October 2020 Church & State Magazine - October 2020

Farewell To Falwell: Controversial Trump Ally And Liberty University President Had A History Of Unusual Behavior

  Rob Boston

Jerry Falwell Jr., president and chancellor of Liberty University (LU), resigned from the school in disgrace Aug. 25 in the wake of a sex scandal.            

Falwell and his wife, Becki, had been involved in an unconventional romantic relationship with a young Florida man named Giancarlo Gran­da, often described in the media as a pool attendant. Falwell insisted that Becki had a brief affair with a man he did not identify, but Granda told Reuters the affair lasted seven years, and that Falwell enjoyed watching his wife have sex with Granda (who showed Reuters texts and photos from the Falwells that buttressed his account).  

The revelations, coming as they did on the heels of Falwell’s decision to post to social media a bizarre photo of himself on a yacht with his arm around a young woman with his pants undone, was too much for Liberty’s Board of Trustees. Falwell, who has already been on indefinite leave over the photo, agreed to resign. Don’t feel too bad for him, though: He walked away with a severance package worth $10.5 million. 

Americans United would not normally concern itself with an individual’s decisions about how to run his or her sex life. In Falwell’s case, though, hypocrisy is a significant factor. Since the death of his father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., in 2007, Falwell Jr. has pre­sided over a school with a strict morality code. The type of activity Falwell engaged in would get a student kicked out of Liberty in a heartbeat, as would a host of lesser offenses. 

Falwell also portrayed himself as a leader of the Religious Right’s morality brigade. He is a member of President Donald Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board, a body that has been offering Trump tips on how to make the country supposedly more “godly.”   Despite the posturing, when things fell apart for Falwell, he refused to take any personal responsibility. He blamed his downfall on “pressure from self-righteous people,” and insisted he hadn’t done anything wrong. He even quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., declaring he was happy to be “free at last.” 

While the sexual offenses were serious enough to get Falwell removed from Liberty, they were far from his only transgression. As Falwell departs the national stage (at least temporarily), Americans United has prepared this timeline of his “greatest hits” during his reign at Liberty:  

May 2009: Americans United filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service after Falwell announced Liberty University would not allow a student-run Democratic club to meet on campus (even though there was a Republican club). He responded to AU’s claim that the school was acting in a partisan fashion by calling AU names and threatening to file an IRS complaint about the group. (Falwell later backed down and agreed to allow the Democratic club to meet; he never filed a complaint against AU.)

March 2010: Falwell decided it was time for the university to expand, but there was a problem: He needed a zoning exception. In that month, Falwell summoned Lynchburg’s may­or and other local officials to a meeting, undoubtedly thinking he could just tell them what to do. It later came to light that Falwell had secretly videotaped the meeting by concealing a camera behind some books. In the ensuing uproar, Falwell complained the media was picking on him and called the flap over his actions a “diversion” from his expansion plans.

Around the same time, Falwell was attempting to forge LU students into a political machine in the hopes of securing a cohort of local politicians who would do his bidding. He used the university’s student newspaper to attack a state legislator who was seeking re-election, a move of questionable legality given the school’s tax-exempt status. The lawmaker was defeated by about 200 votes, but Falwell suffered a setback when his effort to stack the Lynchburg City Council by running a slate of students failed when only one was elected.  

December 2015: Falwell suggested LU students begin carrying handguns so “we could end those Mus­lims before they walk in and kill.” 

January 2016: Breaking with the majority of conservative evangelical leaders, Falwell endorsed Trump for president and hosted him at Liberty. He dismissed Trump’s frequently crude behavior and outbursts, insisting that it’s more important to have a president who will deliver on policy,  

•December 2018: BuzzFeed reported that Falwell had entered into a business arrangement with Granda to buy Alton Hostel, a dormitory-style hotel called a “flophouse” in some accounts. Falwell offered to lend him $1 million to purchase the property and an additional $800,000 to renovate it on the condition that Granda would agree to manage the facility – even though Granda had no experience in hotel management. The matter ended up in court after two men who said they had the idea to renovate the property sued, claiming they were pushed out of the deal.  

January 2019: Falwell told The Washington Post he planned to support Trump no matter what. Falwell was asked, “Is there anything President Trump could do that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders?” He replied with one word: “No.” Asked to elaborate, Falwell said, “Only because I know that he only wants what’s best for this country, and I know anything he does, it may not be ideologically ‘conservative,’ but it’s going to be what’s best for this country, and I can’t imagine him doing anything that’s not good for the country.”  

September 2019: After Politico published a photo from 2014 of Falwell partying in a Miami Beach nightclub, Falwell insisted the image had been photoshopped. Not long after that, more photos emerged that clearly showed Falwell and his wife among a crowd on the club’s dance floor.  

September 2019: The Washington Post and Politico ran stories asserting that Falwell ruled LU through fear and intimidation. More than two dozen former or current high-ranking LU officials spoke to a Politico reporter, describing a stifling institution where employees worry constantly about offending Falwell or his wife.  

As one employee put it, “Everybody is scared for their life. Everybody walks around in fear.” The story also asserted that Falwell was using the school to enrich himself and his family. It detailed several cases of questionable real estate deals. One senior LU official put it, “We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund. We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”  

January 2020: Angered by the fact that Democrats won statewide offices in Virginia, Falwell proposed that huge swaths of the state secede and join West Virginia.  

March 2020: As coronavirus  ravaged the country, Falwell labeled it a hoax, appearing on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” and insisting people were “overreacting” to the global pandemic. He asserted that the virus was no worse than the flu and opined that Demo­crats had hyped the sickness to hurt Trump politically. He also suggested – with no evidence – that the virus is a biological weapon created in North Korea.  

Even as the death toll from the pandemic continued to climb, Falwell refused to take it seriously. He ridiculed wearing masks in public, and after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called for residents to use face coverings, Falwell tweeted a photo of a mask bearing a racist image. His refusal to deal with the pandemic extended to Liberty. He kept the school open during a time when other universities in the state had shut down, and when a professor named Marybeth Davis Baggett publicly questioned his decision, Falwell issued a tweet calling her “Bag­gett lady.”

April 2020: As Falwell came under increased scrutiny for his behavior and statements, he decided to threaten the media. After The New York Times and ProPublica published stories about Liberty Falwell didn’t like, he sought warrants to have a Times photographer and a Pro Publica writer arrested for trespassing on campus.  

August 2020: Falwell posted (and then deleted) a photo of himself on a yacht with his arm around a young woman, both of whom had their pants undone and their stomachs exposed. Falwell insisted the photo was a joke, and that the woman was his wife’s assistant. LU’s board placed him on leave.

August 2020: Granda went to the media with allegations that he had had a seven-year affair with Falwell’s wife, and that Falwell observed their sex acts. Falwell agreed to resign from Liberty. University officials subsequently announced they will undertake a full investigation of Falwell’s tenure, asserting, “One of the leading forensic firms in the world has been retained by Liberty University’s Board of Trustees to conduct a thorough investigation into all facets of Liberty University operations during Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s tenure as President, including but not limited to financial, real estate, and legal matters.”      

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