Is Christianity today creating atheists?
[Editor's note: While Tikkun is a Jewish magazine and it is also an interfaith and secular-humanist welcoming magazine, many of whose authors and readers are not Jewish. While we claim not special expertise on the problems facing Christianity, some of our authors are outstanding Christian thinkers and activists, so they may be in a better position than our tiny staff to judge whether the articles below are crossing some line which we at Tikkun should not be crossing. Let us know. Meanwhile, while the details are quite different, the Muslim and Jewish communities also have major defections caused by the failure of some of their mainstream institutions to embody the highest values of the Jewish and Muslim traditions, usually for failing to actually embody their own teachings about the sanctity of all human beings on the planet. Just saying.... So please read and send feedback about the articles below sent to Tikkun onnline. RabbiLerner.firstname.lastname@example.org ]
The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. The invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator. …. Without doubt those who willfully try to drive God from their heart and to avoid all questions about religion, not following the biddings of their conscience, are not free from blame. But believers themselves often share some responsibility for this situation. For atheism, taken as a whole, is not present in the mind of man from the start (Atheismus, integre consideratus, non est quid originarium). It springs from various causes, among which must be included a critical reaction against religions and, in some places, against the Christian religion in particular. Believers can thus have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.
–Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, 19
The Christians Making Atheists
Growing-up in the Church, I was taught that the worst thing one could be was a non-believer; that nothing was as tragic as a doomed soul that condemned itself by rejecting God. The religion of my childhood drew a sharp, clear line between the saved and the damned. All that mattered was making sure someone found themselves on the better side of this line—and the Atheists and Humanists didn’t have a shot.
In light of this supposed truth, the heart of the faith (I was told), was to live in a way that reflected the character and love of Jesus so vividly, so beautifully, that others were compelled to follow after him; that a Christian’s living testimony might be the catalyst for someone’s conversion. The Bible called it “making disciples” and it was the heart of our tradition. As the venerable hymn declared, we Jesus people were to be known—by our love.
What a difference a couple of decades make.
Just ask around. People outside the Church will tell you: love is no longer our calling card. It is now condemnation, bigotry, judgment and hypocrisy. In fact, the Christianity prevalent in so much of America right now isn’t just failing to draw others to Christ, it is actively repelling them from him. By operating in a way that is in full opposition to the life and ministry of Jesus—it is understandably producing people fully opposed to the faith that bears his name.
In record numbers, the American Church is consistently and surely making Atheists—or at the very least it is making former Christians; people who no longer consider organized religion an option because the Jesus they recognize is absent. With its sky-is-falling hand-wringing, its political bed-making, and its constant venom toward diversity, it is giving people no alternative but to conclude, that based on the evidence of people professing to be Godly—that God is of little use. In fact, this God may be toxic.
And that’s the irony of it all; that the very Evangelicals who’ve spent that last 50 years in this country demonizing those who reject Jesus—are the single most compelling reason for them to do so. They are giving people who suspect that all Christians are self-righteous, hateful hypocrites, all the evidence they need. The Church is confirming the outside world’s most dire suspicions about itself.
These people aren’t stupid. They realize that bigotry, even when it is wrapped in religion or justified by the Bible spoken from a pulpit is still bigotry. They can smell the putrid stench of phony religion from a mile away—and this version of the Church, frankly reeks of it. People are steering clear in droves, choosing to find meaning and community and something that resembles love outside its gatherings.
With every persecution of the LGBTQ community, with every unprovoked attack on Muslims, with every planet-wrecking decision, with every regressive civil rights move—the flight from Christianity continues. Meanwhile the celebrity preachers and professional Christians publicly beat their breasts about the multitudes walking away from God, oblivious to the fact that they are the impetus for the exodus.
And one day soon, these same religious folks will look around, lamenting the empty buildings and the irrelevance of the Church and a world that has no use for it, and they’ll wonder how this happened.They’ll blame a corrupt culture, or the liberal media, or a rejection of Biblical values, or the devil himself—but it will be none of those things.
No, the reason the Church soon will be teetering on the verge of extinction and irrelevance, will be because those entrusted to perpetuate the love of Jesus in the world, lost the plot so horribly, and gave the world no other option but to look elsewhere for goodness and purpose and truth.
Soon these Christians will ask why humanity has rejected Jesus and we will remind them of these days, and assure them that they have not rejected Jesus at all—they just found no evidence of him in the Church.
Why Pastors and Priests Are Leaving the Church (Part 1)
July 5, 2017 by Brian McLaren
A lot of people have been talking and writing about the departure of Millennials from the ranks of the churched. I think people would be surprised to know how many pastors and priests have either left already or are thinking about leaving.
I meet them in my travels constantly. Take Clarke, for example. Here’s what she wrote to me recently:
The longer I work in the church the more I wonder if the church has become impotent in its ability to have impact in our world. I often feel the church caters to the expectations and needs of insiders who have lost sight of our call to be radical change agents charged with advocating for and with people who have been pushed to the margins and to fight against the walls that keep them there. It seems all too often, the church has become a comfortable place where we learn about God but not the place where we expect to actually wrestle with and be transformed by God.
