Liberty University’s Director of Diversity Retention Has Resigned

Quan

Quan McLaurin

His name is Quan McLaurin.

I am assuming he is resigning because of this:

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Here is his tweet:

Here is what he wrote on his LinkedIn page:

Yesterday I tendered my letter of resignation. As of July 2, 2020, I will no longer serve as the Director of Diversity Retention at Liberty University.

In other news, if you know of any good student affairs or diversity, equity, and inclusion positions that are available feel free to shoot them my way.

McLaurin has a bachelor’s degree in Clinical, Counseling, and Applied Psychology (2015) and a master’s degree in communication (2020). Both are from Liberty University.

As I wrote in a previous post today, the co-founder of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center does not believe in white privilege or systemic racism.

Let’s remember that not all Christian colleges are the same.

Let’s Check-In on the Court Evangelicals

COurt Evangelicals

Here is what your favorite pro-Trump evangelical leaders–the court evangelicals— are saying about everything going in our country right now:

Robert Jeffress is using scripture to subtely suggest that Christians should obey their government. Once again, he is using the Bible and the flag in the same tweet:

Samuel Rodriguez said he was glad to see Trump brandishing the Bible “like a Boss.” He added, “I see Donald Trump going, ‘You all dare to burn a church behind the White House. How dare you? Let me show you something.”

Rodriguez also tweeted this:

I’m still trying to figure out how to reconcile the statement with the tweet.

Ralph Reed seems to be getting more and more desperate. He is trying to maintain composure on a sinking ship. Here he is tweeting a completely debunked piece at The Federalist:

Jerry Falwell Jr. and Charlie Kirk’s Falkirk Center at Liberty University weighs in:

The Falkirk Center seems unsure how to respond to all of this so it turned to Arnold Schwarzenegger. When will Jerry Falwell Jr. and Charlie Kirk learn that the future of American unity is happening in the streets of American cities right now? Don’t be deceived. The Falkirk Center believes in “national unity” on its own terms, and these are not the terms of the people who are in the streets right now. “Dispense of vitriol?” Just read the Center’s tweeter feed. Just read Kirk’s feed.

Speaking of Kirk:

FYI: Brees apologized today. Kirk has not.

Here’s more from Kirk:

And here is Eric Metaxas rejecting the idea of both white privilege and systemic racism. He says these ideas were manufactured by “cultural Marxists.” He says these things are “bizarre.” Let’s remember that Metaxas fashions himself as a historian. Maybe he should read some African-American history. Tune in at about the 16-minute mark:

Metaxas doesn’t even hide his partisanship anymore. Lately his show starts with attacks on Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden as part of a commercial for “My Pillow.”

And then in the second hour of his program on Wednesday he talked with Charlie Kirk:

At around the 28-minute mark, Metaxas addresses the Trump Bible photo-op. I will just let you watch it. Kirk says that anyone who criticized Trump’s use of the Bible at St. John’s Church is trying  to destroy Western Civilization.

At the 39-minute mark, Kirk calls white privilege a “racist and sinister lie.” He even makes the case that when Trump held-up the Bible he was somehow making a statement against white privilege and systemic racism. Metaxas responds with some pretty bad theology.  Just watch. There is only so much of this stuff I can take.

Jack Graham has finally weighed-in:

Yes, Trump did show solidarity with “people of faith”–the conservative evangelical Christians who support him. Did Trump really declare his faith in front of St. John’s church on Monday? Here is how he understands Christian faith. (From an interview last night with Sean Spicer):

David Dark had a nice response to this:

And there is today’s update on the current state of Trump-loving white evangelical Christianity. Learn more here:

African-American Alumni of Liberty University: “Because of your callous rhetoric, we can no longer in good faith encourage students to attend our alma mater or accept athletic scholarships”

Last week Jerry Falwell Jr. designed his own blackface COVID-19 mask. Read about it here. One African-American professor has resigned.

Here was his tweet:

FalwellTweetMasks-796x1024

Falwell defended himself and refused to apologize. Last night he tweeted:

People have asked why I won’t apologize for reminding people of @vagovernor racist past in a recent tweet. It’s because that same Gov just ended tuition assistance grants for the 27% of @LibertyU online students who are African-American! Put your $ where your mouth is Gov. Sad.

And now, 35 African-American pastors, ministry leaders, and former athletes who graduated from Liberty University (I’ve linked to as many as possible below) have rebuked Falwell Jr. for his racism. Liberty University students, alumni, staff, and parents are encouraged to endorse the letter by adding their signatures.

Here is the letter:

Dear President Jerry Falwell Jr, 

We are all African-American Evangelical pastors, ministry leaders, and former athletes who are alumni of Liberty University, and we are grateful for our college experiences. These experiences have shaped us in deep and profound ways and have equipped us to engage our local context with the Gospel of Jesus, both thoughtfully and unashamedly. The school’s mission is to educate and train champions for Christ to impact the culture, and we believe the objective has been achieved for many years. While we rejoice in God’s grace in advancing this mission, we, however,  have been disappointed and deeply grieved by your incendiary rhetoric over the past several years. 

The latest example is your May 27 tweet of a face mask with an image of two people, one in a KKK robe and hood and one appearing in blackface. While your tweet may have been in-jest about Virginia’s Governor, it made light of our nation’s painful history of slavery and racism. It is what we’re called to reject as followers of Christ – “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place…” (Ephesians 5:4, ESV). The reckless nature of this tweet is a microcosm of the past several years of divisive rhetoric that does not display the kind of Christian witness that the Gospel demands of us, nor does it represent the Christlike leadership that Liberty University deserves. It has brought further disgrace to Jesus Christ and Liberty University.

For several years, you have said and defended inappropriate statements that represent Liberty and our faith very poorly. You have belittled staff, students and parents, you have defended inappropriate behaviors of politicians, encouraged violence, and disrespected people of other faiths. We were all taught at Liberty about the sanctity of life (Jeremiah 1:5) and the dignity of every human – made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and yet, you have repeatedly violated and misrepresented core Christian principles (Romans 12:9-21) through brash tweets and statements that harm our Christian witness. 

While students, professors, and alumni have urged you to alter your rhetoric and repent, sadly nothing has changed. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Liberty University is a family-owned organization and you are the sole authority. The Board of Trustees has no power to influence your behavior or hold you accountable. So, the objective of this letter is to appeal to you and your spiritual conviction. 

We are writing to urge you to stop this infantile behavior and lead our alma mater with dignity as your father did. Jerry Falwell Sr was more focused on preparing the next generation to courageously engage the culture as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). He wasn’t perfect, but he was humble enough to confess ungracious and unbiblical comments, and apologize when he was wrong. The KKK robe and hood and blackface face mask tweet may seem funny to you, but this tweet is the action of a political commentator or activist and is not fitting nor acceptable for the leader of one of the largest Evangelical Christian schools in the world. A review of your social media and statements during your presidency would lead many to believe that you care much more about politics than Jesus Christ, Evangelism, and the discipleship of students. It has become obvious to many that your heart is in politics more than Christian academia or ministry, so we would encourage you to leave the position of school president and pursue politics full-time. 

Your statements hurt the ability of Liberty alumni to obtain jobs and have a voice in the culture. Having the school’s name on a resume can be a liability to many of our graduates. As much as you say that your statements and activism do not reflect the mission, values, faculty, staff, students and alumni of the Liberty University as a whole, this is a misguided position because everything you do and say is a reflection of Liberty University, whether you want it to be or not. You are the president of a Christian university with a platform of great influence and you have the unique responsibility to steward that role in a way that honors God first and foremost. 

