church politics

At Jerry Falwell’s Christian College, It’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ on Gay Marriage

LYNCHBURG, VA - MAY 8: Karl Rove (L), chief political advisor to President Bush, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell attend commencement of Falwell's Liberty University May 8, 2004 in Lynchburg, Virginia. Rove, who received an honorary doctorate in the humanities, told graduates to have the courage to
Jerry Falwell, Sr. Photo: Eric Brady/2004 Getty Images

If the movement to stop same-sex marriage in its tracks had a spiritual home, it might be in Lynchburg, Virginia, on the sprawling hillside campus of Liberty University.

Liberty, after all, is an evangelical megauniversity that was started by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, the fiery right-wing minister who spent a huge portion of his career preaching about the sinfulness of homosexuality. Falwell led the Moral Majority, helped elect Ronald Reagan twice, and gained national notoriety in 2001, when he went on TV and connected the terrorist attacks of September 11th to the prevalence of gays and lesbians in the U.S. And he always meant for Liberty to follow in his arch-conservative footsteps. (Before his death in 2007, Falwell told Liberty students that, if the school ever became liberal after he was gone, they should return to campus and burn it down.)

And yet, this week, as the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 — a watershed moment for the conservative evangelical cause, no matter which way the judgment goes — the university Falwell left behind has gone surprisingly quiet.

I’m closer to the Falwell empire than most secular liberals. In 2007, I spent a semester studying undercover at Liberty, then wrote a book about my experience. While I was on campus, no political issue inspired more voluminous and one-sided debate than same-sex marriage. It was a frequent topic of sermons and convocation speeches, and the evils of same-sex marriage were taught in the classroom. (My Gen Ed textbook had a chapter called “Myths Behind the Homosexual Agenda.”) A campus pastor even started a support group, called “Masquerade,” for male students who felt the pull of gay attraction but wanted to cure themselves of it.

This week, curious to see how my friends from Liberty were reacting to the Supreme Court’s deliberation, I logged on to social-media sites to see what I assumed would be mass concern. But I found almost nothing. No long, rambling stemwinders about “Adam and Steve.” No Twitter quotes from Leviticus or C.S. Lewis. I looked on the personal Facebook pages of campus pastors, faculty members, and even Jerry Falwell Jr. — the college’s chancellor and heir to Falwell Sr.’s political legacy — and found almost no evidence that one of Liberty’s core political values was being debated on a national stage. Liberty’s media spokesman, who usually writes back to me with lightning speed, gave no reply to my query about the Supreme Court’s agenda.

I assumed, cynically, that professors and pastors at the school had been given orders not to discuss the same-sex marriage deliberations online for fear of making a stir, but were spending a lot of offline time agitating for their cause. But Karen Swallow Prior, a professor in Liberty’s English department and a writer for publications like Christianity Today, told me that wasn’t the case.

There’s been no directive from the administration,” she said. “There hasn’t even been a call to pray for it.”

Prior said she had nearly posted a status update on Facebook about the same-sex-marriage debate recently, but decided against it.

I’ve put a lot of thought into whether or not I should post something and what it would be,” she said. “But social media isn’t a productive way to engage.”

Students at Liberty, too, seemed puzzled about the lack of on-campus outrage.

People have been surprisingly quiet,” said one recent Liberty graduate who now works as a school employee. “One girl in my office said, ‘I’m so sick of the red equal signs on Facebook.’”

Another Liberty student wrote me: “The general consensus from Liberty University students regarding the Defense of Marriage Act hearings has been surprisingly progressive. Obviously Liberty catches a lot of heat for being publically opposed to progressive views on gay marriage and abortion … but students at Liberty are free to form their own opinions.”

Liberty’s twin shifts on gay marriage — from vocal activism to quiet tut-tutting, and from unified opposition to a diverse mix of support, apathy, and skepticism — are likely in part a product of the school’s increased focus on growth over ideological unity. (As detailed in a recent Washington Post article, the school’s enrollment has quadrupled, to more than 75,000 students, since the elder Falwell’s death.)

The short answer is that the focus at Liberty, as it has grown, has changed,” Prior told me. “Its character and emphases are evolving over time.”

But what’s happening at Liberty also mirrors national trends. Pew’s poll of attitudes toward gay marriage has shown consistent growth in the number of evangelical Christians who are supportive, with gains especially concentrated among young evangelicals. The growth of evangelical acceptance has been driven in part by secular culture, but also by leaders within the movement. Last week, Rob Bell, a Christian writer and speaker who is immensely popular with the college-age crowd, shocked older evangelicals by coming out in support of gay marriage.

Liberty is still not a gay-rights hot spot. The school’s code of conduct, as of several years ago, still forbid homosexual conduct (though, in fairness, it forbid most heterosexual acts, too) and its curriculum still espouses Falwell-style Christian conservativism. Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal outfit that is affiliated with the school, filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of DOMA, and its founder, Mat Staver, recently drew attention by suggesting that a Court decision to strike down either law would have a “catastrophic effect.” And I imagine that, if students were polled, opposition to same-sex marriage would still carry a healthy majority. But opinions are nowhere near as loud and lopsided as they were just five years ago.

If people come out and ask my opinion, I’ll share it,” said the recent Liberty graduate, who supports same-sex marriage but described the way she tells people about her views, especially online, as “careful.”

That newfound progressivism should worry some of the school’s alumni, but it should cheer proponents of same-sex marriage. After all, politicians in both parties are converting to the gay-marriage cause in droves and forcing the movement’s opponents to the fringes. And if the anti-gay-marriage movement can’t get vocal, broad-based support in Lynchburg — at a school founded expressly to promote conservative Christian values — it may not be able to find it anywhere.

Falwell’s College Goes Quiet on Gay Marriage