So Jerry Falwell, Jr. gave an interview in Vanity Fair this week. He was up-front in the interview that you can add him to the list of evangelical influencers who were merely financially-motivated charlatans. He says he no longer believes in organized religion and has no interest in the church. The below tweet sums the article up nicely: Falwell Jr. shows no remorse about nuking the academic credentials of the millions of Christians who put their trust (and billions of dollars) in Liberty University. Instead, he’s still the hero of his own narrative, finally choosing an authentic life away from religion.
One of my Twitter pals – a religious person who did not hail from a religious family – expressed shock at how awful this interview was. But as someone from a Roman Catholic background who went to a mainstream Baptist university, I’ve grown up in an environment where the Falwells were the butt of endless jokes for being so obviously fake (along with other televangelists). You had to hold your tongue about it in the company of some evangelicals, for sure, because challenging the faith and reputation of the Falwells is like challenging the authenticity of Trump in MAGA circles now. Their heads would explode and you’d be socially dead to them forever.
Trump was not a leading candidate in the 2016 presidential primary until Falwell, Jr. vouched for him. I listened to a podcast recently about the week that Falwell, Jr. decided to break university policy (and arguably the federal laws governing nonprofits) by endorsing Trump. A big part of the shtick was that Trump – a man who has been married three times and famously, proudly even, cheated on each of his wives – was secretly a devout Christian. Falwell, Jr. basically used his brand to launder Trump’s brand. If you move in religious circles, the divide in theological beliefs could not be any more prominent. The “good works” crowd replied with “of course Trump loves the Falwells – they are a match made in heaven.” The “faith alone” crowd was totally willing to accept Trump’s conversion, as you never know what’s in someone’s heart.
(Personally, I have no interest in opining on the state of someone else’s salvation. And at the end of the day, I think the majority of GOP voters – if not the formidable evangelical voting block – was not concerned with Trump’s religious life but by what he said he was going to accomplish.)
It’s the latter that charlatans like the Falwells find so easy to exploit, however – that you can never question the authenticity of someone’s faith. Evangelicals are no strangers to this formula. There is an entire publishing universe built to provide evangelicals with nonstop religious content. How Jesus can help you with losing weight. How Jesus can help you when you are being excluded socially. How Jesus can help you make money and get your kid straight-As. Christian books, Christian rock bands, Christian journals, Christian blogs and YouTube channels, Christian movies, Christian cartoons. If the content exists in the secular world, it has been replicated for a coin in the world of Christian publishing.
Most of this content has nothing beyond a superficial connection to Scripture. I think we can all agree that Jesus did not have an opinion on whether you fit into your skinny jeans. If anything, the message of Scripture is that you need to turn away from organizing your life around such trivial concerns and focus on developing an eternal perspective. Many folks in Christian circles have started calling this stuff “therapeutic Christianity,” where the content is basically self-help nonsense and the idea of God found within them is akin to some magical friend that wants to remove all suffering in your life and propel you toward material sources of happiness. The postmodern church demands no personal sacrifice, just money and emotion – something its postmodern idols grok.
Folks who follow the Christian publishing scene are likely very familiar with the other charlatans I have referred to. Only a few years ago, “Christian dating guru” Joshua Harris spontaneously denounced Christianity in an Instagram post, along with announcing that he was divorcing his wife (who had been the chaste object of his dating obsession). I followed his social media trail for a while to see where he ended up, and the answer is in marketing (duh). He decided to apply the skills he learned selling Christianity to help other businesses build an online following. He also apologized to the LGTBQ community for suggesting that only heterosexual couples fit the relationship model provided in Scripture.
Last year, Paul Maxwell, author of Desiring God (among other books), announced that he is an atheist. That followed Jon Steingard, the Canadian Christian rock band Hawk Nelson’s lead vocalist saying that he was no longer a Christian, and that the change “did not happen overnight.” Then former Hillsong singer and songwriter Marty Sampson posted on Instagram: “Time for some real talk … I’m genuinely losing my faith … and it doesn’t bother me.” And it seems like pretty much an entire generation of female Christian relationship gurus have decided to split from their husbands in favor of their demanding careers as Christian influencers.
The common element of all of these defections was how, after collecting their earnings, these folks spoke of their faith in such a disposable, even callous, way. It’s like they are housewives talking about those three months that they got into pitching leggings on Facebook. All their Christian followers have genuine feelings for someone who regards them in a purely transactional way. And the worldviews they were pushing probably resulted in their audiences making a lot of bad life decisions.
Anyway, Falwell’s interview is really something else, and you should read the entire thing (and, yeah, you are going to have to put up with VF’s bizarre political rants to get through it, sorry):
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.”
When you think of Jerry Falwell Sr., chances are you remember him as the Falstaffian televangelist who never refused an opportunity to say something outrageously offensive on camera. Falwell’s back catalog of homophobic, racist, and misogynistic comments is as thick as the King James Bible. In a 1958 sermon, Falwell inveighed against the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that, on paper, integrated public schools: “The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line,” Falwell said. During a 1976 service, Falwell preached: “The idea [that] religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to prevent Christians from running their own country.” In the mid-1990s, Falwell promoted The Clinton Chronicles ($43), a right-wing propaganda video that accused the Clintons of a raft of crimes up to and including murder. And days after 9/11, Falwell went on television and blamed the terrorist attacks on gays, lesbians, feminists, abortion doctors, and the ACLU. “I point the finger in their faces and say, ‘You helped this happen,’ ” Falwell said.
While Jerry Falwell Sr. was a polarizing scold in public—an “agent of intolerance,” John McCain once said—Jerry Jr. remembered his father as lenient at home. “My dad wasn’t one of those overbearing parents who tried to control their kids,” he recalled. The elder Falwell didn’t force his namesake to attend church and didn’t care that his son collected Fleetwood Mac and Beatles records at a time when Baptists called rock and roll “devil’s music.” He also didn’t object when Jerry declared at an early age that he didn’t want to spread the good word. “People would say to me, ‘We know you’re gonna be a preacher because your dad is one. I thought, That’s the last thing I want to be,” Jerry said. He even tolerated Jerry’s moderate drinking, despite preaching that alcohol was “the worst, most offensive drug in American society.” “I asked him one time, ‘Why don’t you drink? Jesus drank wine,’ ” Jerry remembered. “And he said, ‘Well, I just like to be in control. I don’t like to be drunk.’ It wasn’t because of some religious reason.” His father’s contradictions would mold Jerry’s entire life.
