On May 27th, the second day of mounting national outrage over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the president of America’s largest evangelical university decided it was the perfect time to blast out a tweet featuring the crudest of racial imagery. “I was adamantly opposed to the mandate from @GovernorVA requiring citizens to wear face masks until I decided to design my own,” wrote Jerry Falwell Jr. Below the text was his design: a mask displaying the image of a white person in blackface, standing next to a fellow sporting a Klan robe and hood.
For any snowflakes who might take offense, Falwell appended an explanatory tweet of sorts, pointing out that the image on the mask came from a 1984 medical school yearbook page of Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Democratic governor. This was true; when the image came to light in February 2019, it had caused quite a controversy. Falwell said he’d resurfaced the photo to make a political point: “Just a way to shine a spotlight on the fact that Democrats are and have always been the real racists in this country.”
This kind of intentional offensiveness was nothing new for Falwell. The Liberty University president, whose early endorsement in 2016 was widely credited with helping to persuade white evangelicals to back Donald Trump in massive numbers, had been emulating Trump’s truculent style of political provocation ever since. Though he’d never been a minister, Falwell’s inherited position as the unquestioned monarch of the university his famous televangelist father, Jerry Sr., founded in Lynchburg, Virginia — with its 15,000 students on campus and more than 95,000 online — had made him a prominent figure in evangelical Christianity. But Falwell’s public and private behavior, never particularly righteous, had grown increasingly Trumpian, along with his rhetoric.
Earlier in the spring, with coronavirus infections and deaths on the rise and other campuses closing, Falwell had defiantly invited students to return to Lynchburg and resume normal college life after spring break. “You guys paid to be here, you wanted to be on campus,” he told them. “And I want to give you what you paid for.” What he really wanted, critics said, was to earn another gold star from the Covid-denying president. Before spring break, Liberty had failed to distribute CDC-recommended information to students and staff about social distancing, masks, proper hand-washing, and the rest. Some students had departed for spring break unaware that the pandemic wasn’t just fake news. Their school’s president was saying that young people “don’t have conditions that put them at risk.” Others knew better. “Jerry literally follows anything that Trump says,” one disgusted Liberty senior told a reporter. On Fox, Falwell speculated that the virus might be the “Christmas gift” promised to the U.S. by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, working in collaboration with China. On talk radio, he said the whole coronavirus thing was blown out of proportion by Democrats and the media, who were “willing to destroy the economy just to hurt Trump.” While other universities were moving classes online, Liberty would not succumb to a made-up panic over a threat no greater than the flu, he insisted, as consternation and criticism rained down.
When Falwell refused to back down, one Liberty professor was moved to an act of public defiance almost unheard-of at a school that had always been run as an unquestioned dictatorship of Falwells. “His public comments have manifested bravado, self-congratulation, and callousness in the extreme,” Marybeth Davis Baggett wrote in a Washington Post op-ed during spring break. Falwell wasn’t only putting students at risk, she noted, but teachers, staff members, and Lynchburg residents as well. Falwell responded by mocking her as “the ‘Baggett’ lady” on social media. When a parent questioned Falwell on Twitter about his reasons for reopening the campus, he called the man a “dummy” in reply.
Fortunately, only about 1,900 of Liberty’s residential students moved back into their dorms. As Falwell continued to insist he’d hold in-person classes, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order banning gatherings of more than 10 people in Virginia, and Liberty had to agree to hold classes online. The feared outbreak was averted. But Falwell, as he had so often during the Trump years, had generated weeks’ worth of lousy headlines for the school — the kind that increasingly made it look to the outside world, as one alumnus laments, “like the real Trump University.”
Now, two months later, he had gone and stirred up a whole new mess. The blowback to Falwell’s blackface-and-Klan tweet was swift and fierce. Within days, at least four black professors and administrators, including Liberty’s top diversity officer, Quan McLaurin, had resigned in protest. A regional broadcasting company owned by a black alumnus threatened pull out of a contract with the university. Thirty-five prominent black alumni, most of them pastors or former student-athletes (including several NFL veterans), sent Falwell a Scripture-filled but scathing letter, encouraging him to either “stop this infantile behavior and lead our alma mater with dignity as your father did,” or “leave the position of school president and pursue politics full-time.” When Falwell failed to reply, they made the letter public and started a Change.org petition that quickly garnered 37,000 signatures.
“This tweet was just a blatant instance of using other people’s pain to make a point,” says Dr. Joy Hervey, a minister who co-signed the letter; she’d earned a Master of Divinity at Liberty in 2018 and taught education classes in its online arm for two years. “I was certainly dismayed when I saw it. But to be honest, I wasn’t surprised.” After all, Falwell was the same guy who’d cheekily arranged for Trump to speak on campus to “honor” Martin Luther King Day in 2016. The same guy who, after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, had brought a .25-caliber pistol to Liberty’s thrice-weekly chapel service and recommended that students pack heat, so they could “end those Muslims.” The same guy who, after Trump defended the white nationalists terrorizing Charlottesville as “very fine people,” embarked on a media tour swearing that the president “does not have a racist bone in his body.”
Falwell’s tweet sparked a night of mayhem in Lynchburg, a city of 82,000 with a large black population; after a local restaurant retweeted its approval, asking Falwell for masks for its staff to wear, and became a target for protesters, violence broke out across the city, with several police officers injured, businesses smashed up, and protesters gassed. The now-former Liberty diversity chief, McLaurin, set up a GoFundMe drive for BIPOC employees who wanted to leave after “suffering from racial trauma,” but who couldn’t afford to lose their jobs. Falwell’s dream of making Liberty a NCAA Division One powerhouse was imperiled as well, with prominent black basketball and football players publicly announcing their transfers, citing “racial insensitivities.”
Even so, Falwell declined to delete the tweet or issue an apology, choosing instead to fan the flames with incendiary posts and interviews. Clapping back at the black alumni, Falwell insisted he was merely following the example of Christ, who “was not silent about the establishment political folks of his era. All they need to do is read the Gospels — Jesus got involved in politics.”
On June 8th, Falwell finally deleted the tweet and posted a statement acknowledging that he had “offended some by using the image to make a political point.” It was, says Keyvon Scott, a 2019 Liberty graduate who’d resigned his job as an admissions counselor, “the fakest apology ever.”
The following week, however, more bad headlines were in store for Liberty. In a summer-school class that enrolled a handful of Flames footballers, a white instructor told one of the black players that he needed a tutor — then allegedly added, “Don’t be scared. I’m not going to pull out my whip and hit you with it.” Three players, including Liberty’s highest-ranked recruit ever, soon announced they were transferring. “We just walked out of class,” Tavion “Tank” Land told Slate’s Joel Anderson, who broke the story. “It was over with.”
By this point, everyone in the Liberty orbit who did not “worship Jerry as their God,” as one alumnus puts it, was way beyond fed up with the constant stream of scandals and controversies. Ever since Falwell had endorsed Trump on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, in January 2016 — an odd move for any university president, and an even stranger one for the leader of a Christian school so strict it still forbids co-ed dancing — it had been one embarrassing thing after another. Rancid Trumpian rhetoric, conspiracy-spinning, and crude name-calling on Twitter and Fox and talk radio. Reports broadly hinting at sexual hijinks and hush-money payments. Complaints that Falwell was showing up “appearing drunk or smelling of alcohol” on campus. Instagram images of Jerry and his wife, Becki, whooping it up with handsome youngsters on yachts, at fancy resorts, and in bars. Revelations of eye-popping financial self-dealing. All with zero accountability and seemingly absolute impunity.
