Officials at Liberty University often boast about the school’s status as the largest Christian college in America. Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr., who refers to his school as the “Fox News of academia,” has also compared it to distinguished Catholic universities like Notre Dame. President Donald Trump—whose leadership Falwell has repeatedly lauded—echoed this aspirational religious sentiment when he delivered the conservative evangelical Christian school’s commencement address in May, describing the student body as “champions for Christ.”
But this sweeping rhetoric belies a slow-brewing controversy encircling the Lynchburg, Virginia-based university. As Falwell’s public support for Trump remains unwavering in the face of the administration’s near-constant scandals, his school is finding itself beset with criticism from a seemingly unlikely source: other Christians.
A growing movement of believers—many of them avowed evangelicals—are speaking out against Liberty University and the public theology of its president, demanding Falwell and his supporters not only abandon their support for Trump but also recant a history of inflammatory statements they see as anti-Christian.
Kicking a fellow evangelical off campus
The most dramatic chapter in the spiritual dispute came last week, when the school forcibly removed evangelical Christian author and speaker Jonathan Martin from campus just days after he called for a peaceful protest of the college, describing it as “ground zero for the counterfeit faith that is sweeping many evangelical churches right now.” According to Martin, he was visiting the school at the request of a band performing there when he was unexpectedly apprehended by police and escorted off the property.
Martin reiterated his forceful criticism of Falwell to ThinkProgress a few days later. He said he first became inspired to protest Liberty when Falwell reportedly told a Breitbart reporter he wanted evangelicals to help unseat “fake Republicans,” but added that his frustration with the University president has been brewing for some time.
He pointed to a 2015 incident shortly after the tragic ISIS-linked attacks in San Bernardino, California. Falwell responded to news of the shooting during an assembly by gesturing to a gun he claimed to have holstered, suggesting students should carry firearms so “we could end those Muslims before they walk in.”
Martin says the remark flies in the face of traditional Christian teaching, which calls on followers to “turn the other cheek” when subjected to violence.
“I can’t think of anything more bizarre than a Christian university president encouraging his students to be armed,” Martin said.
Martin said that this comment—combined with Falwell’s consistent support for Trump, articulation of Christian nationalism, and willingness to praise the president’s controversial comments about the violence in Charlottesville as “bold” and “truthful”—inspired him to take a stand against the school.
“The language of Christianity cobbled together with nationalism and this new civil religion—ultimately to me it’s a new religion,” Martin said. “It so little resembles [Christianity]…I don’t even think it’s a fake version of Christianity at this point.”
Falwell, for his part, defended the actions of campus police a few days after Martin’s expulsion, adding to the drama by announcing new safety regulations for the school—such as as requiring students to walk through magnetometers for large gatherings.
“The language of Christianity cobbled together with nationalism and this new civil religion—ultimately to me it’s a new religion.”
“Martin did not threaten violence and we do not believe he is a violent man but, if Liberty began allowing uninvited outside groups to protest on campus with open invitations on social media, the next group might be a violent mob of anarchists,” Falwell said in a lengthy statement published by the Religion News Service.
A call for public theological debate
Martin is hardly the first to faith leader to rail against Falwell and Liberty. When the university president endorsed Trump in 2016, one of the school’s board members promptly resigned in protest. Conservative writers such as Erick Erickson and others subsequently called for Falwell to step down, and some Liberty students launched an online petition criticizing their president’s support for Trump. A few alumni have begun returning their diplomas in disgust.
Christian voices of dissent have only grown louder in recent months. During a sizable, faith-led protest against racism in Trump in Washington D.C., in August, Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME decried “evangelicals to distort and bastardize the Bible” by supporting Trump, adding, “We repent on behalf of the likes of Paula White, and Perry Stone, and Jerry Falwell, and the board of Liberty University—they do not reflect the body of Christ at large.”
“[Falwell’s support of Trump’s policies] is contrary to the gospel. And Falwell and others know that they really can’t stand the critique,”
While there haven’t been any more protests on campus just yet, the latest group to challenge Liberty publicly was not, in fact, “a group of anarchists” but another group of Christians. Last Friday, six prominent progressive-leaning pastors published an open letter criticizing Falwell and his institution, accusing it of contributing to a “conflation” of the “Lord’s Gospel” and “the religion of white supremacy.”
“As fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we disagree with your celebration of Donald Trump as a ‘dream President’ for evangelicals,” the letter read, referencing Falwell’s praise for the Trump. It continued: “But our disagreement is not about personality; rather, we see the stark divergence in our discernment about politics as a reflection of fundamental differences in how we understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. From Isaiah 58 to Luke 4 and Matthew 25, the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ speaks prophetically against false religion that props up injustice.”
