When students at Liberty University checked their email on September 22, an exhortation to make history beckoned among the usual Facebook notifications. Jerry Falwell, Jr., the school's chancellor, implored them to take advantage of a change in Virginia election law that now enables out-of-state residents to register locally. "Liberty University's 11,000 students and 4,000 faculty and staff could cause Liberty to become known as the university that elected a president!" the email proclaimed. Classes would be cancelled on Election Day as students were bussed back and forth from the polls, while enjoying festivities such as a pool party and bench press competition. In a rare celebratory treat, curfew would be extended until 1 am to allow students to attend a mass results-watching party.
Located in traditionally conservative Southern Virginia, the evangelical Baptist Liberty University, which Falwell estimates is 80 to 90 percent Republican, could be a linchpin in McCain's preservation of the Republican base in a state that hasn't gone Democratic in a presidential race since 1964. Obama's increasing edge in the polls--coupled with Democratic wins in the past two statewide elections--have sent Democratic strategists gunning to turn Virginia blue, and the McCain campaign scrambling to keep the Old Dominion in GOP hands. As the state's most recent US Senate race was decided by only around 10,000 votes, Falwell's belief in Liberty's ability to decide the election is not merely rally-round-the-quad narcissism, but a potential historical reality.
After the passing of Liberty's founder Jerry Falwell Sr. in 2007, his sons Jerry Jr. and Jonathan, who now heads Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, have developed a revamped version of their father's more vocal approach to evangelical politics, which assumes students' continued endorsement of Republican candidates.
Now, the Falwells let less prominent leaders like Dean of the Law School Mat Staver proclaim moralizing political rhetoric, while the brothers themselves publicly promote an apolitical community of Christian love and life improvement. At the new Liberty, fresh practices of community unite with old ideologies of Republican devotion under one spiritual umbrella, staking out a repackaged traditionalism in the currents of evangelical change.
BELIEVERS FOR BARACK?
In 1979, Jerry Falwell, Sr.'s founding of the Moral Majority helped ignite a new era of Christian engagement with politics. That organization's alarmist call to defend society against the evils of abortion and homosexuality helped galvanize two-thirds of the white evangelical vote for Reagan in 1980. This legacy of evangelical involvement in national politics lived on after the lobby's disbanding in 1989, rendering evangelical devotion to the Republican party a foregone conclusion through George W. Bush's election in 2004.
In 2008, however, Falwell's generation has mostly died out. In recent years, the spotlight has shifted to a new set of leaders like Rick Warren who stress improving society through fighting AIDS and poverty rather than preserving society from moral decay. In a departure from Falwell's traditional style, famed for adamantly supporting Republican candidates and denouncing Democrats from the pulpit, Warren invited both political candidates, each of whom he calls a "friend," to speak at a forum at his megachurch in Lake Forest, California this past summer.
This new strain of evangelical Christianity has shifted its followers' primary concern to economic and social justice issues--areas where Democrats and Republicans compete to offer the best answers. A summer poll by the University of Akron indicated that the economy had eclipsed "moral issues" like abortion and gay marriage as the number one priority for religious voters. Some social conservatives' disillusionment with President Bush--especially over the Iraq war--has also opened the playing field for Obama to appeal to evangelical voters.
This shift in attitudes has led Obama to make the kind of push to court evangelicals that has been considered unthinkable since 1980. Obama has established full-time staff positions to reach out to religious voters; special programs cater to young evangelicals. Young evangelicals who were born after the Moral Majority's reign could be especially receptive to Obama's message. Kevin Griffith, communications director for Obama's Virginia campaign, told the Independent that "the concept of being pro-life is expanding" for some young Christians to encompassing social concerns "after one is born," focusing less on abortion and more on issues of early childhood education, care for the environment and other broader social issues Obama promotes.
Liberty sophomore Joel Kratteur, who has headed efforts to establish an Obama presence on campus, reflects this small but growing group interested in issues other than those established as seminal by their parents' generation. Kratteur told the Independent that despite his strictly religious Republican upbringing, Bush's presidency has left him "disillusioned" with Republican policy and willing to look beyond abortion, which many leaders still frame as central. "I want to be an informed voter more than just a single-issue voter," he said. "I want to look at all the issues." Research indicates that Kratteur is not alone. An October 16-19 poll by the Pew Research center indicated that white evangelicals as a whole displayed continuity with their 2004 support of Bush, with 67 percent supporting McCain and 24 percent leaning towards Obama. However, John Green, director of the institute that conducted the University of Akron poll, told a Pew interviewer that the summer poll showed Obama was "doing well" among young people in evangelical communities, although he did not provide any specific numbers.
A small number of Liberty students like Kratteur, who helped organize the first-ever meeting of a College Democrats group at the school on October 27, have engaged with the campaign's message. Krautter said the first table set up to promote Obama in the center of campus attracted 150 students to volunteer for the candidate. Liz Emanuel, the Virginia Obama campaign's student vote director, told the Independent the campaign considered this "a really excellent response."
