I showed up at Liberty University nearly twenty years ago in the Spring of 1998, totally absent of context, except that it was allegedly “Christian” and that the Christian hip-hop group, DC Talk, had apparently graduated from it. Otherwise, I knew only that it was 12 hours from my hometown and had lots of single women my age, both of which increased it as a viable college option for me.
It is impossible to succinctly outline my journey at Liberty which occurred over a span of 15 years and comprised nearly half of my life to that point. Over my time there, I was an undergraduate student, a graduate student, a graduate assistant, a staff member, a consultant, and finally, an adjunct faculty member. Suffice it to say, Liberty University and the larger central Virginian context which surrounds it would be the place where I came of age and began to see both myself and the world for what they are. Along those lines, I had become acquainted with the myriad ways in which American political conservatism, moralism, and nationalism are inextricably intertwined with evangelical Christianity, and a constant ringing of dissonance developed within my heart and mind as a result. Over time, that ringing turned to a desperate clanging and nearly drove me to lose my faith altogether. Instead, I went through a complete deconstruction of the faith of my childhood, during which I was uncertain whether and where I would emerge. What I can say affirmatively now is that I would not trade my new, resultant faith for anything. But I do sometimes miss the easy opinions and moral certitude of my old one. Eventually, after working intensively with therapists and a spiritual director, I made a geographic move away Liberty University, and eventually resigned both my post and my affiliation.
Given that journey, it seems absurd that I was still somehow freshly surprised last week when Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed President Donald Trump’s sentiments about the overt racism and violence in Charlottesville, VA.
On August 12, Trump initially blamed the violence on “many sides” and failed to denounce white nationalism, stating there were “very fine people on both sides.” A few days later, in true Trump form, he attempted to clear some of that up, and then still later, doubled-back to his original position.
On August 16th, Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump’s position by tweeting the following:
Facing the ire of many of the 4000+ commenters, he then clarified the following day with his own form of double-message as Trump had done:
In response, a Facebook group of dissenting Liberty University Alumni emerged, organized around returning diplomas to the university as a metaphor for disavowing connection to the university. NPR first caught wind of the story, and it was later picked up by the NY Times and other sources as the school delivered its official response to the group:
“Liberty University strongly supports our students’ right to express their own political opinions, including any opposition they have to their school leader’s relationship with this President of the US, just as other students may have opposed leadership of liberal institutions supporting previous Presidents. The tactic of returning diplomas has been used by students of many other schools to draw attention to various causes, but let’s also remember that those same diplomas are quite helpful in helping these graduates secure well-paying jobs.”
Not to be outdone, in a statement that seemed to reflect his personal viewpoint on the matter, Falwell Jr. told the Lynchburg News & Advance that the plan to return diplomas was “disingenuous,” “political grandstanding,” and “not to be taken seriously.” He concluded by calling those who intended to do so “childish.”
So, fellow LU Alums, I have some thoughts for you.
By definition, both the official response from Liberty University and the follow-up by Falwell Jr. evince a catastrophic failure to apprehend the core message of your efforts -- that within the larger umbrella of LU alum, there are those of us who have grown beyond/away from our original programming, who reject the core premises of much of fundamentalist religion, especially and including any of its precepts which would interrupt our ability to stand in solidarity with the broken and oppressed, and that we wish to be differentiated, not as a political statement per se, but as a definitive affirmation of the necessity of ongoing racial reconciliation within the United States and basic affirmation of human dignity throughout the world moreover.
Instead of responding to that core message, Liberty University provided an avoidant, contrarian retort that sounded a lot like nanny-nanny boo-boo, and Falwell Jr. went one step further in labeling dissenters something akin to doody-heads (while ironically calling them “childish”). In total, their responses embody the spirit of contentiousness warned against in the Scriptures.
More importantly, these responses indicate that there is a core message for us to acknowledge as well — that when we appeal to LU to live up to its values because, for example, Falwell Jr. endorses Donald Trump, or he supports Donald Trump’s equivocation of the plight of explicit racists with those responding to racism, or Liberty University tells you to go fark yourself because you can’t get away from them no matter how hard you try because they’re the ones who granted you your degree (even when you return your diploma don’tcha-know)...when these things occur, LU is living up to its values. There have been historically and still are some good people at LU, but the system, which is perhaps more the stuff of Liberty University than anything else, is nearly completely broken and totally dysfunctional as it regards basic human decency and regard for people. This is their value system and it is consistent with alignment with likes of Donald Trump.
Once near the end of my time at Liberty, I was considering making a PR stink about some really ugly behind the scenes things I had been a direct observer to that were contradictory to the message of Christ and unethical moreover. A gentleman who was close to many of the muckamucks, and who now serves within the White House Faith Initiative, told me, “Ryan — do not fight Liberty University.” When I asked why, he told me, simply, “Because you will lose.” What I didn’t realize at that time was that I would lose not just because Liberty was big and I was small, but because it will not receive or listen to the words of most anyone who points to its long, dark shadow.
I say, LU Alums, shake the dust off your feet and move on to folks who will listen. Go back to the broken and the oppressed. Among such you will find Christ.