Falwell Inc.: Inside a Religious, Political, Educational, and Business Empire

Falwell Inc.: Inside a Religious, Political, Educational, and Business Empire

by Dirk Smillie

A Religious, Political, Educational, and Business Empire Revealed

“It’s impossible to be neutral about Jerry Falwell, but Dirk Smillie proves it is possible to be fair. The polarizing and controversial Falwell is associated in the public mind with religion and politics, but as Smillie explains in this fascinating and insightful book, Falwell actually

See more details below


A Religious, Political, Educational, and Business Empire Revealed

“It’s impossible to be neutral about Jerry Falwell, but Dirk Smillie proves it is possible to be fair. The polarizing and controversial Falwell is associated in the public mind with religion and politics, but as Smillie explains in this fascinating and insightful book, Falwell actually made his mark as a businessman—marketing a university that was his dream, and succeeding against the odds.”

—Professor Larry J. Sabato, author of A More Perfect Constitution: Ideas to Inspire a New Generation

“Anyone who wants to grasp how money, business acumen, political ambition, moral certitude, and fundamentalist doctrine can combine in modern American history will find this book intriguing. Its readers are likely to divide between awe and fear at how religion can shape one man’s life and the lives of a mass of his followers.”

—The Reverend Dr. Donald W. Shriver Jr., president of the faculty and William E. Dodge Professor of Applied Christianity, Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary

“A smart and wonderfully told story about a towering twentieth-century figure. It doesn’t matter what you think of Jerry Falwell’s religious or political bent. Dirk Smillie offers a riveting, compelling tale of a man who, through hustle, talent, guile, and chutzpah, forged a religious empire out of nothing. Falwell Inc. is an unmatched tale of entrepreneurship.”

—Steve Fishman, contributing editor, New York magazine, and author of Karaoke Nation: Or, How I Spent a Year in Search of Glamour, Fulfillment, and a Million Dollars

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

For a man who forswore vices of all kinds, Reverend Jerry Falwell was a man of huge appetites-not least for profit-and Smillie's business biography examines how the son of Virginia bootleggers transformed himself from a smalltown preacher into a multimedia oracle. Armed with a siege mentality, dogged work ethic and surprising openness to the best idea, Falwell pioneered a direct-mail empire with a sophisticated electronic database and a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity that appealed to Americans turned off by mainline Protestantism's reforms in the 1960s. Smillie's Falwell is an indomitable risk taker, constantly weathering cycles of prosperity and crushing debt as he raises up his empire, founds Liberty University with sweepstakes, starts a wildly lucrative online school, exploits his opponents (like Larry Flynt) and generally raises hell. The author's access to the Falwell estate and family perhaps explains the paucity of more stringent critical (or political) analysis as Smillie focuses primarily upon the Gospel Hour 's balance sheets. The book suffers when Falwell drops out of the book midway and it loses its controversial protagonist and most of its steam; unsurprisingly, the real heat is generated by the visionary huckster. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.64(h) x 0.89(d)

Read an Excerpt


The common denominator of all highly successful people is a narrative of trouble.


On the last morning of Jerry Falwell’s life, he awoke at 6:20 A.M., slowly rolled out of bed, showered, shaved, dressed, and sat down in his study to bang out a storm of e-mail. It was Tuesday, May 15, just four days before the 2007 graduation ceremonies at Liberty University, the school he had founded thirty-six years earlier. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would be coming to Liberty that Saturday to deliver the commencement address to 3,598 graduating students. Among them was the first graduating class of Liberty’s law school. They would assemble at Williams Stadium on the slopes of Candler’s Mountain in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Falwell wrote up a list of things to do that day and printed them out. They included a call to the school’s admissions office to arrange a scholarship for a waitress he and Macel, his wife of forty-nine years, met the night before at dinner. He folded and tucked the list into his suit pocket. Then he read a passage from Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest. It said:

"God is the master designer, and He allows adversities into your life to see if you can jump over them.... Rise to the occasion. Do what the trial demands of you. It does not matter how much it hurts as long as it gives God the opportunity to manifest the life of Jesus in your body."

Falwell paused and looked up for a moment, thinking about his own body. He had been battling sluggishness and shortness of breath every day for weeks. He was slowing down fast; recent medical tests had revealed that his advancing heart disease required intervention, and soon.

A little past 7 A.M. he called Ronald S. Godwin, Liberty’s chief operating officer. "Ron, get your butt out of bed. I’ve got a dollar waitin’ on a dime," cracked Falwell. Godwin was already awake and about to climb out from under the covers. They were to meet at the local Bob Evans, a country restaurant chain, at 8:30 A.M. that morning. The eatery, on a highway along the southwest border of campus, was where Falwell had met Godwin for breakfast nearly every day for the past nine years.

