Falwell’s Downfall: The Pool Boy’s Story
In 2018, a real estate–related lawsuit in Miami attracted the attention of a Buzzfeed News reporter, who was intrigued to find then–Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. sharing his previously-reported ownership of a local hostel with a pool attendant named Giancarlo Granda. That story marked the beginning of a yearslong scandal that culminated in Falwell—a major Donald Trump ally whose endorsement helped move the needle among evangelicals for the former president’s 2016 campaign—outed as a cuckold, a secret alcoholic, and a cynic about his professed Christian faith. Falwell resigned from Liberty University under pressure in August 2020, embarrassing the school’s board, who had offered Falwell a free reign and their unqualified support for more than a decade.
Billy Corben’s new documentary, God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down a Dynasty, presents the pool attendant Granda’s account of his ménage à trois with Falwell and Falwell’s wife, Becki, both of whom have rejected his version of the events. The main outline of the narrative will be familiar to anyone who followed the Falwell saga as it unfolded, but new footage and materials deepen the picture while making the Falwells’ denials even harder to believe. Granda himself is a likable and winning narrator of the scandal, frank and unforced in his interviews. Having been a supporting player in earlier versions of the story that centered on the prominent evangelical couple, Granda’s comments add nuance to the story and emphasize the significant power differential between himself and the Falwells. It is impossible, for example, to forget his youth: Granda was only 20 years old when he met them. What 20-year-old in Granda’s situation would have known what they were getting themselves into? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the couple knew just what they were doing when they invited him into their complicated lives.
In March 2012, Granda was working poolside at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami when, as he tells it, Becki Falwell, a guest who had been ogling him, asked him to come by her room later—and in case the purpose wasn’t clear enough, she mentioned that her husband would want to watch. Making arrangements from a blocked number later that day, Becki invited Granda to meet at a nearby Days Inn to make sure their liaison wouldn’t happen at the same hotel where their kids were staying. Granda alleges that Jerry was waiting with pants unzipped when Becki welcomed him into the room. The encounter would mark the beginning of an alleged six-year-long affair that saw Granda joining the family on vacations and becoming well known to the Falwells’ children, who unassumingly joked about Becki’s propensity for disappearing during their trips.
The relationship was a personal boon for Granda, who benefitted materially and socially from his connection to the Falwell family. He stayed at their Lynchburg farm, traveled frequently with them, and met numerous members of their larger circle. In September 2012, only six months after he first met Becki, Granda was on campus at Liberty when he met Donald Trump.
The aforementioned business deal, which gave Granda a 25 percent equity stake in the Miami hostel, would come about in 2013, the result of Falwell’s offers to help Granda financially and jumpstart his career. Details of Granda’s affair with Falwells were first hinted at when a local real estate broker refiled a previously dismissed claim in August 2017 against Granda’s stake in the hostel that named both Granda and Falwell.
At the time of the original filing two years earlier, the broker’s lawyer privately alleged to Granda that he had compromising photos of Granda and Becki, which led to Granda asking for help from Jerry, who reached out to Michael Cohen, then Donald Trump’s lawyer/“fixer.” Cohen intervened and took possession of the photos as a favor—he had known the Falwells since 2011—then called in the favor by pushing Falwell to endorse Trump in the 2016 election. Falwell would then become a staunch Trump ally and defender amid the latter’s moral crises, including the publication of the Access Hollywood tape, and he helped consolidate evangelical support for Trump’s campaign. Corben makes sure the viewer understands the import of this by heavy-handedly interspersing Falwell’s increasingly volatile remarks with footage of Trump’s scandalous actions and behaviors while in office, as though to say: See, evangelical hypocrisy is why we are at risk of losing our democracy!
While Falwell’s wholehearted embrace, under threat of scandal, of Donald Trump may have influenced the 2016 election, this focus on grand, simple narratives prevents Corben from entering more deeply into the strange and fraught realities of the Falwell story. These were especially apparent to those of us who were on campus to see how that story played out in real time.
Liberty was born out of Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr.’s dream of creating a Christian university capable of going toe-to-toe with any secular American research university, one that would bring together a community of happy culture warriors secure in their faith and confident in their spiritual and moral judgments. Students at Liberty agree to abide by the Liberty Way, the school’s honor code, while studying at the school, which exists to prepare them to “succeed in their chosen profession and service to others as true Champions for Christ.” In my experience and that of many of my classmates, hardly any Liberty students take these high-minded ideals seriously—in large part because Jerry Falwell Jr. obviously never did.
“People treated [Falwell] like he was a cartoon character, or their crazy uncle,” said Liberty alumnus Dustin Wahl during an interview in God Forbid. (Full disclosure: Wahl and I are co-founders of an advocacy group for Liberty alumni, and we discussed this article before its publication.) Wahl’s observation is true, and it touches on a core problem with the way that Falwell was treated in the waning days of his tenure as university president. The documentary shows a clip from a Liberty University convocation, then a thrice-weekly event that students were required to attend. During an onstage conversation in front of 14,000 students, the school’s senior vice president of spiritual development asked Jerry how old he was when he met Becki, because “some of our freshmen haven’t heard this story.” Jerry gleefully responds, “We met when I was 18 and she was 13.” In the clip, the crowd of students breaks into a shocked, drawn-out murmuring. I was one of those students. I sat just above stage right, and I reacted with everyone, exchanging looks with my dorm-mates as we said to one another variations of, “gross—that’s so messed up, man.” Of course, we didn’t know that anything illicit had happened between Becki and Jerry then—they could have simply been acquaintances—but Jerry clearly delighted in making us think about the possibility. But I soon walked out of the convocation without giving what I’d heard a second thought, because that was just typical humor from Jerry. He was an unserious man.
