Jerry Falwell Jr once said there was nothing that then president Donald Trump could do that would endanger support from him or other Christian evangelical leaders. “When Jesus said we’re all sinners, he really meant all of us, everybody,” he told the Washington Post in January 2019.
Falwell knew whereof he spoke. A year and a half later, he would resign in disgrace from Liberty University, the evangelical college his father founded in Lynchburg, Virginia, after a series of personal scandals that would have made even Trump blush.
Among them was the allegation that Giancarlo Granda, a Miami pool boy, had a seven-year affair with Falwell’s wife, Becki, sometimes with Falwell looking on and masturbating during their sexual encounters. Granda also became entangled with the couple’s business affairs in a web that ultimately led them all to Trump.
The sorry and tawdry saga is told in God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down a Dynasty, streaming on Hulu starting Tuesday. It is a “dynasty” because Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr, was a homophobic televangelist whose endorsement helped Ronald Reagan (a divorced former Hollywood actor) beat Jimmy Carter (a Baptist Sunday school teacher) in the 1980 presidential contest and launch a conservative project that culminated in the demise of the constitutional right to abortion.
“This documentary at its core is the story of a 50-year multigenerational evangelical dynasty and their outsized power in presidential politics and policy,” director Billy Corben says by phone from New York. “You have the man who is now the black sheep of the Falwell family – and excommunicated – who was able to deliver on the core political promise of his father and Reagan when the evangelicals first got involved in politics.”
Or as one contributor to the film puts it: “The Falwells are the southern Gatsbys. They’re wealthy and they’re sloppy as fuck.”
The star witness of God Forbid is Granda, who is of Cuban descent and worked as a pool attendant at the luxury Fontainebleau hotel in Miami, Florida, an old haunt of singer Frank Sinatra.
He recounts the day in 2012 when, aged 20, he saw an attractive fortysomething woman lounging by the pool, sipping a drink and taking photos of him. She told him: “Don’t waste your time with the younger ones. They don’t know what they’re doing.” She asked if he wanted to come to her room, then added: “One thing, though. My husband wants to watch.”
Granda was surprised but agreed. As he and the woman began to make love, he says, “the husband gets up … goes to the corner of the room. He takes off his jeans, and he just started jacking off.” (Falwell declined to take part in the film but has previously denied being present during such intimate moments.)
Now 31, Granda says ruefully as the film begins: “If I would’ve known that accepting this woman’s invitation to go back to her hotel room would’ve led to a scandal involving the president of the largest Christian university in the world and the president of the United States, I would have walked away and just enjoyed my private life.”
But at first, Granda did not consider himself a victim. He did not know who Jerry and Becki Falwell were until his sister told him. Corben, 44, who is based in Miami, says: “He told me that he didn’t consider them particularly hypocritical at the beginning because he didn’t know them as religious leaders. They didn’t proselytise to him. He saw them as a fun couple in Miami Beach.
“Los Angeles is where you go when you want to be somebody, New York is where you go when you are somebody and Miami is where you go when you want to be somebody else. It’s always been a starting place for shady people and Jerry and Becki certainly availed themselves of Miami in that way. They lived their best life in Miami. They had a great time and that’s what Miami’s for: come down, spend some money, party, have consensual safe sex with adults. Great! Do it.”
But when Granda visited Liberty University, it opened his eyes. The institution had an austere code of conduct, known as “the Liberty Way”, which prohibited students from drinking alcohol, gambling, attending dances and being alone in a room with a member of the opposite sex. Former students have alleged that Liberty dismissed and discouraged reports of rape and threatened to punish the accusers.
Corben continues: “Initially he was hypnotised by the power and privilege and the money and being brought into that inner circle with the most powerful people in the world. He was suddenly a part of that. But then he started to feel bad for the students and faculty at Liberty and the disconnect between their values and the values of their leadership at the university.
“There were not many of the Ten Commandments that the Falwells seem to hold particularly dear. While they were out violating those commandments, they were proactively disrupting and destroying the lives of people who were entrusted to their care.