By stepping out as Trump’s chief evangelical champion and attending to the task with ferocity and profane devotion, Falwell had painted a target on his back, and on Liberty’s as well. And the crazier it got, the crazier he was getting. He’d done more than anyone to turn Liberty into one of the world’s largest and richest religious schools. And now, for reasons Liberty people could only speculate about, he was systematically wrecking the reputation of the nation’s most prominent religious-right school, along with his own. And nobody was stopping him.
Five years ago, Jerry Falwell Jr. was one of the lowest-profile heavyweights on the religious right. If he was known to the general public, it was mostly as the namesake of the rabble-rousing televangelist the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. Rev. Falwell rose to fame preaching against civil rights (“civil wrongs”) in the 1960s, blustered against feminism and gay rights in the Seventies, and became the face and voice of the Moral Majority movement that transformed the Republican Party in the Eighties and beyond. When he died in 2007, his empire was divided between his two sons: Jonathan, a minister who inherited some of his father’s charisma, took over the megachurch in Lynchburg, Thomas Road Baptist. Jerry Jr., a lawyer who took after his culture-warrior father in very different ways, was bequeathed the presidency of Liberty University, the business operations of which he’d been quietly running for years.
Jerry Sr. had co-founded Lynchburg Baptist College, as it was first called, in 1971, with 154 students and one full-time professor (the other founder) holding classes in rented spaces around town, including a vacant high school, a Ramada Inn, and even some parking lots. While Falwell had grand visions of Liberty becoming the Notre Dame of evangelicalism, a powerhouse in both sports and academics, the school struggled financially for decades, teetering often on the brink of bankruptcy. Still, the student body and campus — which now encompasses 7,000 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains — grew slowly but steadily. In the 1990s, one wealthy benefactor forked over $70 million to pay off Liberty’s debts, although they soon piled up again.
It took a boom in distance learning in the mid 2000s, fueled by the rise of high-speed internet, to finally set Liberty on a path toward profitability. The school had begun dabbling with video Bible courses in the mid Eighties, but the program didn’t add up to much until Jerry Jr. took note of the speedy rise of the University of Phoenix and adapted its business model for Liberty University Online. As the first major religious-right school in the burgeoning industry, Liberty had a leg up on the competition for prospective Christian students. And as a nonprofit institution, it was exempt from many of the federal regulations governing other online universities. Jerry Jr. relentlessly drove costs — and educational quality — down to keep the profits going up. And up and up they went.
Unlike his loquacious father, who never saw a camera or met a human being he didn’t want to engage with, Jerry Jr. was allergic to the limelight. Public appearances seized him with nerves; his style of public speaking, even today, has been best described as a “resonant, wandering mumble.” After graduating from Liberty in the early Eighties, he had eschewed the ministry to attend law school at the University of Virginia. After his mother threatened to cut him off if he married his future wife, Becki, a Liberty graduate he met while in law school, he ran through two years’ worth of savings and tried to make his fortune as a real-estate developer.
Becki ran afoul of his strict and proper mother, Falwell told an interviewer a few years back, because she was “just a kind of country girl,” not “one of those girls who gets up onstage and sings and has a lot of makeup on and all that stuff.” (Becki Falwell did not respond to an interview request for this story.)
Jerry Jr. liked to see himself as a rebel of sorts, a “redneck” at heart like his Granddaddy Falwell, an agnostic who ran a moonshine operation during Prohibition, shot his own brother dead in a quarrel, and, haunted by the killing, drank himself to death. Whatever his self-image, Jerry Jr. proved to be one whale of an entrepreneur once he got Liberty University Online (LUO) off and running. By 2017, Liberty had become one of the country’s most profitable nonprofits. According to ProPublica, it was receiving more than $772 million in annual aid from the U.S. Department of Education, from Pell grants, and student loans.
Jerry Jr. became the scowling, distant overseer of a growing army of hundreds of underpaid and hard-driven telemarketers, wooing student-customers out of a former Nationwide Insurance headquarters. Liberty began buying up much of the commercial real estate in Lynchburg, a scenic “city of seven hills” whose days as an industrial center are a distant memory. With the rise of its online arm, Liberty became the city’s largest employer; aside from a regional medical center, Centra Health, it’s one of the few options Lynchburgians have for decent employment in a city where 21 percent live in poverty. “A common statement that is heard around the university is, ‘If you don’t like it here, then leave,’” wrote McLaurin in his GoFundMe appeal. “Most people in Lynchburg know that with the city’s economic state, the solution is not always as simple as leaving.”
The same dilemma is felt by the city itself; in the 1980s, when city officials refused Falwell Sr.’s demand that it stop imposing real-estate taxes on land Liberty owned, he threatened to move the university to Atlanta. Lynchburg backed down. In 2016, when officials resisted Jerry Jr.’s attempt to take over the city’s small airport, he purchased a smaller one in the nearby town of New London, expanded it into the regional hub of choice, and made it the home of Liberty’s School of Aeronautics.
Falwell, whose net worth is estimated at more than $100 million, kept costs low in part with a policy of recruiting Liberty seniors to work at LUO upon graduation for next to nothing. Instructors were paid bargain-basement rates. Curricula were adapted and simplified from classes on campus, with sparse compensation for the professors. The profits rolled in like waters. By 2019, Liberty’s endowment had shot up from practically nil to $2 billion. “That took Harvard from 1636 to 1965,” Falwell boasted to a reporter.
Over the past 13 years, Falwell has plowed more than $1 billion of the online cash into “tangible assets” on the Lynchburg campus; once a spare and grassy expanse dotted with ‘little one-story metal buildings that looked like self-storage units,’ as Falwell recalled in 2018, it’s now a posh playground for evangelical kids, complete with an artificial ski slope for year-round use, a $3 million shooting range, state-of-the-art arenas and practice facilities for the Flames’ Division One basketball and football teams, and a 275-foot Freedom Tower, the tallest structure in Lynchburg, crowned at the top by a replica of the Liberty Bell.
While his father once loved to mingle and mix with the students, sightings of Jerry Jr. on campus were always rare. “When I was a freshman in 2014-2015,” recalls Kelly Sauskojus, who’s now in graduate school at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, “students saw Jerry as this super-awkward, kind of distant but cozy uncle figure.” Andrew Hahn, who graduated in 2013 and worked at Liberty University Online for four subsequent years, says Falwell “just wasn’t very involved with the student body. But every Wednesday, chapel was televised, so he had to be there.”
Chapel, also known as convocation, is a thrice-weekly mandatory gathering in the basketball arena—“North America’s largest weekly gathering of Christian students,” as Liberty’s website boasts. (Falwell loves superlatives; even when Liberty was surpassed by the Arizona-based Grand Canyon University as America’s largest Christian university, he continued to claim the title for Liberty.) Where it had once mostly featured traveling evangelists “telling us how to act and think,” as Hahn says, “convo” became steadily more political over the past decade. “All of my worst memories of Liberty are about their convos specifically,” says Sauskojus. “From the music to the prayers to the talks. I can’t listen to any praise songs anymore, which makes it hard to find a church! I will start shaking and have an elevated heart rate. The grossest thing about it is the supercozy and easy marriage between ‘We’re gonna have the worship music, then we’re going to pray for unity, and then we’re going to bring out the right-wing commentators and politicians.’”
Falwell made a terrible emcee. “Jerry could not speak,” says Hahn, who’s published a book of poems about being gay and closeted at Liberty. “He would just look down; he was always nervous all the time. The student body would scream and chant, ‘Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!’
“I met him twice,” Hahn recalls. “The first time, I was talking to Becki. We had just bumped into each other at some function; I didn’t know who she was, and then I saw Jerry. She was trying to introduce me; he was on his phone. He just walked away. Later, I was managing the food for the concessions at the football stadium. I was in an elevator with him. All he said to me was, ‘You know, these elevators cost $8 million to put in.’”