Jerry Falwell Jr. was born in Lynchburg on Father’s Day, 1962. He was the oldest of three children. His sister, Jeannie, was born in 1964. His brother, Jonathan, arrived in 1966. As patriarch, Falwell Sr. was the sun around which the family orbited. Naturally, his sons competed for his affection. It wasn’t Cain and Abel exactly, but the brothers’ relationship was never close. “Jonathan was just constantly copying me. Whatever I did, in a matter of time he tried to duplicate it,” Jerry told me. (Jonathan Falwell declined to comment.) It also didn’t help that the brothers’ personalities were so different. Jerry was the withdrawn, rebellious one; Jonathan, the gregarious rule follower. “The brothers just looked at each other as weird,” a family friend said.
It’s ironic that Falwell Sr. was closest with his least outwardly religious son. “My dad and I were thick as thieves. He didn’t see eye to eye with Jonathan,” Jerry said. Temperamentally, the two Jerrys clicked. They loved playing Jackass-style pranks on people. “One time, Jerry Sr. put a live baby alligator in his wife Macel’s bathtub. She nearly fainted when she found it,” recalled Mel White, Falwell Sr.’s ghostwriter. Jerry Jr. once threw roadkill into a friend’s car as it went by, causing everyone inside to scream. His favorite song for a while was Loudon Wainwright’s “Dead Skunk.” At Liberty, Falwell Sr. terrorized students by speeding his SUV through crowded crosswalks. Jerry worried his dad would eventually run someone over, so he purchased a train horn with a compressor for his dad’s SUV. Falwell Sr. loved driving around campus, blaring the deafeningly loud whistle at unsuspecting students.
Jerry’s relationship with his mother was another matter. Macel was a hard-line Baptist and unsuccessfully pushed Jerry to adopt her rigid lifestyle. “I wasn’t someone my mom could control,” Jerry said. Jerry said Jonathan became his mother’s favorite son. “She realized Jonathan was someone she could control.” Macel was thrilled when Jonathan later became a pastor.
By the 1970s, Jerry Falwell Sr. was a national celebrity due to the popularity of his television show, The Old Time Gospel Hour. Whereas Billy Graham preached a gospel of redemption, Falwell saw himself as a field marshal in a cosmic battle between God and Satan. Jerry, then a teenager, frequently traveled with his dad to the front lines of the culture war. “We’d fly around on these old DC-3s from city to city. It was like the movie Almost Famous,” he recalled. “I’d be the kid in the back of the auditorium selling my dad’s books and records to people while he preached. I would have all this money stuffed into every pocket. That was my life.”
Looking back, Jerry said that his father’s peripatetic lifestyle provided a reprieve from an oppressive marriage. “My dad wanted to travel the world as an escape,” Jerry said. He recalled that his mother’s provincial worldview grated on his father. “She wanted to live a small-town preacher’s life. She didn’t let him mess around,” Jerry said. Divorce was out of the question. According to Jerry, his dad found ways to take the edge off at home, even though Macel never allowed alcohol in the house. “Sometimes he would drink a whole bottle of Nyquil. He called it Baptist wine,” he remembered. Jerry grew up to learn that he too could have a private life that didn’t align with his public persona.
As I walked across Liberty’s quad last August, giddy freshmen lined up at information booths to register for Orientation Week events like passengers on a pleasure cruise—albeit a wholesome one. Liberty’s strict code of conduct, known as The Liberty Way, forbids students from drinking, attending dances, or being alone in a room with a member of the opposite sex. Students can be fined $250 if they are caught attending events where alcohol is served. So there were nightly jazz concerts, bingo, and movie screenings. The student union had a bowling alley, Ping-Pong tables, a video game room, and a Creation Museum. Students could even ski on a year-round slope cut into the 1,300-foot mountain behind campus. The theme park amenities were Jerry’s vision. “I’m not an artist, but for me, planning and developing the campus was my art,” Jerry told me as we sat in his kitchen.
Jerry Falwell Sr. founded Liberty in 1971 with the goal of creating a Notre Dame for fundamentalists. “We’re turning out moral revolutionaries,” he once told The New York Times. But the school was still a largely unfinished canvas when Jerry enrolled in the fall of 1980. Not surprisingly, he chafed under the draconian rules, which at the time even banned R-rated movies. “During my freshman year, my buddy and I went to a convenience store and I drank a few beers. I thought, I’m the wild one,” Jerry recalled, laughing. Mostly, though, Jerry kept to himself. It was his way of coping with the feeling that everyone expected him to be a mirror of his preacher father. “Jerry was awkward and shy,” a classmate remembered. “I grew up with too much attention,” Jerry said. “When your dad has a big personality, you don’t compete.”
Jerry was at a spiritual crossroads. He didn’t want to be a fundamentalist, but he wasn’t an atheist either. Jerry said he majored in religious studies at Liberty so he could figure out what he really believed. It was during a course on apologetics—the study of defending Christianity to nonbelievers—that Jerry said he was persuaded it was “rational” to believe Jesus was literally the son of God and the miracles of the Bible happened. “I became a true Christian in college,” Jerry told me. Newly confident in his faith, Jerry decided believing in Christ didn’t mean he had to follow the evangelical rules. After all, Jesus was a rule breaker too. “Organized religion says you have to earn your way to heaven. What Jesus said was, ‘You just have to believe,’ ” he said. For graduate school, Jerry was determined to escape the fundamentalist fishbowl of Lynchburg. In the fall of 1984, he entered the University of Virginia Law School, 70 miles north in Charlottesville. It was Jerry’s first time living away from home, and he could freely lead an outwardly secular life: He never bothered to join a church. “If religion came up, he’d say, ‘That’s not me. That’s my dad,’ ” UVA classmate David Freeman recalled. “He was a normal guy,” classmate Tom Angelo said. “We played pickup basketball. He’d go to happy hour.” One of his UVA classmates was John Hornsby, the younger brother of singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby. “One of the songs Bruce wrote had a few lyrics about a fat man selling salvation,” Jerry recalled. Jerry said he laughed when he heard it.
