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Commenting on the fall of Jerry Falwell, Jr. – whose mounting sexual and life-style scandals have now culminated in his forced resignation as president of Liberty University – might seem like shooting fish in a barrel. “The jokes write themselves,” as the late-night comics would say.

The revelation that Falwell’s wife, Becki, had a long-standing sexual relationship with a younger man, with Falwell’s cheerful acquiescence if not his active participation, appears to have galvanized Liberty’s Board of Trustees to move against him. But this bit of hypocritical sleaze was only the last straw in a load of hay that has been piling up for years. Even Falwell’s hand-picked and long-suffering board members could no longer look the other way.

It must have been tempting to do so, though. Since taking over the helm of Liberty University after his father’s death in 2007, Junior has multiplied its assets ten-fold, established a strong presence in on-line education and NCAA Division I sports, and made Liberty a primary pilgrimage site for conservative politicians, above all Donald Trump.

Falwell’s bare-knuckle persona and autocratic control of LU ensured that Trump’s brand of nationalist populism would receive an uncontested welcome there. In return, he had extraordinary access to the president to ensure the restoration of “evangelical” Christianity to social and cultural power. What’s not to like about that?

Well, even if you have no particular problem with Trump’s agenda or that of self-appointed evangelical gatekeepers like Falwell, there are plenty of reasons to be deeply concerned about the pattern of behavior Falwell has manifested in his personal and public life. One way of capturing that pattern would be to say that Jerry Falwell, Jr. has boundary issues.

Although he has sought to displace responsibility for the affair onto his wife, evidence provided by the other party, Giancarlo Granda, strongly suggests that Falwell knew about the relationship and even helped facilitate it. Whatever his motives, respecting the boundaries imposed by his marriage vows was not among them.

Similarly, his stewardship of Liberty University has frequently violated boundaries. Chapel services became Republican political rallies; fiduciary responsibilities to the institution yielded to the financial interests of his family and friends; the university’s website was commandeered to help rig a poll to benefit Trump’s nascent presidential campaign; the academic calendar was revised to allow Liberty students to vote in a local election in order to affect the outcome; Trump’s 2017 commencement speech was commemorated with caps and t-shirts combining Liberty’s logo with Trump campaign slogans; and the list goes on.

The general impression left by Falwell’s presidency is that he did not feel constrained by any boundaries that separated his roles as husband, father, friend, president, or citizen. Whatever lever of power was at his disposal could be used for whatever purpose he sought at that moment. The result of that “boundless” behavior is paradoxical.

Despite the outward signs of success he can point to during his 13-year reign, one board member describes Liberty University under his leadership as “a totally dysfunctional organization,” adding : “Very similar to Trump’s White House.”

That’s a telling comparison, especially considering the source. For the past three and a half years, Donald J. Trump has been the very paradigm of a boundless presidency, transgressing norms, expectations, and even laws in pursuit of untrammeled control.

Although every president tests the limits of executive power, no president before Trump has openly argued that “I have an Article 2 where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” That includes sweeping away any distinction between his administration, his campaign, his business, and his family; ignoring the separation of powers built into the United States Constitution; and invalidating in advance any election that would defeat him.

The Republican National Convention has put this boundary-smashing view of presidential power on vivid display, as Trump defies the spirit (and possibly the letter) of the Hatch Act by using the White House and official presidential functions for explicitly political purposes. Of course, his board of trustees — the United States Senate — has a Republican majority that has supinely permitted this march toward presidential autocracy. Only November’s election offers us an off-ramp.

Why should we care? For the same reason that Liberty University’s board of trustees ultimately had to care about Falwell’s boundary issues. Absolute, unaccountable power in any setting is always a prelude to abuse, folly, and dysfunction. To quote Steve Earle, “Yeah, I believe in God – but God ain’t us!”

David Timmer

David Timmer taught religion for 40 years at Central College in Pella, Iowa.


  • Pam Adams says:

    David, That is interesting that Christians are in fellowship with such outrageous people who call themselves Christians. I personally feel that Falwell has not followed the Word of God in many, many ways and not just his sexual life.

  • Lee Collins says:

    Well said, David, talking of the boundaries Falwell crossed. When people in power draw boundaries that shut out everyone they fear or dislike, but enrich those they agree with, it is not consistent with God’s word to us.

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    Of course this article isn’t about Jerry Fallwell Jr but rather about the presidential election race, and it that regard, a specific, even if very thinly disguised (if that), pitch to vote for Joe Biden (the presidential election is a binary choice after all).

    If the question of boundaries is really the intended theme of this political hit piece, then I have to wonder why Biden’s boundaries, or ignoring of them, are not also critiqued? Or Hillary Clinton’s? Or Barak Obama’s? But I don’t really wonder of course — I know the answer. The author intends to write a political hit pitch about the presidential race, but not by overtly making a political pitch about the presidential race. And this story about Falwell Jr. provides the cover needed.

    For the record, I think Trump is a jerk, Falwell Jr probably a bigger one. I think also that Franklin Graham makes a very serious mistake in getting as involved in real time politics as he has. But then ditto as to other “Christian institutions” and their leaders (as institutional leaders). The CRCNA is included in the latter.

    One of the lessons that can be drawn from witnessing Liberty University and Jerry Falwell Jr could benefit others (one should pay appropriate attention to appropriate boundaries), but I fear too many are too invested in the fervor of today’s politics to learn that lesson.

  • Thanks for this, but you are too kind. Did King David have “boundary issues” in the Bathsheba affair? Did the religious leaders have “boundary issues” when they demanded the crucifixion of Jesus? Falwell and Trump have abused their power, a power given to them by God for the purpose of serving others. At least in Falwell’s case, people decided to put a stop to it, and are willing to pay him $10 million to go away.

  • Thanks for this. I think of Psalm 73, where the psalmist initially is distressed by the ease of the wicked, but then after entering the sanctuary of God, concludes, “Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly they are destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!”

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, David, for your take on the upcoming election. As Doug Vande Griend pointed out this article is about the election campaign. As I watch our Republican and Democratic parties campaign for the upcoming election, it is terribly disappointing to see how polarized our country and government is. While well meaning Republicans seem to swallow and truly believe all the good they hear from their Republican campaigners, at the same time well meaning Democrats seem to swallow and truly believe all the good they hear from their Democratic campaigners. And at the same time these well meaning Republicans and Democrats think the other party is spewing lies and will be the downfall of our country. Such polarization and animosity has split family and friends from talking to each other. We see it in church communities and we see such rancour even within this publication and in this article. I think such polarization is more harmful to individuals and to our country than if either party wins the election.

    • David Timmer says:

      I, too, regret the rancor that has infected much of our political discourse, and I’ll admit that not all of it comes from the political right. However, I don’t believe that expressing a strong opinion on an important issue is necessarily evidence of rancor. The accusation of rancor can mask a refusal to engage with the issues at stake. I’d be much more interested in knowing where you disagree with my analysis.

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