Over time, Falwell began to show a mouthier side of himself. Toward the end of 2015 came “the convocation that lives in infamy,” as Sauskojus puts it. After a talk by Heritage Foundation president and former Sen. Jim DeMint, Falwell brought up the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. “If some of those people in that community center had had what I’ve got in my back pocket right now …” he said, pretending to reach for his heat. While Sauskojus sat glumly, most of the students in the arena leaped up and let out a roar. “Is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know,” Falwell said. His dour face lit up. For once, he was really smiling. He was liking it up there.
Some of what he said next was drowned out by cheers. “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims …” Pandemonium.
Most people I interviewed recalled a particular time when it became totally, irrefutably clear to them that Falwell was morphing into a very different character and that the climate at Liberty was changing along with him. This convo was the one for Sauskojus. “It was the clearest before-and-after moment,” she says. “All of campus was like, ‘Oh, shit!’ And from there on, all through that next election year, it was just one political convo after another. By the time Trump came on MLK Day, a lot of us were like, ‘Oh, OK, some of the things Jerry says aren’t just because he’s bad at public speaking. It’s because he’s espousing what is just an ugly and racist brand of evangelicalism.’ ”
They had no clue, as yet, just how ugly it could get.
Jerry Falwell Sr. once remarked that “Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions.” From the moment he replaced his father as president in 2007, Jerry Jr. ran Liberty in that spirit. As one high-ranking official told a reporter in 2019, “It’s a dictatorship. Nobody craps at the university without Jerry’s approval.”
The university’s workforce was chronically underpaid and ill-treated. When I asked one former administrator (who asked to remain anonymous because of Falwell’s litigious streak) what it was like to work there for several years, he began with this: “It’s a hellhole. It made me hate the place. I wanted to burn the place down.”
Employees at LUO, like staffers and faculty members on campus, received constant reminders that their jobs were “always on the line,” the former administrator says. Abusive management practices trickled from Falwell on down. “If you work on the online side of things,” he continues, “it’s just relentless pressure for numbers. You have to get so many people to sign up for classes today, or your job’s in jeopardy. If we turned people away, we would be questioned immediately and relentlessly. They just wanted their money. They didn’t care about the students.”
The ex-adminstrator recalls one particularly painful and protracted, months-long purge around early 2017. “Every Friday, Human Resources would call in a group for rounds of firings. The whole job of HR at Liberty was basically just to fire people. So, of course, everyone was terrified. I’d never experienced such a morbid atmosphere. They wanted you to be scared.” Word went around, he says, that “if HR gives you cookies when you come in, then you’re definitely getting fired.”
In some cases, he said, that “different direction” was hiring new graduates who would work for less. Andrew Hahn, who started fresh from graduation as a course editor at LUO, was one of them. For a $22,000 salary, his job was to review curricula that had been adapted from Liberty’s campus classrooms for the online offerings. The experience gave him a grim insight into how Liberty was actually run. “Being a student and working there are two completely different things,” Hahn says. “When you’re there in school, on campus, you’re so involved in studying and doing these things that you have to do. You have these professors, many of them are wonderful. You pray before every class. Your friends look out for each other’s well-being. It’s basically a giant Bible camp.”
Working there couldn’t have been more different. “Then you see what goes on behind the scenes,” Hahn says. “The values that the school stands for don’t apply to the way the school runs. People are not fairly compensated. The people are pretty much grunt workers; it’s like working at the factory of Liberty.”
Professors and instructors don’t get much respect either. Outside of the law school, which must offer tenure to professors to remain accredited, there is none: Faculty members are kept on one-year contracts, no matter their seniority. In part, Marybeth Davis Baggett says, Falwell did this to nudge professors toward seeking bigger enrollment in their classes, which lowers Liberty’s operating costs and nudges up profits. “There’s always this awareness that you have to have big classes,” Baggett tells me in June. “There’s a spirit of competition created that’s tied to fear. The pie’s only so big, you’re told. But Falwell’s speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Our endowment is so big, and he’s constantly boasting about that in interviews. But out of the other side, he’s telling us that resources are limited. They closed down a whole department this spring,” she says. “Philosophy!”
Liberty also cut 14 professors in its School of Education in the spring of 2018; a year later, 12 professors were let go from the Divinity School. The explanation: The programs weren’t paying for themselves anymore. Meanwhile, last November, Falwell announced the opening of the Falkirk Center — a right-wing “think tank” on campus created in collaboration with Charlie Kirk, the brash mouthpiece of the right-wing youth group Turning Point USA.
With Falwell seemingly the king of Liberty for life, Baggett didn’t expect any of it to change when we talk this summer. At Liberty’s core, she says, “it’s an abusive, autocratic institution. Faculty do have freedom in terms of how ideas are discussed in the classroom. But it’s clamped down in terms of not being able to challenge any policies or program decisions.”
After Falwell became a notorious Trumper, Liberty started attracting a new kind of student body — whiter and righter. “I don’t want to say that anybody who now comes to Liberty is a Trump follower,” Baggett says, “but it’s certainly increased in the last few years.” Meanwhile, the percentage of black students has plummeted. By the fall of 2018, Liberty’s campus — where 10 percent of students were black as recently as 2009 — had only 561 African Americans enrolled. And while Hispanic students have accounted for the most growth in American colleges in recent years, it’s been flat at Liberty, where about five percent of students are Hispanic.
Falwell’s rhetoric, and the school’s tight association with Trump, makes such numbers unsurprising. When I ask Baggett if she ever brought up any of Falwell’s headline-grabbing behavior in her classes, she laughs. “No, and I said there was intellectual freedom! Dissent, even internally, is frowned upon. You see people who are not renewed, every spring, when they’ve spoken up or challenged the administration. And you are constantly reminded how lucky you are to be there. Meetings always seemed to begin on the same note: ‘How lucky you are to be here! So many people would love to have your job.’ There’s this implicit but very clear message that you better stay in line if you want this job.”
Baggett fully expected to be fired when she published that March op-ed critical of Falwell’s Covid-19 policies. It didn’t happen, she speculates, because she’d already given notice that she was resigning effective June 30 — moving on, heavy-hearted, from a place where she’d studied and taught, and which she’s in many ways loved, for 27 years. (Her husband, a longtime philosophy professor, also resigned that spring.) She did get a letter after the op-ed, though, “stating that I was breaching my contract. That I was criticizing the university. In their mind, the university equals Jerry Falwell Jr.”
Under such conditions, it’s no great surprise that Liberty people had long kept their lips buttoned about what they saw, heard, or suffered. But if faculty and staff couldn’t afford to speak out, students and (especially) alumni could. It took Falwell’s embrace of Trump, and his increasingly Trumpian behavior, to start to loosen some tongues. Falwell responded by doubling down on his authoritarian streak, while amping up his public offensiveness.
Falwell’s endorsement of Trump in 2016, had come as a shock to just about everybody, including top officials at Liberty. If Falwell was going to back a horse in the crowded GOP primaries, it had been assumed that the choice would be Ted Cruz, that other son of a right-wing evangelist. The senator from Texas had wanted this blessing so bad, he’d launched his campaign at a Liberty convocation in March of 2015. (Another conservative-Christian aspirant, Jeb Bush, delivered the commencement speech two months later.) But in late January, one week after Trump had spoken at Liberty on MLK Day — with Falwell likening him to Winston Churchill, Jesus Christ, and Jerry Falwell Sr. in his fawning introduction — Liberty’s president gave the three-times-married reality-TV star his nod, blindsiding Cruz and his aides, who said Falwell had solemnly promised them that he would stay neutral. (A Falwell confidant says this was just a story spun up by the Cruz campaign to explain its failure to land Falwell.)