On a visit home during his second year of law school, Jerry ran into a vivacious Liberty freshman named Becki Tilley. Jerry attended Liberty with Becki’s older sister, and he first met Becki when she was 13. Jerry was now 23 and Becki was 18. For their first date, Jerry took Becki to a drive-in to see The Terminator (rated R, by the way). They fell in love. Becki dropped out of Liberty after her freshman year and got a waitressing job in Lynchburg. She stayed with Jerry in Charlottesville on her days off. “He had a motorcycle up there and we’d go for rides,” Becki recalled.
The relationship escalated Jerry’s conflict with his mother, who didn’t approve of Becki’s family. Macel’s objections infuriated Jerry because on paper Becki’s family checked all the boxes. Her father was a multimillionaire real estate developer, devout Baptist, and a Jerry Falwell Sr. superfan to boot. “The only show Becki’s dad ever watched on TV was my dad’s,” Jerry told me. But Becki was from North Carolina, which, from Macel’s Virginian point of view, made Becki “backwards,” Jerry said. “She said, ‘You can’t be dating that hick from North Carolina,’ ” Jerry recalled. Jerry refused to end it. “I was like, I don’t care what you think.” Macel retaliated and stopped paying Jerry’s living expenses. Jerry said his dad “loved Becki. He was very happy for us.”
It was a confusing and lonely time for Jerry. Needing a distraction, Jerry offered to help his father do research for his forthcoming autobiography. What he found was a revelation: Jerry wasn’t the black sheep after all. His religious father was the aberration. The articles revealed that the Falwells descended from a long line of rabble-rousers, drunks, and nonbelievers. His paternal great-grandfather, Hezekiah, was an avowed atheist and dairy farmer. His paternal grandfather, Carey, was a notorious bootlegger, or as Jerry put it, “the ultimate entrepreneur.” Jerry’s great-uncle Garland was an alcoholic and drug addict. During Prohibition, Carey and Garland promoted cockfights and distributed illegal whiskey. The brothers later got rich owning bus lines, gas stations, a nightclub, and a hotel where they kept a bear chained up for drunk tourists to wrestle.
Jerry Sr. and his twin brother, Gene, were born in 1933 as their parents were grieving two tragedies. In 1931, the Falwells’ 11-year-old daughter died of appendicitis. A few months later, Carey shot and killed his 25-year-old brother Garland after Garland attacked Carey in a booze- and barbiturate-fueled rage. Although a judge ruled the killing was self-defense, “my grandfather [Carey] could never get over those two events,” Jerry said. Carey Falwell died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1948 at the age of 55. The Falwell businesses were sold or closed.
At the time, Jerry Sr. was on track to be another louche Falwell. “He would drink and party with his friends,” Jerry told me. Falwell was a member of a teenage posse in Lynchburg called the Wall Gang and routinely got into fights with rival crews. Every Sunday morning, Falwell’s mother listened to radio preacher Charles Fuller on The Old Fashioned Revival Hour, hoping her sons would hear the calling. Not long after Carey died, God answered her prayers: Jerry Sr. agreed to attend church. “My dad became a Christian because his mom pushed him in that direction,” Jerry told me.
Still, Jerry learned there were fleshly motivations driving his dad’s faith journey. On Falwell’s first visit to Park Avenue Baptist in 1949, he fell for the church’s piano player, a devout auburn-haired girl named Macel Pate. Falwell joined the congregation so he could date her, even though Macel was engaged to a man studying at Baptist Bible College in St. Louis. Falwell devised a plan to sabotage the competition. He enrolled at Baptist Bible College and arranged to be roommates with Macel’s fiancé. Falwell told the fiancé he could mail his love letters to Macel. Instead, Falwell threw the letters in the trash. Macel broke off the engagement. Months later, Falwell and Macel were going out. “My mom’s mother was terrified when my mom was dating a Falwell,” Jerry said.
Looking back, Jerry said his dad adopted militant stands against drinking and homosexuality to prove to his wife that he would be a conservative Christian. “My mother was the only reason my dad became puritanical,” Jerry said. Jerry said his dad also knew that there was a lucrative market for such beliefs. “He became a different person to build a church and a school,” Jerry said. It was a point of pride for Jerry that his dad was friends with liberals like Larry Flynt, Ted Kennedy, and Jesse Jackson. “He really didn’t judge people,” Jerry said. In the spring of 1987, Jerry graduated from UVA law school and returned home to Lynchburg armed with this new understanding of his family’s secular roots. “My intent was to be a lawyer and commercial real estate developer,” he told me. At a family dinner one night that summer, Jerry announced that he and Becki were getting married in a month. “They probably thought she was pregnant,” Jerry said. (She wasn’t.) Shortly after a honeymoon in Bermuda, he and Becki bought their farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which put a healthy distance between him and his parents. “I wanted to come out here and be on my own,” Jerry said.
In the summer of 1988, Falwell Sr. called Jerry into a meeting and revealed a terrible secret: Liberty was on the brink of bankruptcy. Jerry was stunned. By all accounts, the school was thriving. Enrollment was up to 4,500. Construction was starting on a 12,000-seat football stadium and a 9,547-seat basketball arena. Unbeknownst to Jerry, his father had borrowed millions to finance the breakneck expansion and had no foreseeable way to repay the loans. Revenues for The Old Time Gospel Hour—Liberty’s main funding source—were plunging. The entire Christian broadcasting industry was reeling from the 1987 sex scandal that brought down televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Falwell told Jerry he desperately needed help restructuring Liberty’s debt or he would lose the university, church, and television show.
Jerry took an office at Liberty down the hall from his dad. “I just thought it was going to be part-time,” Jerry said. Then he saw how deep a hole Liberty was in. “Every day was survival,” Jerry remembered. “I was constantly on the phone with lenders and donors trying to get enough money to meet payroll.” One of the first things Jerry did was lobby his dad to pull the money-losing Old Time Gospel Hour off the air. It was a painful concession for Falwell to give up the platform that made him famous, but he agreed. “My dad didn’t focus on Liberty until I got there,” Jerry said.
Falwell and Jerry worked well together because Jerry happily let his father be the frontman. Around campus, people called them Big Jerry and Little Jerry (Falwell called his son J.J.). “Jerry was almost a recluse,” a former colleague said. “He would come in, usually through a side door, and go into his office and shut the door.”
