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Unfree At Liberty

Jerry Falwell Jr. and the 'climate of fear' in the institution he is crushing

Will E. Young, formerly the editor of Liberty University’s campus newspaper, writes a damning piece about the institutional cult of personality that Jerry Falwell Jr. has established at the Christian college. This is not a disgruntled-employee kind of reported essay. It’s a substantive look at the kind of corruption Falwell Jr. has introduced into the college.

Young writes about how Falwell and his eagerness to control crushed the college paper in hard-to-justify ways. Excerpt:

Instead, when my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an “oversight” system — read: a censorship regime — that required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review. Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article; they added and deleted whatever they wanted. Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally, as he had a year earlier when, weeks before the 2016 election, he read a draft of my column defending mainstream news outlets and ordered me to say whom I planned to vote for. I refused on ethical grounds, so Falwell told me to insert “The author refused to reveal which candidate he is supporting for president” at the bottom of the column. I complied. (Huff and the police department declined to comment on the contents of this essay. Falwell and the university did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Eventually I quit, and the School of Communication decided not to replace me, turning the paper into a faculty-run, student-written organ and seizing complete control of its content. Student journalists must now sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbids them from talking publicly about “editorial or managerial direction, oversight decisions or information designated as privileged or confidential.” The form also states that the students understand they are “privileged” to receive “thoughts, opinions, and other statements” from university administrators.

Granted, college newspapers are not the same kind of publication as an independent newspaper. It is not unusual or even wrong for colleges to exercise some kind of oversight and discipline of a campus paper. This is actually a necessary part of student journalists learning how to be professionals. But an institution ought to exercise that authority wisely. Assuming that Young is telling the truth about what happened at the college, what Falwell and his leadership team have completely neutered the newspaper and the School of Communication. If their new policies are as Young says, then it’s fair to ask of what value is a degree from the Liberty University School of Communication, aside from training in public relations?

Anyway, Young says it’s not just the school’s relationship to its student newspaper:

What my team and I experienced at the Champion was not an isolated overreaction to embarrassing revelations. It was one example of an infrastructure of thought-control that Falwell and his lieutenants have introduced into every aspect of Liberty University life. Faculty, staff and students on the Lynchburg, Va., campus have learned that it’s a sin to challenge the sacrosanct status of the school or its leader, which mete out punishments for dissenting opinions (from stripping people of their positions to banning them from campus). This “culture of fear,” as it was described by several of the dozen Liberty denizens who talked to me for this story — most of them anonymously to protect their jobs or their standing — worsened during my four years on campus because of the 2016 presidential election.

Young has some people on the record talking about the abusive way Falwell runs the university, trampling over professional ethics and even plain old common decency in dealing with faculty. Because there’s no tenure at Liberty, faculty know that they could be fired from year to year if they run afoul of Falwell. Young says that the atmosphere of paranoia infuses everything at Liberty.

Read it all. That guy Falwell is killing the university. It’s one thing to run a university according to conservative Christian principles. I totally support that. But it doesn’t sound like that’s what’s happening here, at all. I’m reminded of the principle — I think that Joseph Schumpeter articulated it, but I can’t recall for sure — that over time, leaders of every institution will come to assume that what’s good for them is the same thing as what’s good for the institution. This is what partly what led to the Protestant Reformation. And it’s going to lead to Liberty’s downfall.

Liberty University has a Board of Trustees. Do they not recognize what is happening to the university’s reputation under Falwell’s leadership, and feel a responsibility to exercise oversight? Young writes in his Post piece that he’s not sure what to think of his Liberty University diploma now. He can’t possibly be the only Liberty grad to think that nowadays. Fair or not, the first thing that comes to many people’s minds when they hear the name “Liberty University” is some obnoxious thing Jerry Falwell Jr. has tweeted or said in defense of Donald Trump. A college that ought to be known for its moral and theological integrity, and the quality of its teaching, is instead developing a reputation for the Trumpish antics of its president. The difference between what the college says its mission is, and the way its president behaves, is growing. This is a real tragedy. Conservative Christians are a minority in this post-Christian culture, and will be an increasingly despised and dispossessed one. We need to be better than this. So much depends on it.

Young’s Post piece, especially the journalism angle, reminds me of a Catholic journalism conference I attended in the spring of 2002, in Washington. It had been scheduled before the scandal broke that winter out of Boston. I sat in the audience and heard the Catholic priest, a member of the hard-right conservative Legionaries of Christ order (which would later be shaken to its foundations by the sexual corruption of its founder), talk trash about mainstream journalists breaking news about priest sexual abuse. This priest, who was the publisher of National Catholic Register (which at that time was owned by the LC order), said that his newspaper did not go down into the gutter, but took the high road. He was construing his cowardice as a leader as a virtue, and in turn trying to justify doing public relations for the sake of maintaining the Church’s image, and calling it journalism.

In 2010, long after the LC founder, Marcial Maciel, had been exposed as a serial sexual predator and defrocked, that publisher apologized for having defended the creep for so long.

