As part of an aggressively Trumpish public relations response to an in-depth Politico Magazine article that was brutally critical of Jerry Falwell Jr. and the “culture of fear and self-dealing” at his Liberty University fiefdom, a tweet from the university’s Twitter account quoted from a Get Religion column that says the exposé “lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously.” But one has to wonder if Falwell or Liberty’s social media team actually read the entire Get Religion column, which also includes this line:
Certainly, it should be stressed, too, that Politico’s piece contains a fair amount of on-the-record material that seems to support its case that Falwell is a greedy hypocrite more in love with power and politics than a crucified savior who washed people’s feet.
The Politico story, published on Monday, was written by Brandon Ambrosino, a Liberty graduate. Ambrosino reported that more than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty officials and Falwell associates spoke to him or provided him with documents. Here’s a summarizing paragraph:
In interviews over the past eight months, they depicted how Falwell and his wife, Becki, consolidated power at Liberty University and how Falwell presides over a culture of self-dealing, directing university resources into projects and real estate deals in which his friends and family have stood to make personal financial gains. Among the previously unreported revelations are Falwell’s decision to hire his son Trey’s company to manage a shopping center owned by the university, Falwell’s advocacy for loans given by the university to his friends, and Falwell’s awarding university contracts to businesses owned by his friends.
The article also describes how Falwell and his wife Becki allegedly consolidated power by cutting Falwell’s brother Jonathan, who pastors their late father’s church, out of any real influence at the university. Falwell’s son Trey—given name Jerry Falwell III—is both a vice president of Liberty University and owner of a for-profit company being paid to manage a shopping center and other properties owned by the university. The article also alleges that Falwell has bragged to staff about his sexual prowess.
Ambrosino’s article also includes photos of Falwell and Trey partying at Wall, a Miami Beach nightclub. Falwell had told Ambrosino that no such photo existed, and that if one did, it must have been photo-shopped. Liberty staff told Ambrosino that Falwell asked a Liberty IT staffer who acts as Falwell’s “fixer” to make the photo on a nightlife photographer’s website harder to find online. Falwell has denied that he “asked anyone to scrub pics of me.”
But Falwell’s photo-shopping charge may have backfired, because it encouraged the photographer to defend his reputation—and to find additional photos of the Falwell family partying at the nightclub. Liberty has strict rules against drinking by students and faculty—and as the Miami Herald noted, “at the Christian conservative Liberty University, co-ed dancing can net a Liberty student demerits.”
Falwell’s response has been what one might expect of a guy who sees himself as a supremely successful businessman and who has become one of President Donald Trump’s most aggressive and unquestioning defenders.
Falwell has said he is the target of an “attempted coup” motivated in part by his support for Trump and charges that there is a “criminal conspiracy” against him by former university board members. He said Liberty has hired “the meanest lawyer in New York” to go after people who shared internal emails with Ambrosino and said he contacted the FBI because he insists that the emails were Liberty property and it was a crime to share them outside the university. (AP spoke to lawyers who dismissed Falwell’s assertions.)
Falwell often responds to critics of his actions—or his huge salary—by citing his success at building Liberty’s income and enrollment numbers and—thanks in part to tons of federal student grants and loans—the university’s financial standing. Falwell did so again in comments to The Hill this week, touting the “$2 billion unrestricted endowment” he says he has built for the university.
John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, took note on Wednesday of Falwell’s defensive strategies:
Like any good absolute monarch trying to consolidate his power and ward off dissent, Jerry Falwell plans to fight the “criminal conspiracy” against him. …
Do you see what Falwell Jr. is doing here?
The threats of “mean” lawyers, FBI investigations, and attempts to attack the masculinity of reporter Brendan Ambrosino, are a mere distraction from Falwell having to address his hypocritical behavior and the culture of fear he has created at Liberty University. Instead of coming before his community–the largest Christian college in the world– in a spirit of repentance or humility, Falwell is going to focus on how he was actually the victim in all of this. Whatever the FBI decides to do about this “attempted coup,” or however Politico managed to get access to these e-mails, the evidence does not lie. Falwell has some explaining to do.
So will Falwell’s self-dealing and dishonesty cost him? Not likely, wrote Salon’s Amanda Marcotte on Monday evening. The Politico story makes clear, she wrote, “that Falwell is a first-rate hypocrite who poorly hides a love of power, luxury and sexual freedom behind a façade of Christian piety.”
But given conservative white evangelicals’ unwavering support for Trump—exemplified by Falwell himself, who famously said Trump could do “nothing” to endanger his support from Falwell and other evangelical leaders—Marcotte concludes, “it’s foolish to imagine that any of this will affect Falwell’s political power or standing with the larger white evangelical community.”