At 8 A.M. Falwell kissed Macel good-bye and trudged outside, sliding his six-feet-two-inch, 320-pound frame into a black Denali SUV. When he got to Bob Evans he parked a mere sixty feet from the door, yet had to pause to catch his breath before he went in. Still, he was jovial and talkative. He took his favorite corner seat next to the window, where waiter Paul Witt greeted him using his nickname, "Chuckles." Falwell considered jabbing Witt in the stomach with his fist, as he often did, but Witt knew to keep his distance. "Just the usual," said Falwell.

Falwell was soon joined by Godwin. Falwell’s breakfast companion had been executive director of the Moral Majority, then an executive at the Washington Times, followed by a second tour with Falwell beginning in 1999. Godwin and Falwell would each bring a list of priority items to the table. Godwin would write his on lined legal paper; Falwell printed his out at home. "What we got done before breakfast every morning was probably more than what most of what corporate America does," says Godwin. "We were completely comfortable with each other and wonderfully productive."

Falwell’s order arrived: a three-egg Cheddar cheese omelet, sausage links on the side, plus a jar of mustard (for the eggs). He tore into the omelet as Godwin began running down costs for expanding Liberty’s online curricula to grades three through twelve; Falwell nodded silently at each dollar figure. It was a downward extension of the university’s online education program. "I have a friend with a kid in private school who pays sixteen thousand dollars a year in tuition and has a two-hour commute," he told Falwell. "Our program would cost them five thousand dollars and bring their commute time to zero."

Falwell nodded. "It’ll blow the doors off the home-school market," he said.

Next on Godwin’s list: alert Falwell that some big names in distance learning would soon visit campus to explore taking an equity stake in Liberty’s online curricula. "We could sell out and retain the brand name, or maintain majority ownership and bring on some of these investors," said Godwin. Either way, Liberty stood to reap several hundred million dollars.

Falwell wasn’t so much concerned about which model to use as to how quickly it could happen. "Let’s do it soon," he said. "I’m not buying any green bananas, Ron."

Liberty’s online education program was Godwin’s brainchild and the university’s golden goose. The net profits from the online curricula were higher than those of the school’s residential campus. Godwin had first come up with the idea at another breakfast meeting with Falwell, this one at Howard Johnson’s. Falwell got so excited by the concept that he immediately called the president of the accrediting body for Southern schools, set up a meeting, and was on a plane later that day to seek temporary accreditation.

Hopping on planes at a moment’s notice was something Falwell had done for thirty years. As they finished eating, Godwin had some travel in mind that had nothing to do with education. "Doc, how ’bout you and I take a flight this afternoon to the Cleveland clinic. Randy could drive Macel. By the time you get checked in, she’d be there." Godwin was suggesting they fly to the Cleveland hospital where, two years earlier, doctors had implanted a stent to clear a blockage in Falwell’s coronary artery. Macel didn’t like to fly, so Godwin would arrange for Liberty’s chief of police, Randy Smith, to drive her to Cleveland.

Falwell glanced up at Godwin through his large aviator glasses, startled by his concern. Falwell shook his head. "Ron, there won’t be any stents this time, they’ll cut me wide open," he said. "We’ve got too much goin’ on this week. Let me get through graduation first," he said. Godwin and Falwell finished breakfast at about 10 A.M., returning separately to their offices on campus. Falwell drove to the Carter Glass Mansion, a brick cottage on a hill overlooking the university. He picked up his messages, closed the door, and turned on his computer. He wasn’t due at his next meeting for an hour.

Godwin had a Liberty seminary professor waiting for him. He expected to see Falwell again for an 11 A.M. meeting with staff from the Liberty Broadcasting Network and Falwell’s son Jonathan, a pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church. At 11:10 A.M. Godwin noticed his meeting was running long and that the usually punctual Falwell had not arrived to pick him up. As Godwin’s faculty guest got up to leave his phone rang. It was a television staffer calling Godwin to remind him of the meeting he and Falwell were late for. After Godwin hung up, he called Falwell’s direct line but got no answer. He got up to put his jacket on, planning to drive to Falwell’s office, but before he reached the door he heard his phone again. This time it was Randy Smith, the police chief, who had gone looking for Falwell and discovered him unconscious in his office.

Godwin raced to his car and arrived at the Carter Glass Mansion just as Jonathan Falwell pulled up. Inside, a team of paramedics were huddled around Falwell, laying face up on the floor beside his desk. He was not breathing. The bridge of his nose was split open, but there was no sign of blood in the wound. It suggested that Falwell’s heart had stopped suddenly, causing him to fall forward, striking his nose on the desk before sliding to the floor.

