Can Big-Time Sports Do It Again?

[Editor’s Note: Well, they went down in flames, but Liberty football gave it a good go yesterday against Brigham Young University. As commentators scrambled to explain the cultural significance of this gridiron contest, I thought it might be worth rerunning this piece from last year. As Liberty U climbs the peaks of college respectability, it will find itself paying a higher and higher price for its stubborn refusal to accept other parts mainstream higher-ed normalcy.  We’ve seen that Liberty faces some unique pressure in its quest to retain top faculty. Will its dream to become the “Notre Dame” of the evangelical world lead it to a different sort of conformist pressure?] liberty v byu

I never thought I’d see it, but here it is. Following Brigham Young University’s tentative opening to LGBTQ+ students and issues, could the same spark change things in evangelical higher ed? After all, schools like Liberty have long yearned to follow the BYU path in one crucial area.

BYU LGBTQ

Here’s what we know: Liberty University in particular has always jonesed for recognition as a leading university, and sports has always been one of its preferred qualifications. As President Pierre Guillermin put it awkwardly in 1982, Liberty wanted to be “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.”

Of course, the Catholic leaders of Notre Dame might say that they already ARE the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically, but let’s move on. The central point is that leaders of evangelical higher education have always wanted recognition as more than just niche colleges; they have always wanted to reclaim their role as the leaders of American higher education overall.

When Liberty brilliantly and ruthlessly capitalized on the possibilities of online education, current president Jerry Falwell Jr. did not invest the money back into Liberty’s online program. No, Falwell tried to make the old Liberty dream come true. He poured money into traditional campus amenities, especially including Liberty’s athletic program.

This year, the investment paid off. Liberty beat top-ranked Baylor in football, triggering a joyous campus-wide freak-out. Which leads us to our question: Will the dream of big-time sports force Liberty to open itself to friendlier LGBTQ+ policies?

After all, that’s what seems to be happening at Brigham Young. As Chronicle of Higher Ed reports this morning, BYU’s recent tentative opening to LGBTQ+ students was sparked by BYU’s lust for athletic recognition.

As CHE recounts,

In 2016, the Big 12 Conference announced it was officially considering expansion. BYU’s administrators and athletic director jumped at the chance to join. But publicly vying to join the conference brought on national criticism of the university, which observers said did not uphold the NCAA’s stated support of inclusivity because of its treatment of LGBTQ students.

After the university’s effort to join the Big 12 failed, Tom Holmoe, the athletic director, suggested that pushback from LGBTQ advocate groups stood in its way. In response, BYU requested an invitation to the NCAA’s annual Common Ground conference, an effort begun in 2014 to provide a place where leaders and students at religious institutions can talk about LGBTQ issues and “begin exploring how to bridge these gaps and find common ground.”

Might Liberty follow a similar path?

Generations of Christian pleading for equality and recognition have scored only minor victories. As I noted in my recent book and in these pages, administrators at evangelical colleges—even the more liberal schools—are under intense pressure not to change their rules about same-sex issues.

Perhaps it will take a different sort of pressure from a different direction to really change things in evangelical higher education.

What Liberty’s Billions Can’t Buy

I thought it would come from the sports side. But Karen Swallow Prior’s recent decision to leave Liberty University makes me wonder if academics might do the trick instead.

Karen Swallow Prior

It’s not me, it’s you.

First, a little background: SAGLRROILYBYGTH know the unique story of Liberty’s billions. After the school’s online programs became incredibly popular, current President Jerry Falwell Jr. invested in brick-and-mortar campus improvements, football, and basketball.

When I conducted research at Liberty for Fundamentalist U, I was agog at the lavish accoutrements. It wasn’t only the all-year snowboarding hill. It wasn’t only the fact that Liberty had purchased a nearby mountain on which to slap its logo. It was also the splendid archive facilities and professional archive staff.

