Jerry Falwell Jr. vs. the Coronavirus

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S1: Looking at press coverage over the last few days, I think it’s pretty fair to ask what exactly is going on at Liberty University.

S2: Hundreds of colleges and universities have sent students home because of the Koran virus, but one university is bringing students back to campus during this crisis.

S3: About at Liberty University, the dorms and dining halls are open. Students returning to campus from across the country and world.

S1: Liberty University is an evangelical school in Lynchburg, Virginia, run by Jerry Falwell Junior and Slate’s Ruth Graham, who covers religion for us. She says that to understand what’s happening at liberty, you need to know that this college is about more than just faith.

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S4: It’s kind of the college institution of Trumpism and a lot of ways, especially kind of evangelical Trumpism.

S5: What’s the college’s motto?

S6: Well, the unofficial motto, which I mentioned in my story last week, is politically incorrect since 1971. I’ve heard that there was a billboard up at some point with that on it, but I’ve never been able to find an image of it. So but it’s on T-shirts and things like that. So they really pride themselves on kind of bucking the conventional wisdom of mainstream academia and even, you know, in some ways really set themselves against mainstream evangelical academia.

S1: When it came to the coronavirus at first, Liberty University had no problem bucking the conventional wisdom. Jerry Falwell, junior college president, showed up on Fox News and conservative radio compared covered 19 to the common flu.

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S7: Comedians go nuts here because we were young. People are not following us like they thought. Well, I guess we’re gonna follow our instincts, hunker down when we were young.

S8: We were invincible. You know, you and I both where we thought we were.

S9: And that’s just human nature. And you’re not gonna change that.

S1: Then after welcoming nearly 2000 students back to campus after spring break. Falwell seemed to backtrack, saying the campus was locking itself down.

S2: What’s the rush? Why have students come back to campus in the middle of this?

S10: First of all, most of the press reports have been false liberty.

S4: He was kind of at this point trying to play catch up and make it seem like, you know, we’ve really taken serious precautions at liberty. So he said everyone’s working from home.

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S5: Ruth says she spoke to one Liberty University staffer who watched this TV appearance where Falwell was in the middle of reversing himself. And this person, this staffer was just stunned.

S10: All faculty or teaching from home and in the office hours that were required before spring break are now optional for professors. They can do all their conferences with students by phone.

S4: And that just was not true. Who said this employee said like, I was watching that at work. It was like at my desk watching that.

S6: Until very recently, staff members still had to lake petition their direct bosses for permission, like special permission to work from home. And of course, they’re all really nervous about doing that because, you know, they’re afraid of kind of seeming like they’re violating the party line and being more afraid than they’re supposed to be.

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S11: So the message that Falwell is putting out on Fox and Friends and CNN is really different from the way people are feeling on campus right now.

S1: Today on the show, what Ruth learned when she tried to answer this simple question, what is going on at Liberty University? She says institutions like this one, institutions that take their cues from the president.

S12: They’ve been a beat behind when it comes to the Corona virus. And that could be costly. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S1: Ruth knows liberty. She’s been there before.

S4: I spent a few days there and it’s beautiful. I mean, Liberty has a lot of money. They’re under constant construction. Actually, a student I talked to last year described it. The campus tours as like a cruise ship experience for Christian families, you know. So there’s like a gun range on campus and there’s like all these sports and, you know, a ski, you know, a ski hill and all of this stuff. So a lot of amenities and in a beautiful setting, a gun range. Yeah. You got to have your gun range and liberty.

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S5: It’s not just pretty. It’s also pretty massive.

S11: It has a student body of about 100000 and 15000 on campus.

S1: A hundred thousand.

S4: They have a huge online program, which actually makes it so ironic when you’re thinking about all this, because it’s like they are perfectly poised to transition to an online model. You would think that they know a lot of colleges are just scrambling right now to figure out how to teach by Zoom and all that. Liberty has been doing this for years and years and years. They were way ahead of the game. And it’s a huge part of their business model now.

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S5: Can you just do a real basic One-On-One like place Liberty University in the world of evangelical Christianity? Like, how important is it?

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S4: It’s really it’s an institution of the political Christian, right? I would say so. It’s always been very closely affiliated with Republican politics and especially during the Trump administration. It has become a hugely prominent national institution because it’s headed by one of the, you know, most prominent and most forceful, eager evangelical defenders of Donald Trump.

S5: So Jerry Falwell, Junior is the president of Liberty University. I know you’ve interviewed him. Can you just explain a little bit about who he is and his role at the college?

