At most American colleges, young lovers are spending Valentine's Day doling out Whitman's samplers, stuffed animals, and long-stemmed roses to their crushes and significant others, hoping to get lucky in the process. Not so at Liberty University, the late Reverend Jerry Falwell's "Bible Boot Camp" for young evangelicals.
As I found out when I spent a semester undercover at Liberty for my book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, many hard-line evangelicals don't celebrate Valentine's Day at all. As holidays go, it's considered fairly dangerous - not because there's anything inherently sinful about chocolate and flowers, but because allowing Christian college students to acknowledge Cupid's wiles makes them more likely to kiss, fondle, and sleep with each other, all activities prohibited by Liberty's 46-page code of conduct, called "The Liberty Way."
Instead, every February 14th, my classmates at Liberty (and thousands of other evangelical teens across America) celebrate the National Day of Purity, a conservative Christian holiday designed to promote abstinence before marriage. The Day of Purity was founded at Liberty in 2003 by Mat Staver, the president of Liberty Counsel and dean of the Liberty School of Law, who wanted to give Christian students an alternative to a secular Valentine's Day and its lustful associations. On February 14th, participants agree to wear "LivePure" wristbands and white t-shirts to symbolize their commitment to abstinence, and many sign purity pledges, putting their promises in ink.
When I was at Liberty, I heard Dean Staver promote the holiday with a speech to the entire student body, during which he compared premarital sex to a nuclear accident. "In Chernobyl," he said, "radioactive material was contained in the reactor, and it produced power, light, and heat. But as soon as the reactor broke and melted down, it produced destruction and death. The nuclear reactor that God created is husband and wife, committed to each other in a lifelong commitment. And when sex is contained within that reactor, it produces unity and intimacy. But when it is taken outside, it results in abortion, disease and death, harm and hurt. It tears apart husbands and wives, and damages children."
As you might expect from sentiments like that, the National Day of Purity is about more than simple abstinence. In fact, most of Dean Staver's speech at Liberty was devoted to attacking liberal initiatives like same-sex marriage, legalized abortion, and the redefinition of gender boundaries. The Liberty Counsel's website (http://www.lc.org/dayofpurity/about/
), laments the fact that "there is a concerted effort in the schools and media to turn our youth away from traditional values," and quotes a gay activist who says, "If we do our jobs right, we're going to raise a generation of kids who don't believe the claims of the religious right." Staver is determined not to let that happen, and the National Day of Purity is one way he intends to advance the conservative Christian cause and take back the culture.
Among my classmates at Liberty, though, Staver's broader political agenda seemed to pass mostly unnoticed. Liberty students are generally pretty vocal about their sexual abstinence even without being prompted by a holiday, and on February 14th, many boyfriends and girlfriends on campus seemed to hold relatively normal - if physically restrained - celebrations of the classic Valentine's Day. (I did, however, see a few people passing out "Scripture Conversation Hearts," the heart-shaped candies with Bible verses replacing "Hug Me" and "Be Mine" on the front.)
In fact, Liberty's celebration of the National Day of Purity may have inadvertently contributed to a minor outbreak of sexual sin - just the thing it was intended to prevent. On the day itself, I saw six guys from my hall huddled on the sidewalk outside the dining hall, standing in a circle and snickering to each other. They called me over, and a senior named Ben whispered in my ear:
"Don't make it obvious, but look at that girl."
With his eyes, he motioned to a very attractive blonde standing behind him. She was wearing her crisp white Day of Purity t-shirt, leaning back against the building and talking on her cell phone.
"What about her?"
Swiveling around slowly, I laughed out loud. White t-shirts? In 30- degree February? What was Dean Staver thinking? The blonde stood unaware, gabbing into her phone while all six of my hallmates stared at her hardened nipples, which were poking through her shirt like a pair of Cupid's arrows. For these young Christian men, at least, the National Day of Purity came as a righteous blessing indeed.