LU sign on mountain

Go tell it on the mountain…

Liberty has also managed to hold on to star professors such Karen Swallow Prior, until now. Professor Prior just announced she is heading to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Why?

As she told a local newspaper,

“With the rise of Trump, I felt a lot of the values that shaped and formed me were being betrayed by many within evangelicalism. . . . I know a lot of people who voted for Trump and I understand why they did and I get that, but for me it was too much of a compromise.”

Prior said her criticism of Trump has caused tensions on Liberty’s campus and has contributed to her decision to leave the school.

If Liberty can’t hold on to academic talent, it will have squandered its billions. Though it sometimes might not feel like it, students and their families care about a top-notch academic college experience. Even top-ranked sports teams and flashy campus amenities won’t attract students if those students feel like a university is not a “real” college.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another big news week here at the offices of ILYBYGTH International! Here are a few of the biggest headlines:

Has public education remained the same for a century? Not really, at WaPo.

The subjects that students studied, the way the day was organized, the size of classes, the kinds of supports young people received — these essential aspects of education were all different.

Devos and trumpQueen Betsy held in contempt of court in student-loan case. At NPR.

the department “erroneously” sent messages to more than 16,000 borrowers to pay up. Some did so voluntarily. Others had their wages garnished or tax refunds seized by the government. Ten different third-party contractors were involved in collecting the loans, and the judge’s opinion notes that the Education Department didn’t do much to make sure they followed the orders, beyond sending a few emails.

It’s rare for a judge to find a Cabinet secretary in contempt of court.

Could Latinx evangelicals decide the 2020 election? At RNS.

“We’re pro-life. We want criminal justice reform. We want educational equity. We want a healthy economy,” [President of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition Gabriel Salguero] told Religion News Service this week, noting that members of the faith group also feel strongly about immigration and foreign policy. “Because we’re not one-issue voters, people think if they come to us with talking points they’re gonna get us — no.”

What is life like at an evangelical college? One alum shares her memories at RA.

“Kind of liberal, isn’t it?” sneered a girl at my church youth group, who would be attending the ultra-conservative Master’s College.

“I don’t think so?” I said, recalling that Westmont didn’t allow drinking, smoking, or overnight guests of the opposite sex. But I secretly wanted her to be right. I hoped that Westmont would help me deal with the panic I continually felt reading the Bible, that it would help me figure out how to be a Democrat, a feminist, and a Baptist.

Top historian reviews new book about evangelicals, at CT.

As for white evangelicals’ enthusiastic embrace of the Republican Party and their overwhelming support for Donald Trump, Kidd views these trends as unfortunate but—like the Scopes Trial of the 1920s—not necessarily representative of evangelicalism as a whole. . . .[but] If evangelical theology transcends racial and political lines in ways that most other religious movements in America can’t match, shouldn’t we see clearer evidence of our racial attitudes and political stances aligning with our theology?

Has America gone too far on school safety? At the Atlantic.

We have students who feel like they’re being treated like potential criminals instead of students. . . . We’ve kind of gone overboard. Not all threats are created equal.

The big Ed news: Senator Warren reveals her K-12 plan. Some highlights:

  • Quadruple federal Title I funding for schools in high-poverty neighborhoods. . . .
  • Fund the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act at the level the federal government originally promised . . .
  • End federal investment in charter school expansion, ban for-profit charter schools and ensure existing charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability requirements as traditional public school districts. . . .
  • Reinstate Obama-era protections for transgender students under federal law that were revoked by Trump and take other steps to protect LGBTQ students and faculty.
  • Invest federal dollars to raise teacher pay and strengthen the bargaining power of teacher unions.
  • Eliminate use of standardized test scores for high-stakes decisions. . . .
  • Cancel student breakfast and lunch debt and provide free and nutritious school meals.
  • Ban the storing and selling of student data.
  • Expand social-emotional learning.
  • Offer $100 billion in grants to transform 25,000 public schools into community schools, which provide family support and health and social services to students.

