Can Liberty University Be Saved?

The faces stared out from Wahl’s laptop screen—a constellation of bright young alumni carrying on a struggle that they’d begun in college. It seemed a peculiarly backward-looking endeavor for people with so much possibility before them. Wahl insisted that he’d made peace with his educational pedigree. As far as he was concerned, his years at the school had provided a kind of hands-on moral education. “I went to Liberty in the Trump era. I can’t go back and un-go to college,” he said. “Its name is inseparably associated with these people who don’t represent what I believe at all, but that shaped me in a way that I wouldn’t have been shaped if I’d gone to a more normal school.”

The Falwells are scornful of Save71, referring to its members as “Liberty-haters.” But it seemed improbable to me that a group of far-flung, Gen Z Christians would keep at this task of rehabilitating their former college out of hate or spite. They could, after all, simply drop the whole mess and head off into the rest of their lives. The only rational explanation, it seemed to me, was love—a kind of frustrated but profound belief that Liberty was just a few reforms away from an unrealized goodness.

Last spring, I drove out to the Falwells’ farmhouse, in the rolling hills outside Lynchburg. There are two old churches on the five-hundred-acre property, a creek tumbling through hardwood forest, and several graveyards where Confederate soldiers are buried. Falwell came out to the porch to greet me, golden retrievers cavorting at his legs. He looked older and more ponderous than he had the year before. His figure was bloated, and his graying hair had grown so long it was starting to curl around his neck. He moved slowly and struggled to breathe. He told me about the clots in his lungs, and said he was on blood thinners.

The Falwells hadn’t been doing much. They drove to town for breakfast and brought home boxed meals for lunch and dinner. “It’s hard to cook just for the two of us,” Falwell explained. Sometimes they picked up their granddaughter from preschool. Sometimes Falwell took out his bulldozer to cut trails. They talked on the phone, watched television, and monitored Falwell’s blood-oxygen levels on an oximeter that Becki bought at T. J. Maxx. They were depressed, she told me.

Falwell wanted people to know about his physical condition; he wielded it like an alibi. “I didn’t have the strength to go on TV and defend myself,” Falwell said, of Granda’s accusations. “He was telling a lot of lies about me and a lot of half-truths about Becki, and I just didn’t have any strength to fight.” The Falwells led me into a large, bright kitchen, with windows opening onto gently sloping lawns. One of the couple’s two sons, Wesley, showed up, accompanied by his wife and their small daughter dressed in a princess gown and plastic jewelry. “They came over to say hey to you,” Jerry Falwell, Jr., explained. But the young family didn’t seem the least bit eager to say hey—or anything else—to me. “Got anything to say, Wes?” Falwell asked at one point. “Nope,” his son replied.

Sitting in the Falwell kitchen, I started to ask Falwell about some of the contradictions in his story. If Granda was trying to extort money from the Falwells, why, I wondered, had they kept spending time with him? Falwell abruptly announced that he was done talking about it. “The people who want to believe me are going to believe me,” he said, “and the people who don’t want to believe me are not going to believe me.” At the other end of the kitchen island, Becki Falwell chattered nervously, detailing the apologies she’d offered for her indiscretion with Granda. She’d apologized to her husband and to her three children. She’d written a letter apologizing to the board at Liberty.

Wesley stood just behind her, leaning against the counter, listening. Now, as Becki Falwell spoke, he muttered something I couldn’t hear. His parents turned toward me expectantly. “Excuse me?” I said. “Family didn’t need an apology,” he repeated grimly, lifting his chin.

Jerry Falwell, Jr., has asked for forgiveness, but he has never, to my knowledge, apologized for his behavior. He is not sorry for anything, he told me when we met at the farm. He was thinking about what to do next. He seemed adrift, looking around his own house as if he was trying to figure out how he got there. “Like my dad used to say in the sermon—” Falwell began, and I waited for a soliloquy on atonement or grace. It didn’t come. Falwell continued, “He’d say, ‘Don’t get mad if people are lying about you; just be glad they don’t know the truth.’ ”

Halfway through the spring semester, Liberty’s identity, after Falwell, seemed to be acquiring shape. In March, the university announced that it had severed ties with Charlie Kirk; the campus think tank he’d co-founded was renamed the Standing for Freedom Center. The following month, David Nasser resigned as campus pastor and was replaced by Jonathan Falwell. (Many people I spoke with at Liberty believe this is a transitional role that will prepare Jonathan Falwell to become chancellor.) To Mwaura, Nasser’s departure underscored Liberty’s resistance to self-examination on race; this impression was amplified when the acting chairman of the board of trustees, Allen McFarland, a Black pastor, was ousted in favor of a conservative white preacher from Texas.

It was Easter when the administration got around to Jerry Falwell, Jr.,’s family. Prevo, the interim president, called Falwell’s eldest son, Jerry Falwell III, known as Trey, on Good Friday. Trey Falwell had worked closely with his father for years and had been regarded as the heir apparent. Even after his father’s disgrace, he’d held on to his job as vice-president of operations. Now Prevo offered Trey the option of resigning. He declined. On Easter Monday, the Falwells told me, Prevo fired him.