The formerly publicity-shy president of Liberty went all in from there as Trump’s chief evangelical spokesman. He toured Iowa with the candidate, touted him for “a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” defended him vociferously, and even recorded a robocall prior to the Super Tuesday primary in Virginia, accusing Cruz of “dirty tricks.” Falwell’s seal of approval opened the floodgates for other high-powered evangelicals to wrap their arms around Trump as well. At the Republican National Convention that summer, Falwell hailed Trump as “America’s blue-collar billionaire” and “one of the greatest visionaries of our time.” No praise was too high.
But why? That was what nobody could quite understand, and what everybody — especially at Liberty — could not help speculating about. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Liberty cannot by law endorse a political candidate; Falwell claimed from the start he was merely making a “personal endorsement,” but it was a risky and unusual move. The official story, fed by Falwell loyalists to Betsy Swan at the Daily Beast, was that Trump and Falwell had begun a “bromance” after Trump’s first visit to Liberty, and his first convocation speech, in 2012. The two had “bonded over their shared affinity for building things,” the story went, though the evidence was skimpy: one of Falwell’s sons got married on a Trump property in Virginia, and the two had chatted at Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party.
“Like Trump, he was the son of a successful father,” says a source familiar with the relationship. “Their fathers both started something; they both took over and make it bigger. There was a sort of kindred spirit there. But he’s a far better businessman than Trump, obviously!” Did Falwell ever regret going out on a limb for Trump? “He had no regrets about his endorsement,” the source says, “because the school grew more than ever from 2016 to 2020.”
Maybe Falwell did feel a kinship with Trump, whether it involved daddies and legacies and real estate, or raw expressions of bigotry. But there was another Trump-Falwell connection revealed in a set of intriguing clues that would begin to emerge in 2017 and 2018 alongside the mounting stories about Falwell’s less-than-pristine personal life. Michael Cohen, Trump’s “fixer” who had accompanied him to Liberty in 2012, had done the Falwells a favor. In 2015, according to a source close to the Liberty president, Falwell told Cohen about a problem: Compromising and “racy” photos of Becki had fallen into the hands of somebody in Florida. Cohen said he’d look into it, which he did. In a secretly taped conversation with actor and comedian Tom Arnold, Cohen — the same man, mind you, who had paid off porn stars for Trump — described one of the Falwell pics as “terrible.” He was bent on keeping them out of the public eye.
Nobody else knew about that in the winter of 2016. But many members of the Liberty community were appalled, nonetheless, to have their school tethered so publicly to Trump. The day of the Super Tuesday primary in Virginia, the university board’s longtime executive committee chairman, Mark DeMoss, was quoted in The Washington Post expressing worries about the impact of the endorsement. “I’ve been concerned for Liberty University for a couple of months now,” said DeMoss, who had worked as Falwell Sr.’s chief of staff for years, viewing him as a “second father,” after graduating in the same class as Jerry Jr. His old friend, DeMoss said, was wrong to give Trump his blessing. “Donald Trump is the only candidate who has dealt almost exclusively in the politics of personal insult,” he told the Post. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anybody who claims to be a follower of Christ.”
This mild but rare act of public expression of dissent set the campus, along with the larger “Liberty Nation,” abuzz. DeMoss was no ordinary board chairman. His family, like his wife’s, had been among the most generous donors to Liberty through the decades. A main academic building on campus is still named for his father, Arthur DeMoss. He’d been a placekicker on some of the Flames’ early football teams, and a trustee since 1992. After leaving Falwell Sr.’s employ, he’d founded the nation’s premier firm for evangelical public relations. Now, he found himself being assailed by other board members and by Falwell himself.
“Jerry and most of the board members were pretty angry about my saying that stuff,” DeMoss tells me in June — the first time he’d spoken out publicly about Falwell and Liberty since that spring. The next board meeting was six weeks away at the time he talked to the Post, and DeMoss says he spent that time fielding vitriolic calls and emails from Falwell and his loyalists on the board.
“Jerry voiced to me two primary objections to what I’d done,” DeMoss says, emitting a thin chuckle. “The first, which is almost laughable on its face, was that I had potentially jeopardized the university’s tax-exempt status by speaking for or against a candidate for office. Apparently, as the president of the university, his speaking out and appearing on TV with ‘Liberty University’ under his picture, and endorsing and campaigning with Trump, didn’t pose any threat to our tax-exempt status, but my one interview did.
“The second objection that they seemed pretty intent on leveling at me was that I had violated the board’s confidentiality policy by expressing my disapproval of his endorsement.” This made no sense, either. As DeMoss says, “There was nothing confidential to disclose.”
But logic and facts were irrelevant. Jerry had been publicly criticized! The night before the board met late in April, its executive committee — which has the sole power to hire, evaluate, and fire Liberty’s president — asked DeMoss for his resignation as chairman. DeMoss resigned from the board a few days later. “I said my piece and went my way, and have kept my head down pretty much since then,” he says.
Falwell later seemed to become obsessed with the notion of a “criminal conspiracy” by DeMoss and other former Liberty officials to have him removed as president. When the sex scandals, revelations of financial self-dealings, and disparaging reports of LUO began to proliferate in 2017 and 2018, Falwell vowed to sic “the meanest lawyer in New York” on these nefarious plotters, and even said he was requesting an FBI investigation — of what, exactly, no one could be sure. “I never heard from anybody,” says DeMoss, who is retired and living in Atlanta.
Still, Falwell’s strong-armed action against one of Liberty’s most powerful officials served one clear purpose: to put the fear of God into anybody else who might think of speaking out against him. “I heard from a lot of the faculty and staff who thought that, because I did have a pretty special relationship with Liberty University and Jerry Sr. going back to 1976,” DeMoss says. “They thought, ‘Gee, if he can’t speak up without getting shown the door, I got no hope as an untenured faculty member on a one-year contract.’ It stifled a lot of people’s idea that they could speak out.”
In the fall of 2016, Falwell attempted to deliver a similar message to Liberty students, who’d begun to organize protests and question Falwell’s fealty to Trump on social media. After the infamous Access Hollywood tape came out in October, reinforcing the doubts some evangelicals still harbored about the man Falwell had told them to support, Joel Schmieg, the sports editor of The Champion, Liberty’s student paper, wrote a column that criticized Trump for trying to dismiss his hot-mic conversation with Billy Bush as simple “locker-room talk.”
“I didn’t think it was particularly groundbreaking,” Schmieg, who’s now a pastor at a church in northeast England, tells me. “It was just like, ‘Actually, guys don’t premeditate sexual assault in the locker room, and what Trump said wasn’t OK.’ It got through all our editing process.
Then, a couple of hours before the paper went to press, The Champion’s editor-in-chief summoned Schmieg. “She read me an email from Jerry saying, basically, ‘We’re not going to run this. We’ve already got a column endorsing Hillary. I don’t want to run this as well.’”
Schmieg was gobsmacked. “I felt Donald Trump didn’t represent our Christian values; he was the antithesis of them. You can’t claim the name of Jesus and then do everything the opposite of what Jesus would do.
“That evening, I was still upset,” he says, “because it was censorship, and I hadn’t experienced that before. So I wrote up a Facebook post,” which noted that “Jerry” had spiked the column. Schmieg also posted the column. “I didn’t expect it to be a big deal,” he says. “I thought just my friends would see it.”
But the post blew up, republished by Insider Higher Ed, and Falwell’s ham-handed censorship of a Trump-critical column became a cause célèbre for free-press groups and Falwell critics. A couple of days later, The Champion’s faculty adviser “called me into her office and gave me a stern talking-to,” Schmieg recalls. He says he was told he could keep his job — for which he was paid “thousands in scholarship money” — but that he would “have to fall in line and be respectful of Jerry.” He quit. “I had to pay back the scholarship money to Liberty. But I had no desire to work on Jerry’s newspaper.”