Lastly, we leave you with this. Because of your callous rhetoric, we can no longer in good faith encourage students to attend our alma mater or accept athletic scholarships. There are many Christians of color who worship in our churches and communities; we will not recommend their attendance at L.U. as long as you continue the unChristlike rhetoric. We will no longer donate funds to the university. We will also actively encourage Christian leaders to decline the invitation to speak at Liberty if you continue to insist on making unChristlike and inappropriate statements that are misrepresentative of Biblical Christianity. 

In closing, we ask you to withdraw your racist tweet immediately and make a public apology. If you decide to stay at Liberty, this coalition stands ready to meet with you in order to provide counsel on ways for L.U. to best move forward in these racially-charged and divisive times. Liberty University deeply impacted us as students and we hope that you can return to a focus of training “young champions for Christ” with Biblical conviction and Christlike character and humility. Our ultimate goal is for Jesus to be glorified in all that we say and do. We pray that is your desire as well.

The letter is signed by:

Dr. Chris Williamson (Strong Tower Bible Church, TN), Class of ‘90 & ‘92

Pastor Eric Carroll (The Ascension Church RVA, VA), Class of ‘91

Eric Green (former NFL player, Liberty University Hall of Fame), Class of ’90

Pastor Eric Saunders (McLean Bible Church, VA), Class of ‘07

Walt Aikens (NFL player, football student-athlete), Class of ’14

Latasha Morrison (Founder, Be The Bridge), Class of ‘13

Minister Myles “Mac” Lawhorn (Epiphany Fellowship Church, PA), Class of ‘00

Obehi Idiake (Christian speaker, podcaster), Class of ‘14

Minister Maina Mwaura (author, speaker), Class of ‘97

Pastor Marcell Howard (Woodhaven Bible Church, MI) Class of ‘03 & ‘10

Lezlyn Parker (author, speaker), Class of ‘89

Richard Shelton (former NFL player, football student-athlete), Class of ’89

Khambrel “Kham” Rembert (Christian musician), Class of ‘17

Pastor Gavin Davis (McLean Bible Church, VA), Class of ‘06

Dorena McFarland Williamson (author, speaker), Class of ’91

Rev. Dr. Johnny Parker (author, speaker), graduate student ‘05

Dr. Joy Hervey (author, speaker), Class of ‘18

Johnny T. White (H.S. Coach, football student-athlete),Class of ‘93

Shomari Dixon (ministry leader), Class of ‘19

Wayne Haddix (former NFL player, football student-athlete), Class of ’88

Rev. Brian D. Woolfolk (First Mt. Zion Baptist Church, VA), Class of ‘92

Minister Tiffany Croom, Class of ‘13

Patrick Nelson (former NFL player), Class of ‘92

Shelton Lewis, (football student-athlete) Class of ’93

Carroll L. Ward (football student-athlete), Class of 90

Pastor James Hobson Jr.(Hill City Community Church, VA), Class of ‘11 & ‘17

Curtis Artis (Christian nonprofit leader), Class of ‘91

Keith Vinson (football student-athlete), Class of ’91

LaTasha Washington (Christian counselor), Class of ‘16

Allan Louder (Basketball Student-Athlete), Class of ’91

Dr. Andre Sims (Christ the King Bible Fellowship, WA), Class of ’88 & ’91

Pastor Jua Robinson (Charles River Baptist Church, MA), Class of ’04 & ’05

Joshua McMillion (Christian musician), Class of ‘17

Pastor Marion Mason (former LU Assistant Track Coach), Class of ‘06

Corey Rice (football student-athlete), Class of ‘93

 

YOU CAN SIGN IT HERE

Here is the Associated Press story.

Jerry Falwell Jr. Just Designed His Own Blackface COVID-19 Mask; Faculty Member Resigns Immediately

FalwellTweetMasks-796x1024

When I started this blog 12 years ago, I never imagined that one day I would be writing about the intersection of white evangelicalism, Donald Trump, a major pandemic, and blackface.

Earlier today, I published a piece at Religion News Service on court evangelical Eric Metaxas’s use of blackface. Now Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of Liberty University and the guy who recently appointed Metaxas as a fellow at his Christian Right “think tank” the Falkirk Center, is tweeting about blackface.

Yesterday, Falwell Jr. tweeted:

I was adamantly opposed to the mandate from @GovernorVA requiring citizens to wear face masks until I decided to design my own. If I am ordered to wear a mask, I will reluctantly comply, but only if this picture of Governor Blackface himself is on it!#VEXIT#EndLockdownNow pic.twitter.com/twu7r4rWhd

— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) May 27, 2020

Here is Zack Linly at The Root:

First of all: Can we just acknowledge that the conservative resistance to wearing face masks makes no sense? This isn’t like the push to reopen the economy because, for all of that campaign’s faults, it’s at least about getting people back to work. The anti-face mask thing, on the other hand, just seems like arbitrary defiance for the sake of defiance. It’s just odd that all of these Republican officials, including y’all’s president, seem so hellbent on dying on that particular hill. (Editor’s note: Perhaps literally. COVID-19 is not a game.)

Falwell—the man who once had arrest warrants issued for journalists because they were covering his widely criticized decision to reopen Liberty U’s campus despite the dangers of the COVID-19 outbreak—took things a step further by randomly invoking racism to make his point.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Northam caught black people’s collective side-eye last year when a photo from Eastern Virginia Medical School’s 1984 yearbook was unearthed, showing him in blackface next to someone in KKK attire. Northam initially apologized for the photo then later denied it was him in the photo at all. This was certainly a drag-worthy offense, but Falwell is still way out of his lane here.

On its face (pun intended), Falwell’s tweet just makes it seem like he’s planning to wear a mask with a Klan member and a white guy in blackface on it. It just looks like him being racist as hell, which is probably why he needed to clarify things in a separate tweet.

“Just so folks outside Virginia unfamiliar with the pic on the mask understand: it is from the personal page of the medical school yearbook of @GovernorVA,” he tweeted. “Just a way to shine a spotlight on the fact that Democrats are and always have been the real racists in this country.”

Read the entire piece here. You can read a local news report here.

Yes, this is another example of the fact that not all Christian colleges are the same.

And now at least one African-American Liberty University professor has resigned.

Christopher House is a tenured communications professor at Ithaca College and the pastor of Christian Community Church in Ithaca, New York. He also teaches in Liberty University’s online program.

Here is his letter of resignation, published on his Facebook page:

I’m a Black tenured associate professor at Ithaca College and a pastor. My research expertise and scholarship in rhetoric, race and religion and also rhetorical theology have opened up other opportunities for me to speak/teach at other institutions where critical conversations about race, racism and white supremacy are needed the most.

In late 2018, I was presented with a unique opportunity to do so at the graduate level as an instructor for an Intercultural Communication class at Liberty University online.

A bit uneasy, yet feeling compelled to do so, I agreed to bring my expertise to bear in an online environment in fall 2019.

I did so not that I align myself politically with this institution or its leadership (because I don’t), but because I know that there are individuals who attend Liberty who need to hear diverse voices like mine and the message I carry. I was surprised to find graduate students open to new ideas and ways of understanding about such critical issues.

However, yesterday after a friend (who is a LU alumnus) forwarded me photos of two racists tweets from LU President Jerry Falwell, I resigned immediately!!!!!

My moral compass and integrity would not allow me have any further relationship with that institution for any reason!

I was brought into LU to generate the kind of dialogue that challenges the ideas, narratives and ideologies that underlie the very images Falwell intentionally used to make a political statement to the Governor of Virginia. Falwell did so at the expense of Black people and Black pain. This is abhorrent, evil and sickening! This does not reflect the God of the Bible!

