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Megan K. Stack recently published an investigation into a new era at Liberty University. This week, our newsletter editor, Jessie Li, talked with her about the backstory behind her reporting, and her time interviewing Jerry Falwell, Jr., after his resignation as the school’s president.
What drew you to reporting about Liberty University?
It started off as a dispatch, to see what the atmosphere on campus was like after Jerry Falwell, Jr., resigned. But when I went down to Lynchburg and started poking around, it wasn’t easy to get access to people. The students were very skittish about talking to me. I managed to connect with students on the Internet and on Liberty chat forums. I went to the church where Jonathan Falwell, who is the brother of Jerry, Jr., was preaching, and listened to the service. And I realized there was a much bigger story. Every time it seemed like we were closing the story, more things kept happening. For instance, I had asked many times to interview the Falwells. After months of that, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from Jerry, Jr., saying, Yeah, I think I’m going to talk to you. I started talking to the Falwells—to Jerry, Jr., and his wife, Becki—and that deepened the story, which became, in part, the story of the family and what had happened over the course of their marriage and in what I think of now as their exile.
What do you think finally led the Falwells to reach out to you?
When I first started talking to them, they just said, We’re done listening to these P.R. people, we’ve been silent for all these months. There was also an element of strategy to it, and they were trying to figure out how to move forward. Getting pushed out of Liberty University was a very bitter pill for not only Jerry, Jr., to swallow but for the whole family. I think he feels, with some justification, that he built that place.
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Right. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and I had friends who adored Falwell and dreamed of going to Liberty. So Falwell and Liberty are just synonymous in my mind.
It’s super awkward. It is a family business, in many ways. Some of these things didn’t make it into the piece. For example, Falwell had gathered up some family artifacts at one point, for a surprise birthday present for his father. He had collected a lot of memorabilia and antiques from their family history and loaned them to the university, to open a Jerry Falwell Museum, in honor of his father. He says he doesn’t “necessarily want them back,” but that he’d like the university to “acknowledge that they are mine.” His parents are buried on that campus, but he is not allowed to go there.
Do you have a sense of what’s next for the Falwells? What’s the future of the Falwell name and legacy?
There is the other brother, Jonathan, who is very much the polar opposite of Jerry. He is the preacher, and took over his father’s church. And he’s now taken on a greater role at Liberty. I think there is an idea that by promoting Jonathan as a new figurehead, the university may be able to create a sense of continuity from the Falwell family. Many people told me that the brothers don’t really get along. They are definitely opposites. When I went to see Jerry, Jr., and Becki, they didn’t say anything bad about Jonathan, but they were kind of making fun of him—like he had bad taste in music. The idea was that he was the nerdy, religious brother.
For Jerry, Jr., it’s interesting, because in many ways, he didn’t want to be at Liberty. He went to U.V.A. law school. He tried to strike out on a separate path as a real-estate lawyer. And he was pulled back into Liberty because it was on the brink of financial collapse. So he had returned originally to help out, because his father was not a good businessman. He not only rescued it but, over the years, grew it into this very prosperous institution, with a huge endowment. But, in the process, the son who started out trying to get away from the whole machinery and the family legacy, ended up reintegrating so completely into the idea of his father’s legacy and Liberty University. It’s almost like destiny just pulled him back.
You write that “racism is, in a real sense, Liberty’s original sin,” referring to its historical roots. What does the campus look like now, in terms of race?
There’s this whole argument that Lynchburg Christian Academy (later renamed Liberty Christian Academy), which preceded the university, was not a segregation academy—even though there was a news account that it was unveiled as one. This was at a time when Jerry Falwell, Sr., was preaching overtly in favor of segregation and saying that the integration of races was a subversion of God’s will. And, yet, later in his life, the elder Falwell took pains to erase those aspects of his early preaching and of Liberty. Back in the day, they would print out paper copies of sermons and distribute them as pamphlets in the mail. At some point, Jerry, Sr., actually started paying people to return his pro-segregation sermons. I always found that very rich, reflecting on the similarities between that and how the recent scandals with Jerry, Jr., have been handled—and the effort to quickly cover everything up and distance yourself from it.
Racially, Liberty is not as diverse as it used to be. It was actually more diverse in the nineties, which has been well documented. When activism started to bubble up in the wake of the George Floyd protests, it was mostly within the athletic department at Liberty, where a significant number of Black students were hoping to have a discussion about what was going on in the country. These were students who planned Liberty’s one and only Black Lives Matter demonstration, which, to this day, the university has said was not a Black Lives Matter demonstration. There is a great unease around Black Lives Matter, not just at Liberty but among many white evangelicals across the country. The thing you always hear at Liberty is that B.L.M. is anti-family, and, implicitly, it’s anti-Christian. The university pushed back against the students for calling it a B.L.M. protest, and the students eventually stopped talking to me. I think that they were probably ordered not to talk. They completely stopped answering my messages, which was quite chilling.