The Mess at Liberty U: Historians’ Perspectives

Even given everyone’s low expectations, the recent expose of Liberty University’s flim-flamming seems shocking. Alumnus Brandon Ambrosino accused Liberty of being a straight-up scam, not just a well-meaning Christian college with a few fundamentalist foibles. What have historians had to say about it?

LU sign on mountain

Go tell it on the mountain…

In case you’re the one person who hasn’t yet read Ambrosino’s piece, it includes “insider” rips like the following:

“We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,” said a senior university official with inside knowledge of Liberty’s finances. “We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”

What have historians of evangelicalism had to say?

Over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, John Fea of Messiah College warns that these scandals are nothing new in the world of fundamentalist empire-building. Nor do they tend to tarnish the power and influence of leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. As Dr. Fea concludes,

I imagine that many students and alumni at Liberty will see Falwell Jr. and Liberty as victims of the liberal media and other forces trying to undermine evangelical Christianity, religious freedom, and Christian nationalism in America. Liberty will remain a safe place for these parents and students.

At Righting America, William Trollinger of the University of Dayton compares the Falwell of today with the founder of American fundamentalism, William Bell Riley. Dr. Trollinger points out that Falwell’s institution is not all that unusual. As Dr. Trollinger puts it,

it is important to keep in mind that Falwell is not an anomaly. In fact, for the past century it has been a feature of fundamentalist institutions – colleges, churches (particularly megachurches), apologetics organizations, and the like – to be run by a male autocrat who holds almost total sway over his fiefdom.

For William Bell Riley in the 1930s, like Jerry Falwell Jr. today,

there were no checks on the Great Fundamentalist Leader. He said what he wanted, did what he wanted, and there was no one there who could stop him, no one who would dare challenge him. There was, for example, no one to suggest that his behind-the-scenes scheming to take control of the Minnesota Baptist Convention was unseemly and unethical.

My research into evangelical higher education has led me to similar conclusions. In Fundamentalist U, I argued that the tendency toward autocracy and eventual corruption was not a bug, but a feature of a theologically vague interdenominational fundamentalist movement. It didn’t happen at all schools, but in places like Bob Jones University and Liberty University, the answer to the dilemma of fundamentalist authority was to invest all power in a single domineering leader.

As I argued recently in these pages, back in the 1930s Bob Jones Sr. pioneered Falwell’s brand of autocratic fundamentalist leadership. At Bob Jones College,

All faculty members were required to agree with every jot and tittle of Jones’s beliefs. . . . It might never have been crystal clear what “fundamentalism” meant, but at Bob Jones College (later Bob Jones University), it always meant whatever the leader said it meant. Any disagreement, any “griping,” meant a fast ticket out the door, with a furious gossip campaign among the fundamentalist community to discredit the fired faculty member.

Are the recent revelations about Liberty sad? Yes. Dismaying? Yes. Surprising? Not to anyone who is familiar with Liberty U and the history of American fundamentalism.

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1 Comment

  1. wow, you and John Fea have certainly left us no reason to be surprised by Fallwell’s response today. Claims of fake new, threats with lawyers, name-calling, claiming to be a victim. It’s all there and there isn’t any reason now to believe Fallwell is going to do anything but dig in more and more.

    Reply

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