Is Liberty University Really Going Liberal?

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Jerry Falwell. Jr Photo: Benjamin Myers/Corbis

Yesterday, I wrote about the discussion surrounding the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage arguments at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell's evangelical college in Virginia.

My point was essentially that, in the last six or seven years, opposition to gay marriage has gone from a unifying ideology on Liberty's campus to an issue that is tiptoed around by students and faculty members, and that no longer forms a major plank of the worldview shared by many young evangelical Christians.

I got a response after my piece ran from Liberty's chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr., who took over the school after his father died. Falwell Jr. disagreed with my implication that Liberty had become more liberal in the years since I attended.

He wrote (emphasis mine):

Kevin,

Been in meetings all week and just now catching up on e-mail. Liberty does have a doctrinal statement that all faculty must affirm but it has never had an official position on any political issue. As you know, however, most of our faculty, staff and students are very conservative politically and theologically. I do not see that changing at all. For example, in Liberty’s voting precinct, Romney won 93% of the vote and that precinct had, by far, the highest turnout in the area. Students still are very much pro-life and pro-traditional marriage just like they have always been and the ones who voted for Romney indicated those two issues were the main reasons they supported Romney over Obama. The only shift I have noticed in recent years has been more support among conservative Christians, especially young ones, for libertarians. In Virginia, only Romney and Ron Paul were on the ballot in the Republican primary and Ron Paul won at the campus precinct. So, if anything, our students are becoming more conservative on the issue of limiting the size and scope of government while remaining conservative on the social issues.

Interestingly, Rand Paul wrote a column recently about his father’s legacy and he noted that the two universities that gave his father the most enthusiastic reception were UC-Berkeley and Liberty. His point was that there is support on the left and the right for more limited government and expanded individual liberties and freedom. I think he is right and I think the Republicans will continue to lose if they keep running candidates who try to move toward the middle to attract the “independent” voters.

As you know, Liberty’s mission is to educate and train champions for Christ to impact the culture.  It is not our mission to have a direct impact like the Moral Majority once did. That’s why Dad shut it down in 1989 – because he saw that he could have more impact training young people for generations through Liberty University than he ever could have had through Moral Majority in his lifetime.

Hope this helps.

For a different perspective, here's a current Liberty student who e-mailed me after my story ran:

I just got a chance to read your article from the other day about Liberty's decline in 'lopsidedness' on the marriage-equality debate – I definitely agree it has changed, and for the better. I just thought I'd offer some additional perspective on why the shift has taken place and why I think that there is hope, after all, for the 'Christians for same-sex marriage' debate.

I think especially in recent years, as homosexuality has become less and less of a taboo, people who might ordinarily remain closeted in their communities are beginning to feel comfortable coming out and living without fear of their true identity. Because of this, the likelihood of '21st century evangelical Christians' knowing and being close to someone who is gay is incredibly high. As with other issues, I think it's sometimes difficult for us to change our views until it gets personal – it certainly didn't change for me until my older brother came out to our family halfway through my four years here at Liberty.

Throughout my years here I've met more and more people whose views changed when it became personal. I think when we look at someone who we love, and who we know that God loves and created, it's impossible for our hearts not to change on the subject, and for our minds not to see them as totally deserving of the joy that most of us will one day have through marriage.

So, on the one hand, we have Falwell Jr., claiming that Liberty's student body is no less conservative, in numerical terms, than ever. On the other, we have a current Liberty student who relates anecdotal evidence that many of her friends' views on the issue of gay marriage have shifted in tandem with growing societal acceptance of gay people.

I suspect that both of these things are true — that the majority of Liberty students and other young evangelicals still identify more strongly with Republicans than Democrats and reliably vote for right-of-center candidates, but that young evangelicals are much more inclined to support gay marriage than their parents, and that the traditional-marriage plank of the GOP platform isn't nearly as important to them as it is to older evangelicals.

As long as young evangelicals who support gay marriage see it as an ancillary issue, the Republican Party can probably still count on their votes. But if people at places like Liberty begin to see the politics of gay marriage as being relatively fundamental to their beliefs, or if they tie acceptance for gay marriage to a libertarian ideology that says that personal freedom should be of paramount importance, then it's anyone's guess how the movement will splinter.