I have come to meet some really bright students at Liberty (and who are there for many different reasons) who have to endure this type of environment. My heart goes out to them.

This is another reminder to me that some folks really don’t want to change. And although I was able to impact a few, the price to continue to do so is too high! My resignation letter is below!

Yet another chapter in the history of the world’s second largest Christian university.

Yet another chapter in the story of white conservative American evangelicalism in the age of Trump.

If There is Such a Thing as Twitter Blackface, Court Evangelical Eric Metaxas Just Engaged in It

Here is court evangelical and newly appointed Falkirk Fellow at Liberty University:

metaxas Blackface

Karen Swallow Prior, as some of you know, is an English professor at Liberty University, at least until she leaves for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary this summer.

Metaxas’s tweet is a reference to Joe Biden’s awful gaffe today in which he joked that black Trump voters “ain’t black.” He apologized for the statement.

The condemnation on Twitter has been fast and furious:

Bailey’s tweet above is true. But as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, this kind of racism has a long history in American evangelicalism.

I think it is time, once again, to learn more about Blackface. Here is a good article from the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A taste:

Historian Dale Cockrell once noted that poor and working-class whites who felt “squeezed politically, economically, and socially from the top, but also from the bottom, invented minstrelsy” as a way of expressing the oppression that marked being members of the majority, but outside of the white norm. Minstrelsy, comedic performances of “blackness” by whites in exaggerated costumes and make-up, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core.  By distorting the features and culture of African Americans—including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character—white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.

The most striking parts of this definition are the references to “comedic performances” and “language.” In his tweet, Metaxas was trying to be funny and mocked African-American speech patterns. He has also built much of his recent career around playing the victim–a white evangelical man who feels “squeezed.” This is a textbook case.

Metaxas’s tweet and his recent appointment as Senior Fellow at Liberty University’s Falkirk Center speaks volumes about the current state of white evangelical support for Donald Trump.

Metaxas will take some heat this weekend on social media, try to defend himself on Monday, and then continue with his Salem Radio program as if nothing has happened. There will be no consequences for this racist tweet because it will garner ratings. The Trump base will love it. Actually, it will probably do much to strengthen Metaxas’s brand. This is the current state of Christian radio. As Wehner notes above, it is time for Christian leaders with a platform to step-up. Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, Jack Graham, Greg Laurie, Ralph Reed, Paula White, David Barton, and Tony Perkins won’t do it. Neither will Al Mohler or Wayne Grudem. Who will it be?

I think it was GOP operative Rick Wilson who said “everything Trump touches dies.”

Jerry Falwell Jr. and Eric Metaxas Unite

Metaxas FalkirkAs the November 2020 election nears, Donald Trump’s court evangelicals are beginning to consolidate their forces under the banner of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Falkirk Center for Faith & Liberty. (See our posts on the Falkirk Center here). Today, Liberty University appointed Eric Metaxas Senior Fellow at the center.

Here is the press release:

No. 1 New York Times bestselling author and nationally syndicated radio host Eric Metaxas has joined Liberty University’s Falkirk Center for Faith & Liberty as a senior fellow, contributing his breadth of intellect and passion for traditional freedoms to combat the surge of progressive worldviews affecting American society.

Metaxas joins forces with co-fellows Dr. David Brat, a former U.S. Congressman and dean of Liberty’s School of Business; Jenna Ellis, a constitutional expert and senior legal advisor for President Donald Trump; David Harris Jr., a political activist, author, and conservative podcast host; and many other public influencers.

“Having Eric Metaxas join the Falkirk Center is very significant,” said Ryan Helfenbein, executive director of the Falkirk Center. “He is one of the wisest Christian men I know, and his passion for Jesus and the conservative cause will surely aid our mission.”

The Falkirk Center for Faith & Liberty is a conservative think tank formed by Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. to provide a biblical, measured response to questions about the intersection of faith and politics in the public sphere.

The center, which launched last fall, equips convicted Christians with educational resources to preserve traditional American freedoms like religious liberty, limited government, free market principles, personal and national defense, and protection of life in all developmental stages.

“It’s an honor for me to serve the Falkirk Center,” said Metaxas, who was Liberty’s 2014 baccalaureate speaker. “I’m thrilled at the work the center is doing to shed light on many important issues.”

The Falkirk Center’s growing ambassadorship program allows Christians of all ages — from Liberty students to members of the public nationwide — an opportunity to advocate for these values using their social media accounts.

What does it all mean? It’s not clear. Metaxas already has a pretty high profile among the Trump-loving evangelical base. So far the Falkirk Center seems little more than a group of conservative evangelicals who use their platform to defend the president and the idea that the United States is a Christian nation. (Oh yes, I almost forgot, it also wants central Virginia to secede from the state and join West Virginia). The “fellows” write things at outlets like Breitbart, appear on conservative media shows, and tweet.

Metaxas’s appointment comes in the wake of Liberty University’s decision to eliminate its philosophy department.

It also comes following Falwell Jr’s battle with The New York Times over a reporter who apparently trespassed on Liberty University property during the COVID-19 lockdown.

I am sure Metaxas wants an even bigger platform than the one he already has. I am sure Falwell Jr. wants Metaxas’s help in the fight to defend Liberty from the “liberal media,” “fake news,” and other forces of evil. 🙂

Trump’s evangelical supporters can breathe a sigh of relief today. Metaxas and Falwell Jr. are on the job! Fears will now subside, at least for the moment. Metaxas, Falwell Jr., and the rest of the Falkirk Center team will be everywhere on conservative media in the coming months trying to convince the white evangelical faithful to once again vote for Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, the rest of the evangelical faithful–those who do not like Trump (but may have voted for him in 2016) or “don’t do politics,” will remain quiet.

Jerry Falwell Jr: *The Chronicle of Higher Education* Interview

File Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, just gave an interview to Jack Stripling of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The first part of the interview covers ground we have already covered here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. The second part of the interview is pretty revealing. Stripling annotates some of Falwell Jr.’s answers in brackets.

Here is a taste:

Are you going in to your office?

I don’t have as many meetings as I used to, but whenever I do need to have one, yes, I’ll go in and have one.

Do you wear a mask?

No.

Do you ever wear one?

No.

Why not?

I don’t get close enough to anybody to need one. I got the antibody test, and I have not had Covid-19.

[The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a mask “in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”]

You got the antibody test because you felt you had symptoms, or you were just wondering if you’d won the Covid lottery and might be immune?

I was just curious. I kept hearing so much hype about it; I just wanted to see how real the threat was.

The fact that you didn’t have the antibodies, does that make you think that the threat is exaggerated?

No, I’m just glad to see it wasn’t bad enough around here that I’d caught it.

[Of 31,140 reported coronavirus cases in Virginia, 74 are in Lynchburg, where Liberty’s main campus is.]…

When do you think you will have to make a decision about the fall?

Whenever I want to. Whenever I decide that the powers-that-be have concluded that it’s safe to open, then I’ll make the call. But not until then; I don’t have to. There’s no pressure.

We’re giving faculty their contracts, but we are making them contingent on enrollment levels. And there’s a chance a lot of kids won’t come back because parents are scared to send them back. So we’re going to keep our options open.

[Liberty professors do not have tenure, except in the law school, where accreditation requires it. The university has a $1.6 billion endowment, and it boasts an enrollment of 100,000 online students.]…

Have you had any direct conversations with President Trump since this pandemic began?

Yeah, he called yesterday. I was sitting in the car, and the phone number popped up and I didn’t recognize it and I answered it: “Jerry,” the president said.

I can’t tell you what he said, but it was just a friendly conversation.

I told him about what we were planning to do with The New York Times about the trespassing charges, and he said, “I hear that people are dying at Liberty. Now I hear there’s zero cases. He said, “Why don’t they correct it?” I said, “Good question.”

