He didn’t have much choice. These days, any front-runner for the Republican Party presidential nomination seems required to make a speech at Liberty University. But when Jeb Bush gave his commencement address at Liberty this week, he did not have to emphasize one of American fundamentalism’s deepest-held convictions. But he did.
As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, I’m working on a book about the history of schools like Liberty. And among the issues I’m struggling with are the distinctive traditions that set off fundamentalist and evangelical colleges from other religious schools.
Certainly, as Roger Geiger outlined in his definitive new history of American higher ed, in the United States every religious group has scrambled to establish its own colleges and universities. It has become a way for religious groups to confirm their legitimacy and American-ness.
So, for Catholics, and Lutherans, and Methodists, and Nazarenes; for Muslims, and Jews, and Mennonites…every religious group has its own network of schools that train its young people in its distinctive faith traditions as well as in professional skills and the liberal arts.
Unlike most of those other traditions, however, the network of fundamentalist colleges that developed since the 1920s has seen itself not only as a haven from a hostile wider American culture, but more specifically as an enclave of true Americanism. Unlike most other conservative Protestants, even, fundamentalists have a fairly unique proprietary feeling about the US of A.
Back in the day, brainy Catholic kids might have gone to Georgetown or Boston College, either to become priests or just become educated Catholics. And they did so in order to study in an intellectual refuge from the relentless anti-Catholicism that permeated mainstream culture for so long.
Since the 1920s, brainy evangelicals and fundamentalists have gone to Bob Jones or Wheaton or Liberty, either to become pastors or just to become educated evangelicals. But these evangelical schools were not seen as islands set off from a hostile mainstream America. Or, to be more specific, they were seen as islands, but only in the sense that they represented a last resort of true Americanism. Such schools often talked about their need to preserve a slice of the true America.
Since the 1950s, those schools that aligned with the more moderate “evangelical” wing of fundamentalism tended to downplay this tradition. Schools who clung to the “fundamentalist” label—such as Bob Jones, Pensacola Christian College, the late Tennessee Temple University, and Liberty—often doubled down on their sense of usurped Americanism.
When Governor Bush made his Liberty speech, he made the usual paeans to religious freedom and religious liberty. But he also went the extra rhetorical mile to endorse Liberty’s sense of itself as an outpost of true Americanism. As Bush put it,
How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force. Outside these seven thousand acres of shared conviction, it’s a depressing fact that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated. We can take this as unfair criticism, as it typically is, or we can take it as further challenge to show in our lives the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.
“Seven thousand acres of shared conviction”! A phrase surely calculated to warm the hearts of Liberty’s leaders. The implication, clearly, is that Liberty represents an enclave of purity, a reservation for America’s Moral Majority, which promises to preserve American values until that day that they can be spread back into the rest of America’s 2,432,000,000 acres.