LYNCHBURG, Va.—When Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University in 1971, he dreamed of transforming the United States. As he put it, “We’re turning out moral revolutionaries.”
Forty-five years later, the school formerly known as Liberty Baptist College has become a kingmaker and bellwether in the Republican Party. Politicians routinely make pit stops in Lynchburg; Ted Cruz even launched his ill-fated presidential campaign from Liberty’s campus in March of 2015.
That’s why it was such a big deal when, two weeks ago, a group of Liberty students put out a letter explaining why they’re standing against the Republican presidential nominee. Jerry Falwell Jr., who has run the school since his father died in 2007, announced his support for Donald Trump back in January, and he has since spoken on the candidate’s behalf in interviews and at events. “We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history,” the students wrote. “Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.”
Thousands of people signed onto the letter, including, the students said, roughly 2,000 students or alumni with liberty.edu email addresses. Dustin Wahl and Alex Forbes, two of the letter’s authors, were featured on MSNBC and CNN. They said they received supportive emails and tweets from Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Erick Erickson, the conservative radio-show host.
But there was also a backlash. Jack Heaphy, the student-body president at Liberty, tweeted out a statement of his own, claiming that most students at the school support Falwell, hate Hillary Clinton, and will be voting for Trump in November. He also pointed out that the current students who signed the Liberty United Against Trump letter only account for a fraction of the campus, which claims 15,000 residential students and 94,000 online. A third group of students then created yet another petition, lampooning the dueling letters: LU Students United for Pizza.
This kind of controversy is relatively rare at Liberty. When the subject turns to politics, it’s difficult to find much intellectual diversity and disagreement there. This seems to be complicated by three factors: the attitudes surrounding free speech on campus, the deference to authority that’s deeply ingrained in campus culture, and the widespread perception of community consensus on political and social issues. While these are problems on traditional liberal-arts campuses—as Falwell pointed out in an interview—those schools are also known for protests, clashes with the administration, and constant debates about everything from foreign policy to sexual politics to free speech itself. Liberty, by contrast, has a largely harmonious campus culture.
Talking with students on Liberty’s campus, the overwhelming sense is not division, but fatigue. “Liberty is shockingly anti-politics in some ways,” said Wahl, a junior from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “Some students are kind of tired of all the political leaders we get here.” The administration requires all students to attend thrice-weekly speeches called Convocation; in a single October week this year, Ralph Reed, Mike Pence, and Dinesh D’Souza all presented. Philip Sitterding, a junior from Virginia Beach, said these meetings have often felt like a “pro-Trump rally” this fall, since many of the speakers support the Republican nominee. While the small number of students who aspire to careers in politics might find this energizing, many others wanted a different Liberty.
“I wish we were less political,” said Jessica Brown, a junior from Dinwiddie, Virginia. “I really do.”
The old stomping ground of the religious right is becoming a different place. It’s not that there’s anything about the school that suggests conservative Christianity is in decline; in fact, Liberty has recently had some of the best years in its history, with construction booms and growing interest in its online-education program. But Liberty’s students seem to want a new model for their Christian education—one that’s less tied to Republican politics and more focused on Christ.
“You can’t link politics with salvation,” said Paige Cutler, a senior from New Jersey who’s involved with the Liberty United Against Trump effort. “That’s just a line you can never cross. And it never should have been.”
Liberty’s Trump Coalition knows how to throw a good party. At a photo booth near the entry of their presidential-debate watch in October, attendees could toss on hard hats proclaiming, “Build the Wall,” and get their pictures taken in front of an American-flag background. Other students took selfies with the life-sized Hillary Clinton cut-out, dressed in her prison-jumpsuit best, or posed next to one of several giant Trump-Pence signs. While the room wasn’t full, the spirit of optimism—however unwarranted—was strong.
“The press wants to make you think there’s all this bad news,” the master of ceremonies, 20-year-old Josh Rosene, declared from a podium. “Trump is going to cream Hillary Clinton.”
