An Evangelical Battle of the Generations: To Embrace Trump or Not?

An Evangelical Battle of the Generations: To Embrace Trump or Not?June 1, 2021


For years, there was an adage around Liberty University that if God split Jerry Falwell in half, you would have his sons Jerry and Jonathan.

Jerry Jr. inherited his father’s desire to be a force in American politics, and his post as Liberty University president, while Jonathan inherited his father’s gift for evangelical uplift and became pastor of his church.

Now, 14 years after Jerry Falwell Sr. died and nine months after Jerry Jr. was ousted in a scandal, Liberty is enmeshed in a debate that could have profound implications for the nation’s religious right: Whether it should keep nurturing Jerry Jr.’s focus on politics and maintain its high-flying role in the Republican Party, or begin to change its culture and back away from politics, an approach increasingly favored by younger evangelicals.

As part of their discussions, the Liberty trustees are considering naming Jonathan Falwell as the university’s chancellor—an important and highly symbolic post—in order to maintain the Falwell family connection but not their political baggage, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Donald Trump looms large over the university’s dilemma. Jerry Jr. shocked many in the religious right with his early endorsement of Trump over many Republicans with far greater evangelical ties; during Trump’s presidency, Jerry Jr. spent university funds on ads and programs that highlighted Trump and his followers. But Jonathan has been far cooler toward Trump. And in the wake of Jerry Jr.’s ouster, some in the Liberty community question whether the university would do better to concentrate on its religious values rather than casting its lot with the former president.

Liberty’s ultimate path will influence the greater evangelical world, which is having its own reckoning with the post-Trump Republican Party. With more than 100,000 students, Liberty has long been one of a small handful of top cultural institutions for evangelicals, its board studded with famed pastors and movement leaders. Observers believe that even a small change in direction at Liberty could signal shifting winds among one of Republicans’ most important voting blocs.

“Liberty University is a reflection of evangelicalism at large. Good, and bad, and everything,” said Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty for 21 years before leaving in 2020. “There’s a battle going on between the pro-Trump, pro-conspiracy theory, anti-vaccine crowd and Christians who might or might not have some overlap with those things, but who care most about the ministry.”

Since Jerry Jr. was pushed out of Liberty’s leadership last August, after claiming he was being blackmailed by a former pool attendant who had an affair with his wife, the university’s seven-member trustee executive committee has been struggling to determine how to take the university forward, according to interviews with more than 15 current and former Liberty students, faculty members, administrators and trustees. A Liberty spokesperson did not respond to questions from POLITICO for this story.


The members of the executive committee are all older conservatives who tend to be enthusiastic Trump supporters themselves. In Jerry Jr.’s absence, the board has made several key decisions that have served to keep Liberty aligned with the GOP, while at the same time elevating leaders who have the strong religious focus that Jerry Jr. lacked.

In April, the trustees replaced their acting chairman, Allen McFarland, the first Black person to serve as Liberty board chairman, who had an interest in increasing tolerance and diversity at Liberty. He was replaced with Tim Lee, a pugnacious pro-Trump pastor.

Lee—who also refers to himself as “Marine Tim Lee” and “Evangelist Tim Lee”—recently took to task a former Democratic operative who tweeted about how thrilled he was to be getting the Covid vaccine, for example. “Did not quite anticipate the wave of euphoria and emotion that comes with that first shot” of the Covid vaccine, the operative said.

“I’m guessing you have a fairly boring life. This is the best you’ve had in a year?” Lee responded on Twitter. “Eat a WHATABURGER and see how that feels.”

But as Lee and others have taken increasing control of the school, a growing chorus of campus critics has been calling on the trustees to enact greater reforms, and they appear to be listening. A week before they took their strongest step yet to distance themselves from Jerry Jr., suing him for failing to reveal the alleged blackmail scheme, they designated Jonathan Falwell as campus pastor. Liberty’s reformers are now pushing for Jonathan to assume an even bigger leadership role at Liberty and help transform the university into a more genteel place. That would mean halting the university’s uncritical embrace of Trump’s party. Today’s GOP, they allege, simply does not represent Christian values.