Then, in April, the university sued Falwell for more than forty million dollars in damages. The lawsuit, full of embarrassing personal details, accused Falwell of withholding information from the board, damaging the school’s reputation, and refusing to return university property. (Falwell denies wrongdoing.) I reached the Falwells the day the lawsuit went public. Becki Falwell was weeping. “It’s horrible,” she said. “I’m throwing up. I don’t want to shower. And to see them treat my son like that.” Falwell was more stoic. “I’m fine. I know who I’m dealing with and how amateurish they are,” he said. “They’re hurting the school more by attacking me than I ever could have hurt the school.”

For Morris and Wahl, however, all of this was a little too pat. They were troubled that Prevo seemed to be carrying on many of Falwell’s policies. Jerry Vines, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, remained on the board, despite revelations from a Houston Chronicle investigation that he had shamed and silenced at least one victim of sexual assault. (Vines did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.) “My mind-set now is that Charlie Kirk is just part of the problem, just like Falwell, Jr., is just part of the problem,” Morris told me. “You gotta get rid of all the weeds, you know?” There was no evidence of the deeper soul-searching that many at Liberty had hoped to witness. The spectacle of the board and Falwell attacking one another, Wahl said, “felt like watching gang warfare. You’re not really rooting for one side or the other.”

Even Marybeth Baggett, the English professor and a staunch critic of Falwell, thought that the longtime president had been used by Liberty as a scapegoat. “It almost seems like they’re just bracketing Falwell off, laying all the sin on him,” she said. “Like, ‘He’s the one who’s problematic.’ ” That’s not to say that Baggett was sympathetic to Falwell. “He has to do a confession and a repentance, but he seems absolutely intent on not doing that,” she said. “He only wants to say, ‘No, this was my wife who did this. I am absolutely innocent.’ ” Hearing this, Baggett’s husband, the author and theology professor David Baggett, interjected. “In pockets of the evangelical world today, there’s this idea of, ‘Well, of course we sin, but God’s grace is enough, so you should forgive me, too,’ ” he said. “Well, yes, but there’s this intermediary step according to Christian theology—which is repentance.” To demand redemption without admitting to your missteps, David Baggett said, was what the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

I spoke with the Falwells again this winter. Becki Falwell had given an interview to Gabriel Sherman, a writer for Vanity Fair, in which she’d accused Granda of sexual assault. This was new to me, although I’d interviewed the Falwells on multiple occasions, over many hours. (Granda forcefully denied the assault when I asked him about it. Sherman is now working on a scripted TV series about Falwell’s rise and fall. Falwell told me that he is coöperating with Sherman on the project but is not involved in any formal capacity.) Once again, the couple put me on speakerphone. They were preoccupied with the tell-all book and documentary expected from Granda in coming months, and Falwell said they’d thought that perhaps news of his wife’s sexual-assault allegation might “kill his book.” “I wanted us to be able to tell the story first,” he said. “I know, when he tells it, it’s gonna be full of lies.”

Later that day, Becki Falwell called. She was driving to the hairdresser’s, she said, and she wanted to talk to me without Jerry listening in. She faltered, saying she wasn’t sure whether she was on or off the record, but mostly she wanted to express how sorry she was. She was sorry for what she’d done to her family, to Liberty, to everyone. She had ruined everything, she said. “If you ask me to name a friend, I don’t know what to say,” she began to weep. “If something good happens, I don’t know who to call.”

It was the same apology, almost to a word, that she’d recited ten months earlier in her kitchen, except she didn’t seem to remember that. Just before we got off the phone, she said, “You’ll have to be my friend now.” Later that day, she texted to say that she was afraid she wasn’t Granda’s only victim. (Granda vehemently denies this, too.)

In order to watch their youngest daughter, Caroline, graduate from the university next month, the Falwells have agreed to abide by a strict set of rules governing their return to campus, Becki Falwell told me. Under the agreement, she said, the couple may only walk straight from the parking lot to their seats in the stadium and then return to the parking lot once the ceremonies are finished. They are not allowed to post any images from campus on social media, she said, not even family pictures snapped at the graduation.

I met Wahl recently, too. He’d grown a beard and got a new job, but he was still at the helm of Save71. I felt like I’d watched Wahl become an adult, with new certitude. Some of his original collaborators had drifted away, distracted by the demands of their post-college lives, but they’d been replaced by more recent alumni with new energy. New whistle-blowers at Liberty kept coming forward for the group to rally around. In March, 2021, two L.G.B.T.Q. Liberty alumni joined a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Education, saying that campus religious leaders had violated Title IX regulations by subjecting them to conversion therapy. Around the same time, a dozen former students and staff members filed a lawsuit alleging that Liberty had deliberately created an environment in which rape and sexual assault were likely to occur. According to the lawsuit, students were discouraged from reporting assaults, because, instead of being taken seriously or helped, they were disciplined for violating Liberty’s honor code. The suit contained shocking allegations, including those by a young woman who said that, when she tried to report a rape, “Liberty University’s Student Conduct Office gave her no opportunity to do so and, instead, forced her to sit with her rapist and apologize to her roommates for her violation of the Liberty Way.” (In a statement, Prevo, the university’s president, called the allegations “deeply troubling, if they turn out to be true” and pledged to investigate the claims and “make them right, if they turn out to be true.”)