Falwell often invited his son to join him and his chief of staff, Mark DeMoss, for lunch at the Holiday Inn near campus. Jerry rarely went. Instead, he often ate alone in a Wendy’s parking lot, listening to Rush Limbaugh in his car. Talk radio became Jerry’s political religion. “Rush is the reason I became a conservative,” Jerry told me. He keeps a framed photo of his first meeting with the late broadcaster, at the 2018 White House Christmas party, in his living room. “That was the most starstruck Jerry had ever been,” Becki said.
There were some white-knuckle moments, but by the mid-1990s, Liberty’s finances stabilized. “God sent him to me just in time,” Falwell wrote of his son’s efforts in his autobiography. “He is more responsible, humanly speaking, for the miraculous financial survival of this ministry than any other single person.” Falwell rewarded Jerry’s entrepreneurial prowess by delegating more and more of Liberty’s operations to him. In truth, others, like DeMoss’s father, Arthur, a longtime Liberty benefactor, played a role in the school’s turnaround, as did a financial infusion from controversial sources including the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.
Around the year 2000, Falwell broached the idea of succession with his sons. Falwell told Jerry and Jonathan that he wanted to divide his empire in two. Jonathan, the pastor, would inherit Falwell’s church, Thomas Road Baptist. Jerry, the businessman, would get Liberty. (Jerry said his dad never considered a role for his sister, Jeannie, who had become a doctor.) I asked Jerry why his dad didn’t just give both to his brother, given that Jonathan abided by all the evangelical rules around drinking. “My dad told me, ‘Use Jonathan for the preacher stuff, but don’t let him get near the business,’ ” Jerry recalled. (Jonathan did not respond to a detailed list of questions.)
In the spring of 2003, Falwell, then 70, asked Liberty’s board of trustees to rewrite the bylaws and name Jerry his successor. Jerry told me he convinced himself that he would never have to do the job. He assumed his dad would live for another 20 years—and by then some other solution would present itself. On the morning of May 15, 2007, Falwell suffered a massive heart attack at his desk and died. He was 73. Three days after Falwell’s death, Jerry had to speak at Liberty’s graduation in front of more than 15,000 people. “I was scared to death,” he said.
His anxieties only grew that summer. “It was the worst three months of my life. There was so much pressure on me to become somebody I wasn’t,” Jerry remembered. “I’d wake up each day saying, ‘How am I going to do this?’ ” As Liberty’s first family, Jerry and Becki became Christian celebrities overnight. “We had to put on an act,” Becki said. Of course, Jerry could have stepped aside if he didn’t intend to uphold the spirit of Liberty’s extreme social conservatism. But that would mean Jerry would have to give up the power and privilege the job offered. As president, Jerry flew on Liberty’s private jet and vacationed with billionaire donors. Jerry felt he had successfully compartmentalized his public and private identities for most of his life. Why stop then?
Jerry distracted himself by focusing on his latest project: transforming Liberty’s fledgling distance-learning program into a profitable online university. Starting in the 1970s, Falwell’s church sold VHS tapes of sermons and Bible study courses to Christians all over the world. Jerry realized that the proliferation of high-speed internet would make it possible for Liberty to stream college courses to students anywhere. In 2018 former employees told the New York Times and ProPublica that Liberty Online staffed a sales department of 300 telemarketers, who worked for low pay and got only a 45-second break between calls. They aggressively recruited students, who were often saddled with debt. By 2010, digital enrollment topped 50,000 and annual revenues reached $420 million.
Becki, meanwhile, felt the thrill of a new opportunity in her role as Liberty’s first lady. For 20 years, she’d been a stay-at-home mother raising three children. “I would get up and watch Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. That was my adult interaction, basically. The rest of the day I’d wash clothes and cook,” she recalled. Becki’s stay-at-home life endeared her to her conservative mother-in-law. “Mom grew to love her when she saw what a great wife and mother she became,” Jerry said. But as the wife of Liberty’s new president, Becki had a new professional identity and responsibilities. It motivated her to get a makeover. She hired a personal trainer and bought a new wardrobe.
Still, Becki felt lonely and isolated at home. Jerry was working all the time, and their marriage suffered. 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.”
The story of an affair is a competition of narratives. Sometimes facts overlap, but just as often they diverge. It all depends on who’s doing the retelling. In media interviews, Giancarlo Granda said he first had sex with Becki—while Jerry watched—the day they met at the Fontainebleau hotel pool in Miami Beach in March 2012. It was the beginning, Granda has said, of a seven-year psychodrama that culminated in Jerry’s resignation. In early January, when I sought out Granda with a list of fact-checking queries for this story and the opportunity to present his version of events, he made clear that his differed significantly from the Falwells’. “Ha ha, oh man it’s an alternate reality in that email list,” he responded but declined to comment further, saying he had a book deal with Harper Collins and a forthcoming streaming documentary to promote. “I can assure you that everything will be answered in the book and Hulu documentary,” he texted me.
Apart from his initial statement denying Granda’s claims, Jerry said nothing about the scandal, even after it cost him his job and reputation. I had been talking with Jerry and Becki for several months when they agreed to tell their side of the story.
Jerry said the first time he learned of the affair was eight months after he and Becki met Granda. In December 2012, Becki seemed distant and melancholic for reasons Jerry couldn’t figure out. “I would see her crying around the house,” Jerry recalled. A few days after Christmas, Jerry walked in on Becki in tears in their bedroom. He asked why she was sad.
“Because of the trouble I’ve made for you,” Becki said.
Jerry remembered there was a long pause. Then Becki told him she was cheating on him. Jerry had to suppress the urge to yell. Their daughter, Caroline, 12 at the time, was asleep down the hall.
“With who?” Jerry seethed.
“Giancarlo,” Becki said.
Giancarlo? Jerry’s mind flashed back to March. Granda was the 20-year-old pool boy they met at the Fontainebleau. It was hardly a wild vacation. They had taken their three kids to Miami with two other Lynchburg families. (The group included Jerry’s dentist, a devout evangelical; and a Bible study teacher from church.) One afternoon at the pool, Granda struck up a conversation with Jerry and Becki while taking their food order. Granda mentioned he was working to pay for courses at Florida International University. Jerry thought Granda seemed like an ambitious college kid and wished him luck. According to Becki, Granda slipped her his cell phone number. The next day, she invited him up to see the view from their room. She said Jerry was present when Granda visited and nothing sexual happened.
