It took nearly two weeks for Jerry Falwell Jr. to delete and apologize for tweeting out a racist image in May, when he was still serving as Liberty University’s president. School leadership didn’t dole out any lasting punishment as a result of that tweet.
But when Liberty’s trustees heard there was a possibility that Falwell had been sexually promiscuous, their response was swift and decisive. Falwell’s hold on the university ― which had previously seemed unbreakable ― crumbled in a matter of days.
Former members of Liberty’s community have taken note of how quickly the institution reacted after learning that Falwell may have deviated from conservative Christian norms about sexual purity. In the end, it wasn’t the allegations of racism, Islamophobia, nepotism, bullying or the numerous other controversies that swirled around Falwell for years that awakened the board to action. It was the sex stuff.
“I honestly feel disrespected,” said Keyvon Scott, a Black Liberty graduate and former online admissions counselor for the school.
“It took all of this to come out for you to have him resign,” Scott said. “I’m just baffled about it.”
Scott told HuffPost he lost faith in Falwell’s leadership a long time ago, back when Falwell started supporting President Donald Trump in a way that Scott felt was divisive and placed Trump “above God.” The racist tweet was the last straw. Scott believed the university should have pushed the leader out after that tweet and ultimately resigned in protest.
“As a student and former employee, I couldn’t keep telling Black, Spanish, Asian students and others to, ‘Come to Liberty, it’s so good,’ when it’s really not,” he said.
Falwell’s departure from Liberty University, which he confirmed on Tuesday, came after years of growing dissatisfaction with his leadership among some students and staff. After taking over the reins at Liberty in 2007, Falwell helped transform the university founded by his famous televangelist father by investing in its football team, expanding its campus, building an extensive online learning program, and increasing enrollment to over 100,000 students.
Save71, an alumni group that pressed for his removal, has compiled a list of over 80 controversies Falwell had been entangled in over the past five years ― things like defending Trump after the president said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a white supremacist rally and counterprotest in Charlottesville, Virginia, pursuing business deals that benefited his friends and family, and promoting conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19.
Former students and staff reported a “culture of fear” at the university, claiming that Falwell silenced those who criticized him or his support for Trump. He called one parent a “dummy” on Twitter for questioning his approach to the pandemic. Fellow evangelical leaders weren’t safe from his scorn. When Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore decried the conditions the Trump administration had created for migrant children at the border, Falwell responded on Twitter by belittling Moore’s credentials.
Falwell had also nurtured Liberty’s profile as a platform for conservative politicians. Last December, Falwell teamed up with conservative activist Charlie Kirk to create a conservative think tank at the university that seeks to defend “traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs” against the “creeds of secularism.” One of the main reasons for the center’s formation was to challenge the idea that Jesus would have supported Democrats’ efforts to increase government aid to the poor. The center has also published articles condemning the Black Lives Matter movement, deriding calls to take down statues of American leaders who held racist views, and criticizing The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which seeks to investigate America’s legacy of slavery.
Falwell claims his May 27 tweet featuring racist imagery was meant to mock a mask-wearing requirement issued by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat. Falwell’s tweet included a photo of a face mask customized to show an image of two men ― one in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. The photo appeared in Northam’s medical school yearbook.
After Falwell’s tweet, a group of 35 Black Liberty alumni published a statement suggesting that the evangelical leader step down because he had “repeatedly violated and misrepresented” Christian principles.
“You have belittled staff, students and parents, you have defended inappropriate behaviors of politicians, encouraged violence, and disrespected people of other faiths,” the alumni group wrote.
But even after Falwell admitted that his attempt at political satire had caused pain for Black members of Liberty’s community, the school’s board of trustees continued to vouch for him. The trustees said they were “satisfied” with Falwell’s explanations about the purpose of the tweet and insisted that they “know him not to be a racist.”
What did ultimately cross the line for the board was the possibility that Falwell had acted in ways that contradicted its standards on sexual morality. Just five days after Falwell posted and deleted a provocative Instagram image of himself with his arms around a young woman ― both with their pants unzipped and bellies exposed ― the board’s executive committee placed Falwell on an indefinite leave of absence. And on the same day that Reuters published a report claiming that Falwell looked on while his wife had sex with another man, Liberty’s leaders asked Falwell to officially resign. (Falwell has claimed he “was not involved” in his wife’s affair).
Dustin Wahl, co-founder of Save71, said that the trustees, who are all close allies of the Falwells, were part of the problem. The board was only moved to act after powerful members of Liberty’s network called for Falwell to step down over the Instagram post ― including Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a former Liberty instructor.
“[The photo] generated more controversy than the years of racist comments that Falwell has said and the hateful things that Falwell has done. The board seems to give more importance to this, and Liberty’s community is more upset by this embarrassing photo,” Wahl said. “Which is pathetic and shows that their priorities are completely in the wrong place.”
Wahl said he and his group believe the board isn’t qualified to find Falwell’s replacement, and that its members need to apologize for abdicating their “moral and fiduciary responsibilities.”
Liberty University did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
The Reuters report was probably particularly hard for Liberty’s leadership to ignore, according to Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania. Evangelicals already have established ways of thinking about heterosexual sex, same-sex relationships and adultery, she said. But this was something else entirely.
“It’s like a whole other level of sex that evangelicals aren’t even supposed to know about,” she said. “It’s not in their sexual pantheon of things.”
“Racism was not a problem for them, that’s clear,” she said of the board. “But this is.”
Liberty University and many other evangelical institutions and churches emerged from a fundamentalist movement in the 20th century that treated sexual purity as an important marker of Christian faith, according to John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah University. The movement placed an emphasis on personal holiness and marital fidelity.
“Historically, evangelicals have always believed that sexual purity is the most important moral issue. Individual acts of racism or nativism, failing to call out lies in public officials, or treating others in a way that degrades their human dignity may be sinful, but they can be overlooked,” Fea said via email. “Adultery or sexual promiscuity cannot be overlooked.”
LeeQuan McLaurin, a Black Liberty graduate, is another former staffer who resigned from his job at the university after the blackface tweet. For McLaurin, the tweet was the culmination of years of frustration with how the university dealt with race issues. While working as a director of diversity retention at Liberty’s office of equity and inclusion, McLaurin claims he faced censorship from higher-ups when he tried to post a message on his office’s social media account this year stating that Black Lives Matter.
McLaurin told HuffPost he’s “disappointed and frustrated, but not shocked” about the fact that the blackface tweet wasn’t enough to topple Falwell.
“The board and leadership at Liberty only care about things that will cost them money. Their base doesn’t care about racism, xenophobia or ethical misconduct. In a lot of ways they have OK’d that behavior in their circles with their silence or selective extensions of ‘grace,’ Jerry being a prime example,” he said via email. “However, sexual morality has always been at the forefront of the values that conservatives and evangelicals champion.”
“They have long let us know that they don’t care about the issues faced by Black and Brown people both on their campus and within our nation,” McLaurin added. “This is just further confirmation of it.”