The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jerry Falwell Jr., Trump’s early and effusive evangelical champion, lifted a president before his own fall

President Trump poses with Jerry Falwell Jr. in Lynchburg, Va., in 2017. Falwell resigned as Liberty University president on Monday. (Steve Helber/AP)
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There are multiple reasons President Trump won the White evangelical vote in 2016 after a career that often included flaunting a lifestyle in opposition to conservative Christian values. One really helpful factor was the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., the then-president of Liberty University, the largest evangelical university in the world.

But while Falwell — the son of Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of Moral Majority, a highly influential conservative Christian organization — helped convince White evangelicals concerned about Trump’s reported sexual escapades that the former reality television host could be a leader guided by Christian principles, he could not convince his own bosses that he could continue to be the same. And while Trump continues to maintain significant support within White evangelicalism, Falwell’s prominence within the faith and political communities appears to be on the decline.

Falwell resigned Monday after a series of scandals. Support for Falwell’s leadership at the university declined after two new reports about Falwell and his wife being sexually involved with a young man they went into business with after befriending him at a Miami Beach hotel pool. Falwell denies the allegations; he and his wife say that she had an affair with the man but that Falwell was not involved.

Falwell had already been on put on paid leave after posting a photo on social media of himself with his wife’s assistant with their shorts zippers partially down. Falwell was holding a dark beverage that he said was nonalcoholic.

Although a leader of a culturally influential university, Falwell — who is not a minister — was never held up as one of the evangelical movement’s moral exemplars. But he had a powerful position and a legacy that was highly beneficial to the Trump campaign, considering that the then-candidate’s reputation was an issue for some on the Christian right.

The evangelical voters were looking for a leader who could slow down, if not all-out reverse, the leftward direction of the country under the Obama administration, and Trump was up against other candidates with stronger bona fides within the conservative Christian community. Trump was already leading with many of the demographic groups that traditionally voted for the GOP in a general election, including White evangelicals. But some members of the faith community wanted to know whether backing the thrice-married candidate who had been accused of adultery was the moral thing to do. Falwell helped convince them that it was.

Falwell went on to endorse Trump before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, after he praised Trump when he visited Liberty.

“In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” Falwell said in January 2016 before Trump’s speech at a Liberty convocation ceremony.

Falwell helped convince voters that Trump’s lack of familiarity with the ways of evangelicalism were somewhat irrelevant as long as he pledged to support the convictions of deepest importance to the Christian right, like religious liberty, conservative judges, and opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

“When he walked into the voting booth, he wasn’t electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs; he was electing the president of the United States with the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation,” Falwell said that January, while explaining his father’s support for Ronald Reagan, another Republican president popular with evangelical Christians despite not having deep ties with the community himself.

“After all, Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday school teacher, but look at what happened to our nation with him in the presidency. Sorry.”

It seems to have helped. Trump won Iowa and eventually the general election with 81 percent of the White evangelical vote, a percentage higher than that earned by 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, an observant Mormon.

Falwell continued to praise Trump, at one point calling him an evangelicals’ “dream president.”

But as Falwell’s own moral issues increasingly appeared in headlines along with reports that Trump’s personal lawyer was involved with helping hide some sexually suggestive photos involving Falwell before he endorsed Trump, the president seemed to keep more distance. The highest-profile evangelical who gave Trump his most high-profile endorsement was reportedly not invited to participate in the 2020 Republican convention despite speaking at the previous one, according to the New York Times.