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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Christian College Embraces Atheist Student

What would happen to an atheist student at a conservative Christian college if his professors and peers found out about his lack of faith?  Turns out, not much.

That was the experience of Eric Fromm, at least, at Oregon’s Northwest Christian University.  Fromm, the student body president at the 600-student school, worried about the reaction when he “came out” as a non-believer.

According to a story in the Eugene Register-Guard, the school community has turned out to be supportive.  Michael Fuller, NWCU’s vice president for enrollment and student development, said there was no conflict between Fromm’s views and the school’s religious mission.  “I want students like Eric here,” Fuller told the Register-Guard,

students who are looking to explore their faith and willing to look hard and make their faith their own. . . . If we all had our wishes, we wish Eric would be a strong Christian man. . . .  We’re an open and welcome community, and we meet students exactly where they’re at.

Those of us from outside the world of conservative Christian higher education might be surprised by Fuller’s and NWCU’s open attitude.  After all, Fromm himself wondered what kind of reception he’d get when he publicized his atheism in the school paper.

Maybe we shouldn’t be.  After all, Fromm’s story is not unique.  ILYBYGTH readers may remember the testimony of Brandon Ambrosino, who reported his experiences at Liberty University.  Ambrosino, like Fromm, fretted over his decision to come out as homosexual at the rigorously conservative Liberty.  Like Fromm, Ambrosino found his faculty mentors downright supportive.

If the mission of many conservative colleges is to provide a “safe” theological environment for students, one that will support their faiths, then we’d expect faculty and administration to take a harsh line against students who thwart that mission.  An atheist student or an openly gay student would seem to introduce threatening elements into that safe environment.  That would seem doubly true if the atheist were popular and influential, as Fromm seems to be.

In practice, however, conservative schools seem well able to handle student dissent.

 

Being Gay at a Catholic College

Is gay okay the Catholic way?

Religion writer Michael O’Loughlin recently surveyed the experiences of gay students at a variety of Catholic colleges.  The answer, maybe not surprisingly, is that different schools do things differently.

At Chicago’s DePaul University, O’Loughlin found, students can minor in LGBTQ Studies. Students and faculty are out and supportive.

Other schools, such as Washington DC’s Catholic University, have a more mixed record.  Students are gay, O’Loughlin reported, and that’s only sort of okay.

One constant, at Catholic universities as across American culture, is rapid change.

O’Loughlin returned after just a handful of years to his alma mater, St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.  When he attended, gay students kept their sexual identity private. Now, the school itself has initiated programs to make all students, explicitly including homosexual students, feel welcomed, loved, and guided.

As some of the comments on O’Loughlin’s essay proved, not all Catholics are okay with this trend.  As “JP” noted,

Can one imagine a group of Catholic adulterers or thieves organizing at a Catholic college in order for their “voice to be heard”? Homosexual acts as well as larceny or adultery are still considered Mortal Sins by the RCC.

Catholic schools are not alone in their struggles with this issue.  As we noted a while back, Brandon Ambrosino shared his experiences with faith and sexuality at the conservative evangelical flagship school, Liberty University.  Just as Catholic colleges have had a range of responses to the issues of student homosexuality, so folks at conservative Protestant schools  have had surprisingly mixed reactions as well.

 

Being Gay at a Fundamentalist School

What would it be like to be gay in the intense world of fundamentalist higher education?

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Brandon Ambrosino shared his story of coming out at fundamentalist Liberty University.

Being gay is not okay in the world of conservative evangelical Protestantism, but Ambrosino’s story describes a faculty and administration that loved him as a person, first and foremost.  When Ambrosino told a favorite professor about his sexual identity, the professor replied this way:

“I love you,” she said. I stopped crying for a second and looked up at her. Here was this conservative, pro-life, pro-marriage woman who taught lectures like “The Biblical Basis for Studying Literature,” and here she was kneeling down on the floor next me, rubbing my back, and going against every stereotype I’d held about Bible-believing, right-leaning, gun-slinging Christians.

This professor was not an outlier.  Everyone from the Bible-thumping-est theologian to the Liberty therapist focused on their love for Brandon.  Not in the hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner way, either, but just in the love-the-person way.

Ambrosino concludes that fundamentalists don’t fit the “hate” stereotype.  There is hate all around, perhaps, but religious conservatives haven’t cornered the market.  As Ambrosino concludes,

I think the really vocal anti-gay Christians display this smidge [of hate], but I also think the really vocal anti-Christian gays display it as well. Not tolerating someone for his narrow-mindedness is perhaps the epitome of intolerance. I learned from my time at Liberty that this bigotry happens on both sides: not only were there some Christians who wanted to stone some gays, but there were even some gays who wanted to stone a few Christians. Just the other day, I saw a man driving a car with two bumper stickers. One was a rainbow. The other showed a picture of a lion, and contained the caption “The Romans had it right.” Just another open-minded gay man, I suppose.