That widespread cynicism about the school’s leadership on the part of Liberty’s students is a photo negative of the view of Falwell that Liberty’s board of trustees maintained for many years. In 2019, I talked to a member of the board’s executive committee, bringing up concerns that I had about Falwell following the release of two searing articles about him. Far from allaying my concerns, the trustee said that he watched Jerry grow up as a young boy, knew that he had a good heart, and believed that the son was the best person to bring about the father’s vision for the institution. It was clear to me that Falwell’s name, lineage, and familial mythology had left the school’s board incapable of seeing what was plain to an outside observer, or even to LU students. Many of the board members were personal friends or mentees of Jerry’s legendary father, and to them, Jerry Jr. was the scion, the bearer of the Falwell name, the next leader of the dynasty and therefore someone entitled to immense rights and privileges, including a virtually infinite benefit of the doubt.
When the board discovered Falwell’s drinking problem—Granda claims Jerry would walk around campus with a bottle containing a mix of one half tequila and one half water, and that he often attended meetings smelling of alcohol—they tried to send Falwell to rehab secretly instead of putting him on leave or replacing him. Even now, Liberty is constructing a museum on campus dedicated to Falwell Sr.; the school cannot detach itself from its creator, and might not ultimately be able to detach itself from his namesake, either.
While board members might think of Falwell as a dynastic figure and critics might see him as a sort of cartoonish character, the reality is something altogether less interesting than either. Granda looked up the Falwells after his first experience with Jerry and Becki at the Days Inn and quickly discovered some of Falwell Sr.’s most heinous comments, like the one where he blamed 9/11 on “the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians.” (He later apologized.) Disgusted, Granda told Jerry that Falwell Sr. seems like a “piece of shit,” and Falwell responded by saying, in effect, Yeah, I know, lots of people think that about my dad, but I’m a business guy; I’m not like that at all. This accounts for some of Falwell’s flatness as a character in the national drama, especially in comparison with his charismatic father. He doesn’t have the gravitas of a scion or religious leader, and isn’t colorful enough to be a cartoon. Falwell is simply another pragmatic businessman: He wants to do deals and make money and have power. The Bible is not a text from which he appears to have drawn moral direction, but—even more significantly—it doesn’t appear to be one from which he derived the sense of spiritual depth that can provide the stakes of real tragedy, either. How could Falwell fall from grace if he never sought it to begin with?
During a forceful sequence in his film, Corben intercuts footage of Falwell and Trump in a way that frames Falwell as the progenitor of the alliance between MAGA and American evangelicals. This is a facile account of events, but it does highlight striking parallels between the former president and former university president: Just as Donald Trump gave a taste of true power and electoral success to his evangelical supporters by engaging in gutter politics, Falwell succeeded in growing Liberty and putting it on excellent financial footing by farming money from the government through a low-quality online school. Their different approaches to the pursuit of power converge in an outcome they both helped to bring about, which is the corrosion of the principles that once guided evangelical political engagement.
After years of arguing that Christians should hold fast to their convictions about politics and personal morality when selecting leaders, evangelicals accepted Trump’s and Falwell’s cases for putting those convictions on hold in exchange for the pursuit of pragmatic goals. Trump was given a pass on his moral failings because of the perceived danger from liberals—this was, after all, the “Flight 93 election”—and the promise of a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Falwell was given a pass because of how strong and influential he made Liberty University.
The synoptic Gospels each contain a version of a story about Jesus being approached by emissaries of religious leaders who wanted to trap him by using loaded questions to elicit rebellious statements against the Roman Empire. They asked Jesus if they should pay taxes to Caesar, expecting him to declaim against paying tribute to anyone but God. But instead, Jesus replied by asking them whose face is on the coins they use, then told them, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” It’s a pointed rebuke: In part, Jesus is telling the men that if they intend to derive benefits and profit from a secular authority, they must pay something for it. He leaves open the question of whether it is appropriate to enjoy the benefits that secular privileges confer.
Falwell has often invoked this story—it’s a favorite reference point of his—but he takes it in a different direction. In his appearances at convocation, during long rambles about his critics, Falwell would cite Jesus’ “Render unto Caesar” comment to say that actually, covering for Trump’s disgusting behavior was politically and spiritually responsible rather than morally questionable. After all, there are religious things, and there are secular things. Government leadership is secular, so Christians should vote for candidates that will use power in ways that benefit Christians without considering irrelevant questions of personal morality. It was remarkable to see this display of scriptural sleight-of-hand time and again at a leading Christian university: For Falwell, Christ’s bracing remark about his interlocutors’ reliance on secular authorities became a license to rid himself of religious conviction when entering the public square.
And all this coarsening cynicism has had disastrous effects. The principles that once animated and dignified the conservative evangelical movement seem absent now, after Trump, after Falwell, who both helped evangelicals to embrace rank consequentialism in their politics. Few have seen the corrosive effects of this dynamic—this moral tradeoff—as clearly and up close as Liberty’s student body did during the last years of Falwell’s tenure.
These days, Falwell is still hanging around Lynchburg—he and his wife told a Vanity Fair reporter they would remain there until they go into the ground—and he occasionally fraternizes with students at the school he used to helm. If he doesn’t ultimately find a way to reclaim his old job, Liberty University students will eventually forget about him—it only takes four years to totally refresh the student body—but it remains to be seen whether the school can wash away the mess that he left behind.