Most of the students at the debate-watch party seemed to believe Trump is winning. Hanna Debnam, a senior from Greensboro, North Carolina, explained that the media creates a skewed perception of the race by “highlighting in his Trump rallies that he’s racist. I’ve been to five Trump rallies. All the videos that I’ve seen based on him being racist are bits and pieces of what he says to make it seem bad, but those don’t really portray what he’s trying to get at.” Her boyfriend, Zac Dunn, a senior from Charlotte, agreed that the media is biased: “If you look at … how much they cover these ‘Trump scandals’”—he used big air quotes here—“and then you look at the lack of coverage of Hillary Clinton and her email scandals, the American people aren’t stupid. They’re well aware of what’s going on.”
Many of the students at the debate seemed skeptical of surveys. Dunn described the polls used by journalists as “liberal” and argued that their samples are constructed “to be pretty biased to repress the Republican vote.” (Most polls cited by mainstream journalists use data that’s weighted to mirror the national electorate.) Alexis Rucker, a senior from St. Louis, Missouri, who helped to organize the event, explained that she has been door-knocking for Trump for months. The enthusiasm she’s seen on the ground has made her question polling numbers that show Clinton up by as many as six percentage points. Rosene, the event’s leader, was completely confident in Trump’s prospects. “I put money on it. Damn right, I did,” he said. “We’re talking lump sums of my paychecks. … If I’m wrong, God help my country, and God help my wallet.”
Other students were more doubtful about Trump’s chances of success. Rachael Glavin, a junior from northern Delaware, cited polling numbers and Trump’s recent withdrawal from Virginia—“Hillary is significantly winning,” she said. But she still doesn’t plan to vote for the Democrat. “She’s a liar, and she murders people, and that’s just a major problem to me,” she said. When asked for specifics, she explained: “There have been a lot of just really suspicious deaths around her candidacy and her husband’s candidacy back when he was running. People who were close to them would suddenly die, and there’s no explanation and no good reason, and it’s super sketchy to me.” (There is no evidence that either of the Clintons have murdered or ordered the murder of people associated with their campaigns.)
Of the roughly two dozen Liberty students with whom I spoke, though, most seemed thoughtful and informed about the election and American politics. While a lot of them said they feel like the media has a liberal bias, they were also up on the latest articles from Politico and other wonky outlets. Yet the students’ persistent skepticism of empirical information provided by these sources seems like a potential obstacle to the free flow of ideas on campus. If students disregard any facts that don’t fit with their worldview, they’ll likely have a hard time changing their minds about anything—or debating their peers, who largely believe the same things.
In some respects, Liberty’s students, faculty, and administrators at least seem to prize free speech on campus. Jerry Falwell Jr., for example, responded to the criticism from Liberty United Against Trump with disagreement—and praise. “I am proud of these students to be bold enough to speak their minds,” he said in an interview. “At Ivy League universities, I think conservative students would probably be afraid to do something similar for Donald Trump. It says a lot for Liberty that we’re not politically correct and we welcome free expression of thought and ideas.” Heaphy, the student-body president, said something similar in his letter defending Falwell. “I … am blessed to go to a school where the diversity of thought and a free exchange of ideas are not only accepted but encouraged,” he wrote.
There have been moments, though, in which speech on campus has become controversial. In October, for example, Falwell yanked an article set to run in the student paper, the Liberty Champion, that was critical of Trump’s “locker-room talk.” Joel Schmieg, the paper’s sports editor and author of the story, was told that Falwell pulled it because there was already a letter to the editor on a similar topic planned for that issue. And indeed, a piece about “locker-room talk,” written by Tom Ilustrisimo, a medical student, ran in the October 18 edition of the paper. Falwell has confirmed this version of events.
