Jerry Falwell, Jr., one of the country’s most prominent evangelicals, has taken a leave of absence from his position as the president of Liberty University following a controversy over a controversial photo posted to his Instagram.
In recent years, Falwell has become known for his steadfast loyalty to President Trump, the strict code of behavior he expects students at Liberty to abide by, and his fierce opposition to secular societal influences, including acceptance of LGBTQ rights.
Much like his father, the now-deceased Jerry Falwell, Sr., who co-founded both the Moral Majority and Liberty University, the younger Falwell has become one of the country’s most prominent spokespersons for religious conservatives.
But last weekend, Falwell posted, and then deleted, a vacation photo of himself with another women, who was not his wife, clad in shorts, a midriff top, and a wig. Falwell had his pants unzipped, exposing his underwear, his shirt rolled up to expose his belly, and a glass filled with a dark liquid.
“More vacation shots. Lots of good friends visited us on the yacht,” Falwell captioned the photo. “I promise that’s just black water in my glass. It was a prop only.”
The photo sparked outrage from evangelicals and accusations of hypocrisy from political liberals, with both groups blasting Falwell for engaging in behavior that might get a regular Liberty University student suspended or expelled.
The university demands students dress “modestly” and are banned from consuming media that features nudity or sexual content.
Falwell later claimed the photo was taken during a costume party “in good fun,” telling the Lynchburg, Virginia-based radio station WLNI: “I promised my kids I’m going to try to be a good boy from here on out.”
He claimed that the woman in the photo was his “wife’s assistant.” The woman is pregnant, he explained, so she couldn’t get her pants up in the costume she was wearing.
“I had on a pair of jeans that I hadn’t worn in a long time, so I couldn’t get mine zipped, either,” he said. “And so I just put my belly out like hers.”
“She’s a sweetheart,” he added, “and I should never have put [the photo] up and embarrassed her.”
But on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a Baptist minister and former instructor at Liberty, called for his resignation.
“Jerry Falwell Jr’s ongoing behavior is appalling,” Walker, the vice chairman of the House Republican Caucus, wrote on Twitter. “As a Music Faculty Advisory Board Member and former instructor [at] @LibertyU, I’m convinced Falwell should step down.”
Jerry Falwell Jr’s ongoing behavior is appalling.
As a Music Faculty Advisory Board Member and former instructor @LibertyU, I’m convinced Falwell should step down.
None of us are perfect, but students, faculty, alumni and @LUPraise deserve better.
— Rep. Mark Walker (@RepMarkWalker) August 6, 2020
The university later issued a one-sentence statement reading: “The Executive Committee of Liberty University’s Board of Trustees, acting on behalf of the full Board, met today and requested that Jerry Falwell, Jr. take an indefinite leave of absence from his roles as President and Chancellor of Liberty University, to which he has agreed, effective immediately.”
This isn’t the first time the younger Falwell has courted controversy. As president, Falwell reportedly has cracked down on any members of the Liberty community who dissent from the schools’ staunch conservative positions, according to a former editor of Liberty’s student newspaper who wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post describing the culture of intimidation.
Politico Magazine later released a report, citing claims from more than two dozen unnamed Liberty University officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, that Falwell had allegedly showed other employees racy photos of his wife and engaged in crude discussions at work about his sex life.
Earlier this year, he was forced to apologize to members of the school’s Black community after he attempted to score political points against Gov. Ralph Northam, criticizing him for restrictions that required Virginians to wear masks in public during the COVID-19 pandemic by invoking Northam’s own political scandal in which he admitted to having donned blackface when he was younger.
But the tweet backfired, leading to widespread criticism and the resignation of the school’s diversity director in protest, claiming that, since taking the helm of Liberty, Falwell’s divisive and unapologetic embrace of scorched-earth politics had contributed to a drop in the number of Black students at the university.
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