Matt Morris, a Liberty student from Northern Virginia who recently launched a viral petition against a pro-Trump think tank at Liberty, said he would like it to be a place where “the focus isn’t necessarily the conservative values, but more the biblical values that are part of the school.”

“Shoving politics down people’s throats is not the way Falwell Sr. went about it,” Morris added.

Dumping one Falwell, hiring another

On April 16, Liberty announced that the 70-year-old Lee, a double amputee Vietnam veteran who has preached for over 40 years, would be its new trustee chairman. Lee had been a longtime Liberty trustee and member of the executive committee. The previous day, the university had filed a lawsuit against Jerry Jr., ending a perplexing period in which the former president had tweeted his presence on campus and claimed in a POLITICO interview that he was on great terms with the same trustees who ousted him. The executive committee decided to file the lawsuit without telling the rest of the board members, some of whom learned of the decision through news reports the day before a spring board meeting, two people who discussed the incident with Liberty board members told POLITICO.

But Liberty’s board did not strip the Falwell family from Liberty altogether. Jonathan, the board had already announced, would take the role of campus pastor. Behind the scenes, there were also conversations about elevating Jonathan to the currently unfilled post of chancellor later this year, according to two people who have discussed the issue with Liberty board members.

Giving Jonathan a prominent position shows the university is still invested in the Falwell family’s legacy. And while his role of campus pastor is somewhat limited in scope, becoming chancellor would make Falwell one of the main stewards of the university and give him a role in hiring Liberty’s next president, too.

At 54, the red-haired Jonathan is younger than both Lee and interim president Jerry Prevo, who is 76, as well as many Liberty board members. Jonathan is telegenic and preaches at a quick clip, sometimes dressed in a chic plaid blazer or, as during a speech last fall at Liberty, while wearing black sneakers that appeared to be Allbirds, the favorite shoes of employees at Silicon Valley startups.

Most important for those who would like to see change at Liberty, Jonathan did not embrace Trump when his brother became an enthusiastic supporter in 2016. At the time, Jerry Jr. told POLITICO that Jonathan likely “isn’t crazy about [him] endorsing Trump,” but that his brother hadn’t said anything negative to him about it. Jonathan, declining to speak directly about the election, said at the time, “I’m less interested in that, and more interested in the Gospel.”

That’s not to say that Jonathan, who did not respond to interview requests, is not a conservative. He has spoken out on social issues including gay marriage, which he said would never be allowed at the family’s Thomas Roads Baptist Church. And he voted in the 2016 and 2020 elections, records show.

But Jonathan has not shared his brother and father’s affection for the rough-and-tumble of national politics, or in becoming a national figure at all. When he traveled with his father, Jonathan usually opted to bring a camera, staying behind the lens and shooting thousands of photos of the celebrities and political leaders who coalesced around his father.

Most significantly, Jonathan’s friends and supporters say they feel he would be content providing spiritual guidance to Liberty while letting others manage the university’s administration. If Jonathan were to become chancellor, Liberty would hire a separate president to administer the university, people familiar with the conversations say. It is not clear which post—president or chancellor—would be the top job, or if Jonathan would be Liberty’s sole public face, like his brother and father before him.

Jerry Sr. always wanted Jonathan to play a large role at Liberty, and making him chancellor would restore his father’s vision, many people in the Liberty community said. Back in 2006, after two stints at the hospital, Jerry Sr. embarked on succession planning at the university and ministry that had become his life’s biggest achievements. Falwell Sr. had known for years that he wanted Jonathan to lead his church and Jerry Jr. to lead Liberty after he died, and each son had taken a job at his biggest legacy institutions. But Falwell Sr. wanted additional structure, which included naming Jonathan as Liberty’s executive vice president of spiritual life.