Sen. Warren follows it up with a visit to a Chicago teachers’ picket line. At CST.

“Be strong in the Chicago teachers strike … I know you are out there fighting for the future of our children. … Stay on the picket lines as long as you need to.”

Conservative critic Chester Finn on Warren’s ed plan, at EN.

it would reverse most of the major education reforms of recent decades, drive a stake through the heart of what’s left of bipartisan federal and state policy, and re-enshrine adult interests, especially those of the teachers unions, in place of children’s, while wasting immense sums of taxpayer dollars. (The total price tag is estimated at $800 billion.)

Can progressive Christians be kinder? At RNS.

I’m not advocating for us [progressive Christians] to ignore evil and to stop seeking justice wherever we go. But our posture must be one that seeks the well-being of all people, one that aims to lovingly persuade our brothers and sisters without embracing anger, bitterness and pride.

What does the economy need? Better storytellers, at WaPo.

“It’s important we don’t just talk about numbers, coefficients and rules, but stories that people can understand,” Lowe said. “Stories about how policies are contributing to economic welfare and the things that really matter to people.”

Teaching impeachment can put history teachers in a tight spot, at NYT.

“I think social studies teachers are hesitant to teach controversial topics, past and present, due to hyperpolarization or pushback from parents,” [31-year-old teacher Chris Dier] said. “Almost all of my students will be voting in the next election; they deserve teachers who do not shy away from current events because of our partisan climate.”

Joe Biden might not be able to bring Catholic voters to the Democrats anymore. At RNS.

burge catholicCan new leadership save struggling evangelical colleges? At CT.

Jobe [at Moody Bible Institute] sees his first job as having to “define reality.” That includes helping team members understand the institution’s identity and next steps needed to thrive. To rebuild confidence across the campus, he also attempts to engage with the basic needs of students and staff.

Will other evangelical colleges learn from the tragic lessons of Liberty U? At JGMC.

Reforming Liberty doesn’t mean compromising its mission. Nobody is demanding that Liberty become a Christian liberal arts school in the mold of Wheaton College or Hillsdale, or a carbon copy of a secular state school. In fact, Liberty is uniquely positioned as a popular university that could be a bona fide alternative to the overwhelmingly progressive status quo in academia.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Greetings from beautiful Madison, Wisconsin! Even though the Badgers are 6-0, people are still fighting about schools n Jesus n stuff. Here are some of the top stories to catch our attention this past week:

Bazinga. Two Congresspeople complain that Liberty U breaks Queen Betsy’s free-speech rule. At RNS.

Despite Executive Order 13864, which directs the Department to ensure institutions promote free inquiry, you have failed to act in cases of suppression of ideas that involve the administration’s political allies, such as Liberty University. . . Given that Liberty’s violations are public and longstanding, we are left to conclude that the Department’s failure to act is deliberate and that it is only interested in enforcing free speech policies against institutions it deems unfriendly.

SCOTUS won’t be hearing a Bible-in-schools case. At RH.

Are things turning around at evangelical Gordon College? After making big cuts, the school now gets huge $75.5 MILLION donation, at CT.

  • This kind of big money might end up hurting more than it helps, here at ILYBYGTH.

Too much? Just right? Physics professor suspended at NC State, at CN&O.

Professor E. David Davis called on a female student who couldn’t answer a question and jokingly asked if she was dropped on her head as a baby by her mother. . . Davis called on another female student who was also unable to answer the question. His response, a student told ABC11, was “’Well, the women are useless today. So maybe I should ask a man.’”

Where can progressive Christians go? How about Evolving Faith 2019? At RNS.

The speaker list alone made that clear — a Christian who’s-who of black, brown, LGBTQ and female voices. At a time when many Christian conferences have come under fire for having primarily cis-gender, straight white men on stage, Evolving Faith featured only one: Pete Enns, who, during the “Evolving Faith & Bible/Theology” session, described his own journey toward becoming an “agnostic Christian.”

