His pants were unzipped, his midriff was out, and his glass was filled with a dark liquid he called “black water.”
But Jerry Falwell Jr., one of President Donald Trump’s loudest evangelical supporters, said the provocative vacation photo he posted and then deleted last weekend was little cause for concern — even after it drew both cries of confusion and charges of hypocrisy as it circulated around the internet.
No matter that students at Liberty University, the Virginia school Falwell leads with a tight grip, are told to dress “modestly” and banned from consuming media that features nudity or sexual content. The university president said in an apology this week that he was merely taking part in a theme party on a yacht.
“I’ve promised my kids I’m going to try to be a good boy from here on out,” he said Wednesday during a radio interview with WLNI, adding that the picture was “just in good fun.”
That appeared to be that. Until Thursday, when Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., a Baptist minister and former Liberty instructor, said it was one too many scandals for the embattled president of the nation’s largest Christian university.
“Jerry Falwell Jr’s ongoing behavior is appalling,” Walker, the vice chairperson of the powerful House Republican Caucus, wrote on Twitter. “I’m convinced Falwell should step down.”
Walker’s statement marks the strongest rebuke yet by a Republican elected official, even as Falwell, Liberty’s president since 2007, has faced repeated scrutiny over his leadership of the university and his personal choices off-campus.
Appointed president by the school’s founder, his televangelist father, 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.”
But charges of bad behavior came to a head after January 2016, when the prominent evangelical figure made a critical early endorsement of Trump in the Republican primary. Following the election, Falwell ramped up his attempts to silence any 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.
Meanwhile, Falwell was allegedly showing off racy photos of his wife to colleagues and having crude discussions about his sex life at work, journalist Brandon Ambrosio wrote in Politico Magazine, citing more than two dozen Liberty officials. Last year, amid reports of Falwell’s business dealings with a former Florida pool boy, images emerged of him and his family partying at a Miami nightclub.
Then, he allowed students stay on campus during the coronavirus pandemic despite promises to local officials that he’d do otherwise, drawing condemnation and a class-action lawsuit.
In June, an attempted jab at Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam — and the governor’s admission that he posed in blackface — led to an outpouring of criticism from Liberty’s Black students and staff and prompted the school’s diversity director to resign.
Barely two months later, he is again in hot water over a since-deleted social media post.
This time, the viral photograph featured Falwell, in a black rolled-up T-shirt and unzipped dark pants showing his underwear, with his arm around a woman in a reddish wig and unzipped shorts.
“More vacation shots. Lots of good friends visited us on the yacht,” the caption on Falwell’s Instagram post read. “I promise that’s just black water in my glass. It was a prop only.”
As that photo swirled around the internet early this week, many across the political spectrum took to social media in response.
“Help! I tried to look anywhere not-alarming in this Jerry Falwell Jr. photo and I sprained my eyeballs!” wrote the actress Bette Midler.
“If you’re running the largest Christian university in America,” said Meghan McCain, co-host of “The View,” “maybe don’t put photos of yourself on social media with your pants undone on a yacht. … So gross, so hypocritical.”
As some pointed out, Liberty’s strict code of conduct would bar students from dressing like Falwell did on his yacht — or perhaps even viewing the image. The rules say students must dress with “cleanliness, neatness, appropriateness, and modesty.”
Speaking to WLNI, Falwell said the woman in the photo was his “wife’s assistant” — and, it seems, the inspiration for undoing his pants zipper and showing off his midriff.
“She’s pregnant, so she couldn’t get her pants up,” he told the Lynchburg, Va. radio station, as the host chuckled. “And I had on 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.”