Why I Didn’t Attend Falwell’s Liberty University (it was too liberal)

This post first appeared over at Jesus Needs New PR a couple weeks ago.

In January of 2007, Kevin Roose walked on to the campus of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, ready to join 25,000 other students for the start of the spring semester. But there was one thing that set Kevin apart from his classmates, something his new friends wouldn’t know about until after he left Liberty at the end of the semester. Kevin was a transfer student from Brown University, a school every bit as secular as Liberty was religious, and had decided to spend his “semester abroad” in Lynchburg, VA, instead of England or Italy. After spending a couple days on the campus of Liberty several months earlier, on a research trip with an author he was working for, he had realized he didn’t know anything, really, about evangelical Christians, and found that trying to carry on a conversations with “them,” even with his peers, was like trying to communicate with someone from a completely different culture, someone who didn’t even speak the same language. He wanted to get past the stereotypes, beyond what the culture wars tell us about who our enemies are, and so decided to spend a semester at an Evangelical university, with plans to write a book about his experience. The decision to attend Liberty, then, was an easy one: he couldn’t imagine a more conservative institution, and he wanted to get the full immersion experience.

When I read The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, Kevin’s story of his time at Liberty, just after it was published a couple years ago, the first thing that struck me was how different our stories were. While Kevin chose Liberty because of how conservative and extreme he thought it was, I chose not to attend Liberty for the exact opposite reason.

When I started looking around at different schools as a junior in high school, I briefly considered attending Liberty, in part because of the friendship Jerry Falwell had with my great grandfather, John R. Rice. The one time Falwell preached at my childhood church, he spent several minutes of his sermon talking about my great grandfather and the way he looked up to him as an example. I remember this because the only other times Rice was mentioned at that church (a church he had his membership at for several years in the 70’s, due to his friendship with long-time pastor Lee Roberson, even thought he didn’t live in the same city), was to make sure that people knew that although John R. Rice was “a great man, he was wrong about storehouse tithing.”

I’ve read that Falwell was “called to preach” at the age of 18 while listening to Rice preach, although I haven’t been able to find the source of that quote. (A similar story involves a 26-year-old Rice counseling a 12-year-old boy, during a revival meeting he was leading with a friend, confirming what the boy thought was a calling to be a preacher. That boy, W.A. Criswell, went on to be a be a highly influential Southern Baptist preacher and two-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he and Rice remained friends for the rest of their lives. And just to continue this line of thought a bit further, an example of why it helps to understand the history of Fundamentalism and see where our beliefs come from, there’s another story about a 19-year-old Bible College student, Rick Warren, who was “called to preach” after listening to a sermon from W.A. Criswell.) What I do know about Falwell is this: one of his first books, American Can Be Saved! (1979) was published by my great grandfather’s Sword of the Lord Publishers, a collection of sermons that had first appeared in the Sword of the Lord newspaper; they spoke at each other’s conferences; and Falwell was a member of the cooperating board of the newspaper, appointed in 1971 after Bob Jones, Jr. and Bob Jones III were dropped from the board due to the controversy over secondary separation. Rice also provided support for the founding of the Moral Majority, including giving Falwell access to his large mailing list of fundamentalist pastors to help spread the word about the new organization.

But all of that happened before I was born. By the time I graduated from high school in 2000 and was ready for college, things had changed. When I said earlier that I briefly considered attending Liberty, by “briefly,” I meant that I thought about it seriously for about thirty seconds before quickly deciding that there was no way I could attend a school that was so liberal. I knew that God wasn’t pleased with the way Jerry Falwell had led his school to abandon Biblical principles – the all-important principle of separation being a chief area where they had turned away from God – and their dangerous slide toward complete liberalism meant that no one who truly feared God and wanted to honor Him and grow closer to Him could participate in that kind of unrighteousness. (If someone needed more proof that Liberty had abandoned the path of righteousness, all one had to do was mention that the Christian rock group dc Talk had come from there, and their fate was sealed.)

With Liberty out of the picture, I found myself torn between two good fundamentalist schools, Pensacola Christian College and Bob Jones University, and leaning toward the latter, my mother’s alma mater, despite her forbiddance of my attending there because she didn’t want me to develop the kind of judgmental attitude she was sure I would leave there with. I’m more glad than I can say today that I didn’t end up at either of those schools.

Back to Kevin Roose’s book, The Unlikely Disciple. What I found most fascinating about his story – and I read the first 250 pages in one sitting, the first time I picked it up on a Sunday afternoon, finishing it the next morning – was that when Kevin described his bewilderment over some of the rules and attitudes he found at Liberty, or his surprise at the way certain unquestioned presuppositions shaped the way they viewed the world, I was a little surprised to find that I felt exactly the same way, that I shared his bewilderment. Several years after stepping out of that world, it can be hard to remember how sure I once was of the convictions I held and positions I advocated, and, more importantly, my forgetfulness can lead me to selectively apply what Jesus said was one of the two most important commands, the exhortation to love our neighbor, by excluding those who believe the way I was taught to believe growing up.

That leads me to the other book I want to talk about here, Andrew Himes’ The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family, which was published this week. (You can order it from Amazon here.) As I mentioned in an earlier post I wrote about my uncle Andrew’s book, it is filled with stories of many of the fundamentalist leaders of the 20th century, such as Falwell, J. Frank Norris, Jack Hyles, the Bob Jones family, and of course Billy Graham, documenting his friendship with Rice and what led to his split with fundamentalism. Andrew’s book is helpful, I would say, not only for those wanting to understand fundamentalism better, but also for those wanting to gain a better understanding of the role of religion in America. In his excellent work Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation, author Rodney Clapp suggests, “by way of broad and rough contrast,” that, “American democracy is composed of two dominant strains: the democracy of the parade, based predominantly in the North; and the democracy of the revival, predominantly of the South.” It doesn’t take much work on his part to go on and assert that America today speaks with a southern accent.

In an essay published earlier this week on the Huffington Post, Redefining Christian Fundamentalism: Following the Example and Teachings of Jesus, Andrew gives us a brief overview of his book and explains why he thought it was important to write it and how we can move forward today, living under the weight of history. “ As I try to follow the example and most fundamental teachings of Jesus,” he writes, “I come to better understand my grandfather’s motivations, his own all too human attempts to follow Jesus. I find myself having more compassion for my neighbor, and slower to condemn those who don’t understand the world exactly as I do. Following Jesus requires more than right belief. It requires right practice: placing Christ’s incarnation of love and justice at the center of your life and practice. Fundamentalism that recalls the unearned grace proclaimed by Jesus will be open-hearted, generous, kind, and hopeful, and will seek the Kindom (my intentional spelling) of God on earth.”

Link to buy book on Amazon.

One thought on “Why I Didn’t Attend Falwell’s Liberty University (it was too liberal)”

  1. From what I see here, and elsewhere, if I understand correctly, Rice was not as strict as the Joneses on separation, and you’re not advocating their level of separation either.

    Yet it seems the only reason you offer for Liberty begin “liberal” is that DC Talk came from there. I do know the university once preached against rock music, and that later on dropped that stance, but that is not liberalism. It is a move away from radical “separationism”, which elevates issues like that (and KJVO’ism often goes along with it as well) to “biblical principles”, when they really are not, when thoroughly examined with scripture.
    The other thing that got Falwell ostracized from the Sword circle was his “moving closer to” the SBC. But the SBC has both liberal and conservative elements, so to blackball the whole denomination like that is overboard. This is like third or more degree separation.

    Falwell may have softened down from a some of the old positions (which were not all biblical), but he had never become a “liberal”.

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