On the morning of August 18, 2021, Liberty University’s freshman class began arriving on campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, for the start of Welcome Week. The kickoff to the fall semester had the exuberance of a pregame pep rally. An outdoor sound system blasted Gary Glitter’s glam rock anthem “Rock and Roll Part II.” Student greeters in navy Liberty T-shirts whooped and cheered when a new arrival’s car pulled up to the dorms. Buildings all over the Jeffersonian-style campus were festooned with banners that read: “Liberty University: 50 Years of Training Champions for Christ.”
For 49 of those years, a member of the Falwell family had run Liberty, the country’s most influential evangelical university. But the day before orientation started, Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of the late televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. and the school’s president and chancellor from 2007 to 2020, was nowhere near campus. He was driving a white Jeep Wrangler along a dirt road on his 500-acre farm about 20 miles west of Lynchburg. “That’s the tallest mountain in Virginia,” he said, pointing at the Appalachian peaks rising in the distance. Ahead of us, black Angus cattle grazed in fenced pastures. At the edge of the property stood a 19th-century chapel no larger than a one-room schoolhouse. “Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant both worshipped in that church on different days,” Falwell said in his laconic drawl.
It was the first time I met Falwell in person. Behind the wheel, the 59-year-old looked like a prosperous country lawyer turned gentleman farmer. He was dressed in a lavender polo, dark jeans, and chestnut-brown leather sneakers. He had neatly parted silver hair and a trim silver beard on his round face. His wolflike ice-blue eyes were the only visible signs of the feral personality that had recently cost him his job and reputation.
On August 24, 2020, Falwell resigned from Liberty in the wake of a sensational tabloid scandal that could have been dreamed up in the writers’ room of The Righteous Gemstones. A former Miami pool boy named Giancarlo Granda claimed he had a nearly seven-year affair with Falwell’s wife, Becki—and that Falwell often liked to watch them have sex. Granda went on a national media tour—he gave interviews to ABC News, CNN, Reuters, Politico, and The Washington Post—and said the Falwells began “grooming” him when he was 20 and bought his silence with luxury vacations, rides on Liberty’s private jet, and an ownership stake managing a Miami Beach hostel. To bolster his claims, Granda released screenshots of Facetime calls and text conversations with Becki (“I’m not wearing any panties,” she allegedly wrote Granda in one message). Falwell released a statement that acknowledged Becki and Granda’s relationship, but he vehemently denied watching the trysts. Instead, Falwell said he was the real victim of a “Fatal Attraction–type” extortion plot after Granda demanded $2 million to keep the affair secret.
Viewed in hindsight, the scandal was the combustion of a self-immolating fire that Falwell had been stoking for months, if not years. Liberty had spent the better part of 2020 lurching from one PR crisis to the next brought on by Falwell’s boorish and reckless behavior, his race baiting, COVID-19 denials, and slavish devotion to Donald Trump. Two days after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Falwell tweeted a picture of a COVID mask that showed a man in blackface posing with a man in a KKK hood. In early August 2020, Falwell posted a photo on Instagram of himself aboard a yacht with his pants unzipped, a drink in one hand, and his other arm wrapped around a pregnant Liberty employee with her belly exposed. The controversies turned Falwell into an avatar of the rank hypocrisy, know-nothingism, and toxic masculinity that explained why 81 percent of white evangelical Christians voted in 2016 for Trump, a thrice-married reality TV star who literally boasted of grabbing women by the pussy.
The day Falwell resigned from Liberty, he gave an interview to his local NPR station and invoked the peroration of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, I’m free at last!” Falwell said. He offered no other explanation for his spectacular meltdown. People inside and outside Liberty were left asking what had caused Falwell, a married father of three, to completely self-destruct in public. He was a University of Virginia–trained lawyer and successful real estate developer. He rescued Liberty from near bankruptcy and transformed the nonprofit university into a financial powerhouse with more than 100,000 students and a $1.7 billion endowment. Over the course of a few months, he blew it all up. Why? I had gone to the farm to find out.
After giving me the tour, Falwell parked in front of a handsome farmhouse. Becki was waiting at the front door in jeans, sandals, and a black T-shirt that matched her long raven hair. She apologized about the exercise bike sitting incongruously in the foyer.
“I tried riding it but it killed my butt because the seat is slanted,” she said as we entered.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do with it,” Falwell complained.
Becki told him to drag it to the garage and disappeared down the hall. I found her on the patio checking on their golden retriever Sandy, who was patiently nursing a litter of four-week-old puppies. The father, a shaggy eight-year-old named Chance, dozed on the floor. “He’s an old lazy man,” Becki said.
A short while later, the Falwells sat in the kitchen and began to talk about the tumultuous events of the past two years. The wide-ranging conversation was one of many we had over the past eight months. What emerged was an intimate look inside a very public marriage as well as a Shakespearean drama about fathers and sons and the burden of legacy. For the first time, Falwell opened up about his true spiritual beliefs and how they diverge from those of his infamous father, who cofounded the Moral Majority and waged a scorched-earth cultural war for four decades. When I told Falwell that many people thought he, consciously or not, wanted to destroy himself, he considered it for a moment.
“Subconsciously, yeah, I believe that’s true,” he said, nodding. “It’s almost like I didn’t have a choice.” He went on: “Because of my last name, people think I’m a religious person. But I’m not. My goal was to make them realize I was not my dad.”
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Source: Vanity Fair