(Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
An article by a former single-semester student speculated recently that Liberty University, founded by Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. 42 years ago in Lynchburg, Va., had taken a progressive stance on same-sex marriage due to the evangelical Christian college remaining "quiet" while members of the conservative community spoke out on the Supreme Court's review of two major marriage cases.
Kevin Roose, who shared his experiences at Liberty in The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University (2009), concluded in his article titled "At Jerry Falwell's Christian College, It's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' on Gay Marriage:"
"That newfound progressivism should worry some of the school's alumni, but it should cheer proponents of same-sex marriage. After all, politicians in both parties are converting to the gay-marriage cause in droves and forcing the movement's opponents to the fringes. And if the anti-gay-marriage movement can't get vocal, broad-based support in Lynchburg – at a school founded expressly to promote conservative Christian values – it may not be able to find it anywhere."
Roose's speculation, buttressed by comments from a faculty member and two students, was addressed by Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., who denied that Liberty University had become a bastion for liberal ideals. Falwell also noted, as he shared in a recent conversation with The Christian Post, that the private nonprofit Southern Baptist-affiliated school does require faculty to affirm its doctrinal statement, "but it has never had an official position on any political issue." Like its doctrinal statement, Liberty's student conduct codes are Bible-based and lists a $500 fine and 30 hours of disciplinary community service for things like possessing illegal drugs, "involvement with witchcraft" and "spending the night with a person of the opposite sex."
"Liberty doesn't have any position on any political issue, but it is a fact that we do attract a group of very conservative students, mainly on the social issues," Falwell told CP this week. "More and more in recent years, I've seen a shift toward limited government, limiting the size of government … but none of that is mandated, none of that is required, it's not what they hear in the classroom. ... You won't find teachers promoting one political idea over another one. It's just who we are. Just like Harvard attracts liberals, we attract conservatives."
Falwell Sr., Liberty's founder, remains a controversial figure even after his 2007 death. His firebrand approach to politics, even after shuttering the Moral Majority, was a turnoff to both liberals and conservatives – which often shapes discussions about the university taken over by his son. But Falwell Jr., 50, insists that Liberty's single mission is to educate students while developing the school into a world-class university, and as a recent Washington Post feature revealed, the university is well on its way.
"Liberty is determined to be the first university to achieve prominence in academics, athletics, facilities, but to remain true to our Christian mission of training champions for Christ and honoring the fundamentals of the Christian faith," Chancellor Falwell told CP.
"Most Christian schools are small Bible colleges and were intended to be that and there's nothing wrong with that, but Liberty's goal from the beginning was to be for evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is for Catholics and we're moving toward that goal every day."
Liberty University's progression from 154 students at its founding as Lynchburg Baptist College to now being the largest private nonprofit university in the U.S. and also the largest religiously-affiliated one, drew the distinction as an "evangelical mega-university with global reach" from The Washington Post. There are about 74,000 students enrolled (62,000 online) studying from a broad selection of programs at Liberty, which has an ever-expanding campus that Falwell hopes will attract even more students.
"I think we found a good balance between legalism and being too strict and the students having an enjoyable experience here. … We make the college years fun for students without it being a party school. They also have the opportunity to learn about and grow in the Christian faith," he explained.
Liberty students, who give the university overall high grades at College Prowler, confirm their chancellor's assessment – Liberty University holds the No. 2 spot on a list of the nation's 12 worst party schools, and based on explanations of the ranking, prefer it that way. They also get very excited when dozens of Christian speakers show up annually at Liberty's Convocation. Figures like Franklin Graham, Lecrae and Tim Tebow tend to draw capacity crowds, with students said to have started lining up at 4 a.m. for the Christian quarterback's March appearance.
As for his father's legacy presumably overshadowing the school, Falwell referred to another recent essay written by Brandon Ambrosino, a former Liberty University student who shared of his experience coming out as gay while on campus. While Ambrosino notes that the late Falwell was "often known for homophobia, bigotry, and the Moral Majority," he writes that Liberty "gets a bad rap because of a few of Falwell's soundbytes (sic)..."
Ambrosino, who identifies as a post-evangelical, orthodox, gay Christian, tells of the support and compassion he found among Liberty faculty and students in an essay for The Atlantic that won praise from readers like New York Times best-selling author and Christian biographer Eric Metaxas. Metaxas told his Facebook fans, "Every gay person and every one who thinks Christians hate gays MUST read this article about being gay at Liberty University."
Warning that he was in no way trying "to convince the world that Liberty is really a gay-affirming school, and that any LGBT student who goes there will have as easy a time as I did," Ambrosino writes that, from his view, "really vocal anti-gay Christians" and "really vocal anti-Christian gays" both display "a smidge of ugliness" and that "not tolerating someone for his narrow-mindedness is perhaps the epitome of intolerance."
As Ambrosino shares in the article titled "Being Gay at Jerry Falwell's University," people are often surprised to hear about his experience as a gay man who attended a conservative evangelical Christian school, but Falwell told CP he thinks the former Liberty student, now an actor and writer, "hit the nail on the head."
"I think Liberty has always been the place – my father said it a million times – where you hate sin but love the sinner, and never condemn anybody or judge anybody but try to help them," said the chancellor.
"The way we try to help people who have problems of all sorts is the way that Brandon describes in his article. I don't think that conflicts at all with the fact that our students are conservative," Falwell added. "I think there are many on the left who like to portray conservatives as homophobic because they believe the Bible and believe homosexuality is a sin, they try to equate that with being hateful and it's not the same thing at all. You can love the sinner and hate the sin and that's what Liberty has taught from the day it opened. I haven't seen any change at all. At the university, the students are still very conservative but very compassionate."
Liberty's students, conservative though they may be, of course do not all think alike nor agree with the university's approach on every issue. As they are varied on views concerning evolution and creation (both of which are taught in classrooms), students also were divided last year over the appearance of former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney as the 2012 commencement speaker. Romney belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith commonly referred to as Mormonism and viewed as a theological cult by some conservative Christians, 79 percent of whom voted for Romney in his failed election bid. Although a small group of students protested his appearance at commencement, they overwhelmingly voted in favor of Romney in November, with the university's own voting precinct tally showing 93 percent in favor of the former Massachusetts governor.
Although he insisted in his response to claims of Liberty growing progressively-minded on social issues that "most of our faculty, staff and students are very conservative politically and theologically," Falwell nonetheless sees the presidential voting results among Liberty students as indicative of the student body's commitment to conservative Christian values.
Falwell surmises that the evangelical Christian school his father founded four decades ago has become a true alternative to liberal colleges like Harvard and Yale, institutions originally founded on Christian principles, and he told CP he sees Liberty continuing to grow in every way.
"We're in the middle of a $400 million building construction phase that will create more space for more students. Our net assets have grown from $100 million in 2007 to over a billion this year," he said of Liberty's recent accomplishments, adding that Liberty's resident population has also grown from about over 4,500 to over 12,500.
"Every day we wake up with that goal of making Liberty a world-class Christian university. We're 42 years in now and we are seeing the dreams of the founders come true every day. It's humbling for me to be a part of it."
He added, "It's an exciting place to be."