A decade ago, Jerry Falwell was the most visible preacher in America. He led the Moral Majority, which had thrust religious conservatives into politics; he headed what he called “the world’s most exciting university”; his Old Time Gospel Hour aired on 200 television stations; and he was about to become chair of PTL, the nation’s largest cable satellite network.

Yet, in five short years, Falwell all but disappeared from the national stage. The Moral Majority folded, Liberty University was $110 million in debt, his television show temporarily left the air, and PTL had gone bankrupt.

Today, however, at 63, Falwell is staging a national comeback. In September, he embarked on a 52-week patriotic God Save America national tour. In addition, his independent Thomas Road Baptist Church has started giving monthly contributions to Virginia’s new breakaway conservative state association of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation’s largest Protestant body. And Falwell: An Autobiography (Liberty House) hit the bookstores this month in time for Christmas shoppers.

This year marked important milestones in Falwell’s ministry. It is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 14,000-student Liberty University and the fortieth anniversary of the 22,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church. And 40 years ago this month, Falwell took to the airwaves with the Old Time Gospel Hour.

In a lengthy interview with Christianity Today, Falwell reflected on his ministerial achievements. While financial burdens at Liberty have kept him out of the limelight for most of the 1990s, Falwell aspires to return as a leading evangelical player. (An edited transcript of the interview is accessible at http://www.christianity.net/ct/extra. AOL users keyword: rnu; access news archive.)

“God has called me to be a voice crying in the wilderness,” Falwell told CT. “God has called me to mobilize, inform, and inspire the evangelical church in America.”

As Falwell moves to secure his unfinished legacy, he is retaining his positions of greatest influence as chancellor of Liberty, senior pastor of Thomas Road, and president of the Old Time Gospel Hour. Except for his offspring (see “Falwell’s Son Could Carry on the Legacy,” p. 67), there are no successors waiting in the wings.

“I get up earlier than anybody who works for me, and I go to bed later,” Falwell said. “I do it seven days a week, and I’ve done it for 40 years. Most pastors I know don’t work very hard. I lead by trying to be omnipresent.”

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However, some former supporters say Falwell has achieved his goals through a stifling authoritarianism, and that his organization’s growth has been inhibited by his overly controlling methods. These individuals, including former faculty, students, and financial backers, generally have affirmed Falwell’s original vision and yet are deeply disturbed by Falwell’s methods and practices. Working confidentially, some have advocated for change without success and have decided to voice their concerns publicly, hoping to call Falwell into greater accountability with remaining supporters.

PASTOR AND PROPHET: The pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist Church is the hub from which Jerry Falwell’s work radiates. Except for time at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, Falwell has lived his entire life in this Virginia city of 68,000.

Falwell, the first and only senior pastor at Thomas Road, formed the congregation after a split with Lynchburg’s Park Avenue Baptist Church, where he became a Christian at 18, three years after his alcoholic father’s death. By the end of its first year, more than 800 members had joined, including pianist Macel Pate, whom Falwell married a year later.

From the start, Falwell aimed high in spinning off compassionate ministries at Thomas Road, including Elim Home for Alcoholics and Liberty Godparent Home for Unwed Mothers. The church itself is located on a narrow, hilly street, its octagonal sanctuary and adjacent buildings long ago outgrowing the chosen property site. Falwell still preaches most Sunday-morning and-evening services.

“Welcome to America’s greatest church service,” worship leader Robbie Hiner intones as the well-paced, choreographed Old Time Gospel Hour begins its live telecast on the Inspiration Network. Falwell has adapted to the times. While Southern gospel music still dominates, the professional-sounding choir and orchestra are backed by drums, electric guitar, and keyboard. The focus of the service, as always, is evangelism—and church membership. Liberty University singers, musicians, and staff bedeck the platform, including President A. Pierre Guillermin and School of Religion Dean Elmer Towns.