What did he think of how you were handling The New York Times?

I never say what the president says to me.

You just did!

Not really.

Fair enough. In your Fox interview, you were floating the idea that North Korea and China might have created the virus. There’s been criticism that there’s just no evidence for this, that this is conspiratorial thinking. Was it appropriate to voice that out loud?

Afterward, everybody else started saying the same thing. I was ahead of the game on that one.

It’s funny: A lot of Ivy League schools have connections to that Wuhan lab. I don’t know if you’ve heard that. I don’t know if they’re working over there. I just read last week there’s some connection between Ivy League schools and that Wuhan lab. I don’t know if that means anything.

If I didn’t know better, I would think you were planting a seed that Ivy League universities are part of some conspiracy to release the coronavirus. Is that what you’re saying?

No, no, no. I was just surprised to read that they were involved with that lab.

This is the exact kind of stuff that people complain about with you: Just floating the ‘isn’t this curious?’ type of thing. Now you’ve added Ivy League universities to the list, as if they’re part of some problem.

That was published in the mainstream media. They did it to raise suspicion. I didn’t. I was just telling you what they said.

[Scientists have said they doubt the new coronavirus emerged from a lab in Wuhan. But the theory remains resonant in political circles. In response to follow-up questions about Ivy League connections to the Wuhan lab, Falwell provided an article from Bloomberg about a Harvard University chemistry professor who had been arrested in a crackdown on intellectual-property theft sponsored by China. There is no evidence that Charles M. Leiber, the professor, had anything to do with the novel coronavirus, despite social-media posts suggesting otherwise, FactCheck.org reported in FebruaryThe Chronicle provided Falwell with a link to FactCheck.org’s reporting on Leiber. “Interesting,” Falwell replied].

How would you feel if you opened Liberty and you had a student or faculty member who got really sick, or even died? Would you feel tremendous guilt?

That’s why I said I’m going to exercise extreme caution before making decisions. You weigh all the factors, and you make the risk known, and it’s their choice whether to come. I don’t see how that’s any different than going on a ski slope in the state of Virginia.

But I wouldn’t open school and say we recommend you come if this thing’s still going like it is now. You’re welcome to come, but please realize that we can’t control what we can’t control.

I wouldn’t care how many showed up and how many didn’t. A lot of schools would.

Because you have so much money.

If you want to put it that way [laughing]. I didn’t say that; you did.

You’ve kind of been saying it.

We don’t have the financial pressures that a lot of schools have.

Read the entire interview here. It may be behind a paywall.

*Columbia Journalism Review* on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Latest Attack on the Press

Liberty Campus

Here is a taste of Bob Norman’s piece at the Columbia Journalism Review:

ON THE MORNING OF MARCH 27, Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer, asked in a text if Calum Best, a student government leader at Liberty University, was available to be photographed for theNew York Times. He’d agreed to the photo shoot the previous day at the request of Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson.

“Sure, what should I wear?” answered Best, 21. They decided to meet on the grounds of the Lynchburg campus.  The resulting photograph was published in the Times two days later. It accompanied  Williamson’s story about a decision by Jerry Falwell Jr., an evangelical Christian leader, Liberty’s president and a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump,  to keep the campus partially open after spring break despite the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Falwell didn’t appreciate the Times’ coverage. He disputed a claim in the story made by the director of the student health service that students had exhibited symptoms of the virus, and threatened a defamation suit. The Timesstood by its reporting. 

“The enemy is real,” Falwell said of the media on the John Fredericks Showon April 14. “They really don’t have any care for the well-being of average Americans. They just want power. They’re authoritarian. They’re like nothing I’ve seen … since Nazi Germany.”

Falwell hasn’t yet filed a lawsuit, but he did go on the attack. The Liberty University Police Department obtained a warrant for Rendleman’s arrest on a trespassing charge shortly after her visit.

The university also pressed charges against ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis and freelance photographer Amanda Rhoades, who had entered campus on March 31 on behalf of Agence France-Presse. Falwell said his police department sought a warrant for Williamson as well, but the judge refused to sign it based on a lack of evidence. 

“They’re willing to come from hotspots like New York and go right past no-trespassing signs that we had at every entrance,” Falwell said on the conservative radio show. “These people are not gonna trespass on our campus and bring viruses on our campus and bring whatever it is they’re doing.” 

He promised an “ugly legal fight” over the trespassing charges. 

“They forced us into a corner and I don’t think God wants Christians to just sit back and not protect what they believe in,” he said on the Todd Starnes show last month. 

But Falwell apparently relented after speaking with prosecutor Harrison and receiving written statements from both Rendleman and MacGillis. In mid-May Harrison announced that she was not prosecuting the two journalists on the misdemeanor charges punishable by up to a $2,500 fine and a year in jail if convicted. 

In written statements, Rendleman issued an apology and MacGillis offered an explanation for his campus visit and accepted a ban from returning to the campus: “Mr. MacGillis believed he had the right to report there based on a prior conversation with [Falwell] and because such reporting constituted business with the university. Mr. MacGillis now understands that Liberty believes he should not have been on campus in light of newly posted signs restricting certain access.”

Harrison told CJR a decision in the Rhoades case has not been made because she has not been in contact with counsel for the photographer. 

Read the rest here.

Liberty University’s Statement on the Elimination of Its Philosophy Department

Liberty

Get up to speed here.

Here is the official press release from Liberty University:

Liberty University is pleased that it is very efficient and effective in the delivery of education in a God-honoring way and in a way that adds value to our students. In 2012, Liberty made a deliberate decision to appropriately align our B.A. in Philosophy program, moving it from our School of Divinity to our College of Arts & Sciences. Upon moving the program, we began to evaluate declining trends in degree-seeking philosophy students across the United States. We also evaluated trends of other Christian colleges that were streamlining their humanities programs and others that completely dissolved philosophy programs due to these negative enrollment trends. 

As a result, in 2015, we dissolved our M.A. in Philosophy program due to waning enrollment. At that time, we began evaluating our B.A. in Philosophy Program and working hard to achieve increased enrollments. This effort did not bear fruit.  Due to the lack of interest, over several years, in a B.A. in Philosophy, we began in the fall of 2019 to collapse the program and to stop accepting new students as we had less than 20 students enrolled and five faculty to service them. 

Despite the anxieties associated with the tough decision to collapse the B.A. in Philosophy program, we work hard at Liberty to take care of our people. As such, the professors impacted by the collapse of the program have been offered generous severance packages and are immediately eligible for rehire in any area that they are qualified for at the university, as well. And those teaching in online modalities maintain the opportunity to continue their service in good faith. 

In parallel to this academic decision, President Jerry Falwell wisely decided to solidify the tenets of basic Christian life and thought within Liberty’s general education curriculum to ensure Liberty in no way moved from its sound focus on theology, apologetics, and philosophy. To that end, a team of some of Liberty’s best theologians, apologists and philosophers convened to ensure that Liberty continued to integrate and expound upon its curriculum with a deeper focus on theology, apologetics and philosophy. It is vitally important that our students clearly understand the deity of Christ. The end result, according to Dr. Gary Habermas, renowned philosopher and apologist, was “one of the most exciting developments he has been involved in during his time at Liberty.”

This decision should lead to greater interest in theology, apologetics, and philosophy, thereby creating the potential for the launch of a future B.S. in Philosophy. 

