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Liberty University: Harvard of Hypocrites

Saturday, May 30 2009 @ 09:19 PM CDT

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Liberty University's silenced Democrats

The evangelical mega-college has banned its Young Democrats. But "Christian" and "Republican" are no longer synonymous

Kevin Roose

Last week, Liberty University – the evangelical Christian mega-college founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell – made the national news when, while implementing a new funding scheme for student organisations, it revoked approval for the campus Democratic organisation.


I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.
Thomas Jefferson

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
-Thomas Paine, founding father of the U.S.

Once there was a time when all people believed in God and the church ruled. This time is called the Dark Ages.
~ Richard Lederer

I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.
Thomas Jefferson

In every country and every age, the priest had been hostile to Liberty.
Thomas Jefferson

"Whenever... preachers, instead of a lesson in religion, put [their congregation] off with a discourse on the Copernican system, on chemical affinities, on the construction of government, or the characters or conduct of those administering it, it is a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried, and giving them, instead of it, what they did not want, or, if wanted, would rather seek from better sources in that particular art of science."
--Thomas Jefferson

"Ministers of the Gospel are excluded [from serving as Visitors of the county Elementary Schools] to avoid jealousy from the other sects, were the public education committed to the ministers of a particular one; and with more reason than in the case of their exclusion from the legislative and executive functions."
--Thomas Jefferson


Liberty's Young Democrats club – the first in school history – was formed during last fall's election season, and was given an award for Up-and-Coming Chapter of the Year by the Virginia Young Democrats in April. But earlier this month, Liberty vice-president Mark Hine wrote to club president Brian Diaz that the club's status was being dropped because it had supported candidates whose views were "contrary to the mission of LU and to Christian doctrine", even though the club itself was officially pro-life and anti-gay-marriage.

Following a maelstrom of criticism, Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr offered to reinstate the club, providing it aligns itself with a pro-life, anti-gay Democratic group, and not the Democratic party in general. Which is kind of like saying that you'll allow penguins at your zoo, but not the black-and-white kind that waddle.

On one level, reading a news story about a fledgling chapter of the Young Democrats having its club status revoked by Liberty University is completely unsurprising. After all, since its founding in 1971, Liberty's mission has always been to cultivate generations of conservative Christian voters and activists. Before his death, Rev Falwell often said that he wanted his school to be the "Harvard of the right," and to this day, Liberty's official brochure touts the school's "strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism and firm support for America's economic system of free enterprise."

Two years ago, for my book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, I spent a semester as an undercover student at Liberty. I transferred there from Brown University to learn about my Christian peers by living among them, and while at Liberty, I learned that much of what sceptical outsiders say about the school is true.

Yes, Liberty is a bastion of arch-conservatism. Yes, I was required to listen to lectures like "Myths behind the homosexual agenda" and answer questions on a science exam about Noah's Ark. Yes, I heard sermons called "The myth of global warming" and guest speeches by Sean Hannity. Yes, Liberty stifles free speech by censoring its student newspaper, refusing to give tenure to its faculty and suppressing students who wish to speak out. (This last point is particularly troubling – there's actually a rule in Liberty's student handbook that mandates 12 reprimands and a $50 fine for any student found guilty of "participation in an unauthorised petition or demonstration".) And yes, I'll add my voice to the chorus of people calling for Chancellor Falwell to reverse his decision and reinstate the Young Democrats' official club status.

But during my semester there, I learned that Liberty is a much more diverse place than people give it credit for, and that speaking about the Liberty Young Democrats as if they were bizarre outliers (like Jews for Jesus or Skydivers Afraid of Heights) ignores the fact that Liberty students, like many other young evangelicals across the nation, are rethinking what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century.

When I arrived at Liberty for my semester "abroad", I expected to find a campus full of ballot-punching Republicans. I found those, but I also met Christian feminists, Christian civil libertarians, Christians opposed to the war in Iraq, Christian gay-rights activists and other Liberty students who challenged the norms of their parents' generation.

As evidenced by the 32% of evangelicals between the ages of 18-29 who voted for Barack Obama last November, "Christian" and "Republican" are no longer synonymous in America, and Liberty's pathetic attempt to maintain a unified political stance by silencing dissent shows how out of touch the university is with its own student body.

I've never met Brian Diaz, the Liberty freshman who started the Young Democrats chapter, or Maria Childress, the club's faculty adviser who has drawn heat for openly disagreeing with her employer. But I do know that they're not alone.

A few days ago, I got an email from a longtime Liberty professor who confessed that he'd voted for Obama last fall, and told me that due to the "the dictatorial atmosphere" at Liberty, he could lose his job if anyone discovered his secret. Since my book came out, I've heard similar stories from former and current Liberty students, alumni and faculty members, many of whom share that professor's worry. The evangelical world is changing, and regardless of the fate of the Young Democrats club, Liberty is changing with it, becoming less wedded to the Republican party and more open to ideological diversity every day.

What Liberty's administration needs isn't just a lesson in tolerance – it's a long, honest look in the mirror.



"The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to Jeremiah Moor, 1800.

"The Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they [the clergy] have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of it's benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind." --Thomas Jefferson to Moses Robinson, 1801. ME 10:237

"But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and State." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1810. ME 12:345

"[If] the nature of... government [were] a subordination of the civil to the ecclesiastical power, I [would] consider it as desperate for long years to come. Their steady habits [will] exclude the advances of information, and they [will] seem exactly where they [have always been]. And there [the] clergy will always keep them if they can. [They] will follow the bark of liberty only by the help of a tow-rope." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierrepont Edwards, July 1801. (*)

"This doctrine ['that the condition of man cannot be ameliorated, that what has been must ever be, and that to secure ourselves where we are we must tread with awful reverence in the footsteps of our fathers'] is the genuine fruit of the alliance between Church and State, the tenants of which finding themselves but too well in their present condition, oppose all advances which might unmask their usurpations and monopolies of honors, wealth and power, and fear every change as endangering the comforts they now hold." --Thomas Jefferson: Report for University of Virginia, 1818.

"I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendency of one sect over another." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799. ME 10:78

"The advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from [the clergy]." --Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1802. ME 10:305

"The clergy...believe that any portion of power confided to me [as President] will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 1800. ME 10:173

"Believing... that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State." --Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptists, 1802. ME 16:281

"I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this [i.e., the purchase of an apparent geological or astronomical work] can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offense against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. If [this] book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for God's sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we choose." --Thomas Jefferson to N. G. Dufief, 1814. ME 14:127

"History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 1813. ME 14:21

"In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." --Thomas Jefferson to Horatio G. Spafford, 1814. ME 14:119

"I have been just reading the new constitution of Spain. One of its fundamental bases is expressed in these words: 'The Roman Catholic religion, the only true one, is, and always shall be, that of the Spanish nation. The government protects it by wise and just laws, and prohibits the exercise of any other whatever.' Now I wish this presented to those who question what [a bookseller] may sell or we may buy, with a request to strike out the words, 'Roman Catholic,' and to insert the denomination of their own religion. This would ascertain the code of dogmas which each wishes should domineer over the opinions of all others, and be taken, like the Spanish religion, under the 'protection of wise and just laws.' It would show to what they wish to reduce the liberty for which one generation has sacrificed life and happiness. It would present our boasted freedom of religion as a thing of theory only, and not of practice, as what would be a poor exchange for the theoretic thraldom, but practical freedom of Europe." --Thomas Jefferson to N. G. Dufief, 1814. ME 14:128

"To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical." --Thomas Jefferson: Bill for Religious Freedom, 1779. Papers 2:545

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