Why Didn’t Jerry Falwell Jr. Say THIS Instead?

In this era of playground taunts and adolescent boasting, Jerry Falwell Jr. seems to feel right at home. Falwell complained recently that his Liberty University should still be considered the largest Christian university in America, despite the fact that Grand Canyon University was larger. Falwell claimed that real Christian universities do something GCU doesn’t do. It seems to this reporter he could have made a much more powerful argument against GCU. I have a hunch why he didn’t.

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Cactus, cross…and ka-ching?

Here’s what we know: Religion News Service recently published an acknowledgement from Liberty that GCU had “supplanted” them as America’s largest evangelical university. President Falwell wrote to RNS to complain. GCU, Falwell wrote, isn’t really “Christian,” since it doesn’t require faculty to sign an annual statement of evangelical faith.

As historian John Fea commented, Falwell’s use of “Christian” to mean only those few conservative-evangelical universities that grew out of the fundamentalist movement seems stunted.

I certainly agree. When former Liberty President Pierre Guillermin bragged in 1982 that his evangelical school planned to become “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically,” it’s difficult not to wonder what all those Notre Dame Christians might have thought. For Guillermin, Falwell, and many other conservative-evangelical leaders, the use of “Christian” to denote only their own conservative-evangelical faith seems presumptuous indeed.

However, if we accept for the sake of argument Falwell’s definition of “Christian” universities as limited only to conservative-evangelical schools, his complaint makes a little more sense. As I noted in my recent book about the history of evangelical higher education, requiring faculty annually to sign a statement of faith really HAS been a hallmark of these schools, and GCU really has abandoned that requirement in its effort to attract more students and retain more faculty.

As GCU pointed out, they require faculty to sign a statement saying they “understand” the school’s mission, but that is a far cry from the “ironclad” attempts of fundamentalist schools to ensure all faculty members agreed with their schools’ religious beliefs without any mental reservation. In contrast to that strong fundamentalist tradition, GCU claims to be a “missional community” that welcomes “students, faculty and staff from all walks of life, some of whom may experience Christianity for the first time at the university.” Unlike the conservative-evangelical schools that grew out of the fundamentalist movement—and the many denominational schools that generally consider themselves part of the conservative-evangelical network—GCU does not require faculty to “commit to affirming and practicing the same faith.”

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How did capitalism, Christianity, and college combine?

So when Falwell complains that GCU isn’t really following the same playbook, he’s not wrong.

But ditching the required faculty statement of faith is not the most shocking innovation GCU attempted. When its enrollment numbers plummeted at the start of this century, GCU adopted a for-profit business model. It became Grand Canyon Education, Incorporated and focused on in-demand majors such as nursing and education. These days, with for-profit schools under scrutiny, GCU has attempted to move back to non-profit status.

So here’s my question: If Falwell wanted to prove that his “Christian” school was the biggest, why didn’t he say that GCU shouldn’t be considered “Christian” because it was a for-profit business?

And here’s my hunch: Since at least the late 1800s, American cultural conservatives have assumed that capitalism is the best sort of social system. Many conservative Christians have argued that free-enterprise systems are somehow God’s preferred way of organizing an economy. In the twentieth century, a lot of the connections between capitalism and Christianity came from the shared opposition to communism.

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God = Capital

The tight connections between free-market principles and evangelical ones were usually simply taken for granted. To cite just one example, the president of Gordon College promised in 1967 that his school was a place in which

youth is encouraged to have faith in the historical validity and continuity of the principles of competitive free enterprise.

As historians Darren Dochuk and Bethany Moreton have explored, some schools such as Harding College and John Brown University raised the principle of “Christian free enterprise” to an all-encompassing mission.

So it doesn’t seem crazy that President Falwell wouldn’t even wonder if adopting a for-profit status might push his rival GCU out of consideration as a real “Christian” school. At least, that’s how it looks to this reporter.

Am I missing something? Is there any other reason why Falwell would ignore the huge, obvious fact that GCU wasn’t really “Christian” if it peddled its mission for mere lucre?

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