In a Late-Night Voicemail, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. Tells a *New York Times* Reporter That She is “in some serious trouble”

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Jerry Falwell Jr. wants The New York Times punished for what he believes to be an inaccurate story about Liberty University’s response to the coronavirus. He even left a Times reporter an ominous and threatening message on her voicemail.  The message said, “you’re in some serious trouble.” (Why did Falwell wait until almost midnight to make this call? Why not call during the day when he could tell the reporter directly?  This seems cowardly to me).

The New York Times defends its coverage.  Here is a taste of Elizabeth Williamson’s piece, “Falwell Focuses on Criticis as Coronavirus Cases Near His University Grow“:

…a Liberty student on Monday filed a class-action lawsuit in a federal court in Virginia, saying that Liberty and Mr. Falwell had “placed students at severe physical risk and refused to refund thousands of dollars in fees owed to them for the Spring 2020 semester,” according to a statement from the law firm filing the suit.

The furor in Lynchburg centers on Mr. Falwell’s decision to open the campus to all students and staff at a time when most American universities were closing for fear of spreading the disease. For weeks before that decision, Mr. Falwell had derided other universities’ coronavirus responses as overreactions driven by a desire to harm President Trump.

“We think it’s irresponsible for so many universities to just say ‘closed, you can’t come back,’ push the problem off on other communities and sit there in their ivory towers,” he told a conservative radio host.

Since the media spotlight trained on Liberty’s decisions, Mr. Falwell, a close ally of Mr. Trump, has protested that his policies were no different than many other university administrators, and that he has been singled out for unfair criticism by liberal journalists bent on his destruction.

“The facts are that Liberty University’s response to the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic is indistinguishable from that of many, if not most, universities, and, more importantly, it had not experienced a single on-campus student or employee testing positive for Covid-19,” he said this week in a statement that ignored illnesses among off-campus members of the Liberty community.

To his supporters, he has been less temperate. The media, he said in a radio interview with John Fredericks, who identified himself as a Trump campaign operative, “just want power, they’re authoritarian, they’re like nothing I’ve seen since, if you go back in history, to Nazi Germany. That’s what they remind me of.”

And he has spared no effort to defend his actions since articles on Liberty’s reopening ran in ProPublica and The New York Times. He pursued arrest warrants for misdemeanor trespassing against two journalists, Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, and Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer for The Times. He enlisted a New York law firm to threaten legal action against The Times and, he has said, other outlets as well.

He called a Times reporter shortly before midnight, leaving a voice mail message that said, “you’re in some serious trouble.” He accused the journalists of putting his students at risk because they traveled from New York City. (They did not.)

Read the entire piece here.

“A Pandemic Billy Sunday Could Not Shut Down”

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Religion News Service is running my piece on Billy Sunday.  I absolutely love the title they chose and the images they added!  Here is a taste:

(RNS) — As the United States deals with the social effects of COVID-19, several states with stay-at-home orders have exempted religious services. Some evangelical churches, claiming their First Amendment right to worship, held religious services on Easter with the full knowledge that the virus spreads through close human contact.

History will do little to sway the pastors of these churches. Nor should we expect history to provide definitive answers as to whether it is a good idea for churches to remain open during pandemics.

But history can serve as a moral guide in times of crisis. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” In that spirit, it is worth remembering evangelist Billy Sunday’s face-to-face encounter with the great influenza pandemic while conducting a revival crusade in Providence, Rhode Island.

Read the rest here.

I also did a brief video interview about the piece with Brad McKinnon of Heritage Christian University in Florence, Alabama.

Falwell Jr. to Reporters: Get Off My Lawn!

Liberty Campus

Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, wants two journalists arrested for trespassing on campus property.  Here is a taste of Caitlin Oprysko’s piece at Politico:

Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, said on Wednesday that arrest warrants had been issued for journalists from The New York Times and ProPublica after both outlets published articles critical of his decision to partially reopen Liberty’s campus amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Photocopies of the two warrants published on the website of Todd Starnes, a conservative radio host, charge that Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer for the Times, and Alec MacGillis, a ProPublica reporter, committed misdemeanor trespassing on the Lynchburg, Va., campus of the college while working on their articles.

Falwell and Liberty, one of the most high-profile evangelical schools in the country, have come under fire for welcoming students back to campus after the school’s spring break despite the pandemic, while nearly every other college in the country has ordered students off campus.

In an interview on Starnes’ show, Falwell ripped a New York Times report that nearly a dozen students were experiencing symptoms of Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The Times cited “the physician who runs Liberty’s student health service,” who said three students so far had been tested for coronavirus, with at least one student, who lives off campus, testing positive.

Read the rest here.

Falwell Jr. Says *The New York Times* Story on Coronavirus at Liberty University is “False”

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Get up to speed here.

Here is Falwell’s statement as it appears on the website of WSET News–Channel 13 in Lynchburg:

The New York Times ambushed Liberty University to publish a false and misleading story claiming that, “students started getting sick” after the University received students back after spring break. The Times attributed the reporter’s conclusion about the scope of the COVID-19 symptoms being about a dozen students to a local doctor who has consulted with LU. The truth is a far different story. Both the numbers and the sequencing are wrong.

At about 12:30 pm on Sunday afternoon, a New York Times reporter emailed university spokesperson with a list of 12 questions to be answered for a story that was going to run in the paper Monday. About 20 minutes later, she wrote to say that the story would go online in a few hours. Unable to gather specific answers to all the questions, President Falwell called the reporter and gave her an interview. The story was posted at 3:00 pm and contained several errors.

The University promptly provided the reporter detailed numbers on the student cases and requested corrections. No correction has been forthcoming so this statement is being issued.

Liberty disputes the number of students with symptoms that the Times reported. Liberty is not aware of any students in its residence halls testing positive for COVID-19 or, in fact, being tested at all, much less any residence hall students having sufficient symptoms of COVID-19 to get tested.

Liberty can confirm that, following the US Surgeon General’s recommendations concerning persons who had been in the New York City metropolitan area, Liberty University asked four students who had recently been in that area and who were living in campus residence hall rooms to self-quarantine for the recommended period in single rooms at Liberty’s otherwise unoccupied housing annex (a former hotel a few miles from campus). Two did and two opted to return to their permanent residence, instead. There were three students in close contact with these individuals and they were also asked to self-quarantine in separate rooms in the annex. They did.

Liberty is providing meals and attending to their needs there. This was precautionary and not based on any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 among the eight. The health professionals did not recommend these asymptomatic students be tested and they were not.

Liberty is also aware of one off-campus student who returned from an out-of-state county with a high number of cases who was running a fever and had a cough. He was tested and advised to self-isolate pending the results. He elected to return to his permanent residence instead.

Another off-campus student came in for COVID-19 testing during spring break and her results came back negative.

Liberty is also aware of a recently graduated student who is taking online classes and who lives off campus with his family. He remained in Lynchburg during spring break who was advised to self-isolate based on his reported symptoms while his test results were being processed. Despite his status as a graduate, he came through the campus clinic to see the doctors he had been seeing while a student.

Liberty University has a protocol in place for informing members of the University community as necessary in the event we confirm a student or employee on our campus tests positive for COVID-19. No such notification stands in place as of yet.

So despite the Times’ sensational headline and story lead, Liberty is only aware of three off campus student who were sufficiently symptomatic to qualify for COVID-19 testing, two of which did not leave Lynchburg for Spring Break and one of which tested negative during Spring Break.

The story also forwards a misleading narrative about how government officials were informed of Liberty University’s decision. The following statement was shared publicly on March 16 with advance copies to both the City of Lynchburg and the Governor’s office following Liberty’s decision to move most all classes to online delivery, thus allowing fewer students to need to return to Lynchburg from Spring Break to take classes, as had been the prior plan.

More coverage here.

