LYNCHBURG, Virginia—Micah Protzman was a junior at Liberty University the first time he was summoned to David Nasser’s office. Protzman had tweeted a complaint about the speakers at recent Convocation services on campus, a lineup that included conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza and Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Attendance at “Convo” is mandatory, and Protzman was disgusted. Nasser, the school’s senior vice president for spiritual development, retweeted Protzman’s complaint to his followers, and Protzman replied by slamming the school’s “blind ideology.” Within a few hours, Protzman got an invitation from Nasser’s office to talk.
To Protzman’s eye, everything in Nasser’s sprawling office suite was perfect: industrial chic decor, fresh flowers, floor-to-ceiling windows. There was a fridge of custom Coke bottles and stacks of premium candy free for the taking. Nasser offered Protzman a cup of coffee, and he accepted, thinking it would give him something to do with his hands if he got nervous. It turned out to the best cup of coffee he’d ever had.
The conversation was less satisfying. “I felt like I was being sold a car,” Protzman, now a senior graduating this month, recalled in October. He was sitting in a plush chair in the five-year-old Jerry Falwell Library, with sunlight streaming through multistory windows. From his perch in the library, he could see the tinted glass facade of Nasser’s office across a pond where the school performs baptisms. At their meeting, Nasser had quoted a passage in the Gospel of Matthew about how a Christian should confront a community member who has sinned: Don’t air a grievance publicly until you have gone to the person privately. To Protzman, it was clear that the point was to get him to shut up. “I wasn’t asked where I was from, wasn’t asked about my major, wasn’t asked about my work. There was no discipleship,” he said. “It was, ‘Just don’t speak publicly about the university.’ At what point does ‘interaction’ turn into quietism?”
Nasser later summoned Protzman to his office again in response to two other Twitter complaints: once when he tweeted displeasure about conservative activist Candace Owens as Convo speaker, and once when he complained that Liberty had sent busloads of students to support Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate hearings. Protzman grew up in Lynchburg, where his mother worked for Falwell Jr.’s father and then for the college; he attended on a scholarship for the children of employees. Although his own politics always leaned left, Liberty felt like a family to him. But he left the first conversation with Nasser furious. Protzman said he has seen the same pattern happen with many of his friends at Liberty over the years—and often, it works. “Whenever there’s a complaint, you come in for a Coke and a coffee, and you never hear about it again.” Nasser, for his part, said of his interactions with Protzman: “He’s my [brother] in Christ and I pray blessing and honor” over him.
Ever since Liberty University’s founding by activist pastor Jerry Falwell Sr. in the 1970s, the school has stirred up controversy among outside observers. Falwell Sr. had a knack for “triggering the libs” before the phenomenon had been named; on Sept. 13, 2001, he blamed feminists, the ACLU, and “abortionists” for angering God and therefore opening the door to the recent attacks. Liberty has long been regarded as a tricky symbol of the fusion of Republican politics and white evangelical Christianity. But these days, there’s plenty of grumbling coming from inside Liberty, too. President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s staunch support of President Donald Trump has come to alienate many students and employees, even fellow conservatives. Falwell Jr. is a heavy Twitter user who calls his political enemies “idiots” and recently told a respected Southern Baptist pastor to “grow a pair.” Meanwhile, recent reporting has alleged that he uses school construction and real estate contracts to benefit his family and friends. Over the past several years, this stew of bad PR has led to petitions, media leaks, anonymous alumni groups, social media grousing, and even protests on a campus that had previously been almost completely ideologically frictionless.
This fall, new accounts of Falwell Jr.’s alleged self-dealing, bullying, and partying at a Miami dance club—many of which were reported in Politico by Liberty graduate Brandon Ambrosino—became the talk of campus. (To Politico, Falwell denied the allegations of self-dealing. He initially said that a photo taken of him at the Miami club didn’t exist, and then said it was “likely photo-shopped.” A nightlife photography company later posted multiple photos that appeared to feature Falwell Jr. and his family.) Jonah Schmucker, a senior, said that this scandal felt “much bigger” than previous ones. Students would joke about cursing and going to clubs: “Oh, you can do that now because Jerry did it.” There is open speculation on Liberty’s campus about whether Falwell Jr. is a Christian at all.
