Trump-ing Academic Life

A Miss USA, a bachelor, a gun-toter, a filmmaker, and a MAGA youtuber, all clumped together on a college campus to promote “Judeo-Christian values.” What could go wrong? If it were a reality show, I’d watch it. But it’s not. Instead, this group of culture-war B-listers is the first cohort of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center Fellows. These Trumpish all-stars promise/threaten to upend a long tradition of alternative academic institution-building in conservative evangelical higher ed.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, we’ve been following developments at Liberty’s new Falkirk Center with a lot of interest. The founders—Jerry Falwell Jr. and Turning Point’s Charlie Kirk—warned us that they plan to put “Judeo-Christian values” back in the center of American political life via an “aggressive social media campaign.” Given the history of ambitious academic centers at conservative evangelical universities, there’s not much of a chance the Falkirkers will achieve their goals. Given the recently announced line-up of founding Falkirk Fellows, I’m starting to think that they might, in fact, have a totally different goal in mind. Namely, they might want to trash the entire evangelical academic tradition, or at least not mind if they do.

As I argued in Fundamentalist U, since the 1920s conservative evangelical colleges, institutes, and universities faced a formidable task. They had to create an entirely separate academic system of prestige, one that rewarded scholars outside of mainstream academic channels. As part of their effort to do so, many universities poured scarce resources into the painstaking effort to build their own independent network of academic prestige, one that did not rely on mainstream ideas. For example, institutions such as Wheaton College and Gordon College heaped honors on creationists such as Harry Rimmer. Authors such as Arthur Brown scrambled to compile impressive-sounding lists of academic “experts” who scorned mainstream science.

To be sure, these alternative academic “experts” often had extremely shallow credentials. When evangelical universities gave them honorary doctorates and other academic honors, however, they were signaling to the conservative evangelical community that their universities shared the religious and political values of their honored experts. The universities were creating, in essence, a world of academic prestige outside the entire system of mainstream academics.

The recent move by Liberty University seems as different from that kind of thinking as Trump is from Reagan. What does it take to earn a coveted spot as an inaugural fellow at the Falkirk Center? Let’s take a look:

Frantzve

Adding a little sparkle to academic life…

First, we have Erika Lane Frantzve, Miss USA 2012. Ms. Frantzve claims a “background” in political science and is dedicated to charity work. Next, there is Josh Allan Murray, best known from his appearance on The Bachelorette. These days, in spite of the quick break-ups of his TV nuptials, Mr. Murray is apparently “bouncing back better than ever.” Third comes Antonia Okafor Cover, who works to get more guns on college campuses. She claims to have been told she should not feel free to speak her mind, but as she puts it, “I didn’t listen.” Another fellow will be David J. Harris, Jr., a vlogger and Trump enthusiast who preaches the dangers of the “crazed left.” Last but not least is Jaco Booyens, filmmaker and opponent of sex trafficking.

I don’t mean to be a campus snob, but what kind of achievements can a group like this hope to achieve? To quote Charlie Kirk, how can this assemblage “‘play offense’ against efforts by liberals to water down Judeo-Christian values in the Bible and Constitution”?

The short and obvious answer is, they can’t. This is a group of second-rate conservative media presences, not a group of alternative academics. Unlike people like Harry Rimmer in an earlier generation, they have no coherent ideas to promote. They are not scientists frozen out of mainstream science, or theologians pushed out of mainstream institutions. Those kinds of non-mainstream intellectuals used to be the ones to win academic honors from the evangelical academy. This group looks decidedly different.

Even from within the alternative academic tradition of conservative evangelical schools, a tradition in which non-traditional intellectuals were often awarded traditional academic honors, this group of Falkirk Fellows looks remarkably intellectual weak. Instead of building an independent system of academic prestige as earlier evangelical colleges have done, the Falkirk Center seems to be merely leaping aboard the Trump Train to trash the entire idea of academic prestige.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

We’ve got snow up to our eyeballs up here, but the interwebs haven’t shut down yet. Here are some of the top ILYBYGTH-themed stories from the past holiday week:

NYT charters

Good schools are good schools…right?

Are charters the best hope for low-income urban students? At NYT.

Max Lyttle, director of instruction at Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., argued that pitting schools against one another misses the point.

“It shouldn’t be about what’s better: charter schools or neighborhood schools,” he said. “It should be about what schools will help our children succeed.”

At the school’s campus in southeast Washington, where more than 90 percent of students are black, Eagle Academy seeks to provide the same resources that white, affluent children have: a swimming pool, a chef who serves fruits and vegetables and a “sensory room” modeled on private medical facilities where students can calm down. The school was recognized this year for its improvements on standardized test scores.