Signers included prominent evangelical pastor and activist Rev. William Barber; Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne; Kairos Center co-director Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis; and Minister and School for Conversion director Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, among others.
In addition to their condemnation of Falwell’s theology, the group challenged him to a public theological debate.
“We are willing to pay our own way to come to Liberty University and engage in the debate which you have said is welcome,” the letter read. “We only ask that we be allowed to mutually agree on a moderator and set of questions beforehand.”
Demanding a debate is a bold move for leaders of the loose coalition that is sometimes called the Religious Left (a term many of them reject), especially since Religious Right leaders have tended to ignore or dismiss progressive faith leaders in the past. Claiborne and others told ThinkProgress they haven’t received a response from Liberty University yet, and the school did not reply to requests for comment on this story. ThinkProgress also reached out to media outlets that signers floated as possible moderators for the hypothetical event; PBS’s Tavis Smiley and MSNBC’s Joy Reid did not reply by press time, and CNN’s religion editor Daniel Burke pointed to his outlet’s speakers request form.
“[Falwell’s support of Trump’s policies] is contrary to the gospel. And Falwell and others know that they really can’t stand the critique,” Barber told MSNBC’s Joy Reid over the weekend. “What they’re afraid of, Joy, is there’s so much against them—first of all, the Bible.”
“As an evangelical I don’t believe that Jerry Falwell represents most of us, but he speaks as if he does.”
Regardless of whether a public debate ever materializes, signers of the letter say they are unlikely to remain silent.
“I think a lot of us are deeply concerned,” Claiborne, who has been invited to speak at Liberty in the past, told ThinkProgress. “It’s less about politics and more about the integrity of Christian witness…We are absolutely troubled by how a Christian can support such anti-Christian policies.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove agreed, saying he finds Falwell’s theology offensive to his faith.
“As an evangelical I don’t believe that Jerry Falwell represents most of us, but he speaks as if he does,” he told ThinkProgress. “We feel like the Trump administration has certainly exacerbated this notion that these older white preachers who are extreme on most political issues, and who pander to white supremacy if they don’t officially endorse it, seem to be speaking on behalf christianity or evangelical christianity. And that, to me, as a preacher, is just an offense to the message that I’m called to claim.”
A higher value on outside voices
Falwell has characterized the groundswell of activism against the school as the work of outside agitators, implying they don’t represent the views of many on campus.
“We understand that it is upsetting to leftist leaning and progressive Christian to see so many evangelicals supporting Donald Trump, but many at Liberty University are among the forgotten men and women in this country who voted for change in 2016,” Falwell said.
Liberty student Dustin Wahl—who helped organize the petition opposing Trump—told ThinkProgress there is some truth to this. He said “only a few” students were aware of the Red Letter Christians letter, adding “we’re not as much of a political/activist campus as many would assume.”
“When he uses his platform to praise and defend Trump, Falwell makes it seem as though Liberty as an institution agrees with him. In reality, most Liberty students have very different priorities than their president.”
But Wahl noted that discontent on campus is beginning to swell. “There is certainly a growing number of students who oppose Falwell’s alignment with Trump and a shrinking number of students who adamantly support it,” he said. More than anything else, he argued, most students are just interested in “living in accordance with God’s word” in ways that make politics “secondary.”
“When he uses his platform to praise and defend Trump, Falwell makes it seem as though Liberty as an institution agrees with him,” he said. “In reality, most Liberty students have very different priorities than their president.”
Liberty faculty and staff have also been reticent to speak out against Falwell, with many refusing to go on record when contacted by reporters such as the Atlantic’s Jonathan Merritt. But their silence may not signal agreement with their superior: Liberty University does not offer professors tenure, which would grant them freedom to speak their mind, and some reportedly told Merritt there has been a recent “clampdown” on campus free speech.
Indeed, around 15 students said they were watched by police as they prayed the day after Martin was removed from campus—an event Martin was scheduled to attend. And when a student penned an anti-Trump op-ed in the campus newspaper last year, Falwell allegedly killed the story before publication (it was published on the Daily Beast instead).
Such tactics place a higher value on outside voices like Martin, who can freely criticize the school without jeopardizing his job. He says his detainment shines a light on Falwell’s leadership style.
“It underscores why I want to engage with Liberty to begin with—the very authoritarian way that Falwell runs it,” he said.
Martin, Claiborne, and others were tight-lipped about the next phase of their push against Liberty. Despite the forced expulsion, Martin said he isn’t ruling out other demonstrations—they just likely won’t be on the campus. He said he, other faith leaders (including signers of the Red Letter Christian letter), and a few prominent Christian recording artists are already thinking of creative new ways to offer a prayerful witness against the school.
“This is not about the right or the left,” he said. “So many things about the Trump phenomenon are completely off that grid.”