It was a rerun of an episode two years earlier, when Falwell suddenly lost consciousness during a car ride in Lynchburg. After going into respiratory failure, his heart had stopped beating for four minutes. Paramedics managed to revive him in a hospital parking lot. This time, attempts were made to bring Falwell back to life first in his office, then in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Neither worked. At 12:40 P.M. doctors at Lynchburg General Hospital pronounced Jerry Falwell dead of cardiac arrhythmia. He was seventy-three.

Macel and her sons, Jerry Jr. and Jonathan, later joined by daughter Jeannie, a surgeon who had rushed to Lynchburg from her own hospital in Richmond, sat alongside Falwell’s hospital bed for some time. Falwell had probably died minutes after arriving at his office following breakfast with Godwin. That afternoon Godwin sent word to the entire Liberty faculty, students, and Thomas Road Baptist Church members that an announcement would be made at 2 P.M. at the 6,000-seat church sanctuary, completed just a year earlier. The meeting was a mad house; the room was packed, as Godwin made his sad announcement.

Two days later, on a cool and overcast afternoon, a pair of dark SUVs pulled up to the 500,000-square-foot Arthur S. DeMoss building near the center of campus. Its broad stairway leads to a Corinthian-columned entrance. There were perhaps two hundred people milling around, waiting for the family to arrive. Jerry Jr. emerged from the lead car with Macel by the hand. Jonathan stepped out of the second SUV with his wife and four kids. Altogether, fourteen Falwells, ringed by six Liberty security guards, scaled the steps for a private visitation.

Even on an overcast day the cavernous DeMoss lobby is drenched in light from the dome in its ceiling. Its cheery sky-blue walls and wedding-cake trim add an oddly whimsical touch to its staid interior. In the middle of the room, perched above its polished marble floor, lay Jerry Falwell in an open casket. Falwell’s hands looked small and shriveled, accented only by a gold Liberty ring on his right ring finger. He lay in his trademark charcoal suit, white shirt, and crimson silk tie, his left arm gently embracing a King James Bible. His eyes, tightly shut, gave his face an expression of intense meditation. His fragile white hair was combed close to his head. The interior of the solid bronze casket was lined with white velvet; it sat upon the same bier Ronald Reagan’s coffin rested on during his own funeral. It had been rushed from Washington overnight at the request of Jerry Jr. to honor his father’s devotion to Reagan.

Just down the road, Falwell’s office inside the Carter Glass Mansion sat undisturbed, the shutters closed, as usual. The walnut top of his colonial-style desk was marred by water stains from a second-story flood the office suffered months earlier. On the right side of his desk was a stack of books: Newt Gingrich’s Rediscovering God In America, which Falwell plugged in his online column that month; A Match Made In Heaven, by Zev Chafets, a chronicle of common ground held by Christian evangelicals and American Jews; and Peter Lillbank’s George Washington’s Sacred Fire, a screed exploring the depths of Washington’s Christian devotion.

Falwell’s center desk drawer was crammed with half opened rolls of Certs and twenty-five-cent stink bombs. Even at seventy-three, he had delighted in silently setting them off as an unsuspecting victim sat nearby. On the floor under his desk was a Louisville Slugger baseball bat signed by former Liberty student Dave Benham. The opposing walls of his office were lined with artifacts from his life: Winston Churchill figurines; two six-packs of Donald Duck soda produced in the 1950s by the prior occupants of Falwell’s original church building; a 40mm round fired during Ronald Reagan’s funeral pro cession. On a nearby wall was a blown-up photo of Falwell and Macel deplaning from Air Force Two. The occasion was George H. W. Bush’s commencement address at Liberty in 1990.

Scattered about a next-door conference room were color aerial photos of Candler’s Mountain and a schematic for the just completed monogram on its northwest slope. Just a few days earlier the letters "LU" had been spelled out by 4,000 tons of rock and brick covering 3.8 acres. It was one of Falwell’s last projects. Against a wall was a framed copy of a Forbes story, "Prophets of Boom," the basis for this book. Falwell had recently reminded me that he, along with several Liberty board members, thought the story was crafted with a contemptuous tone and a condescending perspective. But there it was, ready to be hung.

I first met Jerry Falwell the previous summer, when we sat down in this same conference room with son Jerry Jr. and Ron Godwin to discuss the story. Falwell appeared suspicious. He leaned forward in his chair, cocked his head toward me, and interlocked the fingers of his catcher’s mitt-sized hands. "Now tell me why a national magazine like Forbes would be interested in a small-town university like ours?" It was not a difficult question.

