First flip-flops, now College Democrats. What is next for Liberty University?
Karen Swallow Prior commented recently on the changing face of the school founded by Jerry Falwell just over forty years ago. Prior, chair of Liberty’s English department, notes the remarkable achievements of Liberty. Since 1971, it has grown to almost 100,000 students (including online) and has almost hit one BILLION dollars in net assets.
Like other Protestant fundamentalist schools, Liberty was founded with the specific intention of educating conservative evangelical Christian students in an environment that encouraged their faith.
Prior argued in Christianity Today that the school has been evolving. A few years back, it eased up its dress code, allowing students to wear jeans and sandals if they preferred. As Prior put it, “Administrators knew that the university couldn’t meet the goal of its founder of becoming a ‘world class’ evangelical university by requiring its students to dress like Mormons on mission.”
More recently, Prior writes, the school has had to wrestle with the thornier question of student politics. Might a school explicitly founded as a conservative institution allow an organization of College Democrats? As has been the question for fundamentalist higher education since the 1920s, there is an enduring tension between growth and fidelity to mission. As I’ve analyzed in my 1920s book and an article in History of Education Quarterly, fundamentalist colleges have struggled to understand themselves as either “world class” universities or intentionally provincial ones. Can they escape from the “scandal of the evangelical mind” without abandoning their unique faith mission?
At Bob Jones University, for example, founded in 1926, students have had to pledge their fidelity to an iron-bound statement of faith. They have also had to pledge that they will prevent the school from every wavering from its commitment to those principles.
Doubtless Liberty will continue to struggle with this tension. As Prior explains,
“whether Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian, Liberty students seem to recognize that none of the political parties aligns consistently with their faith. And so, they seem less willing than preceding generations of students to put their faith in politics.”