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This 2017 Oval Office meeting has been featured in advertising by the Falkirk Center, a think tank at Liberty University.

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Viewed solely as a political advertisement on social media this election year, it would be largely unremarkable.

A tightly framed photo shows President Donald Trump, eyes closed, hands folded. Several people lay hands on his shoulders. Text above the photo cites the Bible -- the First Epistle of Paul to Timothy -- and reads, “Pray for Our President.”

But the advertisement is unusual because of the organization purchasing it. That organization is the Falkirk Center, a subsidiary of the private nonprofit Liberty University. And it is highly irregular for nonprofit colleges or universities to purchase advertisements that come even close to the appearance of endorsing specific candidates for office. In part, that’s because the portion of the tax code under which most private universities are registered as nonprofits forbids backing political candidates for office. It’s also a question of public relations, reputation and norms.

“Most institutions are very skittish about playing too closely in the political realm,” said Bob Brock, president of Educational Marketing Group, a marketing agency. “The country is so strongly divided that you can easily offend a number of your target audiences by taking positions.”

Falkirk has run about 50 advertisements on Facebook and Instagram this year that the social media giant marked as being about issues, elections or politics, according to Facebook’s ad library. It’s spent roughly $51,000.

Most of those ads were not about President Trump specifically and did not picture him, although one other ad prominently featured a Republican candidate for a congressional seat from North Carolina and one featured Vice President Mike Pence. Other ads from the center tend to feature conservative personalities or mirror right-wing themes -- for example, arguing that churches should be allowed to open during the pandemic, supporting the Second Amendment or arguing that the Black Lives Matter movement is anti-Christian.

Whether any of the advertisements could be interpreted as violating federal rules for nonprofit organizations is murky at best. Experts shown the ads tended to agree that Falkirk is pushing the limit in a few cases without clearly violating it.

But even if the organization isn’t risking its nonprofit status, its advertising tactics are notable for their strong political focus and amplification of culture war talking points.

A Liberty spokesman suggested in an email that it is politicians who are mirroring Christian conservatives’ -- and Liberty’s -- long-held beliefs, not the other way around.

“The Center is nonpartisan and functions to educate and inform citizens about principles and core beliefs that are central to the Christian and Conservative worldview,” said the spokesman, Scott Lamb. “The function of advertising on social media channels is to build the audience in order to further the impact of the content the Center produces. The organic growth of the Falkirk Center audience has been remarkable, but there is always a place for paid advertising as well.”

Founded by Falwell and Kirk

Liberty announced the creation of the Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty late last year.

Press materials about the center described it as a national think tank with the mission of equipping "courageous champions to proclaim the Truth of Jesus Christ, to advance His Kingdom, and renew American ideals." Liberty University’s president at the time, Jerry Falwell Jr., and the founder of Turning Point USA, Charlie Kirk, were listed as its founders.

Liberty presented the center to students at the start of the spring 2020 semester at a convocation -- thrice-weekly campuswide assemblies that have combined prayer, appearance from speakers, speeches from Falwell and entertainment.

“The Falkirk Center is a public service to re-educate not just young people (who) have not been taught American history in public schools; they have not been taught the truth about Jesus Christ,” Falwell said at the time, according to a Liberty news release about the event. “Our goal is to make that information available to everybody and to sort of go back to the fundamentals, the basics.”

Falwell and Kirk appeared onstage with David Harris Jr., a conservative radio host; Antonia Okafor Cover, national spokesperson for Gun Owners of America; Jaco Booyens, a documentary filmmaker; Erika Frantzve, a Liberty graduate who is now listed as a fellow at Falkirk -- and Jenna Ellis, senior legal adviser to President Trump’s campaign.

Liberty’s writeup of the event said that members of the Falkirk Center “emphasized the value of supporting what God mandates and incorporating these values into the government.”

Falkirk drew some attention at its launch, often from conservative media outlets like Breitbart, The Blaze and Fox News. It’s gone on to post a large number of memes on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; produce a podcast; produce videos; and weigh in on a long list of issues and news developments.

One recent post on its website is titled “Biden’s Imperial Power at the Expense of Personal Liberty.”

Falkirk has also received some criticism from religious writers. Just after its launch, columnist Bonnie Kristian wrote that a project like Falkirk that “cloaks a very ordinary political agenda in ‘thus saith the Lord,’ is trafficking at best in a well-meaning error and at worst in hucksterous blasphemy.” More recently, an opinion piece by Messiah University history professor John Fea in Religion News Service described Falkirk as participating in “the gutter politics of hate” and argued that Liberty could start with closing the center if it wanted to “be a ‘better’ and more ‘God-glorifying’ institution.”