Lately, sermons often have been lengthy tributes to the congregation’s founder and his organization-building accomplishments. Falwell also regularly berates his enemies. Moments after he told the importance of witnessing for Christ in a recent sermon, he criticized “liberals,” “secular humanists,” and “violent Muslims.” He called President Clinton an “ungodly liar” and singer Madonna a “despicable, highly paid prostitute.”

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CREATOR OR CATALYST? Although Falwell is famous for his acerbic tongue on political subjects, he eschewed mentioning the government during the first two decades of his ministry.

Then came the transformation. “When I started Moral Majority, I was leading the evangelical church out from behind their walls,” Falwell says.

He came to see great value in politically uniting religious conservatives as a force tor social reform. Starting in 1979, Falwell used the Moral Majority as the national vehicle to rally evangelicals and conservatives of various stripes.

Falwell traveled 300,000 miles annually in a private plane, and within two years the Moral Majority had a mailing list of 7 million, helping elect Ronald Reagan President and setting the stage for the emergence of the Christian Right.

A part of the legacy that Falwell hopes to secure is his fatherhood of the Christian Right. “We created the Religious Right,” Falwell claims. “All these organizations—Concerned Women for America, Christian Coalition, the Rutherford Institute, Family Research Council—they all spun out of Moral Majority.”

Concerned Women for America founder Beverly LaHaye notes that although her organization incorporated in 1979, predating the Moral Majority, she deeply appreciates Falwell “standing up for truth and righteousness.” LaHaye is the only woman on Liberty’s board of trustees besides Falwell’s wife.

“Jerry Falwell is first and foremost a visionary,” says Word Vice President Nelson Keener, Falwell’s former administrative assistant. “He’s a gifted preacher and evangelist.”

Some analysts suggest Falwell seized an opportune time in American history. Still, says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “he wielded power because he was clear, direct, clever, and willing to challenge the other side.”

William Martin, author of the newly released With God on Our Side (Broadway Books), says Falwell served as the most visible representative of the Religious Right in the early 1980s, but others such as Paul Weyrich, Ed McAteer, and Howard Phillips planted the seeds. “If left to Jerry Falwell, the Religious Right would be dead now,” Rice University’s Martin says. “He didn’t have the grassroots organization.”

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LIBERTY FOR ALL: Liberty University, a school started with Thomas Road church staff as faculty in 1971, has grown into a four-year undergraduate liberal arts school, with more than 1,200 alumni who have become pastors and 700 who are missionaries.

Institutionally, the school serves as Falwell’s most costly undertaking as well as his crowning achievement, and he carries $40 million of insurance on his life, naming Liberty as the primary beneficiary.

Thanks to Falwell’s high profile, Liberty—which had no campus of its own until 1977—has grown to 64 buildings. It remains a bulwark of moral, religious, and political conservatism. Male students whose hair has grown over their ears or female students wearing dresses above their knees are subject to $25 fines. Students caught attending an R-rated feature film are fined $70.

Ironically, while Falwell’s brand of conservatism encompasses Christian doctrine and behavior, he has not always been fiscally conservative. In the late 1980s he eagerly embraced a high-priced, risky strategy to enlarge Liberty rapidly through borrowed money, aggressive fundraising, and expansive scholarships for thousands of students. To achieve such high growth at Liberty, Thomas Road consented to a staggering debt load, repeatedly using church real estate as collateral, and bond issues to expand the campus.

The university’s financial problems today can be traced in part to decisions made in 1985 to construct buildings with borrowed money, according to John Baker, who worked for Falwell for 18 years before he lost his job as head of auxiliary services in a 1990 layoff. “We added 1,300 students that year, but the school grew on the basis of scholarships,” Baker notes.

Also in 1985, Liberty University launched its School of Life-Long Learning extension program, which at one point enrolled 16,000 students.

At the peak of the Moral Majority, its constituency served as a ready supply of cash for Falwell’s expanding ministries. But Charlie Judd, one-time Moral Majority executive vice president, believes Falwell went to the well too often with desperate pleas. “People became desensitized and resistant.”

