How Liberty University Built a Billion-Dollar Empire Online

By Alec MacGillis

It was the start of the 2017 Fall Family Weekend at Liberty University, the school founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. 47 years ago in Lynchburg, Va., and the lines were especially long to get into the basketball arena for the mandatory thrice-weekly student convocation. There was a festive feel in the air — as usual, a live band kicked things off with some Christian rock.

Penny Nance, a newly named Liberty trustee who is the head of the socially conservative group Concerned Women for America, took the stage to say that with Donald Trump in the White House, the country was much closer to overturning Roe v. Wade and putting “true limits on the abortionist’s hand.” Tim Lee, a Texas preacher and evangelist who lost his legs in the Vietnam War, gave a sermon bemoaning “homosexuals and pornographers,” declaring that one problem with “pulpits today is that they’ve got a lot of girlie men in them.” A young man in front of me in a Nautica T-shirt clapped and shouted, “That’s right!”

Liberty is spread out on more than 7,000 acres overlooking Lynchburg, a former railroad-and-tobacco town on the James River below the Blue Ridge Mountains. The student body on campus is 15,500 strong, and the university employs more than 7,500 people locally. Throughout the university grounds, there is evidence of a billion-dollar capital expansion: mountains of dirt and clusters of construction equipment marking the site of the new business school; the $40 million football-stadium upgrade, to accommodate Liberty’s move into the highest level of N.C.A.A. competition; and the Freedom Tower, which at 275 feet will be the tallest structure in Lynchburg, capped by a replica of the Liberty Bell.

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