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The Falkirk Center: Liberty University’s Slime Factory

It gave oxygen to Trump’s steal-the-election bid. Now hundreds of Liberty students are petitioning to have the meme-making machine shut down.
January 15, 2021
Featured Image
The co-founders of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Charlie Kirk. (Via YouTube)

‘Welcome to another exciting edition of the Falkirk Center podcast on the campus of Liberty University, where Christ is King, church is essential, and freedom is everything.

This is how Falkirk Center Executive Director Ryan Helfenbein opens nearly every episode of the center’s podcast. Despite his promise, the episodes aren’t actually exciting. Most episodes are a sour mix of reactionary politics, debunked lies, and unholy combinations of religion and patriotism.

The Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty is Liberty University’s think tank, launched in 2019 and named after its co-founders: Jerry Falwell Jr., the longtime Liberty University president, recently forced out, and Charlie Kirk, the political activist and founder of Turning Point USA. If you’re already thinking that a FalKirk partnership sounds like the opposite of a good idea, you’re correct. Liberty University is the center’s institutional home, providing it with funding, staff, office space, camera equipment, and tax-exempt status for receiving donations. In return, Falkirk churns out a steady stream of propaganda aimed at convincing Christian conservatives they are oppressed victims in society, church, politics, culture, child-rearing, and every other dimension of life.

Since Jerry Falwell Jr.’s forced departure from Liberty University last August following multiple public scandals, he is presumably now uninvolved with the Falkirk Center. But his legacy lives on, and not just in the first syllable of the center’s ridiculous name. As one might expect, the Falkirk Center integrates its co-founders’ specialties. From Falwell, a constant mixing of politics and religion and a nonchalant self-confidence. From Charlie Kirk, well, just memes and social media savvy. If you don’t have the time or desire to engage with Falkirk’s content, just imagine the Turning Point USA, #BigGovSucks style of graphics, but with less design acumen. Or PragerU, but with less sophistry and more naked appeals to religious nationalism. To judge from the comments sections on the Falkirk Center’s various platforms, the center’s fans care a lot about God and country, often without distinction between the two. Falkirk’s influencers have successfully found a way to reach the only population they try to speak to: religious conservatives.

“Massive Cultural Influence”

The Falkirk Center makes its propaganda available via web articles, social media posts, and a podcast/video series that drops new episodes every few days.

In a recent Falkirk podcast episode, Phill Kline—a former Kansas attorney general and a law professor at Liberty University even though he had his law license suspended in 2013 by the Kansas Supreme Court for a “substantial pattern of misconduct”—shares debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 election results. Helfenbein starts another episode, released on November 9, asking, “Is the election really over? I mean, really really over?” Rudy Giulani, his guest, has questions too: “Every one of these places President Trump was ahead on election night, how is it he fell behind in every single one of them?” Giulani answers his own question with the rigmarole about massive voter fraud that in the subsequent two months would become painfully familiar to the whole country. Helfenbein thanks Giulani for the “briefing,” calling it “really important.

In another two-part episode, John MacArthur, a well-known evangelical pastor who defied California’s coronavirus lockdown, blurts out a near-parodic diatribe against social justice, “cultural Marxism,” critical race theory, and other bogeymen of the right wing. MacArthur flatly states that “it’s impossible” to believe the gospel and affirm critical race theory, because CRT denies the essential gospel truth of “personal responsibility.” Of course, this is false: CRT does not deny the gospel, and the gospel is not about “personal responsibility.” MacArthur also says he does not believe “a real Christian can vote Democratic,” because of the “blasphemous accoutrements” of the party. (Someone should tell the roughly 40 million self-described Christians who voted for Joe Biden that they aren’t “real” Christians after all.) Helfenbein says that all of this is “very, very well put.”

Helfenbein has stated that the goal of the Falkirk Center is to have “massive cultural influence,” and I believe him after watching 12 hours of Falkirk’s nonsense podcast episodes, reading months’ worth of its articles, and scrolling through its near-endless social media feeds. “This is not your dad’s or granddad’s think tank,” says Helfenbein. Yeah, well it’s not your dad’s or granddad’s critical thinking either.

Much of Falkirk’s content is facially ridiculous, deceptive, or easily debunked. But that’s because Falkirk is not selling truth. Like any propaganda outlet, Falkirk melds partial truths with distortions to create a coherent worldview—one that comforts the audience while misleading it. There is no other way to explain the debunked claims of election fraud that Falkirk treats seriously, or the consistently shoddy interpretations of the Bible and history that would be considered sophomoric in Liberty’s own undergraduate classes. The Falkirk Center doesn’t even do a good job at creating alternate realities. Everything falls apart under the barest level of scrutiny—that is, if you can steel yourself to actually engage with all the mind-numbing content.

Ironically, the Falkirk Center exhibits the same cynicism and victim mentality that it rages against. Education? The left is “taking it over,” according to Helfenbein. Election fraud? It’s caused by Zuckerberg’s money and shadowy uses of government power. Parental rights? They’re being stripped by a deceptive and nefarious government and school system “trying to get in between parents and their children.” People who disagree with Falkirk’s politics are treated as part of the shadowy, undefined cabal of “they” and “them” that persecutes and hates conservative Christians. The Falkirk Center doesn’t like it when other groups—racial minorities, say—describe reality in terms of oppression and power, but this is a central part of Falkirk’s own shtick. If Christian patriots have power, they must use it to reshape culture and push out the leftists. If Christians have lost power, they must regain it before they are crushed by the elites. And so on.

