Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., a prominent and controversial evangelical Christian supporter of President Trump, will take an indefinite leave of absence from the university after posting a provocative photo to social media where his pants were unzipped, his midriff was out, and he is standing next to a woman holding a glass of dark liquid.
The school issued a brief statement saying that the executive committee of Liberty’s board of trustees met Friday and requested that Falwell take leave. That committee of eight people includes Falwell, according to the school’s website.
Since taking over as president of the school in 2007, Falwell has vastly expanded the size and scope of the university co-founded by his father, the televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., in 1971. It is now one of the largest private online universities in the country.
Liberty also claims to be one of the largest Christianity universities in the world. Its chapel stage has become a pilgrimage site for many politicians, attracting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and GOP presidential contenders in recent years.
Falwell was one of the first high-profile leaders in the evangelical world to endorse Trump in 2016. But while his father was a revered religious leader, he sees himself purely as a businessman and lawyer. His brother Jonathan Falwell, a Liberty board member who has filled the pastoral role his father once held, has been quiet about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent behavior.
But Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a Southern Baptist minister and former Liberty instructor, called for Falwell’s resignation, alluding to several scandals, including the recent social media post, which has been deleted from Falwell’s account but has been recirculated by many others.
“Jerry Falwell Jr’s ongoing behavior is appalling,” Walker, the vice chairman of the powerful House Republican Caucus, wrote on Twitter. “I’m convinced Falwell should step down.”
Falwell faced his first notable controversy during a speech in 2015. At a university convocation, he said the San Bernardino shooting that year would not have occurred if more people had concealed-carry permits to “end those Muslims before they walked in killing.”
Following Trump’s election, Falwell ramped up his attempts to silence any campus dissent from the school’s staunch conservative positions, the former editor of Liberty’s student newspaper wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.
It was so upsetting to Erik Rolf’s daughter, who was a sophomore this last semester, that she recently transferred to the University of Lynchburg. Rolf, noting Liberty’s code of conduct that specifies how students can dress, said Friday that if any Liberty students or faculty were in the photos Falwell had tweeted, “I’m sure they would’ve been tossed.”
“Falwell has built quite an empire but no small of hypocrisy and denial, which is serious when you have to take care of kids and the surrounding community,” he said.
In May, Falwell tweeted a photo of a face mask decorated with a photo of a person in Ku Klux Klan robes and another in blackface, in an attempt to taunt Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) over his blackface scandal. Falwell deleted the tweet and apologized, but several of his Black staff left the school.
After he posted the provocative photos from his vacation this week, White evangelical leaders openly criticized him on social media.
Colby Garman, a pastor and executive committee member of the Virginia Southern Baptist Convention, echoed Walker’s call for Falwell to step down. Liberty graduate Dean Inserra, a megachurch pastor in Florida, urged the university board members to “show some courage.” Bible teacher Beth Moore wrote, “I just want everybody to zip up their pants is all.”
Speaking to the Lynchburg, Va., radio station WLNI, Falwell said the woman in the photo was his “wife’s assistant” — and, he said, the inspiration for undoing his pants zipper and exposing his stomach.
“She’s pregnant, so she couldn’t get her pants up,” he said as the host chuckled. “And I had on a pair of jeans that I hadn’t worn in a long time, so I couldn’t get mine zipped, either. And so I just put my belly out like hers.”
“She’s a sweetheart,” he added, “and I should never have put it up and embarrassed her.”
Teo Armus contributed to this report.