Rice’s Martin says the Moral Majority ultimately became ineffective. “Many of Falwell’s long-time supporters had never approved of his political activities.”

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Judd, who now operates his own business in Lynchburg, says, “If you spent half a day with him, there would be at least three phone calls from the car from wherever he was, calling to see what had come in so far,” Judd recalls. “Then there would be calls to each of the banks getting the balance of the accounts. He did that because they were always down to the wire.”

SEA OF RED INK: By 1990, Liberty, which has an $80 million annual budget, found itself $110 million in debt. This triggered a series of cash-flow crises and ushered in a new era of austerity that continues today.

The debt load caused Liberty’s external degree program to be placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1990–91. “We accepted enrollments from students and charged them for courses, often when we knew there would be several months’ delay before the textbooks would be purchased and shipped,” says Henry Virkler, now psychology professor at Palm Beach Atlantic College in Florida. Virkler resigned in July after five years at Liberty.

During the financial turmoil, several faculty members have told CT, money deducted from paychecks for designated purposes such as retirement was used for other purposes. Tim Deibler, an assistant philosophy and theology professor from 1991–93 now teaching in a Lynchburg private school, says Liberty failed to make seven monthly annuity payments.

“To my knowledge, that is false,” responds George Rogers, Liberty’s vice president for financial affairs. “We might have been a little slow.”

While the contributions eventually were made up, Deibler demurs. “The point is that monies belonging to faculty members shouldn’t be used by the university without permission.”

Several students indicated that they made repeated requests through appropriate school channels to obtain federal assistance refunds due them, but to no avail—a claim Falwell says “is absolutely untrue.” However, at least six students in 1993 alone filed warrants with the Lynchburg city clerk in order to force Liberty to release financial aid refunds owed to them.

DRAMATIC CUTS: In the summers of 1992 and 1993, Liberty unilaterally imposed on staff a two-week unpaid leave, even though faculty contracts stated they could not “be altered, modified, amended, or otherwise changed, except by a written instrument executed by both parties.” Vendors refused to allow Liberty to buy on credit, and some employees paid for office supplies out of their own pockets.

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In 1994, around 100 students returned in the fall to discover their majors had been eliminated. Also in 1994, the accrediting association issued a warning to Liberty because of noncompliance with rules on finances. The agency rescinded the warning last year when indebtedness decreased, primarily by debts being purchased by school supporters and then forgiven.

When it came to faculty layoffs, degrees or reputation meant little in determining who to keep, according to Towns, Liberty’s first faculty member. “I looked at people who were good classroom teachers. We are a teaching university, not a research university.”

Former music professor Paul DeBoer says, “They Just went and looked at the highest salaries. Because I was the only full professor, I was the most expendable.” DeBoer lost his job in 1994.

Some former employees believe questioning Falwell’s motives is also grounds for dismissal. “If somebody appears to be a threat in any way, they’re out,” Judd says.

As chair of the Senate Faculty Development and Welfare Committee, Deibler uncovered morally questionable marketing strategies to promote Liberty and its extension program in 1992–93, ranging from allegedly deceptive tuition cost information to claims that enrollment was restricted.

Deibler told superiors that the university should have acknowledged and repented of the mailings. He alleges a general pattern of deceit and manipulation. Three months later, Deibler, one of two people in his seven-member department with an earned doctorate, had no job.

Deibler, who had only top teaching evaluations, wrote to President Guillermin requesting a committee to hear his case for redress of nonrenewal as provided in the faculty handbook, but his request was denied. He later sought a hearing with the Liberty Academic Affairs Committee, but to no avail.

“An accountability council is urgently needed since Jerry Falwell sets himself above moral and spiritual accountability to any human agency,” Deibler told CT. “He has a spirit of autonomy and superiority over his peers in the body of Christ.”

