Why Jimmy Carter?

If you didn’t know much about Liberty University or conservative evangelical higher education, you might be surprised to hear that President Jimmy Carter will be giving the commencement address at Liberty this year.

Trump at liberty

Glories of past Liberty commencements…

For SAGLRROILYBYGTH, it makes perfect sense. I lay out my case this morning at The Conversation why Jerry Falwell Jr. would want President Carter to come to Lynchburg.

Why would he? Click on over and check it out. Let me know if you think I’m off base.

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What They Missed about Liberty Online

Want to understand evangelical higher education these days? Then you need to read the recent exposé of Liberty University’s online program in the New York Times. But when you do, remember that they left out a central piece of the picture.

moody literature mission

Early distance-learning programs at MBI claimed to reach the world with cutting-edge technology, c. 1947. These “mountaineers” got free Gospels if they read them in school. And, yes, that is their school building.

The Liberty Online story is a big one. As the Times article describes, Liberty now claims $2.5 billion (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) in net assets, largely from its online department. Because Liberty is a non-profit, it is not subject to the same oversight as for-profit schools such as Corinthian and the University of Phoenix.

Some online students, the article describes, felt pressured to sign up and ripped off with the results. As one unhappy former Liberty student told the Times,

What’s killing me is that I went into this program to try to change my situation . . . and I’m worse off than I was at the beginning.

It’s an ugly story. There is no doubt that Liberty’s online program has been a cash cow. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, there’s also no doubt that Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. has plowed his online profits back into the brick-and-mortar campus. Sports, star faculty, and campus facilities all get plenty of funding. Recently, the Liberty football squad used that money to fulfill one of the school’s long-standing dreams by defeating top-ranked Baylor.

But the Times story leaves out a crucial part of the historical context. The way they put it, Liberty’s online program came about as part of an experiment, an “educational novelty.” As the article explains,

One educational novelty that Falwell dabbled in, starting in the mid-’70s, was an early form of distance learning. Liberty would mail lecture videotapes and course packets to paying customers around the country — at first just certificate courses in Bible studies, and by the mid-’80s, accredited courses in other subjects as well.

The inspiration, according to the NYT, was the work of John Sperling and the University of Phoenix. I don’t doubt that President Falwell Jr. admired Sperling’s business model. I don’t dismiss the importance of the notion that Falwell has treated his school, as he told NYT, “like a business.”

However, if we really want to understand Liberty’s online success, we have to also understand its context as part of the history of evangelical higher education. It is difficult for some secular people (like me) to notice or acknowledge, but evangelical schools and missionary institutions have always led the way with finding new ways to use new technology to deliver distance education.

letterhead from BGC 3

Check out the 1950s-era “high-tech” logo! More evidence of the evangelical obsession with technology and distance learning, from Fuller Seminary, c. 1956.

Perhaps the best example might be the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. No matter the decade, no matter the technology, the Moody educational empire has found ways to expand its reach using new technological means. The drive is obvious: For MBI and other evangelical institutions, the primary goal is to deliver the Gospel to as many human eyes and ears as possible, as fast as possible. If new technology will help accomplish that mission, all the better.

To note just a few of the best-known programs, MBI was a pioneer in early radio, with its WMBI established in 1926 to bring the Word to the world. By 1940, WMBI’s Radio School of the Bible had over 10,000 registrants. In 1942, WMBI claimed to broadcast its programs through 187 radio stations across the USA, Canada, China, and Latin America.

In the 1940s, MBI set up its Moody Institute of Science, distributing missionary science films to a wide audience.

At the same time, MBI carried out less-well-known distance-learning programs as well. As I discovered in the MBI archives, from the 1920s through the 1960s the Moody Literature Mission delivered millions of books and tracts to readers throughout the country and throughout the world.