What can radical creationists give out on Halloween? How about $1,000,000 tracts from Answers in Genesis? At Ken Ham’s Blog.

AIG money treats

Want some candy? How about these tracts instead?

Kids love these, and it’s a fun way to share the gospel—something worth far more than a million dollars!—with children and their families.

Will more teachers vote for Sen. Warren because she was a teacher? EdWeek asks the question.

Teaching is one of those weird things where everybody thinks they understand it because everybody was a student at some point, but actually doing it is different,” [MA elementary school teacher Megan] DiScicio said. “I am really tired of having people making all of the decisions in education reform and education funding who just fundamentally don’t understand what we do every day.”

While one year in the classroom might not give Warren enough experience to guide her education policy, DiSciscio is heartened by the senator’s pledge to appoint a teacher as U.S. education secretary. “It is enough experience to know the importance of choosing the right person to make those [education policy] decisions,” she said.

Democrats in “denial” about charter schools. At Flypaper.

Though it may be lost on those with a bad case of impeachment brain, the logical implication of those two strands of research is that an increase in the percentage of students in a community who enroll in charter schools should lead to systemic gains—that is, to an overall increase in achievement across all public schools—including those in traditional public schools.

Is Trump the Real Menace to Evangelical Higher Ed?

We’ve had a lot to talk about this week. When Beto O’Rourke told CNN he would try to revoke the tax-exempt status of any religious institution that didn’t recognize same-sex marriage, he set off a firestorm among the evangelical-higher-ed community. As two Democratic congresspeople pointed out this week, though, the bigger threat to evangelical higher ed might actually be coming from a very different direction.

As SAGLRROILYYBYGTH are aware, the discussions at evangelical universities and colleges about LGBTQ rights have been intense. By stating that he would revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that did not recognize same-sex marriage, O’Rourke raised the specter of Bob Jones University v. USA. Back in the 1980s, that SCOTUS case proved that the government really could deny tax-exempt status to schools that insisted on maintaining racial segregation. Might the government make a similar move about LGBTQ rights?

Evangelical intellectuals reacted furiously. As John Fea commented,

Beto has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination. His campaign has been on life support for a long time and last night he probably killed it.  You better believe that his comment will rally the Trump base and legitimate the fears of millions of evangelical Christians.

In my opinion, too, Beto’s comment was a poorly considered response to a badly worded question. I’m no evangelical, but like Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta, I disagree with Beto on two counts. First of all, the government should not be in the business of policing religious belief. (When we want to talk about federal funds for student loans, we will need to have a different conversation.) Second, though, simply strategically, Beto goofed. In short, when the clown car of Trumpism is on fire, opponents should do everything they can to help people escape. It makes no strategic sense to lock people in.

Unnoticed in all the hubbubery about Beto’s comments, though, two Democratic congresspeople this week sent a letter to Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos. Representatives Andy Levin of Michigan and Jamie Raskin of Maryland complained that the Trump administration was selectively enforcing its rules about campus free speech.

As they noted, President Trump signed an executive order threatening to withhold grants from universities that do not welcome free speech. The idea was to punish public universities such as the University of California that de-platformed conservative speakers. As the congresspeople noted, however, the worst offenders against campus free speech are conservative evangelical colleges like Liberty University.

As the Congresspeople complained,

Despite Executive Order 13864, which directs the Department to ensure institutions promote free inquiry, you have failed to act in cases of suppression of ideas that involve the administration’s political allies, such as Liberty University.

It’s not just Liberty U., which by any standards is an outlier in the field of evangelical higher ed. As I’ve argued in these pages and in Fundamentalist U, free speech presents a unique challenge to conservative evangelical higher education as a whole. Restrictions on speech and belief are the defining feature of evangelical universities. Unlike mainstream colleges, evangelical colleges do not claim to represent forums for all sorts of controversial ideas.

liberty letter devos

Dear Queen Betsy:

Threatening to revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that don’t believe in same-sex marriage might sound scary to conservative evangelicals. But Trump’s warning to revoke student grants from institutions that don’t recognize free-speech rights should be of more immediate concern. To be fair, Trump’s executive order specified that private institutions should only be pushed into

compliance with stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech.

