By Michael Gerson
March 30, 2020
After learning of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s decision to partially reopen Liberty University, my thoughts turned to the biblical account of Balaam’s ass.
According to the Hebrew scriptures, the children of Israel were on the verge of engulfing another Bronze Age tribe. Lacking recourse to the United Nations, the Moabites turned to a diviner named Balaam to curse the Israelis. But on the way to the cursing, Balaam’s conveyance, an ass, saw an angel blocking the path ahead, turned hard into a wall and crushed Balaam’s foot. Unable to see the celestial creature himself, a frustrated Balaam beat his ass. But God permitted the wounded animal to speak, mock her rider and explain the divine roadblock. The eyes of a chastened Balaam were finally opened and he took the Israeli side. And the rest is Middle East history.
Students at Liberty University are more likely than most to understand the specialness of this biblical lesson. It is one of the few stories in which Falwell should not be assigned the part of an ass. For that matter, he does not even deserve the role of Balaam, who at least was open to instruction. Instead, Falwell has charged the angel straight on and — in defiance of nearly all public health experts — reopened the Liberty dorms in the middle of a pandemic. Now, according to the New York Times, at least one student has tested positive and several more have shown coronavirus-like symptoms.
Falwell played down the risk to students who might get the disease. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk,” he argued last week, “and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”
But this public response indicates the staggering level of ignorance that informs Falwell’s leadership. It is possible for students with mild or unnoticeable symptoms to spread the disease. And once cases are discovered, it is generally too late to take preventive action. Yes, the fatality rate of infected college students is likely to be low. Yet places with broad community spread are more likely to see infection of the elderly and vulnerable, who are more likely to fill premature graves. Since when has Liberty University embraced the teaching of Social Darwinism in Ethics 101?
What can’t be disputed is the constant churn of mixed messages that Falwell has contributed to our national debate. His stated intention has been to concentrate Liberty’s student population: “I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell personally welcomed hundreds of students back to campus after Spring Break. “They were talking about being glad to be back,” he recalled. “I was joking how they pretty much had the whole place to themselves, and I told them to enjoy it.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell has called the national pandemic response an “overreaction” with political motivations. “Impeachment didn’t work,” he claimed, “and the Mueller report didn’t work and Article 25 didn’t work, and so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump.”
It can’t be disputed that Falwell went on Fox News and speculated that the coronavirus might have been the work of the North Korean military.
It can’t be disputed that Falwell called one critic a “dummy,” even though he is the parent of Liberty students. Or that Falwell has dismissed a critical professor named Marybeth Davis Baggett as “the ‘Baggett’ lady.’ ”
There is an old Bob Dylan song titled, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Who is Falwell serving instead of students, parents, staff, his board and the Lynchburg, Va., community? Let’s see. Falwell has contempt for the weak. He is dismissive of experts. He traffics in conspiracy theories. He attacks his critics with infantile putdowns and demeaning names. And he refuses to admit when he is dangerously wrong.
Who does that sound like? It is on the tip of my tongue.
In this case Falwell has gone even further than the president, who is occasionally forced, under duress, to say sane things about the virus. Falwell seems to want credit from President Trump for drinking the most distilled, concentrated, rotgut form of the Kool-Aid.
He blunders toward blasphemy by insisting that he is being persecuted for his religious beliefs. “We’re conservative,” he claims, “we’re Christian, and therefore we’re being attacked.” But any path that ignores the truth and endangers the vulnerable can’t be called the way of Christ. No, there is only one explanation: Falwell has laid down the cross to follow Trump.