The point of these distance-learning programs was always the same. MBI, like all evangelical colleges and universities, had a mission of missions. It was dedicated to training young people to carry the Gospel around the world. And, unlike some people’s image of stuffy Luddite conservatives, evangelical institutions were always pioneers in every type of technology: print, radio, film, and internet.

So when the Jerry Falwells experimented with distance education, they weren’t innovating at all, really. Rather, they were merely continuing the long tradition of evangelical higher education—using all available means to deliver the Gospel around the world.

Censorship at Christian Colleges

Want to get fired? Try this: Run a controversial story in a newspaper at an evangelical college. This week, Liberty University’s Erin Covey complains that her reporting is being blocked. She’s not the first student reporter to have this experience. On the contrary, student editors have always worked under constant threat.

At issue today is an anti-Trump/anti-Falwell revival going on near Liberty University. Shane Claiborne and his progressive evangelical allies are hosting a Red Letter Revival service, challenging Liberty’s president to join them or change his “toxic” Trump-loving ways.

When student reporter Erin Covey shared her coverage of the revival with Liberty’s leaders, she was told to squelch the story. As she tells it, Liberty’s administration told her,

No let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.

Covey plaintively wondered,

We often wonder: Do other private schools deal with this? What are the levels of freedom that other school papers have? Do we have the same freedoms — is this common?

When it comes to school newspapers—including student newspapers–censorship and content control have been universal practices in the history of evangelical higher education. As I describe in my recent book, this has been true at all evangelical schools, no matter how liberal or how conservative.

Earnestine Ritter

How to get fired at Biola, c. 1957.

Why? Let me share one example from Biola that exemplifies this tradition. In 1957, editor Lloyd Hamill took a strong anti-segregation position. He excoriated white evangelicals who opposed racial integration. As he put it,

No Spirit-controlled Christian can escape the solid fact that all men are equal in God’s sight.  Integration is not only the law of our nation, it is also the plain teaching of the Bible.

Biola, Hamill wrote, didn’t only endorse integration. It practiced it, employing an African American journalist on staff. A deluge of letters flooded Biola. More than 90% of them attacked Hamill’s position, though a few supported him. What did Biola’s administration do? As Biola’s president explained privately to Billy Graham. Hamill was sacked immediately. Biola did not want to endorse

the very foolish letters he wrote and statements which he made.

Granted, the situation is somewhat different. Hamill worked at the college’s magazine, not a student publication. But I think the rule still holds.

Why do evangelical colleges censor their publications so rigorously? Why can’t Erin Covey cover an anti-Falwell revival?

It’s not an accident and it’s not only Liberty. All evangelical colleges live under constant scrutiny. The evangelical public is always wondering if school X or Y has gone soft. The publications coming out of schools—including student newspapers—have always received endless scrutiny from interested members of the evangelical public.

Whatever appears in a student newspaper is often taken to represent more than one student’s opinion. It is taken, at heart, to represent the current moral climate of the school. For students like Erin Covey and editors like Lloyd Hamill, the result is clear: Don’t rock the boat.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

From Missouri Satanists to Alabama racists to Kentucky fundamentalists, this week saw it all. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed stories that came across our desk:

If Christians can refuse to bake cakes, can Satanists refuse to wait for an abortion? Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta talks with Lucien Greaves about the case at Missouri’s Supreme Court.

Can a university expel a student for a racist rant? The ACLU says no in a case from Alabama, at IHE.

Indian evangelicals and the changing face of the American megachurch, by Prema Kurien at R&P.Bart reading bible

“Truth Decay:” Chester Finn spreads the blame for fake news beyond civic ed, at Flypaper.

Fundamentalists were right! College really does endanger children’s faith, at IHE.

Texas judge says God told him to interfere with a jury, at Americans United.

What do Americans “know” about evolution? Glenn Branch reviews the latest numbers, at NCSE.

Online School of Tomorrow closes today, leaving Ohio students scrambling, at CPD.

Want to earn millions? Resign in scandal from presidency of Michigan State, at IHE.

