There’s no sanitary way to recount the downfall of Jerry Falwell Jr. How could there be? The saga hinges on an illicit relationship between the former president of Liberty University; his wife, Becki; and a young pool attendant at Miami’s Fontainebleau hotel. Not a great start, and it gets worse.
In 2012 Jerry and Becki seduced the 20-year-old Giancarlo Granda and, over the next seven years, kept him in their thrall with promises of financial success, implicit threats of exposure, and assistance from a well-placed fixer. All this while Falwell presided over one of the largest Christian universities in the world.
It’s no surprise the story would spark all manner of exposés. Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and others have all covered it. More recently, Granda himself has published his side in Off the Deep End. Granda also speaks out in Hulu’s new documentary God Forbid.
Predictably, other sordid tales have surfaced as well, of Becki aggressively pursuing a Liberty student and Jerry regularly showing up to work drunk. The more we learn, the more we cringe. And the hits keep coming.
Pulling back the curtain yet more, the Gangster Capitalism podcast uncovered even deeper levels of corruption at Liberty. That series in turn paved the way for a ProPublica investigation into the school’s mishandling of Title IX complaints, where numerous Liberty students and staff charged the school with indifference and bullying after they reported being sexually assaulted. This alleged institutional misconduct spurred a lawsuit against Liberty that was settled this May.
But that’s far from the last we’ll hear of this tragedy. At least two other television productions about Liberty are underway: one on the Title IX Jane Does’ fight for justice, and another more sympathetic to the Falwells.
Of negative coverage on Liberty, there seems to be no end. Which brings us to the pressing question: How should Christians respond? For the sake of the victims, we cannot ignore the coverage. But for the sake of our souls, neither can we revel in it. So what’s the solution?
In this situation, as always, we must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Our Christian obligations demand that we engage these scandalous revelations with discernment, motivated by an unwavering commitment to truth, grace, and justice.
Practically, how that plays out may look different for each of us.
Some among us may simply be unable to follow along. Perhaps personal histories make the reporting too triggering. The details may be too tawdry or the framing too salacious. Each of us knows best our own emotional bandwidth, and we are wise to protect it, especially in the face of such ugliness.
What we cannot do, however, is dismiss the coverage out of reflexive tribal loyalty, imagining these stories as merely devilish attacks on a righteous school. Some evangelicals may have good reason to believe the journalistic spotlight shines unfairly bright on Liberty and suspect that some reporters are gleeful to magnify any minor missteps. But it’s hard to dispute that the spotlight has exposed much that demands our attention.
Yes, the bulk of recent reporting on Liberty has come from outside evangelicalism, and some of the attempted analyses miss the mark by far and betray the producers’ political and ideological agendas. The Hulu show God Forbid, for example, leaves Granda’s story far behind as it closes with the January 6 insurrection and intimates that the political violence there stemmed entirely from evangelicalism.
Better to follow the lead of someone like Daniel D’Addario, whose review of the documentary deftly separates out the objective details from the framing. Specifically, he finds the project’s aims too ambitious and the evidence too thin: “Director Billy Corben’s attempts to connect [Granda’s] collision with the boomer-generation Falwells to the broader story of evangelicals in the United States seems at times like a stretch.”
For Christians especially, concerns about the storytellers’ motivations and shortcomings pale in comparison to the heartbreaking stories of abuse and corruption brought to light by these reports. In each project, producers have given a platform to those silenced by Falwell or Liberty—members of the school community who can finally reclaim their narrative and talk about the harm they experienced.
These are the people we have an obligation to listen to, no matter the medium. And I daresay that for every victim whose voice has been amplified by the current reporting, there are numerous others who still need to be heard. Ignoring this reporting effectively continues to silence them.
Some might suggest that we should disregard these stories because they’re unpleasant. Isn’t it better to focus on the good done by Liberty and the evangelical movement overall?
To be sure, there’s a danger in fixating on depravity, cataloging the sins of others, and detailing offenses. Galatians 6:1 cautions believers against these dangers, admonishing them to restore sinners in a spirit of humility and gentleness lest they themselves fall. But Scripture’s charge to expose deeds of darkness (Eph. 5:11) is just as strong.
Both stances, then—either blithely ignoring the coverage or indulging our morbid curiosity—fail to take seriously our responsibility as Christians.
Instead, we should approach the situation with grief, lament, and prayer and with demands for an independent investigation into the culture at Liberty. Falwell’s behavior was shameful, and much of that corruption is coming to light through the projects named above. But what about the system that he led? What about the leaders at Liberty who failed to hold him accountable? What other damaging consequences need exposure and correction?
Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) is a cautionary tale of what happens when leaders ignore red flags and resist accountability. The devastating consequences of RZIM’s fall have rippled out well beyond the ministry itself, compromising evangelical apologetic witness more broadly. We run the same risk in Christian higher education and beyond if we settle for scapegoating Falwell. Liberty, too, must be held accountable.
Where there’s smoke, there may not be fire. But the unrelenting smoke swirling around Liberty cannot be ignored. If the fire is left unacknowledged, it will consume anyone and anything in its path.
True, the onslaught of recent Liberty coverage doesn’t always hit the mark, but it does offer us an opportunity. Rather than ignore the reports or take delight in the downfall of others, and rather than further silence victims by dismissing the messengers, Christians must trust the power of the gospel story and demonstrate its relevance to this tragedy.
The truth will set us all free (John 8:32). We shouldn’t be afraid to learn what lies behind the Falwell scandal and to expose the school conditions that permitted such perversity.
To this point, Liberty has avoided a reckoning. Instead, it has promised investigations that two years on seem little more than appeasement and impression management. As more Falwell and Liberty coverage mounts, we have a responsibility to no longer accept those fig leaves.
There is a better way. For the sake of all involved, we must encourage the school to change course. If Liberty submits to a thorough independent investigation, if current and former leaders own their wrongdoing and are willing to set things right despite personal or institutional cost, and if they trust the provision of God’s grace through it all, then this shameful episode can yet be a powerful witness to the gospel’s glorious good news.
Marybeth Baggett is a former English professor at Liberty University and two-time alumna of the school. Her most recent book is Telling Tales: Intimations of the Sacred in Popular Culture.
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