It’s been a while since we’ve heard much from Jerry Falwell, Jr. (Not that anyone’s complaining.) Outside of a series of legal filings involving breaches of contract and alleged defamation, the former president of Liberty University hasn’t said much about the myriad scandals that finally brought him down.
Until today, that is, when Vanity Fair‘s Gabriel Sherman published a lengthy profile of Falwell that comes after eight months’ worth of interviews and covers all kinds of ground—far beyond the salacious sex stories and hypocritical behavior.
A litany of Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s scandals
In case you need a refresher: Falwell took the reins of Liberty from his father and built the school into a premier destination for talented athletes, a mandatory stop for Republican office-seekers, and an online learning powerhouse. It didn’t seem to matter that many of those athletes had to deal with racism on campus, or that the Republicans courting the evangelical vote clearly weren’t knowledgeable about the Bible, or that the online classes often left students in unaffordable (and unexpected) debt.
All of that began collapsing after a series of bizarre events that involved Falwell posting a picture of himself with his fly unzipped and belly out, “liking” photos of younger women in not-so-Christian poses, posting a racist tweet in response to the governor of Virginia mandating face masks in public spaces, calling a parent “dummy” for asking why Liberty was reopening during the COVID crisis, censoring the school’s own journalists, and falling down the stairs because he got hammered.
After his resignation, Falwell later claimed his former university was making him look bad. As if his own actions weren’t to blame for his reputation.
And that’s all before we get into the wild sex scandal that involved his wife and a pool boy… and then another sex scandal involving another Liberty University student. As you may have read in jaw-dropping articles or heard on any number of narrative podcasts, Falwell and his wife Becki met pool boy Giancarlo Granda while on vacation in 2012. Granda, the story went, began sleeping with Becki with Jerry’s approval—sometimes, Falwell was even in the room watching. The affair came to involve sexual text messages, topless photos, and videos. (Assuming everything was consensual, all of this was only “scandalous” because Liberty U. has strict rules for students that forbid any kind of sexual touch between unmarried people. Falwell was therefore engaging in sexual acts that would get him expelled from the university he ran… at least if the rules ever applied to him.) Along the way, Falwell began a business relationship with Granda, investing millions of dollars into a Miami hostel in a seedy part of town.
What Jerry and Becki Falwell are saying today
That’s the backdrop to this bombshell of a story in Vanity Fair today, in which the Falwells are clearly trying to get their version of the story out there and make themselves look like hapless victims in a story much bigger than themselves.
“It’s almost like I didn’t have a choice.” [Falwell] 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.
Falwell is still a Christian. It’s not like he’s jumping ship. But he’s far from a conservative Christian who wants to lead revivals; he’ll leave all that to his brother Jonathan. He’s more like a guy from a prominent family who realized Christianity was good for business. Those who have followed his career over the years won’t be surprised by that, but it’s telling that Falwell is finally admitting what the rest of us always knew: Christianity was never the end goal. It was just a means to an end.
What about Becki Falwell? Why did she agree to participate in this long-game charade? Part of it, she says, stems from her own conservative Christian upbringing. When she became “First Lady” of Liberty, and began working out and dressing fashionably to play the part, it was the first time in her life that she was the center of attention—and she liked it.
It was even more confusing for Becki when she walked around Liberty’s campus and noticed boys noticing her. “They would give me attention that I’d never gotten before,” Becki said. In February 2012, Becki turned 45. She and Jerry had been married for 25 years. They had three children between the ages of 12 and 23. She couldn’t suppress the nagging feeling that, having wed young, she had missed an entire chapter of adulthood. “I didn’t have a college life,” she said as she recalled the circumstances that led to what she called “the biggest regret I’ve ever had.”
That regret was the affair with Granda. (The article doesn’t mention a different alleged affair she had in 2008 with a Liberty student in her son’s band.) Still, those comments suggest that there’s something wrong with fundamentalist Christian culture that promotes abstinence-only sex education and the idea that all things sexual must be reserved only for cis-gender straight couples after marriage. Neither Falwell says anything critical of that repressive system, though they realized on their own that sexual freedom was worth exploring.
Becki Falwell also claims that, in 2018, the last time she saw Granda at the family’s farm, Granda pressured her into having sex. To use a term that’s more blunt, she claims to be the victim of sexual assault:
… Becki said the next thing she knew, Granda pushed her onto the bed. They hadn’t slept together since 2014, she said, and she didn’t want to start again. “He said he wanted to have sex and I said, ‘No, no, no,’ ” Becki recalled. Jerry was in the shower down the hall and couldn’t hear what was happening. Becki said Granda kept pressuring her. “I kept saying no. I didn’t want to do it. But I was scared to death of him too, because he was still holding everything over me, so we had sex.” Becki said it was over quickly. “He left and I went into the room and just cried.” (Granda declined to comment.)
It was only after that incident that the two sides began fighting over their business dealings and Granda went public with his side of the story, leading to Falwell’s eventual resignation. Granda didn’t respond to those allegations in the Vanity Fair article, telling Sherman he would soon be telling his side of the story in a book.
While the alleged assault is certainly troubling if true, none of it negates the Falwells’ hypocritical behavior. They spent decades using Christianity as a tool to hoard power and become wealthy. Even if Granda never came into the picture, they would still be moral monsters. Just listen to Jerry Falwell, Jr. defending his behavior to Sherman as he talks about being unfairly pushed out of Liberty:
… Jerry said the board held him to an unfair standard. Jerry’s reasoning is that he was a university president, not a pastor. His brother, Jonathan, who preached every Sunday at their father’s church, was the pious one. “Liberty never had any rules for whether the president or any staff member could drink alcohol,” Jerry said, sounding like the lawyer he was trained to be. I told him the argument sounded like an extreme case of rationalization given that he was the leader of a school that fines female students for wearing a dress more than two inches above the knee. But Jerry said the current leadership has also broken rules—and that some school leaders drank alcohol…
Falwell doesn’t want to be held to higher standards despite running a school whose supposedly high moral standards are part of its marketing. If others can break some rules, he argues, he can break even more.
If there’s any good news to take away from this story, it’s that even conservative Christians have soured on the Falwells and there’s no indication he’s plotting a comeback. Unlike other fallen Christian leaders, he’s not even pretending to spend a few years in isolation reading the Bible so he can return to his former glory. If anything, he says now against organized religion and the right-wing Christian movement, though he still believes in Jesus.
That said, he’s still living in Lynchburg with no intention to move elsewhere. You know he has the money to do it if he wants to. And given his past, no one should make the mistake of thinking he’ll just quietly fade away. Someone that addicted to power can’t handle being out of the spotlight forever.