After Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Departure, Liberty University Faces Questions About Faith, Power, and Accountability

Photo: Washington Post Photo By Julia Rendleman.

Liberty University students watched their first all-school convocation of the semester one day after their high-profile president, Jerry Falwell Jr., resigned amid personal scandals.

Falwell has been “an inspiration,” said Jerry Prevo, a powerful, fundamentalist pastor from Alaska serving as acting president. He told students that Liberty’s leaders are committed to the spiritual mission of the university. He also said Falwell had been the “builder of this great campus, which all of us can be proud of.”

Then Jonathan Falwell, pastor of the Liberty-affiliated Thomas Road Baptist Church, spoke. He did not mention his brother by name. But he told his audience, in Lynchburg, Va., and around the globe: “So many times we see Christians that are more focused on building their own brand than they are about building the kingdom of God.”

There are a lot of universities out there, Jonathan Falwell said, but Liberty is different: It was built to change the world with the gospel. He urged students to be faithful, trust God and avoid temptation.

Some students who heard the two men said the convocation highlighted a key tension at their school. They felt that Prevo was elevating the former president because of his transformation of the university and that Jonathan Falwell was elevating the Christian values they shared.

“I thought Jonathan Falwell, without being too explicit about it . . . he definitely kind of took Jerry to task,” said Eli Best, a junior from Alexandria, Va. “But he did it in a way that took us all to task. It was very relevant.”

Fallwell Jr.’s departure leaves Liberty at a turning point: Will the school continue its huge success as measured by the school’s size, assets and political clout? Or will it return to the more rigorously religious priority of its revered televangelist founder, Jerry Falwell Sr.?

The question resonates far beyond campus. Some experts say it speaks to a challenge for religious schools as they seek to balance a highly competitive marketplace with their core values.

“It’s hard to overstate how significant and influential Liberty is,” said Ed Stetzer, who runs the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. “It’s so large and so engaged in the conversations of our day.”

David French, a prominent evangelical writer and lawyer, said the choices Liberty makes “will say a lot about the evangelical movement more broadly.”

“Liberty is trying to define what it means to educate Christian young people in the United States,” he said. “So it matters.”

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Liberty was founded in 1971 as a small college with a clear mission: ″Training Champions for Christ.” At the convocation Wednesday, Jonathan Falwell shared his memory of watching as a small child as his father walked through the tall grass of a field, praying God would give them land for a university that could change the world.

In its early years, the school had a strict a dress code, a ban on R-rated movies and convocation three times a week. The ties with Thomas Road Baptist Church, also founded by Falwell, Sr., were tight. So were finances: In the 1990s, Liberty owed as much as $100 million. At times, faculty went unpaid.

But Liberty has changed. It is not just its sheer growth – the school now has 85,000 students. After Falwell Sr. died in 2007, his lawyer-developer son took charge and oversaw the explosion of Liberty’s online program, a dramatic improvement in its finances, a Division I football team and a massive construction boom that beautified the campus. Falwell Jr. also offered a presidential endorsement in 2016 that recently has associated Liberty more in the public mind with Donald Trump and Republican politics than with Christian values.

Convocation was held less often. And the substance changed: Speakers increasingly included business leaders, sports figures or politicians, as well as religious figures. Some of the strict rules of conduct were relaxed, especially for online students. Most visibly, the school’s president was not a pastor. Especially in recent years, he made headlines with business disputes and allegations of inappropriate behavior.

“It’s very hard to preserve those values,” said Dirk Smillie, a financial journalist who spent a good deal of time with Falwells Jr. and Sr. for his book about their family, called “Falwell, Inc.”

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Source: The Hour