We are deep into campaign season with Christians on all sides becoming increasingly anxious and vocal. Phil talks with Kaitlyn Schiess, author of “The Liturgy of Politics,” about the false narratives shaping the hearts and politics of many Christians. She identifies these “false gospels” as prosperity, patriotism, security, and supremacy—and they’re far more subtle and powerful than you might think, and they affect both sides of the partisan divide. Also this week, Jerry Falwell Jr. responds to his expulsion from Liberty U. by quoting MLK’s “Free at last…” speech. And Mike Pence quotes the Bible in his RNC speech but replaces “Jesus” with “Old Glory.” Is it the clearest example of Christian Nationalism yet?
- “What Jerry Falwell Jr. Taught Me at Liberty University” by Kaitlyn Schiess: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/op…
- “The Liturgy of Politics” by Kaitlyn Schiess: https://www.amazon.com/Liturgy-Politi…
- “Vice President Mike Pence Swapped Out “Jesus” for “Old Glory” in His RNC Address”: https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/…
In my first week as editor in chief of the Champion, Liberty University’s student-run weekly, our faculty adviser, Deborah Huff, ordered me to apologize. I’d noticed that our evangelical school’s police department didn’t publish its daily crime log online, as many other private university forces do, so I searched elsewhere for crime information I might use in an article. I called the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to find out what the law required Liberty to disclose. But the public affairs worker there told the Liberty University Police Department, which complained to Huff. She called to upbraid me: Apparently, I had endangered our newspaper’s relationship with the LUPD. Huff and Chief Richard Hinkley convened a meeting inside a police department conference room, and Huff sat next to me while I proffered the forced apology to Hinkley — for asking questions. Huff, too, was contrite, assuring the police chief that it wouldn’t happen again, because she’d keep a better eye on me.
This wasn’t exactly a rude awakening. I’d spent the previous three years watching the university administration, led by President Jerry Falwell Jr. (who took a very micromanaging interest), meddle in our coverage, revise controversial op-eds and protect its image by stripping damning facts from our stories. Still, I stuck around. I thought that if I wrote with discretion and kept my head down, I could one day win enough trust from the university to protect the integrity of our journalism. I even dreamed we could eventually persuade the administration to let the Champion go independent from its supervision. I was naive.
Instead, when my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an “oversight” system — read: a censorship regime — that
- required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review.
- Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article;
- they added and deleted whatever they wanted.
- Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally, as he had a year earlier when, weeks before the 2016 election, he read a draft of my column defending mainstream news outlets and ordered me to say whom I planned to vote for. I refused on ethical grounds, so Falwell told me to insert “The author refused to reveal which candidate he is supporting for president” at the bottom of the column. I complied. (Huff and the police department declined to comment on the contents of this essay. Falwell and the university did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Eventually I quit, and the School of Communication decided not to replace me, turning the paper into a faculty-run, student-written organ and seizing complete control of its content. Student journalists must now sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbids them from talking publicly about “editorial or managerial direction, oversight decisions or information designated as privileged or confidential.” The form also states that the students understand they are “privileged” to receive “thoughts, opinions, and other statements” from university administrators.
What my team and I experienced at the Champion was not an isolated overreaction to embarrassing revelations. It was one example of an infrastructure of thought-control that Falwell and his lieutenants have introduced into every aspect of Liberty University life. Faculty, staff and students on the Lynchburg, Va., campus have learned that it’s a sin to challenge the sacrosanct status of the school or its leaders, who mete out punishments for dissenting opinions (from stripping people of their positions to banning them from the school). This “culture of fear,” as it was described by several of the dozen Liberty denizens who talked to me for this story — most of them anonymously, to protect their jobs or their standing — worsened during my four years on campus because of the 2016 presidential election.
By 2016, Liberty’s efforts to limit free expression were already well-established. (“The big victory was finding a way to tame the faculty,” Falwell told the New York Times last year for a story about privileging Liberty’s financial growth over its academics.) But the school’s methods became even more aggressive after Falwell endorsed Donald Trump early that year, according to multiple current and former faculty members. “The closer you get to the president’s office,” says former history professor Brian Melton, discussing a chilling effect on campus, “the worse it becomes.” Falwell’s staff now operates masterfully to squash challenges to his views and his rise in national political influence.
The dissent that did exist — from off-message campus speakers, insufficiently sycophantic board members, student activists and our newspaper staff — was ruthlessly neutralized. Liberty, founded on principles of fundamental Christianity, is now a place that has zero tolerance for new questions and ideas. Those who harbor them must remain silent, or leave.
Falwell, 57, possesses a certain Orwellian gift for painting Liberty as a bastion of tolerance where alternate viewpoints are not just permitted but encouraged. In March, he attended the signing of Trump’s executive order on college free speech and later claimed on “PBS NewsHour” that Liberty was inclusive of all ideas because it had invited Jimmy Carter to deliver its 2018 commencement address and Bernie Sanders to speak in 2015 at the assembly that students are required to attend twice a week. After Falwell learned last month that I was writing this essay, he posted a column on Liberty’s site disputing “sensational stories . . . that we do not allow opposing views.” He wrote, “If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that there will be a strong and critical response to this article by a few former students and a handful of national media determined to paint Liberty in a completely different light on these issues.”
