Liberty University and Falwell: A bond that’s hard to break

National

FILE – In this Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017 file photo, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. speaks at convocation at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. On Aug. 7, 2020, Falwell stepped down, at least temporarily, from his role as the president of the school. (Jay Westcott/The News & Advance via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Jerry Falwell Jr. has been toppled, at least temporarily, from the presidency of evangelical Liberty University, but whether he will break permanently with the Christian institution that is synonymous with his family name is another matter.

Falwell apologized after posting a vacation photo that showed him with his pants unzipped and his arm high around the waist of his wife’s pregnant assistant. The image was enough to push the 58-year-old attorney with a tendency toward divisive behavior into an indefinite leave of absence.

Critics of Falwell’s leadership say Liberty needs a new direction, but many who know the school well have a hard time envisioning its governing board saying goodbye to the heir who played a major role in transforming it into a conservative Christian mainstay.

“When it comes to white evangelicalism, the only force more powerful than moralism is nepotism,” said Liberty alumnus Jonathan Merritt, a religion writer and commentator whose father, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, served on the school’s board of trustees.

While the board recognizes that Falwell “made a serious mistake, most say they feel a duty and loyalty to his late father who wanted his son in that role,” Merritt added. “If the board was going to fire him, they would have also done so. It’s almost certain that he’ll be back.”

Falwell’s father founded the school in Lynchburg with hopes of building Liberty into an evangelical equivalent of the University of Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic bastion in Indiana.

Falwell, who did not follow the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. into the ministry, took over as president following his father’s death in 2007. The son worked to shore up Liberty’s finances, overhauling the campus with over $1 billion in construction projects, growing its endowment and increasing its online enrollment. Liberty’s net assets topped $2.3 billion according to its most recently available tax filings, up from less than $220,000 in 2008.

Even the vacation photo, with a caption that said “good friends visited us on the yacht,” underscored Falwell’s deal-making on behalf of the university. The luxury boat belonged to NASCAR team owner and Hall of Fame member Rick Hendrick, according to a spokesman for Hendrick Motorsports.

Liberty is asponsor of one of Hendrick’s drivers, William Byron, and Hendrick’s expansive auto dealership group began partnering with the school on an academic program in 2016.

The now-deleted photo was among a series of other posts about the vacation, which showed he had been joined by his wife, Becki, and their children and grandchildren. Becki Falwell took the picture, according to a person who spoke with Falwell about the matter but who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Falwell’s future appears to rest largely in the hands of the Liberty board, which until this week was chaired by Alaska pastor Jerry Prevo, who became acting president after Falwell went on leave. He praised Falwell’s “unprecedented success.”

The board chairmanship then shifted to Virginia pastor Allen McFarland. One of his daughters and two sons-in-law joined other Black alumni in a June letter criticizing Falwell’s leadership.

Dwayne Carson, who worked at Liberty for more than two decades, including as senior campus pastor, recalled Falwell’s father preaching about God offering a “second chance” in the Book of Jonah. If Falwell responds productively “to what God’s doing in his life,” Carson suggested, a positive outcome is possible.

“I’m praying that this will be a great growth time for Jerry Jr., and then we pray for wisdom for the board,” said Carson, whose son attends Liberty.

A Liberty spokesman referred questions to Liberty’s general counsel David Corry, who said Prevo is not granting interviews.

Beyond Prevo, many other board members were hand-picked by either Falwell or his father, according to a person familiar with board operations who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about them.

The vision laid out by Falwell’s father rests in part on athletic success, which has improved under his son, who has outfitted the Liberty Flames with top-notch facilities. The men’s basketball team won a school-record 30 games last season. In football, where Liberty competes as an independent at the NCAA’s top level, the Flames were 8-5 in 2019.

But even before the photo caused a furor, Liberty had seen several star student-athletes announce transfer plans amid growing discontent with the school’s handling of racial equality.

There are also some signs that the school is losing luster among prospective students. Freshman applications fell by more than 50% between fiscal years 2016 and 2019, according to Liberty’s annual report, although the school has attributed that drop to its institution of an application fee.

Adam Laats, a professor at Binghamton University in New York who studies American education, predicted that Falwell would return to Liberty not as president but in another capacity.

If Falwell seeks a restoration to power, there’s precedent for personal redemption stories in Liberty’s evangelical culture. After serving five years in prison following the fall of his lucrative televangelism empire in the late 1980s, for example, pastor Jim Bakker mounted a comeback.

John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College who studies evangelicalism, said Falwell could return if he agreed to “jump through some hoops.”

“It all comes down to finances and money,” Fea said. “And in that sense, Falwell Jr. is good at that, and they need him back.”

Falwell has not granted interviews since his leave of absence began.

Carson, who now leads a Christian school in North Carolina, said the board would “need to ask some tough questions” to ensure accountability even as he expressed “love” for the Falwell family.

Harkening back to a sentiment expressed by the elder Falwell, Carson observed: “It’s not Jerry Jr.’s university. It’s God’s university.”

___ Schor reported from New York. Associated Press Sportswriters Hank Kurz Jr. and Jenna Fryer contributed to this report.

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