The largest Christian university in the world should not be led by a person who’s controversial because of his antics. It’s one thing to be controversial due to conviction or controversial due to moral stances which cut against the grain of society.
But Jerry Falwell, Jr’s controversies largely stem from his antics. This week, Falwell posted a photo on his Instagram of him and a woman (who he later said is his wife’s assistant) at a yacht party. In the photo – which was later deleted – Falwell has his arm around the woman, both have their shirts lifted above their stomachs, and show their pants unzipped. Along with the photo, Falwell included the caption: “Lots of good friends visited us on the yacht. I promise that’s just black water in my glass. It was a prop only.”
The following day, Falwell explained the photo in a slurred radio interview where he said: “She’s pregnant so she couldn’t get her — she couldn’t get her pants up,” he said. “And I was like, trying to like — my — I had on pair of jeans that I hadn’t worn in a long time so I couldn’t get mine zipped either. And so — and so — I just put my belly — I just put my belly out like hers.” Falwell said that he was “gonna try to be a good boy.”
Everything about that situation looks bad. And his explanation didn’t do him any favors. “I’m gonna try to be a good boy?” You’re the president of the largest Christian University on earth and a 58 year old man. Also, in the photo when he says “I promise it’s just black water?” That sounds like an excuse an underage drinker would make when getting caught.
Appearances matter. Being above reproach matters. Falwell failed on both fronts with that photo. Video from the yacht party also emerged showing people in a themed party based off of the Canadian television series “Trailer Park Boys.”
Today, Liberty announced that Falwell will be taking an indefinite leave of absence, effective immediately. It’s a decision which is long overdo. It’s a microcosm of a larger problem in evangelical Christianity where organizations and churches fail to hold influential leaders accountable.
If a student at Liberty had done what Falwell did, they would face disciplinary action. For Falwell, the standard for his conduct should be higher, not lower, than for his students.
And again, it’s not an isolated incident. In May, Falwell Tweeted a picture of a custom surgical face mask which displayed the image of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in a racially insensitive photo from his medical school yearbook. Falwell said that it was in protest to budget cuts for higher education made by Northam. Thousands called for Falwell to apologize and resign.
He eventually did apologize. Kind of. Although his Instagram account still features a link in the bio section to a Breitbart story which paints Falwell as the victim in that story.
Last year, there were photos which emerged of photo and his family at a Miami nightclub. Not the worst thing in the world (although not a great look for the president of a major Christian University, either). But Falwell vehemently denied the photos and said they were photoshopped, which prompted a response from the photographer who had taken the photos.
Last October, there was a bizarre settlement involving a business deal gone awry.
On social media, there are numerous occasions where Falwell has called people “stupid” and “idiot.”
I appreciate Liberty University. But they deserve better. Standards and accountability matter. I’ve written about numerous influential pastors who have been fired or resigned due to misconduct. And so often, I feel like those situations could have been averted had their respective boards held leaders accountable in the beginning. And we see it here with Falwell. His board has allowed him to run wild time and again. And each time, it further diminishes the institution.