On Monday, Politico ran a lengthy piece leveraging allegations of shady real estate deals, self-interested financial decisions, and misconduct at Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., whose father was one of the leaders of the modern evangelical movement and founder of the “Moral Majority.”
“We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,” a senior university official told Politico. “We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”
“We’re talking about the difference between right and wrong,” another said. “Not even ‘being a Christian,’ but being a good person, versus people who manipulate the system.”
But this isn’t exactly new—the evangelical movement has long been about spreading the gospel through opulent megachurches and well-heeled ministers bankrolled by the checks in the offering plate (or in this case, tuition fees). And while Falwell Jr. isn’t a minister, he’s simply capitalizing on the business model popularized by his father, among others.
The Politico piece notes that since Falwell Jr. took over, Liberty University, a non-profit evangelical Christian university that relies heavily on online enrollment, has become massively profitable:
Liberty University has transformed under Jerry Falwell Jr.’s leadership. When he took over as president in 2007, the school, which is a nonprofit, had listed assets of just over $259 million on its then most recent IRS Form 990; in its filing for the fiscal year ending in June 2017, its assets surpassed $2.5 billion. That number is now more than $3 billion, according to public statements Falwell made in 2018.
Documents from those working for Liberty University allege that Falwell Jr. has improperly used Liberty University funds to invest in his son Trey Falwell’s property management business and make him a “silent shareholder” in a hotel near Liberty’s campus. Sources also report that Falwell has given a friend’s contracting company preference for construction projects on campus, invested in another friend’s tourism business using Liberty money, and used university money to upgrade the campus fitness center while using it as a personal gym for himself and his wife in conjunction with his trainer. The article also connects Falwell Jr. to the Trump campaign, alleging that Falwell “fixer” John Gauger was hired by Michael Cohen to manipulate online polls in Donald Trump’s favor.
Though by trade Falwell Jr. is a lawyer and real estate developer, he’s operating the nonprofit like an evangelical minister—making himself so central to the institution that personal gains become wins for the entire organization. Major evangelical churches always rely on a central figurehead wielding all the power and cashing all the checks, whether it’s Falwell Sr., Pat Robertson, or Joel Osteen.
The evangelical community is used to the entanglement of financial success and spirituality. For example, Joel Osteen—who runs a similar “prosperity gospel” out of Houston, Texas—has written a book about his successful negotiations with the city of Houston to lease the Compaq Center as headquarters for his church for more than 30 years at a cost of just $11.8 million. He then spent $80 million installing disco balls and waterfalls to make it TV-ready. He credits both God and business savvy for the good deal.
The sources who spoke with Politico often acknowledged that they had to grapple with both fear of retribution from the Falwells coupled with evangelical guilt about betraying the familial head of the church:
“‘It’s a dictatorship,’ one current high-level employee of the school said. ‘Nobody craps at the university without Jerry’s approval.’
‘Everybody is scared for their life. Everybody walks around in fear,’ said a current university employee who agreed to speak for this article only after purchasing a burner phone, fearing that Falwell was monitoring their communications. The fear is not limited to Liberty’s campus. Several people who lack any tie to Liberty but live in the school’s hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, refused to go on the record for this story, fearing Falwell would take revenge upon them and their families. ‘Fear is probably his most powerful weapon,’ a former senior university official said.
But even those who fear have their breaking points.
In speaking out, said one longtime current university employee with close ties to the school’s first family, ‘I feel like I’m betraying them in some way. But someone’s gotta tell the freakin’ truth.’”
And for Falwell, taking on a role as the godhead of the school’s financial success seems to be a bastion of Conservative Christianity, according to his tweets:
“I have never been a minister. UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs. Univ president for last 12 years-student body tripled to 100000+/endowment from 0 to $2 billion and $1.6B new construction in those 12 years. The faculty, students and campus pastor @davidnasser of @LibertyU are the ones who keep LU strong spiritually as the best Christian univ in the world. While I am proud to be a conservative Christian, my job is to keep LU successful academically, financially and in athletics.”
Still, what’s most likely to bring down Falwell Jr., if anything will, is not any self-serving financial entanglements, but photographs of him and Trey at a Miami nightclub. (Alcohol is verboten at Liberty University, as is co-ed dancing.) In the piece, Falwell insists the photos are doctored but sources say he paid Gauger to try and manipulate Google algorithms to help hide them in searches. There are also allegations of Falwell Jr. showing compromising photographs of his wife to co-workers, which he denies.
Historically, allegations of sexual misconduct have been far more damaging to evangelical organizations than charges of fraud. For example, the IRS recommended Jim Bakker’s PTL ministries tax-exempt status be revoked in 1985 after determining he’d misused $1.3 million in church funds to pay for his over-the-top lifestyle, but no action was taken until 1988, after Jessica Hahn alleged she’d been paid hush money by PTL after being sexually assaulted by Bakker.
To the overwhelmingly conservative, Trump-supporting audience that Fallwell Jr. plays to, the fact that Liberty University has raked in $3 billion will far overshadow any allegations in the Politico piece, which is likely preaching to the converted.