“After my serious health challenges in early 2005, I determined that, at age 73, I must put in place an organizational structure which will assure business stability and spiritual perpetuity to a far larger and rapidly growing LU, even after I am gone,” Falwell wrote in explaining the changes in October 2006, according to an email that was later submitted to Liberty’s board by one of Falwell Sr.’s deputies, Ron Godwin, and subsequently posted online by Save71, a pro-reform alumni organization.

“Preserving the ‘Spiritual Life’ of Liberty is my foremost concern,” Falwell wrote, and “the defining of Jonathan’s post is pivotal to maintaining the doctrinal integrity of this institution and of my personal legacy.”

But Jonathan’s tenure at Liberty proved to be short-lived. Falwell Sr. died of a heart attack the following May. Jonathan took over Thomas Roads Baptist Church, and Jerry Jr. began leading Liberty. Jonathan helped direct the campus church and run Liberty’s convocation program, which invites high-profile outside religious leaders and politicians to speak on campus.


But Jonathan’s presence on campus seemed to undermine his older brother, two former Liberty employees told POLITICO. Jonathan—who had already been preaching at the church for multiple years—was better known in evangelical circles than Jerry Jr., who had held an administrative job at Liberty for years before his father passed away.

“It’s as if Jerry felt like he had to consolidate his influence, because people were looking at Jonathan as a leader the way his dad was,” said one former Liberty employee.

Within a few years, Jonathan stopped appearing often on Liberty’s campus. His hours plummeted, from an average of 23 hours per week of Liberty work in the year after his father’s death to nine hours per week four years later, according to Liberty tax filings. (Former employees say Jonathan spent far fewer hours around campus, and pulled back from his role sooner.) And while he maintained his seat on Liberty’s board he rarely spoke up in meetings, perhaps fearful of contradicting his brother, according to people who have witnessed Liberty board meetings.

Jonathan and Jerry Jr. did not have a particularly close relationship, two people who know both brothers said. One issue on which the brothers did not align was on how fully to embrace Trump. And Jonathan has made it clear that he has some very different views from the former president‘s. The day after the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist march in Charlottesville, which Trump notably failed to condemn, Jonathan Falwell delivered a blazing sermon condemning racism and the rising alt-right.

Standing a mere 60 miles from Charlottesville with a Bible in one hand, Falwell told the congregation, “I hope that you were saddened, I hope you were sickened by what you saw.”

“Some people call it the alt-right, some people call it white supremacy or white nationalism. They may want to call it, you know, neo-Nazis or they may want to call it KKK,” Jonathan said. “The one thing that I know is that God calls it sin. Racism is against God’s word, it is wrong every single time.”

The following Sunday, Jerry Jr. sat down with veteran journalist Martha Raddatz on “This Week,” a top Sunday morning news program. Pressed by Raddatz, Jerry Jr. denounced racism but defended Trump’s response to the event, including his statement that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the rally.

“He has inside information that I don’t have,” Falwell told Raddatz. “I don’t know if there were historical purists [at the Charlottesville protest] who were trying to preserve some statues. I don’t know.”

Blurring religion and politics

For Jerry Falwell Sr., religion and politics often went hand in hand.

By 1979, he and his circle of televangelists had achieved their own kind of rock star status. Falwell was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and his sermons were broadcast on hundreds of television and radio stations across the country. He toured with a band often composed of Liberty students, flanked by local politicians and church leaders at each stop.

That May, Falwell—who long had considered entering politics but hesitated to do so — gathered a group of conservative consultants and religious leaders at his office in Lynchburg to discuss the need for a return to morality in American life. The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision granting women the right to terminate their pregnancies, in particular, had bothered Falwell, as had federal requirements of school desegregation, rising drug and alcohol abuse, and the increasing availability of pornography. “The American family was being threatened as never before in the history of the nation,” he later wrote in his autobiography.