S4: Sure. Falwell, of course, is the son. He’s Jerry Falwell, junior to Jerry Falwell, who is a major figure on the Christian right in the 70s, 80s into the 90s. He inherited the college basically from I mean, that’s not the language they use, but his father founded it and then he was named the head of the college as soon as his father died in 2007. Is he a pastor, too? He is not a pastor. He’s very much not a pastor. I think he sees that as giving him lessons in terms of his language and behavior and just kind of his affect and attitude. But he is he is very non pastoral in a way that is unusual for a distinctly evangelical college campus like this. What do you mean when you say that he he doesn’t pray in public, which is again, just very unusual to contrast it to the evangelical college I went to where the president of the college is very much someone who’s comfortable speaking about their own spiritual life, very comfortable with the Bible, like very fluent in evangelical language and and theology. And Falwell is very much not like that. He’s his. The students I was talking to, especially last year, really viewed him as more like a mascot. Like they kind of hoot. You know, Jerry, when they see like there’s this, like they feel a lot of fondness, a lot of them, he’s kind of a popular figure, but he’s he’s more like a kind of celebrity and more like a mascot. But he kind of revels in that. And I think he likes being seen as someone who kind of has no time for the normal rules. I guess in sort of a Trumpian way, you might say.

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S1: Jerry Falwell jr.’s response to the coronavirus tracks without the president in early March, he downplayed the virus, said he wanted to reopen school to whoever would like to come after spring break. And that’s what his faculty began speaking out.

S4: A Liberty professor, an English professor named Mary Beth Baggot, wrote an op ed for religion news service and said, like, basically kind of begging the board of trustees to overrule Falwell and shut down campus. And just making this very forceful argument for why this was an irresponsible thing to do. My conversations with Ed plays there suggests that that may be influenced quite a few students to then stay home. You know, maybe people who had been thinking about coming back read that trusted her and thought. I’m not I’m not coming back into this environment. And then after pressure from the state of Virginia in just a few days into spring break, he did say classes would move online. But still rhetorically was really sending mixed messages in terms of how serious he thought this was.

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S5: So we should say that it’s not like everyone has flooded back to campus at Liberty University. Right. How many students do you think are on campus right now?

S4: The school says as of. This last Monday that there were about a thousand students, they have a very precise number, they say one thousand forty five students on campus, and then of course there’s others who live off campus and they’re not going to class.

S5: Right. They’re like taking all their classes online. They’re just living there.

S4: Exactly. They’re just living there. Falwell has compared it to like basically they’re running an apartment complex or a series of apartment complexes rather than a normal college campus.

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S5: I guess to be fair to Jerry Falwell, Junior. He’s sort of stated his intention is almost almost pastoral, saying like we’re in a way protecting vulnerable students by having them on campus together. He’s he’s spoken about a duty not to close the campuses doors to people who meaning need shelter or need a place to be. Do you think that’s fair or B.S.?

S4: I think if that were the only if that had been his consistent message, I think that that’s very reasonable and that’s something many other colleges are doing, sort of keeping a bare bones operation, running for students who have nowhere else to go.

S11: The problem is, is that that new tone has come after weeks of minimizing and dismissing and joking and kind of swaggering about inviting anyone back who wants to come back. And so that just adds up to this environment of really mixed messages for for students and for anyone else watching this.

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S5: In the last couple days, it’s been reported that at least one student at Liberty tested positive for the Corona virus. Do you think that is what might have changed? Jerry Falwell’s tone here? Has he spoken out since that happened?

S4: Yes, they’ve spoken out to fiercely deny The New York Times reporting on this and publicly demand a correction and issue a slew of press releases, kind of offering their own breakdown of the numbers of students with symptoms and who knows what’s happening privately and whether or not this will motivate them to or has has helped motivate them to sort of start taking it more seriously. But publicly, they views that as an opportunity to push back on, you know, kind of this is The New York Times out to get us. But there is one diagnosis, it seems that everyone agrees on that. It’s it’s a student who’s not on campus. And then there’s a number of other students, again, somewhat disputed that who have shown symptoms and are in isolation.

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S1: Part of why it’s so hard to understand what’s happening at liberty is that it’s an insular world, not just private. More than that, a lot of the people Ruth relied on for her reporting. They worry that speaking on the record could cost them.

S4: I’ve interviewed a lot of employees at Liberty and very, very few are willing to speak on the record and use their names. A staff member I talked to said silence is job security and just put it that plainly like that. You cannot know that you will be safe there if you speak up or dissent in any way. And that includes, you know, things like I would prefer to work from home, not because I have a, you know, a personal life that I’m immunocompromised or anything like that. But just I would like to take kind of public health recommendations seriously inside self isolate at this point. So the bar for what sort of counts as dissent is very low there and there’s just a lot of nervousness.

S5: Yeah, I was struck by the fact that the woman who wrote that op ed that you said was so influential, Mary Beth Baggett, the English professor, she was clear that the only reason she felt like she could write it was that she was leaving campus next year.