Presumably, that wouldn’t help Liberty much, but it would give cover to conservative evangelical colleges that respect their own official rules restricting student and faculty speech. However, in the big picture, by threatening to take federal action against schools that restrict free speech, Trump might be planting the seeds of a longer-term problem for evangelical institutions.

After all, the language of LGBTQ rights has some wiggle room. Plenty of evangelical institutions could plausibly claim to recognize the rights of LGBTQ students and faculty while still embracing their religious skepticism about LGBTQ “practice.”

When it comes to free speech, however, evangelical universities have been built on a promise of restriction. If they were forced to abandon those rules, it would force them to give up the biggest single feature that distinguishes them from mainstream higher ed. It is free speech, not LGBTQ rights, that is the most important thing separating evangelical colleges from others.

Beto is talking a lot, but the real danger to evangelical higher ed might come from the other side. It might be Trump, in the end, who blunders into undermining the very foundation of evangelical higher ed.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Pumpkins ripened this week and Bernie released a video praising teachers as working from “the bottom up.” Plus bellydancing creationists, protesting students at Liberty U, teaching for Trump, and a whole lot more in our weekly roundup:

Why don’t more kids learn about evolution? At the Atlantic.

The only high-school biology class I took was in ninth grade, and it was apparently so uninteresting to me that I don’t remember my teacher’s name. (My former school district did not return a request for comment.) My teachers were for the most part religious, though they appeared to stay firmly within the bounds of the state-mandated curriculum. In another class, my teacher showed us diagrams of the human eye, then snuck in a remark that the complexity of the eye is convincing evidence that there is a Creator.

Can schools save society? Larry Cuban reflects.

I used to think that public schools were vehicles for reforming society. And now I think that while good teachers and schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in individual children and youth, schools are (and have been) ineffectual in altering social inequalities.

larry cuban reform concHave evangelical colleges avoided the “comfort college” dilemma? At PS.

In my classes and others, in faculty and student research, I see nothing like what Gerrard calls “the devaluing of knowledge” or “social death” for those on the wrong side of “wokeness.” In the humanities at Bethel, I see people continuing to ask complicated questions of themselves, each other, and the authors and audiences of the texts they read, with humility, hospitality, empathy, and in no expectation that things will resolve neatly. We make each other uncomfortable, make mistakes together, apologize to each other, and continue to seek better answers together.

“Evangelical” has lost its meaning, says Alan Jacobs at The Atlantic.

of all the traits that attracted evangelicals to Reagan, perhaps the most important was his sunny and fervent patriotism. Already white American evangelicals had a tendency to associate Christianity closely with the American experiment, and to think of their country as a “Christian nation.” . . . This transformation of evangelical from a theological position to a “racial and political” one is not just bad for serious Christians; it’s also a prime driver of the increasing hostility of liberals to religion in almost any form.

No evangelicals among the Blue Devils: Duke students reject Young Life as anti-LGBTQ. At RNS.

the student government senate unanimously turned down official recognition for the Young Life chapter, because it appeared to violate a guideline that every Duke student group include a nondiscrimination statement in its constitution.

Liberty U students against Falwell Jr. At NPR.

We organized this protest in response to both articles that dropped this week. We really are protesting President Falwell’s habitual behavior of – various allegations of misconduct, especially ones of sexual harassment, and the habitual abuse of his subordinates as well as students and various Christian leaders that he’s attacked on Twitter as well.

Turkish creationist Harun Yahya goes on trial for running a blackmail cult. At NCSE.

How a science teacher should answer a radical creationist, at AU.

