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Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Filthy, Predatory Finances

The son of the late evangelical titan may be embroiled in a scandal made for reality TV, but it’s not as tawdry as his Trumpian path to riches.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The overnight fall of Jerry Falwell Jr. from high evangelical grace feels in many ways like a Trump-era gloss on the fabled preacher sex scandals that have dogged our self-appointed Protestant moralists throughout the modern era. Instead of absconding with a church secretary like Jim Bakker or patronizing sex workers like Jimmy Swaggart, Falwell Jr. allegedly upped the scandal ante by arranging a threesome with his wife, Becki, and a pool boy. And instead of adjourning directly into the fleshpots of temptation, Falwell Jr. elected, reportedly, to watch; in a conservative movement long given to deriding betrayers of the one true faith as virtual cucks, Falwell Jr. decided to go for the real thing.

When photo evidence of the junior Falwell’s predilections surfaced, his perch atop the billion-dollar Liberty University empire he inherited from his dad was swiftly threatened. For connoisseurs of American religious scandal, there was a weird karmic symmetry to it all, since Jerry Falwell Sr. had helped broker a key institutional alliance between his Southern Baptist denomination and the rival Pentecostalist faith when he assumed control of the beleaguered (and debt-ridden) preaching franchise of Jim Bakker, disgraced by his own dalliances with Jessica Hahn back in the 1980s.

But as is usually the case with our name-brand Protestant preaching franchises, the salaciousness is largely a sideshow—and by now, a rather depressingly familiar one. It’s not really any more surprising to see Falwell fils hoisted by his own tumescent petard than it was to learn circa 2016 that his chief political ally, Donald Trump, was a serial sexual assaulter. No, the real scandal associated with the Falwell clan is hiding in plain sight at its best-known institutional legacy: the sprawling campus of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, which, regardless of the ultimate disposition of Falwell Jr.’s fate there, will continue paying a handsome pension to the institution’s newly minted cuck emeritus for the balance of his earthly pilgrimage.

Liberty is the last surviving stronghold of the senior Falwell’s once forbidding network of influence, from the Old Time Gospel Hour TV show (and later network) that catapulted him into national renown to the great religious-right lobbying combine called the Moral Majority, which was present at the creation of the Reagan Revolution and sought to consolidate many of its founding culture-war gains. But the elder Falwell fell abruptly on hard times by the early 1990s; he disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989, and spiraling debt—much of it left over from an ill-advised Bakker takeover dealforced him to shutter his gospel TV network in all but a handful of local Virginia markets. That left Liberty as the family’s safe harbor by default. But the university, too, was teetering on the brink of insolvency, thanks to the paterfamilias’s loose hold on the institution’s finances.

A thorough review of the books sparked some desperate efforts to save the institution. As documented in Dirk Smillie’s illuminating and detailed book, Falwell, Inc., one such rescue operation was the founding of a nonprofit shell operation to wipe out $29 million in the school’s debts for pennies on the dollar. A key Liberty benefactora Texas-based church bond kingpin and former fundamentalist preacher named Willard Mayorchestrated a $32 million bond issue in 1987 to fund expansion plans at the Liberty Campus and kicked in $1.5 million to help pay for a new football stadium, which Falwell Sr. named in his honor. In short order, though, the Texas insurance commission and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission caught up with May on various financial improprieties; the federal government seized his trust company, which turned out to include the deed to Falwell Sr.’s home congregation, the Thomas Road Baptist Church, his TV network headquarters, and around 130 acres of the preacher’s real estate holdings. In other words, the great name-brand preacher of the anti-government Reagan gospel was now all but owned outright by the federal government.

Things got worse. Liberty had been banking, quite literally, on a pending interest-free $60 million bond issue already approved by the city of Lynchburg. But church-state separationists challenged the pending outlay in court and won. Unable to meet a $6 million loan obligation that had come due, the elder Falwell had to foreclose on Liberty’s North Campus, where the central administration had centralized its dominion. He was thus forced to cart his own belongings across campus to a more remote spot near the now accursed football field, which had by then been quietly stripped of the Willard May name.

The school’s plans for self-rescue having largely proved a bust, Liberty fell back on the largesse of big-name donors. The $29 million marked for retirement by the nonprofit shell company appears to have been wiped out by none other than the maximum leader of the Unification Church, Reverend Sun Myung-moon, an ideologically and financially convenient ally but a highly embarrassing theological bedfellow for the fundamentalist Baptist college. And as if to compound the humiliation of it all, the legal enforcer that orchestrated the elder Falwell’s humiliating eviction from his office was the Arkansas-based Rose Law Firm, where Hillary Rodham Clinton was a longtime partner. The sting of that moment of reckoning likely played no small part in Falwell senior’s decision to help bankroll and distribute the incendiary and high-conspiratorial 1994 video The Clinton Chronicles, which accused the sitting president of all manner of shady dealings, up to and including murder. Even though Falwell was still $60 million in debt at the time, he managed to put together a $40,000 direct-mail appeal to help ensure the video got produced and widely distributed in the fever swamps of the Clinton hating right. (All of these edifying details come courtesy of Smillie’s aforementioned 2008 chronicle.)