Most students at Liberty have never met Jerry Falwell Jr.; they rarely even glimpse him on campus. But many of them—particularly those who have publicly griped about the school’s politics—have met Nasser. Nasser is “PR guy for student relations,” as one student put it. The pastor is well liked by many students. “He can be the buffer,” said Kaitlyn Schiess, who graduated in 2016. “Even if someone thinks Falwell is ‘off,’ [Nasser] is much more personable and kind.” In my conversations with more than two dozen current Liberty students and recent graduates, Nasser emerged as a key figure in soothing campus unease—and an example of how earnest religious rhetoric can be used to tamp down even the most righteous dissent. “There’s this culture at Liberty where leadership will pull you aside and pray with you, but it’s really strong-arming you into shutting up,” said 2019 graduate Addyson Garner, who spoke with me in the spring, when she was senior class president. “The phrase that comes to mind is spiritual gaslighting.”
When I landed in Lynchburg on a Tuesday afternoon in October, David Nasser was interviewing Cornel* West and Princeton professor Robert George on a television screen by the rental car counter. It was a rerun of an old Convo service—and a reminder that Liberty is the town’s top employer and dominates the local culture. The campus’s 17-story Freedom Tower, completed last year, is the tallest building in town. Falwell Jr., too, looms large here, and his relationship to the community is a source of both pride and squeamishness. An older woman seated next to me on the plane whispered what she thought of Falwell Jr: “I’m surprised people around him haven’t gotten ahold of him to say, ‘Keep your mouth shut.’ ”
Liberty Baptist College started modestly in 1971, operating out of Jerry Falwell’s Sr.’s church and sometimes holding chapel services in rented tents. But Falwell Sr. had big plans for the school. He wanted it to be a world-class institution, with a national academic reputation and a competitive football team. Falwell Jr. has compared his father favorably to P.T. Barnum. He invited celebrities like Colonel Sanders to Lynchburg in the early years. “My father said, ‘There are only two universal languages that all young people understand, music and sports,’” Falwell Jr. told me. “‘We’re going to build a world-class Christian university, we have to have the best of both.’”
Falwell Sr. positioned Liberty in a sweet spot for many fundamentalists, said Frances FitzGerald, the author of the 2017 book The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. Liberty wasn’t as rigid as Bob Jones University, where unmarried students could not hold hands, but it wasn’t as “liberal” as evangelical Wheaton College. “Apparently it was the model people wanted,” FitzGerald said. Jerry Falwell Jr. was named the head of Liberty University the day after his father died in May 2007. Under Falwell Jr.’s leadership, Liberty has become the second-largest Christian college in the country. The school has an endowment in the ballpark of $1.4 billion, 15,000 residential students and 95,000 online, and a property under constant construction. Today Liberty looks like a Christian campus “pumped up on steroids,” as one student described it to me. (Protzman called it a “cruise ship experience for conservative families.”) It has a skate park, a bowling alley, and a year-round downhill ski center.
Falwell Jr. has never been a natural fit as the leader of an evangelical university. While presidents of evangelical colleges are institutional strategists, they are also spiritual leaders. The current presidents of Bob Jones, Wheaton College, and Moody Bible Institute, to name a few, are former church pastors; even those who haven’t led churches often have significant experience in ministry and an ease with evangelical rhetoric. Falwell Jr., meanwhile, never leads prayer in public, even when he speaks at campus chapel services. (A school spokesman said in response: “President Falwell takes serious the teaching of Jesus found in Matthew 6:6 … ‘But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ ”) Falwell Jr. argues that he doesn’t need to be a pastoral figure to lead a Christian college. This summer, he declared definitively that students should not look to him for spiritual guidance. “I have never been a minister,” he tweeted. His role, he wrote, was to steward the college’s finances, academics, and athletics. “The faculty, students and campus pastor @davidnasser of @LibertyU are the ones who keep LU strong spiritually as the best Christian univ in the world,” he wrote. The tweets scandalized some Liberty insiders, but the takeaway was clear: David Nasser is Liberty’s moral leader, which frees Falwell Jr. from that responsibility.