“This is science, and science deals with facts. It doesn’t deal with belief. It doesn’t have to be a dilemma or a concern for someone to choose between Christianity and evolution – that’s not what this is about. You can actually embrace both. It’s my duty as a teacher to teach science and not teach religion. That’s the separation of church and state.”

Conservatives win one in the wedding-cake LGBTQ wars. At AZC.

Duka and Koski create invitations and other handmade artwork for weddings and events. The women — who hold the religious belief that marriage should only be between one man and one woman — do not want to design invitations or other custom artwork for LGBTQ couples because they believe it would be the equivalent of endorsing the marriage.

The women are represented by Scottsdale-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group challenging similar laws across the country.

Check out the connection between $$ and quality in Ohio’s public schools. HT: PG.

Ohio schools realHow to get fired in Fort Worth. A teacher loses her job for tweeting to Trump to do “anything you can do to remove the illegals from Fort Worth.” At DN.

Florida Man (and Woman) had one heck of a night, at USAT.

A Florida couple is facing multiple charges after they started having sex in the back of a police car — after they were already under arrest on DUI charges.

How do religious scientists feel about non-religious ones? Insights from Tolstoy at JTA.

The problem is that those of us who have an abiding religious faith also believe in science. . . . We recognize that you present an objective truth, and that your approach is worthy of careful deliberation. But we get little in return. When you look at us, you can barely conceal your contempt. What you see is little more than confusion, superstition and folly.

Bernie releases a video celebrating teachers’ strikes in WV.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Everyone’s talking about Jerry Falwell and his scam factory, but there was some other stuff going on this week, too. Joe Biden’s record player, Germany’s Nazi memorials, where those online essays come from, and more:

What’s been going on at Liberty U? At Politico.

“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.”

KB twitter falwellOkay, the “record player” bit proved that Biden was the right candidate for 1988. But it’s not just a matter of out-of-date technology. At WaPo.

Biden was voicing a deeply flawed theory that arose during the 1960s and that blamed parents, especially mothers, for the struggles of poor children and children of color. These parents, the theory argued, doomed their children to fail in classrooms by not offering them enough mental stimulation, such as books, colors on the wall or educational experiences. . . . To actually address America’s troubled racial legacy politicians must reject theories that blame African Americans rather than a system that has and continues to systemically disenfranchise and disadvantage minorities. By continuing to focus on a purportedly broken culture, politicians like Biden are destined to perpetuate the racism and racial inequality they aim to solve.

Think about this: Germany has a total of zero Nazi memorials, but not because lots of Germans didn’t want them. At the Atlantic.

We have learned that unexamined pasts fester, and become open wounds. Like most white Americans, I was taught a history that was both comforting and triumphant. I wasn’t, of course, entirely ignorant of the ways in which the country failed to live up to the ideals on which it was founded, but those failures remained peripheral, and part of a narrative that sloped upward toward progress. Slavery was a crime, but we’d fought a war to outlaw it; segregation was unjust, but the civil-rights movement had overcome it. . . . In Germany, too, the right has always attacked its country’s exercises in self-examination as exercises in self-hatred—in dirtying one’s own nest. In fact, Germany’s willingness to own its criminal past has been an act of cleaning out the nest after years of sweeping all the dirt under the carpet.

Where do those online essays come from? A look inside a Kenyan cheating factory at DM.

After a few years, for technical writing at PhD level, an experienced writer could earn $2,000 per job – still a small amount of the total but very good money for Kenya.

‘At that level, writers subcontract the work, paying peanuts and keeping the lion’s share. But on average, most writers just earn about a dollar an hour.’

What did historians tweet about the Democratic primary debates? A collection at HNN.

From PS: Seven questions any evangelical college should ask a possible president.

Any Christian institution needs to serve something larger than institutional survival. So any Christian college president needs to have a clear sense of the point at which remaining open would require them to compromise the core mission and values of the institution. There are dozens of CCCU schools, and it’s very likely that a significant number of them will close in the next 10-30 years. So those presidents need to accept that, at some point in their tenure, the most faithful act would be to accept the death of a college — with its assets distributed for the good of other ministries that will do as much to extend the kingdom of God.