His Twitter account is a much better reflection of his approach to dissent. Falwell’s profile announces that “Haters will be blocked,” and several students who have disagreed or argued with him on Twitter have met this fate. Falwell outright lied on the platform to Sojourners Web editor Sandi Villarreal — who is now my colleague — when he said he’d removed a Champion op-ed criticizing Trump’s “locker room talk” defense because there was simply not enough room on the page. (The piece was already laid out on the page when he pulled it.) In fact, much of Falwell’s message control has to do with safeguarding Trump.
Mark DeMoss was something like Liberty royalty. His late father, Arthur S. DeMoss, gave $20 million to build DeMoss Hall, the school’s main academic building. Mark was also an alumnus, a former chief of staff to university founder Jerry Falwell Sr. and eventually a public relations executive who counted Liberty among his clients. He won a seat on the school’s board of trustees in 1991 after serving as Liberty’s spokesman and became the board’s executive committee chairman in 2008.
In January 2016, days before Trump was scheduled to speak at Liberty, Falwell emailed DeMoss asking whether he should endorse Trump for president. DeMoss says he recommended against endorsing anyone, and Falwell thanked him for the “great advice.” Falwell, at the speech, held back his imprimatur. But a week later, he anointed the billionaire with his support. DeMoss was horrified. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ,” he told The Washington Post at the time. Falwell seemed to take the rebuke in stride, saying he was “disappointed” in DeMoss but understood “that all the administrators and faculty have their own personal political views.”
Within a few months, though, DeMoss would be gone. The night before a Liberty board meeting that April, the executive committee, including Falwell, convened without DeMoss to vote on a motion to oust him from his role as chairman. DeMoss says that his criticism of the endorsement was the cause. (Before the meeting, Falwell had called him a pawn of rival campaigns.) DeMoss resigned as a trustee days later, on April 25, 2016, citing “a lack of trust.”
A week after that, Liberty changed the sign on DeMoss Hall to “Arthur S. DeMoss Hall,” making clear that the structure honored the father and not the wayward son. The message to faculty and students was clear: If you challenge Falwell, you will be not only removed but erased.
The culture of Liberty is governed by lists of principles. According to the Faculty Handbook, for instance, professors are expected to “promote . . . free market processes” and “affirm . . . that the Bible is inerrant in the originals and authoritative in all matters.” One cause of perpetual insecurity at Liberty is the school’s militant refusal to award tenure to any faculty member (outside the law school, which must offer it for accreditation). Instructors are instead hired on year-to-year contracts; during the spring semester, they find out whether they will be coming back the next fall.
The result is constant, erratic faculty turnover. One recently fired teacher describes the spring as a cycle of stressed-out, fearful professors wandering into each other’s offices to ask if they had their contracts renewed yet. “If you’re a conservative Christian in the academic world, the chances of you getting a job are nil in many areas,” says Melton, who worked at Liberty as an associate professor for 15 years before resigning because of what he described as the school’s surveillance and fear tactics. “The administration knows that, and . . . they wield that very effectively, keeping people quiet.”
Late-notice faculty removals have also become more commonplace, according to Melton, stemming in part from Falwell’s stated desire to tame the teaching corps. “He considers the faculty to be disposable beasts of burden,” Melton says. Last summer, 14 professors at Liberty’s School of Education were suddenly told that their contracts would not be renewed as part of what former Liberty spokesman Len Stevens called a “reorganization.” This June, a dozen faculty members at Liberty’s School of Divinity were notified that their contracts would not be renewed. By that late in the year, it is too late to find another job in higher education for the fall.
For former faculty members, Liberty’s culture of fear can live on. The school often requires terminated professors to sign a nondisclosure agreement if they want their severance packages, several told me — a practice that is extremely uncommon in higher education, according to Robert Bezemek, a California lawyer who represents labor unions at universities. (As Melton puts it, “They force this NDA on you by leveraging the ability to feed your family against you.”) Even former teachers who hadn’t signed NDAs told me they feared that talking to me on the record would somehow get them blacklisted from jobs elsewhere or imperil their friends who still work at Liberty. One thought my request to speak with him was a trap, calling my previous connection with the school “fishy.” When I contacted another for an interview, she warned me, “The university is on to you.” I confess I harbor a certain paranoia, too, from years of being watched at the Champion. Melton and several other current and former members of the faculty told me that they believe the administration surveils everything they do on Liberty’s server, tracking when instructors complete a task late and searching for evidence of “disloyalty,” as a former professor put it. Another onetime instructor declined to use his university-issued laptop because he thought Liberty had equipped it with spyware.
One cause for alarm came just before Trump’s inauguration, when then-Provost Ronald Hawkins ordered all campus faculty members to fill out an anonymous survey rating how politically and socially liberal they were on a scale of 1 to 5. “We are interested in how we compare with other institutions on political and social views,” Hawkins’s office said in a follow-up email to faculty members. But, according to a former professor who talked with others in her department, many initially refused to take the survey out of fear that if a department had too many left-leaning professors, the administration might target it for more oversight or even firings. There is no evidence of Liberty firing a faculty member explicitly for his or her political beliefs, but everyone I spoke to believed that the school could easily manufacture some other pretense. “There is zero trust between the administration and faculty,” Melton says. FIRE, a nonprofit that fights for free speech on campus, put Liberty on its 2019 list of the 10 worst colleges for freedom of speech.