The official mandate of Nasser’s office is to provide students “opportunities to grow in Christ and give like Christ”—in translation, that means he serves as head of campus spiritual life, with a purview that includes leading campus worship services and short-term student missionary trips. It’s an important job at a college whose stated mission is “training champions for Christ,” and Nasser’s stature on campus is obvious, starting with his large, opulent office suite attached to a basketball arena and decorated by his wife, Jennifer. His most visible role is presiding over morning Convocation services in the arena and an optional Wednesday night service that draws about 5,000 students. Nasser is a member of Liberty’s executive leadership tier directly under Falwell Jr. He oversees more than 100 full-time employees and was paid $349,000 in fiscal year 2017, more than the school’s provost, its athletic director, and the deans of its medical and law schools, and significantly more than his predecessor. “Liberty is a blessed place, and the Bible says to whom much is given much is required,” Nasser said of his office’s generous budget.
Nasser’s office prides itself on making guests—including prominent ones—feel welcome. Speakers and performers often receive rides to and from campus on Liberty’s private jet. Guests stay the night at the Montview, a private guest house on campus that was once the home of Jerry Falwell Sr. The founder’s office, the room where he was discovered without a pulse in 2007, has been preserved behind a glass wall, and the lights in the office are never turned off. Falwell Sr. and his wife are buried out front, in a quiet spot overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Outside the door of Falwell’s office, the house is unrecognizable from the Jerry Falwell Sr. days. Jennifer Nasser appointed the rooms with high-end furniture, original artwork, and luxurious amenities: a kitchen stocked with free meals and fancy snacks, a closet where guests can select the pillows and blankets that please them, custom-monogrammed toothbrushes and slippers, and a solicitous staff on call. The look is Restoration Hardware toniness, with marble, gold, and a soft gray palette, and historic touches like a restored record player in the living room. In one bathroom, perfect black-and-white penny tiles spell out 1971, the year Liberty was founded. The guest book includes signatures from evangelical celebrities and figures like Ben Carson, Sean Spicer, Laura Ingraham, and Tomi Lahren (who appended “MAGA” to her signature). I stayed there for two nights, at Liberty’s invitation, although Slate paid the bill (and I didn’t keep the slippers). It was the nicest “hotel” I’d ever stayed in.
I’d requested interviews with Falwell and Nasser. The day I arrived in Lynchburg, the communications office informed me that I would be interviewing both of them together. This arrangement got even more unusual when Falwell instead called in from his cell, which a communications employee put on speakerphone in Nasser’s cavernous office. When Falwell interrupted Nasser occasionally to make his own point, or to return to an earlier argument, the pastor sat patiently and nodded along. At times, Nasser encouraged his boss—whom he calls “President Falwell,” never Jerry—to share a particular story or quip. When Falwell went on a meandering disquisition about politics and faith that began with his father’s controversial endorsement of Ronald Reagan over Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter, Nasser replied, “I would echo what President Falwell is saying,” and then made a much narrower, milder point about inviting both Democrats and Republicans to speak at Convo.
When I later had a chance to talk to Nasser alone, he cheerfully held the party line. Falwell trusts and “empowers” his team to oversee spiritual matters, Nasser explained, the same way he empowers the football coach to manage his team. “That doesn’t mean he’s not interested, it doesn’t mean he’s not invested,” he said. “It just means he doesn’t micromanage. He’s a good leader.” He takes such pains not to criticize Falwell Jr.’s approach that he sometimes seems to be contorting himself to stop short of endorsing it. “President Falwell has his set of convictions,” he said. “What I know about him is that there is a kindness. I think a lot of Christians have … decided to use social media differently than I have.” But isn’t it challenging, I asked, when Falwell’s own reported behavior contradicts the kinds of values he’s trying to instill in his students? No one is claiming Falwell should spend his time preaching, but doesn’t he have a responsibility to, say, refrain from insulting people? “You’re welcome to form your own opinion,” Nasser said firmly, the third or fourth time I asked. “And so is anybody else.”
