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Jerry Falwell Jr.'s fatal miscalculation

(CNN) Last fall, as scrutiny of his leadership of Liberty University began to intensify, Jerry Falwell Jr. revealed to a CNN reporter one of the secrets of his school's success.

It didn't start, he said, with his famous father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who built the religious right, starred in the "Old Time Gospel Hour" on TV and founded the evangelical college in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Instead Falwell Jr. praised the pluck and moral flexibility of his grandfather, a bootlegger who delivered moonshine to Virginia hill-dwellers during Prohibition. Dismissive of organized religion, Carey Falwell died at age 55, with a hip flask in his pocket and an unsaved soul, his grandson said.

"My father became a Christian," said Falwell Jr., "but he took that same entrepreneurial spirit into the religious world. And that's why Liberty is where it is today."

Fallwell Jr., whose tenure as president and chancellor of Liberty University crashed to an inglorious end this week, always seemed closer in spirit to his defiant, bootlegging grandfather than his Bible-thumping namesake.

In recent years he has tweeted racist photos and told students that if more people carried guns "we could end those Muslims before they walk in." He has called a parent concerned about coronavirus on campus a "dummy" and told a pastor to "grow a pair."

He has posted pictures from a party on a yacht suggesting activities that would violate his own school's honor code. And he has fervently supported Donald Trump, comparing him to Jesus and excusing all-manner of un-Christlike behavior.

President Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr. during 2017 commencement ceremonies at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Each time, Falwell would insist he is not a moral leader. His job was to grow Liberty's endowment, campus and student body.

"I have never been a minister," he told one critic on Twitter, pointing to his background as a lawyer and real estate developer.

"The faculty, students and campus pastor ... are the ones who keep LU strong spiritually as the best Christian univ in the world," he added. "While I am proud to be a conservative Christian, my job is to keep LU successful academically, financially and in athletics."

It seemed strange to hear the heir to the Moral Majority's founder and the leader of a school that aims to "train champions for Christ" disavowing the responsibility to live a Christian life.

But it worked, for a while, because by most worldly measures, Falwell Jr. was a raging success.

He oversaw $1 billion in new construction projects, pioneered online learning platforms that boosted enrollment and brought Liberty's football and basketball teams to Division 1, the most competitive level of college sports. (Somehow, amid all of this success, Liberty quietly cut the budget at its divinity school.)

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, then running for president, speaks with Falwell Jr. at Liberty's 2015 commencement. The school has been a frequent speaking stop for many conservative politicians.

Did it matter if Falwell Jr. sometimes acted more like the president of a frat than the country's largest Christian university? Ultimately, yes.

"Saying that he was just a real estate lawyer and not a moral leader was not a luxury he had," said one former Liberty University official, who asked to remain anonymous.

Falwell Jr. likely assumed that as long as he kept Liberty rolling in money, no one would care much about his personal morality.

"That," the former Liberty official told CNN, "was a fatal miscalculation."

One scandal too many

Falwell Jr.'s latest scandal blew up on Monday when a young Miami man went public with allegations that he and Falwell's wife Becki had regular sexual liaisons for years, sometimes while Falwell looked on.

A day earlier, in an apparent attempt to preempt the allegations, Falwell publicly acknowledged that Becki had an "inappropriate personal relationship" with a man but said that he himself was "not involved."

Falwell also accused the Miami man, Giancarlo Granda, of blackmailing him and his wife, a charge Granda adamantly denies.

A former hotel pool attendant who met the Falwells at a luxury hotel in Miami in 2012, Granda said the Falwells initiated the affair and are "victim-shaming." Ganda said his sexual relationship with the Falwells lasted until 2019 and included trips to the family's farm and to meet President Trump.

By this time, Falwell's tenure at the school was already in jeopardy.

He had been placed on temporary leave by Liberty's board of trustees on August 7 after he posted a photo on Instagram that showed him with his pants unzipped and his midsection visible. In the photo, Falwell is holding a cup of dark liquid and has one arm around a woman whose shorts are also unzipped. Falwell later apologized and told a radio station the photo was "just good fun."