BONDHOLDERS’ COMPLAINT: Liberty’s current indebtedness is stuck at around $40 million. The largest chunk is owed to a group of about 2,000 individual bondholders who invested in 1982 and in 1989 through the Old Time Gospel Hour for Liberty’s benefit. Liberty avoided the threat of foreclosure on November 11 by making an overdue $1.1 million payment to the bondholders.

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“Falwell floated this bond issue to use the money for his cash flow, not to pay anything off,” asserts Chuck Graham, 68, of Belleville, Illinois. “He had no idea when we would be repaid.” At the time of the 1989 issuance, annual donations to Falwell ministries had dropped by $25 million, due in large part to scandals involving fellow televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.

Graham, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, invested $50,000 in the Old Time Gospel Hour in 1989 as part of an $8.5 million bond sale where investments ranged from $5,000 to $400,000.

After defaulting in 1991, Falwell promised bondholders that the Old Time Gospel Hour would pay between 10.75 and 13 percent interest “on any past due amount until we pay you in full, principal and interest.”

The obligation has not been met. By now Graham should have received a minimum of $80,300 in principal and interest. Instead, he has received only $12,000.

In 1992, bondholders held off foreclosure proceedings after Falwell vowed to provide a “100 percent principal payment” as quickly as possible, as well as accrued interest of 6 percent up to that point.

In 1993, Liberty bondholders agreed to a seven-year repayment plan, with a balloon payment of $12 million in the final year. A year later, bondholders received an offer from Lynchburg-area businessmen Daniel Reber and Jimmy Thomas to settle for 20 cents on the dollar.

Reber and Thomas provided funds for Liberty to finish building its cafeteria in the midst of the debt crisis. They also have purchased bonds—at reduced rates—of $16.2 million from Household Finance and $12.6 million from Church and Institutional Facilities Development Corporation and have forgiven the loans.

Liberty was late with $340,000 in payments to individual bondholders in 1994 and 1995. And Liberty missed its scheduled payments in March and September this year.

On October 14, Reber and Thomas offered to buy bonds at 50 percent of their face value. Counting accumulated interest, Graham notes the payback would be closer to 30 cents on the dollar. “I think they’re just trying to wear us down.”

The bondholders hold the first and second liens on the Liberty campus. They have the option of foreclosing, but they do not have the resources for maintaining and protecting a vacant campus.

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Meanwhile, a six-member bondholders’ negotiating committee is being targeted by bondholders on both sides—some have sued to demand an immediate decreased settlement, while others are threatening litigation if the committee accepts anything less than a 100 percent return.

“Most are older retired folks who are living on social security,” says committee member Bob Newell of Seffner, Florida. “Some are desperate.”

Newell, 64, a retired certified public accountant, says, “We’ve made accommodation after accommodation. We’re about accommodated out.”

In addition to Reber and Thomas, term life insurance titan A. L. Williams has helped keep the university functioning. He has provided most of the funds to build the football stadium, basketball arena, and athletic center.

More borrowing is on the horizon. “We have mammoth building needs right now,” Falwell told CT. “I don’t ever see the university being debt-free.”

Graham will not be among those lining up to buy new bonds. “You lose respectability when you don’t pay your debts,” Graham says. “I no longer trust Jerry Falwell.”

PEDDLING VIDEOS: Falwell’s fundraising may be helped by President Clinton’s re-election. He has pledged not to mention politics at God Save America gatherings, yet on the platform he cites a litany of America’s perceived liberalism-caused afflictions, from teacher’s unions to the news media.

In 1994, Falwell, during Old Time Gospel Hour telecasts, showed excerpts from Clinton Chronicles and Circle of Power videos that accused the President of misdeeds ranging from adultery to homicide coverups. Viewers donated $43 to receive the videos.

“Peddling the videos was the low point in his career,” says Americans United’s Lynn. “It was an act of desperation of trying to get back into the political arena that has largely surpassed him.”

