Conservative Activist Charlie Kirk Leaves Liberty University Think Tank

4 weeks ago

The Falkirk Center, named for its founders, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Charlie Kirk, was the center of evangelical Trumpism. Now, both are gone.

When the Falkirk Center think tank was established at Liberty University in Virginia in 2019, it quickly became the de facto headquarters of evangelical Trumpism on a campus that had risen to national prominence.

Its fellows included Sebastian Gorka, the former aide to President Donald J. Trump. Rudy Giuliani, the former president’s lawyer, appeared on a Falkirk podcast.

Now, less than two years later, Falkirk’s high-profile founders are gone, and Liberty is rethinking the center’s future in a post-Trump world.

The university quietly opted last fall not to renew the contract of Charlie Kirk, the combative young conservative activist who started the Falkirk Center with Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of Liberty’s founder. Mr. Falwell resigned as university president in August in the wake of a multipronged scandal that included allegations of sexual impropriety.

The shake-up at the Falkirk Center is one more sign that politically conservative white evangelicals are trying to navigate the vacuum created when Mr. Trump left the White House, with some of his most high-profile supporters scrambling to find new roles.

In its short life, the Falkirk Center has drawn attention for its aggressive tone and political advocacy. It is “probably the most important institution in the evangelical world that was carrying water for Trump over the last few years,” said John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, an evangelical school. “This shows they’re still trying to figure out their post-Trump identity, like a lot of evangelicals.”

Mr. Kirk had pitched his idea for a new kind of think tank while at Liberty to receive an honorary doctorate in 2019. The idea was intuitive. Mr. Kirk, the founder of the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA, would bring energy and a huge audience of enthusiastic Trump-friendly young people to the partnership; Liberty would bring the institutional credibility.

The Falkirk Center was intended to have “massive culture influence,” its executive director, Ryan Helfenbein, told the school newspaper soon after the center’s launch. It became an attractive stopping point for some of Mr. Trump’s high-profile evangelical supporters, many of whom were freelance media figures who benefited from the sheen of a university-based position. Past and present fellows have included Mr. Gorka, the radio host Eric Metaxas, and the former Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis. Mr. Giuliani appeared on a podcast episode titled “Is the Election Really Over?” that aired the week after the election.

President Donald J. Trump receiving an honorary degree from Liberty University in 2017. The university established the Falkirk Center in 2019, and it quickly became the de facto institutional headquarters of evangelical Trumpism.
Al Drago/The New York Times

But when Mr. Kirk’s one-year contract expired, Mr. Falwell had recently exited and the landscape at Liberty looked different. Scott Lamb, Liberty’s senior vice president for university communications, said he personally made the decision not to renew the contract. “We gave it a lot of thought,” he said, “and we decided to allocate our resources in different ways than that partnership with Charlie.”

Mr. Kirk’s departure comes with an awkward linguistic challenge. The Falkirk Center was named in part as a portmanteau of its figureheads, Mr. Falwell and Mr. Kirk. The organization will be renamed the Standing for Freedom Center — or the Freedom Center, for short.

The center’s leaders say that there is no bad blood, and that Mr. Kirk is welcome to return as a speaker anytime. “He brought the charisma, he brought the energy, and certainly the eyeballs and attention,” Mr. Helfenbein said. “He was very, very helpful as we were trying to get this off the ground.”

A spokesman for Mr. Kirk said he remained “very close” with the university’s leadership and would continue working with the school through its transition. But his initial vision was to expand the center rapidly, which became challenging after the sudden departure of Mr. Falwell left the school reeling. Mr. Kirk is now preparing to start Turning Point Faith, a church-based “field program” that will recruit pastors and other church leaders to be active in local and national political issues.

Liberty refers to the Falkirk Center as a “think tank,” although it has produced no traditional scholarship or academic research. Instead, it produces a podcast and videos on hot-button political and cultural topics, and is known for its aggressive social media presence.

The center, which is funded and owned by the university, also placed at least $ 50,000 worth of political ads on Facebook promoting Mr. Trump and other Republican candidates in the run-up to the election last fall, according to Politico.

Its rotating assortment of “fellows” do not have consistently defined responsibilities. “Ours are more on the social media side and influencer side, versus writing a book,” Mr. Lamb said. Some fellows are paid, generally on very short-term contracts, while others work for free. Mr. Helfenbein described them as “thought leaders.” In addition to fellows, about 100 unpaid “ambassadors,” including some students, represent the center on social media and at events.

The Falkirk Center’s antagonistic tone was an essential part of its original mandate. Its website says that although “we do, as Jesus taught, turn the other cheek in our personal relationships, we cannot abdicate our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield.” Mr. Kirk has said one of his goals with the center was to “play offense against the secular left.”

The center’s critics say that baked-in belligerence makes it incompatible with the mission of a Christian college. “Liberty has always engaged in the culture war, but the Falkirk Center was unique in that it openly prioritizes lust for that war over concern for the culture,” said Dustin Wahl, a Liberty graduate and co-founder of the alumni group Save 71, which pushed for Mr. Falwell’s ouster and now advocates reform at the school.

Julia Rendleman for The New York Times

At times, Mr. Kirk’s predilection for outrageous stunts became awkward for the organization. At a student conference hosted by Turning Point in Florida in December, scantily clad young women shot cash out of cannons at a packed audience of mostly maskless young people during a promotional segment for an energy drink. The event drew condemnation from conservatives including the writer Rod Dreher, who questioned Liberty’s close relationship with Mr. Kirk under a headline that blasted Turning Point’s “Hooters conservatism.”

Around the same time, the center was beginning to attract negative attention on Liberty’s campus. A student petition to close the institution gathered more than 500 signatures. “The Falkirk Center has become a gateway for many wolves in sheep’s clothing,” the petition stated. It added that “students at Liberty are tired of having our witness tarnished by association with a center that is trying to undo Liberty’s mission.”

The student government president and vice president also condemned the Falkirk Center in December. “When an organization like @falkirk_center is attached to Liberty, it impacts the reputation of not just our school, but our students as well,” Constance Schneider, the president, wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Lamb said the decision not to renew Mr. Kirk’s contract was “already in motion” by the time of the student backlash. He also said that despite the high-profile criticism, the response to the center from alumni and parents has been overwhelmingly positive.

The university has quietly made other changes to the Falkirk Center’s profile in recent months. Mr. Gorka, Ms. Ellis and the commentator David Harris Jr. are no longer fellows. Neither is Mr. Kirk’s fiancée, Erika Frantzve, an entrepreneur and 2012 Miss Arizona USA winner.

Mr. Lamb said the center planned to announce a new slate of fellows within the next week, and that its mission was unchanged. The center released videos on Tuesday that were critical of two recent bills that have passed the Democratic-led House, including the Equality Act, which would extend protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

For now, the center’s critics are watching its changes with skepticism. “The Falkirk Center really embarrassed me as a Liberty student,” said Matt Morris, the Liberty freshman behind the petition to close the center. “Its reputation on campus,” he said, was “embarrassing and un-intellectual.”

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