The man who is arguably the most influential religious leader on any college campus in America was born in 1970 in Iran, where his father was an officer in the shah’s army. The family fled the country in the wake of the 1979 revolution, eventually settling in Texas and Alabama, where Nasser’s parents opened a series of small businesses. The Nassers were Muslim, but not especially devout. Floundering after high school, David started attending a Baptist church, where he quickly found spiritual clarity and a new sense of purpose.
In his 2009 memoir, Jumping Through Fires: The Gripping Story of One Man’s Escape from Revolution to Redemption, Nasser describes an early turning point in his conversion when his new Christian friends tipped a struggling waitress more than $100 on a diner bill. Nasser writes that he wept in the car when he realized what had happened. Many of his favorite stories have the theme of unexpected financial generosity or one-off acts of interpersonal kindness. Now, at Liberty, he has the chance to play the role of benefactor himself. At Convo one morning this fall, his office surprised two students with the chance to go on an overseas mission; they cheered and looked overwhelmed, and it was like watching the thrilling happy ending of a game show.
Nasser attended three colleges in Alabama and Mississippi, but he never graduated, in part because his career as an evangelist took off so quickly. Within a year of his conversion, he was a leader at his church and at a local Christian “nightclub” run by his youth pastor. Soon he was a full-time traveling preacher, speaking to audiences at churches, revivals, and conferences across the country. His energetic style and his dramatic autobiography as a Muslim convert attracted mentorship from evangelists including Franklin Graham, who invited him to become a regular speaker at evangelistic events. In 1999, one newspaper called Nasser “North America’s best Christian youth evangelist.” He later launched an evangelical church outside Birmingham, but he continued his freelance preaching career on the side. His speaker bio touted his specialty in young audiences: “God has blessed David with the talent to reach the high-tech, attention-lacking culture of Generation Next.”
The job at Liberty opened up in 2014, when Johnnie Moore—now a communications strategist and member of Trump’s circle of evangelical advisers—left to work for producer Mark Burnett. An acquaintance who was close with Falwell recommended Nasser for the post, and he and his wife and two children soon left Birmingham for Lynchburg. Moore’s job at Liberty had straddled external communications and student ministry. Nasser’s job would be to focus exclusively on students, starting with the stage at Convo.
Liberty bills Convo as “the largest weekly gathering of Christian young people in the world” and streams the services online, turning student programming into a worldwide advertisement for the school. It’s an important stage, but Falwell never looks comfortable there. Students described him to me, without prompting, as a “strange uncle,” a “silly uncle,” and “politically incorrect uncle”; many view him as deeply insecure. At one recent Convo, he first appeared on stage tapping away on his phone—he awkwardly told the crowd he was texting Kanye West—and then ended his interview abruptly and dismissed students early, saying he was late for a funeral. On campus, Falwell Jr. is viewed as more of a mascot than a leader. When he appears at Convo, which he does only occasionally, students shout “JERRY!” in a distinctive hoot. “You’d hope he didn’t talk too long because the longer he talked, the stranger he seemed,” said Nathaniel Green, who graduated last year.
Nasser, by contrast, has spent his career speaking publicly and inspiring young people. He will turn 50 next year, but he still dresses youthfully, or at least sharper than most college administrators. He favors tight jeans, collarless jackets, and monochrome sneakers. When Nasser arrived on the job, Falwell charged him with identifying and taking over everything the school did related to “ministry and mission.” He took the first six months to “look under the hood,” and then he set about restructuring the department and redesigning the Convo experience, nudging out the popular music leader and raising production values. “It’s almost like you’re in a mini Hillsong conference,” one recent graduate said, referring to the hip church empire. The stage at Convo attracts athletes, media stars, comedians, prominent pastors, politicians, and conservative activists, often introduced or interviewed by Nasser.