College students seem to like fun lectures, but that’s not how they learn the most. At IHE.

active or passive ihe

Talk with a Teacher at Chalkbeat.

The best advice I ever received about teaching is that I will never know everything. Students change from year to year, curriculum advances, new techniques are learned and I will keep evolving. This idea made me realize that I don’t need to be the “perfect” teacher, I simply need to grow each year and develop my skills, which is how I have been working throughout my career.

 

Scotsmen, Falwell, and Why Historians Can’t Define ‘Evangelicalism’

How is this possible? Have you seen the poll numbers? As I write this, when Katelyn Beaty asked on Twitter if the abominable evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. was “an evangelical leader,” about three-quarters of respondents said no.KB twitter falwell

What? How could so many people think that the leader of a ‘UGE evangelical university doesn’t count as an evangelical leader? The obvious conclusion is that people are disgusted by Falwell’s alleged behavior as a shady alcohol-fueled real-estate scammer and Lynchburg bully. Anyone who behaves like that, people might be thinking, doesn’t count as a real evangelical.

As usual, historian Tim Gloege has offered a clear-sighted explanation of this evangelical conundrum. There has always been an evangelical tendency, Gloege explained, to explain away the parts of the evangelical tradition that people don’t like. “It’s not us,” evangelicals have always said about members of the evangelical family that they would rather not acknowledge. As Dr. Gloege put it,

Because being evangelical means never having to say you’re sorry.

Being evangelical means “it’s not us.”

In the case of Falwell, it seems like this tradition is alive and well. By behaving badly, many people seem to think, Falwell Jr. has defined himself out of the evangelical family. If being an evangelical means having a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ, the reasoning goes, then Falwell can’t be an evangelical. No one with a real evangelical religious commitment could behave the way Falwell does.

This disagreement about the definition of “real” evangelicalism has always been tricky for historians of evangelicalism. A while back, historian John Fea and I had a polite disagreement about the nature of “real” evangelicalism in colleges and universities. In the wake of Trump’s election, I argued that evangelical higher education had ALWAYS supported Trumpish values. As I wrote back then at History News Network:

White evangelicals are a religious group, true, but they have also always been energized by a vague yet powerful patriotic traditionalism.  Like other enthusiastic Trump supporters, white evangelicals have been fueled by a combative culture-war patriotism.  They have always defined themselves by their proprietary attitude about “our” America, the one they hope President Trump will make great again.

Historian John Fea took issue with my argument. As he responded,

For every Liberty University or Mid-America Nazarene there are dozens and dozens of evangelical colleges who reject this kind of Christian nationalism and Trumpism.

I would venture to guess that the overwhelming majority of the faculty and administrators at evangelical colleges and universities in the United States DID NOT vote for Donald Trump.

If students at evangelical colleges voted for Trump–and there were many who did–it was not because they were fed pro-Trump rhetoric from their faculty.  In fact, I know several faculty and graduates from the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University who strongly opposed the Trump presidency.

Just as with current disagreements about whether or not Falwell is “an evangelical leader,” Professor Fea and I were both right, in our ways. After all, the evangelical family is so broad and diverse that any statement anyone makes about “real” evangelicalism is subject to a million counter-examples.

When it comes to whether or not Falwell is “an evangelical leader,” I bet both the “yeses” and the “nos” can agree: There have always been prominent evangelical leaders, in charge of prominent institutions, who have embraced political positions that are immoral and untenable, racial segregation being the most prominent example. There have always been prominent evangelicals who have behaved in personally immoral ways; leaders who have engaged in sexual and financial crimes while publicly mouthing evangelical platitudes.

Where do we disagree? The “yeses” might think something like the following: But those have all been mistakes, wanderings from the evangelical path. No true evangelical—meaning someone who shares the profound personal love of Jesus Christ—should have embraced those values.