Three weeks later, on Election Day, Falwell claims to have spoken four times on the phone with Trump — once, right at the moment that the future president realized he was about to miraculously, win. Falwell took the occasion to chide members of the media for their failure to understand white evangelical voters, saying they shouldn’t have been so surprised that they went so heavily — 81 percent — for a character like Trump. “Evangelical theology,” Falwell piously opined, “is all about forgiveness.”
You might imagine that Trump’s most important proselytizer, the guy who’d done so much to make this most un-Godly man president, would have gotten to enjoy some spoils. But aside from the dubious honor of having this president’s ear, his tangible rewards amounted to: (a) being offered (according to Falwell) the position of Secretary of Education, which would have involved an approximately $700,000 salary cut, and which he (according to Falwell) turned down; (b) scoring Trump’s first commencement address as president, in May 2017 (while Notre Dame got Pence — take that!); and (c) continuing to be trotted out by the White House whenever conservative Christians began to find the president’s words or actions morally objectionable.
And thus, in August 2017, Falwell found himself on ABC News’ This Week, hand-picked by the White House to spin Trump’s declaration that the neo-Nazis and white-nationalist thugs who’d brought mayhem and murder to Charlottesville, Virginia, were “very fine people.”
“Who,” host Martha Raddatz demanded to know, “were those very fine people marching with the neo-Nazis?”
National TV viewers watched Falwell try to defend the indefensible, finally sputtering: “You know, President Trump is something we haven’t had in national leadership in a long time. He’s substance over form. … I think the American people have gotten sort of thin-skinned, and I think they need to listen to the substance of what he said.”
A sizable bunch of Liberty alumni were in no mood for this after the horror of Charlottesville. They soon organized one of the most embarrassing and newsworthy protests against Falwell to date. Bethany Walker, a 2007 Liberty graduate, had posted her frustrations on Facebook after Charlottesville, gotten a big response, and started a “Return your diploma to LU” group. It was joined by 700 people, who promised to send their diplomas back to their alma mater with pointed letters attached. Other alumni signed a letter of protest sent to Falwell and top school officials, declaring in part, “the Chancellor’s recent comments on the attack upon our neighbors in Charlottesville have brought our outrage and our sorrow to a boiling point.”
“We were just fed up with all of this,” Walker tells me. “Not only were we not on board ideologically; there was also a strong sense of feeling that we no longer wanted that stigma attached to us.”
The protest wasn’t just about Falwell, Trumpism, or racism; it was also about growing frustration that a degree from Liberty seemed to do more harm than good when it came to finding gainful employment or getting into graduate schools elsewhere — something that was true long before Trump came to town. Thirteen years ago, Walker recalls, “I moved to Fairfax [Virginia] with a friend after I graduated, and I found that it was really difficult to land my first job. I remember one of my phone interviews; I could just feel that there was this hostility on the other end. Finally, the woman asked me outright: ‘Why did you go to Liberty University?’ And it was pretty clear that the real question was: ‘Are you one of those bigots?’ It has to be so much worse for people who are graduating now.”
Walker feels lucky that her major was in one of the departments at Liberty — English — where professors encouraged critical thinking. But Walker, like several others I spoke with, found the required curriculum for freshmen and sophomores at Liberty both ridiculously easy and, ultimately, a rip-off. “The first two years, you have all this required coursework that doesn’t transfer anywhere — Evangelism 101, Christian Worldview, and all these bullshit Bible courses, even though you’ve grown up in the church and been steeped in these subjects your whole life,” Walker says. “Once you get students there, they have to choose between financial loss and being set back in their academic career if they leave. Transferring out, even if you are from a family where that would be supported, you feel like, ‘Gosh, I’m going to lose all this money.’’ Basically, Walker says, “it’s a diploma mill.”
The value of a Liberty degree, whether earned on campus or online, has always been negligible. In 2017, 41 percent of the university’s graduates were earning less than $25,000 a year. The constant bad publicity of recent years was not going to help. “It’s sad to me that Jerry Jr. keeps ruining my résumé with his political bullshit,” says another alumnus, who worked at the school after graduation.
Lucas Wilson, who graduated in 2012, says he’s noticed that many of his fellow alumni strike Liberty from their résumés as soon as they’re established. “I suppose I received some sort of education there, just not a really academic education,” says the Toronto native. Wilson says that a scholarship arranged by a relative, who was a Liberty recruiter in Canada, and a visit to Liberty’s campus originally lured him in. “I was very religious and it was this big evangelical playground, essentially,” he says, and chuckles. “All these concerts and activities and good, clean fun!”
Wilson’s four years on campus, like most people’s, were a mixed bag: some ridiculous classes, a few good teachers and friends, and a big dose of repression. For all four years, he says, he regularly underwent conversion therapy, which has been condemned by the American Psychological Association, under the guidance of Dane Emerick, a pastor who is now an associate director of community life at Liberty. (Emerick did not respond to a request for comment.) Wilson wrote about the experience in an essay published earlier this year. “Repression, deep-seated shame, self-hatred: These were the enduring fruits of my meetings with Pastor Dane,” he wrote. “The problem I didn’t realize at the time is that you can’t fix what ain’t broken.”
Wilson also joined a group for “men struggling with same-sex attraction” that was advertised across campus, called Band of Brothers. At least, Wilson says, he met some gay friends at Liberty, including Andrew Hahn. But while they both came to understand, after graduation and a lot of dark struggles, that “we’re loved for who we are,” as Wilson says, they were the relatively lucky ones. Others they still know, Hahn says, are “married, miserable, permanently damaged — what you’d predict.” When Hahn worked at the school, he says, several gay employees he knew — including one who confirmed the story to Rolling Stone — were “discovered” on the hookup app Grindr, and summarily fired.
Keyvon Scott, who earned his B.A. in strategic communications before working as an admissions counselor, says that outside the classroom, Liberty was a tricky, sometimes lonely place for students who didn’t fit the norm — which was white, straight, uncritically evangelical, and gung-ho for Jerry. Scott knew something about the Falwells and Liberty before he came, having grown up black in Virginia. “I had heard mixed reviews about it. I’d heard Jerry Falwell Sr. was a racist, and that it trickled down to Junior.” He was drawn to Liberty to save money and because family members, including his grandparents, lived in Lynchburg.
Scott says some of his friends endured more-direct expressions of racism than he did — “somebody calling them the n-word, on occasion, for one thing.” In classes, where Scott was sometimes the only African American, it was more subtle: “You’d always be picked last to work on projects. They just weren’t sure if you were smart enough. Race didn’t really come up much in classes, honestly. It was too hard for people to speak about that. So they didn’t.” He found it easiest to blend in as much as possible on campus. “I felt like I had to speak a certain way, act a certain way, when black people were already labeled as thugs and things.”
By the time Falwell issued his blackface tweet, Scott was having qualms about his admissions-counseling job, which was mainly a not-so-glorified sales job. “I just couldn’t keep telling prospective students that there was diversity at Liberty,” he says. “What choked me up was black students, when they’d ask, ‘How’s the diversity there?’ I didn’t know what to say about that.” After the tweet, he says, “I felt like, ‘I can’t keep covering for Falwell anymore.’”
A lot of students wind up at Liberty, as Wilson says, because “their parents won’t pay for them to go anywhere else.” They are reassured by the strict set of rules the university still imposes on students: mandatory chapel, no smoking, no alcohol, no PDA or cursing, no shorts in class, strictly enforced curfews, and no sex outside of marriage, among other things. It’s called “The Liberty Way,” a living relic of fundamentalist schools of yore. There are demerits and fines for violations. Falwell, meanwhile, freely exempted himself from any such restrictions.
Liberty students and alumni who worried about Falwell devaluing their degrees with his ardent Trumpism, his intolerant rhetoric, and his profit-minded approach when it came to academics — well, sadly, they hadn’t seen anything yet.