Falwell had for years railed against these evils. After the meeting in Lynchburg, he did something different: He co-founded the Moral Majority, a mass political and voter registration effort that would soon be credited with uniting the Christian right and helping deliver a landslide victory for Republican Ronald Reagan over the evangelical Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Within three years, according to Falwell, the organization had amassed a $10 million annual budget.

A decade later, the Moral Majority disbanded. But evangelical voters remain politically engaged, thanks in no small part to Jerry Sr. Eight years after he passed away, his son Jerry Jr. would make another deeply consequential decision to inject himself into national politics, endorsing Trump for president shortly before the caucuses in Iowa, a state with a large evangelical population.

Trump, Falwell said in his announcement, “is a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”

To some at Liberty, it seemed that Jerry Jr., after succeeding in vastly improving Liberty’s financial situation, felt ready to assert the kind of national influence his father once had. But the choice of Trump stunned many evangelicals, some of whom had longstanding relationships with Trump’s rivals for the GOP nomination.

“The late Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. would be rolling over in his grave if he knew the son who bore his name had endorsed the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for President of the United States,” John Stemberger, president of the evangelical Florida Family Policy Council, said the day Falwell Jr. announced his endorsement.

Nonetheless, the backing of Falwell helped Trump gain a share of the evangelical vote while securing a string of primary victories over his more religious counterparts, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who had gone so far as to announce his presidential bid at Liberty. Ultimately, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 general election, according to exit polls. In 2020, most white evangelicals—somewhere between 76 and 81 percent—voted for Trump a second time.

But polling also tells a second story, one that is troubling church leaders. Since 2008, the share of white evangelical Protestants as part of the population has been on a sharp decline, from 21 percent to 15 percent of the population now. The decline is unusually steep among organized religions.

And while fewer people identify as evangelical, the median age of a white evangelical person in America has gone up, from 50 to 56 years old.

“They’re losing people in the under-50 category,” said Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. And focus groups and research have shown that people who have left the church say they were turned off by its overt partisanship.

“People who came of age when the Christian right movement was ascendant, what they saw of Christianity was this hard-edge, anti-gay, partisan politics. And I think it was something that just didn’t resonate with that generation’s values and what they thought religion ought to be about,” Jones said.

A growing number of Liberty students, faculty and alumni feel that way, and are becoming vocal about what they see as overt partisanship at the university.

Last summer, a wave of Black faculty and students, including Liberty’s diversity director, announced plans to resign or transfer schools after Jerry Jr. posted a tweet about mask mandates that invoked Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal that Jerry Jr. said was intended to be facetious. Chelsea Andrews, a Liberty alumni who was senior class in 2015, has called for Liberty to take a stronger stance against sexual misconduct and recently assembled dozens of signatures on a letter urging Liberty to investigate Jerry Jr.’s alleged sexual misconduct while he was university president. Other alumni have formed a nonprofit, Save71, to focus on lobbying for reforming the school.

An on-campus think tank started by Jerry Jr. has become a particular flashpoint for reformers. The so-called Falkirk Center—named after Jerry Jr. and GOP activist Charlie Kirk—hired fellows including Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis and spent money on advertising featuring Republican candidates on Facebook, POLITICO reported last year. One spot showed Trump, his hands joined in prayer, with the words, “Pray For Our President.”

In December, both Liberty’s current student body president and vice president tweeted that they thought Falkirk Center was overtly partisan and un-Christian in its tone.

“We have had dozens of conversations with students who are embarrassed to claim the name of our school due to the rhetoric that comes from this center,” wrote Constance Schneider, the student body president.


Their tweets led Morris, a rising sophomore, to wonder if many other Liberty students were similarly irked by the Falkirk Center. He typed up a petition, titled “Liberty United Against Falkirk,” on a Google form shortly before Christmas.