By all appearances, Nasser’s glamorous job got more complicated when Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump before the Iowa caucus in early 2016. Liberty had always been an overwhelmingly Republican school. But many were caught by surprise when Falwell Jr. became one of Trump’s most prominent and vocal evangelical supporters, long before most white evangelicals had embraced the thrice-married casino mogul. Falwell Jr.’s pick contradicted his own students’ inclinations at that point. Trump won just 8 percent in the primary at Liberty, which has its own voting precinct. (Marco Rubio earned 44 percent, followed by Ted Cruz with 33 percent and Ben Carson with 14. Trump dominated the precinct in the general election, with 85 percent of the Liberty vote, but turnout was lower than in 2012.) Liberty’s student body president and vice president, offices that traditionally have close ties to the school’s administration, both publicly backed Rubio. In the wake of the Access Hollywood tapes, students circulated a statement headlined “Liberty United Against Trump” that eventually earned more than 1,000 signatures from students, alumni, and employees. The next year, dozens of alumni announced they planned on mailing back their diplomas.
Nasser says he is free to speak about any topic at Convo. It’s to Liberty’s benefit, then, that he doesn’t like to talk politics. When I pressed him, he told me that he votes pro-life, although he’s more interested in helping young mothers than passing laws. He sees the world in terms of relationships and spirituality, not policy or power. “Maybe personally I lean towards conservative values,” he said. “That’s the small c. But the big C in my life is Christianity.”
He points out that he is an Iranian refugee when it’s in service of defending Falwell Jr. against charges of racism or xenophobia. “Someone one time called him out,” Nasser told me. “I was like, ‘He has hired a minority, Iranian, former Muslim to be the campus pastor of his entire university.’ ” But when Nasser delivered an hourlong sermon about the Christian practice of hospitality later that evening, he didn’t talk about his own history as a refugee, let alone mention that the Trump administration has radically slashed the country’s refugee program. Instead, he spoke at length about the extravagant material welcome Liberty offers its celebrity visitors, and showed slides of the swag they receive as guests of his office, like designer M&Ms for the Robertson family of Duck Dynasty fame. It’s not about stuff, Nasser emphasized; it’s just that the stuff is a way of showing hospitality, often to people who have been “shamed” by the wider world. “We want them to take these M&Ms home,” he said onstage, “and go, ‘These people actually prayed for me by name.’ ”
Falwell Jr. speaks often about Liberty’s openness to the “free expression of ideas,” in contrast to the supposed snowflake culture of secular academia. The president touts his speaking invitations—Bernie Sanders spoke at Convo in 2015—as evidence of such openness. But few outside Falwell Jr.’s inner circle share his self-image of Liberty as a free speech bastion. In my past reporting on other evangelical campuses, even on sensitive topics of alleged institutional wrongdoing, I’ve never encountered the kind of deep paranoia I found at Liberty. One professor expressed wariness about even cutting and pasting a section of the faculty employment contract into the body of a personal email, for fear that the action could be tracked on a school-monitored computer. Students warned me to only approach faculty through Twitter DMs or personal email addresses. The organization FIRE, which monitors speech issues on college campuses and is typically more attuned to policing left-wing “political correctness,” put Liberty on its list of 10 worst colleges for free speech this year, following the evangelical magazine World’s reporting that the administration had repeatedly censored the school newspaper. A Liberty spokesman said: “For an organization devoted to unfettered First Amendment speech rights, FIRE demonstrates great ignorance on the subject when it advocates for newspaper publishers to give up their free speech rights that allow them to determine the content of their own publications.”
When I asked Falwell about the idea of a “culture of fear” at Liberty, he referred to an English professor who has been outspoken about her objections to Trump. “Ask Karen [Swallow] Prior about that,” he said. “She’s never had any repercussions.” Prior, Liberty’s highest-profile faculty member, announced the next morning that she was leaving the school after 21 years, citing reasons that included creeping administrative oversight over faculty work. (Falwell tweeted after the announcement that she would be “greatly missed.” Prior declined to comment for this piece.) Nasser would speak only for himself. “I’ve never been called in [and told] ‘Please see that verse differently,’ or ‘Please give another type of spiritual counsel to a student,’ ” he said. “Our team has had the freedom to minister.”’
