Liberty University’s New Motto appears to be: “What Would Jesus Do? Now, Let’s Do Something Else.”
Originally founded in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College (Lynchburg is the name of the town founded by John Lynch, who, surprising given his name, actually freed his own slaves and became an abolitionist), by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr. Falwell has become most famous as being one of the original architects of the Religious Right or Moral Majority, the collection of conservative, often Evangelical Christian figures that has become an important base for Republicans, a proponent of pro-life policies and politicians, and a major force behind the elections of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
Liberty University was actually Falwell’s second venture into education; four years earlier, he founded Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, a pre-K – 12 private school that focused on Christian education and segregation. Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that the “Moral Majority” was originally focused on maintaining segregation, not fighting abortion? My bad.
Anyway, Falwell and the Religious Right dropped the whole segregation angle in the mid-70s as the Supreme Court forced the integration of private schools (“th ey would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those pesky justices!”) and pivoted to focusing on abortion and other social issues that had become more salient in the era of feminism and Roe v. Wade. Liberty University was, during all of this, more of a side project and a platform for politicians to visit and demonstrate their religious/conservative bona fides.
Rev. Falwell Sr. died in 2007, and his son, Jerry Falwell Jr., has run the school ever since. Under the younger Falwell, Liberty has remained deeply involved in politics: Mitt Romney gave the 2012 commencement speech after becoming the de facto Republican presidential nominee, Ted Cruz announced his candidacy there in 2015, and Donald Trump gave his first commencement speech as President at Liberty in 2017. To be fair, the school does invite liberal politicians to appear as well: Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson are among those who have taken up the offer, while Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have all declined. (Jimmy Carter spoke at commencement last year, hilariously pointing out that his audience was bigger than Trump’s).
Under Falwell, Jr., Liberty pivoted to online education and its enrollment multiplied several times over. In a Washington Post interview, Falwell Jr., who is a lawyer by profession and not a minister, declared that ““We’re not the Moral Majority anymore. We’re not a church. Our mission is to educate” and stated that his long term goal was to turn what was once a small Baptist Bible college into the Evangelical counterpart of Notre Dame for Catholics or Brigham Young University for Mormons.
Given Falwell, Jr.’s continued, disturbingly unconditional support for President Trump, it seems fair to conclude that Liberty has maintained its Moral Majority roots while also increasing its focus on being an Evangelical education hub. More than a political force or an educational facility, however, it seems that Liberty University is increasingly determined to be a business. The shift to online education earned the school over $1 billion in total assets, and as the university has focused more on making profits than being prophets (sorry, I couldn’t resist), it has been making some questionable decisions as of late.
Liberty has recently been involved with several controversial moves concerning its personnel. Liberty hired as its athletic director Ian McCaw , after McCaw resigned from that position at Baylor University along with several others who allegedly help cover up gang rape allegations against Baylor athletes. Liberty also hired as its football coach Hugh Freeze, who is somehow not a Batman villain but who did resign from that position (head coach, not villain) at Ole Miss University after he was caught hiring escorts (or, according to him, simply dialed the wrong number). In making these moves, Liberty (a school where premarital sex [and dancing?] are banned) seems to be putting the business of running a university (and we all know college sports is a huge business) ahead of its stated principles.
Now comes the revelation that Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer, fixer” (think Olivia Pope, but as a schlubby white dude) and potential obstruction of justice partner, paid Liberty’s Chief Information Officer, John Gauger, thousands of dollars to rig online opinion polls in Trump’s favor during the campaign (whether that money was paid by check or a pile of cash comically dumped into a Wal-Mart bag remains disputed, but you can guess which version I choose to believe).
To be fair, Gauger also runs an IT firm separate from Liberty, and his poll rigging does not appear to have been done in his official capacity at the university. On the other hand, Liberty seems to be sticking by Gauger so far, calling him an “outstanding” employee who’s made “great contributions” to the University while also “enjoy[ing] success as [an] independent entrepreneur.” In addition to being morally suspect, the statement is also factually questionable, as Gauger’s efforts at poll rigging failed (as did his attempt to portray Cohen as a “sex symbol” through a fake “@WomenForCohen” Twitter account, because why not, right?).
Liberty University is far from the first Christian institution to mix religion with politics or business, but the extent to which Liberty has engaged in these other endeavors may risk the University’s long-term mission. Many of its students have grown vocally frustrated with the politicization of their school, and the school’s political involvement has called into question its tax-exempt status, which could hit the school’s bottom line pretty severely. Jesus once made the statements “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God‘s” and “you cannot serve both God and money.” What Jesus said as warnings, Liberty appears to be taking as challenges.