Curmudgucrat Peter Greene on the difficulties of healing the country’s racist past.

Should evangelicals defend Trump? Mark Galli critiques court evangelicals, at CT.

The quandary: Conservative intellectuals in the Age of Trump, at WaPo.

  • Best line: “Trumpism has torn down the conservative house and broken it up for parts.”

What makes Ben Shapiro tick? At Slate.

How Roy Moore Put Jesus on a Dinosaur

It’s ugly. And weird. The accusations against Roy Moore in the Washington Post are hard to read without shuddering. It got even uglier and weirder when some evangelical leaders actually supported Moore’s alleged actions. Yet those familiar with the history of American fundamentalist institutions see a familiar pattern in this depressing story. And maybe I’m too deep in my new book about American creationism to think clearly, but it seems to me these sorts of attitudes help explain radical young-earth creationism.

If you haven’t seen the story, it’s grim. The Washington Post shared allegations by women that Roy Moore had groped and kissed them back in the 1970s, when they were young teenagers and he was a thirty-something lawyer. To complicate things, Judge Moore has always been a controversial figure, insisting on keeping a 10-commandments monument in his courtroom even when ordered to remove it. Moreover, Moore just won a contentious GOP primary election in the US Senate race. He’s facing a tough battle with his Democratic opponent.

That history helps explain the continuing support for Moore among conservatives. Almost 40 percent of Alabama evangelicals say they are MORE likely to support Moore after these accusations. Only 28 percent say they’re less likely to do so.

We might be understandably tempted to see the whole thing as just another episode in today’s bare-knuckled political free-for-all. Judge Moore defended himself in those terms, after all. He claimed the whole story was just a cynical smear campaign against him. Real conservatives, he tweeted, needed to see through the fake news. In his words,

The forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal — even inflict physical harm — if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives like you and me. I believe you and I have a duty to stand up and fight back against the forces of evil waging an all-out war on our conservative values!

From Liberty University, President Jerry Falwell Jr. took Moore at his word. The accuser, Falwell intoned, was not as “credible” as Moore. The same thing happened to President Trump, Falwell noted, yet Trump heroically triumphed.

The story, according to Moore and Falwell, is one of brave conservatives fighting false accusations. In today’s climate, it makes some sense to me that people on both sides would rally around someone who they thought was falsely accused by the “forces of evil.”

But nitty-gritty politics don’t really explain the way some evangelical leaders seem to actually condone Moore’s alleged actions. They don’t just deny the allegations. They deny that there’s anything wrong with them. Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler noted that Joseph and Mary had a similar age difference when they married.

Jesus on a dinosaur

If mainstream science says it couldn’t have happened, it must be true.

“Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter,” Ziegler told the Washington Examiner. “They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

Other evangelical leaders rushed to disagree. At Christianity Today, for instance, Ed Stetzer emphasized that evangelicals are not okay with Moore’s alleged actions. As Stetzer put it,

Christians don’t believe the message that is coming from some of Moore’s supporters. Actually, most of us find it really creepy.

Those of us who live outside of the charmed circle of American evangelicalism might have a difficult time understanding why Stetzer even needs to make such a statement. Of course it’s creepy!

As I finish up my book manuscript about American creationism, I can’t help but see enormous parallels between Ziegler-style rationalizations and radical young-earth creationism. As I detail in the book, by the late 1950s America’s conservative evangelicals faced a difficult situation. Unlike their fundamentalist parents in the Scopes generation, by 1960 evangelicals had to cope with the fact that mainstream scientists had generally agreed on the outlines of modern evolutionary theory. They had a few options: Reject creationism altogether along with their evangelical beliefs; accept the scientific strength of mainstream evolutionary thinking but claim that it didn’t change their evangelical religion; or reject mainstream science utterly.