For twenty-five years, Falwell’s name had been synonymous with the Religious Right, buoying the prospects of Republican presidential candidates and raising hundreds of millions for conservative causes. My Forbes editor, Tom Post, and I believed that Falwell’s real legacy was only now unfolding. Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college he had founded in 1971, was on an $82 million building tear, transforming Lynchburg’s small-town economy. Once in debt for $100 million and nearly forced into bankruptcy, Liberty was finally solvent, and was a money magnet. The school’s online program alone was worth perhaps $400 million. Its law school was constructing an exact replica of the U.S. Supreme Court. Its debate team had outranked Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Falwell’s legal eagles had successfully knocked down Jefferson-based laws, which capped the growth of Virginia churches. Now Falwell and his two sons, Jerry Jr. and Jonathan, planned to turn a Liberty-owned mountain into a billion-dollar endowment. What Post and I wanted to know was: How was a man in the twilight of his celebrity—whose power peaked two de cades earlier—managing to pull all this off?

Had you met Jerry Falwell in the early 1970s, you’d remember a man with piercing blue eyes, chestnut sideburns, and a small pompadour. By the 1980s, he had put on thirty pounds, his hair had turned silver and the sideburns were erased. The defining feature of his face was a pair of oversized glasses perched on a mountainous nose. In the 1990s, his jowl line dropped into an expanding double chin, which seemed to inflate around his entire neck, causing upward pressure on his earlobes, which flared slightly as he spoke. His face, said one writer, resembled a Thomas Nast cartoon of a Gilded Age plutocrat.1

Falwell’s life was defined by an unrelenting joie de war. He was like a soldier who, frustrated with slow-moving battle lines, heaves homemade incendiary devices at the enemy, which explode in a frightening display. It energizes the troops but the front doesn’t advance much. It’s been twenty years since the Moral Majority disbanded but rates of abortion and divorce have changed little. Gay rights have advanced and pornography is now even more pervasive.

To his enemies Jerry Falwell was a homophobe and a misogynist. He was the pastor who blamed 9/11 on liberals, lesbians, and abortionists. A former segregationist, he had called Bishop Desmond Tutu a "phony." The same accusation was made against Falwell himself. One writer termed Falwell a pious bumpkin from the South; the "prince of skunk hollow." This latter pejorative made reference to a man who never really shed the bad-boy values of his rowdy upbringing in Lynchburg. He simply cloaked them in clerical garb, said his critics. During his career, Falwell was jeered as a fascist at Harvard, chased from a stage by rioting Pentecostalists, survived two fatwas, received dozens of envelopes stuffed with used condoms, traveled with bodyguards, and lived behind an eight-foot-high security wall. His mailbox was blown up four times.

Jerry Falwell was the most visible American evangelical of the twentieth century, and perhaps the most hated. It didn’t matter, he reasoned, because back home his family, friends, fellow pastors, and church members knew the real Jerry Falwell. They remember the thousands of hospital visits over the years, the counseling he provided to young couples whose marriage had hit the rocks, his presiding over weddings and funerals, and his founding of homes for alcoholics and unwed mothers. They remember the bear hugs he gave to new students at Liberty, how he cried and prayed with chef Paul Prudhomme in his New Orleans kitchen over the death of his wife, and how he turned around a plane he was on in order to talk a man out of suicide.

The Jerry Falwell in this book doesn’t fit neatly into either of these extremes. I’ve attempted to reveal another side of Falwell: a religious entrepreneur who zealously built a spiritual empire in spite of the fact he was not good with money, who committed funds before he raised them, and who built an entire university on an unsustainable economic model. How did he do it?

Financial bailouts from wealthy donors helped, but only after Falwell had survived for years in the red. He managed not only to save his school, but also his own ministry by the sheer force of his own personality and his quest to destroy what he felt were ugly stereo types about himself and his faith.

In doing so he escaped one of the great traditions of American evangelism: self-destruction. The twentieth century is littered with fallen men and women of the cloth, like Aimee Semple McPherson, the 1920s female evangelist whose ministry imploded when she tried to fake her own drowning at sea. Later came the sex scandals of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard.

If Falwell ever had an affair, it was the best-kept secret in Lynchburg. He once said, "You may think I’m an extremist, but you have to be careful about where you are and who you are with. When I’m driving past a bus stop and see a lady waiting for a bus, unless I have my wife or some other adult in the automobile, I don’t pick her up, even if it is raining." Falwell refused to close the door to his office when in the company of single women, not even when he was with Jeanette Hogan, his longtime personal secretary.

In this book, I’ve brought back to life moments of obsession, desperation, and inspiration that propelled Falwell’s religious and educational ventures, the twin engines of his empire. Just a few months after I began my research—and after Falwell and his sons had agreed to cooperate—came Falwell’s death. This book would now have a subplot: a succession story that forecasts how two brothers, Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. and Pastor Jonathan Falwell, now plan to expand their famous father’s religious enterprises far beyond what he ever achieved.

Excerpted from Fallwell Inc. by Dirk Smillie

Copyright © 2008 by Dirk Smillie

Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >