Jerry Falwell Jr., We Never Knew You

Jerry Falwell Jr., We Never Knew You September 7, 2020

Not that the former president of Liberty University didn’t make for some titillating headlines, but the attention that evangelical scholars and journalists have given to Jerry Falwell, Jr. has been — how to put it — excessive. The Protestants with whom I commune in the Presbyterian and Reformed world never put much energy into following Falwell. Nor did we pay much attention to the fortunes of Liberty under his leadership. I am sure conservative Presbyterians attend Liberty, but many more go to denominational colleges and universities such as Covenant in Tennessee, Geneva in Pennsylvania, Dort in Iowa, and Calvin in Michigan. Presbyterian parents make decisions about higher education for all sorts of reasons — costs probably as high as religious mission — but Liberty has not been an obvious choice for folks who take their theology from the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity. Throw in that Falwell, Jr. does not write books and does not preach on the radio. That means more conservative Reformed Protestants hear Joel Osteen than Falwell.

So why is it that so many historians and journalists have followed Falwell’s every move of late? It feels like evangelical elites go out of their way to show disapproval of Falwell so that outsiders don’t confuse them with the man and his brand of evangelicalism. Comments have appeared before about punching up and punching down and the etiquette of comedians that it is okay to mock those above you in status, but wrong to do the same with people below. What I can’t figure is whether Falwell while still president of Liberty was above or below his professional critics. Certainly, he had more access to power by his associations with President Trump. But it’s also the case that most of the criticisms of Falwell indicated that he was an inferior sort of Protestant.

What is curious as well is that Falwell’s most vociferous critics of late did not start to pay attention to him until Trump became president even though the son of the famous Jerry Falwell became president of Liberty in 2007.

For instance, John Fea first wrote about Falwell (and he goes on for 13 pages of posts) in 2015 when Liberty’s president made remarks about guns and protecting university students:

Liberty University likes to boast that it is the largest Christian university in the United States. Thousands of evangelical Christian young people attend the Lynchburg school. . . . Today the Wheaton Record, the college’s student newspaper, is running an “open letter” condemning Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent remarks about guns on campus (Get up to speed here). The open letter was covered by the Chicago Tribune.

It took Chris Gehrz until 2017 to comment on Falwell (his posts extend to two pages) and the Bethel University historian feared what the Liberty University president’s work for the Trump administration would do to other evangelical colleges:

On Tuesday Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he’s been asked by the Trump administration to head up a task force recommending higher ed policy changes for the Department of Education. (In late November Falwell had told the Associated Press that he turned down the Secretary of Education position itself, preferring to stay at Liberty.) I can only imagine how satisfying a moment this must be for Falwell, who was the most vocal backer of the Trump candidacy in the world of evangelical higher education — and received plenty of criticism (even from students and a trustee at Liberty) for staking out that position. Already the leader of the country’s largest, wealthiest Christian university, Falwell is now in a position to pursue a deregulation of higher ed that will likely benefit his own school enormously.

Once upon a time, way back in 2009, Christianity Today covered the succession of Falwell sons at Liberty and Thomas Road Baptist Church as if it were a straight news story and as if Jerry Falwell, Jr. were a responsible administrator trying to do the best for his institution. The article portrayed the son as the one who had to overcome financial mismanagement of his father:

“In those nightmarish years, we issued checks on Friday and wondered how in the world they would he covered,” he says. “My job was fighting all those creditors. Because of that, I am more fiscally conservative than I should be.” During that stretch, Jerry Jr. also helped develop much of the commercial real estate near campus, selling his business interests before becoming chancellor in 2007.

“Almost singlehandedly, Jerry Jr. Is the man who paved the way for big-box discounters like Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club to move into town, most of whom have dropped anchor along Wards Road next to the Liberty campus,” writes Dirk Smillie in Falwell Inc.: Inside a Religious, Political, Educational, and Business Empire. “It was not the city’, but Jerry Jr. who lured them with Liberty’s growing student and faculty population and with good deals on land alongside roads bordering Liberty.”

Every month since Falwell’s death, Liberty’s cash on hand has grown, with 2008 and 2009 its two strongest years of giving. These days, new contributions are slated for capital improvement projects rather than for covering salaries. Jerry Jr.’s office displays huge aerial photos of the campus and its surroundings, thousands of acres of school-owned land for future development.

“I don’t want Liberty to grow again until we’re sure we can properly handle it without sacrificing spiritually or academically,” he says.

For now. Liberty is in such good financial shape that students are being granted a $540 tuition break this fall from the $16.532 rate published in the catalog. In 2008-09, the tuition for the 111 member schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (of which LU is not a member) averaged $18,577.

“Jerry Sr. had a passion for growth,” says Ronald E. Hawkins, 67, vice president for Liberty’s graduate school and online programs. “Jerry Jr. has a passion for paced growth, with attention to quality.” “The growth we are experiencing right now is not typical in academia,” Parker says. “We don’t know how economics will affect us in the long run. After years of being in firehouse mode, we have a deliberate maintenance plan for refurbishing buildings and updating technology.”

The article, “Liberty Unbound,” by John W. Kennedy, appeared in the September 2009 issue of Christianity Today. It is worth reading, even surprising.

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