It didn’t start, he said, with his famous father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who built the religious right, starred in the “Old Time Gospel Hour” on TV and founded the evangelical college in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Instead Falwell Jr. praised the pluck and moral flexibility of his grandfather, a bootlegger who delivered moonshine to Virginia hill-dwellers during Prohibition. Dismissive of organized religion, Carey Falwell died at age 55, with a hip flask in his pocket and an unsaved soul, his grandson said.
“My father became a Christian,” said Falwell Jr., “but he took that same entrepreneurial spirit into the religious world. And that’s why Liberty is where it is today.”
Each time, Falwell would insist he is not a moral leader. His job was to grow Liberty’s endowment, campus and student body.
“The faculty, students and campus pastor … are the ones who keep LU strong spiritually as the best Christian univ in the world,” he added. “While I am proud to be a conservative Christian, my job is to keep LU successful academically, financially and in athletics.”
It seemed strange to hear the heir to the Moral Majority’s founder and the leader of a school that aims to “train champions for Christ” disavowing the responsibility to live a Christian life.
But it worked, for a while, because by most worldly measures, Falwell Jr. was a raging success.
Did it matter if Falwell Jr. sometimes acted more like the president of a frat than the country’s largest Christian university? Ultimately, yes.
“Saying that he was just a real estate lawyer and not a moral leader was not a luxury he had,” said one former Liberty University official, who asked to remain anonymous.
Falwell Jr. likely assumed that as long as he kept Liberty rolling in money, no one would care much about his personal morality.
“That,” the former Liberty official told CNN, “was a fatal miscalculation.”
One scandal too many
Falwell Jr.’s latest scandal blew up on Monday when a young Miami man went public with allegations that he and Falwell’s wife Becki had regular sexual liaisons for years, sometimes while Falwell looked on.
A day earlier, in an apparent attempt to preempt the allegations, Falwell publicly acknowledged that Becki had an “inappropriate personal relationship” with a man but said that he himself was “not involved.”
Falwell also accused the Miami man, Giancarlo Granda, of blackmailing him and his wife, a charge Granda adamantly denies.
A former hotel pool attendant who met the Falwells at a luxury hotel in Miami in 2012, Granda said the Falwells initiated the affair and are “victim-shaming.” Ganda said his sexual relationship with the Falwells lasted until 2019 and included trips to the family’s farm and to meet President Trump.
By this time, Falwell’s tenure at the school was already in jeopardy.
He had been placed on temporary leave by Liberty’s board of trustees on August 7 after he posted a photo on Instagram that showed him with his pants unzipped and his midsection visible. In the photo, Falwell is holding a cup of dark liquid and has one arm around a woman whose shorts are also unzipped. Falwell later apologized and told a radio station the photo was “just good fun.”
Karen Swallow Prior, a former professor at Liberty, said Falwell ruled the campus with virtually unchecked power.
“The kinds of things that have been revealed over the past couple of days are not things that happen in isolation,” Prior told CNN this week.
“There have been red flags for a long time,” she added. “The kind of arrogance and authoritarian leadership that we experience as faculty was really just a symptom of this lifestyle that obviously was one in which he thought he could do anything and get away with it.”
Falwell did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The Trump effect
Echoing his own self-defense, Falwell excused the twice-divorced casino magnate’s moral failings, praising Trump’s business success and arguing that Americans were electing a president, not a pastor. Falwell was fiercely loyal to Trump, appearing at campaign events with him and saying there was nothing the candidate could do to lose his vote.
Current and former Liberty officials, who asked not to be named, say Falwell’s personality changed as his political profile grew.
“The Jerry that I knew was very introverted, almost a loner,” said the former Liberty University official.
While acknowledging his wife’s affair, Falwell Jr. said this week that it was awkward to be thrust into the spotlight when he became Liberty’s president in 2007 after the death of his famous father.
“I quickly and unexpectedly went from being the lawyer working in the background on the business aspects of the school to becoming a very public person, having to overcome my fears of speaking in front of audiences of tens of thousands,” Falwell said.
Eventually, Falwell grew into the role, reveling in Liberty’s prominence as a political power center of evangelicalism. GOP candidates and officeholders often came to address Liberty students, and Falwell basked in the attention.
After he endorsed Trump, the media came banging down Falwell’s door, intrigued that a prominent evangelical — and a Falwell — would support the least conventionally religious candidate in the field.
“Then all of a sudden he’s on TV and introducing Trump at rallies,” said the former Liberty official. “That’s heady stuff, and I think he got reckless.”
Falwell’s fatal sin
Then came the revelations of the affair with Granda.
The irony was almost too obvious. As Falwell benefited from Liberty’s growing reputation as a center of Christian conservatism, he appeared to be flouting the very beliefs that accounted for its moral power.
When a conservative Christian gets snared in a sex scandal, critics immediately cry “hypocrisy!”, as if one sinner’s fall discredits an entire faith.
But Jerry Falwell Jr. wasn’t a hypocrite. He never pretended to be holier than thou. Like many successful capitalists, he believed that money made him invulnerable.
His fatal sin wasn’t hypocrisy, it was hubris.