Jerry Falwell Jr.'s Secret Weapon for Muffling Dissent at Liberty University - 2019-12-23
Ever since Liberty University's founding by activist pastor Jerry Falwell Sr. in the 1970s, the school has stirred up controversy among outside observers. Falwell Sr. had a knack for "triggering the libs" before the phenomenon had been named; on Sept. 13, 2001, he blamed feminists, the ACLU, and "abortionists" for angering God and therefore opening the door to the recent attacks. Liberty has long been regarded as a tricky symbol of the fusion of Republican politics and white evangelical Christianity. But these days, there's plenty of grumbling coming from inside Liberty, too. President Jerry Falwell Jr.'s staunch support of President Donald Trump has come to alienate many students and employees, even fellow conservatives. Falwell Jr. is a heavy Twitter user who calls his political enemies "idiots" and recently told a respected Southern Baptist pastor to "grow a pair." Meanwhile, recent reporting has alleged that he uses school construction and real estate contracts to benefit his family and friends. Over the past several years, this stew of bad PR has led to petitions, media leaks, anonymous alumni groups, social media grousing, and even protests on a campus that had previously been almost completely ideologically frictionless.
This fall, new accounts of Falwell Jr.'s alleged self-dealing, bullying, and partying at a Miami dance club—many of which were reported in Politico by Liberty graduate Brandon Ambrosino—became the talk of campus. (To Politico, Falwell denied the allegations of self-dealing. He initially said that a photo taken of him at the Miami club didn't exist, and then said it was "likely photo-shopped." A nightlife photography company later posted multiple photos that appeared to feature Falwell Jr. and his family.) Jonah Schmucker, a senior, said that this scandal felt "much bigger" than previous ones. Students would joke about cursing and going to clubs: "Oh, you can do that now because Jerry did it." There is open speculation on Liberty's campus about whether Falwell Jr. is a Christian at all.
Most students at Liberty have never met Jerry Falwell Jr.; they rarely even glimpse him on campus. But many of them—particularly those who have publicly griped about the school's politics—have met Nasser. Nasser is "PR guy for student relations," as one student put it. The pastor is well liked by many students. "He can be the buffer," said Kaitlyn Schiess, who graduated in 2016. "Even if someone thinks Falwell is 'off,' [Nasser] is much more personable and kind." In my conversations with more than two dozen current Liberty students and recent graduates, Nasser emerged as a key figure in soothing campus unease—and an example of how earnest religious rhetoric can be used to tamp down even the most righteous dissent. "There's this culture at Liberty where leadership will pull you aside and pray with you, but it's really strong-arming you into shutting up," said 2019 graduate Addyson Garner, who spoke with me in the spring, when she was senior class president. "The phrase that comes to mind is spiritual gaslighting."