf and somehow got the lawsuit dropped and the whole scandal buried. (For the record, the lawsuit has now been refiled.)
Then came January 18th, 2016, the day Donald Trump spoke at Liberty University. That was the day he made his infamous gaffe of calling the book of Second Corinthians “Two Corinthians.” Falwell Jr. lavished praise on Trump that day, and a few days later, on January 26th, less than a week before the Iowa caucuses, formally and publicly endorsed Trump as the Republican candidate for the office of President of the United States. Can you see how a cynic might say that Falwell Jr. owed Trump that endorsement for sending Michael Cohn down to Miami to solve the problem of the lawsuit and the reportedly blackmail-worthy photos?
Trump, as we know, went on to become the President of the United States, and everything remained relatively calm at Liberty for the next few years. But then Falwell Jr. served as the agent of his own demise by posting, of all things, a picture of himself on Instagram. The picture was taken during a bizarre yacht party in which the attendants wore outfits in keeping with the mock documentary “Trailer Park Boys.” In the picture, Falwell Jr. had the lower half of his shirt tied up and his pants unzipped low enough to expose not only his belly but some of his underwear, and he had his arm around a woman who was not his wife. The woman, who was later said to actually be pregnant, was wearing a pair of short, slightly unzipped shorts, and she too had the lower half of her shirt tied up enough to show her belly button and midriff. Falwell Jr. was holding a drink as well, which he jokingly noted was only “black water,” as if that was the only disturbing aspect of the whole photo.
The ensuing backlash forced Falwell Jr. to publicly apologize, and on August 7th he took an indefinite leave of absence as Liberty’s President. Even during that leave of absence, however, on August 19th he managed to stir up even more controversy around himself by posting, again on Instagram, a truly disturbing video of himself using a bar to do pelvic thrusts in Liberty’s workout room while two attractive co-eds, one standing on each side, literally stood on top of the bar. Anyone who saw that video had to wonder, “Has this guy lost his mind or what?” Along about that same time it was also revealed that Falwell Jr. had a longstanding habit of “liking” pictures of Liberty’s bikini-clad female students on Instagram.
By that point, the blood was in the water as all the old rumors and stories — stories such as Falwell Jr.’s ease at making crude sexual references and sharing provocative photos of his wife — began to resurface. Just a few days later, on August 23rd, he admitted his wife’s affair with Granda and suggested that Granda had been trying to extort money from him. Finally it all became too much for Liberty’s Board of Trustees, and on August 25th Falwell Jr. officially resigned as Liberty’s President, walking away with a severance package of over 10 million dollars. Since then the Board of Trustees has hired a leading forensic firm to conduct a thorough investigation into all aspects of Falwell Jr.’s days as Liberty’s President. That means they will be looking into not only all the reports of sexual misconduct but also into possible misconduct regarding all financial, real estate, and legal dealings.
Again, I’m not relaying all this information for the purpose of bashing Jerry Falwell, Jr. I’m doing it simply to lay the groundwork for my following post, which will address the twin topics of why spiritual leaders so oftentimes end up embroiled in scandals and why preachers’ kids so oftentimes end up straying from their Christian upbringing. Those are the two pieces of meat that I really want to provide for this meal. The fact is that Jerry Falwell Jr. is just the latest in a long line of spiritual leaders and preachers’ kids whose lives have not gone according to schedule. Hopefully, by dragging these topics into the light, I can provide some helpful insights into why that line is so long. So, until next time, I’ll ask you to stay tuned, and you might consider saying a prayer for Jerry Falwell Jr., his family, Liberty University, and everyone else involved in the whole sordid mess. I seriously doubt that we have heard the last of the story.