Written by Kristi Rolf
Over the past four months, a steady succession of controversies has cost Liberty University’s President and evangelical right-wing leader, Jerry Falwell Jr. his powerful position at the helm of the country’s second-largest Christian University. With each offense, the hypocrisy of the highly influential figure was further exposed.
In recent years, Falwell Jr.’s influence expanded from academic and spiritual to political. Increasingly and uncharitably vocal about his political beliefs, Falwell Jr. grew in notoriety as a vocal minority criticized his brashness while the majority remained unwavering in their support. This intersection of faith, academia, and politics made Falwell Jr. a ripe candidate for controversy. A reckoning unfolded over the summer of 2020. In May, he penned a racially insensitive tweet. In August, he posted an immodest Instagram photo. Before the end of the month, a sex scandal hit the press which brought a decisive end to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s reign.
Liberty’s President’s May tweet prompted a letter from 35 African American alumni censuring the president for, “divisive rhetoric that does not display the kind of Christian witness that the Gospel demands of us.” This backlash prompted nothing more than a snarky Twitter apology. The August Instagram photo sparked outrage for its blatant violation of Liberty’s strict rule of modest attire and an apparent presence of alcohol, which is strictly forbidden for students at any time on or off-campus. Where racial insensitivity failed to deliver disciplinary action against Falwell Jr., immodesty got the job done. On August 7th, Falwell Jr. took an indefinite leave of absence from the University. The fatal blow came with news of a sexual affair between Mr. and Mrs. Falwell and a pool attendant the couple met on vacation. Such an affair blatantly violates rules in Liberty University’s code of conduct, The Liberty Way, which states, “sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University.” Finally, to the relief of many Liberty students, alumni, and families, Falwell Jr. resigned.
The descent of Jerry Falwell Jr. from revered religious and academic leader to ignominy is a cautionary tale about the importance of practicing what you preach. The story is also indicative of a deeper problem within the evangelical community of casting judgment on others in the name of moral righteousness while shielding the private lives of the devout.