Liberty University, the Falwell Dynasty, and American Evangelicalism

Jerry Falwell, Liberty University's choice to stay open during coronavirus,  explained - Vox

Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned as president of Liberty University last week amid revelations of a sexual scandal involving him, his wife, and a consensual third party (details here and here). The controversy has rocked the evangelical community as well as the political world, considering Falwell’s lobbying and ties to the Republican Party.

Liberty University was founded in 1971 by Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr., a “culture war” champion of the Religious Right. It was the dream of both Falwells that Liberty could become the “Notre Dame” of evangelical higher education. That Liberty University would be considered the flagship university of American evangelicalism is a bit of a historical curiosity, however. Jerry Falwell Sr. began his career as a bona fide fundamentalist, having been a self-professed disciple under the auspices of arch-fundamentalists like John Rice and Bob Jones Sr. Unlike the leaders of what became the mainstream evangelical movement, fundamentalists distinguished themselves by being openly hostile to the surrounding culture. In fact, Bob Jones and John Rice were openly critical of even Billy Graham. They wanted a pristine separation from anything that might taint the church, and did not see Graham and his cohort as embodying that ideal.

So how did an institution founded by a fundamentalist come to be regarded as a premier evangelical university?

A Brief History

Before there was Liberty University, there was Lynchburg Christian Academy (now Liberty Christian Academy). Lynchburg Christian Academy (LCA) was a K-12 school founded by Falwell Sr. in 1967 as one of many “segregation academies” that sprouted in the South in response to nation-wide desegregation following the Civil Rights Movement. Segregation academies were private Christian schools that acted as “safe-havens” for white students to remain separated from black students, away from fear of government intervention. Although LCA eventually decided to allow integration a couple of years later, Falwell Sr. continued to support the right of private Christian institutions to maintain racist policies. But in 1971 (the same year that Liberty University was founded), the Supreme Court ruled that private segregated schools were ineligible for tax exempt status by the federal government. This put fundamentalist schools such as Bob Jones University on the map; and sure enough, Bob Jones University was declared as ineligible for tax exemption by the IRS in 1976 for promoting segregation policies.

Falwell likely had his two schools in mind when this happened. As I have written elsewhere, Jerry Falwell Sr., alarmed that the federal government would step in to a private Christian school even for something as poignant as racism, had had the last straw. Just several years prior, he had preached against Christians getting involved in politics, in response to the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King’s marches. But after the IRS’s perceived infringement on Bob Jones University, he quickly abandoned his (supposed) political quietism by going on tours and rallies professing his love for God and country, and spoke about saving America. Three years later he would team up with Paul Weyrich to organize the Moral Majority, a precursor to the modern Religious Right. Co-founder Paul Weyrich has gone on record of recalling that it was the integration of private Christian schools that was the real impetus for the founding the Moral Majority.

Although fundamentalism had always been hostile to the surrounding culture, the previously held defensive posture (or “fortress mentality”) suddenly gave way to a declaration of open war. The mobilization of the Moral Majority became the fundamentalists’ first offensive, and thus the so-called “culture wars” began. Like a nation defending its territory from foreign powers (i.e. the encroachment of the federal government), fundamentalists decided that the best defense was a good offense.

Undoubtedly inspired by the apparent success of the growing evangelical movement (which had gained national recognition by the late 1970s), Falwell Sr. adopted the moniker as his own and largely abandoned the fundamentalist label for its lack of currency. Because evangelicalism had yet to develop an incisive political theology, and with its original founders entering their twilight years, the driver’s seat of the evangelical movement was left vacant and wide open for someone like Falwell Sr. to hop in and take the wheel. Under his leadership, the growing Religious Right would steer the populist evangelical narrative for the next four decades.

Falwell and Weyrich successfully crafted evangelicalism’s modern alliance with the Republican Party. Soon, that alliance became an allegiance. He wooed a large portion of the grassroots evangelical vote (those once inspired by the passionate, God-infused preaching of Billy Graham within the midst of popular anti-communist sentiment during the Cold War) by rallying around things like pro-life stances on abortion, staunch opposition to homosexuality, and returning America to the “Christian roots” of its allegedly pious founding fathers. Now it was Jerry Falwell Sr. that had their ears. But as I’ve written about elsewhere, subscription to the Republican Party also came with a constellation of other policies:

Like a well-crafted subscription pitch, evangelicals were implicitly communicated that they needed “the whole package” if they wanted to be a true evangelical.

Like children following the pied piper, evangelicals were lured by the tune of the Religious Right and began marching in lockstep to the beat of its drum. Evangelical historian John Fea refers to this as the Religious Right’s “playbook.” And Liberty University became a bastion of right-wing politics in the name of evangelical Christianity. This departed significantly from evangelicalism’s original vision. Billy Graham had warned against being enmeshed in partisan politics since the Nixon administration, and expressed concerns about the Religious Right going a bridge too far with its aggressive right-wing politics. Meanwhile, non-white Christians by and large did not follow evangelicalism’s lead en masse, and tended to be much more ideologically diverse (whilst still being theologically conservative).

Liberty University’s Evangelical Moment?

So what are we to make of all this? Where does Liberty University go from here?

In the wake of the latest controversy, John Fea has described Liberty University as “the last fundamentalist empire” to remain standing. It was an empire built from the ground up by the Falwell dynasty, and has reflected their posture ever since.

Liberty University is at a crossroads. Will it continue in the militant tradition of its past leadership? Or will it move on to a brighter future? Evangelicalism diverged from fundamentalism in the twentieth century by its focus on constructive (as opposed to antagonistic) cultural engagement. Its posture was that of an invitation to come reason together. Liberty University has an opportunity to lift itself out of the fundamentalist mire of its past leaders, entrenched as it has been in its aggressive partisanship and politicization.

If Liberty University is to move on from this latest controversy, it will have to reckon with the mixed legacy of its past leadership. It will have to critically examine its unquestioned allegiance to partisan politics. This will require some painful soul-searching. Only then will Liberty be truly evangelical. Only then can it bear the name of “good news.”

See also:

Who is Carrying the Evangelical Torch?

The Present and Future of American Evangelicalism

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,” by John Fea

Who is an Evangelical?” by Thomas Kidd

Real Origins of the Religious Right

The Color of Compromise,” by Jemar Tisby (for a look at evangelicalism’s checkered past with racism and the black church)’

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