“This petition has been created to show those outside Liberty that we will not be silent about the damage being done to our school’s reputation by several un-Christlike people,” the petition read. “We don’t want to be soldiers in a culture war; we want only to be champions for Christ.”

More than 400 students and alumni signed Morris’ petition—far more than he’d anticipated. Not long afterward, Liberty’s board changed the name of the Falkirk Center to the Standing for Freedom Center and cut ties with Kirk. (Kirk was on a one-year contract, Liberty’s communications director told the New York Times, that the university opted to not renew.)

Morris said he sees the student response as a sign of where an increasing number of students want the university to go.

“I want to pursue the more biblical and moral way of going about things as Christians,” Morris said in an interview. “Honestly, I see that becoming more and more the nature of the student body, but not necessarily the school itself.”

Conservatives still call the shots

There’s another possibility for Liberty University’s future, one in which Liberty keeps embracing the Republican Party and finds a new university president—perhaps even a politician—whose views closely resemble those of the executive committee. In that case, the university could continue to be a uniting force between evangelicals and the Republican Party, driving voters to Trump or whoever emerges in his place in 2024. Rather than fretting about un-Christian rhetoric, Liberty could embrace its role in today’s culture wars, which have roots in some of the issues that prompted Jerry Sr. to co-found the Moral Majority.

In the days after Jerry Jr. resigned at Liberty, rumors were rampant around the Lynchburg campus that former Vice President Mike Pence would take the role as Liberty president. Others have hoped Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and former pastor who currently serves as a fellow at the Standing for Freedom Center, would want it.

Liberty’s board is not close to hiring a new president, and will probably wait until it has finished investigating Jerry Jr. before doing so, people familiar with the discussions said.

This new era could well be more conservative. While Jerry Jr. relished being a high-flying player in Republican politics, he was not especially dogmatic in his rhetoric or strict in his social views. He relaxed campus rules that rang of his father’s Christian conservatism, lifting the requirement that men wear ties to class and allowing faculty to drink alcohol.

Falwell even underscored his focus on business over religion in a 2019 tweet, writing, “I have never been a minister. UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs. Univ president for the last 12 years.” Liberty’s “faculty, students and campus pastor” are what keep the university spiritually strong, Falwell tweeted.


The people who make up the Liberty board’s executive committee today are more doctrinaire than Jerry Jr. in both their religion and their politics. They include Lee, who recently declared on Twitter that “Liberalism causes brain damage,” and Prevo, who recently hired a friend from his former ministry who until earlier this year was chairman of the Alaska State Republican Party to assume a senior role as a Liberty administrator.

While Jerry Jr. took steps to quiet dissent against Trump on campus, Prevo is now fighting a battle against wokeness. Liberty parted ways with its previous campus pastor, David Nasser, after he denounced Jerry Jr. last fall and, in a particularly controversial moment, attended a student rally billed as a “Black Lives Matter” event.

Nasser ran the program that invited Jeh Johnson, former President Barack Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security, to speak at one of Liberty’s biweekly student convocations, but video of Johnson’s remarks was removed from the Liberty website after he gave a speech that promoted tolerance and honest leadership.

And while Liberty has renamed the Falkirk Center, the center is still mired in Republican politics. It parted ways with Kirk and Ellis but brought on a new crop of fellows that includes Huckabee and former Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is thought to be mulling a White House run himself. It’s unclear, critics say, whether the center plans to change its approach or simply its name.

Liberty’s most fervent critics say the entire board—including Jonathan Falwell, Lee and Prevo — are part of the problem and should consider resigning. For years, the board failed to address longstanding rumors that Jerry Jr. was mismanaging the university’s finances in a way that rewarded his friends and family, and behaving inappropriately in his personal relationships, they note.

“It’s the hens guarding the hen house,” said a former Liberty University administrator. “I’m sure they think this suit against Jerry demonstrates they’re serious about cleaning up a mess, but it was late, and that’s not how you clean up a mess from previous years.”

Read more

admin
Author: admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *