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Falwell Jr: Liberty University’s Wrecking Ball

The Falwells with You Know Who, in 2016 (Jerry Falwell Jr. Twitter feed")

The Southern Baptist pastor Russell Moore is not everyone’s tall glass of iced tea. But good grief, take a look at this:

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Even by the sleazy standards we’ve come to expect from Falwell Jr., that’s scraping bottom. Falwell Jr. is not a pastor, as his late father was, but don’t forget that he is president of Liberty University, a Christian college. This is just gross and cheap. How is it even controversial among Christians to assert that “those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and compassion”? I am pretty sure that I have a much stricter view of border enforcement than Russell Moore does, but he’s right about how we should treat human beings. Does Falwell Jr. believe that illegal migrants, especially children, should not be treated with dignity and compassion — even if we are going to send them back?

What kind of Christian says a thing like what Falwell did? “You have never made payroll, therefore you have no right to tell people that they should treat human beings with dignity and compassion”? That doesn’t even make sense. It’s ugly, it’s stupid, and it’s unworthy of a Christian. I say that as someone who does not believe these migrants should be let into the country in most cases. They don’t have a right to come here, but they don’t cease to be human beings who deserve to be treated as such, for God’s sake.

Falwell Jr. is also at the center of a burgeoning scandal involving a Miami cabana boy and nude photos of Mrs. Falwell. The Miami Herald reports:

Falwell, 57, who took over the mantle of Liberty University following the death of his father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., has denied the suggestion that in 2015 he sought help from [Trump lawyer Michael] Cohen, who told [actor Tom] Arnold in a surreptitiously taped conversation that he embarked on a mission to recover “personal” photographs involving the Falwells.

Cohen has acknowledged performing delicate chores for the future president of the United States, including paying off his alleged paramours with hush money — to prevent the release of embarrassing personal photographs in the past. In his only known interview about the subject, first reported by Reuters and BuzzFeed, Falwell denied the existence of photographs involving himself.

“This report is not accurate,” Falwell told the Todd Starnes radio show. “There are no compromising or embarrassing photos of me.”

Three photographs have been seen by the Herald, however. They are images not of Falwell, but of his wife in various stages of undress. It is not known who took the photographs or when they were taken, and the Herald was not given the photographs and therefore has not been able to authenticate them independently. Two of the photographs appear to have been taken at the Falwells’ farm in Virginia, and a third at the Cheeca Lodge.

The timing of Cohen’s alleged photo-recovery mission roughly preceded Falwell’s pivotal evangelical endorsement of Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, which Cohen says he helped engineer.

Read the whole thing. How on earth did the Miami Herald see boudoir shots of Mrs. Falwell? The Falwells went in with Cabana Boy on a multimillion-dollar investment in a swinging South Beach hostel. Why? What would the president of a conservative Christian university be doing investing in a hostel on the most carnal strip of land in North America? It’s mighty odd.

Be that as it may, Falwell is trashing the Liberty brand with his undisciplined mouth and obnoxious forays into partisan politics. You don’t have to share Russell Moore’s views on immigration to find it weird and offensive for a Christian university president to go after the pastor in that way. That anti-Moore tweet seems to have been a final straw for some people. I’ve been hearing from some readers at Liberty who tell me that they’re looking for a way out. They’re tired of putting up with this atmosphere, and worried about how Falwell’s antics are going to hurt their professional standing.

Last week, Brian Melton, a former Liberty U. history professor, wrote an essay alleging that the LU administration is abusive and corrupt. It has to do not with politics, not really, but with the way the administration treats faculty. Melton writes:

In the final tally, I most likely could have made ends meet on the new salary they were offering, but money wasn’t the central problem. The most important issue for me was character. I had to be able to rely on Liberty University to treat me and others fairly and honestly if I were to bank my family’s welfare on working for them. My own personal narrative aside, I knew of many other people treated worse than I was–a whole list of persons I liked and respected. If the last few years had taught me anything, it was that while there are still many excellent people to be found there, Liberty University as a whole was as shifty, dishonorable, unprincipled, and hypocritical a work environment as could be offered. I could not trust my family to them, and I increasingly found it hard to have my reputation associated with an organization that had proved itself so often without honor. (Yes, I’m old fashioned that way.)