Burge rns anointed by godRyan Burge asks: How many Americans believe Trump was “anointed by God?” At RNS.

White Protestants’ belief in Trump’s anointing tracks with church attendance. Among those who attend less often than once a month, just 1 in 10 thinks that Trump was anointed. Of those who attend church multiple times a week, 4 in 10 agree that Trump was anointed by God.

Views of the Bible also affect how Americans responded. Among those who consider the Bible inspired by God, just 11% believe Trump was anointed, while those who believe the Bible to be the literal word of God are more than three times as likely to think so.

Liberty University sets up a new academic center, at WE.

The Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty, a combination of their names [Jerry Falwell Jr. and Charlie Kirk], will “play offense” against efforts by liberals to water down Judeo-Christian values in the Bible and Constitution in their bid to build support for big government, said Kirk. . . . He said that the center hopes to answer a question he gets often, “was Jesus Christ a socialist?”

Fizzle Alert: New Campus Center Will Try to Prove that Jesus Was Not a Socialist

The history is not particularly encouraging. Nevertheless, Liberty University plans to open a new academic center, one devoted to promoting Judeo-Christian values in American society. How do we know it won’t work? Three reasons, plus one counter-point.

Here’s what we know: Liberty University recently announced its new Falkirk Center. The name comes from a combo of Jerry Falwell Jr—Liberty’s president—and Charlie Kirk, leader of Turning Point USA. The goal of the center will be to blitz social media with traditional Christian messages. As Falwell and Kirk described,

Said Kirk, “We’re in a culture battle right now where you have to fight and play offense, and part of this effort is to try and play offense against the secular Left.”

Falwell added, “As attacks on traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs grow in frequency and intensity, the need has never been greater for a national revival of our foundational principles throughout our society and institutions in America.”

The center will use an aggressive social media campaign to push back against what Kirk described as the Left’s effort to “try to convert young Christians into socialism and to intentionally misrepresent the gospel and the teachings of the Bible to try to convert young people to be further on the left.”

Will it work? No.

First of all, there are a few big established conservative think-tanks that don’t leave much room for a new one. Why would anyone go to work at the Falkirk Center when they could go the Heritage Foundation instead?

Second, the name itself spells doom. Generally, any academic center or think-tank needs a clear and unified purpose. Often, that takes the form of a charismatic leader. In this case, trying to balance the big egos of both Falwell and Kirk will mean that neither of them gives the center his full attention and support.

Third, as I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, when conservative evangelicals have tried to establish alternative academic centers in the past they haven’t had a lot of success. Consider the ill-starred National Freedom Education Center (NFEC). It was an organization based at The King’s College in New York (now in New York City).

national freedom education center letterhead

They had enough money for letterhead, but that’s about it…

One of the NFEC’s goals was to spread “American Studies” programs on evangelical campuses. As their promo materials put it,

What philosophy shall give direction to the material world we are developing?  Shall the long-felt influence of the Christian ethic be brought to bear on current history?  Dare we succumb to the seemingly plausible suggestions that in our time government-over-man is preferable to America’s long proven concept of man-over government?

Can we survive as a people, even with our unparalleled abundance of things, if our thinking excludes our traditionally motivating intangibles . . . . reverence for God, total human concern for the individual, an abiding dedication to preservation of our Constitution and a cherishing regard for personal Freedom? [sic]

Did it work? Nuh-uh. A few institutions, such as Azusa Pacific, signed up. They received a few hundred dollars and some books for their libraries. Other schools blanched. Gordon College in Massachusetts, for example, rejected the overtures of the NFEC. The faculty at Gordon did not want to turn their conservative religious school into merely a conservative political school.

There’s no doubt, however, that the NFEC would have had more luck if it had had deeper pockets. And that’s where the Falkirk Center might get its glimmer of hope. Liberty University has bajillions of dollars to spend from its online empire. Could that $$$ make a difference? Maybe.

After all, the Falkirk Center is NOT trying to build academic prestige. That takes time, vision, and patience. It is only trying to mount an “aggressive social media campaign,” which is quick, dirty, and easy. It seems at least possible that the Falkirk Center might splash out money on a blitz of popular media, and that the blitz might reinforce already-existing stereotypes. It COULD become, even, a new sort of academic center, one that doesn’t care much about traditional academics but has a big social-media footprint.

I don’t think it will happen, because President Falwell has always been more invested in football than academics, but it seems at least possible that the Falkirk Center might take advantage of a fat wallet to do more than talk about making a difference. I’m not going to worry too much about it, yet.