Culture Friday – Proof for the value of accountability

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Friday the 28th of August, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

FALWELL: Thank you…

First up: Culture Friday.

FALWELL: I am so honored and humbled to be here tonight.

That’s the now former president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Junior speaking at the 2016 Republican convention.

This week brought the end of a 13-year tenure that followed the death of his father, who founded the school.

Falwell Junior announced his resignation, retracted it, then submitted it a final time. Reportedly, he walks away with a $10.5 million severance. 

We’ll be discreet in describing the details that follow:

The resignation comes after he revealed his wife’s infidelity with a business partner by the name of Giancarlo Granda and then an explosive wire-service story citing evidence that during some of her encounters, Falwell Junior was a voyeur.

BROWN: The story surfaced after Liberty’s board of trustees placed Falwell Junior on indefinite leave. That action followed Falwell’s posting a photo of himself aboard a yacht with his arm draped over an assistant to his wife—both of them with pants open. He said the photo was a joke and removed it, and later admitted it was a bad idea to post the picture in the first place.

EICHER: Falwell Junior was also given to aggressive comments on social media—once calling a university student’s parent a “dummy,” criticizing a pastor by name and making a crude reference to male anatomy. 

Following the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, Falwell Junior spoke to Liberty students at a convocation and made a joke about the concealed weapon he was carrying.

FALWELL: Is it illegal to pull it out, I don’t know. Is that? Anyway … I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they— before they—

BROWN: WORLD quoted a former Liberty University English professor who said of Falwell Junior’s departure, and I’ll quote the words:

“It’s a great relief that Liberty no longer has a leader who clearly no longer wants to be in that position. … His behavior for a long time has not been that of a spiritual leader.”

EICHER: John Stonestreet is here. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. John, welcome and good morning.


EICHER: John, listen to this reaction Falwell Junior gave. He’d said this in numerous interviews with several media outlets, but also in this phone interview with National Public Radio’s Sarah McCammon.

FALWELL: I will step aside. And the quote I’ve been thinking about all night, Martin Luther King Jr. ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.’ Hahahaha. And so that’s the way I feel.

I get it that he’s very stressed-out, but it does fit with the statement Myrna mentioned, basically suggesting that he didn’t really want the job. What do you make of all this?

STONESTREET: Well, I mean, it’s been a big story all week and there’s a whole lot of words that have been said about it from all sides. So I’ve just kind of been disillusioned by using this story to celebrate the unrighteousness and that’s really what this whole thing has done. 

And at the same time Liberty’s a big place. It’s got a long history. This is one of those things that affects an awful lot of lives. You have a bunch of grads—tens of thousands of graduates—and what will this mean in terms of the reputation of their degrees? You’ve got an awful lot of evangelicals and an awful lot of people who are evangelicals who have certain political views and those now are going to be mocked. I guess the ripple effect of this is way bigger than just the headlines and the sensationalism and the stories. And that’s why, to me, I just found this whole thing very, very, very sad all week. And a real slap in the face that our behavior matters. Our witness for Christ matters. And that when sin comes into the open, you kind of see how many people that it actually affects.

EICHER: I just don’t want to delve into the details. Suffice it to say Reuters broke this story and verified a FaceTime call, an audio recording, and text messages. Our reporter did reach him but when he did, Falwell Junior said he couldn’t talk. 

But he was very talkative otherwise. To the Wall Street Journal he said he thought his leave of absence was driven by pressure from self-righteous people. 

So you get a picture of a kind of quiescent person, who’s obviously weary, but also some defiance.

It was interesting as you went back over some of his history, you obviously see provocative statements that just didn’t befit a Christian university president. But on more than one occasion he made the point, “I’m not a spiritual leader. I’m not a minister. I’m a real estate attorney. The faculty, the students, and the campus pastor are the ones keeping the school spiritually healthy.” 

Realize this is a sad personal story where Falwell Junior is concerned … but it does, John, provide a backdrop for talking about the proper role of the Christian leader.

STONESTREET: Well, this was a dramatic shift and we’ve seen Christian leadership, even leadership in higher education take different models and work just fine. We’ve actually seen all of those categories of leadership fail. We’ve seen it in churches. We’ve seen decentralized leadership do well and we’ve seen it also be a place of corruption. And it tells us a little bit about what we should remind ourselves when it comes to human sin and the fall: That the problem is not out there. The problem is not with that particular group of people or that particular creepy guy. The problem is with all of us. 

And because that’s true, the red flags that should send our spidey sense tingling—and I don’t mean when we’re looking at other people; I think there’s been enough of that done in this situation—I think when we look at ourselves, when we are unaccountable, when our leadership, when our power, when our influence is not checked by any systems, by any other individuals, by anyone that we’ll listen to.

You and I have talked about this before, Nick, over the last couple weeks, but I guess for about three years now I’ve been struck by how remarkably profound Proverbs are and not because there’s some esoteric, hard to understand spiritualisms, but because they’re just kind of down-to-earth obvious. And I think one of those is when Proverbs says that you are blessed by the wounds of your friends. And I think that our vision of leadership has to be shaped deeply by what we know to be true about the human condition and our need for other people who love us enough to call us an idiot and call out our idiocy when it’s appropriate. Without that, I don’t think there’s a model that works. Those are basic ingredients that leadership can’t survive without.

BROWN: What lessons do we draw from this? What about the role of boards and structures of accountability? Seems like a good opportunity to reflect on this.

STONESTREET: Well, I think there’s going to be a lot of introspection at this particular institution about the role of the board and the role of other leaders and the accountability that they either did not provide or were not allowed to provide. And I don’t know enough about the ins and outs. I mean, certainly there’s plenty of headlines that tells you plenty of things and I’m just not sure what the truth is. 

I know some of the names on that board and they’re really good people. I know, for example, that between the administration and the everyday life on campus is a dramatic divide. I mean, literally is a geographic divide. And there are wonderful, wonderful men and women of God who are discipling and carrying out that vision day in and day out to make champions for Christ and they’ve been working hard at it. So, I’m not sure the life on the ground is going to change other than there’s a whole lot of gossip for the kids to talk about. 

But boards have a role and whether we’re talking about elder boards or deacon boards or boards of governance, they have a very important role and I think we are coming out of it a generation where charismatic leadership was oftentimes given a pass on this or that or the other by boards that were kind of hand-selected and so on. And I just think that’s a no-no. I’m grateful. I don’t always feel it, but I’m grateful that I don’t have a yes-man board. I can tell you that. I mean, they keep me very much accountable and will happily disagree if the mission is compromised. And, yeah, that’s a level of accountability that everybody works for somebody and we’re all accountable to the mission.

EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. John, great to talk with you. Have a good one.

STONESTREET: Thank you both.

(Emily Elconin/The News & Advance via AP, File) In this, Nov. 13 2019, file photo, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. talks to Donald Trump Jr. about his new book “Triggered” during convocation at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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