“I said: ‘You’re really in the spotlight now, eh?’ ” said Dirk Smillie, then a Forbes writer working on a book about the family and the booming university Falwell Sr. had created in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia. “If I was in his place, I’d expect a number of emotions. But instead he had this look like he was being taken to the guillotine, like: ‘This is, like, the last thing I want to do.’ He was dreading the visibility that would come from having to replace what his father had engineered.”
Over the next 13 years, Falwell Jr. transformed from a shy, reclusive real estate developer and lawyer nervous in public settings to a highflying national figure — known not only for his leadership of the country’s most prominent evangelical university, which boasts 85,000 students, but also for a long series of controversial social media posts — some criticized as Islamophobic, sexist and racist — and for his zealous public defense of President Trump.
Earlier this month, in the minds of Liberty leaders, he went too far. On Aug. 7 Falwell Jr. was put on an indefinite leave of absence from the presidency after he posted a provocative Instagram photo of himself posing with his wife’s assistant.
Board members at Liberty are now under pressure from segments of the American evangelical world and the university community to take more punitive action against Falwell Jr. But Georgia pastor James Merritt, a former Southern Baptist Convention president and Liberty board member until about a decade ago, said there is “tremendous loyalty” to the late televangelist and Moral Majority founder that probably has been affecting considerations about his son’s future at the school. Falwell Jr., Merritt said, also has benefited from deep-seated defensiveness among religious conservatives who view themselves as always under attack — especially in recent years for embracing Trump.
“If you’re a public figure, you’re a role model. Tiger Woods is one. President Trump is a role model. … And if you are the president of a Christian university, you are a Christian leader,” Merritt said. “I don’t want anything to happen to tarnish or hurt what Dr. Falwell gave his life to build.”
School spokesman Scott Lamb declined to comment for this article on behalf of the board. But many in the Liberty community are wondering whether Falwell Jr. will leave permanently or will eventually return to the school, which begins to welcome students Monday for in-person fall classes as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
To many alumni and school leaders, the Instagram image — which was deleted from Falwell Jr.’s personal account after a Houston Chronicle reporter tweeted a screenshot of it Aug. 2 — of Liberty’s president, pants partly unzipped, with his arm around his wife’s young assistant, whose shorts were also partly unzipped, would be unacceptable for the leader of any school, never mind a religious one.
Falwell Jr. did not respond to The Washington Post’s requests for comment for this article. But speaking to radio station WLNI earlier this month, he said that the woman in the photo was his wife’s assistant and that the photo was a joke about her being pregnant and not able to zip her pants.
Jerry Falwell Sr., an entertainer, political kingmaker, pastor and founder of the Moral Majority movement, often said that his namesake would take over the university. Until his father died, however, Falwell Jr. was very much a behind-the-scenes player — if a key one.
Multiple people who worked with and around Falwell Jr. over the decades said he was unlike his charismatic, gregarious father, describing him — at least until the mid-2010s — as a loner: quiet, humble, uncomfortable in public.
Even at small university events, “he’s probably showing up late and leaving early,” said a longtime evangelical observer familiar with Liberty and Falwell Jr.’s leadership who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the way Falwell Jr. has lashed out at perceived critics in recent years.
Falwell Jr.’s younger brother, Jonathan Falwell, who took over as pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church their father founded, was considered more similar to their father. Both were pastors who would travel together to Moral Majority events.
As his father had preordained, Falwell Jr. pursued the law. After graduating from the University of Virginia Law School in 1987, he became a commercial real estate developer and lawyer. At Liberty, where he became general counsel, Falwell Jr. used his business acumen to make tireless efforts to get the school out of debt that in the 1990s was reported to be as high as $100 million.
He pursued grants, cultivated relationships with big donors, and closely studied the market for various educational programs Liberty could start.
“It was Jerry Jr. who was the most responsible for digging the school out of debt. He was always behind the scenes,” Smillie said.
Part of the affinity Liberty’s students and staff had for Falwell Jr. stemmed from the feeling that he was a big reason for Liberty’s recovery. After decades of crippling debt, it now has endowment assets of $1.6 billion — up from $6.3 million when Falwell Jr. took over in 2007.
Still, it was his father in the 1980s who came up with the idea of selling classes via VHS tapes — planting the seeds for what would become the country’s second-largest online school, after the University of Phoenix, and uniquely positioning Liberty to be ready for the Internet boom.
And deep regard for Falwell Sr. among conservative evangelicals also led to financial gifts, such as a $70 million one from insurance executive Arthur Williams Jr. in the 1990s to erase some of the school’s debt. Another chunk was wiped out by nearly $30 million from insurance policies when Falwell Sr. died.