Falwell posted and later deleted this Instagram photo, which led Liberty's board to suspend him in early August.

The school's bylaws appear to disagree. The president, they say, should provide "spiritual and worldview leadership to the University in the pursuit of excellence."

Karen Swallow Prior, a former professor at Liberty, said Falwell ruled the campus with virtually unchecked power.

"The kinds of things that have been revealed over the past couple of days are not things that happen in isolation," Prior told CNN this week.

"There have been red flags for a long time," she added. "The kind of arrogance and authoritarian leadership that we experience as faculty was really just a symptom of this lifestyle that obviously was one in which he thought he could do anything and get away with it."

Falwell did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The Trump effect

The spotlight on Falwell Jr. intensified when he became one of the first prominent evangelicals to back Trump in early 2016, surprising fellow Christian conservatives.

During a Trump campaign visit to Liberty, Falwell glowingly compared the candidate to his late father due to their shared propensity for eschewing political correctness.

Then-candidate Donald Trump speaks on stage with Jerry Falwell Jr. during a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in January 2016.

Echoing his own self-defense, Falwell excused the twice-divorced casino magnate's moral failings, praising Trump's business success and arguing that Americans were electing a president, not a pastor. Falwell was fiercely loyal to Trump, appearing at campaign events with him and saying there was nothing the candidate could do to lose his vote.

"Our whole faith is based around the idea that we're all equally bad," he told CNN when asked about a videotape in which Trump bragged about grabbing women in the genitals. "We're all sinners, we all need Christ's forgiveness."

Current and former Liberty officials, who asked not to be named, say Falwell's personality changed as his political profile grew.

"The Jerry that I knew was very introverted, almost a loner," said the former Liberty University official.

While acknowledging his wife's affair, Falwell Jr. said this week that it was awkward to be thrust into the spotlight when he became Liberty's president in 2007 after the death of his famous father.

"I quickly and unexpectedly went from being the lawyer working in the background on the business aspects of the school to becoming a very public person, having to overcome my fears of speaking in front of audiences of tens of thousands," Falwell said.

Falwell Jr. speaks during the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

Eventually, Falwell grew into the role, reveling in Liberty's prominence as a political power center of evangelicalism. GOP candidates and officeholders often came to address Liberty students, and Falwell basked in the attention.

After he endorsed Trump, the media came banging down Falwell's door, intrigued that a prominent evangelical -- and a Falwell -- would support the least conventionally religious candidate in the field.

"Then all of a sudden he's on TV and introducing Trump at rallies," said the former Liberty official. "That's heady stuff, and I think he got reckless."

Falwell's fatal sin

For years, a handful of Liberty students and alumni had lobbied the school's Board of Trustees to remove Falwell. But his family name, political connections and financial success at Liberty, including an endowment that grew to $1.6 billion, made him untouchable.

This summer, as Falwell's indiscretions mounted, the trickle of criticism became a flood. Calling his behavior "appalling," a congressman urged him to resign. So did prominent evangelicals, and an alumni-led petition, urging Falwell "to stop this infantile behavior and lead our alma mater with dignity as your father did," drew nearly 40,000 signatures.

Members of the Falwell family -- from left, son Jonathan Falwell, wife Macel Falwell, son Jerry Falwell Jr. and daughter Jeannie Falwell Savas -- at the May 2007 funeral of the Rev. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia.

"Falwell's zipper has been down for a long time," wrote Calum Best, a 2020 Liberty graduate, in an online opinion column. "We've seen everything, and it's too disturbing to stay quiet."

Then came the revelations of the affair with Granda.

The irony was almost too obvious. As Falwell benefited from Liberty's growing reputation as a center of Christian conservatism, he appeared to be flouting the very beliefs that accounted for its moral power.

When a conservative Christian gets snared in a sex scandal, critics immediately cry "hypocrisy!", as if one sinner's fall discredits an entire faith.

But Jerry Falwell Jr. wasn't a hypocrite. He never pretended to be holier than thou. Like many successful capitalists, he believed that money made him invulnerable.

His fatal sin wasn't hypocrisy, it was hubris.