Liberty University Students Want to Be Christians—Not Republicans

Source: The Atlantic


LYNCHBURG, Va.—When Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University in 1971, he dreamed of transforming the United States. As he put it, “We’re turning out moral revolutionaries.”

Forty-five years later, the school formerly known as Liberty Baptist College has become a kingmaker and bellwether in the Republican Party. Politicians routinely make pit stops in Lynchburg; Ted Cruz even launched his ill-fated presidential campaign from Liberty’s campus in March of 2015.

That’s why it was such a big deal when, two weeks ago, a group of Liberty students put out a letter explaining why they’re standing against the Republican presidential nominee. Jerry Falwell Jr., who has run the school since his father died in 2007, announced his support for Donald Trump back in January, and he has since spoken on the candidate’s behalf in interviews and at events. “We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history,” the students wrote. “Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.”

Thousands of people signed onto the letter, including, the students said, roughly 2,000 students or alumni with email addresses. Dustin Wahl and Alex Forbes, two of the letter’s authors, were featured on MSNBC and CNN. They said they received supportive emails and tweets from Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Erick Erickson, the conservative radio-show host.

But there was also a backlash. Jack Heaphy, the student-body president at Liberty, tweeted out a statement of his own, claiming that most students at the school support Falwell, hate Hillary Clinton, and will be voting for Trump in November. He also pointed out that the current students who signed the Liberty United Against Trump letter only account for a fraction of the campus, which claims 15,000 residential students and 94,000 online. A third group of students then created yet another petition, lampooning the dueling letters: LU Students United for Pizza.

This kind of controversy is relatively rare at Liberty. When the subject turns to politics, it’s difficult to find much intellectual diversity and disagreement there. This seems to be complicated by three factors: the attitudes surrounding free speech on campus, the deference to authority that’s deeply ingrained in campus culture, and the widespread perception of community consensus on political and social issues. While these are problems on traditional liberal-arts campuses—as Falwell pointed out in an interview—those schools are also known for protests, clashes with the administration, and constant debates about everything from foreign policy to sexual politics to free speech itself. Liberty, by contrast, has a largely harmonious campus culture.

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