Falwell Jr. grew into the role of president slowly, people said, encouraged by the positive reception he received from Liberty students who would cheer, for example, when he showed up at school football games. Living the life of a more private executive fit Falwell Jr., who typically pushes back on the idea that he is a Christian role model or leader. He takes pains on social media to clarify that he is a commercial real estate developer and lawyer, not a clergy member, telling students explicitly to look instead to the campus pastor for spiritual guidance.
“He was very secular in his orientation,” Smillie said. In working on the book “Falwell Inc.” together, “I don’t think he cared as much about the evangelical dimension of the university as he did it being a successful business as a university. I think he felt: ‘If I succeed as a businessman, the evangelical mission will be fulfilled.’ ”
Falwell Sr. understood the tension. The university was founded in 1971 as a ministry of Thomas Road Baptist Church, “to train champions for Christ,” according to the school’s motto. Aiming to protect Liberty’s religious character, its articles of incorporation give oversight of the board of trustees to the church’s board of directors, according to a 2014 letter from Falwell Jr. to the Education Department. Lamb declined to comment on the church, and the church has not responded to questions from The Post.
Multiple close watchers of Falwell Jr. say there was a significant change in his public persona in 2016, when he endorsed then-outlier candidate Donald Trump. Much of mainstream conservative evangelicalism at the time was still focused on Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who had announced his candidacy at Liberty University.
Although politics — and Republican politics, in particular — had always been present around Liberty, leaders wanted it to be viewed as a Christian school first, conservative second. In 2008, Falwell had offhandedly endorsed Mike Huckabee after a reporter asked him out of the blue if he supported the conservative Arkansas presidential candidate.
With Trump, Falwell Jr. made an intentional veer into political player. In his January 2016 endorsement, which made front-page news, Falwell Jr. suddenly presented himself as an arbiter of the faith.
“In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” Falwell Jr. said. A July 2016 Rolling Stone profile of Trump quoted Falwell Jr. as saying Trump has been very generous “to people in his personal life. I think that’s what makes somebody a good Christian.”
In the ensuing months, Falwell Jr.’s public brand shifted. He became much more opinionated and aggressive on social media, usually in defense of what he viewed as conservative positions and of Trump. In the Rolling Stone piece, he made a case he has made often since: All is fair in love and war, and war is what politics is. “You’re not supposed to turn the other cheek.”
Smillie thinks Falwell Jr. may be emulating with Trump his father’s alliance with Ronald Reagan, which initially involved compromise but yielded power for both. Falwell Jr., a previously unpolitical figure, was asked to speak at the 2016 Republican National Convention, and “he liked the proximity to power,” Smillie said. “Sometimes it can change your behavior. We’re all human.”
A website created last week by Liberty alumni pressing for Falwell Jr.’s removal lists 88 separate public controversies in the past five years, including his defense of Trump’s comments in an “Access Hollywood” tape (in which Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women) as “locker room” bragging, and calling for Liberty students to carry concealed weapons after a California mass shooting by Islamic terrorists, saying armed people could “end those Muslims.” He censored Liberty students critical of him and Trump, and pushed a longtime ally of his father off the board after the member criticized his Trump endorsement.
On Twitter, Falwell Jr. would lash Christian leaders who showed even mild criticism of Trump. He said mega-pastor David Platt needed to “grow a pair.” When Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, raised alarm about the treatment of migrant children at the border, Falwell Jr. snapped on Twitter: “Who are you @drmoore? Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you authority to speak on any issue?”
Analyzing the Falwell Jr.-Trump dynamic is a rampant parlor game in the Liberty world. The person familiar with Liberty leadership said they think justifying the U.S. president’s behavior is a way for Falwell Jr. to create a narrative to forgive his own.
“As an evangelical, he’s been telling people: ‘Stop judging Trump’ and ‘We’re all sinners’ and ‘God is a God of second and third chances.’ Now he needs all that sentiment back to himself,” the person said.
Neither members of Liberty’s executive committee nor Thomas Road’s board said anything publicly for years, until this month, when the photo of the school’s president in his unzipped pants hit Instagram.
Some who know the Falwell family well say they think it’s likely, based on the core role of the family at Liberty, that Falwell Jr. will return soon — either continuing on as president or in some other capacity. Others wonder whether he would prefer to go.
Maybe “he will resign and decide he can’t live up to the expectation of what he perceives to be self-righteous Christians,” said the person who recalled a quieter Falwell Jr., early in his presidential tenure, showing up late and leaving early. “He may decide to go back and do real estate and make money and say: ‘The heck with this.’ ”
Magda Jean-Louis, Alice Crites, Nick Anderson and Julie Tate contributed to this report.