Former Liberty University Executive on Jerry Falwell: “He doesn’t think anyone should be able to tell him what to do, and he’s going to do whatever he wants…”

File Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa

This article packs an even stronger punch now that we know Liberty University is probably dealing with an outbreak of coronavirus. Liberty is an unhealthy place. And now people are getting sick.

Here is Brandon Ambrosio at Politico:

Lynchburg, Virginia, isn’t a stereotypical college town. It isn’t politically liberal. It doesn’t have the crunchy affect of an Ann Arbor or even a Charlottesville.

But even here, where Liberty University drives a large part of the economy—and where school president and chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. strides across the landscape as a local grandee—anger over Falwell’s decision to bring university students back amid a coronavirus pandemic is boiling over.

“Remember when people wanted to tar and feather folks? That’s about the level it’s at in the Lynchburg community right now,” a former longtime Falwell associate told me over the phone. “You have … 16,000 petri dishes he’s inviting back to Lynchburg, who have gone out all over country for spring break—he’s inviting them back into our city, our community, knowing that at some point they’re gonna have to interact with the public.”

Throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus have led colleges to upend their plans for the semester by moving classes online, canceling commencement ceremonies and—critically, from a public-health perspective—moving students out of dorms. Virginia Tech is practically begging students to stay away, enticing them with cash rebates. The University of Virginia has shut down its dorm system, save for those few students “who have no other option.”

Liberty University, meanwhile, has invited its students to return to the dorms, whatever their circumstances might be. Falwell has said this decision was in students’ best interests—that students would be better off if they returned to campus before the coronavirus spread—but that suggestion has met with exasperation by public health experts, state and local officials, and many residents of Lynchburg.

As President Donald Trump pumps out messages that fears of the coronavirus are overblown, and Americans try to square that with their local regulations and personal worries, Liberty has become an even more intense version of the national conflict, with students and faculty left trying to weigh their own interests against a defiant leadership with a constantly pivoting message—in this case, a person who is used to having total control of the institution.

For people who’ve traveled in Falwell’s orbit, the decision is classic Jerry.

“He doesn’t think anyone should be able to tell him what to do, and he’s going to do whatever he wants,” a former Liberty University executive told me.

“He’s very defiant,” said another longtime Falwell associate with close ties to the Falwell family. “It’s very much in his character. That’s a family trait. His father was the same way.”

Now, Falwell has maintained that people have this all wrong: Liberty simply allowed students to return to live in the dorms, if they so choose, while finishing up the semester in online courses. “We think Liberty’s practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall, if Coronavirus is still an issue,” Falwell told the school’s news service in a March 23 statement.

Read the rest here.

“Nearly a dozen” Liberty University students are “sick with symptoms that suggest Covid-19…”

President Donald Trump attends the Liberty University Commencement Ceremony

This was inevitable.  Here is a taste of Elizabeth Williamson’s reporting at The New York Times:

As Liberty University’s spring break was drawing to a close this month, Jerry Falwell Jr., its president, spoke with the physician who runs Liberty’s student health service about the rampaging coronavirus.

“We’ve lost the ability to corral this thing,” Dr. Thomas W. Eppes Jr. said he told Mr. Falwell. But he did not urge him to close the school. “I just am not going to be so presumptuous as to say, ‘This is what you should do and this is what you shouldn’t do,’” Dr. Eppes said in an interview.

So Mr. Falwell — a staunch ally of President Trump and an influential voice in the evangelical world — reopened the university last week, igniting a firestorm, epidemiologically and otherwise. As of Friday, Dr. Eppes said, nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggest Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Three were referred to local hospital centers for testing. Another eight were told to self-isolate.

“Liberty will be notifying the community as deemed appropriate and required by law,” Mr. Falwell said in an interview on Sunday when confronted with the numbers. He added that any student returning now to campus would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“I can’t be sure what’s going on with individuals who are not being tested but who are advised to self-isolate,” said Kerry Gateley, the health director of the Central Virginia Health District, which covers Lynchburg. “I would assume that if clinicians were concerned enough about the possibility of Covid-19 disease to urge self-isolation that appropriate screening and testing would be arranged.”

Of the 1,900 students who initially returned last week to campus, Mr. Falwell said more than 800 had left. But he said he had “no idea” how many students had returned to off-campus housing.

“If I were them, I’d be more nervous,” he added, because they live in more crowded conditions.

For critical weeks in January and February, the nation’s far right dismissed the seriousness of the pandemic. Mr. Falwell derided it as an “overreaction” driven by liberal desires to damage Mr. Trump.

Read the rest here.

ADDENDUM: Liberty University disputes the veracity of this story.

Is the Christian Right to Blame for the Coronavirus?

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As some of you know, earlier this week I participated in a conversation with Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationism.  I think you can still watch the conversation here.

Today at The New York Times, Stewart has a piece titled “The Road to Coronavirus Hell Was Paved by Evangelicals.”

Here is a taste:

At least since the 19th century, when the proslavery theologian Robert Lewis Dabney attacked the physical sciences as “theories of unbelief,” hostility to science has characterized the more extreme forms of religious nationalism in the United States. Today, the hard core of climate deniers is concentrated among people who identify as religiously conservative Republicans. And some leaders of the Christian nationalist movement, like those allied with the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which has denounced environmental science as a “Cult of the Green Dragon,” cast environmentalism as an alternative — and false — theology.

This denial of science and critical thinking among religious ultraconservatives now haunts the American response to the coronavirus crisis. On March 15, Guillermo Maldonado, who calls himself an “apostle” and hosted Mr. Trump earlier this year at a campaign event at his Miami megachurch, urged his congregants to show up for worship services in person. “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not,” he said.

Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida mocked people concerned about the disease as “pansies” and insisted he would only shutter the doors to his packed church “when the rapture is taking place.” In a sermon that was live-streamed on Facebook, Tony Spell, a pastor in Louisiana, said, “We’re also going to pass out anointed handkerchiefs to people who may have a fear, who may have a sickness and we believe that when those anointed handkerchiefs go, that healing virtue is going to go on them as well.”

By all accounts, President Trump’s tendency to trust his gut over the experts on issues like vaccines and climate change does not come from any deep-seated religious conviction. But he is perfectly in tune with the religious nationalists who form the core of his base. In his daily briefings from the White House, Mr. Trump actively disdains and contradicts the messages coming from his own experts and touts as yet unproven cures.

A couple of quick thoughts:

First, most op-ed writers do not write their own titles. The title of this piece is misleading. As Stewart noted in our conversation this week, and repeats in the Times piece, she is writing about a particular kind of evangelical, not all evangelicals.  Her focus is on the anti-science, Trump-loving parts of the Christian Right.

Second, those who are upset by Stewart’s piece should get a copy of Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Stewart is essentially making the same argument about evangelical anti-intellectualism.

Here is conservative writer Rod Dreher:

 

I don’t think Stewart is scapegoating anyone. If one reads the piece carefully, it is hard to argue with the fact that people like Guillermo Maldonado, Rodney Howard Browne, Tony Spell, Jerry Falwell Jr., and others have been reckless. I think it is also fair to say that the white evangelicals who empower Donald Trump bear some of the indirect blame for his bungling of this crisis. Dreher obviously has a beef with The New York Times, but Stewart’s piece, and much of her book Power Worshippers, is pretty accurate.

Liberty University is Open. Local Lynchburg Officials are Not Happy About It

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Liberty University

The students are having “quarantine parties” off campus.