S4: Yes, she has another job. She and her husband actually both teach at liberty. And they’ve both been pretty outspoken. And they both already previously had announced that they have jobs lined up at another school. So I think that gives her the the freedom to be outspoken. Professors at liberty don’t have 10 year on year to year contracts, which, of course, make them much, much warier to speak freely about what they think about the school or anything. Really, it just makes them vulnerable generally. It really, really does. So they all and there are also you know, there’s plenty of cases of I think it was last year they slashed the divinity, the School of Divinity faculty hugely. And so it’s not unprecedented for for them to lose their jobs very suddenly. And certainly you can lose your job for speaking up or people are very, very afraid of that.

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S13: So I saw this op ed in The Washington Post that basically said what was happening at Liberty University when it came to coronavirus. It reflected this larger issue with evangelical education, which is like a strain of authoritarianism. It said how Catholic colleges there’s this structure that you turn to when there’s a dispute over what to do. But with these evangelical institutions, many of them over the last few decades have started to revolve around singular figures like the president, like in this case, that would be Jerry Falwell, Junior. I wonder what you think about that.

S4: That’s really interesting. Yeah, in some ways, a school like Liberty is like a nondenominational mega-church. That doesn’t answer to anyone else. And you have an elder board kind of stocked by people that the founding pastor has handpicked and so, well, they will never descend. And then, of course, it’s a self-selecting group here on campus. And that self-selecting group of students, by this point, they’ve all come in during the Trump administration. So they knew what they were getting into. And then there’s also just kind of a more general thing about evangelical culture that’s just slow, too. I would say to protest or dissent. Last year, I talked to a lot of students who were critical of the administration and it felt like there was sort of rising level of dissatisfaction with Falwell’s leadership then. But even so, the protests that they would put on, you know, on a campus of 15000 would be maybe a couple dozen students. That’s just not the the lever that they reached to to try to enact change. It’s much more about personal conversations. There’s there’s also a lot of talk at liberty, a lot of reinforcement from the top about if you have an issue with someone, you go to them directly and that’s biblical.

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S14: But it also can be used as a way of squashing dissent.

S5: This interesting debate sort of played out over the course of your writing about Coronavirus and Liberty University students you spoke to seemed to kind of disagree about the motivations of Jerry Falwell, Junior. Like one student said, look at this guy. Like he went to University of Virginia Law School. He’s smart. He knows what he’s doing. You know, when he was denying the coronavirus, this is sort of a political move. And then another student was like, you know, I just wonder if he’s just sort of a chain email guy like my dad. I wondered where you came down, having spoken to Jerry Falwell and having done all this reporting, whether you felt like you understood what was going on any better.

S4: If I could understand the mind of Jerry Falwell, Junior, I don’t know. Would it be a wise woman? I I don’t know. I mean, the problem is that I strongly agree that he’s not dumb. He’s very savvy. He’s educated. He’s a college president. He’s like moving in education circles in D.C. Like he’s just not. I don’t think I really, really don’t think he’s done. So that leaves you with the idea that he must have been able to understand the public health warnings early and that he still was running his institution this way and being so dismissive rhetorically in public, you know. Is that just to score a political point, even though he could clearly see the path of this virus? I mean, that that would be so abominable that and then you run up again and then it’s like, is he that abominable? And that’s just like a. I don’t know his mind.

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S11: So that’s a matter of almost moral judgment, like where you fall on that, because it would be so abhorrent to be able to clearly see the virus as danger and still not just reopen campus in this limited way, but also really minimize it when you know that you’re a public waste that people listen to and take seriously. So I guess the answer is I I don’t know. But I don’t think either of those answers are flattering to him.

S15: Ruth Graham, thank you so much for talking to me. Thank you, Mary.

S16: Ruth Graham covers religion, politics and so much more for Slate. And that’s the show we’ve been hearing from all of you about how you’re getting through right now.

S17: Hey, Mary. This is fast. I am calling from Michigan outside of Detroit. Actually, we just moved. We’re a blended family and we took this opportunity to move in all together. So we have in our house right now a 21 year old and 18 year old and a six year old. And let me tell you that your old is making huge funds of funds for the 18 and 21 were learning to be young and gotten. You get some great perspective of how to only see the good in a day. So we are doing lots of dancing, lots of games, lots of puzzles.

S16: Beth, as a parent who is figuring out how to juggle an 11 year old and a 5 year old. Thank you for the inspiration. We want to hear from you, too, about how you’re coping. Give us a ring, especially if you are seeing something you think could be a story. You can find us at 2 0 2 8 8 8 2 5 8 8. Or just tweet me. I’m at Mary’s desk. What next? Is produced heroically.

S1: Each and Every Day by Jason De Leon, Marra Silvers, Mary Wilson and Danielle Hewett. I’m Mary Harris. Catch you back here on Monday.