Many people come to the table loaded down with assumptions about the type of place Liberty University must be: from a brainwashing, backward version of Christianity to a “city on a hill.” In reality, of course, the place is more complex — and this election season shows just how.
More than ever before, Liberty has been thrust into the political spotlight this election year. The school has been invoked by newscasters for President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s comments in convocation advocating for students to carry guns, Donald Trump speaking at convocation on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Falwell’s speech at the Republican National Convention, Falwell’s apologetics for the Trump campaign … and the list could go on.
In the last week, Liberty has been plunged back in the news. A portion of students have banded together around a petition denouncing Donald Trump and separating themselves from the Falwell’s endorsement, after a convocation on Oct. 12 featuring Trump’s vice presidential candidate Mike Pence.
The petition says, in part:
We are not proclaiming our opposition to Donald Trump out of bitterness, but out of a desire to regain the integrity of our school. While our president Jerry Falwell Jr. tours the country championing the log in his eye, we want the world to know how many students oppose him. We don’t want to champion Donald Trump; we want only to be champions for Christ.
This move may have surprised many, as Liberty is known for being a bastion of conservative thought. But this debacle proves a larger, and important point: The student body (and also the faculty) of Liberty University is not a monolithic institution. While President Falwell has made his stance abundantly clear, it is also clear that students will speak for themselves.
Donald Trump performed poorly in the student body “Republican primary” on Liberty’s campus. Marco Rubio came in first with 43 percent, Ted Cruz with 32 percent … and Trump in single digits with 7 percent.
Liberty also invited Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders to speak at a Liberty convocation last September. The self-described socialist received a warm welcome from the administration, and some students expressed support for him. And after Falwell’s comments about allowing concealed carry guns on campus, a Liberty University student wrote for evangelical publication Christianity Today explaining “Why I Didn’t Cheer for Jerry Falwell Jr.”
While faculty and students tend to be united around basic conservative premises of Christianity, there is political, theological, and social diversity.
Higher education enables students to own their own worldview in a (hopefully) educated way. And Liberty is a place for discussion, where students can reach their own conclusions. I can attest to this from personal experience: Since coming to Liberty in 2011, I have moved from non-denominational Christianity to Anglicanism — a big shift in theology, practice, and understanding of Scripture and the world. Instead of resistance or condemnation from my professors, I was encouraged by them.
Liberty is Christian. It is conservative, theologically and politically. But an assumption that what Chancellor Falwell says as a private citizen represents the faculty and student body is one that needs to be dispelled.
This petition clarifies that students want to have their own distinct voice to speak for themselves. Liberty is a place where this dialogue is possible, and even encouraged.