(RNS) — In the week since Jerry Falwell Jr. agreed to a leave of absence from Liberty University, Liberty alumni serving as Christian pastors have let it be known they would like that leave to be permanent.
“I don’t think he needs to be president of Liberty,” said Dean Inserra, lead pastor of CityChurch in Tallahassee, Florida, and a 2003 graduate of Liberty. “You need more than a last name to be president of that school.”
Falwell took a leave after posting, then deleting, a provocative Instagram photo of him posing with his arm around a woman at a party with their zippers down and midriffs showing. In his other arm, Falwell cradled a glass of what he described as “black water,” widely understood as alcohol. Liberty University rules for faculty and students ban the use of alcohol. And Falwell’s father, whose family had a history of alcoholism, once told a jury that he had been a teetotaler since becoming a Christian as a young man.
Ahead of a planned Liberty board meeting next week — the exact date has not been announced — many Liberty alumni serving in positions of church leadership would like the trustees to know they consider Falwell’s behavior inexcusable in a president of a Christian university.
On Friday, a spokesperson for the Liberty University trustee board confirmed that Allen R. McFarland, pastor of Portsmouth, Virginia’s Calvary Evangelical Baptist Church, is now the acting chair of the board. He replaces Jerry Prevo who was appointed interim president of the school. McFarland is also the first African American to fill that role.
In addition to the Instagram photo, Christian pastors cited a long list of offensive statements by Falwell, such as his remarks at a 2015 convocation ceremony following the San Bernardino shooting where he said: “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.” Then there are Falwell’s business dealings involving a young pool attendant in Florida and photos of Falwell and members of his family partying at a Miami Beach nightclub in 2014. More recently, he tweeted Blackface and Ku Klux Klan imagery.
Some pastors told Religion News Service that Falwell has a right to his passionate support of President Donald Trump. But they were appalled by his defense of Trump’s comments in the infamous Access Hollywood tape and in other cases, such as Trump’s defense of white supremacists.
“As a Christian, I believe in forgiveness and redemption,” said John Welborn, a 2004 Liberty graduate who is now pastor of Salem Church in New York’s Staten Island. “My prayer for him is that he finds true repentance and confession. But I do believe Liberty University would be well served by a fresh start with new leadership.”
Many of these pastors said it would be disingenuous to reinstate the 58-year-old Falwell after a three- or six-month separation without a full process of repentance and public confession — a process they said could take years.
“A three-month hiatus — people will see right through that,” said Dan Williams, pastor of Trinity Bible Fellowship outside Redding, Pennsylvania, and a 2001 Liberty graduate.
The full board meeting next week is the first time that all the trustees will gather to consider Falwell’s fate. The board’s six-member executive committee decided on Falwell’s leave of absence Aug. 7.
On Monday (Aug. 10), Liberty announced that Jerry Prevo, a 75-year-old retired Alaska Baptist pastor, would serve as interim president. Prevo has been chairing the trustee board since 2003. Prevo asked the community to “lift him up in prayer so he may be able to fulfill God’s purpose for him and for Liberty University.”
A group of more recent Liberty graduates has launched a website called Save71 also calling for the board to permanently remove Falwell. (The name refers to the year 1971 when the school was founded by Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr.)
Some of the church pastors told RNS they no longer donate to Liberty or see it as an appropriate place to send Christian youth.
Welborn said he has been hesitant to recommend Liberty to high school students at his church who are considering Christian higher education.
Williams, who met his wife as a student at Liberty, said the couple has strong reservations about sending their three children to Liberty.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the top-level leadership of the school and its inaction in confronting Jerry Falwell Jr.” said Williams. “It’s inexcusable and a real tragic shame.”