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 organizations, it revoked approval for the campus Democratic organization.
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 VP 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 skeptical 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 unauthorized 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 e-mail from a longtime Liberty professor who confessed that he'd voted for President 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 GOP 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.