Poor Jerry Falwell must be rolling in his grave right now. What would he make of his eldest son, namesake and heir to his billion-dollar ministry and Liberty University having to step aside over a carnal and tawdry tryst?
Steamy indeed — leaving the Lynchburg, Virginia-based evangelical church, university and movement reeling and in need of deep soul searching just when it aimed to exert some hefty right-wing clout in November’s US presidential election.
If there is some saving grace for Jerry Falwell Jr in stepping aside as president of Liberty University earlier this week, a total of $10.5 million in payouts to him should certainly test the patience and charitableness of the church and its elders. Better to give and not count the cost, as one Christian prayer goes.
Falwell was an early and ardent supporter of Trump — a backing that was unsettling given the then candidate’s propensity for philandering and rather flexible moral compass
The payments are all part of his severance package and, because he has left without being formally accused of any wrongdoing, the 58-year-old former attorney is exercising his right to take the money and run.
He technically resigned on Tuesday, just a day after reports surfaced that he and his wife took part in a longtime sexual relationship with a former hotel pool attendant.
Liberty University accepted Falwell’s resignation, effective immediately. By Wednesday, in researching his biography for this article, his profile had already been removed from the university’s home page.
Falwell’s departure from the university his late father founded came after a tumultuous 24 hours filled with conflicting reports about his fate. Ultimately, the latest sex scandal was one too many — and so too the threats to Liberty’s $1.6 billion in annual endowments from like- and right-minded benefactors.
If Falwell’s departure represents a clean break, his tenure as president of Liberty University, the institution he literally inherited from his reverend father, left lines blurred — particularly when it came to finances. Falwell Sr., a man who was one of the more prominent evangelical preachers that included Billy Graham, was a formative figure in pressing the evangelical Christian agenda in the US and embedding its morality into the Republican party.
By blending biblical teachings with their own personal Christian agendas, they built wealthy congregations and millions of loyal viewers who donated liberally while watching conservative Christian channels from their sofas.
Relationship between state and church
Four decades ago, when Ronald Reagan was making his first successful bid for the White House, he harnessed the political potency of the evangelicals — a relationship between state and church leaders that has become increasingly complex and critical.
Under the leadership of the younger Falwell, Liberty now boasts more than $3 billion in assets and its student debt is lower than ever.
He was flown around the country on the university’s private jet, including to Miami once a year for an annual doctor’s physical. Because it was a job requirement that he have the examination, the college paid for the flight. It remains unclear why he needed a doctor in Florida to perform it and not one in Virginia.
He lives on a sprawling farm in Cifax, Virginia, some 30 minutes from the university campus, with his wife Becki and at least some of their children and grandchildren.
Their social media accounts show idyllic photographs from the grounds, horseback riding through water or watching as the college’s ice hockey team play on a frozen lake.
Those same social media accounts show the couple’s close relationship with President Donald Trump and offered the first images of Giancarlo Granda, a pool boy they first met in 2012 when the then 20-year old was working at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel.
The salacious claims that felled Falwell stem from photos and accounts of the three engaging in various tawdry trysts — yes, turning cheeks and more — over the past eight years.
A passionate, toxic relationship
Granda showed Reuters emails, text messages and other evidence that he says demonstrate the sexual nature of his relationship with the couple, who have been married since 1987. “Becki and I developed an intimate relationship and Jerry enjoyed watching from the corner of the room,” Granda said in an interview.
Now 29, he described the liaisons as frequent — “multiple times per year” — and said the encounters took place at hotels in Miami and New York, and at the Falwells’ home in Virginia.
His friendship with the Falwells eventually soured, Granda told Reuters, in part because he wanted to dissolve his ties with the couple and fell into a business dispute with them.
Falwell Jr had batted away previous claims he used the university purse to invest in his friends’ businesses and ventures. He has always denied wrongdoing, insisting that he has acted in the best interest of the institution.
The pool boy scandal is not the first to rock the family. Last year, Falwell Jr settled a lawsuit with a different young man — Gordon Bello — who claims he had a “personal relationship” with Becki.
Separately, Falwell Jr’s relationship with a personal trainer has also come into question.
Critics complained that Falwell Jr had strayed from the Christian values his father put in place, and that Falwell Jr was using the school to boost business rather than educate religious youngsters.
“We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,” one critic noted. “We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”
Falwell was an early and ardent supporter of Trump — a backing that was unsettling given the then candidate’s propensity for philandering and rather flexible moral compass.
As the coronavirus pandemic gathered steam across the US earlier this year, Liberty University defied lockdown orders to remain open — assisting spread of the contagion despite its state belief that religious beliefs would protect the faithful. It didn’t — and Falwell was forced to oversee its temporary closure to his and Trump’s embarrassment.
With Falwell Jr now dearly departed indeed with $10.5 million in payments, Liberty’s supporters might find it hard to forget, lest forgive.