Last week, it was announced that Jerry Falwell, Jr. is temporarily stepping down as the president of Liberty University, a private Christian university, after a racy photo of him was posted on social media. This is not the first time Falwell, Jr., a conservative firebrand who staunchly supports President Donald Trump, has been at the center of scandal.
Despite previous reports of financial and sexual impropriety, Falwell, Jr. has maintained his public persona as a voice for Christian morality. This is likely due to his association with his father, Jerry Falwell, Sr., who was one of the most visible and politically influential Christian preachers in modern American history.
The career of Jerry Falwell, Jr.
Until his 40s, Falwell, Jr., a lawyer, lived in the shadow of his father and namesake.
Falwell, Sr. was a prominent conservative preacher who championed Republican politicians and his brand of Christian morality. But following his father’s death, Falwell, Jr., then 45, became the head of the Lynchburg, Virginia-based Liberty University.
Now over a decade later, he has become a social and political force, much like his father.
Falwell, Jr.’s brother, Jonathan, took over as the pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, their late father’s Lynchburg, Virginia megachurch. It currently has over 24,000 members. Pastor Jonathan, as he is known, has largely eschewed the national stage to shepherd his flock.
Falwell, Jr., on the other hand, has embraced his father’s political legacy, most notably by becoming a public supporter of and friend to President Trump. Of Trump, Falwell, Jr. has said, “He’s a real patriot. He loves the country, he loves the American people. And all people.” Critics have suggested Falwell, Jr.’s endorsement of Trump is not about faith, but about political – and financial – gain.
As the president of Liberty University, which was founded in 1971 by his father, Falwell, Jr. has overseen substantial growth, both in the number of enrolled students and the university’s finances. Under his leadership, the school has more than doubled its enrollment to 100,000 students and spent a billion dollars on campus construction. It is currently the second-largest nonprofit university in the world.
Falwell, Jr. is married to Becki Tilley Falwell, who attended Liberty University. They have three children together.
The Instagram scandal
The recent scandal that led to Falwell stepping down from his role at Liberty University was ignited on August 3 when Robert Downen, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, tweeted screencaps of photos from Falwell’s Instagram account.
In one photo, since deleted, Falwell, Jr. can be seen on a yacht with his hand around a pregnant woman who is not his wife. Both of them have their pants undone and their stomachs exposed. Falwell is also holding a glass containing a dark liquid.
In a radio interview, Falwell, Jr. explained the photo was meant in jest. The woman, his wife’s assistant, was unable to zip up her pants due to being pregnant, so he posed in a similar manner. In the caption for the now-deleted photo, Falwell, Jr. claimed the liquid in the glass was not alcoholic, “just black water.”
Falwell, Jr. has subsequently faced fallout for the photo on multiple fronts. Some criticized the sexualized nature of the photo, noting that Liberty University forbids extramarital sex or drinking for its students. Others said that posing on a yacht while national unemployment was soaring was in bad taste, especially for such a prominent figure in the Christian church.
On August 7, the Executive Committee of Liberty University’s board of trustees released a statement saying that Falwell and the Board had agreed he would take “an indefinite leave of absence from his roles as President and Chancellor of Liberty University.”
The reason for the leave wasn’t stated, but media speculation assumed it was the result of the bad press that Falwell, Jr. had received in recent years, culminating with the Instagram photo.
The scandals of Jerry Falwell, Jr.
In 2019, Politico published a damning exposé of Falwell, Jr. in which dozens of sources at Liberty University said he and his wife were abusing their position at the university for personal enrichment.
The insiders claimed that Falwell, Jr. created an environment of fear while living a lavish, morally questionable lifestyle at odds with the Christian message of the school and its student honor code, known as “The Liberty Way.”
Liberty University students can be expelled for extramarital sex or drinking. Despite this policy, Politico reported that Falwell, Jr. openly discussed the sex he had with his wife in graphic detail. Furthermore, Falwell, Jr. allegedly attempted to get photos of him and his son at a Miami Beach nightclub removed from the internet.
The Falwells were also involved in another scandal related to a relationship with a personal fitness instructor named Benjamin Crosswhite. Falwell, Jr. personally oversaw real estate deals that gave lucrative university property to Crosswhite to expand his fitness facility.
There have also been multiple unsubstantiated rumors that Falwell, Jr. and his wife are sexually involved with Crosswhite and other “attractive young men.”
Regardless of the veracity of the rumors, the appearance of sexual impropriety, which the Instagram photo played into, is clearly a bad look for the president of one of the world’s biggest Christian institutions.
Who was Jerry Falwell, Sr.?
Controversy is not new for the Falwell family.
Jerry Falwell, Sr. spent much of his career courting criticism as a Baptist minister with a global reach. Falwell was also the public face of the Moral Majority, a conservative political lobbying organization. Among the Moral Majority’s political stances was a push for constitutional amendments to ban abortion and allow prayer in public schools.
Falwell, Sr.’s political fundraising ran him afoul of the Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service on multiple occasions, including in 1993 when he had to pay US$50,000 for misusing funds collected through his Old Time Gospel Hour TV program.
In 1987, Falwell, Sr. took over as the head of the Praise The Lord Club (known as PTL), an extensive and highly popular TV ministry run by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The Bakkers lost their ministry due to a financial and sexual scheme that has since become emblematic of deceitful televangelist ministries.
Late that same year, Falwell, Sr. resigned as the head of the Moral Majority due in part to his commitment to the beleaguered PTL ministry. He also claimed the scandal hurt his own Old Time Gospel Hour.
Falwell, Sr., who at various times faced accusations of racism and anti-Semitism, also supported the apartheid-enforcing South African government in the 1980s. He even denounced Reverend Desmond Tutu – who actively fought against the nation’s deadly history of racial segregation – as a “phony.”
Jerry Falwell, Sr.’s struggles with the media
In the 1980s, the preacher was at the center of an influential free speech lawsuit. The pornographic “Hustler Magazine” published a fake interview with Falwell, Sr. in which it was stated that his first sexual experience was with his mother. Falwell, Sr. sued the magazine and its publisher, Larry Flynt, for defamation.
The lawsuit reached the Supreme Court in 1987, which unanimously determined that the parody interview was protected by the First Amendment.
In 1994, Falwell, Sr. sold a videotape, “The Clinton Chronicles,” that accused then-President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, of being involved in “countless murders.” None of the claims in the video were supported with evidence, but the “Clinton Body Count” conspiracy theory remains an anti-Clinton talking point to this day.
Later in his career, Falwell’s cultural criticisms, specifically claiming a character on the PBS kids television show “Teletubbies” was gay, earned him widespread mockery.
In a 2001 appearance on “The 700 Club,” Falwell laid blame for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the feet of pagans, abortionists, gays and lesbians, as well as the ACLU. He later apologized for his remarks.
Falwell Sr. died in May 2007 at the age of 73.
The Falwell family legacy
While Falwell’s full name obviously evokes his father, the family name carries an even greater legacy in Lynchburg, Virginia.
According to a family history completed by Falwell, Jr., the Falwells have been in Virginia since 1600. They arrived in Lynchburg in the mid-19th century and have grown their families and finances ever since.
Falwell, Sr.’s father was Carey Hezekiah Falwell, who, ironically, built a business empire as a bootlegger and the owner of hotels and nightclubs. In addition to many Falwells living in the area, the region includes other indications of the family’s extensive influence, including the Falwell Airport and the Falwell Truck Body Shop.
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