Things aren’t much better for the 15,000 students on campus. In 2009, Liberty withdrew funding and recognition for its College Democrats chapter because, as Mark Hine, the senior vice president of student affairs, put it, the national party defends abortion, opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, supported “the ‘LGBT’ agenda, hate crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc.” A.J. Strom, who graduated in May, tells me that several students wanted to revive the College Democrats but no faculty members were willing to advise them, without which Liberty will not recognize a student club. “They said they would love to sign on but that if Jerry saw their name on the club application, they would be fired,” Strom says.
Student leaders have consistently helped administrators enforce the culture. After the Charlottesville rally in August 2017, members of Liberty’s Student Government Association drafted a statement expressing solidarity with Heather Heyer, the protester murdered by a neo-Nazi, and all people demonstrating against white nationalism. Then-SGA President Caleb Johnson refused to release the message and send it to university administrators for fear of what Falwell might think. (Johnson said in an email this past week that the statement’s author was “a self-described ‘Never-Trumper’ ” and that “we would not allow the platform of Liberty Student Government to be improperly used by a political activist with obvious ulterior motives.”) “There’s 100 percent an atmosphere of fear at Liberty,” says Caleb Fitzpatrick, who was then the student government’s speaker of the House and helped draft the statement. “There was a need to avoid being seen as a liberal or progressive, or even being different.”
In September 2018, nearly a year into the #MeToo movement, Liberty invited conservative provocateur Candace Owens to speak at an assembly. A few days before her visit, Owens tweeted that the women accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault were “making it up.” In response, Addyson Garner, then president of a libertarian club on campus, organized a rally to support victims of sexual assault, called #LUforMeToo, which would occur right after the Owens speech. The day before, Jacob Page, then the student body president, summoned her to his office, where he and Vice President Derek Rockey pressured her to cancel the event, Garner says. She left the office in tears, but she and her fellow organizers decided to protest anyway. About 25 students attended, a rare show of defiance on a campus that discourages political dissent. (In an email this past week, Rockey said he thought students should attend a public dialogue on these topics rather than stage a protest. Page said he and Rockey “support bringing awareness to victims of sexual assault” but “felt it was unproductive to engage in partisan protests.”)
Guests at the school who deviate from the prescribed philosophy can be targeted, too. In October 2017, the anti-Trump pastor and writer Jonathan Martin arrived at the invitation of the Christian musical duo Johnnyswim, who were performing on campus that night; Martin also announced on Twitter that he would lead a prayer meeting with students the next morning. Falwell took it as an unauthorized protest, and the LUPD sent three armed officers to remove Martin from campus, telling him he’d be arrested if he returned. Martin tweeted that it was “evidently in response to my strong criticism of @JerryFallwellJr’s alignment not only with the darkest contours of Trumpism, but expressly with Steve Bannon & the alt-right he represents.” Falwell told the Champion that Martin’s forcible removal was “a matter of safety.”
A similar episode unfolded in 2015 when Jonathan Merritt, a Liberty alumnus and Christian writer, was disinvited to speak on campus after authoring an article critical of Hobby Lobby, the company permitted by the Supreme Court in 2014 to deny its employees contraceptive health-care coverage. The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, is close with Falwell. “You don’t seem to remember who your friends are,” Merritt remembers Falwell saying over the phone.
One afternoon in April 2016, when I was still a cub reporter in my sophomore year, I received a one-sentence email from Deborah Huff, our adviser: “need to talk to you about SG,” the subject line read; I should call her that night. She copied the editor in chief, a senior. I was clearly in trouble.
“SG” stood for Scott Garrett, a traditionalist conservative who represents Lynchburg in the state legislature. According to records I had found through the Virginia Public Access Project, he owned millions of dollars in stock, some from companies that lobby lawmakers in Richmond. A few days earlier, I interviewed him for the Champion about possible conflicts of interest stemming from his assets.
After dinner, I called Huff. She sounded annoyed. When I described my reporting to her, she told me the Champion would not run my story, because Garrett was afraid that the article would hurt his reputation. The message was clear: I had no business heckling Liberty’s friends and allies. (“I don’t remember the incident in question,” Garrett emailed me this week when I asked him for a comment. “And I don’t understand why I would say the article would hurt my reputation because there was no conflict of interest.”)
Out of fear that arguing with her would end my career at the paper — she selected which students would advance to editorships — I apologized for looking into Garrett’s finances and assured her that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again. I understood that her job, and by extension mine, was to protect our righteous, evangelical university. Before becoming a Liberty teacher and then supervisor of the Champion, Huff worked for the Fundamentalist Journal, a now-defunct Falwell-owned periodical. I didn’t see defending the faith or protecting Liberty as the main purpose of journalism. But in the face of a mentor I trusted, I believed I must have been in the wrong.
Looking back on the emails from that episode three years later, I’m embarrassed by my naivete — and my willingness to abandon a scoop with obvious journalistic merit. The scales began to fall from my eyes as, over the next 18 months, I saw how in every issue of the Champion the administration strategically manipulated or erased stories. Huff discouraged us from following leads that might disrupt the image of Liberty as a prestigious, respectable evangelical institution. In pitch meetings, she made it clear that the Champion would not cover Liberty scandals, even those that appeared in mainstream news outlets (such as the Falwells’ secret business relationships or the wave of Liberty alumni who sent back their diplomas after Falwell defended Trump’s comment that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the white-nationalist Charlottesville rally).