While the desire to eliminate redundancy seems totally reasonable, the incident reveals how closely the administration regulates the school paper—the university president himself pulled an article. “As a student newspaper of a private university, we at the Liberty Champion submit to the authority of the university in our publishing of the weekly paper,” wrote Sarah Rodriguez, the editor in chief, in an email. “There’s a line of what you can and can’t say,” added Schmieg. “I’m not going to call for a coach to be fired. As a member of the community, that would be inappropriate.”
Appropriateness seems to be a big concern on campus—one that can also suppress speech. I spoke with several faculty members who were unwilling to go on the record to criticize Falwell’s endorsement of Trump, even though they, and many of their peers, say they’re unhappy with the association. These faculty didn’t think it would be right for staffers to criticize their employer in the media—to so publicly air their dirty laundry. Wahl, the organizer of Liberty United Against Trump, said he had heard from a number of faculty members who expressed support for what the students were doing but who stopped short of signing their own names.
Faculty may also have good reason to be nervous about speaking out. Mark DeMoss, a longtime Liberty trustee and former chief of staff of sorts to Jerry Falwell Sr., said the board of directors asked him to step down last spring after he criticized Jerry Jr.’s Trump endorsement in an interview with The Washington Post. “I didn’t think this candidate represented the values that Liberty had spent 40 years trying to instill in its students,” DeMoss said in an interview. Many Liberty leaders were upset that he had publicly spoken out against Falwell, especially given DeMoss’s strong association with the university; one of the most prominent buildings on campus carries his family name. (“Individual board members have varied reasons for their displeasure regarding Mark DeMoss’ comments to The Washington Post,” the school said in a statement last spring, “most of which are not related to his disagreement with Jerry Falwell’s personal endorsement of Donald Trump or a belief that Mark DeMoss’ motivations were entirely political.”)
If anything, the risk of speaking out is even greater for faculty who are similarly unhappy about the school’s association with Trump. At Liberty, there’s no tenure—a practice specifically put into place at other universities to protect professors’ intellectual freedom.
Despite all of this, by and large, Falwell seems extremely popular on Liberty’s campus. Most students call him by his first name, and when he shows up at Convocation, they’ll boom it out in two guttural syllables: JERR-REEEE. “A lot of people love Jerry, very much. … He [is] kind of lovably awkward,” said Sitterding, the student from Virginia Beach. “He injected life into the university—Jerry Sr. had a vision for it, but he was driving it into the ground economically.”
As Falwell has significantly increased his political profile during this election cycle, that love has become more complicated. While Falwell emphasized in an interview that he endorsed Trump as a private citizen, rather than as a representative of the university, many see Liberty and the Falwells as inevitably entwined. This has had a chilling effect on what some people in the Liberty community feel they can say.
A number of students said they’ve cringed at Falwell’s political comments over the past year, like when he said concealed-carry permits would let people “end those Muslims before they walked in” and urged students to get gun licenses. “So much respect was lost at that moment,” said Emmy Brien, a junior from Northern Virginia. “It was just so insensitive and not intelligent. It was like, ‘You’re our president, you’re supposed to represent us. How could you slip like that?’”
A lot of the backlash to Liberty United Against Trump wasn’t actually about Trump—it was about respect for Falwell, Wahl said. Like the faculty, the students, too, have a deep sense of appropriateness. As Rylee Young, a freshman from Pennsylvania, put it, the letter was “disrespectful to our leader, especially when our president said that was his personal view. I think all it did was give the liberal media an avenue to criticize and pit people against Trump, like they do.”
There are theological reasons why Liberty kids would be reluctant to criticize their leader. “Biblically, authority figures are placed over us by Christ,” said Cutler, the senior from New Jersey. “God gives them that authority. The problem is that a lot of people misunderstand respect for agreement.”
At a school like Liberty, which is definitively Christian and publishes a doctrinal statement on its website, it’s fair to expect agreement within the community on a lot of issues. But sometimes, the assumption of consensus can be overwhelming, students said.