Jerry said he didn’t know then that Becki and Granda began speaking constantly. “I know it’s very strange,” Becki said, but with Jerry working all the time, “I had someone I could talk to.” At first the dynamic was maternal. “We talked about everything. I would talk about Liberty stuff and the kids,” Becki recalled. But over time, the texts became flirtatious. “Good morning beautiful,” Granda would text her. “Right now I am just missing you like crazy,” Becki would text back. Becki said she felt a thrill every time she checked her phone. “It’s that dopamine rush. All of a sudden this young, handsome fella starts texting you and giving you attention and you’re like, wow, this is kind of nice,” she recalled. (“I didn’t think he was that good-looking,” Jerry told me.)
In April 2012—a month after meeting Granda—Jerry and Becki vacationed at Cheeca Lodge, a luxury resort on Islamorada, about 90 minutes south of Miami. This time their kids weren’t there. Becki told Jerry that the young guy who worked at the Fontainebleau pool wanted to drive down and pitch Jerry a business idea. Jerry said it didn’t seem all that strange. He was happy to help Granda, the son of first-generation Cuban and Mexican immigrants. Over dinner, Granda told Jerry he wanted to start an organization to treat video game addiction. Granda explained he was a recovering gaming addict. In high school, the habit had cost Granda his place on the varsity baseball team. Jerry passed on the idea. “It didn’t make sense to me,” Jerry recalled. He told Granda he was busy running Liberty, but he did some real estate deals on the side. “I like to walk on my assets,” Jerry said. So if Granda knew about a property investment in Miami, Jerry might be open to it.
A couple of months later, Granda told Jerry they should get into the hotel business together. Granda said his friend from high school, Jesus Fernandez Jr., had experience in the field. According to court documents, Fernandez previously worked at the Bikini Hostel in South Beach, and Fernandez’s girlfriend was at the time the general manager there. Fernandez’s father, Jesus Fernandez Sr., worked in Miami real estate. He knew about another hostel coming on the market. Granda said Jerry should buy it. Granda would manage it in exchange for a 24 percent ownership stake. “He promised he would work 24/7,” Jerry said. “We thought we’d be a thousand miles away and he would be a good person to keep an eye on the business.”
That summer, Jerry and Becki flew to Miami a few times to scout properties. They liked the idea of owning a business in Florida. It would give them a reason to spend time at the beach, where they felt free from prying eyes in Lynchburg. “Miami was a nice place to get away and feel like another country,” Jerry told me. “I thought, Nobody knows us,” Becki added. “I can have a drink by the pool.… We just felt at home.” Becki said that while Jerry was looking at real estate one day, she and Granda had sex for the first time. “I relived [what I thought] college [would be]. Going to clubs, dancing, and all the stuff I couldn’t do [back home],” Becki said. They swapped love songs over text (Becki said Granda sent her “Little Things” by One Direction and “Sideways” by Citizen Cope). Around this time she started signing her texts to Granda “I love you.” When Granda called, Becki snuck off to talk. Her unexplained absences became a running joke in the Falwell family. Her kids printed T-shirts that read “Where’s Becki?”
In August 2012, Jerry made a $4.6 million offer on a two-story commercial property on the scruffier east side of Miami Beach. The building housed a liquor store, an Italian restaurant, and a 120-bed hostel, where dorm rooms went for $20 per night. (Tripadvisor described the hostel’s theme as “Party Tropical.”) A sign on the front door stated: “No Soliciting, Fundraising, Politics, Salesmen, Religion.”
Now, well before this point, you might have wondered why Jerry and Becki would buy a seedy hostel with a pool attendant they had known for only a few months. Granda said it was because they were a throuple. (Again, the Falwells deny this.) But take the sex out and it still shows questionable business sense on Jerry’s part to invest millions in an idea hatched by a college kid. One explanation for this catastrophic error in judgment is that Jerry and Becki didn’t have many close friends who weren’t ultrareligious. In Miami they were refugees from the evangelical world and were starting their social lives from scratch. Of course, having an affair and doing business with a pool attendant the same age as their kids crossed all kinds of boundaries that should have been glaringly obvious to everyone involved. Becki said she simply lost control: “This new life was so different for me.”
In September, the wall that divided the Falwells’ double life came down. Jerry and Becki bought Granda plane tickets to fly to Lynchburg for a speech Trump was giving at Liberty during the peak of Trump’s racist birtherism campaign. An infamous photo from the event shows Granda shaking Trump’s hand backstage as a smiling Jerry looks on.
Three months later, Becki told Jerry about the affair.
It all might have ended there. Becki confessed before the hostel deal closed. Jerry and Becki could have taken a loss on the deposit, cut ties with Granda, and walked away. But Jerry insisted it was “too late to cancel the deal.” He went ahead and invested $1.8 million. “Once it starts, it’s like you can’t get out of it,” Becki said. The Falwells closed on the hostel in February 2013—only a month and a half after Becki told Jerry she was sleeping with Granda.
Becki told Granda that Jerry knew about them. “Giancarlo was very worried Jerry or my boys would beat him up,” Becki said. (Granda declined to comment.) Becki said Granda shouldn’t be scared. Everyone would try to make the awkward arrangement work. Granda apologized to Jerry the next time they were all together. “He said, ‘I hope you’re okay.’ And I said, ‘I’m dealing with it,’ ” Jerry recalled. “The only way I could do it was to detach. I let it go on. I’m partly to blame.” But later, the affair inspired Jerry to get in shape to win Becki back. “I was thinking maybe I was the reason she was lonely because I wasn’t taking care of myself,” he said. Jerry hired a trainer. He lifted weights and took testosterone supplements. Jerry attributed a lot of the incendiary things he later did to side effects of the hormones. “The testosterone made me more combative,” he said.
The affair continued for another year. Over that summer Jerry and Becki went to Miami and checked into the Loews Hotel. Jerry discovered that Becki booked a second room at the Galehotel for her and Granda. (“I paid cash,” Becki recalled.) Jerry confronted them outside the room. “It was obvious what they were doing,” he said. On another trip to Miami in the fall of 2013, Jerry said he walked into his hotel room to get his laptop and found Becki and Granda having sex. “It was traumatizing,” he said. In May 2014, Granda attended the wedding of Jerry and Becki’s oldest son, Trey. Becki said she stopped having sex with Granda that year because by then Granda had a serious girlfriend. “I felt guilty about it. I didn’t want to keep it up,” she said.