Jerry Jr. and Jonathan Falwell's tolerance of groups like the fledgling College Democrats initially seems a significant departure from the aggressive promotion of conservative candidates under their father. Jerry Jr. and Jonathan vocally assert disinterest in convincing students and churchgoers to toe the Republican Party line, despite their avowed support for McCain in public statements. "We never told [students] how to vote. We never even talked about the issues. We just talked about the fact that Virginia was right on the fence," Jerry Jr. told NPR. Several weeks earlier Jonathan told the Lynchburg News and Advance that "I don't intend to endorse anyone. I don't think it's my role to be telling anyone who to vote for."
Kratteur said that although his friends who attended the school during Falwell's tenure feel that the political atmosphere had changed, and that founding a more liberal group such as the College Democrats probably "would have been a lot harder" in the past. Liberty junior B.A. Scott, who supports McCain, told the Independent he felt the school's leaders now "don't pressure us to vote conservatively, which I honestly didn't think would happen."
"LIEUTENANTS FOR THE LORD"
However, other leaders at the school who have been more vocal about the importance of "voting the Christian way" indicate that the Moral Majority-style yoking of core evangelical beliefs to Republican politics has not disappeared. Rather, it has been rechanneled to other sources. On October 10, Mat Staver, dean of the Liberty School of Law, gave a heated convocation speech urging students to uphold their "Christian duty to be involved in the civic process because it effects values and principles that are biblical and that are precious to God himself," namely abortion followed by gay marriage. Thus, He has "vested the choice" for students between a candidate who will "advance our core values" and one who "will most likely decimate those values."
The Rev. Mel White has been engaging with the Falwells' brand of evangelical politics since the 60s, when he began ghostwriting prominent books for the Religious Right including two of Falwell's biographies. White later broke from Falwell's camp to form the gay rights organization Soulforce on the principle of countering the influence of figures like Falwell. "Jerry (Sr.) would say nothing's changed except the exterior," White told the Independent. "The message is the same but the medium has changed."
Now, the Falwell sons offer a double-pronged approach. Less public figures like Staver hold the loyalty of the traditional crowd still attracted by Falwell Sr.'s moral decay rhetoric, while the Falwells themselves emphasize a practical focus on improving quality of life. After Jonathan's sermons preaching the benefits of Christian love (rather than Falwell Sr.'s emphasis on the dangers of outside threats), believers mingle with each other in restaurants and stores located in the church. Outside services, congregants supplement their daily lives with free electives through the University to learn practical skills like plumbing and car mechanics. In effect, the revamped Liberty community under the Falwell sons builds "foundations that are deep in terms of creating institutions that have a real staying power not based on fear," White said. Since Falwell Sr.'s death, the school was granted approval by the city to expand to 15,000 students over the next five years. Next year, for the first time in its history, the administration plans to cap admissions due to overwhelming interest.
Staver came to Liberty in 2006 after Falwell Sr. asked him to serve as the then four year old law school's new dean. At Liberty, he set up offices of the Liberty Counsel, the conservative legal group he founded. His arrival shifted the law school's mission to a strict emphasis on training students to argue conservative social platforms like abortion before the Supreme Court, rather than encouraging them to bring a faith-based sensibility to a variety of legal professions. "We're training lieutenants for the Lord," Falwell told the Roanoke Times at the time.
A former Liberty professor who asked to remain anonymous told the Independent that Staver continues to frame the school's mission around Republican politics with the University's support. Although Staver never directly told her to promote candidates to students, she said he constantly emails faculty about political issues. For example, "if anybody says anything critical about Sarah Palin, then Staver sends out a link to everybody (criticizing) the liberal left." She also recalled an incident where Staver rebuked a faculty member for posting the "Evangelical Manifesto" on their door. The Manifesto was created by a group of ministers this summer to emphasize social justice and assert that neither the religious right nor the left should "politicize faith." Ergun Caner, the president of Liberty's theological seminary, denounced the position as "spineless." "We will stand with and for candidates that are for our values and against those values that we see as unbiblical," he told the News and Advance.
SHEPHERDING THE FLOCK
The Falwells' selectively controlled political preaching, in tandem with wide-reaching institutional expansion, appears so far to have insulated the Liberty community from shifting evangelical priorities, maintaining a focus on traditional Republican-endorsed platforms. Today, more diverse political expression is tolerated than under Falwell Sr. However, students' overwhelmingly negative attitudes toward Democratic campaigning indicates the Falwells' success in ensuring younger followers' underlying commitment to old values. Liberty junior Scott said that abortion and gay marriage continue to be the issues of key concerns for him and most of his classmates. "'How can you be a Christian and support this?'" Kratteur said of student reactions to his work for Obama. "I get that one a lot."
However, Krautter remains optimistic about the possibility of introducing new brands of political ideology to Liberty's evangelical community. "I think there's a lot of people here on campus that... have Democratic leanings but because of how supported conservatives are on campus they're afraid to speak out," he said. "If there's a few people that stand up and aren't afraid to back down I think those people will speak out as well."
JOY NEUMEYER B'10 is your best friend from Lynchburg.