Jerry Jr. inherited his father's desire to be a force in American politics, and his post as Liberty University president, while Jonathan inherited his father's gift for evangelical uplift and became pastor of his church.
Now, 14 years after Jerry Falwell Sr. died and nine months after Jerry Jr. was ousted in a scandal, Liberty is enmeshed in a debate that could have profound implications for the nation's religious right: Whether it should keep nurturing Jerry Jr.'s focus on politics and maintain its high-flying role in the Republican Party, or begin to change its culture and back away from politics, an approach increasingly favored by younger evangelicals.
As part of their discussions, the Liberty trustees are considering naming Jonathan Falwell as the university's chancellor—an important and highly symbolic post—in order to maintain the Falwell family connection but not their political baggage, according to people familiar with the deliberations.
Donald Trump looms large over the university's dilemma. Jerry Jr. shocked many in the religious right with his early endorsement of Trump over many Republicans with far greater evangelical ties; during Trump's presidency, Jerry Jr. spent university funds on ads and programs that highlighted Trump and his followers. But Jonathan has been far cooler toward Trump. And in the wake of Jerry Jr.'s ouster, some in the Liberty community question whether the university would do better to concentrate on its religious values rather than casting its lot with the former president.
Liberty's ultimate path will influence the greater evangelical world, which is having its own reckoning with the post-Trump Republican Party. With more than 100,000 students, Liberty has long been one of a small handful of top cultural institutions for evangelicals, its board studded with famed pastors and movement leaders. Observers believe that even a small change in direction at Liberty could signal shifting winds among one of Republicans' most important voting blocs.
"Liberty University is a reflection of evangelicalism at large. Good, and bad, and everything," said Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty for 21 years before leaving in 2020. "There's a battle going on between the pro-Trump, pro-conspiracy theory, anti-vaccine crowd and Christians who might or might not have some overlap with those things, but who care most about the ministry."