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Jerry Falwell Jr taking "indefinite" leave from Liberty University after photo with pants unzipped circulates

In a way I’m sorry to see him go, as no one better embodies American evangelicalism in the Trump era than Falwell does.

He’s the sort of deep believer who doubtless nodded along yesterday when he heard Trump ranting about Biden wanting to “hurt the Bible.” As the true face of the movement circa 2020, it seems wrong to deprive him of his perch at one of America’s foremost Christian conservative schools.

The school’s statement today announcing his “indefinite” departure didn’t specify a reason, but it’s clear enough.

This would be the reason:

He posted that photo on one of his own social media accounts, then deleted it when he realized what it looked like. He posted this video too from the same party, a “Trailer Park Boys”-themed shindig held aboard a yacht:

He explained a few days later in a radio interview that the woman is his wife’s assistant, that her pants were unzipped because she’s pregnant, and that he unzipped his too as a goof. Listen to the audio and you’ll hear that his speech sounds slurred, which raises other questions about the cause of today’s departure. It wasn’t just a matter of the photo embarrassing the university either: Liberty requires students to dress modestly and behave with “appropriateness.” Here was the president setting a poor example for his own students.

Liberty got some political cover yesterday to take action against him from Republican Rep. Mark Walker. I wonder if Walker tweeted this on his own initiative or if someone at the school dialed him up to say that it’d help them out if he lent his voice to the effort to remove Falwell, however temporarily.

A refrain on social media this evening is that this seems like a minor infraction to justify ousting Falwell given some of the things he’s been accused of, and some of the politically oriented embarrassments he’s foisted on the school. No media outlet has yet — yet — put together a true expose of him but this highly suggestive NYT piece from last year tied his personal behavior directly to his relentless, remorseless obsequiousness towards Trump. The Times story strongly implied that Michael Cohen may have blackmailed Falwell into canceling his expected presidential endorsement of Ted Cruz four years ago and giving it to the president instead:

That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen…

“There’s a bunch of photographs, personal photographs, that somehow the guy ended up getting — whether it was off of Jerry’s phone or somehow maybe it got AirDropped or whatever the hell the whole thing was,” Mr. Cohen told Mr. Arnold in the recording, which [Tom] Arnold shared with The Times. Mr. Cohen never identified “the guy.”

“These are photos between husband and wife,” Mr. Cohen added, joking that “the evangelicals are kinkier than Tom Arnold.” He explained, “I was going to pay him, and I was going to get the negatives and do an agreement where they turn over all the technology that has the photographs or anything like that, any copies.”

Falwell has remained an ardent Trump supporter ever since. There’s also the strange tale of a “pool attendant” whom Mr. and Mrs. Falwell befriended, who ended up flying around on their private jet and whom they backed financially when he opened the aforementioned “gay-friendly youth hostel.” That reporting helped drive media interest in Falwell’s “unzipped” photo op this week. What was really going on on that yacht? Just how far has Falwell strayed from Liberty’s code of “modesty”?

A Twitter pal makes a sharp point. No amount of Trump sycophancy and innuendo since 2016 seemed to bother Liberty’s board enough to act. It was only when he forced their hand by foolishly providing hard evidence of his own “immodesty” that the school finally felt obliged:

This is why I say he should stay on the job. It’d be more honest, and truer to the spirit of evangelicalism in 2020, for Liberty to just keep shrugging everything off. Falwell has the right politics, doesn’t he? That’s all that matters.

I’ll leave you with two takes. Here’s David French, an evangelical who’s very much not in tune with the movement right now, offering a note of hope…

…and here’s Tom Nichols, closer to my own view, offering something … different.