By the time I became the Champion’s editor, the censorship I hoped to stop was already shameless. In February 2017, I wrote an article on a higher-education task force that Trump had asked Falwell to lead. Falwell emailed me his personal edits, removing every quote from an expert concerning possible conflicts of interest that Falwell created by accepting the position (in the end, the task force was never formed). Months later, Huff ordered that my story about Martin’s expulsion from campus include lines about how Liberty is inclusive of different political beliefs, in the face of obvious counterevidence. An administrator spiked a news report about an on-campus swing dancing club that was temporarily banned. When film students drafted a petition in early 2018 objecting to “The Trump Prophecy” — a hagiographic tale about a firefighter who said he had prophesized Trump’s election, which Liberty students were compelled to produce in order to receive their degrees — faculty at the film school crafted our coverage into a fluffy bit of PR highlighting students who looked forward to working on set. Champion reporter Jack Panyard was so disgusted, he removed his byline from the piece. Then there was sports editor Joel Schmieg’s column about “locker room talk” after the “Access Hollywood” video came out; Falwell blocked it from publication.
This interference frequently caused shouting matches with, and passive aggressive emails from, administrators. “Too bad the editor and chief of The Champion penned this editorial for the homecoming edition without any effort to learn all that is being done at Liberty to prevent and react appropriately to sexual assault,” Liberty General Counsel David Corry wrote to Falwell and Huff about my column on campus sexual assault. Instead of sticking up for the journalists she supervised, Huff emailed me to complain that I did not “make sure Liberty was separated from the conversation or address what Liberty does that is different than other schools.” Later that day, the piece was removed from the website without my consent. (In his preemptive statement last month, Falwell seemed to address these episodes. “In the past few years, some students screamed ‘censorship’ when they didn’t get their every word published in our campus newspaper,” he wrote. “But that standard isn’t even attained within the newsroom of commercial newspapers.”)
In the wake of these run-ins, members of our staff often gathered in my office to daydream about taking the paper independent or grouse about Huff, whom we felt was gaslighting us. What kind of newspaper adviser would denounce our attempts to keep Liberty accountable and make us repeatedly apologize to administrators for trying? By this point, it was clear that the principles of investigative journalism I was learning in class were verboten when it came to Liberty itself. The Champion could never be an avatar of press freedom or truth-telling.
I grew up in a politically conservative household and was active in my denomination; my values changed at Liberty as I embraced a more inclusive and open vision of the church. My views of Liberty, and of the values I saw Falwell profess on a daily basis, changed as well. I considered transferring schools or resigning from the paper. The weekly fight for the right to publish was exhausting. Still, I decided to stay because I saw that, on the occasions we won — when we either persuaded administrators to leave an article alone or worked around their objections — we sparked dialogue among students on Twitter and in classrooms that challenged Liberty’s status quo. But ultimately, our fraught relationship with our overlords was untenable, and something had to give.
The end finally came for the Champion when a left-leaning faith group, the Red Letter Christians, organized a “Lynchburg Revival” in April 2018 to protest Falwell’s support of Trump and what the group called “toxic evangelicalism.” Two days beforehand, Liberty’s police department notified RLC leader Shane Claiborne that he would be arrested if he set foot on campus. The Champion had already decided to cover the event, but the stakes were higher now. Huff told us it would be too controversial for print, but the other editors and I didn’t think we could ignore it.
The day before the gathering, Falwell sent an email to Erin Covey, our assistant news editor: “Let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.” When we explained our dilemma to RLC organizers, they tipped off a reporter at the Religion News Service, which ran a piece detailing Falwell’s censorship. Covey gave on-the-record quotes. Panyard, who was set to succeed me as editor in chief in a few weeks, briefed the reporter on background, as did I. (Vox also picked up the story and amplified it, and I imagine it galled Falwell to be depicted as an insecure tyrant in a liberal publication.)
The school’s response was swift. Falwell convened a tele-meeting with Bruce Kirk, who was then dean of the School of Communication, and our entire staff. They reprimanded us for talking to the press, and Falwell justified his censorship by arguing that the Red Letter Christians were “not keeping with the values of the university.” Then he spoke candidly for the first time about, as he saw it, the virtues of censoring us: “That’s what you kids are going to run into when you get into the real world and start working for for-profit newspapers. That’s what they’re going to expect of you, and I want you to learn that while you’re here.” Kirk, who was sitting with us for the meeting, chimed in, agreeing with Falwell. Being censored by a higher-up in the media industry is “just a part of life,” he said. (Before he began at Liberty, he worked for a local news station operated by Sinclair Broadcasting.)
After the meeting, I felt sick. I hadn’t said a word while Falwell flayed us for trying to practice basic journalism and act with integrity. I went into my office, closed the door and waited until most of the staff had left the newsroom. Then I sat down at my desk and wept.
A week and a half later, Kirk called Panyard and Covey into his office and told them they were being let go as part of a “reorganization.” Nobody else was affected; they’d been fired. It was the most aggressive and direct action the administration had ever taken to silence the Champion. I was not fired — I was a lame duck anyway — but I resigned and refused to take part in the production of the year’s final edition. I cleaned out my office that same day. Soon after, I learned I would be the last student editor in chief of the Champion and that from now on the paper would be run directly by the school. (Kirk did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.)
Even at Liberty, there are still those who publicly reject Falwell’s diktats. A petition supporting Mark DeMoss won more than 70 student signatures when Falwell ousted him in 2016. During the presidential election, free speech lived a little when Liberty United Against Trump, a student group, scored national media attention for its stance that the school did not uniformly approve of Falwell’s endorsement. It said it accumulated more than 2,000 student signatures for its statement.