Eventually, another financial angel engineered the retirement of Liberty’s debt—and the school’s financial operations fell largely into the hands of Falwell Jr., then recently graduated from University of Virginia Law School. (Like our age’s other great name-brand scion of an evangelical empire, Joel Osteen, the younger Falwell has very little formal theological training.) Sizing up the school’s still dim prospects when he succeeded to Liberty’s presidency in 2007, Jerry junior elected to go big into online learning—a strategy that soon yielded enormous returns. In 2018, Pro Publica reporter Alec MacGillis charted the full reach of Liberty’s online empire; while the college boasts an in-person enrollment of 15,500, it enrolls as many as 95,000 remote students in a given year. It’s the nation’s second-largest online college after the for-profit behemoth University of Phoenix. However, since Liberty is still chartered as a nonprofit university, it uses a laxer regime of regulatory oversight to load up on government-funded subventions; while the feds no longer own the campus and its collateral outright, this great manufactory of spiritually inflected right-wing dogma still thrives on the public dime, as MacGillis explains:

By 2017, Liberty students were receiving more than $772 million in total aid from the Department of Education — nearly $100 million of it in the form of Pell grants and the rest in federal student loans. Among universities nationwide, it ranked sixth in federal aid. Liberty students also received Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, some $42 million in 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available. Although some of that money went to textbooks and nontuition expenses, a vast majority of Liberty’s total revenue that year, which was just above $1 billion, came from taxpayer-funded sources.

MacGillis notes as well that Liberty, like other for-profit colleges, recruits its client base from a central call center, headquartered in a former Sears store that once anchored a Lynchburg mall, which Liberty holds a controlling interest in. And like other such boiler-room operations, Liberty’s sales come-ons veer on the predatory:

A separate division of about 60 people focuses on courting members of the military, who have access to even greater federal tuition assistance, and then advising them on campus. A former employee in that division said that given the smaller crew, the work there was if anything even more intense than in the main branch: More than 30,000 Liberty University Online (L.U.O.) students are from the military or military families.

Two recruiters told me they were instructed to quote L.U.O.’s cost on a per-credit basis, rather than per-course, which makes it sound more affordable. Undergraduate courses for part-time students are $455 per credit, or $1,365 for a typical course; master’s courses are typically about $600 per credit. They are instructed not to press prospective applicants too hard on their academic qualifications. Applicants have to submit past transcripts, but any grade point average above 0.5 — equivalent to a D-minus — would suffice, said the former employee in the nonmilitary division. Recruiters, he told me, “would say, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted.’ They’d make it seem competitive.”

Meanwhile, the school’s operating costs are also driven far below what the academic market usually bears. In 2016, Liberty spent a mere $2,609 per pupil in both online and in-person instruction; Notre Dame, by contrast, averages nearly $24,000 per student, while even the bare-bones University of Phoenix musters $4,000 per student. As a result, a 2013 audit of Liberty found that, while it raked in $749 million in tuition and fees, it spent just $260 million on instruction, student support, and financial services. That gap makes Liberty one of the most well-heeled nonprofits in the country, MacGillis notes, on a par with some of the country’s biggest nonprofit hospital systems.

For students, however, hidden costs abound. Nearly 10 percent of the school’s online student body winds up defaulting on their student loans—a percentage that’s all too likely to increase as the Covid-19 recession runs its course, even as lockdown conditions might prove a boon to enrollment at virtual diploma mills like Liberty. But as a nonprofit, Liberty can bank the proceeds from defaulted loans regardless. And disenchanted former students of the school report that they see precious little educational return on their tuition. One who’d been enrolled in Liberty’s graduate education program reported that her interactions with her instructor were fugitive and cursory while the course materials were presented so haphazardly that they appeared to be generated by algorithms. When she expressed her exasperation over a chaotic final exam format to her instructor, he replied by email that she should “remember that God is in control and he works all things for our good.” Instead, she withdrew from the program and filed a complaint with a Virginia higher-ed watchdog agency; 49 online Liberty students have filed similar complaints, the highest contingent from any school in the state.

So, yes, by all means chortle and smirk online at the consensual private trespasses of Jerry Falwell Jr., yet another great Protestant hypocrite laid low. But spare a moment’s prayerful reflection for the deeper affinities he shares with his benefactor in the Oval Office. Both men steered badly damaged properties from the brink of financial extinction in the 1990s. Both managed to leverage oceans of debt into lucrative branding franchises and preached a tireless message of ruthless rent-seeking to shore up their respective gospels of success. Trump, of course, even had his own eponymous online university; but in part because it fell afoul of for-profit regulations, he was forced to dissolve the school and pay out a $25 million settlement after a class action suit alleged rampant fraud. It may be, in other words, that we’re not actually the ones who’ll be smirking over the long haul here—and that the scandal that perhaps has expelled Jerry Falwell Jr. from public spiritual eminence is a symptom of far greater predatory sins than the tabloid news cycle is prepared to recognize.