In August 2017, Liberty alumnus Brandon Ambrosino published a story at Politico titled “My Weekend at the Falwells’ South Beach Flophouse.” For Falwell’s growing legion of haters, the tale was wonderfully tawdry, inspiring delirious gossip about the Liberty president’s sex life and financial dealings. It vividly described a low-rent hostel located in “perhaps the gayest 6 square miles in the United States” — a $4.65 million property for which Falwell had, for some unaccountable reason, loaned $1.8 million to his son Trey and a young “business partner” named Giancarlo Granda to purchase. Ambrosino’s reporting, along with a BuzzFeed story by Aram Roston, raised more questions than they answered. But they were really interesting questions, not only about hypocrisy and sleaze, but also about financial improprieties on the part of Falwell and Liberty’s trustees.
Over the next three years, reporters from Reuters and the Miami Herald, along with Ambrosino himself, dug into tax records and court filings, and extracted anonymous details from Liberty administrators and former officials. The revelations kept coming, little puzzle pieces that slowly fit together, story by story, to paint a picture of a Christian-university president who’d long been operating more like Trump — as if bound by no laws, no rules, and no ethical or moral strictures — than anyone outside his immediate circle apparently knew.
How to summarize the twists and turns? Let’s start with the sleaze. In March 2012, Giancarlo Granda was a student working as a pool attendant at Miami Beach’s swank Fontainebleau hotel, a frequent destination for the Falwells. One evening, according to Granda’s account to Politico, Becki Falwell spotted the 20-year-old flirting with some “girls my age” poolside, and sidled up to tell him he should try someone “with more experience.” Eventually, the flirtation led to an invitation to her room. “And then she goes, ‘But one thing.’ And I’m like, ‘OK,’ and she’s like, ‘My husband likes to watch.’” When they got to the room, “he comes out, and he’s wearing a Speedo.”
It was the kickoff for a seven-year affair, with frequent liaisons in Miami, the Florida Keys, and the Falwells’ farm in Virginia. (Jerry Falwell has denied participating in the liaisons and called Granda a liar.)
Granda’s version of the squirmy particulars wouldn’t be revealed until this past August, after everything had long since gone sour. By then, it was already public knowledge that the Falwells had begun supporting Granda financially soon after they met him, and that they had “gifted” him mightily, to borrow another evangelical phrase, in February 2014 by signing over one-half of the Alton Hostel LLC to their son Trey and one-quarter to Granda. Granda says he was also told he would be paid to manage the property.
The transaction produced two related lawsuits that proved invaluable for the reporters now on Falwell’s trail. Jesus Fernandez Jr., a high school buddy of Granda’s, claimed that it was he who’d told Falwell about the hostel for sale — and that he was also promised half of Granda’s share in the property. When Falwell refused, or reneged, Fernandez filed suit in Miami in 2015. He subsequently changed his name to Gordon Bello Jr.; this summer, he confirmed that he made the change after Michael Cohen got involved in the dispute.
It was Bello, now a practicing attorney in Miami, who possessed those photos that Cohen was hellbent on suppressing. (Bello declined to answer questions for this story.) But as the legal action dragged on —Falwell finally settled it last fall for an undisclosed sum — other photos emerged. Some, according to the Miami Herald, featured Becki in “various stages of undress.” One, which was published, depicted Granda posing and grinning on the beach with Jerry at the pricey Cheeca Lodge in the Florida Keys. Another showed Falwell, his wife, Trey, and their other son, Wesley, partying-down in a Miami nightclub called Wall in 2014. Yet another captured the whole happy gang smiling in front of Liberty University’s plane: Trey, Becki, Jerry, Granda, and personal trainer Ben Crosswhite.
Ben who? He’s the young and hunky Liberty graduate whom Falwell said helped him shed pounds while also working out with Becki. From 2011 to 2016, the university president signed off on a series of deals for the trainer and aspiring entrepreneur, who ultimately ended up with an 18-acre fitness facility previously owned by Liberty. When these transactions surfaced last August, along with the fact that Crosswhite had traveled to Miami with the Falwells at least once, reporters and Falwell critics connected the dots: Here was another hot young guy who got tangled up with the Falwells — and another one who got a generous payout from it. According to reporting by Reuters, in 2011, Falwell had emailed Liberty personnel pitching what he called a “sweet deal” for Crosswhite that would let him offer private training at the sports facility, which had recently been donated to the university.
In 2012, a longtime university employee told Politico that Falwell had meant to send a photo of Becki, wearing a French-maid’s costume, to Crosswhite “as a thank-you,” but instead sent it to several others. (Falwell has denied this, and Crosswhite says he didn’t recall it, and “that’s something I really think I would remember!”) Another Liberty official told Ambrosino that Falwell was “very, very vocal” about his sex life; “all he wanted to talk about was how he would nail his wife,” one said, and — hey, let’s just leave it there.
Crosswhite didn’t talk to reporters when the stories first began circulating — something he now says might have been a mistake. His story was conflated with Granda’s, he tells Rolling Stone, “to fit the narrative of my getting a sweet deal — to say that it wasn’t only the pool boy, but the buff local trainer, too.” But, he says, “This was not a sweet deal.” The donated building “was 46 years old, and had a lot of repairs needed. Liberty was losing hundreds of thousands on the facility.” Crosswhite purchased it for the assessed price, and says he’s invested tens of thousands more in upgrades.
He decided to cooperate with reporters, he says, when the Granda story came roaring back this past summer, with more mentions of the “parallels” with Crosswhite. “People are saying, ‘Well, if Becki was having sex with [Granda], she was probably doing it with the trainer as well.’” But, says Crosswhite, “there’s been no indecent actions of any kind. There’s never been any inappropriate relationships or behavior.” While Crosswhite says he appreciates “all that Jerry has done for me as a friend, it’s more his wisdom in business that’s been helpful than the money.”
Whether or not Falwell gave Crosswhite a sweet deal — or just gave him a leg up when it came to buying the fitness center — he certainly seems to have arranged them for others. It wasn’t hard. According to a copy of Liberty’s bylaws obtained by Rolling Stone, Falwell had broad power to sign off on such deals without the approval of the board. Which helps to explain some of the financial chicanery that was gradually coming to light.
Trey Falwell, like several members of the immediate and extended family, was given a fancy-sounding job at Liberty: vice president of university operations, which pays him $189,000 a year. He lives in a three-bedroom house on 21 acres of property that used to belong to Liberty University, but was rented to him for $600 a month before he purchased it for around $225,000. The multitalented Trey, co-manager of the Alton Hostel LLC, also has a company that Liberty pays to manage a Lynchburg shopping center owned by the school. He is reportedly a silent partner in the LaQuinta Inn near Liberty, which is owned by a company belonging to an old pal and business partner of Jerry Jr. named Chris Doyle, who manages the university’s real estate and once called Falwell “a one-man real-estate boom.” (Emails obtained by Politico showed how, on at least one occasion, the university funneled business, via the school website, to the LaQuinta. Jerry has denied ever profiting from the LaQuinta.) Trey has a sense of humor to go along with it all, too. On one trip to New York, he posted a picture of a hotel bed covered with some $12,000 in cash on Instagram.
The cash may have belonged to John Gauger, Liberty’s chief information officer, whose business —RedFinch Solutions LLC — had been hired by Michael Cohen to rig online polls in Trump’s favor as he pondered a presidential bid. According to an account in The Wall Street Journal, Trey had gone to New York with Gauger — whose company Liberty paid $120,000 in 2016 to recruit students online — to pick up the payment from Cohen.
