More than 100 Liberty University graduates have pledged to withdraw support and return their diplomas to the office of university president Jerry Falwell Jr., citing his continued support of President Donald Trump after Charlottesville — along with a letter expressing their concerns, copied to Liberty’s board of trustees, by Sept. 5.
Falwell was one of the earliest evangelical supporters of the Trump campaign and now serves on the president’s Evangelical Advisory Board as well as a White House education task force. In an interview with ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Falwell defended the president’s “many sides” comments on Charlottesville, saying Trump’s political incorrectness is one of the reasons he supports him.
A week before that interview, Dave Oldenkamp, associate pastor at Yakima Alliance Church in Yakima, Wash., and a Liberty alumnus, stepped to the pulpit of his church to offer a clear message: Racism is sin, and the church has the responsibility to be ministers of reconciliation who fight against injustice.
“Reconciliation is active. It’s alive,” he told his congregation. “ … I think for each one of us we have to ask ourselves some tough questions — not about the things that we’ve done, but maybe the things we’ve not done.”
Listen to the full clip of Oldenkamp's message below.
Oldenkamp has three sons, one of whom is black. He said he felt the need to say something not only as a pastor, but as a father. Oldenkamp, who received his master’s degree in Christian Ministry from Liberty in 2009, said Charlottesville — including President Trump's response, and Falwell’s defense of it — was a tipping point for him. He signed the letter to the board and plans to send his diploma back.
“When I look at my son, and I look up on my wall and see my diploma, I feel this disconnect,” he said. “… If I’m not willing to do this simple act, how can I call myself his dad? How can I call myself a pastor or Christian if I’m not willing to speak?”
The alumni group’s letter to the board focuses on a loss of Christian witness, calls out Trump’s “open disrespect for ostensible Christian ideals,” and criticizes Liberty’s leadership for failing to rebuke his positions.
“Mr. Trump is ‘a liar, and the truth is not in him.’ 1 John 2:4. He is a misogynist. He has disavowed the need for personal repentance and alleged that he is not a sinner,” the letter reads.
“The University has failed to rebuke these positions and has instead excused him, denied the obvious, or withheld condemnation. In other words, degraded its core mission and defiled its core beliefs, substituting the worship of power and influence for the worship of God. Ten years after Jerry Falwell’s death, the decades-long criticisms of the concept of a Religious Right have been proven true.”
Upon request for comment, Liberty forwarded a statement originally released Monday, that reads, in part: “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.”
In a statement to the Independent Journal Review, Falwell said the alumni group’s move would have no effect, adding “shame on the media for even reporting.” And on Fox News’ "Todd Starnes Show," Falwell dismissed the group’s actions, saying, “It’s a joke. It’s grandstanding, that’s all it is.”
But for the alumni signing the letter, it’s anything but.
Suzanne O’Dell, a 2008 Liberty graduate who now lives in Dallas, said it wasn’t until she was invited to a Facebook group of alumni planning to send back their diplomas that she realized her feelings about Falwell’s alignment with the Trump administration were so widely shared. The group now has nearly 600 members.
“I harbored a lot of frustration for a long time and felt a little spiritually homeless and a little politically homeless,” O’Dell said. “So to see that a lot of other people were struggling with that, I was just like, OK this is something that we can do together.”
It's a largely symbolic act — alumni have pointed to the fact that Falwell's signature is on their diplomas as a factor — but some, while supportive, are not engaging with the efforts.
Ryan Thomas Neace, who wrote about his experience at HuffPost, has two degrees from Liberty and served as an adjunct professor. He said he is not signing the letter because he doesn't think convincing Liberty to change is likely to have results.
"I think that within the current context of a Donald Trump presidency, the evangelical Christians aligned with Liberty University enough to be on the Board of Trustees find themselves by and large precisely where they want to be — in a seat of influence and power," Neace told Sojourners via Messenger.
But, while he doesn't anticipate response, Neace did offer steps the board could take to address the situation, including:
- Issue an unequivocal rejection of white nationalism,
- Reject Donald Trump’s equivocation of the plight of racists with the plight of those who are oppressed by racism,
- Encourage President Falwell to not mince words around such issues,
- Encourage President Falwell to to build bridges toward alumni who differ from his point of view.
The students' protest comes while many faith activists are calling on members of Trump's Evangelical Advisory Board to step down.
"Now is the time, more than ever before, for Christians to take a stand against the sins of white supremacy," reads a Change.org petition, which has gathered more than 900 signatures.
More than 80 percent of evangelical voters supported Trump in the general election — and some are seeing Trump's Charlottesville comments as an imperative time for those supporters to break with the president.
"[Racism] is not a partisan issue, especially for the church. It should be a no-brainer," Oldenkamp said.
In our conversation, I asked O’Dell, who has attended Southern Baptist and nondenominational churches, whether she identifies as an evangelical Christian.
“I would say that I’m a person of faith. My faith kind of is the center of my life. But I don’t know that I could label myself an evangelical because of the hurt that it’s caused so many people,” O’Dell said.
“… We want to follow Christ with our words and our actions but the representatives of Christ in the evangelical community have traded their moral imaginations for power.”