Sin and Scandal at Liberty University

On May 27th, the second day of mounting national outrage over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the president of America’s largest evangelical university decided it was the perfect time to blast out a tweet featuring the crudest of racial imagery. “I was adamantly opposed to the mandate from @GovernorVA requiring citizens to wear face masks until I decided to design my own,” wrote Jerry Falwell Jr. Below the text was his design: a mask displaying the image of a white person in blackface, standing next to a fellow sporting a Klan robe and hood.

For any snowflakes who might take offense, Falwell appended an explanatory tweet of sorts, pointing out that the image on the mask came from a 1984 medical school yearbook page of Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Democratic governor. This was true; when the image came to light in February 2019, it had caused quite a controversy. Falwell said he’d resurfaced the photo to make a political point: “Just a way to shine a spotlight on the fact that Democrats are and have always been the real racists in this country.”

This kind of intentional offensiveness was nothing new for Falwell. The Liberty University president, whose early endorsement in 2016 was widely credited with helping to persuade white evangelicals to back Donald Trump in massive numbers, had been emulating Trump’s truculent style of political provocation ever since. Though he’d never been a minister, Falwell’s inherited position as the unquestioned monarch of the university his famous televangelist father, Jerry Sr., founded in Lynchburg, Virginia — with its 15,000 students on campus and more than 95,000 online — had made him a prominent figure in evangelical Christianity. But Falwell’s public and private behavior, never particularly righteous, had grown increasingly Trumpian, along with his rhetoric.

Earlier in the spring, with coronavirus infections and deaths on the rise and other campuses closing, Falwell had defiantly invited students to return to Lynchburg and resume normal college life after spring break. “You guys paid to be here, you wanted to be on campus,” he told them. “And I want to give you what you paid for.” What he really wanted, critics said, was to earn another gold star from the Covid-denying president. Before spring break, Liberty had failed to distribute CDC-recommended information to students and staff about social distancing, masks, proper hand-washing, and the rest. Some students had departed for spring break unaware that the pandemic wasn’t just fake news. Their school’s president was saying that young people “don’t have conditions that put them at risk.” Others knew better. “Jerry literally follows anything that Trump says,” one disgusted Liberty senior told a reporter. On Fox, Falwell speculated that the virus might be the “Christmas gift” promised to the U.S. by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, working in collaboration with China. On talk radio, he said the whole coronavirus thing was blown out of proportion by Democrats and the media, who were “willing to destroy the economy just to hurt Trump.” While other …