For Jerry, doling out no-bid contracts and loaning university money to friends appeared to be a habit. In one case, the university handed over at least $200,000 to a fledgling “destination marketing” company called Prototype Tourism, owned by a Liberty graduate and friend of Falwell’s; the loan was never repaid. (Falwell has said of this loan, “In hindsight, it was not a good decision.”) A frequent traveling companion of Falwell’s, Robert Moon, got a $750,000 loan from the university to help start a construction company. Later, Liberty paid Moon’s company more than $130 million in contracts and sold him land belonging to the university.
The stories were as dizzying as they were dismaying. Around Liberty, however, what was as tangibly troubling as anything was a story based on leaked emails that revealed what Falwell really thought about his minions. In them, he referred to students as “social misfits,” called one in particular “physically retarded,” and characterized the school’s police chief as a “half-wit and easy to manipulate.” He instructed an administrator to respond to one parent, who’d written to ask about the impending demolition of a dorm their child lived in, thusly: “Tell them, if they keep complaining, we’ll tear them down over Thanksgiving break!”
This was bad, but it was also consistent with Falwell’s increasingly combative and un-Christian rhetoric. When some evangelical softies dared to complain about Trump’s family-separation policy at the border, Falwell shot back at the most prominent of them, top Southern Baptist Convention official Russell Moore. “Who are you @drmoore?” Falwell demanded to know. “Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you authority to speak on any issue? I’m being serious. You’re nothing but an employee — a bureaucrat.”
On Twitter, never-Trump journalist Bill Kristol zinged back, “Have naked photos of your wife ever showed up on Michael Cohen’s computer?” That’s what it had come to. Liberty-ites, even those who dared to raise their voices in protest, could mostly only read, watch, and shudder with each new revelation and outburst. “Imagine being an evangelical kid at a school where the authority figure, the person to be admired and emulated, is saying these things, doing these things,” Baggett, the former Liberty professor, says. “I mean—” She can’t find the words.
This past January — before the coronavirus blow-up, before the racist tweet, before the fateful public breakup with Granda — Falwell’s adventures in alternative reality led him to join a fringe right-wing movement in southwest Virginia calling for a “Vexit,” seceding from Virginia to join West Virginia. He spoke at a press conference to tout the idea, joined by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice. It was a circus. Everything about Falwell and Liberty was a circus now. But he seemed dead serious. “While there will likely be a robust debate about how cities and counties could leave their home state of Virginia, one thing is absolutely certain,” Falwell ranted. “Many counties are taking a long, hard look at escaping the barbaric, totalitarian, and corrupt Democratic regime in Richmond that is trampling on individual rights throughout the state.”
Would it ever end? For five long years, Falwell had been either revealing his real character in public or losing his marbles in public, or maybe both. The university he’d built into a powerhouse had been exposed as a tin-pot dictatorship, rotten to the core, its rampant hypocrisy the least of its corporate sins. But through it all, as Granda says, “everyone at Liberty treated the Falwells like a royal family.” And after Jerry allied himself with Trump, he believed himself to be “effectively untouchable.”
By all appearances, particularly his frequent vacation posts on Instagram, Falwell was having himself a fine and festive summer of 2020. Sure, another alumni group — called “Save71,” after the year of Liberty’s founding — had now organized to demand his ouster and for the university to return to its “spiritual vitality.” But why should Falwell worry? The furor over the blackface tweet had receded, with only a few more athletes departing in protest. Saner heads had prevented a post-spring break Covid-19 surge on campus, allowing the president to boast that he’d known best all along. “They were all wrong, and we were right,” Falwell told Washington, D.C., talk-radio jock Larry O’Connor in a singsong-y nyah-nyah voice on July 20th.
This fall, he promised O’Connor, it would be “business as usual” again at Liberty, in-person instruction and all. His big concern? “I just hope we get some football teams that’ll play us,” Falwell said, slurring his words. As a bonus, he claimed swelling enrollment at Liberty University Online, with a “full” campus in Lynchburg as well — 108,000 students in all, he said. And if Gov. Northam tried to interfere this time, Falwell said, he was prepared to strike back: “I’ve got a lawsuit ready to be filed against him if he tries to make us do social distancing, or 50 percent occupancy, or any of this bullcrap.”
But what he really wanted to talk about with the radio host was his latest nonwork adventure. “You want to hear something funny?” he asked rhetorically. “This weekend, I spent the weekend with Jerry Lee Lewis.” Falwell and a pal had cut a recording of “Great Balls of Fire” in a studio with himself on vocals, he explained, and delivered it in person to the Killer’s mansion outside Memphis to start a weekend of revelry. “You gotta play it,” he said. He’d sent a copy to the station and sounded a bit miffed when O’Connor said they couldn’t turn it up.
Two weeks later, Falwell’s life of golden immunity started to crash down when he posted one too many vacation shots on Instagram. It wasn’t especially scandalous, in the context of everything else that had gone down. In the woody cabin of a yacht, a ruddy-faced and bearded Falwell, hairy gut flopping over exposed briefs under his unzipped jeans, with what appears to be a glass of red wine in hand, grinned with his arm around a much-younger woman with a bare midriff and unzipped cutoff shorts. “Lots of good friends visited us on the yacht,” Falwell chirped in the caption. “I promise that’s just black water in my glass. It was a prop only.”
The characteristic clamor over a public Falwell excess broke out, which The View host Meghan McCain summed up in a tweet: “So gross, so hypocritical.” One Reddit user calculated that a student posting the same photo, under the school’s code of conduct, would face a $9,000 fine, 900 hours of service, and potential expulsion. Even the yacht itself raised ethical questions: Falwell and friends had apparently been using a 164-foot model belonging to NASCAR chieftain Rick Hendrick in the years since Liberty inked a deal to sponsor a Hendrick Motorsports race car for $6 million a year.
To universal surprise, Liberty’s supine board of trustees had finally seen enough. On August 7th, it placed Falwell on “indefinite leave” and, it appears, began to negotiate a permanent break. Perhaps Falwell had come clean with them about another blast of controversy on the immediate horizon: The “pool boy” story was about to make an unpleasant return. Perhaps to try to head off the worst, and maybe to keep his job, Falwell sent a statement to the Washington Examiner on August 23rd, writing that Becki had indeed been engaged in an ongoing “fatal attraction” affair with Granda since 2012. Falwell described the younger man as an “emotionally unstable” lover scorned, now bent on vengeance and exposure after “we tried to distance ourselves from him,” despite the “spirit of forgiveness” the Falwells had extended.
Falwell painted himself as the victim; he’d spent too many long hours working for Liberty, he confessed, after being unwillingly thrust into the public spotlight upon his father’s death. He’d lost 80 pounds from the stress of finding out about Becki’s unfaithfulness and dealing with the repercussions, he claimed, contradicting the story he’d told so often about training with Crosswhite. He’d forgiven her, he said, and they had reconciled. Falwell implied that he would seek counseling to “to address the emotional toll this has taken.”
The next day, Reuters published Granda’s version of events. Two weeks later, Granda answered my questions about his relationship with the Falwells via email, and subsequently corroborated and clarified various details by phone. He also sent Rolling Stone a PDF full of screenshots of texts and emails between himself, Jerry, and Becki, and photos of them together over the years. “Jerry was aware of our relationship from day one,” Granda tells me. Falwell “watched our encounters and encouraged Becki to pursue me,” he says. “Whenever I tried to pull away from Becki, I received a threatening phone call from Jerry.” (A person close to Falwell says, “[Jerry] is absolutely adamant that this was not true.”)
In one message, dated soon after that first meeting in March 2012, the Liberty president writes, “Hey Gian! Hope all is well with you. Becki asked me to send you these pictures” — one of Granda with his arm around Becki, the other of the young man side-by-side with a smiling Jerry. In a screenshot of a text exchange from August 2018, Becki asks Granda for the address of a bar in Miami. She then writes, “You missed out. I’m not wearing panties.” An hour later, she writes, “You should give me and Jerry a ride.”