Nasser makes a point to not just be passively available, but to reach out to students who express their dissatisfaction with Liberty online. At the beginning of each school year, he gives out his cell number at Convocation and encourages students to contact him about anything that’s on their minds. He only has one number, he said, when I speculated that he must keep a separate line for his personal life. “Jesus loves what we call ‘interrupted lives,’ ” he said, showing me the screen of his phone, which had filled up with calls and texts during our conversation. “Jesus would be walking from point A to point B and would go, ‘Hey, someone just touched my coat. What’s going on?’ ” (This was a reference to a Bible story about a sick woman touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak in a crowd; in the story, Jesus tells her that her faith has healed her.)
In recent years, the college has cracked down on dissent in blunter ways. In 2017, progressive evangelical pastor Jonathan Martin was escorted from a campus concert by armed police; Martin had tweeted about his plans to organize a “peaceful action” against Falwell’s Trump support at Liberty the next day, with help from students. “Martin being led off campus by four [Liberty University Police Department] officers, that’s when students started thinking, ‘You know what, let’s hide things. Let’s not be super public about what we’re doing,’ ” said senior Tim Johnson. “To say that people value diverse thought at Liberty would be wrong.”
In April 2018, the progressive organization Red Letter Christians organized a “revival” in Lynchburg, intended to “go where toxic Christianity lives.” The night before the group’s leader, Shane Claiborne, was to arrive in town, Liberty’s chief of police sent him a letter saying that if he set foot on the school’s property, he would be arrested for trespassing and could be subject to a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail.
Sam Herrmann, who graduated last year, requested a meeting with Nasser in 2017 after Liberty removed Martin from campus.* He wanted to press Nasser about the school’s approach to opposition. But he said Nasser spent most of the meeting talking—and effectively discouraged him from speaking publicly, without coming out and saying so outright. “[Nasser] told me, ‘If you were teachable, then you would understand,’ ” Herrmann said. “For someone like me who grew up in a Christian home and grew up with a black-and-white idea of ‘sinners: bad, Christians: good,’ you get this inner confusion. Like, ‘Am I the bad guy?’ ” (Nasser told me, “Our meetings with students, including Sam Herrmann, are pastoral in nature. Students … are free to take or not take any pastoral insight or advice offered.”) One former employee, who asked to not be named because of Falwell Jr.’s legal threats against other ex-employees, described Falwell Jr.’s inner circle, including Nasser, as deploying evangelical language to enforce loyalty: “They’re using fundamentalist, guilt-ridden Christian rhetorical tactics at the same time that they’re draining the spiritual life from the campus.”
Ian Parish and Elizabeth Brooks, two current students, co-organized a demonstration against Falwell’s leadership in September. They were granted permission to hold the event outside Convo, but they ended up framing the protest as a “rally,” open to those who disagreed. Parish had met with Nasser in his office previously, after a Twitter complaint about Candace Owens’ appearance at Convo, and found the conversation productive. But he sees it differently now. “I don’t like attacking Nasser, but I feel like he’s carrying water for Jerry,” Parish reflected in October, wiping down tables at the Cook Out franchise near campus where he worked. “He’s distracting from the real issue.”
On the subject of student accusations that he’s carrying water for Falwell Jr., Nasser was unruffled. “I would gladly take that on as an honor,” he said. “I have no apprehensions associating myself with anybody at the Liberty family at any level.” What about the term “spiritual gaslighting”? I asked. “Yes, I use the Bible to counsel our students, to say, ‘Hey, have you gone first to your brother?’ Just because you feel like someone was dishonorable as a celebrity who came here as a guest doesn’t give you permission to be dishonorable. Jesus honored people that dishonored him.” He was referring to a strain of complaints that seem to trouble and interest him much more than any concerns about Falwell Jr.: disrespectful pushback to culturally controversial speakers, people who have made mistakes but are “not disqualified from the grace of God.”
Parish and Brooks, however, had organized their demonstration in response to Politico’s reporting on Falwell Jr.’s alleged moral and financial scandals. Falwell Jr. gave media interviews about the new reporting but never addressed the student body. “Why isn’t he standing up at Convo and addressing his students?” the president of Liberty’s chapter of the conservative group Turning Point USA, sophomore Anna Kelchner, wondered in September. “He needs to talk to us. He needs to get on that stage at Convo and tell us what’s going on.”