Here is the Associated Press:

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Officials in Lynchburg, Virginia, said Tuesday they were fielding complaints about the hundreds of students who have returned from their spring break to Liberty University, where President Jerry Falwell Jr. has welcomed them back amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We could not be more disappointed in the action that Jerry took in telling students they could come back and take their online classes on campus,” Lynchburg City Manager Bonnie Svrcek told The Associated Press…

Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb said about 1,100 students were back on campus as of Tuesday morning. He said a former hotel the university owns is available as a quarantine site if needed and tents have been set up “preventatively” as a place to direct any student on campus who might feel ill…

Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy said in a statement that she thought the university’s decision to allow students to return was “reckless.”

“I am concerned for the students, faculty and employees at Liberty University, and I am also very concerned for the residents of the Lynchburg community,” she said.

Liberty’s decision also prompted an unusually critical and public dissent from a faculty member. Faculty members, most of whom do not have tenure, frequently decline interview requests from AP and other news outlets.

“It is unconscionable that the leadership of the university is fully implementing Falwell’s politically motivated and rash policy that unnecessarily risks an unmanageable outbreak here in Lynchburg,” Marybeth Davis Baggett, a professor of English, wrote in an opinion piece published by Religion News Service and The Washington Post.

Baggett wrote that faculty had been told to conduct classes from their offices, even though that instruction was being delivered virtually. And she said professors were “expected to hold office hours and welcome students for face-to-face interaction.”

The university’s news release said Liberty’s human resources department has been processing requests from employees with health problems that put them at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and “making accommodations as appropriate.”

Falwell tweeted a link to the release Monday and said, in part, “Bet the ‘Baggett’ lady is embarrassed now!”

Some Liberty students raised concerns about their classmates’ behavior. In interviews, they described “quarantine” parties happening off campus, as well as large gatherings of students, including meetups to play sports or share meals.

“I would say it’s an exception to see someone do the right thing,” said Alexa Whaley, a junior from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who said she went home over spring break and returned because of her job at a local law firm.

Read the rest here.

Is the Falwell tweet referenced in this article a play on the word “bag lady?” (See our post on Marybeth Baggett’s criticism of Liberty here).  What does it say about the state of American evangelicalism that this man leads one of the world’s largest evangelical universities? What does it say about American evangelicalism that so many evangelical young people (and their parents) choose to study at a school led by this man?

Let’s also remember, again, that not all Christian colleges are the same.

Despite Pressure From Some Faculty and Staff, Liberty University Remains Open

15a8d-libertyApparently this piece did not do the trick.

Here is the latest from the local Lynchburg paper:

As the coronavirus threatens to spread across the Lynchburg region, Liberty University officials are preparing to welcome back up to 5,000 students from spring break this week.

Defying a national trend of campus closures, President Jerry Falwell Jr. has invited students to return to residence halls and has directed faculty members to continue to report to campus even as most classes move online.

In an interview Sunday night, Falwell said somewhere between several hundred to more than 5,000 students are expected to live in campus dorms, where they will continue coursework online rather than in classrooms.

Meanwhile, hundreds of professors and instructors without a valid health exemption will come to campus to hold office hours.

“I think we have a responsibility to our students — who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here — to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life,” Falwell said.

Falwell’s decision leaves Liberty as an outlier among the scores of colleges and universities across the country that have shut down to help limit the spread of the disease known as COVID-19.

The threat of the coronavirus became more immediate for the region this weekend when the Virginia Department of Health announced cases in Amherst and Bedford counties. Statewide, as of Monday evening, more than 250 people have contracted the disease and seven have died.

In response to the pandemic, several nearby institutions have instructed faculty to work remotely and have limited dorms to students unable to return home. At the University of Lynchburg, 19 students continue to live in dorms while at Randolph College just five remain on campus.

In contrast with other schools, Liberty’s dorms, academic buildings, library and fitness center remain open.

The university has taken some steps to help slow the virus’ spread. Gatherings in campus buildings, including a handful of classes still holding in-person meetings, are capped at 10 people in accordance with an order by Gov. Ralph Northam.

Similarly, dining halls are only providing take-out service, and campus visits have been suspended.

On Monday, Northam directed all non-essential businesses to close by the start of Wednesday. Non-essential services were identified as all places of indoor public amusement as well as fitness centers, and salons that cannot comply with social distancing guidelines. It is unclear how that order will affect Liberty.

Falwell, who has publicly downplayed the threat of the virus in recent weeks, said he is confident the school has taken the proper steps to prepare for a campus outbreak. He said Liberty officials have identified an old hotel owned by the university as a place to quarantine students who fall ill.

“I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”

Some Liberty faculty members have questioned whether Falwell’s actions have gone far enough.

Read the entire piece at the Lynchburg News & Advance.

Liberty University English Professor: “Please Stop Jerry Falwell Jr. Before It’s Too Late!”

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If you are looking for dissenters on the campus of Liberty University, the English Department might be a good place to start. Earlier this year, the department’s most public figure, Karen Swallow Prior, announced that she is leaving Liberty University, citing, among other things, “new regulations and policies that make me less freer to practice [her] art.”

Now Marybeth Baggett, Associate Professor of English, is demanding that Falwell Jr. close the campus to protect students and employees from the coronavirus.

Last week, some of you may recall, Falwell Jr. moved nearly all Liberty instruction online, but he gave students the option of returning to campus after Spring Break ends today.

Baggett has turned to Religion News Service to make her case. A taste:

I have no animus toward Jerry Falwell Jr. He simply should not have a monopoly on this decision. I think he is dangerously wrong here and seems unable or unwilling to recognize it. For that reason, the decision must be taken out of his hands. I speak up for his benefit as well, since his current plan is courting a disaster for which he would be primarily to blame.

Yes, Liberty’s students are mostly young, at low risk for serious complications from the virus. But the administration’s decision to remain in regular operation affects many more than simply the young and healthy among us.

Many students, faculty, and staff have health conditions that would make COVID-19 difficult to fight. And of course, Liberty is not a bubble where the virus would be contained. Instead, its population comes into regular contact with those in the Lynchburg community, putting their health and lives at risk as well.

It is unconscionable that the leadership of the university is fully implementing Falwell’s politically motivated and rash policy that unnecessarily risks an unmanageable outbreak here in Lynchburg.

I have heard from many at the university who have health issues or loved ones with health issues and are distressed about the leadership’s insensitivity and profligacy with impunity. These folks can speak up only on pain of risking their careers.

This leaves me wondering what university leadership has to gain in leveraging people’s livelihoods against their speaking the truth. I simply cannot square this oppression of reasonable dissent with the biblical dicta the university professes.

I am deeply grieved that Jerry Falwell Jr’s control of Liberty University is so complete that not one person in leadership is speaking up as the loyal opposition on behalf of the vulnerable that Falwell’s impudent and imprudent decisions have put at risk, both at Liberty and in Lynchburg.

The leadership’s willingness to enable Falwell’s self-professed politically motivated decision bespeaks a spirit of fear, or worse, that shames the mission they ostensibly pursue. I beg the deans, senior leadership, and board members to think more long-term. They are compelled by what is genuinely best for the university to act, to say nothing of their altruistic obligations as Christians.

These leaders may think they are helping the institution, but in fact, they are sowing the seeds for its devastation.

Read the entire piece here.

Yesterday on Facebook, Baggett urged other members of the Liberty University community, including faculty, to speak-up.  A taste of her post:

…Yet many Liberty faculty and staff hold back from expressing their concern publicly for fear of repercussions. And so the real and valid concerns folks have about the situation are suppressed. For that reason, I am posting this thread to solicit private messages which I will post here anonymously as comments.

Those in the Liberty or Lynchburg community who will be affected by the administration’s decisions to keep the campus open, please send those to me. I will hold your name in confidence, but will share your comment here.

My sense is that there are many who would like to speak up; I hope this will provide them an opportunity to have their voice heard.