The “nos” might think: When there is a pattern of this kind of thing, that pattern must be considered part of the definition, not whisked away by the No True Scotsman fallacy. Consider the Catholic abuse story. Would a true follower of Christ abuse children? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that the second a Catholic priest does so, he is therefore no longer representative of the structural flaws within the Catholic hierarchy itself, a hierarchy that is both committed to preaching the saving love of Jesus Christ AND guilty of covering up abuse to protect its own interests.

So is Jerry Falwell Jr. an “evangelical leader?” Beaty’s question exposes a long tension at the heart of the evangelical experience in the USA. As a prominent leader of a prominent evangelical institution, of course he is. But as a scumbag, of course he isn’t.

The answer you choose depends on how you think about evangelicalism. If you think of it primarily as a way of being a true Christian, then you can define away anyone you don’t like. But if you think of “evangelical” as a box to check on a census, a way to explain your social background, then of course we have to include all the members of the group, even the ones we don’t like.

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.

The Weirdest Good News for Fundamentalist U

It has never been easy to run a mission-driven evangelical college. These days, though, it seems like it might be harder than ever, with storied institutions like Gordon and Nyack Colleges forced to make harsh budget cuts. Even worse, evangelical colleges—like all colleges—are plunged into a facilities “arms-race” that no one can win. For small liberal-arts universities, it feels as if any bit of institutional bad news might just make the wheels come off. A new study of higher-ed scandals, however, might give evangelical administrators a bitter ray of hope.

bj jr who touched me

There will always be scandal in the world of evangelical higher ed…

Turns out, when universities endure high-profile scandals, their fund-raising efforts can actually improve. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the recent blow-ups at Baylor, Michigan State, and Penn State did not close alumni wallets, but the opposite. As they put it,

While headline-grabbing scandals involving rogue administrators and structural failures often generate steep legal fees, criminal charges, and public outrage, high-profile universities have seen donations — and sometimes enrollment — rise in the aftermath.

One fund-raiser at Penn State, for example, found that some alumni, though not all, became MORE generous after the ugly scandal.

One donor called in the months after the scandal broke and offered a million-dollar donation — “a birthday gift to myself,” [Penn State fund-raiser] Kirsch recalled him saying. Others were symbolic gestures, he remembered. . . . Those kinds of donations make psychological sense, said Dennis Kramer. . . . He said high-profile athletics scandals could, in a convoluted way, encourage alumni to show financial support.

What does this mean for evangelical colleges? As I found in Fundamentalist U, the top-down institutional structures of schools such as Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, and Liberty University gives them some advantages, but it leaves them prone to wave after wave of scandal.

The twenty-first-century scandals at Bob Jones, for instance, in which administrators were found to have been cruelly ignorant of sexual-abuse laws, were only the latest. Throughout the twentieth century, Bob Jones University endured schisms and scandals such as the Ted Mercer affair of the 1950s or the Dorothy Seah episode of the 1930s.

In tough financial times, it might seem as if those scandals would spell the end of conservative colleges, but they never have. As one expert told the Chronicle of Higher Education,

when there’s a scandal, or when there’s something that causes us to question the viability of something we hold dear, we may respond with supporting that entity more.

That sort of circle-the-wagons support has been evident throughout the history of evangelical higher education. Especially for the more conservative fundamentalist schools, such as Bob Jones, every scandal tended to divide the university community, driving some people away but leaving supporters more firmly entrenched than ever before.

Would it make sense for evangelical college administrators to provoke a scandal, then? To intentionally cultivate the scorn and contumely of outsiders? Not really. As CHE concludes, scandals can be dangerous, too.

[T]here’s one instance in which that changes: if a scandal exacerbates or publicizes an already-existing institutional problem — an institution known for lax academics that becomes embroiled in a cheating scandal, for example.

Said [institutional strategist David] Strauss, “If it’s reinforcing of a problem the school already has, watch out.”