Panyard, the deposed editor, launched a new independent newspaper, the Lynchburg Torch, with the help of other refugees from the campus weekly. In the past year, it has published stories that the Champion’s overseers would have blocked, such as a report on LGBTQ students who oppose Liberty’s position on same-sex relationships. Addyson Garner put on another rally this year to support queer Liberty students after transphobic comments from Falwell and his wife, Becki. (“We’re raising her as a girl,” Becki Falwell said of their granddaughter Reagan, as her husband looked on. “We’re not letting her have a choice.”) Dozens of students participated, according to Garner and posts on social media. It was the first time I had ever seen the rainbow pride flag flown openly on Liberty’s campus. The school is changing.
But in significant ways, it is not more tolerant, and it certainly does not celebrate “the open exchange of competing ideas” that Falwell described in his column. In a discussion with the incoming Champion staffers after I left, Kirk said, “Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is.” The students who recall a more open time at Liberty, before Trump, have now graduated. All those who remain chose to go to Falwell’s school after he endorsed Trump, forming a much more compliant student body that generally accepts and even supports Falwell’s crackdown culture.
I graduated last year. Since then, I’ve tried to put Liberty — and the stress and self-doubt that officials there saddled me with — behind me. But I still fume when Falwell spews dumbfounding conspiracies online or retweets a bigoted rant from Trump, and I still become uneasy when I see my diploma, which is sitting in a cluttered drawer at my parents’ house. I made amazing friends and memories on campus, but I’m realizing the extent to which I internalized the fear tactics; I still sometimes self-censor my thoughts and writing. How can a college education stifle your freedom of thought? When people ask me if I regret going to Liberty, as many do, I usually pause. I don’t know.
Students at Liberty University are more likely than most to understand the specialness of this biblical lesson. It is one of the few stories in which Falwell should not be assigned the part of an ass. For that matter, he does not even deserve the role of Balaam, who at least was open to instruction. Instead, Falwell has charged the angel straight on and — in defiance of nearly all public health experts — reopened the Liberty dorms in the middle of a pandemic. Now, according to the New York Times, at least one student has tested positive and several more have shown coronavirus-like symptoms.
Falwell played down the risk to students who might get the disease. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk,” he argued last week, “and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”
But this public response indicates the staggering level of ignorance that informs Falwell’s leadership. It is possible for students with mild or unnoticeable symptoms to spread the disease. And once cases are discovered, it is generally too late to take preventive action. Yes, the fatality rate of infected college students is likely to be low. Yet places with broad community spread are more likely to see infection of the elderly and vulnerable, who are more likely to fill premature graves. Since when has Liberty University embraced the teaching of Social Darwinism in Ethics 101?
What can’t be disputed is the constant churn of mixed messages that Falwell has contributed to our national debate. His stated intention has been to concentrate Liberty’s student population: “I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell personally welcomed hundreds of students back to campus after Spring Break. “They were talking about being glad to be back,” he recalled. “I was joking how they pretty much had the whole place to themselves, and I told them to enjoy it.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell has called the national pandemic response an “overreaction” with political motivations. “Impeachment didn’t work,” he claimed, “and the Mueller report didn’t work and Article 25 didn’t work, and so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell went on Fox News and speculated that the coronavirus might have been the work of the North Korean military.
It can’t be disputed that Falwell called one critic a “dummy,” even though he is the parent of Liberty students. Or that Falwell has dismissed a critical professor named Marybeth Davis Baggett as “the ‘Baggett’ lady.’ ”
There is an old Bob Dylan song titled, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Who is Falwell serving instead of students, parents, staff, his board and the Lynchburg, Va., community? Let’s see.
- Falwell has contempt for the weak. He is
- dismissive of experts. H
- traffics in conspiracy theories. He
- attacks his critics with infantile putdowns and demeaning names. And he
- refuses to admit when he is dangerously wrong.
Who does that sound like? It is on the tip of my tongue.
In this case Falwell has gone even further than the president, who is occasionally forced, under duress, to say sane things about the virus. Falwell seems to want credit from President Trump for drinking the most distilled, concentrated, rotgut form of the Kool-Aid.
He blunders toward blasphemy by insisting that he is being persecuted for his religious beliefs. “We’re conservative,” he claims, “we’re Christian, and therefore we’re being attacked.” But any path that ignores the truth and endangers the vulnerable can’t be called the way of Christ. No, there is only one explanation: Falwell has laid down the cross to follow Trump.
This article packs an even stronger punch now that we know Liberty University is probably dealing with an outbreak of coronavirus. Liberty is an unhealthy place. And now people are getting sick.
Here is Brandon Ambrosio at Politico:
Lynchburg, Virginia, isn’t a stereotypical college town. It isn’t politically liberal. It doesn’t have the crunchy affect of an Ann Arbor or even a Charlottesville.
But even here, where Liberty University drives a large part of the economy—and where school president and chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. strides across the landscape as a local grandee—anger over Falwell’s decision to bring university students back amid a coronavirus pandemic is boiling over.
“Remember when people wanted to tar and feather folks? That’s about the level it’s at in the Lynchburg community right now,” a former longtime Falwell associate told me over the phone. “You have … 16,000 petri dishes he’s inviting back to Lynchburg, who have gone out all over country for spring break—he’s inviting them back into our city, our community, knowing that at some point they’re gonna have to interact with the public.”
Throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus have led colleges to upend their plans for the semester by moving classes online, canceling commencement ceremonies and—critically, from a public-health perspective—moving students out of dorms. Virginia Tech is practically begging students to stay away, enticing them with cash rebates. The University of Virginia has shut down its dorm system, save for those few students “who have no other option.”
Liberty University, meanwhile, has invited its students to return to the dorms, whatever their circumstances might be. Falwell has said this decision was in students’ best interests—that students would be better off if they returned to campus before the coronavirus spread—but that suggestion has met with exasperation by public health experts, state and local officials, and many residents of Lynchburg.
As President Donald Trump pumps out messages that fears of the coronavirus are overblown, and Americans try to square that with their local regulations and personal worries, Liberty has become an even more intense version of the national conflict, with students and faculty left trying to weigh their own interests against a defiant leadership with a constantly pivoting message—in this case, a person who is used to having total control of the institution.
For people who’ve traveled in Falwell’s orbit, the decision is classic Jerry.
“He doesn’t think anyone should be able to tell him what to do, and he’s going to do whatever he wants,” a former Liberty University executive told me.
“He’s very defiant,” said another longtime Falwell associate with close ties to the Falwell family. “It’s very much in his character. That’s a family trait. His father was the same way.”
Now, Falwell has maintained that people have this all wrong: Liberty simply allowed students to return to live in the dorms, if they so choose, while finishing up the semester in online courses. “We think Liberty’s practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall, if Coronavirus is still an issue,” Falwell told the school’s news service in a March 23 statement.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. confirmed that the school will reopen this week despite social distancing guidelines from both the White House and the state of Virginia. “I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together,” Falwell said in a statement.
Post-Jesus Christians are “Christians” who have decided to postpone following Jesus’s teaching until Jesus returns and ushers in 1000 years of peace.
Post-Jesus Christians hold that Jesus’s teachings do not need to be followed in our present era if they are a hindrance to obtaining the power they fear they need to help usher in the Kingdom of God.
Post-Jesus Christians (privately) hold that Jesus’s teachings are a nice thing to follow when dealing with the in-group of their fellow PJCs but may be disregarded when dealing with non-PJC neighbors.
Prophecy: What God Can Do For You
Post-Jesus Christians talk a lot about about prophecy, and unlike the Biblical Prophets, when they do, they punch down, rather than up:
You will know them by their fruit, because they only have one key message – God is going to “enlarge your tent” and “expand your influence“, he’s going to “give you great favor” and “bless you mightily”.
Later Craig Greenfield writes:
In Biblical times, there were two types of prophets.
- Firstly, there were those who feasted at the King’s table because they had been co-opted to speak well of evil leaders (1 Kings 18:19). They were always bringing these smarmy words of favor and influence and prosperity to the king. And the king lapped it up. Like a sucka.
- Secondly, there were those who were exiled to the caves, or beheaded (like John the Baptist) because they spoke out about the injustice or immorality of their leaders (1 Kings 18:4). The king didn’t like them very much. He tried to have them knee-capped.
An Inversion of Ben Franklin’s Morality
While many Post-Jesus Christians appeal to a historical “Christian Nation” , Post-Jesus Christians appear to be an inversion of founding father Ben Franklin, who in historian John Fea’s description, wanted to discard Jesus’s Divinity but retain and celebrate his ethical teachings.
So what does this look like in practice?
Below are public quotations from prominent Court Evangelicals. These quotations are less extreme that I would expect to hear in private. A friend of mine speaks to supporters in private. He reports that they would (privately) celebrate the stuffing of election ballots in favor of their preferred candidate as a righteous act.
1) Court Evangelical: Anti-Sermon on the Mount
John Fea wrote about a conversation he had with Rob Schenck for the “Schenck Talks Bonhoeffer” podcast @ 19:27. Here’s a quote from Schenck talking about a conversation he had with a prominent evangelical at the Trump Inaugural Prayer Service:I must tell you something of a confession here. I was present at the Trump Inaugural Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral — not the smaller one held at Saint John’s Episcopal church across from the white house, but the one following the inauguration at the National Cathedral and I saw one of the notable Evangelicals that you’ve named in in our conversation. One of them, I won’t say which and we had it short exchange and I, I suggested to him that we needed to recalibrate our moral compass and that one way to do that might be to return to The Sermon on the Mount as a reference point. And he very quickly barked back at me. “We don’t have time for that. We have serious work to do.”
2) Jerry Falwell Jr: Anti-Turn the other cheek
We have blogged about Liberty University’s Falkirk Center before. The more I learn about this center the more I am convinced that it does not represent the teachings of Christianity. Recently someone on Twitter pointed out this paragraph in the Falkirk Center mission statement:
Bemoaning the rise of leftism is no longer enough, and turning the other cheek in our personal relationships with our neighbors as Jesus taught while abdicating our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield is no longer sufficient. There is too much at stake in the battle for the soul of our nation. Bold, unapologetic action and initiative is needed, which is why we just launched the Falkirk Center, a think tank dedicated to restoring and defending American ideals and Judeo-Christian values in all aspects of life.
John Fea’s Update:
Several smart people have suggested that I may have misread Liberty University’s statement. They have said that the Falkirk Center was not denying that Jesus’s call to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individuals. Instead, the Falkirk Center is saying that we should not “abdicate” (the key word here) our responsibilities to engage on the “culture battlefield.”
