Evangelical university president is facing backlash for supporting Trump — from his own students

“[We] are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history.”

CREDIT: AP /Patrick Semansky
CREDIT: AP /Patrick Semansky

The president of America’s largest Christian university is facing growing backlash from his own student body over his support for Donald Trump, with one student now accusing the Religious Right icon of censoring an anti-Trump column in the college newspaper.

According to Liberty University student Joel Schmieg, college president Jerry Falwell Jr. nixed his sports column in this week’s edition of the Liberty Champion, the school’s newspaper. The evangelical Christian college, which boasts around 15,000 residential students and more than 100,000 including online students, has long played a major role in conservative politics, but has become embroiled in controversy ever since Falwell endorsed Donald Trump’s campaign for president earlier this year.

“[My editors] read the email to me. [Falwell] said, basically, the gist was that there were two articles this week about Trump,” Schmieg told The Daily Beast. “One was a letter to the editor from a Liberty alum, and they didn’t want two things running about him.”

Frustrated, the student published the entire Op-Ed on Facebook — which was then subsequently re-published by the Daily Beast — without permission, saying “I was not allowed to publish [this] because Jerry didn’t like it.”

“I was not allowed to publish [this] because Jerry didn’t like it.”

The article focused on the recent release of an 11-year-old video clip that showed Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, which the GOP nominee has repeatedly referred to as “locker room talk.” Schmieg took issue with this characterization in his piece, siding with a number of athletes who say the Trump’s comments are far worse than anything discussed in a locker room.

“Donald Trump may have issued an apology for the words he said, but the fact that he can brush them off with a description of ‘locker room talk,’ tells me that he does not believe what he said is truly bad,” the author wrote. “It tells me that this man says things like this all the time, because it is casual talk to him.

“Ladies, please hear me when I say the words spoken by Trump are not normal,” he added. “That is not what decent men talk about. Not even in high school. You mean so much more than that, and you deserve so much better than that.”

Falwell defended the decision to cut the article in a statement sent to ThinkProgress.

“Liberty University is the publisher and owner of the Liberty Champion,” Falwell said via email. “It must make editorial decisions about content on a weekly basis. The paper already had a letter that was very similar in content supporting Hillary Clinton and condemning Donald Trump for the 2005 video. The two letters were redundant so an editorial decision was made to go with the other letter, which written by a medical student, because it did not come from a staff member but an independent reader.”

Regardless, the censorship accusation comes as Falwell — a prominent leader of the Religious Right — grapples with a growing movement among students to distance themselves from the his consistent support for Trump. One group, Liberty United Against Trump, launched a online petition last week for those who are “disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history.”

Falwell has dismissed the group as only a “few students,” but the petition now boasts more than 3,200 signatures — 1,700 of whom used Liberty University email addresses — and organizers insist they represent the larger student body.

“Many students here think [Trump] is a joke, and would have preferred a different nominee.”

“Many students here think [Trump] is a joke, and would have preferred a different nominee,” Dustin Wahl, a junior majoring in politics and policy who is also a spokesman for Liberty United Against Trump, told ThinkProgress in an email. “President Falwell has shown poor leadership in allowing our university’s brand to be tied to a man like Trump, who opposes the values that we are taught to believe in.”

“A candidate for president ought to be experienced and qualified for the role of leader of the free world,” he added. “They must be principled, intellectually curious, and basically decent people. For reasons that should be very obvious, Donald Trump is none of these things.”

The group’s organizers also repeatedly referenced an eyebrow-raising statistic: despite Falwell’s endorsement ahead of the Virginia Republican primary, Trump received a mere 90 votes from Liberty students on election, placing fourth behind Rubio, Cruz, and Carson.

Schmieg noted in his Facebook post that the alleged censoring felt especially egregious given that Falwell had supported the anti-Trump student group’s right to protest the week before. During an interview, he celebrated the “free expression of ideas unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out.”

“I find these words from Jerry amusing and extremely hypocritical,” Schmieg wrote in his Facebook post.

Ever since Trump published a tweet celebrating the university president’s endorsement — and mistakenly referred to him as the “Rev. Jerry Falwell” (Falwell is not a pastor or ordained in any capacity) — he has endured staunch criticism. Shortly after he publicly backed the businessman, a member of Liberty’s own board of trustees bashed the campaign in the Washington Post as the opposite of the “Christ-like behavior that Liberty has spent 40 years promoting with its students.” He stepped down as a board member soon thereafter, citing pressure from Falwell and other members of the board.

“The president/chancellor and the board chair and new executive committee chair were suggesting my motive for speaking to the Post was entirely political (that I was a political pawn of rival campaigns), rather than a genuine concern for the reputation of the university we trustees have (had) a fiduciary responsibility to protect,” he said. “I concluded if they could not accept the reasons I gave them there was not sufficient trust to continue serving together.”

But Falwell’s unyielding support for Trump became an especially caustic issue after the release of the tapes earlier this month. Falwell, along with many other faith-focused Trump supporters, was quick to condemn the remarks, but promptly doubled down on his Trump endorsement during an event with Ralph Reed at Liberty, saying that there will never be a perfect candidate until “Christ is on the throne.” He also argued that “no one is going to remember what Trump said years ago,” and told a radio host that he believed the tapes were part of a conspiracy among RNC officials to destroy Trump.

The situation turned even more volatile a few days later, when ten women came forward to claim that Trump sexually assaulted them at different points over the past four decades. Falwell was subsequently asked to defend his connection to Trump during an interview with CNN: he first cited the Trump campaign’s statement disputing the allegations before appearing to imply that—even if the assaults occurred—Trump is now a “changed man.”

“What about the Donald Trump of today? Is he a changed man? I think he is,” he said. “He’s taken all the right positions on all the issues. He will do what’s best for America as president.”

Falwell’s response proved so controversial that other conservatives are now calling for him to resign, describing his Trump endorsement a “disgrace.”

“Surely it is not the calling of the devout to put aside glaring assaults and affronts to morality in favor of winning a political race, one whose outcome could determine how Christians themselves are treated,” Ben Howe wrote last week in Red State, a conservative blog.

Erick Erickson, longtime conservative radio host and head of RedState, told ThinkProgress he also agreed that Falwell should step down.

This article was updated to include a statement from Jerry Falwell Jr.