“You’ll hear a lot of racist jokes on the hall—not bad ones, but people will make jokes about racial stereotypes,” said Sitterding. According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Liberty’s population of African American students is roughly on par with other U.S. campuses—an estimated 11 percent of Liberty students are black, although that figure may be low. But the school is still contending with a difficult racial history. Before he founded Liberty, Falwell Sr. opened Lynchburg Christian Academy. The school briefly served only white students, many of whom did not want to attend racially integrated schools.
“People will make jokes about liberalism or pretend homosexuality is a big thing on the hall,” Sitterding added. “You learn, through the way people treat a subject [lightly], that they don’t expect anyone to be affected by it.” For students like him, this can feel silencing. “It teaches you to be afraid of the fact that you don’t have the majority view,” he said.
Trump’s behavior and comments are clearly controversial on campus, yet the students I spoke with said they haven’t heard much public discussion on campus of his boasts about groping women, for example. “People don’t talk about them in face-to-face conversations for the same reason we don’t talk about a lot of stuff in church culture,” said Emily Meadows, a junior from Jacksonville, Florida. “It makes us uncomfortable.”
This, above all, seems to be the reason why Trump has been so trying for the students at Liberty. They may hate what he says and does. They may be planning to vote for him anyway. But because the campus has such a strong history and culture of alignment with the Republican Party, there seems to be little authentic discussion of how to think about Trump in the context of a Christian worldview—especially when it comes to issues of gender and race.
“I feel like I’m the stereotype of an English major at Liberty,” said Kelly Kramer, a senior from Los Angeles. “I’m in flannel, with an engagement ring.”
As several students explained with a smile, a lot of kids come to Liberty and get hitched. The hook-up culture is apparently marginal, at least on campus; the code of conduct prohibits students from going into opposite-sex dorms. “I honestly would say that we have such a chivalrous group of men on campus,” said Brien, the junior from Virginia. She’s seen little of the kind of behavior that Trump displayed on TV sets and allegedly at Miss Universe pageants. “The majority just respect women and would normally never stand up for any of these things if politics weren’t involved.”
This is one of the greatest paradoxes Liberty students have to grapple with as they figure out who to vote for in November: They’re part of a culture that is intensely focused on sexual purity and holding up women’s distinctive spiritual gifts. The cognitive dissonance between Trump’s comments and the way Liberty students are taught to behave is intense—even more so because Falwell defended Trump after the tapes came out. “I heard him apologize. He was very contrite about it,” Falwell told me. “All these stories and allegations and salacious comments are all designed to distract from the issues. When you look at the issues, the American people are with Trump, and Hillary cannot win when the debate stays focused on the issues. It’s just when it gets off on these rabbit trails that people get confused.”
These comments have been “so hard for me to listen to,” said Cutler. “The fact that no one wants to talk about [Trump], and instead just want to highlight Hillary’s own flaws—that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the fact that the president of my own university is defending a man who repeatedly degrades women.” She was particularly concerned about the possibility of increased violence against women. “Dismissing what he said as ‘just comments’ is why rape culture exists, because people are okay with letting ‘just comments’ go,” she said.
Words like “rape culture” might seem out of place at Liberty, where, as one student said, women would “probably be associated more with Phyllis Schlafly’s brand of feminism” than the kind of progressive feminists who developed such terms. It’s true that the hot debates on campus would likely seem out of place elsewhere: whether women should be allowed to preach the Bible or lead churches, for example, or whether women should work after graduation. But the students I met, and the women in particular, were deeply concerned with issues like sex trafficking—they described advocacy efforts and documentary screenings in which they’ve taken part.
No doubt, there’s misogyny on Liberty’s campus. Rosene, the master of ceremonies at the debate-watch party, wore a nametag that read, “Locker Room Talker.” When I asked him whether Trump’s words could potentially create a bad environment for women on campus, he said no. It’s more “confusion as to, ‘Is this really what guys are saying about me?’” he said. “As sad as it sounds, newsflash, ladies: Guys say stupid things. … I don’t think most girls talk in that manner, but guys do.”
