Religion Dispatches has moved back home to religiondispatches.org. You can also find Rewire.News’ religion coverage here.
Liberty alumni of a certain age remember December 4, 2015. It was a Friday morning and we were sitting in one of our mandatory, thrice-weekly Convocations, where political and prominent Christian guests are invited to speak to the student body. I doubt many of us remember who the guest speaker was that day, just that Jerry Falwell, our university president, addressed us afterward.
Two days prior, a duo in San Bernadino, California carried out a mass shooting with AR-15 rifles, killing 16. Falwell’s response that day would change the trajectory of Liberty’s public image for years to come: “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in, and killed them.”
He was drowned out by applause from the student body. I was slack-jawed. The Times and the Washington Post picked it up later, and the world finally got to see who Jerry Falwell Jr. really is.
Brandon Ambrosino’s riveting exposé on Politico and Reuters’ article on Falwell’s emails published this week further detailed what some students and faculty caught wind of back in 2015, and fully realized in the subsequent months when Falwell emphatically endorsed Donald Trump for president; when he autocratically removed Mark DeMoss from the board of trustees; and when he forcibly removed a pastor he didn’t like from Liberty’s campus.
Jerry Falwell Jr. is clearly unfit to be Liberty University’s president. There’s no acceptable response but for Falwell to resign, effective immediately. But while Falwell’s departure is long overdue, it would only represent the removal of one rotten apple, while leaving the tree in place.
Listing scandal after scandal, Ambrosino implicitly makes the case for Falwell’s unfitness to lead. Among other revelations, Ambrosino details, through the stories of confidants in Falwell’s inner circle, how, even when presented with photographic evidence of his presence at a Miami night club (Liberty students are prohibited from attending dances), he claimed it was photoshopped; how he dealt out university contracts to family friends; and how he ordered his staff to violate IRS tax code.
Falwell’s been able to get away with such behavior partly because he doesn’t fear his board of trustees, which is essentially just a collection of close friends of the family. As noted above, Mark DeMoss, the one trustee who did speak up in disagreement of Falwell’s endorsement of Trump, was immediately removed from the board—a testament to Falwell’s Trumpian fragility as a leader. Faculty and students know it’s a sin to question Falwell.
What may push Falwell closer to the brink with his Christian allies is a more recent campaign against prominent evangelical leaders. Ambrosino mentions one of Falwell’s since-deleted tweets in June of this year, in which Falwell responds to prominent evangelical pastor David Platt’s apology for welcoming Trump to his church.
“Sorry to be crude,” Falwell tweeted, “but pastors like [David Platt] need to grow a pair.”
In the online backlash, including one that referred to Falwell as a minister, Falwell responded with the following tweets:
The faculty, students and campus pastor @davidnasser of @LibertyU are the ones who keep LU strong spiritually as the best Christian univ in the world. While I am proud to be a conservative Christian, my job is to keep LU successful academically, financially and in athletics.
— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) June 4, 2019
Falwell’s crude and aggressive rhetoric is not unique to him. It partly stems from a fundamentalist Christian worldview which is as much of a political movement as it is a religious one. It’s how the 81 percent of “born again” Christians who voted for Trump in 2016 can justify their support of the president’s malicious xenophobia and crude remarks about women while supporting a purity culture that requires abstention from sex and claims to prioritize respect and civility. These views are anything but mutually exclusive.
Ambrosino’s article is at its best when it exposes the faults in this theology: the immorality of it. Not a lack of the “traditional” biblical morality on which Liberty was founded, but of the morality of equality, social justice, and peaceful protest: much of what Jesus spoke about in the gospels.
Ambrosino’s article thus makes the case not only for Falwell’s removal, but for an upheaval of the systems of power which coexist on campus. That Falwell is unchallenged on campus, and largely supported by his student body when he makes Islamophobic or transphobic comments, is a symptom of a toxic fundamentalist theology, created and perpetuated by Liberty that must be dismantled if one of the world’s largest Christian universities is ever to reconcile its damage.
I understand this as a former student of this theology—as one who was once committed to the principles of free market capitalism and biblical supremacy, as intertwined as I was taught they were. As the former editor of Liberty’s campus paper reporting on Falwell, I became increasingly aware of how his politically-animated and flippant comments are a source of violence against students, especially minority students, some of whom told me they don’t feel safe walking on campus anymore. Upon further investigation, I became aware that Falwell’s public persona is not an outlier, but a cornerstone of Liberty’s theology.
Removing Falwell, then, is not enough. Liberty must make a public statement of reconciliation wherein it traces its culture of fear and intolerance to Jerry Falwell Sr.’s blatant racism, his support of segregation in the 1960s, and his founding of a white-only school, Liberty Christian Academy, which remains enjoined to Liberty. Without addressing the sins of its founder, Liberty will never become a respectable or morally upstanding institution.
With this in mind, I imagine a Liberty University whose systems of power are checked, where administrators listen to LGBTQ+ Christians and Christians of color when implementing changes to the school, where leaders of the school repent of Falwell’s profit motives and embrace the teachings of the Jesus they claim to follow, who preached justice for the poor and marginalized.
I understand this is an imagination—one which will unlikely to come fully to fruition any time soon. At the very least, the Falwell in Ambrosino’s article shows current Liberty students and conservative evangelicals everywhere that its leadership and teachings are as subject to corruption and moral rot as any worldly institution.