#influencers

It’s sometimes hard to see Falkirk’s nastiness from the surface. Helfenbein puts on a good act as a credible, trustworthy podcast host. And at first glance, the articles that the center publishes, each ending with a short “Falkirk Takeaway” editorial, can come across as reasoned summations of current events.

But look more closely. Those short editorials freely use strawman constructions like “Critics say . . .” and “Liberals believe . . .” without actually offering quotations and citations, thereby heightening the audience’s sense that non-conservatives are stupid or evil, and that reasonable people believe what Falkirk believes. Lately, the center has been fond of reductio ad hitlerum.

And the Falkirk productions that, on the surface, could almost seem academically respectable—20-minute armchair conversations with right-wing personalities—receive an average of only 400 views. Even the videos with popular guests (think Dinesh D’Souza, Jenna Ellis, Sebastian Gorka) or particularly provocative titles (“Alleged Election Fraud Evidence,” “The Church is Essential, Open Your Church,” “Identity Socialism and How We Stop It,” and the like) tend to earn only a bit over a thousand views.

The bulk of Falkirk’s “massive cultural influence” is felt on Facebook and Instagram, where the center’s accounts receive thousands of likes and shares for all manner of drivel:

Agitators, Not Academics

A Liberty University spokesman provided the best example of Falkirk’s indifference to intellectual quality when he responded to Falkirk’s critics by saying that the center, which he absurdly described as an “academic think tank,” has “received hundreds of supportive emails.” Defending a think tank by pointing to supportive emails is not the action of an institution that seriously cares about its integrity—but then again, the Falkirk Center is less a think tank than a loose collection of agitators and wannabe Ben Shapiros.

Speaking of integrity, last month the center hosted an event for local pastors and GOP elected officials to talk about the “number of potential volunteers and/or staff for ground game” in advance of Virginia’s 2021 elections—an astonishingly partisan subject that would seem to be in clear violation of Liberty University’s nonprofit tax status—but no matter, Liberty’s spokesman assures us that “ground game” actually means civics education. Oh, Liberty. Nonpartisan to a fault.

On January 6, the day of the storming of the U.S. Capitol and the certification of Joe Biden’s election, Falkirk perfunctorily denounced the violence at the Capitol. But just one day later, the center was still peddling fears of massive voter fraud, saying that the fraud “debate” will be an open question for years to come. This week, Falkirk is back to its normal stream of reactionary, anger-fomenting content. On January 13, the center posted a video called “Our Freedoms Are Under Attack.” One commenter on the Facebook post agrees, and says he will “die fighting” for his freedom. Where have we seen that language recently?

The Falkirk team seems completely oblivious to the fact that it was exactly their brand of rhetoric—besieged, terrified, Christian nationalist, and masculinity-obsessed—that stirred up the anti-democratic rioters of last week. And it’s not just the center itself that has propagated lies about the election and contributed to the ugly tone of post-election politics. Several people affiliated with the Falkirk Center were among the most prominent supporters of the Trump team’s efforts to overturn the election, including Falkirk fellows Jenna Ellis, a central member of Trump’s “elite strike force” legal team, and Eric Metaxas, who literally called for “fight[ing] to the death, to the last drop of blood” over the election.

And now—no surprise—people affiliated with Falkirk are spreading more debunked lies about the Capitol riot having been a false-flag Antifa operation. This despite the fact that a Falkirk “ambassador” was arrested for her part in it.

Falkirk is Liberty University’s Baby

The Falkirk Center will not change. This is unfortunate, because it has a lot that needs changing. It avoids rational dialogue like the plague, treats its opponents like comic-book villains, and routinely traffics in anti-democratic lies. But here’s the thing: The Falkirk Center revels in playing gutter politics. From the beginning, Falkirk described its “unapologetic” entrance to the “cultural battlefield” in heroic terms. The center quoted Jesus commanding Christians to turn the other cheek and then said “but.” Falkirk isn’t turning the other cheek for leftists, or the mainstream media, or government elites. Jesus didn’t anticipate that kind of evil, so he needs fighters now. The Falkirk Center is that band of fighters, and they want you to know it.

Of course, the Falkirk Center is a weak, underfed army; it couldn’t survive on its own. Without the imprimatur of a large, well-funded, tax-exempt (and arguably taxpayer-subsidized) nonprofit, Falkirk would fail. Well, “fail” might be the wrong word. I’m sure Falkirk would continue doing an excellent job as a run-of-the-mill MAGA Facebook page. But that’s all Falkirk is—just an endless stream of eye-catching nonsense designed to bypass your brain and amplify your fear. Falkirk demands that it be taken seriously, but offers nothing that warrants seriousness.

The Falkirk Center is just another right-wing slime factory that undermines any good-faith conservative movement, and it’s a slime factory that uses my alma mater and my faith as stamps of legitimacy.  Like the hundreds of Liberty University students who recently signed a petition calling for Falkirk’s dissolution, I’ve had to explain to countless people that I am not one of those Liberty University grads, not one of those Christians.

Liberty’s spokesman tells us that the university’s board of trustees has “unanimously endorsed” the Falkirk Center and has received “detailed reports on its activities” for the last years. Of course, this is the same board that supposedly received detailed reports about Falwell’s behavior for years. I don’t put much stock in Liberty’s board any longer, and it’s disappointing that the former board chairman, who failed the school by letting Falwell run free for years, is now Liberty’s acting president. But I remember when people told me that Falwell would be president forever, and they were wrong, so I have hope. The Falkirk Center should be excised like a tumor from Liberty University.

Calum Best

Calum Best is a co-founder of Save71, an organization devoted to bringing reform to Liberty University, from which he graduated in May 2020. He is a high school math teacher in Memphis, Tennessee.