Bush at Liberty: “Seven Thousand Acres of Shared Conviction”

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.

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  1. Agellius

     /  May 12, 2015

    I really don’t see where you get “purity”, “moral majority” or “preserving American values” out of the quoted statement. It seems clear to me that his subject is not America or American values, but “Christianity and Judeo-Christian values”: Within the confines of Liberty U., people have the shared conviction that the message of Christianity is “the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world”, whereas outside LU, Christianity is thought of as “some sort of backward and oppressive force”.

    Then again I didn’t watch the whole video. Maybe he says it elsewhere.

    • Agellius, You’re right; I am imposing a good deal of my own interpretation on Gov. Bush’s speech. But most of it (it’s only 15 minutes long) talks about how bedrock American values have eroded. Then Gov. Bush contrasts that sort of tragic vision with the notion that Liberty stands apart. To me, that sends a clear message: The rest of America is at best morally troubled, but here at Liberty the community maintains true Americanism. I admit I might be reaching, because that theme of the “believing remnant” is so strong in American evangelical culture that it jumps out of every archival source and every evangelical magazine and book. I can’t help but think that the Governor was intentionally referring to that long tradition.

      • Agellius

         /  May 12, 2015

        I see your point. Well, at its founding American was a mostly Christian nation. But I think it was even more an Enlightenment nation that sort of took Christianity for granted. Thus the Founders took care to ingrain Enlightenment values in the Constitution, but took less care to ingrain Christianity in the Constitution. This may have been because they assumed Christianity would never die out, but I can’t help thinking it was because they didn’t care as much about Christianity. Be that as it may, the Constitution is what it is. If it’s less Christian than we would like, we have the Founders to blame for it.

      • I think this is a good reading of Jeb, Adam — and I think it’s representative of a lot of white, especially male, conservative American Catholics — most of all those who joined the conservative and religious right movements in the 1970s-80s. It was a logical and planned process on the political side as the WASP mainline receded and the old party loyalties flipped. Nixon nailed McGovern on “acid, amnesty and abortion” which brought together the Protestant Bible Belt, its northern counterparts, and also Southern, urban and midwestern Northern socially conservative Catholics who had all been New Deal, pro-union Democrats. Movement figures like Michael Novak have described the shift in their thinking and their families very clearly. This is also why you have Casey style pro-life, pro-labor swing-voting but still more Democratic Catholics and liberal Catholics who, unlike the conservatives, retain an ethnic European family identity that distrusts the “religious right” as an enduring form of WASP nativism that was once virulently anti-catholic and often still is beneath the surface of pragmatic political alliances, especially when they perceive the pope as a “liberal.”

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