In a move to ensure Liberty’s conservative heritage, Falwell has added several top Southern Baptists to the school’s board of trustees. Jerry Vines, a former SBC president, has become board chair. Other new trustees are Bailey Smith, another former SBC president; Gene Mims, vice president of the Baptist Sunday School church-growth group; and Ronnie Floyd, chair of the SBC executive committee. By adding high-profile Southern Baptists to Liberty’s board, the school may be better positioned to recruit Southern Baptist students.

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“There’s a lot of realignment going on in the Southern Baptist Convention,” says Beeson Divinity School Dean Timothy George. “The affinity between Falwell and Southern Baptists is unsurprising.”

Some view Falwell’s new allegiance with Southern Baptists as an attempt to return to greater prominence. Falwell also has started to send a weekly “culture watch” fax to 140,000 pastors—with the complete text of his sermons.

A FREE SPIRIT: Falwell’s fiery independence and separatistic bent have been both asset and liability as he moves to reposition himself in the evangelical mainstream.

Falwell’s ministries are not part of evangelical organizations such as the 850-member Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability or the 90-member Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities. “I’ve always been an independent thinker and a free spirit,” Falwell says, claiming he does not “want to be tied down to small thinkers and caught up in politics.” The Liberty organizational flow chart places “founder/chancellor” above the board of trustees.

Falwell has a modest view of educators. All faculty receive a one-year contract. “We don’t have tenure, so it’s unlikely that the inmates will be running the asylum here in a few years,” Falwell told CT.

While Falwell says the Liberty board of trustees has ultimate authority, “all of them respect me just as the founder is usually respected.”

Along with many other large, independent Baptist church pastors, Falwell has convinced his followers that his word carries a special measure of authority.

“When I went to a board meeting, obviously I voted with Jerry Falwell,” says Towns, who left the board earlier this year. “We felt our greatest contribution would be to keep the school straight if Jerry died.”

AN UNSECURED FUTURE: Although Liberty has survived, it has yet to live up to Falwell’s aspirations. This year’s annual U.S. News & World Report regional rankings put Liberty in the fourth, or bottom, tier.

Among 30 Southern schools, Liberty tied for last in the academic reputation category and it had, by far, the highest student-to-faculty ratio, 37 to 1. Business attracts the largest number of academic majors at Liberty, followed by psychology.

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After years of preoccupation with raising enough dollars to stave off insolvency, Falwell has ambitious plans to reinvigorate Liberty, which has an all-time high residential enrollment of 5,600. “we’re not hiring anybody past 40 for key roles,” Falwell says.

Falwell continues to believe to believe Liberty one day will have 50,000 students, with 10,000 of them in residence. And he is trusting that a new, 11,000-seat church will be built next to the campus, a project he announced in 1987. Another $17 million must be raised before moving Thomas Road Baptist Church to Liberty becomes a realtiy. In the meantime, Falwell is unwilling to preach more than one Sunday-moring service in the 4,000-seat—and 22,000-member—church.

“Falwell doesn’t and can’t think small.” Word’s Keener says. “He pretty much has accomplished everything he set out to do, although maybe not on as grand a scale.”

Edward Dobson, a Moral Majority board member who now is a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, believes Liberty, in spite of its financial woes, has its best days ahead of it. “Liberty still has the most significant potential of all Christian schools to impact our culture and the world.”

Others, however, are less sanguine, perceiving Falwell’s leadership as fatally flawed. Former Liberty religion professor Brent Sandy, now of Salem, Virginia, says, “As long as Falwell is running it, Liberty University will not fulfill its potential.”

DeBoer, the former Liberty professor, now teaching in Louisiana, recalls a telling example of Falwell’s methods. He says in the mid-1980s, as the Liberty University band prepared to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, the school purchased a dozen new tubas. “Yet some of those tubas are still sitting in cases to this day. They didn’t spend for what they needed. It was always a vision of what would become.”

See also our sidebards: “Bakker: Falwell Was ‘Totalitarian’” and “Falwell’s Son Could Carry on the Legacy.”

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