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I arrived at LU in the Fall of 2003 to find an earnest, if humanly fallible university making its very best effort to transform itself into the Notre Dame of Evangelicalism. I left a financially successful behemoth where real ministry and Christian charity is carried out by earnest believers in spite of the effort and example of its upper administration to the contrary. Increasingly, LU is becoming more the Harvard of Evangelicalism than the Notre Dame (academic standards definitely not withstanding). It is a university where the original mission has been sacrificed in favor of a political agenda and a secular system of situational morality, Liberty falling to the right wing in counterpoint to Harvard’s left. Though the campus may be bigger and more beautiful than ever before, sadly, thanks to the trajectory of its current administration, its reflection of Christ is not.

This LU graduate, now a Harvard Law student, popped a gasket last month when Falwell Jr. awarded an honorary degree to conservative activist Charlie Kirk:

Look, any conservative Christian with a lick of sense has to know that in many American professions, being an out conservative Christian makes life tough. But people like Falwell Jr. make it so much harder than it needs to be, by being so nasty, obnoxious and … morally mediocre. When the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the words “Liberty University” is its trash-talking president — well, let’s just say that’s a severe reputational liability. If people like us (conservative Christians) are going to be hated, let us be hated for doing good and standing for what’s right, not for tawdry garbage like the things Falwell Jr. says and does.

Maybe things look different inside the Evangelical world, but I’m telling you, outside it, the only thing most people know about Liberty University is that it’s led by a hotheaded Trump acolyte. It’s striking how little responsibility Falwell seems to feel towards the faculty, students, and alumni of Liberty University. He’s wrecking their professional lives, and trashing the school’s reputation — and for what? Where is the Board of Trustees on this? Are they so intimidated by Falwell Jr., or so indifferent to the damage he’s causing to the university, that they’re just going to sit back and let it happen? In which case, what kind of stewards are they?

Jerry Falwell Jr. is not owning the libs here; he’s tearing down the university his father built. And for what? To get likes and retweets on Twitter, and a self-aggrandizing attaboy from Donald Trump? He’s 57 years old, for heaven’s sake! The people of Liberty University deserve much better.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. I have an Evangelical relative who is about to start her senior year of high school. Liberty is her dream school. She’s planning to apply in the fall. If she gets in, she will have to borrow money to pay for her entire education there. Four years at Liberty as an undergraduate — tuition, room, and board — would cost about $100,000. That would be a massive investment. I can’t see the sense in taking on that kind of debt for any undergraduate degree, anywhere, but especially not for one from a college whose unstable, bomb-throwing president is liable to keep saying things that damage the university’s reputation (and therefore devalue a Liberty degree). A university should be known for the quality of its teaching, its scholarship, and its graduates — not for the outrageousness of its president’s tweets, or semi-nude photos of his wife turning up in the hands of a Miami Herald reporter in connection with a suspicious investment in a cabana boy’s business.

Other conservative Christian colleges don’t have this problem. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but it seems to me that Falwell Jr. led Liberty University for nearly a decade (he took over in 2007) without much scandal or controversy. Something happened around 2016. I wonder what?

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UPDATE: Oh man, the Babylon Bee is all over that guy:

Upon hearing about the immigration crisis, Jerry Falwell, Jr. was touched. He “just had to get down there right away,” according to those close to the ostensibly Christian leader of a Christian university. Falwell’s mission was to survey the problem, see what the needs of the immigrants were, and then “kick around some Mexican kids just for fun.”

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“I’ll show you to come to God’s country!” Falwell yelled at one frightened immigrant child. “You’ve probably never even done payroll, ya little loser. Get over here and I’ll give you what you need: a swift kick in the pants, just like Jesus told us to do to strangers.”

“That’ll teach you to be an employee and not create any real businesses, ya little leech!” he yelled as the kid scrambled away.

Read it all. 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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