Last weekend, as more than 9,000 alumni descended on Lynchburg, Virginia, for Liberty University’s homecoming weekend, much went as expected. The carnival atmosphere was pervasive—boosters offered free hayrides around campus, young families could let their kids run off some energy on the bounce-houses set up on the quad, and on Saturday afternoon, the football team won big. At the homecoming parade, bands marched, members of a hip-hop dance troupe donned Trump and Clinton masks, and University President Jerry Falwell Jr. sat on the back of a red convertible and threw candy to his constituents along the parade route.
Despite the happiness and cheer, though, an uncomfortable and urgent question hung over the campus, as it has for several months: What to do about Donald Trump?
The candidate has profoundly split Liberty, the largest Christian university in the world, and a political linchpin of American religious right. Trump—a thrice-married, womanizing TV personality and billionaire who has spoken ill of some minority groups and immigrants and routinely bragged about his poor treatment of women—is perhaps the least Christian Republican presidential candidate in generations. With his sordid personal history and ambivalence about Judeo-Christian morals, Trump has hewn deep divides in the evangelical community between those who support his campaign and those unable to vote for him in good conscience.
Perhaps nowhere is this more acutely felt than at Liberty, where Trump has spurred debates not only about the merits of his candidacy, but about free speech and free inquiry on a campus dedicated to a conservative Christian education.
Early in the 2016 Republican primaries, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump—he’s the candidate’s most famous evangelical supporter, bar none—a move that mystified many of the believers in Liberty University’s orbit. Falwell has consistently maintained that his views shouldn’t be interpreted as representing those of Liberty University itself. But many in Liberty’s community of boosters, academics, alumni and students see in Falwell’s remarks a double standard over who has the ability to freely voice their conscience.
A member of the Board of Trustees who criticized Trump and questioned Falwell’s endorsement of him was pushed into resigning. In the student newspaper, the Liberty Champion, a student-penned column criticizing Trump’s grotesque “Access Hollywood” comments about women was preemptively censored at Falwell’s request (that writer has since resigned). And Liberty’s faculty — all of whom work without the possibility of tenure—are reluctant to speak out, with many fearing retribution and the loss of their positions.
Quietly, often anonymously and in private, students and faculty are speaking out—many in condemnation of Trump, and a smaller group in opposition to Falwell and the direction he’s led Liberty.
Serious arguments about Republicans are rare at Liberty. In 1980, Ronald Reagan visited a week before the presidential election to voice his support for prayer in public schools (President George H.W. Bush did the same in a 1990 visit). It’s where Senator John McCain came in 2006 to make peace with evangelical leaders ahead of his run for the presidency in 2008. It’s where Mitt Romney reaffirmed his belief in traditional marriage the same week President Barack Obama announced his own support of same-sex marriage in May 2012.
Since its founding, the twin cornerstones of Liberty University have been its indivisible commitments to the basic tenets of Christianity and conservative politics. And now, for the first time, the world’s largest Christian university is grappling with whether and how it’s possible to go about those commitments if they’re divorced from each other.
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