In a text sent in May 2017, Becki writes to Granda: “Goodnight gorgeous! I love you so much. And I miss you so much my heart hurts. And you looked so freaking amazing and gorgeous. … I can’t take your lips and eyes and how they entice me. … And your voice that hypnotizes me and I can’t think anymore. And your … oh and your … oh yes.” The next morning, Granda writes, “Good morning beautiful.” She responds, in part: “They had me do a video with Jerry yesterday. They are making one about behind the scenes at commencement I’m doing more and more talking on camera. I think you’d be proud. I’m getting over a big fear.” “I’m so proud!” Granda texts back.
Granda also shared a text message from Jerry featuring a series of messages: “Come inside,” “Whoops,” “Sorry,” followed by an image of a high-end bottle of tequila. And in two screenshots of a FaceTime call with Granda, one shows Becki, with a lot of cleavage, drinking what appears to be white wine. The other shows Jerry peering out from behind a door, grinning.
After the “pool boy articles,” as Granda calls them, began to appear in 2017 and 2018, he says he lost at least one job after receiving an initial offer. He sent me a text exchange with Becki from January 2019, in which Becki encourages him to “vent” about it all, writing, “I am not the enemy. Say whatever you want to me and Jerry in the group text. Doesn’t matter if it’s nice.”
Granda, who recently earned a graduate degree in real estate at Georgetown University, says he’d decided by then that he wanted out of the relationship — both personal and business. “The Falwells repeatedly told me that they understand that I wanted to cut ties and insisted they would buy my equity after the lawsuit settled” — the one filed by Gordon Bello, Granda’s high school friend who claimed he’d been promised a share of the Alton Hostel. “After the lawsuit settled,” Granda says, “Jerry and Becki used those texts against me to walk back on their promise.” According to Granda, that led him to threaten, this past June, to go public about the affair — and to expose the Falwells’ “lavish lifestyle of heavy drinking and going to nightclubs.”
The day after the Reuters story appeared, Liberty’s trustees announced that they had accepted Falwell’s resignation. But while the university said he’s entitled to two years’ salary, $2.5 million, Falwell claims his contract entitles him to $10.5 million because he was placed on leave without cause. Falwell denied, in the end, that he’d known about Becki and Granda’s sexual affair from the start, that he’d been an active participant, and that it was Granda and not the Falwells who wanted out. Still, before retreating into silence, he called Granda’s account “90 percent false,” and said Granda was an “extortionist.”
On the night of August 30th, Becki called 911 to report that Jerry had been drinking and fallen down the stairs. There was “a lot of blood,” she said, but Becki said he refused to go to the hospital and wouldn’t answer detailed questions from the dispatcher, whose notes read “Caller was not forthcoming.” Responders found “empty alcohol containers.” Falwell first told them that he’d hit his head on a trash can. “He actually was not drinking before the incident,” says a source close to Falwell. “He’s definitely had a drinking problem, but in recent weeks he’s in a much better place.”
For the hundreds of thousands of Liberty students, alumni, staff, and faculty who’d been witnessing Falwell’s public disintegration, no future revelations about the man who was so long an object of worship at the school will have the power to shock or surprise. The news of his departure was greeted with more relief than joy in Liberty-ville. “I think everybody has been waiting for this,” said one Liberty senior. “Thank God, the witch is dead.”
Falwell made a graceless exit. “Free at last, free at last,” he told NPR, lifting from MLK. “Thank God almighty, I’m free at last.” No more onerous public responsibilities for Jerry Jr.! (A source close to Falwell offered another explanation: “It’s really about being free of Granda and the threats, and from the need to speak publicly about all that. The torture for him was real.”) Falwell was leaving, he said publicly, even though “I have not broken any rules — any rules — that apply to a staff member at Liberty.” He’d only chosen to step down, he said, “because I don’t want something my wife did to harm the school I’ve spent my whole life building.” Keeping it classy.
Falwell’s days as Donald Trump’s top evangelical apologist were already over, it seems, before the final curtain fell on his time at Liberty. Falwell was never asked to speak at this summer’s virtual RNC; he has not spoken as a campaign surrogate for months. It’s no loss for Trump; a Pew poll this summer showed that 80 percent of white evangelicals were planning to vote to re-elect him this fall.
For the vast majority of evangelical Christians, according to historian of the faith Grant Wacker, l’affaire Falwell won’t change a thing — not about their faith and not about their politics. “A year from now,” Wacker wrote recently, “most Americans, including evangelicals, will not remember, let alone care, about Falwell’s transgressions. The flexible structure of the evangelical Christian movement in America means it can survive even a scandal of this magnitude with little long-range damage. The tradition is too big — something like 80 million strong — and fed by too many fast-flowing intellectual and spiritual tributaries to be brought down by the tawdry deeds of one man.” Like the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal of the Eighties, or the periodic sexual misdeeds and exposed financial crimes committed by evangelical luminaries, the story of Jerry Jr. will soon be forgotten by all but the media, who will faithfully recall it whenever the next scandal involving a so-called “evangelical leader” breaks.
“I keep reminding people that Falwell Jr. is nobody’s faith leader,” says Liberty alumna Susan Wright, an evangelical author who writes about religion and politics for Patheos. “He’s not a pastor; he’s a lawyer. People just assumed, because he took over the school his daddy started, he must be a faith leader. No, he’s just a lawyer and a scumbag who took over his dad’s business.”
But the saga of Jerry Jr. will not, and cannot, soon be forgotten by his real victims: the students and alumni, and myriad past and current staff and faculty at the university where he once was king. These folks were appalled by Falwell’s cushy departure, repulsed by his lack of contrition, and confounded about why it took a photo on a yacht to finally move the board to act. “The reason why I think it took them so long,” Lucas Wilson, the Liberty alumnus, says, “is that they were his accomplices. The trustees were not trying to defend the school through all this; they were trying to defend Falwell. But the moment this photo came out, it was the optics they couldn’t take. The optics of looking moral, as opposed to the racist tweet, which was not OK. There were so many things. But it’s the appearance of ethics and morality that matters.”
Even so, Wilson — like every one of the internal dissidents and critics I spoke with in the aftermath — wishes Liberty well. They don’t want to see the students currently enrolled at the university, or its current employees, continue to suffer the consequences of being associated with a national laughing stock, or working for exploitative bosses. They hope that Liberty will, at some time in the future, transform into something other than the profit-making machine that Jerry Jr. created — perhaps, even, become a place that is actually dedicated to its ostensible mission of producing well-educated “champions for Christ.” Miracles, after all, are a cornerstone of the faith.
In the wake of his lucrative exit, Liberty announced it was hiring a top forensic firm to investigate Falwell’s tenure as president, specifying that this would include “financial, real estate, and legal matters.” (Like Falwell himself, the university refused to answer any questions for this story — including whether Falwell’s family members, such as Trey, will retain their jobs.) The trustees said they would select a committee in October to begin the search for a new leader. Meanwhile, the acting president is Jerry Prevo, who’d been chairing Liberty’s board.
A retired Baptist minister based in Alaska, Prevo has been an outspoken anti-gay crusader since the 1970s. In June, he praised Falwell’s handling of the blackface-tweet episode and insisted, “We … know him not to be a racist.” At the first Liberty convocation this August, one day after Falwell’s ouster, Prevo told the students that their fallen leader had “helped build this university into a world-class institution.” He called Jerry Jr. “the inspiration and builder of this great campus.” He added a motivational note. “Now, as we kickoff the new year,” Prevo said, “I want to assure you that you are at the best place on Earth to get your academic training and to grow in the Lord.”
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to correct the timing of Brandon Ambrosino’s reporting for Politico. His story came before BuzzFeed’s report.
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