The center’s co-founder, Falwell, is no longer president of Liberty. He resigned in August after a series of scandals. In one, he posted to social media a photo of himself with a drink in his hand, his pants unzipped and his arm around a woman whose pants were also unzipped. In another, Reuters reported allegations from a man who said he had a seven-year sexual relationship with Falwell’s wife and that Falwell liked to watch the two have sex.

Falwell denied those allegations, saying he was the subject of an extortion attempt. He had also apologized for the photo, saying it was intended as a joke because the woman was pregnant, and he put his belly out because he was wearing an old pair of jeans that would not zip.

Liberty has retained a forensic accounting firm, Baker Tilly US, to investigate its business operations during Falwell’s tenure. Falwell sued the university this week, saying he was wrongly pushed out of his presidency.

Falwell and members of his family are not involved in operations at Falkirk, according to Liberty’s spokesman, Lamb.

“Nor was he involved in the daily operations of Falkirk while he served as the President of Liberty University,” Lamb wrote.

Falkirk’s executive director is Ryan Helfenbein, Liberty’s vice president of communications and public engagement.

501(c)(3) Status

Falkirk was organized as a wholly owned subsidiary of Liberty operating under the university’s 501(c)(3) charter.

That’s important because 501(c)(3) organizations “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” according to the Internal Revenue Service. Contributions to a campaign violate the prohibition on political activity. So do written or verbal statements made on behalf of an organization in favor of or in opposition to a candidate.

Organizations that violate this rule can have their tax-exempt status revoked and may have to pay excise taxes.

But some political activities can be allowed for 501(c)(3) organizations. Some voter education activities are allowed. Organizations can take positions on public policy issues, as long as a message doesn’t favor or oppose a candidate.

“Be aware that the message does not need to identify the candidate by name to be prohibited political campaign activity,” the IRS website says. “A message that shows a picture of a candidate, refers to a candidate’s political party affiliations, or contains other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography may be prohibited political campaign activity.”

Many of Falkirk’s Facebook ads could fall under the category of public policy issues, according to experts. One showed Ronald Reagan next to a quote opposing abortion. Another, from June, asked how it is possible for public health officials to say protests are safe but church attendance is not.

Others clearly feature candidates for office in a positive light without clearly referencing the election or explicitly calling for their re-election. One that was active in August features a quote from Madison Cawthorn about being “a radical for freedom” along with Cawthorn’s photo, without mentioning the fact that he is the Republican nominee for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District seat. One featuring Pence’s photo that ran in early September uses a quote about sending Roe v. Wade “to the ash heap of history.” Another with Trump’s image from August emphasizes freedom and individual dignity.

Then there is the ad with Trump’s image in prayer. The photo appears to be taken from a September 2017 meeting in the Oval Office at which the president signed a proclamation for a National Day of Prayer for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Faith leaders attended and prayed for him.

Falkirk has run several versions of the ad over time. Earlier, it also ran a version urging prayer “for our leaders.”

The ad does not depend on who holds the presidency, said Lamb, Liberty’s spokesman.

“'Pray for the President’ will be a recurring ad or meme no matter what party sits in the White House,” he said. “It's a nonpartisan command, based on the Apostle Paul's admonition in 1 Timothy 2:1-3. ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people -- 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior.’”

Asked about the Cawthorn ad, Lamb described no concern about Liberty's nonprofit status. The ideas Cawthorn expressed "are core to the mission statement of the Center," Lamb said.

Experts asked about Falkirk’s ads generally resisted saying definitively whether any of the ads go beyond what a 501(c)(3) organization is allowed to do. Ultimately, the IRS determines tax-exempt status.

Their consensus was that the ads push the envelope but probably don’t cross into being “functionally equivalent to express advocacy,” which would make them electioneering and out of bounds for a 501(c)(3).

One of the challenges in this area is that advertising is highly context-dependent in the online world, where individuals can be targeted with high levels of specificity. What appears to be a candidate endorsement to one person might be a general patriotic statement to another. What seems like a public policy stance to one official could actually be a call to oppose a candidate in the eyes of a voter who is familiar with certain talking points.

Even the timing of when something runs might matter. Is a post about Roe v. Wade before Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Sept. 18 death more permissible than it would be after it?

Abby Levine is the director of the Bolder Advocacy Program at Alliance for Justice, which serves nonprofit organizations that need guidance about advocacy. It’s clear that 501(c)(3) organizations cannot support or oppose candidates but that they can undertake nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts, she said. The rules around other messaging are less clear.

“We often look at it on a risk spectrum,” Levine said. “We know what’s high risk. We know what’s permissible. There is so much gray area.”