But even though some of the women I spoke with reported being catcalled on campus and hearing sexist jokes from older professors, they didn’t think their experiences were specific to Liberty. “Whenever I say there might be sexism [on campus], it’s not a sexism based in evangelicalism,” said Sara Heist, a senior from Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s a sexism based in American culture that I would face at any academic institution.”
For those who are part of minority groups at Liberty, conversations about identity can feel even more marginalized. Students said there’s a small but active LGBT community at Liberty, although people in same-sex relationships generally don’t advertise that fact for fear of punishment from the university. And discussions about race are often nonexistent or hurtful, said Brown, the junior from Dinwiddie. While members of the Liberty community pride themselves on the lack of “political correctness” on campus, it seems like the school has its own speech code: Certain topics and conversations are implicitly unwelcome.
“There are people who will stereotype me—not on purpose, but you can feel it if it’s there,” Brown said. “I’ve learned to look at every interaction like that as an opportunity to grow. … It is tough, and it stinks. But you get to choose how you’re going to react.”
Brown, who is African American, said it was particularly hard for her to be on campus last January, when Trump visited on Martin Luther King Day. With all of Trump’s “slurs,” Brown said, “having him come on a day that’s meant to memorialize the work that Martin Luther King Jr. did during his time … made a huge impact on people.” When other students reacted defensively, saying that Trump should be able to visit campus at any time, that hurt even more, she said. “As Christians, there’s a huge opportunity to love people better and understand where they’re coming from. Empathy would have been great, and I didn’t see a ton of it.”
When Brown needs to have tough conversations without feeling stifled, whether they’re about race, sexuality, or something else, she can find them, she said—she just has to look hard at the margins of Liberty culture. As putatively political as Liberty is, it seems to lack a robust culture of political debate around these kinds of issues—ones that are challenging for Christians and non-Christians alike.
And yet, Brown said, she’s really happy to be at Liberty. Her sister graduated a few years ago, and her mom recently completed the online-education program. She feels like she’s deepened her faith during her three-plus years at the school, which was part of why she came. All of the Liberty students I met seemed to feel similarly: They love their school. Even people like Sitterding, who says he’s “not a huge fan of Christianity or the established church,” found things to praise about the evangelical university.
In part, their loyalty might come from a sense of shared values. On at least on one issue, Liberty kids seem to find near-total solidarity: abortion. Even though Trump says he is pro-life and recently made graphic (and incorrect) claims to express his disgust over late-term abortions, students aren’t necessarily persuaded. “I find his pro-life stance to be suspicious,” said Heist, the senior from Ohio. “Everyone on campus has been struggling with the decision.”
It’s impossible to know definitively how Liberty students will vote in November. The consensus among the people I met is that most of the school will choose Trump, however grudgingly. Students gave all sorts of pragmatic explanations for their choice, including a deep hatred of Clinton—while a few Clinton supporters are rumored to be on campus, they seem to be a tiny minority. Others on campus brought up flawed leaders from the Bible, like Nebuchadnezzar, arguing that God can work through anyone, including Trump.
Liberty students’ votes seem to be the least interesting thing about them, though. Most of these teens and 20-somethings have been making the same political calculation as the rest of America this election cycle: Facing two major-party choices they don’t like, they’re trying to figure out the least distasteful compromise. When these students talk about the people they admire, they don’t name Ralph Reed-style, Moral Majority-era political operatives—in fact, most students said they didn’t even know who Reed was before he came to campus this fall. Their idols are “strictly Christ-centered leaders, and not so much political leaders, or pastors that give their political opinions,” said Brien. Cutler agreed: “It’s people who use their platform well, who use their platform for Christ—not to exclude the world, but to … reach the world.”
Falwell Sr.’s Liberty may be gone. The community that has emerged seems to have no less fire for Christ, and no less conviction. But they may be done paying lip service to the party that gave them Trump.