“Where Jerry Jr seemed to enjoy the power and privilege that came from being the president of the world’s biggest Christian university, he was not necessarily living the life that he demanded from his students and faculty. It was ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ and that kind of hypocrisy Giancarlo would later find dangerous not just in Liberty but for the country.”
The relationship between Granda and Becki continued on and off for years. They texted each other obsessively and she told him she loved him. Sometimes they met without Falwell, which Falwell tolerated as long as Becki recorded the encounter on her camera. Granda attended the wedding of Jerry and Becki’s oldest son, Trey, in 2014.
The Falwells even went into business with Granda, backing a $4.7m youth hostel in Miami that he co-owned and helped manage. But then an old school friend of Granda, Jesus Fernandez Jr, and his father, Jesus Fernandez Sr, complained that Falwell had promised them a cut of the deal. They sued in court and allegedly threatened to release sexually explicit photos of Granda and Becki.
Panicked, Falwell turned to his acquaintance Michael Cohen, who, as Trump’s lawyer and fixer, had a knack for making problems go away like Tom Hagen, consigliere and head lawyer of the Corleone family in The Godfather. Sure enough, the photos were never published and the lawsuit was settled. Cohen later wrote in his memoir: “In good time, I would call in this favor, not for me, but for [Trump], at a crucial moment on his journey to the presidency.”
Corben reflects: “We would not know about any of this had it not been for this bizarre real estate dispute and what Giancarlo and even a jury described as a shakedown.
“In an effort to settle this real estate dispute, this Miami father-and-son team, who had been initially recruited to assist them in finding a property to buy, were claiming that they knew the real nature of the relationship between Giancarlo and Becki and Jerry and that they were going to expose it, including photographs they claimed proved the nature of the relationship, if Jerry and Giancarlo did not settle this claim.”
Granda describes how the Falwells introduced him to Trump and says Falwell told him in 2015 that Cohen had asked him to endorse Trump for president. In January of the following year, with Republican primary elections getting under way, Falwell duly delivered – a move instrumental in giving the Christian right (including Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence) permission to embrace a man thrice married, accused of sexual misconduct by a dozen women and less than intimately acquainted with the Bible.
Falwell would later remark: “God called King David a man after God’s own heart even though he was an adulterer and a murderer. You have to choose the leader that would make the best king or president and not necessarily someone who would be a good pastor. We’re not voting for pastor in chief.”
In Falwell’s eyes, Trump could do no wrong. With religious fire and brimstone he defended Trump through every blunder and outrage and lie of his presidency, while Becki served on the advisory board of the group Women for Trump. Granda admits: “I felt guilty. I’m like, I know the truth about Jerry. He’s trying to appear like this strongman, but I know him as the cuck in the corner of the room.”
In 2019 an audio recording of Cohen explaining how he made the “racy” photos vanish emerged in the public domain. Granda contemplated suicide. He texted Becki: “My life is absolutely ruined. When they find my lifeless body hanging in the woods, please make sure Logan [his dog] is returned to my family. Goodbye.”
He says his relationship with the Falwells soured because of his desire to break free as well as a business dispute. Granda texted Falwell: “Since you’re okay with ruining my life, I am going to take the kamikaze route. It really is a shame because I wanted to reach a peaceful resolution and just move on with our lives but if conflict is what you want, then so be it.”
He also decided that he had to stop Falwell from helping Trump – whom he had come to see as an aspiring dictator – consolidate power in 2020. Granda gave an interview to the Reuters news agency to tell his story. In a biblical fall from grace, Falwell was forced to resign as president of Liberty University, which is suing him for $40m over breach of contract.
Trump lost his re-election bid to Joe Biden but evangelicals had already made their bargain with the devil. Their reward came in June this year when the supreme court, with three Trump appointees, did something that not even Reagan could deliver: the overturning of Roe v Wade, its 1973 ruling that enshrined a woman’s right to abortion.
Corben opines: “I hope that people will see how potentially dangerous this level of hypocrisy is. There is no consistency. There is no ideology. It’s power and profit. Morality is a cudgel. Not to quote the Bible or anything, but we used to live and teach our children the golden rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. Now it’s do as I say, not as I do. That’s power and privilege and those are the kinds of people that we as a country are now elevating into office. It’s not going to end well.”