I think this is a fair criticism, and I indeed may have misread the statement. For that I am sorry. But I don’t think I want to back away too strongly from what I wrote above. While several have correctly pointed out that Liberty University is not saying Jesus’s command to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individual Christians, the Falkirk Center does seem to be suggesting that it is “insufficient” for culture engagement.
The mogul-turned-president has long relied on loyalists to push the limits in defense of his image, but Roy Cohn, David Pecker and Michael Cohen all wound up out in the cold
For decades, Donald Trump has depended on loyalists to take care of especially sensitive and difficult tasks. These guardians of his image—including the
- Red-baiter Roy Cohn, the
- tabloid publisher David Pecker and the
- lawyer Michael Cohen
—learned a hard lesson from their service. They pledged fealty to Mr. Trump and dedicated themselves to shielding him. For a while, they became wealthier and more powerful through their association with him. But Mr. Trump ultimately offered little back in protection or respect.
Mr. Trump’s first fixer was Cohn, the disgraced former chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. In the 1970s, as a lawyer for the powerful, Cohn manipulated the media and the legal system to secure business advantages for Mr. Trump. He cast his client as a fabulously successful developer who transformed his father’s collection of low-end apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens into a Manhattan-based empire of luxury condominium towers.
Cohn defined the role of fixer for Mr. Trump, but after Cohn became sick with AIDS in the 1980s, Mr. Trump distanced himself, steering business elsewhere. Weeks after he won the presidency in 2016, Mr. Trump told friends at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, that after hosting the dying Cohn for dinner there, “I had to spend a fortune to fumigate all the dishes and silverware.”
Mr. Trump’s views of media and celebrity were shaped by Cohn and his successors, the men he relied on to project a particular version of himself—one that often bore little resemblance to reality. Their careers with Mr. Trump shed light on his rise in public life and his victory in the 2016 presidential election.
This account is based on court and congressional documents, texts and other communications, along with interviews with people involved in or familiar with the events.
Mr. Pecker’s celebrity gossip and personal-lifestyle empire—primarily the tabloid National Enquirer—promoted Mr. Trump’s political aspirations for almost two decades, starting in 1999.
Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s special counsel at the Trump Organization, styled himself as the boss’s loyal problem solver. A personal-injury lawyer and taxi-medallion owner raised on Long Island, Mr. Cohen became Mr. Trump’s armed press attaché in the late 2000s. Over the years, he wore a gun in an ankle holster and used legal threats to suppress bad headlines about his boss.
Together with Mr. Trump, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Pecker worked during the 2016 presidential campaign to “catch and kill” stories about former Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal and former adult-film star Stormy Daniels, who privately alleged that they’d had affairs with the Republican candidate. Both women were paid to keep silent.
Mr. Cohen was charged with campaign-finance violations and is serving three years in prison. Mr. Pecker’s company, American Media Inc., admitted breaking the law while doing Mr. Trump’s bidding and reached an agreement with prosecutors to avoid criminal charges.
Mr. Trump’s reward to his fixers was what he offered all those in his service over the decades: exposure to his world, the chance to play a bit part in his story. These operatives were attracted to Mr. Trump’s aura, to the force of the huge personality that led him to the presidency. But when they had fulfilled their missions, they were dispensable. Mr. Trump didn’t believe he owed his fixers anything.
Mr. Pecker was the son of a Bronx bricklayer. He became an accountant and then rose in the publishing world through shrewd power plays. Mr. Pecker forged connections with influential figures, whose foibles were off-limits in his publications and were dubbed by staffers FOPs (Friends of Pecker).
In 1997, while running Hachette Magazines Inc., Mr. Pecker hatched a deal to publish a custom magazine called Trump Style. “Trump Style? That’s like the oxymoron of the century,” Hachette executive Nick Matarazzo said when Mr. Pecker told him of it. When advertisers didn’t bite, Mr. Pecker became enraged.
His relationship with Mr. Trump was a series of chits accrued and favors cashed in. Before Mr. Pecker took over at American Media in 1999, the Enquirer had feasted on stories of Mr. Trump’s affairs and breakups. After Mr. Pecker’s arrival, his gossip empire didn’t print a bad word about Mr. Trump.
As the publisher promoted Mr. Trump’s rise, Mr. Trump fed American Media tips and offered Mr. Pecker business advice. When Mr. Trump spotted an article about the company’s financial troubles, he scrawled over it with a Sharpie: You’ll be on top again in no time. Mr. Pecker framed the note and proudly displayed it in his office.
When American Media was based near Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Pecker would hang around if Mr. Trump was in town so that he could hitch a ride back to New York on the mogul’s jet. Mr. Pecker’s National Enquirer breathlessly promoted Mr. Trump’s 2011 exploratory presidential bid, and his Globe and Star propelled the “birther” conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump used to attack President Barack Obama and raise his own political profile.
Mr. Cohen came to work for Mr. Trump in 2007, after impressing him during a board uprising at a condo building. But the deals he attempted at the Trump Organization fizzled, and the boss came to question his legal skills.
In 2009, Mr. Trump gave company lawyer George Sorial an unpleasant task: persuade Mr. Cohen to resign. He’d had it with Mr. Cohen, who no longer seemed like a good fit. But Mr. Cohen decided to stay, taking a pay cut and doing more thankless work.
