Faith-based

Why That Falwell Jr. Yacht Photo Was the Final Straw

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 21:  President of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Jerry Falwell Jr. in 2016. John Moore/Getty Images

Jerry Falwell Jr. is taking a leave of absence from Liberty University, the school announced on Friday evening. The executive committee of the evangelical university’s board of trustees met on Friday and requested that Falwell Jr. temporarily step down from his roles as president and chancellor, according to a brief statement issued by the school. Falwell Jr. agreed, effective immediately.

The college’s statement did not mention a reason for the board’s request. But the announcement comes at the end of a week in which Falwell has faced unprecedented public pressure to resign from prominent associates of the college. Last weekend, Falwell Jr. posted a photograph to his Instagram account in which he posed with his arm around a pregnant woman with a bare midriff at a private party on a yacht. The college president’s shirt is pulled up and his pants are unbuttoned, revealing a triangle of underwear. He’s holding a glass of what appears to be an alcoholic beverage, though he referred to it in the caption as “black water.”

Falwell Jr. quickly deleted the photo from his account, but screenshots spread quickly. In a bizarre, brief interview with a Virginia radio station on Wednesday, he said he had “apologized to everybody” and that he had promised his children, “I’m gonna try to be a good boy from here on out.” Falwell identified the woman as his wife’s assistant, and other photos from the weekend show his wife and several of his children and their spouses on the excursion. (Other family photographs from the weekend show the engagement of Falwell Jr.’s daughter Caroline, a Liberty student.)

Students on Liberty’s campus are forbidden from drinking alcohol, and are instructed to dress modestly. A poster on Reddit compiled Falwell Jr.’s potential violations in the yacht photograph and an accompanying video, and calculated that a student captured in the same scene could have accrued more than $9,000 in school fines and 900 hours of required service, and possible expulsion.

Faculty and alumni who have been critical of the school’s direction under Falwell Jr. were both shocked and gratified by the news of his leave of absence. “For at least a decade, Liberty’s faculty have labored under Falwell’s increasingly autocratic leadership and been shamed by his public behavior besides,” said Marybeth Davis Baggett, who taught English at Liberty for 17 years and resigned this spring after publishing an op-ed calling for Falwell Jr.’s removal based on his handling of the coronavirus crisis. “One man cannot act this way without many enablers, and any meaningful reform of the school will require a thorough and brutally honest inquiry into the LU culture.”

Falwell Jr. is the oldest son of the school’s gleefully pugnacious founder, a fundamentalist pastor and conservative activist. Falwell Jr., a businessman with a law degree and no pastoral experience, took over the college when his father died in 2007. He has built the school into a sports powerhouse with a campus filled with luxury amenities, and conservative activists and politicians regularly speak there. The school now boasts more than 15,000 residential students, and more than 100,000 students online.

But Liberty has also been under almost constant national scrutiny since Falwell Jr. endorsed Donald Trump in early 2016, months earlier than other white evangelical leaders embraced the crude casino magnate’s candidacy. Falwell Jr. began 2020 by calling for parts of Virginia to secede from the state and join West Virginia. As the coronavirus crisis encroached, Falwell Jr. initially dismissed it as “hype,” and called a Liberty parent who questioned him on Twitter a “dummy.” He was then criticized for welcoming back any students who wanted to return to campus after spring break. (Fewer than 2,000 of 15,000 residential students ultimately returned, and Liberty has avoided any outbreaks.) In May, Falwell Jr. tweeted a racist image in an attempt to needle Virginia governor Ralph Northam. He eventually deleted the tweet and apologized, but multiple Black employees publicly quit their jobs soon afterward; several high-profile Black athletes also departed. None of these media dust-ups seemed to dent Falwell Jr.’s favorability in the eyes of his hand-picked board of trustees.

The yacht photo was different. It was the first time a significant number of prominent white conservative evangelicals have publicly criticized Falwell Jr. Mark Walker, a former Southern Baptist pastor and Republican congressman from North Carolina, tweeted that Falwell Jr.’s “ongoing behavior is appalling” and called for him to step down. (Walker is the vice chairman of the House Republican Caucus.) Dean Inserra, a prominent Florida pastor and Liberty graduate, tweeted that “the leadership at the top is tragic” and urged the board to “show some courage.” Colby Garman, a Southern Baptist pastor and executive committee member of the denomination in Virginia, also called on Falwell Jr. to resign.

“This upset a lot of Southern Baptist pastors,” said D.J. Jordan, a Liberty graduate with strong ties to the alumni community. “The visual is so stunning. And even more so to these conservative retired pastors and business leaders” who make up a significant portion of the board.

“It’s a very encouraging moment for the Liberty community,” said Dustin Wahl, a 2018 Liberty graduate who recently helped assemble a 501(c)(4) advocacy group to pressure the board to remove Falwell Jr. But he questioned why a racy photo was deemed more damaging than any previous controversies. “Why did the board decide this was the last straw? Because of a photo that made them uncomfortable, and the following public humiliation. They allowed everything up until that point. Liberty’s board has shown us that their only public convictions relate to alcohol and sex.” Calum Best, who graduated this spring and collaborated with Wahl on the new advocacy group, said that while Falwell Jr.’s leave “certainly feels like a victory,” he was troubled that the board didn’t respond to a recent alumni-led petition with almost 40,000 signatures, but rather to Republican congressmen and pastors behind the scenes.

Still, the board’s resistance to countless previous calls for Falwell Jr.’s departure is exactly what makes Friday’s announcement so significant. “This is an incredible shock,” Jordan said. “Many of us who have been close to Liberty for years never thought this board of trustees would take this action, or any type of discipline, against Mr. Falwell.”

It’s not clear how long Falwell’s leave will last, or whether he will return to the school at all. For now, however, the school is without a Falwell at its head for the first time since its founding in 1971. “This is the right call for @LibertyU students & family,” Rep. Walker tweeted on Friday night. “I pray for Jerry Jr. and the Falwells, and I take solace in the Christian principle that forgiveness and redemption is available to all.”

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