This is the part of the story where things turn to something more like a Coen brothers farce. Enter: the two Jesuses. In the summer of 2014, Jerry says he received an email from a Miami lawyer representing Granda’s high school friend, Jesus Fernandez Jr., and his father, Jesus Sr. who said Jerry promised them a cut of the hostel deal for advising Jerry and Granda on it. Jerry denied he made any such assurances.
Talks stalemated. In 2015, the Fernandezes sued Jerry, Becki, and Granda in a Miami court, claiming fraud and breach of contract. Jerry and Becki panicked that the lawsuit would attract media attention. “Jerry would wake up every morning and worry that my affair would come out. Both of us did. It’s just horrible to have that over you,” Becki told me in the kitchen, holding back tears. What Becki hadn’t told Jerry was that she and Granda had made sex tapes together in a Miami hotel room. “I had a big Canon camera. A couple of times I put it on the dresser and Giancarlo agreed to it,” Becki told me. (Granda did not comment on this specific detail.)
Jerry and Becki’s fears only intensified. That fall, Becki’s lawyers were made aware that topless pictures of her were circulating among people who were party to the suit. The photos showed Becki posing on a tractor at the Falwells’ farm. Jerry told me he had taken them years earlier on his phone. “We were just playing around,” he said.
Luckily for Jerry, he was friends with the guy you call when someone has pictures of your half-naked wife: Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen. Jerry and Becki first met Cohen in the spring of 2011, when Cohen, then advising Trump on a potential presidential run in 2012, invited the Falwells to a private meeting with evangelical leaders at Trump Tower. In the hallway afterward, Jerry and Becki mentioned to Cohen they were staying an extra day in New York because their 12-year-old daughter, Caroline, was trying to get tickets to see Justin Bieber perform live on the Today show. Cohen got them in. “We’re friends for life,” Jerry told Cohen.
After learning of the topless photos, Cohen says he began working the phone on Jerry’s behalf—threatening to involve the FBI if necessary. According to him, the parties came to an understanding: the photos never saw the light of day. Neither the Fernandezes, nor their current lawyer responded to requests for comment. The suit ended in a settlement. Jerry was beyond relieved. “There it was: my second chit with the Falwells,” Cohen later wrote in his memoir. “In good time, I would call in this favor, not for me, but for [Trump], at a crucial moment on his journey to the presidency.”
It’s hard to remember now, but early in the 2016 Republican primary, Ted Cruz was the leading evangelical candidate. A January 2016 Des Moines Register poll showed Cruz with a 10-point lead in Iowa and with three times more evangelical support than Trump. Cruz was a fervent evangelical himself and the son of a pastor. Cruz announced his presidential run at Liberty in March 2015. Most people assumed that if Jerry endorsed a candidate in the primary, it would be Cruz. The Cruz campaign had even prepared a press release in anticipation.
But five days before the Iowa caucuses, Jerry rocked the political world when he endorsed Trump. Jerry was the first major evangelical leader to throw in with Trump, which dealt a terminal blow to Cruz’s campaign. When the media later reported that Cohen kept nude pictures of Becki out of the press, Jerry’s endorsement looked to some like a quid pro quo. Cohen denies this, and Jerry said that wasn’t the case at all: “Michael never blackmailed me. He’s a good friend. We saw Michael two days before he went to prison. He calls us family.”
Cohen didn’t need to coerce the endorsement, because Jerry was already supporting Trump behind the scenes and echoing his rhetoric. Three days after the December 2, 2015, mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Jerry brought a .25-caliber pistol onstage at an all-school assembly. “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he said. Jerry also let Liberty’s IT chief, John Gauger, do consulting for the Trump campaign. According to The Wall Street Journal, Gauger manipulated online polls on the Drudge Report and CNBC.com to boost Trump’s popularity. (Jerry said he was unaware of the specifics of Gauger’s work.) Cohen reportedly paid Gauger $12,000 in cash stuffed in a blue Walmart bag. Gauger confirmed this account to The Wall Street Journal but declined to comment further when I reached him. (Cohen told the paper he paid him with a check.)
Jerry told me he supported Trump because he was a real estate developer and a populist. But I also couldn’t help but see the Trump endorsement as a continuation of Jerry’s rebellion against evangelical pieties. Trump drove many evangelicals crazy—including Jerry’s Ted Cruz–supporting younger brother, Jonathan. In October 2015, Jerry’s mother, Macel, died, which severed one of the last bonds tying Jerry and Jonathan together. Jerry endorsed Trump two months later.
Jerry not only endorsed Trump, he lavished him with cringeworthy praise. “Trump reminds me so much of my father,” Jerry told Fox News in December 2015. “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught,” Jerry said when he introduced Trump onstage at Liberty shortly before the Iowa caucuses. (Trump then mangled a Bible verse, citing “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.”) Jerry even defended Trump when almost no one else would. After the Access Hollywood tape leaked, in October 2016, Jerry told a radio interviewer: “We’re never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot.” It provided cover for evangelicals to excuse Trump’s utter lack of decency or morals. “After that, Steve Bannon called me and said, ‘You won the election for us,’ ” Jerry recalled.
Jerry says Trump rewarded his fealty with an offer to serve in his cabinet as education secretary. Jerry recalled the meeting at Trump Tower with Trump, Bannon, and Ivanka Trump: “Ivanka was like, ‘Come on, dude. You gotta do it.’ ” Jerry declined, though, because he said it would have involved a pay cut from his $800,000-a-year Liberty job. Still, Jerry continued to act as if he were a member of the administration. He and Becki visited the White House and got a private tour of the Lincoln Bedroom from Trump and Melania. Jerry showed up often on Fox News to flack for Trump. “He does not have a racist bone in his body,” Jerry said after Charlottesville. (“The Fake News should listen to what he had to say. Thanks Jerry!” Trump tweeted afterward.) Not even Trump’s disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic could shake Jerry’s loyalty. Jerry told Fox & Friends that Democrats and the media were hyping the virus to bring Trump down.
If you think of Jerry’s downfall as a plane crash, then his Trump endorsement was the fatal error in the decision chain. From that moment, disaster was inevitable. “Trump was the reason they came after me as hard as they did,” Jerry said.