Following the lead of theologian John Whitcomb Jr. and engineering professor Henry Morris, thousands of earnest evangelicals chose the third option. They believed Whitcomb and Morris that mainstream scientists had followed Satan’s red herring and abandoned true science. As Whitcomb and Morris put it in their 1964 preface,

extrapolation of present processes into the prehistoric past or into the eschatological future is not really science.

In order to have true biblical faith, Whitcomb and Morris argued, Christians needed to reject radically the claims of mainstream science. There was a better science out there, a biblical science, that insisted on a young-earth and a literal interpretation of the “days” in the Bible’s six-day creation story.

genesis flood 1961 ed

Why would (false) scientists lie?

Before the 1960s, not many evangelical Christians believed those things. After that, however, young-earth creationism became a mainstream belief among conservative evangelicals.

What does any of this have to do with Alabama’s Senate race? Then and now, conservative evangelicals have nurtured a unique sense of persecution, of their role as a beleaguered minority, unfairly ejected from their rightful role as America’s conscience and moral guardians, usurped and despised. A mainstream society that can treat good Christians that way, the thinking goes, must be following a false trail. When challenged or threatened, then, it is not very difficult for some evangelicals to reject huge swathes of mainstream thinking. Such mainstream thought, after all, had been led astray by the “forces of evil.”

In Moore’s case, we see how quickly some supporters wrapped Moore’s alleged actions in a sheaf of pages from Scripture. And in the case of rejecting mainstream science, it was relatively easy for thousands of evangelicals to believe outrageously radical scientific ideas.

When you assume that mainstream thinking is from the devil, it becomes very easy to accept ideas that the rest of us find bizarre. It becomes easy to think that sexual predation has Gospel roots, or that Jesus could have cavorted happily with Brontosaurus.

HT: MM

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

From “creationist” neo-confederates to whiskey-drinkin tooth-pullers, this week had it all. Here are some of the articles that riled us:

Is there an intellectual wing to Trumpism? Daniel McCarthy reviews some conservative contenders at American Conservative.

Should college students have to PAY for speakers they disagree with? Hechinger looks at the fight over mandatory student fees.

Wow! Whatta week for in-depth profiles of ILYBYGTH personalities:

John Kelly’s comments generated a lot of culture-war heat.Bart reading bible

Does THIS count as school segregation? Or is it just a reasonable attempt to reward good behavior?

Ouch. The Nation profiles the painful lengths people go to in Tennessee when they lack dental insurance. Spoiler: It includes “pliers, chisels, and whiskey.”

If You Don’t Think It Matters, then YOU’RE the Idiot

Liberty 48, Baylor 45. Bam. Jerry Falwell Jr. might be an idiot for investing unwisely in athletics and brick-and-mortar campus facilities, but at least his investments have paid off. The long-held dream of Jerry Falwell Sr. and his successors seems to be coming to fruition.

As I’ve been working on my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why do so many schools invest so much money in seemingly antiquated relics of higher-educations past? If the future of higher ed is online, why do schools make such sacrifices to have winning sports teams and ivy-covered buildings?

In the case of Liberty University, it would make sense if they avoided pricey campus investments. They made all their money, after all, in the flashy world of online education. And it was a lot of money. Instead of presenting themselves as a new, more modern-than-thou online institution, though, Liberty plowed those winnings back into the trappings of traditional higher education.

The campus is beautiful and growing fast. It even has an all-year snowboarding hill built into Liberty Mountain. Harvard doesn’t have one of those.

LU sign on mountain

Mountain-sized ambitions…

We might think—as I have—that Liberty’s leaders are merely missing the boat. We might think that they are trapped in a dead-end vision of higher education.

If they are, however, at least they are making that vision come true. Their recent upset win over football powerhouse Baylor was treated on campus as a major miracle. Students were given an official holiday to rub Baylor’s noses in it. President Falwell even relaxed the famous curfew rules in order to encourage Liberty’s students to celebrate.

