In a 2019 phone call, Michael Cohen — the former personal lawyer and fixer for then-President Donald Trump — joked to comedian Tom Arnold that “the evangelicals are kinkier than Tom Arnold.” A recording of that call, which was made without Cohen's knowledge, airs during episode four of In God We Lust, a new podcast from Wondery about the scandal that led Jerry Falwell Jr. to resign as president of Liberty University last year. While the show's gossipy tone offers an entertaining portrait of the affection Falwell and his wife had for, shall we say, the things of this world, listeners may find themselves wanting more. I know I did.
After years of related rumors, the news broke in August 2020 that former pool attendant Giancarlo Granda said he had an affair with Becki Falwell and that Falwell watched. Falwell was already on a forced leave of absence from Liberty University at the time because of an Instagram photo (more on this later), but the news of the affair is what catalyzed his eventual resignation as president.
It’s easy to understand why the Falwell story captured headlines. He was the president of one of the largest Christian universities in the world, a school where students had to abide by “The Liberty Way”: No plagiarism, no alcohol, no drugs, no cigarettes, and of course, no sex outside of a heterosexual marriage. Falwell and his family flouted their own institution’s rules in an over-the-top way. It’s a story we know well: the rich guy who did whatever he wanted.
That’s the angle of In God We Lust. Hosted by comedians Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams, the podcast covers the lows of the eight-year-long Falwell-and-pool-boy saga. The show is a spinoff of their main gig, a podcast called Even the Rich. In God We Lust relies heavily on the main articles that covered the Falwell affair. It’s a conversational format; Siffrinn spills the tea and Skidmore-Williams gasps in response (there is a lot to be shocked about).
In God We Lust gave me a better understanding of the impact the affair had on Granda. In the podcast, reporter Josh Kovensky speaks extensively to the almost addictive nature of the relationship and the way the Falwells groomed Granda. The show would have benefitted from the input of a therapist or psychologist here, someone who could have spoken to co-dependent relationships, particularly relationships where there is sex and business involvement and a large age gap.
The stories of Liberty University students are a highlight. This is where we discover the toll that the Falwells' choices had on individuals. Former student Callum Best put it this way in episode six: “You start to realize the kind of rot that’s at the bottom of your community. And the idyllic nature of the place starts to feel more like decadence.”
It’s easy to believe him, especially those of us who grew up evangelical and understood that there were things you could never do without consequences. Former Liberty journalist Erin Covey lost her job as news editor of the student newspaper after she talked to national reporters about conflict between students and university administrators. LeeQuan McLaurin describes his shock when Falwell tweeted a photo with blackface and Ku Klux Klan imagery. McLaurin worked as an associate director of student engagement and director of diversity retention at the university from 2018 to 2020 but resigned after the tweet saga. Both of these stories point to deeper problems at Liberty University, but the show only dips its toes into the complexity of those issues, focusing instead on the Granda angle.
The hosts point out that despite pushback from faculty and alumni, the Liberty board tolerated Falwell’s many mistakes over the years, like the overtly racist tweet. It took the posting of a certain crude and strange photo for things to change.
I was on Twitter when a tweet from Houston Chronicle religion reporter Robert Downen interrupted my scrolling: “Wut is happening,” he wrote alongside a screenshot from Falwells Instagram. Falwell had posted a photo of himself, pants unzipped, belly hanging out, with his arm around a young woman who also had her pants unzipped and belly out.
For people on the outside, this photograph symbolizes all the problems with white evangelical culture: displays of wealth in the middle of a global pandemic, hypocrisy, terrible taste. But people inside of evangelicalism (especially Liberty students who had tried to follow the Liberty Way) also recognized something else in the photo. Public evidence of sexual impropriety is the beginning of the end.
We know because we lived through purity culture, which has projected implicit messages to our generation that there’s no coming back from personal sexual indiscretion. It’s the one thing you cannot do. When the news broke a few weeks later about Becki Falwell and Granda’s affair, which involved Falwell looking on according to Granda, we knew that Falwell’s time at Liberty University was over.
In evangelicalism, you can come back from an abuse cover-up, you can come back from overtly racist statements, but you can’t come back from watching your wife have sex with another man.
Falwell denied his participation in the affair, claiming it was between his wife and Granda alone. In a statement he released, he wrote, “Becki had an inappropriate personal relationship with this person, something in which I was not involved.” Becki Falwell went on to say that her husband was the most forgiving person she knew.
In an email to Sojourners, Calvin University history professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez said, “It’s one thing to be the wronged husband who steps up and forgives his wife while noting he isn’t perfect, either. There is a certain nobility to it. And it keeps him morally pure, and thus not disqualified from leadership.”
Du Mez’s recent bestseller, Jesus and John Wayne, explores the impact of militaristic masculinity and its impact on white evangelical culture. Falwell’s explanation for the events could be categorized as his attempt to appear more masculine.
“The other story — that of him watching his wife have sex with another man — is the worst of both worlds. It undercuts his masculine prowess, and it places him in a morally indefensible position, and least in the eyes of evangelicals,” Du Mez wrote.
In God We Lust is entertaining and engaging, but I wonder if this is what we need from the Jerry Falwell Jr. story. Yes, we can enjoy leering at it from a distance. Yes, we can marvel at the hypocrisy. But the story is also an invitation to reflect on the systems that allowed someone like Falwell to prosper for so long. I’m not sure that the gaze this show takes allows for that.
In the final episode, we hear Callum Best acknowledge that what happened with Falwell is about more than the affair. He says, “We want the board to say they’re sorry, but to say they’re sorry they’d have to admit they stood by for years and just failed as trustees. They turned a blind eye. They did nothing.”
Religious organizations in the United States are grappling with the impacts of abuse of power. Catholics, Southern Baptists, and so many other Christians could say to their current leaders, “You turned a blind eye. You did nothing.” Falwell's scandal represents a bigger story of hypocrisy, purity culture, and corruption. It’s one worth examining with a sober gaze.