At Liberty, opposition to Jerry mounted slowly at first. Faculty aren’t offered tenure, and professors feared for their jobs if they spoke out. Students followed a culture of acquiescence. “Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions,” Jerry Falwell Sr. once preached. But after the Access Hollywood tape leaked, a group called Liberty United Against Trump released an open letter signed by 2,000 students. “Because our president has led the world to believe that Liberty University supports Donald Trump, we students must take it upon ourselves to make clear that Donald Trump is absolutely opposed to what we believe,” the letter stated. In March 2017, Mark DeMoss, by then a faith-based PR guru and chairman of Liberty’s board, criticized Jerry during an interview with The Washington Post. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense—and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ,” DeMoss told the paper.
DeMoss’s resignation came a month later and inspired others. Liberty alumni organized a “Return Your Diploma” Facebook group to protest Jerry’s defense of Trump’s Charlottesville remark about there being “very fine people” on both sides; 700 graduates signed up.
But to really take Jerry down, his detractors needed to do more than just highlight Jerry’s Trump sycophancy. In the winter of 2017, an anonymous source tipped off the freelance journalist Brandon Ambrosino: “Why does Falwell need to own an LGBT-friendly hostel?” the source emailed. Ambrosino was a Liberty alumnus and was well-sourced among the faculty. On August 25, 2017, Politico published Ambrosino’s exposé on the hostel, which revealed, among other things, that Granda was the Falwells’ “business partner.”
With the media sniffing around, the Fernandezes’ litigation against Jerry, Becki, and Granda helped reporters piece together more details: that Granda was a 20-year-old pool boy when he met the Falwells; that Granda flew on Liberty’s private jet; that Jerry frequented Miami nightclubs; and that Cohen intervened on Jerry’s behalf to bury the racy photos of Becki before Jerry endorsed Trump. Liberty employees, newly emboldened, gave accounts to reporters of Jerry’s dictatorial leadership style and alleged financial self-dealing, which Falwell strenuously denies.
Granda was the biggest loose end—and his relationship with the Falwells was unraveling. Becki suspected Granda was recording their calls to get dirt. (He later provided one phone recording to a Reuters reporter.) “We didn’t think we could trust him,” Becki said. Jerry and Becki also believed Granda shared—or sold—the nude photos because Becki had once texted them to Granda. (Granda declined to comment.) So why would they keep acting like Granda’s friends?
Jerry and Becki decided it was best to keep Granda in the fold. “The idea was, you keep friends close and your enemies closer,” Becki said. In the fall of 2017, Jerry wrote Granda a recommendation letter for Granda’s application to Georgetown’s real estate master’s program. Jerry and Becki were thrilled when Granda got in. He was 27 and seemed to be moving on with his life independent of the Falwells. When Granda drove from Miami to Washington, D.C., in late August 2018, Jerry even offered to let Granda, his mom, and his sister stay on the farm to break up the trip. Jerry and Becki hoped it would be a chance to wish Granda goodbye. But according to Jerry and Becki, the visit took a harrowing turn.
The morning after Granda and his family arrived at the farm, Becki said Granda texted her that the Wi-Fi in the guesthouse wasn’t working. Becki said moments later, she found Granda in her daughter Caroline’s bedroom. He explained he wanted to stay there because there was internet service. 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.)
Becki said she didn’t report the traumatic experience at the time because she felt guilty about the affair. In her mind, she deserved it. A few months later, Becki told Jerry and two lawyers about the incident. Becki said it also took her time to process that what happened could have been a form of assault. “I said no. Just because we had sex before does not mean he has a free ticket to my body.”
Granda and the Falwells hurtled toward a blowup. Months later, a lawyer representing Granda wrote a letter to Jerry’s attorney that stated Granda wanted Jerry to buy him out of the hostel for $2 million ($1.1 million in cash and $50,000 a year for 20 years, according to a letter Granda’s lawyer sent on October 15, 2019). Jerry refused. Granda’s attorney, Aaron Resnick, did not respond to a request for comment.
Granda’s emotional state deteriorated and he talked about suicide. Becki shared a text Granda sent around this time: “My life is absolutely ruined. When they find my lifeless body hanging in the woods, please make sure [my dog] Logan is returned to my family. Goodbye.”
In June 2020, Granda and Jerry reached the point of no return. “Since you’re okay with ruining my life, I am going to take the kamikaze route,” Granda texted Jerry. According to Jerry, Granda said he would tell people Jerry participated in the affair: “Revenge is coming soon.… I’m taking everyone down with me with my side of the story,” Granda texted. Becki worried Granda could release clips of the sex tapes she said she had shared with him.
“You should by now understand that I will not be extorted,” Jerry texted back. “I have always treated you fairly and been restrained in response to your threats because I did not wish to ruin your life. Going forward, stop contacting me and my family.”
With Granda threatening to go kamikaze, you would think Jerry would have kept a low profile. Instead, he spent 2020 brazenly courting controversy—as if he was trying to get fired. The year began with Jerry holding a bizarre press conference calling for rural portions of Virginia to secede and join West Virginia. In March, he tweeted a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 might be a North Korean bioweapon. When campuses across the country went into lockdown and sent students home that spring, Jerry kept Liberty open. But that was just a warm-up. Two days after George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day, Jerry tweeted a photo of a face mask he printed with a racist photo from Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook. It showed people posing in blackface and a KKK hood. Jerry tweeted he would only wear a mask that had “Governor Blackface” on it. Protests and violence erupted in Lynchburg, a city with a large Black population. Jerry refused to apologize, even after Black Liberty staffers, including the head of diversity retention as well as top football and basketball players, quit the school in protest. After nearly two weeks of chaos, Jerry grudgingly deleted the tweet.
But Jerry couldn’t break his destructive social media habit. On Sunday morning, August 2, Jerry was relaxing with Becki and Caroline at the farm when he announced he had posted a photo on Instagram and held the phone up. So much was wrong about the picture: Jerry had his pants unzipped and what looked like a rum and Coke in one hand, with his other arm wrapped around a pregnant woman with her shorts unzipped and stomach showing.
Becki and Caroline were mortified. “We were like, that’s terrible! Take it down!” Becki recalled. Jerry didn’t see the big deal. The photo was taken during a costume party aboard billionaire Rick Hendrick’s 160-foot yacht. He was dressed as the main character Julian from the Canadian sitcom Trailer Park Boys. The drink in his hand was the Blk brand mineral water he ordered off Amazon, and the woman was Becki’s assistant. Jerry deleted the photo. But it was too late. Someone had taken a screenshot, and the media was all over the controversy.
On August 7, the Liberty board of trustees put Jerry on indefinite leave. Jerry said he wanted to fight the decision but didn’t have the energy. Since that July, he had been suffering from shortness of breath, dizzy spells, and slurred speech. He said he was eventually diagnosed with pulmonary emboli, a form of blood clots in the lungs. He was hospitalized when his blood oxygen fell to 77 percent. “The lungs were blocked up with clots. The pressure in the right side of my heart was triple what it should have been, and it was swollen. I barely made it to the car when we went to the hospital,” Jerry said.
Jerry said he was in a diminished state when a Reuters reporter named Aram Roston emailed to say Granda had given an on-the-record interview. Granda was alleging Jerry liked to watch Granda and Becki have sex, did Jerry have a comment? Borrowing a page from Trump’s playbook, Jerry wanted to preempt Granda’s story with one of his own, but he was too weak to go on television. On August 23, he sent a statement to the Washington Examiner. It acknowledged Granda and Becki’s affair but claimed Granda fabricated wild accusations about Jerry’s involvement as part of an extortion plot.
Before publication, Jerry and Becki sat their kids down. “We never told them until the day before it was about to hit,” Becki recalled. “I didn’t want my kids to know. You know, how embarrassing is that?”
A day later, Jerry says a member of Liberty’s board called Jerry and said if he didn’t step down, he would be fired. Jerry resigned.
Since his resignation, Jerry has been locked in a bitter feud with Liberty. The board fired Jerry’s son Trey and barred Jerry and Becki from setting foot on campus, even though their daughter is a senior and Jerry’s parents are buried there. Two days after Jerry’s resignation, an anonymous former Liberty student and friend of Trey’s told Politico that Becki had performed oral sex on him at the Falwell’s home in 2008 when he was 22. Becki denied the allegation to me, calling it “so ridiculous.” In April 2021, the board sued Jerry for $40 million to claw back his eight-figure severance package. The trustees said Jerry committed fraud when he negotiated a lucrative new contract in 2019 without telling the university he was being extorted by Granda—information the trustees said they were entitled to before they renewed Jerry’s multimillion-dollar deal. The lawsuit included accounts of Jerry and Becki’s booze-filled nights in Miami clubs and alleged Jerry showed up at Liberty when he “smelled of alcohol.” Jerry and Becki denied the allegations. “The lawsuit was my worst day,” Becki said. “I just remember crying all day long. It was our own people coming after us.”
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. “I couldn’t believe the board was shocked about that,” Jerry said. The suit is ongoing.
Getting rid of Jerry didn’t stanch Liberty’s image crisis. In August, 12 women filed a federal class-action lawsuit alleging the university violated Title IX law by discriminating against women who made allegations of sexual assault and harassment. According to the suit, which is proceeding, Liberty staff discouraged victims from reporting abuse and fined some for violating Liberty’s “commitment to Biblical principles of purity and abstinence.” Jerry’s successor, Jerry Prevo, released a statement calling the allegations “troubling” and added: “Liberty University will not tolerate Title IX violations, sexual abuse or sexual assault in any form at any time.” In October, Scott Lamb, Liberty’s former senior vice president for communications, sued Liberty in federal court, claiming he was fired after raising red flags about the way the university responded to sexual assault allegations. Prevo called Lamb’s allegations false in a statement. His suit is in progress.
In exile, Jerry and Becki’s grievances festered, like Trump’s after his election loss. It’s no accident, Jerry said, that forces marshaled against him in the heat of the 2020 presidential campaign. He pointed out that Granda was advised by Kurt Bardella, at the time a PR adviser for the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “They wanted to get Jerry out of the picture for the election cycle because he got credited for bringing all the evangelicals around,” Becki said.
Jerry also suspected that Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, used the scandal to expand the Graham family’s influence over Liberty. Franklin Graham’s son Will was named vice chairman of Liberty’s board. Prevo is also a Graham ally. Jerry said Franklin Graham had also once told him that he wanted to start a Billy Graham University, but it didn’t get off the ground. In September 2020, Jerry and Franklin got into an argument over who should get credit for Liberty’s success. “I said, ‘My dad built the foundation, but I built the house. And Franklin got furious. He said, ‘You didn’t build it!’ You should have heard the jealousy in Franklin’s voice,” Jerry recalled. According to Jerry, Franklin Graham told him his future in the Christian world is over. “He said, ‘You’ll never be anything in evangelical circles again.’ ” Graham, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.
Jerry said that being on the receiving end of evangelicals’ moral opprobrium has fundamentally turned him away from the movement. He believes in Christ, he said, but not the church. “Nothing in history has done more to turn people away from Christianity than organized religion,” he said. “The religious elite has got this idea that somehow their sins aren’t as bad as everyone else’s,” Jerry said. Listening to Jerry, it made me think he convinced himself Liberty wasn’t the fundamentalist school that it is. “He would tell reporters that we don’t mind if gay and lesbians come here. I would tell him, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” recalled Lamb.
Still, Jerry was feeling optimistic about the future. Even the Miami hostel investment, the source of so much of his trouble, was looking up. Shortly before I arrived at the farm, Jerry said he signed a lease for the restaurant Macchialina to rent more space from him. “What used to be the hostel in Miami is now the number-one-rated Italian restaurant in Miami,” Jerry boasted. Becki, though, has struggled. She said she’s battled depression over the past year and gained a significant amount of weight. They’re both grateful they still have their marriage. “We’re together more than any couple you will ever meet in your life,” Becki said, as she sat on a stool at the kitchen island. “He forgave me, and that’s what Jesus teaches, forgiveness.”
As I was getting ready to leave the farm, I asked the Falwells if they ever thought about leaving Lynchburg and moving somewhere more socially liberal, like, say, Miami. “No, we’ve been here for generations,” Jerry said adamantly. On the wall above him hung a vintage Quaker State oil sign from his grandfather’s gas station. Becki nodded and pointed to the farmland out the window. “I told him I’m not leaving, ever, like my casket’s gonna be right over here somewhere.”
This story has been updated.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated which wedding of Jerry Falwell’s sons Giancarlo Granda attended in 2014. It was Trey Falwell’s wedding, not Wesley Falwell’s.