All the hoopla shows how much athletics means to Liberty. As then-president Pierre Guillermin crowed way back in 1982, Liberty Baptist College (it only became Liberty University in 1985) planned to be

the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.

This recent football triumph brings that vision one step closer. And it tells us something about the nature of higher education. College has never been only about professional preparation. Yes, in order to be a teacher or a doctor or an engineer one needs a college degree. But “college” as a whole has never been limited merely to that sort of thing.

When Americans think of higher education, we tend to think of a bundle of things all wrapped together. We want to earn a degree, true, but we also want to have an “experience.” We want to attend a “real” college, one that has ivy and winning sports teams.

To a great degree, this unarticulated assumption is the reason why MOOCs flopped. The ability to take challenging classes online can’t replace the allure of a full-bore college experience.

At some level, President Falwell grasps this key fact in a way policy nerds have not. He sacrificed a great deal (not personally, but in institutional terms) to have a winning football team.

For Falwell, as for generations of scrimping and struggling evangelical colleges, the looming, nagging worry has been that they have not been seen as real colleges. They’ve been seen as dumpy little church schools, though they’ve dreamed of being taken seriously.

The win over Baylor means—at least for today—Liberty’s dreams have come true.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

As the weather heats up, so do the interwebs. Here are a few stories we might have missed over the past week:

Stanford students call for greater ideological diversity on their elite campus.

Will individualized classroom material always help students? Not always. Dan Willingham explores a new study of adaptive vs. static practice.

Poaching teachers to North Carolina from low-pay Oklahoma.Bart reading bible

Conservative evangelicals pooh-pooh climate change on religious grounds. Jakob Erickson accuses at Religion Dispatches.

University of Chicago researcher finds—surprise!—left-wingers and right-wingers read very different science books. HT: V(F)W

How to get fired: One Texas middle-school teacher gave out “Most Likely to Be a Terrorist” and “Most Likely to Blend in with White People” awards.

Republicans pressure Secretary DeVos to sweeten the education budget.

Buzzfeed claims Trump is inspiring school bullies nationwide.

How did she learn to be Betsy? The New York Times looks at Secretary Devos’s evangelical schools and those of her children.

Whoops! It looks as if Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. spoke too soon. He won’t be leading a higher-ed task force after all.

Say whatever you want, as long as it makes us look good: The University of North Carolina shuts down a history class that publicized its recent athletics scandal.

Is Jerry Falwell an Idiot? Part Deux

If you bet for VHS against Betamax and won a billion dollars, what would you do with your loot? If you’re Jerry Falwell Jr., second-generation president of Liberty University in Virginia, you would invest the money in Betamax. Is he an idiot? Or is he a savvy reader of higher-ed tea leaves?

Here’s why we ask: John Fea directs our attention this morning to another mind-boggling story from Lynchburg. Falwell’s Liberty has guaranteed a whopping $1.32 million to Old Dominion for an early-season football game, according to local news reports.

liberty football

Flame out?

Liberty University has that kind of money to throw around. Over the past fifteen years, the school has reaped obscene profits from its online platform. In addition to splashing out for its sports programs, Liberty has poured money into brick-and-mortar campus amenities.

As I noted after the first research trip to Liberty for my new book, that sort of investment seems either stupid or prophetic. If the old-fashioned model of higher education is dead, then why put so much money into it? Why invest in sports and campus gyms if modern higher ed means online ed?

Maybe Falwell is right. Maybe people still want a campus. Maybe they still want eccentric professors. Maybe they want huge sports stadiums. When people think “college,” maybe they want all those things.

If so, Falwell is investing wisely; building his school into a new higher-ed powerhouse.

Or maybe he’s just stuck in a twentieth-century rut. Maybe he’s still insecure about the reputation of fundamentalist colleges and he’s willing to spend whatever it takes to rub his success in the face of Notre Dame and Harvard.

The Future of Liberty’s Love Affair with Trump

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.

Trump at liberty

I Love You, Man

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!