One of his duties was telling small-business owners that they could expect severely reduced fees or none at all for the services they provided to Mr. Trump. The boss reveled in hearing these accounts.
Like Mr. Pecker, Mr. Cohen encouraged his boss’s ambitions, positioning himself as a political adviser. In 2010, Mr. Cohen showed Mr. Trump a Time magazine story about a poll testing the mogul’s appeal as a candidate. What if Mr. Trump did run? “Wouldn’t that be something?” Mr. Cohen asked.
Mr. Cohen turned to Mr. Pecker for help. Mr. Cohen and National Enquirer staff produced a series of increasingly obsequious tabloid stories hyping Mr. Trump’s unofficial candidacy and directing readers to Mr. Cohen’s website, ShouldTrumpRun.com.
Mr. Cohen’s tough-guy routine raised some eyebrows. In 2012, he horrified a campaign aide for Mitt Romney, pulling up a pant leg to show off his pistol during a fundraiser before stashing the gun in a car. Another time, he tried to barge past Mr. Trump’s security chief, Keith Schiller, after being informed that the boss was in a meeting. Mr. Schiller threw him to the ground and said, I told you, you’re not going in.
Mr. Trump kept Mr. Cohen around but didn’t seem to respect him. When Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the evangelical leader, told Mr. Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign that he and his wife really liked Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump responded, Really? Really?
Mr. Cohen played a behind-the-scenes role in Mr. Trump’s presidential bid, to the chagrin of the actual campaign staff. For the launch event, Mr. Cohen proposed bringing an elephant to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. After that was rejected, he coordinated with a friend—whom Mr. Trump had nicknamed “The Screamer” for his boisterous voice—to pay 55 actors in cash to attend the event.
Mr. Cohen’s most significant task, along with Mr. Pecker, was to identify potential threats to Mr. Trump’s campaign and squash them. The three men met at Mr. Trump’s office in August 2015, and Mr. Pecker offered to use the Enquirer—in coordination with Mr. Cohen—to intercept harmful stories and ensure they never surfaced.
On June 27, 2016, after Mr. Trump learned that Ms. McDougal was shopping around her story of an alleged affair with him, he phoned Mr. Pecker. Can you make this go away? Mr. Trump asked.
Mr. Pecker bought the story for $150,000, under a contract designed to appear as a content pact guaranteeing the model two magazine covers. In return, Ms. McDougal had to keep quiet. Mr. Pecker and his top editor, Dylan Howard, also helped to broker a deal in which Mr. Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 through a shell company to buy her silence.
The Wall Street Journal later revealed both hush-money deals. After the Daniels agreement became public, Mr. Trump called Mr. Cohen—with Melania Trump on the line. “Michael, did you really pay $130,000 to Stormy Daniels?” Mr. Trump asked. “Why didn’t you tell me about it?”
Mr. Cohen, who later said that he had consulted extensively with Mr. Trump about the payment, picked up the cue. Mr. Cohen said he’d planned to tell him after the election but had thought it safer to keep Mr. Trump out of it. He assumed the first lady saw through the lie.
In the predawn hours of April 9, 2018, FBI agents filtered into a side entrance of Manhattan’s Loews Regency Hotel and took the service elevator to room 1728. As Mr. Cohen’s wife sat on a bed, the agents, bearing a warrant, carted away materials relating to the hush-money agreements and Mr. Cohen’s private business affairs.
That same morning, other agents arrived at Mr. Pecker’s and Mr. Howard’s residences with warrants authorizing the seizure of their cellphones. Mr. Pecker gave his lawyers a simple instruction after the FBI showed up: “Get me out of this.” The publisher received immunity against federal charges; he told prosecutors that the true intent of the payment to Ms. McDougal was to help Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign by concealing an embarrassing story about the candidate. Prosecutors also declined to charge Mr. Howard, his deputy.
Mr. Trump predicted that Mr. Cohen wouldn’t turn on him, but the fixer was frantic. “One thing I can tell you is that I’m never going to spend one day in jail. Never,” Mr. Cohen told two lawyers who met with him eight days after the raids. As Mr. Cohen’s legal fees mounted, the Trump Organization resisted paying, and Trump lawyers were lukewarm to inquiries on Mr. Cohen’s behalf about a presidential pardon.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Mr. Cohen broke from Mr. Trump, a man for whom he once had said he’d take a bullet. He pleaded guilty to nine criminal charges, including two campaign-finance related counts related to the hush-money payments, which he accused the president of directing.
I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called “advice of counsel,” and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid. Despite that many campaign finance lawyers have strongly……43.3K people are talking about this
Mr. Trump had said he didn’t know about the payments and later that he’d learned of them after the fact. After Mr. Cohen’s sentencing, Mr. Trump tweeted, “I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law.”
American Media’s nonprosecution agreement offered a path out of trouble for Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard. But soon an Enquirer story about an extramarital affair by Amazon Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, who had been at odds with Mr. Trump, fueled speculation that Mr. Pecker was back protecting the president, and federal authorities began investigating again. A spokesman for American Media declined to comment on the ongoing probe.
American Media’s largest financial backer could brook no more scandals. In April 2019, the publisher said that American Media was putting its tabloids, including the Enquirer, up for sale. Nine months later, that sale hasn’t been completed.
Mr. Pecker has ceded his title. His tabloid has become a toxic asset, and his legacy will forever be connected to Mr. Trump’s hush-money scandal.