Randall Balmer: Jerry Falwell Jr.’s day of reckoning

  • In this May 13, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump stands with Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. in Lynchburg, Va.

  • Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, Becki, participate in a ceremony at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Nov. 28, 2018. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 9/6/2020 6:40:05 AM

My only visit to Liberty University coincided with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s debut before the students as president of the school. I was doing research in the Liberty archives in the fall of 2007 when the archivist announced that the office would be closed for the next hour or so. She directed me to the massive Vines Center, where students gathered for the school year’s opening convocation.

Jerry Falwell Jr. presided in his new role (his father, the founder of Moral Majority, had died the previous May), and the convocation’s speaker that morning was Jerry Sr.’s younger son, Jonathan, who had taken over his father’s other role as pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church.

The gathering was raucous and celebratory, as I recall. Jerry Falwell Jr., who had been the university’s general counsel, was off to a good start.

If you look at the metrics of his 13-year tenure as president, it was very successful. According to the Associated Press, Liberty University, which Jerry Falwell Sr. had founded as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971, has assets in excess of $2.3 billion today, an increase from $220,000 in 2008. Its endowment totals over $1.7 billion, and its athletic teams compete at the Division I level. The school has 15,000 residential students and another 94,000 online students.

By those standards, I suppose, Jerry Falwell Jr. has more than earned the $10.5 million severance allotted to him following his resignation. His unzipped Instagram photo together with disclosures about his wife’s extramarital affair (apparently with his knowledge) proved to be his undoing on a campus where students are asked to comply with an honor code that reads in part: “Sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University.”

It’s tempting to speculate that Falwell was merely trying to emulate his political hero, the man in the White House. If so, the former college president still has a ways to go. A sexual entanglement with a pool boy from Florida doesn’t exactly rise to the level of a porn star or a Playboy model, and so far there’s no evidence of hush money or non-disclosure agreements. Falwell’s posting of Ku Klux Klan images in an attempt to taunt the governor of Virginia for a long-ago blackface indiscretion may have been cheap and ill-advised, but it’s not the same as heralding “some good people” among the white supremacists in Charlottesville or equivocating about accepting the support of a Klan leader.

Jerry Falwell Jr. frequently pointed out that, unlike his father and his brother, he’s not an ordained minister and therefore shouldn’t be regarded as a moral leader. Fair enough. I suppose his actions have proven his point.

The damage that Falwell has done, however, goes far beyond sexual indiscretions and far beyond Liberty University.

Falwell was one of the first evangelicals to throw his support behind Donald Trump in advance of the 2016 presidential primaries. “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” Falwell declared.

Since then, Falwell has been one of Trump’s biggest boosters, despite the president’s multiple affairs and marriages, despite the self-dealing of Trump’s family and members of his administration, despite his astounding number of false or misleading statements (well over 20,000 since his inauguration, according to independent sources). As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted, “Trump’s shameless dishonesty is outside the bounds not only of presidential behavior but of civilized behavior.”

For anyone who lived (as I did) in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, nothing about Trump’s behavior comes as a surprise. His affairs and marriages and bankruptcies provided endless fodder for the tabloids.

But what Falwell provided early in 2016 was religious cover for a garden-variety demagogue, someone who rose to national prominence in part by propagating the false “birther” nonsense that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, not the United States, and was therefore unqualified constitutionally to be president. Given the antipathy toward Hillary Clinton, Trump may very well have ascended to the presidency without it, but Falwell’s endorsement provided Trump the veneer of religious legitimacy.

Falwell has been Trump’s sycophant ever since. When Trump was caught on tape bragging about being a sexual predator, Falwell dismissed it as locker-room banter. In 2017, Falwell declared that in Trump, “evangelicals have found their dream president.” He suggested that evangelicals who don’t support Trump may be “immoral” (an odd pronouncement from someone who claims not to be a moral leader).

Following Falwell’s endorsement, other leaders of the Religious Right followed his lead – Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, Robert Jeffress, Ralph Reed, Paula White – and Trump was able to campaign for the presidency not merely as a businessman and a reality TV star but, improbably enough, as a supposed champion of evangelical virtues. He captured 81% of the white evangelical vote.

The rest, as they say, is history – a history that is still unfolding.

Evangelicals believe that when we die, we will be asked to account for how we conducted our lives. On that day of judgment, I suspect that a couple of wayward tweets and a tasteless Instagram post will be the least of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s concerns.

(Randall Balmer teaches at Dartmouth College. He is the author of more than a dozen books and one of the contributors to “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump.”)

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