September 28, 2019


The Trumpian Christians: Evangelicals now ask themselves, "What would Donald do?" (Dave Denison, 9/25/19, The Baffler)

ONE OF THE GREAT PERVERSITIES in American politics today is that we see Christian leaders taking their cues from Donald Trump, rather than the other way around.

And the perfect example of this inversion--the archetype of the Trumpian-Christian--is Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Unlike his late father, Jerry Falwell Sr., who founded Liberty University in 1971 and the Moral Majority in 1979, the junior Falwell is not a reverend. His background is in real estate development. But because of his famous name and his perch at the top of a large and prominent Baptist-founded college, his support for Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries was seen as a key turning point in the campaign. It came at a time when Texas Senator Ted Cruz had been expecting Falwell's endorsement and when Cruz seemed to be emerging as the consensus candidate for conservative Christians.

Falwell, of course, has been steadfast in his devotion to the president ever since. Trump accepted an invitation to speak at Liberty's commencement ceremony in May of 2017. And the intervening months have made one thing clear: mingling with Christians makes no impression whatsoever on Trump. But Trump seems to have become a role model for his Christian admirers. You can see the dynamic play out in an uncanny way in Falwell's recent life and times.

These times have lately brought some unusual tribulations. The roots of the current troubles go back to 2012, when Falwell and his wife Becki met a "pool boy" at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Florida. They struck up some sort of relationship with him. They decided to back him in a real estate investment involving a "gay-friendly" Miami hostel, which also involved their son Trey, who was then twenty-three. Eventually there was a lawsuit over the financing of the hostel. As several news outlets later reported, there were supposedly racy photos of Becki Falwell circulating that may have been used as leverage in the legal battles. (Falwell has denied the existence of compromising photos "of me," but in June reporters at the Miami Herald said they had seen three photographs, adding: "They are images not of Falwell, but of his wife in various stages of undress.")

One of the earliest probes into the Florida real estate deals was written in August of 2017 for Politico Magazine by Brandon Ambrosino, a graduate of Liberty University. Ambrosino has cultivated sources at Liberty who are displeased with Falwell's leadership. Earlier this month, Ambrosino returned to Politico with a follow-up investigation into the way Falwell runs Liberty University. He detailed "how Falwell presides over a culture of self-dealing, directing university resources into projects and real estate deals in which his friends and family have stood to make personal financial gains." He included new revelations about "Falwell's decision to hire his son Trey's company to manage a shopping center owned by the university, Falwell's advocacy for loans given by the university to his friends, and Falwell's awarding university contracts to businesses owned by his friends."

And to make matters worse, Reuters reported in August that Falwell had also made a sweetheart real estate deal with a young "personal trainer" the Falwells had been working out with. Falwell agreed to sell an eighteen-acre sports facility owned by Liberty to the trainer, a Liberty grad, and then financed the deal so that the trainer didn't have to put up his own money.

As such reports received national press attention, you could watch Falwell's reaction and almost see the thought bubble above his head: "What would Donald do?"

Posted by at September 28, 2019 10:42 AM