The concluding assertion in Liberty University’s Statement of Mission and Purpose says this:
Liberty University will… Encourage a commitment to the Christian life, one of personal integrity, sensitivity to the needs of others, social responsibility and active communication of the Christian faith, and, as it is lived out, a life that leads people to Jesus Christ as the Lord of the universe and their own personal Savior.
This week Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., posted a picture on his Instagram account that went viral despite a quick deletion. The woman his arm is wrapped around is not his wife.
This picture, and the bizarre radio interview defending and half-heartedly apologizing for it, are merely the latest instances in a pattern of behavior from Falwell that demonstrate consistent disregard for fulfilling the stated purpose of Liberty University. Falwell behaves as if his personal life need not bear any resemblance to the lives Liberty University states it desires to produce.
And he’s right.
Falwell’s early endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016 and Trump’s subsequent electoral victory have innoculated him from the frequent criticism offered by other evangelicals. His clashes with them produce entertaining gossip, but have no effect on his position at Liberty.
After all, President Trump remains enormously popular with Liberty’s primary constituency, Evangelical Christians. And Falwell remains popular with President Trump. So long as Falwell remains in good national political standing, his position at Liberty will be unaffected by intemperate personal behavior.
Which is why news organizations identify Mark Walker primarily as a “Top GOP Lawmaker” when reporting on his call for Falwell’s resignation this week.
Walker is a former pastor, and he highlights his close involvement with Liberty in making his appeal. For a biblically-oriented Christian organization, those roles would be hugely important. But it is his political position, vice chair of the House Republican Conference, that publications like Politico prioritize when discussing the statement, and they are correct to do so. Because his political role is the only role that matters.
Falwell’s position is strictly a political one. He is neither particularly godly nor particularly spiritual. He gained his position due to his kinship with the founder, his father and namesake. He maintains his position due to his influence with a politician, the President of the United States. His social media accounts promote political causes rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His personal behavior is consistent with that of a godless power-broker rather than a spiritual leader.
Because that is what he is. And that is what Liberty wants. We know that because they choose to support Falwell in his position.
As long as Liberty prioritizes power over godliness, Falwell’s position is secure.
90 minutes after this post went live, Liberty University took care of business.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Evangelicalism has a long-running pattern of prominent figures being exposed for sins more serious than the ones Falwell has been associated with, disappearing for six months or a year, and then resurfacing in prominent roles. This may be the setback Falwell needs to reflect on his private and public lives and genuinely repent; it may also simply give Liberty a cooling-off period to escape scrutiny. Falwell has not been dismissed, so a quiet return at a later date seems likely.
One area that bears watching in the next few days is the Twitter timeline of President Trump. One sharp tweet from him could plunge the University into chaos, and would seriously test the courage of the remaining leadership.
Hopefully this will allow Liberty to re-orient itself toward the purpose it claims to hold, but that remains to be seen. And, perhaps, Falwell may even change and grow from this experience. One may rightly argue that a move like this should have happened earlier. But it is inarguable that it is important that it happens now.
Good for them.