Liberty University is doing some deep spring cleaning. Last Friday, the evangelical educational juggernaut announced that it wassuing former leader Jerry Falwell Jr. and removing his son Trey Falwell from his vice president's position. Dalliances on a yacht, his and his wife's seven-year relationship with former pool boy Giancarlo Granda and an allegedly drunken fall down some stairs have added up to a $10 million lawsuit for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract and statutory conspiracy.
The story of Falwell's fall from grace, the Liberty lawsuit and the struggle to regain Liberty's moral high ground is a larger morality tale for the evangelical movement today.
The story of Falwell's fall from grace, the Liberty lawsuit and the struggle to regain Liberty's moral high ground is a larger morality tale for the white evangelical movement. After years of proclaiming that sexual, fiscal and spiritual morality were important for their faith and institutions, white evangelicals showed America otherwise by overwhelmingly supporting Donald Trump. Falwell's role in solidifying that support, like his father's Moral Majority movement, was about aligning white evangelicals to Republican power, money and prestige.
But now that's coming back to haunt him. His sin, in the eyes of Liberty University, was to betray the carefully crafted image his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., created, with social media posts and an unseemly public persona that worshipped wealth. White evangelicals have been very good at consolidating power, which they often prioritize over true morality. But heaven help the man who tarnishes the brand.
In response to the lawsuit, Falwell claims that the university has "gone off the rails" and that the suit is "full of lies and half-truths." Falwell filed his own defamation lawsuit against Liberty in October, only to drop it two months later. He continues, however, to claim that the university has damaged his reputation.
Responding to the lawsuit via Twitter, Falwell alleged that "the Exec. Comm of the LU board has made another attempt to defame me and discredit my record following a series of harsh and unnecessary actions against my children, Becki and me."
To add insult to injury, Falwell accused the board of firing an African American trustee and chairman of the board for "advocating for diversity." Given one of Falwell's more recent tweets about race, however, this seems to be a rather disingenuous ploy for sympathy. (Falwell apologized for the tweet.)
Earlier in April, the university sent out an email instructing employees not to speak to the Falwells. The relationship between Liberty University and its founder's son is so bad that Falwell claims that he and his wife have been banned from campus, "where my parents are buried," and threatened with arrest if they walk on campus.
The lawsuit against Falwell may have a lot to do with the forensic investigation that Liberty commissioned by the global accounting firm Baker Tilly US in October and the contract Falwell renegotiated in 2019. Hiring a forensic investigator suggests that Liberty may be concerned about Falwell's financial dealings on behalf of the university. Falwell is reported to have compounded the situation bynot returning electronic equipment used for university business, including laptops and cellphones.
The lawsuit takes pains to outline the moral bedrock created by Falwell Sr. and the ways in which Falwell Jr. has undermined this foundation.
The lawsuit also contends that in renegotiating his contract in 2019, Falwell knew that he was being extorted by Granda and sweetened his contract to ensure a retirement plan and a much better severance package.
In a detailed narrative retelling of Falwell Jr.'s moral lapses, complete with pictures, the lawsuit takes pains to outline the moral bedrock created by Falwell Sr. and the ways Falwell Jr. has undermined this foundation: "It was Dr. Falwell's vision for the President of Liberty to be a standout spiritual leader for the college."
The emphasis on morality is important to Liberty University, in part because of its strict honor code for students, known as "The Liberty Way." The behavior of Falwell Jr. and his wife cheapens this honor code tremendously. It could even put the whole evangelical education model — a model championed by Liberty University and its over 100,000 students — in peril.
Indeed, ultimately this dispute is much bigger than a contract disagreement. And it highlights a broader pattern in the white evangelical community as the sons (and daughters) of Christian icons fail in their duties to uphold the family (spiritual) business. John Ortberg, a megachurch pastor in California, recently resigned after accusations emerged that he had tried to cover up his younger son's alleged attraction to minors. Oral Roberts' son Richard Roberts resigned from Oral Roberts University in 2007 over financial concerns and allegations that he and his family had misused university and church funds. (Roberts has denied the allegations.) Clearly, financial and sexual morality issues bedevil many evangelical empires.
Of course, the moral power these groups exert over their followers can also do incredible harm. In Falwell's case, we see some of this harm in the allegedly exploitive relationship between the Falwell family and Giancarlo Granda.
Despite the decades of power white evangelical leaders have enjoyed ministering to America's masses, the cracks in the formidable wall of morality that has shielded evangelicals from intense criticism are growing. Given this sordid tale, it is time we see white evangelical pleas for public morality for what they really are: the fig leaves that hide their own sins.