Jerry Falwell started Liberty University (Lynchburg Baptist at the time) in 1971. In 1988, I arrived on campus and stayed for the next two years, as a student and a guest of his, as I was on full scholarship thanks to a relationship between Falwell and my dad.
As a televangelist and overall volatile voice on religious issues, Falwell was frequently in need of legal representation. As a leading Christian attorney, my dad was enlisted to defend him on various occasions, like when Liberty football players were told by the NCAA they could not kneel and pray in the end zone after scoring. Of course they could, and my dad winning cases like that got me a full ride to Liberty.
While that made it easier on my dad’s bank account, it was torture for me. At the time, Liberty was a haven for religious dorks (like me) but also a highly regulated center where the stress was on what you could not do, sinful things like see R-rated movies, drink alcohol, have a TV in your room, listen to secular music or cuss. All these things were against the rules and a violation meant demerits and often suspension.
For instance, a kid named Joel who lived across the hall took to buying movie posters from nearby video stores and selling them to students. If it was R, he was forced to black out the rating before selling it. Joel was constantly skating around the rules but when he made some cookies with Ex-Lax and gave one not only to his roommate but one of the resident assistants, he was given demerits. At the time, only 16 were needed to receive a suspension and when he was overheard by a visiting dean using the words “Goddamn” and “Fuck” he was quickly expelled. Each curse word was eight demerits. We all missed Joel.
I met Jerry on two occasions. The first was in the mid-’80s when I traveled with my dad to Lynchburg so he could make an appearance on Falwell’s TV show. I don’t remember much except that during commercial breaks the Reverend would hawk a microfiche version of the Bible. It stuck in my mind because even at that age I was struck by the absurdity of it. Who needed such a thing?
The second time was during a Liberty basketball game in my final year there. As basketball games were free, they were a good way to kill an otherwise boring evening, but on this night, Falwell happened to be in attendance, high in the bleachers. As the game ended I made my way up and introduced myself as John Whitehead’s son and thanked him for the scholarship. He beamed back at me with his trademark grin, a knowing smile that communicated nothing except his own verisimilitude.
The first indication I had that Falwell was close to death came when a friend called to say the Reverend had been rushed to the hospital. We discussed Falwell’s legacy, with my friend taking the position that Jerry would be remembered far better than his televangelist peers like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, or Pat Robertson. After all, he was never caught with his pants down nor did he try to heal people through the TV set.
After I left Liberty, I continued to loosely follow Falwell’s actions over the years. Despite his obvious flaws, he was definitely a man who hewed to his own beliefs, even though it was quite unpopular at times. Were it not for the last few years, I would have retained respect for the Reverend but his repeated and pronounced advocation from the pulpit for the Republican Party and their policies was dismaying, as support for any political body, let alone the one we’ve had in recent years, seems to fly in the face of the teachings of a guy named Jesus.
Two days after Falwell’s death, I dropped into a local restaurant where the bartender is a Liberty grad. We talked about Jerry and bonded over our mutual distaste for his university, but as I prepared to leave, the bartender said that the night of his death he had tipped his beer and pored some on the floor in honor of the Reverend. I nodded my head and raised my glass: “To Jerry.”
Jayson Whitehead is a senior contributor to C-VILLE.