On Twitter, Baggett asked for help in amplifying her message.  In that spirit, here are some of the Facebook responses she has received:

FB message: I am actually at more risk than most to contract the illness, because of the nature of my work. My employer *can’t* close, and half my work time is spent in a room shared by entire project team that includes several consultants who fly home and back on weekends. They’re very high-risk transfer vectors, which means I’m very likely to get exposed, and from there, my wife is *also* likely to be exposed. My wife works for Liberty in her own project team for a job that could easily be done remotely, and many of the people she works with are professors who are old enough to be severely compromised by the virus. LU doesn’t seem all that concerned about the effect they’d have by transferring viruses outward, so they might benefit from knowing how vulnerable they are to viral transfers inward to their own ranks.

FB message: I think it is safe to say that the culture of fear is alive and well at LU, which may be why there has been a silence from the faculty and staff. I am a current employee and worked in various departments within LU for almost a decade now. My current role is work-from-home so I am grateful for that. However, my heart hurts and is so concerned for my friends and co-workers who are on-campus. I work with seasoned employees who are (at least in this pandemic), considered elderly or higher risk. Many more staff/faculty members take care of and even live with their elderly parents/grandparents. Those who are mothers/fathers of small children are a concern as a well. This is about safety. It is not like deciding a cancellation due to weather, but we are playing with the lives of others and risking further spread of the virus. This is scary to me that staff and faculty safety have seldom been regarded as being a priority. I have a young child as well and my parents and husband are considered high risk, so why endanger the people of Lynchburg in general (and surrounding areas) by ignoring the suggestions from the government, CDC? This is completely irresponsible and faculty/staff keep the school running. They should be a priority and feel valued, not just the students. It is shameful and those in leadership need to be willing to hear the praise AND concerns from their employees without instilling fear in the hearts of the staff for having an opinion. In this case, an opinion to close, which will save lives!

Personal message: What is most frustrating to me is the seeming lack of care for the Lynchburg community. I have seen of my local, non-Liberty friends and businesses in the past several weeks doing good work help mitigate the spread of the virus. Liberty, by contrast, is having its employees to return to work and keeping campus open. If it’s Christian, it ought to be better, right? At this point, if an outbreak happens in Lynchburg, Liberty will be if not totally at fault at least a large contributing factor. Creating a situation where students are given permission to return to campus en masse is irresponsible and unethical and does nothing to care for the least of these in our campus community and in our City.

FB Message: There’s simply no reason for faculty and staff to come to campus if we can do exactly what we need to do under these straitened circumstances via Microsoft Teams video conferencing with students. I find it completely unacceptable that we’re being asked to make the impossible choice between following the orders of the administration for the sake of our jobs and personal/family health. I’ve always loved the classroom environment, but I’m dreading having to go back Monday. Wakes me up at night with panic.

FB Message: Where is the School of Divinity in all this? Thought they were supposed to be the rudder? Those days seem to be over.  [JF: This link might provide an answer to this question].

FB message: I think allowing the person who runs the university to make such a selfish and dangerous decision is partially on the faculty. What if none of the faculty showed up on Monday but still taught their online classes and did everything else they were supposed to do? What are they going to do? They can’t fire everyone. The university can’t run without faculty. Now is the time to unify and take a stand if ever there was one. A stand that will not cause harm to the university but will show they care about the community, even if their president does not.

FB message: Liberty has always been vocally pro-life, until now. Putting faculty, staff, and students needlessly at risk is just the opposite, not to mention the physically vulnerable like the aged and sick. Falwell literally laughed at the reckless disregard of life found in young people without calling them to account and trying to inspire them to think about more than themselves. But perhaps it would be hard for him to teach such a thing when he lacks any such vision himself.

FB message: I’ve got an asthma sufferer in my home, but I haven’t asked to stay home yet. I’m working up the courage because we are supposed to reach out individually to request exemption, which means that I have to stick my neck out and maybe pop up on the administrative radar. When contracts are up for renewal, I don’t want to people to think “well, so and so didn’t want to come in.” And then, what if my course evaluations take a dip because of all of this? It’s frustrating that as faculty we are asked to be (and I’m happy to be) understanding, compassionate, extend grace and the benefit of the doubt, etc. —especially at this time—and yet we are not given the same treatment, in addition to the constant checks for compliance for things we didn’t completely understand, while migrating course content online, and training in a new technology… all of which culminated in a handful of administrators being added into faculty LMS to monitor all communication to students, also for compliance, which comes off less as “we’re going to make sure we support you so we can get through this the best we can” and more like “we’re gonna make sure you do this, now.”

FB message: The decisions the institution is making about staff and faculty are incredibly stupid. My particular job can easily transfer to work from home (as shown every time there is a snow day) and yet when I didn’t feel comfortable going in to work yesterday because I was running a low grade fever (though I felt fine in general) I was told I would have to take paid time off because current policy isn’t allowing us to work from home. My entire office has spoken about how utterly incompetent Liberty’s response has been during this time but there’s no avenue to express these complaints. I’ve never seen morale as low as this and it could so easily be fixed by just having us work from home. I’m desperately tired of working for a University that clearly cares so little about their staff and faculty.

FB message: It is positively terrifying to think about pushing back against the administration on this, as they are watching us and could punish us and our families (if we lose our job and our income, it hurts our families too) for expressing even cautious dissent. And yet, having that many people come to work (when we can do the same work at home) is potentially dangerous. The fact that students are required to move their stuff out of the dorms within a few days is also dangerous. I don’t understand why we are being asked to do this, and it is hard to know where to draw the line. I woke up last night and had to pray through anxiety on this. God, help them change their hearts.

FB message: In the 12 years that have passed since my husband and I graduated LU, we’ve been ashamed to say we’re Alum- but never as much as we are now. We need reasoning behind the decision to bring students back. We need to know how this isn’t a risk to students, faculty and the people of Lynchburg. We need to know WHY in the middle of a pandemic, Liberty University believes their dorms should be full and their faculty should put their own families at risk. The answers to these questions need to be based in statistics and science. Jerry Jr: are you using Liberty and Lynchburg as an experiment? What are you thinking?

FB message: It is time for the board of Liberty University to ask for Jerry Falwell Jrs. resignation. His latest actions, as well as, several of his actions over the past three years have not be in line with with the mission of the university or indicative Christian faithfulness. The time is now to take a stand and not allow him to do more damage to the community, Liberty, and the name of Jesus.

FB message: I’m finding it difficult to articulate the frustration and helplessness that I am feeling as a Liberty employee who is still expected to report to work. My role at the university is one in which I am constantly in contact with students, staff, and faculty members of all ages. The projected number of students returning to campus is sobering. At this point it feels as though transmission from returning students to “essential” university staff and faculty members is unavoidable. This whole situation is emotionally draining. I am being told that I should be thankful that we are remaining open because so many others have lost their jobs during this time. However, I cannot simply rejoice because our continued operations mean putting our entire community at risk.

FB message: As someone who falls squarely in the at-risk category for serious and potentially deadly health consequences should I contract the COVID-19 virus, I’m fearful of going into work on Monday with the thousands of faculty, staff and students who will be on campus. I’m also fearful, however, of not having my one-year contract renewed if I make the choice to work from home. I keep praying that the governor will issue a stay-at-home order like the governors of some other states are doing.

Liberty University is a very unhealthy place. Now it appears Jerry Falwell Jr. and his leadership team might expose the campus to the coronavirus.

ADDENDUM (Sunday, March 22, 2020 at 7:24pm) : It has come to my attention that Baggett has less to risk than most Liberty faculty members. According to a March 3, 2020 post on her Facebook page, she has accepted a new job teaching English and “literary apologetics”  at Houston Baptist University.