That job, too, fell to Nasser. The Sunday after Politico’s reporting was published, Nasser called an impromptu all-campus worship service, to be held on the school’s outdoor ski slope as the sun set over the mountains. More than 4,000 students attended to sing and pray; Fox News quoted Nasser calling it “the essence of Liberty U.” One student described it as “very obviously a PR stunt, or a way to reduce the student uprising.”
Many students came away from that worship service with the impression that Nasser would address the controversies directly in Convo the next week. But Wednesday’s service passed without a mention of the Politico article; instead, the singer Michael W. Smith performed.
When I asked Nasser about the service on the ski slope, he said it had nothing to do with any controversy. “That was related to that moment, not related to the article,” he said. What moment? I wondered. “I feel like we, in the last three years, have been more and more seeing what I would call the wind of the Holy Spirit in our sails,” he said. “I feel like we’re on the cusp of a revival.”
Nasser looked genuinely baffled when I asked him why he hadn’t mentioned the controversy to students. He had addressed it, he said, but in a deeper way than just rehashing the same old sordid details. As a pastor, “I’m going to talk to you about the root and not the fruit,” he said. “I’m much more interested in leveraging the moment to talk about: What do you do when accusations come your way? Or what do you do when someone is asking you these kind of questions?” He said “hundreds” of students contacted him by text or DM after the event, but most had questions unrelated to the article. In fact, the vast majority of conversations he has with students are about relationship issues, theological questions, or personal struggles—not politics. “Most of our students are thinking, Do girls think I look good in this shirt? How am I doing with my grades? How am I doing with my job applications?”
Nasser’s line about students worrying whether girls think they look good wasn’t new. “One thing Nasser said to me when I was in the office was that most of the students here don’t actually care about the politics of President Falwell. They care more about getting a clean T-shirt on when they see the girl they like,” former student activist Sam Herrmann had told me. “As condescending as that was, there’s validity to that. When we were trying to find people to help activate change, they just didn’t really care.”
The protests initiated by students tend to be small, earnest, and polite. In the fall of 2018, several dozen students protested what they described as Liberty’s racist campus culture, sparked by twin students who dressed for Halloween as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer and a man in a sombrero. This spring, another few dozen students protested mocking comments that Falwell and his wife, Becki, made about gender identity at a Conservative Political Action Conference event. Neither protest incurred any kind of angry response from the administration. The media is fascinated by protests like these, but the reality is that they involve only a tiny proportion of Liberty’s students.
Multiple students told me that Falwell Jr. has blocked them on Twitter. But few students seemed disturbed or surprised by this; Falwell Jr. may be the only university president whose bio leads with the warning that “haters will be blocked.” Recently, students said, the school’s official Twitter account has also been blocking students who are critical of the school. (A spokesman for the school declined to say who runs the school’s account and to comment on reports of blocking.)
Many of the student activists I spoke to were resigned to the fact that they are never going to start a revolution at Liberty. “You lose your capacity for outrage,” said Dustin Wahl, a then-student who circulated the “Liberty United Against Trump” statement in 2017. “And at Liberty you literally do, because you graduate.” Any employees who dislike Falwell Jr. surely also fear him. By now, most current students have chosen to attend the school knowing full well what they’re signing up for. It’s getting harder to imagine Liberty changing its course—especially with Nasser as Falwell Jr.’s cheerful mediator.
“I’m always interested in understanding why a student feels unheard, or misunderstood,” Nasser told me. “I don’t think I’ve ever sat with a student and told them not to voice their opinion.” Then he emphasized again the importance of keeping conflict internal instead of airing it publicly. He echoed the same passage in Matthew that Micah Protzman said he quoted in their first meeting: “As a Christian, I should first go to my brother.” When it comes to his boss’s relationship to Liberty students, Nasser said, the most important thing is this: When Falwell Jr. runs into students in restaurants, he always picks up the tab.
Correction, Dec. 23, 2019: This post originally misspelled Sam Herrmann’s last name.
Correction, Dec. 24, 2019: This piece originally misspelled Cornel West’s first name.