Does Jesus Love Shotguns? Liberty University and the Many Faces of American Conservatism

What do gun rights have to do with Jesus?

Nothing, right?

Then why did Liberty University offer a sweet scholarship to David Cole Withrow?

Here’s the latest, according to the Christian outlet World Magazine: Withrow had been punished for bringing two guns to his high-school campus in Princeton, North Carolina.  At first, it appeared he had accidentally left them in his truck.  As soon as he remembered his mistake, the story was first reported, Withrow informed school authorities of the guns.  In spite of the innocence of his mistake and his Eagle-Scout honesty in reporting the problem, school officials reported Withrow, who was charged with a felony and kicked out of school.  The story became a tempest in America’s culture-wars teapot.  Withrow became a symbol of an overreaching anti-gun governmental tyranny.  Since Withrow was wearing a Liberty University t-shirt in some public appearances, the University contacted him and offered him a full scholarship.

Falwell and Withrow

Falwell and Withrow; Image source, Liberty University

Turns out Withrow had known about the guns all along. According to World Magazine, Withrow admitted in court he had lied.  Nevertheless, Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University stand by their offer.  Withrow’s admission of dishonesty, Falwell announced, smacks of more heavy-handed state tactics.

So in the end, nothing really happened.  A conservative Christian youth will go to a conservative Christian college.

Why should those of us trying to understand the world of conservative educational thinking in America care about this story?

Because this story demonstrates the sticky web of connections between seemingly unrelated issues.  Liberty University was founded in the early 1970s by barnstorming evangelist Jerry Falwell.  The goal of the university was to produce new platoons of educated conservative Christians, ready to swing the United States back into the arms of its rightful Moral Majority.

This story demonstrates that the conservatism of Christian institutions such as Liberty University reaches beyond theology.  Liberty University may exist to teach students in a Christian environment.  But that environment also supports theologically unrelated notions, such as the rights of people to have and use guns, and the rights of people to be defended from an overreaching Obama regime.

As faculty star Karen Swallow Prior reported a while back, the broad cultural conservatism on Liberty’s campus may be relaxing a little. Students these days tend to wear less formal clothes, and some even started a Campus Democrat club.  Nevertheless, as Chancellor Falwell’s actions show in this case, Liberty still represents a bastion of an American conservatism that reaches far beyond Biblical interpretation.

What does Jesus think about shotguns?  I don’t know.  But the multifaceted ideology/theology/admissions policy on display in this story demonstrates the complexity of American educational conservatism.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Liberty University is an especially nuanced situation. I graduated with a graduate degree from there last year, and campus politics are fierce. The administration is intensely conservative, and politically oriented. They still honor Falwell’s dream of creating “champions for Christ.” That attitude is even present in some faculty- I once got a dressing down for critiquing Falwell. Well, ok… I said he was crazy and had said some incredibly evil things, so…

    On the other hand, there are many people on faculty there who are liberal, non-religious, and support all kinds of leftist and more radical views. And they’re given free reign in their classroom. Well, I can only speak for the graduate level humanities department, as I wasn’t there for undergrad…

    Reply
    • FI, Thanks for the note. I appreciate your insider’s perspective. It points out to me how little I understand about real life at schools like Liberty. As a product of public schools and pluralist and public universities, I admit my woeful ignorance about the goings-on at religious schools of all stripes. But I don’t think I’m alone as an outsider when I find myself continually surprised to hear that Liberty includes “liberal, non-religious” faculty. As with Brandon Ambrosino’s story a while back in The Atlantic, I am confounded to hear of the wonderfully liberal nature of some aspects of life at Liberty. My question is this: why would a leftist radical work at Liberty?

      Reply
      • I am not entirely sure, to be honest, especially since the administration is downright hostile. I had one professor who was an agnostic second wave feminist… It was a little bit odd, but she’s not excluded in any way.

        Prior (from Brandon’s article) is a good example of this attitude. She’s a crazy mix of conservative and progressive ideas, and she’s a significant part of the English program.

      • Thanks, FI. This is what flummoxes me. Is there no statement of faith to which Liberty faculty must adhere? In my study of 1920s conservative Protestant education, such “ironclad” statements were perceived by most conservative evangelical school-founders as the way to save higher education. I find it hard to believe that a school as committed to Moral-Majority-style cultural combat as Liberty would not require faculty to sign on to a strict conservative theological creed.
        My hunch is that some of the political liberalism may accompany fairly conservative theology. That would make sense. That is, a very theologically conservative Protestant may hold very politically liberal views about the proper role of the state in alleviating poverty. But I’m very surprised to hear that Liberty’s faculty is accustomed to such wide ideological diversity.
        BTW, this kind of conversation is what keeps me blogging. My isolated social and professional circles include no one who attended Liberty, no one who has any real idea what it is like to live in the educational climate I study. Thanks for your participation.

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