Falkirk spent small amounts of money on all of its ads in comparison to the millions of dollars the Trump and Biden campaigns have spent, according to Facebook’s ad library. Most Falkirk ads cost the center hundreds of dollars, sometimes less.

The center spent between $10,000 and $15,000 on the ad with Trump’s image and the words “Pray for Our President,” according to the ad library listing. The ad was seen on a screen between 700,000 and 800,000 times. Of those who saw the ad, 32 percent were women aged 65 or older, 19 percent were women between 55 and 64 years old, 13 percent were men 65 or older, and 11 percent were men 55 to 64 years old.

Facebook showed the ad most often to users in Texas -- 8 percent of those who saw the ad were located in the Lone Star State. That was followed by Florida at 7 percent, California at 6 percent and Ohio at 5 percent.

Another ad from August proclaimed “This is America Under Leftist Leadership,” and showed unflattering pictures, of a tent camp, trash-strewn lawns and vacant buildings, labeled "San Francisco," "Baltimore," "Chicago" and "Detroit." Falkirk spent between $200 and $299 on it, and Facebook showed it between 60,000 and 70,000 times. That ad was also seen most by people in Texas, California and Florida and skewed toward older users.

Higher Education Norms

The question of whether Falkirk’s ads -- and other messaging -- are permissible under nonprofit law is different from whether they fall within the realm of normal behavior for an arm of a college or university.

On the second question, it’s clear that Falkirk is bending norms.

The Center for Responsive Politics operates a database of online political ad spending that covers Facebook and Google. Hundreds of universities show up in that database.

Sometimes it’s not clear why the tech giants flagged university advertisements as political -- some ads encouraging users to enroll in online education were flagged, for example. Other times universities may be spreading messages that may only have political overtones to certain people, such as public service announcements about getting flu shots.

It has become more common for universities to put out messages like “Black Lives Matter” in recent months, said Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics. Others are promoting voter registration in a nonpartisan way.

“You are seeing a lot of higher education institutions spend,” Massoglia said. “But they are not necessarily spending on things that are as explicitly political or as explicitly related to political figures as pictures of the president.”

Others were more directly critical of Falkirk.

“The ads themselves are clearly outside of the norm with respect to nonprofit college advertising,” Stephanie Hall, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, said in an email. “Even compared to other universities' Facebook ads that are about ‘social issues, elections, or politics’ (Facebook ad library's terms), Falkirk's stand out for the racist and sexist undertones underlying its calls to political action. The Falkirk Center is another aspect of Liberty's direction under Jerry Falwell Jr. that should be examined as the institution looks to bring on new leadership.”

It's important to note that colleges and universities have often served as the backdrop for U.S. presidents who are campaigning or barnstorming. Religious institutions have hosted speeches from newly seated presidents -- including the University of Notre Dame, which usually follows a tradition of hosting newly seated presidents, and Liberty, which has hosted Trump both as president and, in 2016, as a candidate in the Republican presidential primary.

The Democrats’ vice presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, has said she’s using her alma mater, Howard University, as her campaign office.

College and university presidents have been wading into politics of late as well. The president of Southern New Hampshire University, Paul LeBlanc, endorsed Senator Michael Bennet for the U.S. presidency when the Democratic primary was still underway. LeBlanc said he was speaking as a private citizen, not a university president.

That private-citizen rationale is the same one that Liberty University’s former president, Falwell, used in making explicit endorsements for and against politicians, including voicing unabashed support for Trump.

Still, the Falkirk ads and other messaging are new developments in the blurred boundaries between different segments of society, including politics, religion and higher education.

Michael Franz is a professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College who researches campaign finance, political advertising and interest groups. He co-directs the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks federal and gubernatorial candidate advertising during elections. He pointed out that Falkirk can argue it is quoting inspirational language from politicians or touting parts of the conservative agenda that are part of its stated mission, but its messaging still demonstrates how different groups could play roles in political campaigns.

“This is interesting to track and a clear example of how some groups can do a lot of promoting of candidates and oppositional work during campaigns,” he said in an email.

Others were struck by the themes in the center’s advertising and nonpaid messaging. Paul D. Miller is a professor at Georgetown University who is writing a book about Christianity, nationalism and American identity. The most prominent theme he saw from Falkirk was anti-progressivism.

“One ad, the [ad] that says ‘pray for America’ and adds a reference to 2 Chronicles 7:14, is clearly an example of Christian nationalism,” he said in an email. That verse is widely popular among Christians contending that America is God’s chosen nation, he said.

“I also note several ads about the pandemic, advocating against masks and in favor of reopening, or quoting Trump saying not to be afraid,” Miller said. “This reflects how the pandemic has (somehow) become a culture war wedge issue, and is alarming and dangerous.”

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