As president and chancellor of the country’s largest Christian university and the son of one of the founding fathers of the religious right, Jerry Falwell Jr. has come to serve as a stand-in for American evangelicals. But to those inside the Liberty University community, Falwell’s leading role has lately seemed more like a liability than an asset. On Friday, the executive committee of the school’s board announced that Falwell will take an indefinite leave of absence.
Alumni feel “they have to hide their association with Liberty,” Colby Garman, a pastor who graduated from Liberty and serves on the board of Virginia’s Southern Baptist Convention, told me by phone Friday night. “A lot of pastors feel that way, a little bit, when it comes to the leadership of the school.” (Falwell did not reply to my request for an interview.)
What finally pushed Liberty’s leaders to act was their belief that Falwell had openly flaunted immoral behavior: He posted, and then deleted, an image of himself on a yacht, his arm around the waist of a young woman who was not his wife. Both of their pants were partially unzipped, and a glass of what looked like alcohol—which he called “black water” in his caption—was in Falwell’s hand. Later, in an interview with a local radio station in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Liberty is located, Falwell explained that the woman works as an assistant to his wife. He laughed the incident off: “I promised my kids I’m going to try to be a good boy from here on out,” he said. But alumni and staff who had previously expressed their concerns about Falwell in private began openly calling for his resignation, including Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina; many of them noted that any number of Falwell’s actions would have gotten a Liberty student written up.