Back to Liberty. Conservatives rightly criticize left-wing colleges for giving a party line to students instead of imparting to them a real education. If it happens to come from the religious right, a party line is still a party line — and it’s not the same thing as an education. I have met some Liberty faculty over the years, and I believe them to be solid teachers and scholars. They must be completely miserable. I recall a time in my professional life when I worked in a situation like that. It took a real toll on me psychologically. How do you think it feels to be a professor there and to see this garbage going on around you, and to know that if you speak out, you’ll likely be fired. In this job market, it’s hard to find an academic job anywhere. But to be on the academic job market with Liberty University on your CV, given how toxic Jerry Falwell Jr.’s political activism has made the brand? It’s a trap.

You may not be aware of this if you don’t have your ear to the ground in particular circles, but these stories about Liberty under Falwell’s increasingly heavy-handed leadership have been going around for a while. Young’s piece is by no means the first time they’ve been aired. If anybody affiliated with Liberty wishes to counter his claims, by all means post your comments below. I will elevate the best comments to the text of this post. Or e-mail me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com. I will assume that everything you send me is safe for publication (though not using your name) unless you tell me otherwise. I write a lot on this blog criticizing aspects of academic life at liberal and mainstream colleges. When Christian and/or conservative colleges fail to meet the standard, it’s important for Christian conservatives to say so.

As I was reading the piece, I received a text from an Evangelical journalist friend who had some news for me. I told him what I was reading, and said that I wouldn’t be surprised if this Young kid, having seen up close and personal how corrupt conservative institutions — especially churches — can be in protecting themselves, had run to the far left. Sure enough, when I went back to reading the article, I found this near the end:

I grew up in a politically conservative household and was active in my denomination; my values changed at Liberty as I embraced a more inclusive and open vision of the church. My views of Liberty, and of the values I saw Falwell profess on a daily basis, changed as well.

Well, there you go. Young ran to progressive Evangelicalism. I’d have to read the details of his migration leftward to judge it, but I’m not surprised. He was raised in a conservative home and a conservative church, and went to a conservative Protestant university … where he was on the receiving end of the hypocrisy of a powerful church leader who is corrupting an institution’s values for the sake of maintaining a false image.

I couldn’t help but recall a startling conversation I had last year in Nashville with some Evangelical campus ministers, who told me that they’re dealing with crises of faith in many students, related to Donald Trump. These kids had grown up in conservative Evangelical homes, and heard all their lives about how important it is to have leaders with moral integrity. Now their parents were all in for Trump, with no sense that there’s any problem there, and the kids were losing faith in their folks. One minister told me he was trying to help a kid whose parents were cutting him off financially because the boy did not support Trump.

You can roll your eyes at this, and say that it’s stupid for a young person to make theological decisions based on politics, or on the flaws of their parents and other adult mentors. Logically speaking, you may be right. But pastorally and psychologically, you’re very wrong, and consequentially wrong. Falwell Jr. is wrecking more than the reputation of the university his father entrusted to his leadership. I would hope Will Young one day returns to a more orthodox form of Christianity, and I certainly hope he realizes that the kind of abuse of power that he saw at Liberty is not a function of conservatism alone, and that it can and does happen in many institutions. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil doesn’t pass between liberals and conservatives, but down the middle of every human heart, and every human institution.

Still, Will Young is apparently a progressive Evangelical now, and he’s been strongly marked by the way he and others were treated at a powerful conservative Evangelical institution, and a powerful conservative Evangelical power broker. He’s a grown man, and the decisions he makes about his future in the Christian faith are primarily his own. I don’t know what he believes specifically these days, but if he now or in the future embraces heresy, or even one day apostatizes, that’s on him. But when we who have been given responsibility for stewarding young Christians, and institutions that form the young in the Christian faith, scandalize them with our words and our deeds, the fault for their falling away falls on our backs as well. And we will be judged for it, in this life and the next.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I’m a Liberty grad with close friends still at the school – to include friends who are truly in Falwell’s inner circle.

When I went to LU, Falwell Sr. was still alive and, in spite of his political bluster, his foremost desire was the schools mission to build the men and women of Liberty into committed Christian adults through education and the University’s emphasis on spiritual life.

According to my friends still affiliated with the institution, and I can assure there are a number of them for whatever it’s worth, Jr. shows little interest in a Christian identity – neither the institution’s Christian identity nor his own. He shows himself to be one enamored by the power and prestige of his position and the circles into which his newfound power places him.

I was at a point a few years back where i said I would never send my own children to Liberty. I’m now at a point where I will actively warn other people not to send their children to Liberty. It saddens me to see what LU has turned into. I think a change in leadership could go a long way but it may take years for the school to recover.

Another reader, an Evangelical, writes:

One thing that is obvious about Jerry Junior is that he has absolutely no Christian formation. He doesn’t understand the Bible, he doesn’t know how the pieces of Christian doctrine fit together, he’s just lost in the woods. And when you consider who his father was, it’s a reminder of how badly Evangelicalism has catechized its children.