With university commencement season approaching, it’s time for a new round of culture-war outrage. Schools scramble to secure the most famous names as markers of their higher-ed cachet. And, predictably, some invited speakers will be shouted down, provoking a new round of hand-wringing over the parlous state of campus free speech.
The news from the world of evangelical colleges tells us that the traditions of Fundamentalist U are alive and well. Here’s the nail-biter: Can we assume that the twentieth century will repeat itself? Read on. Your humble editor will make some predictions that he can be held to.
But first, the news. It won’t come as any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. According to the Washington Post, Trump is heading back to Lynchburg, Virginia to speak at Liberty University.
As your humble editor has argued elsewhere, Liberty has come up the big winner in this presidential election. Its second-generation Falwell, Jerry Jr., has bragged about his appointment to a top-level super-secret Presidential commission on higher ed. And at least one Liberty student is starry-eyed with the news of Trump’s upcoming visit. What does Trump’s speech mean? To one gun-toting Flame, at least, it means “That’s how you know my school is better than yours.”
But Trump’s appearance at Liberty’s commencement is more than just payback to one of his loyal evangelical supporters. By acting chummy with Liberty, Trump scores big. As I argue in my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher ed, in the 1970s Liberty and other fundamentalist schools came to represent one-stop shops for politicians seeking evangelical approval.
If nothing else has been clear or predictable about Trump’s presidency, his courtship of the conservative evangelical vote has been steady and unimaginative. It’s not just Jerry Falwell Jr. By surrounding himself with folks such as Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos, Trump has sent unmistakable signals about his support for America’s fundamentalist traditions.
How will it end for him? If history is any guide—and we all know it usually isn’t—President Trump is in for a rough ride. Back in 1980, President Ronald Reagan pioneered a cynical courtship of conservative evangelicals. He palled around with Jerry Falwell Sr. and other fundamentalist school leaders such as Bob Jones III.
Once in office, though, Reagan disappointed them and their wrath was Biblical in its proportions. The most pressing issues back then were racism and tax policy. Reagan and the GOP had promised to throw out Jimmy Carter’s persecution of racist fundamentalist schools. Once in office, however, Reagan realized that the segregatory policy of schools such as Bob Jones University was politically impossible. So Reagan punted. He reversed himself. The reaction of Bob Jones III was immediate and ferocious.
Reagan, Jones III ranted, had proved himself a “traitor to God’s people.” It was time, Jones threatened, for fundamentalists to “stay away from the polls and let their ship sink.”
The full story of Jones III’s relationship with the Reagan White House had some complications, and you can read the full story in my upcoming book. However, the general drift was clear: Politicians could court the fundamentalist vote by appearing at evangelical and fundamentalist colleges, but the demands of those fundamentalists might not be politically palatable.
And no one is quicker to resent political compromise than fundamentalists.
So what do I predict for the Trump/Falwell love affair? First, let me offer a few nerdy qualifications. YES, I understand that Liberty today has worked hard to shed some of its fundamentalist trappings. And YES, I understand that Falwell Jr. is not Falwell Sr., and neither of them shared the shoot-first-ask-questions-later fundamentalist style of the Bob Joneses.
However, with all that said, I will go on record as predicting a blow-up between the Trumpists and the Flames. The existing anti-Trump vibe on Liberty’s campus will grow into an irresistible force. Falwell will eventually come out against his current BFF, when the conservatives and (relative) liberals in the extended Liberty community unite against Trumpism.
Hold me to it!