A sense of mission often draws people to ministry, a desire to be part of God’s healing and transforming mission. But once they get inside, they see behind the curtain and discover a kind of boutique shop keeping a certain finicky clientele satisfied with a steady stream of (as Missional Church aptly put it) “spiritual goods and services.”
The newly ordained often experience a keen sense of disappointment, even disillusionment, as they realize what Clarke now sees, that many of our churches have more to do with subcultural identity preservation than they do with mission:
In one way, churches are filled with homogeneous people often based on heritage… the Swedish Lutheran Church, or Norwegian Lutheran Church, or the African American Baptist Church etc. We are homogeneous….
Also disheartening, newly minted clergy see the church’s concern about gnats and cluelessness about camels (to paraphrase Jesus’ words in Matthew23:24).
We are homogeneous., right up to the point that we don’t agree about something. If that something pertains to religion then we will battle it out for generations, no matter how inconsequential. If it falls into any other category we are told it is critical that we put it aside as it is not a church matter. Churches are religious institutions and those “non-religious” issues deal with the political, ecological, racial, sexual etc.
What especially grieves Clarke and many like her is the prime directive to walk on eggshells regarding issues deemed political.
As a leader in the church I feel I am expected to be silent and non-opinionated on these issues. Ironic. When I look to the life of Jesus religion seems to have been low on his list of cares other than to challenge the religious elite of the day. Jesus cared about people who were on the margins, He cared about the list of things that I feel I cannot talk about as a leader of the church. So how do I passionately follow Jesus and ignore the very work that defined his ministry?
Clarke, and many like her, are being drained of passion by the relentless focus on religious trivia and the relentless avoidance of issues that matter morally – and in terms of human survival.
As I sit in our weekly staff meetings there are so few things that get talked about that I can muster up passion to engage or care about. I’m not only talking about things like whether we use bread or wafers, Easter worship service times, and carpet color, but even worship itself and the doctrine that binds us often seem simply irrelevant to the issues of our world. I wonder if I’m burned out but I don’t think I am because there are things that do invoke deep passion in me. When I watch the news, I feel passion. When I hang out with kids who are struggling with great questions for which I have no great answers, I feel passion. When I see someone searching to find their place in the world, I feel deep passion, when I see people trying to understand one another despite their differences, I feel deep passion. When I see young people starting a recycling campaign or a stop bullying campaign, I feel deep passion. I went to school to become a leader in the church because I somehow believed the church would be the platform from which I could work alongside a community of people to engage these areas of passion. I think I was naive.
Clarke and her colleagues long to grapple with big challenges, even though doing so is “dangerous” in that it might offend a major donor:
Worship is safe, service projects are safe, Bible study is safe, talking about bulletin size is safe. I don’t think passion is ever found in the safe and I don’t think important change comes from there either and so we have become passionless and barren.
Clarke and disillusioned clergy like her aren’t complainers or quitters. They’ve already hung in there for many years. But make no mistake: eventually they will shake the dust off their feet and will leave the church … unless more and more of us say, “We’re sick of the status quo too. We’re finished with walking on eggshells. We are ready for change. You lead, and we’ll lead with you.”
But moving forward will take more than raising our voices. It will also require raising some money. We need church members to approach forward-leaning leaders and say, “If some donors get mad and stop giving, we’ll make up the difference. What good does it do to save the church budget and lose our souls?”
Gifted pastors like Clarke have seen behind the curtain. And here’s what they see:
As a church I believe we have an opportunity to be inventive and creative, curious, questioning and impactful…. But we have to stop being afraid…insecure… and we have to stop being religious over being followers of Christ.
If you’re a leader like Clarke, or if you’re part of a congregation that is tired of walking on eggshells, please don’t give up. You are needed now more than ever.
But just as the answer isn’t giving up, neither is it simply “hanging in there,” hoping things will get better. No. it’s time to break some eggshells and it’s time to upset the status quo – gently, yes, lovingly, yes, but boldly, creatively, and substantially, too.
(If you’re interested in learning about what I’m up to in this regard, please check out Convergence Leadership Project.)
“It is almost impossible to keep the idols of our own culture from influencing us, whether we want it to happen or not. This is certainly true when it comes to the so-called American dream. We need our eyes opened! We need to be called out! “
—Darrin Patrick, founding pastor, The Journey, St. Louis
brianmclaren/2016/10/the- conservative-evangelical- project-an-unexpected-grief/
The Conservative Evangelical Project: An Unexpected Grief
October 31, 2016 by Brian McLaren
I just took my first sabbatical. Turning 60 seemed like a good time to get off the road, quiet down, take stock, recharge. It was all I had hoped for. I rested. Walked. Rode my bike. Fished. Played my guitar. Finished a book. Stayed out of airports. Binge-watched a couple TV series with my wife. Worked with a coach and developed a set of priorities and plans for the decade ahead.
But unexpectedly, near the end of my sabbatical, I was overtaken by an unexpected grief. If I were grieving the end of this once-in-a-lifetime gift of rest, that would have been expected. But I knew there was more going on, something deeper that was crying for articulation.
It took a while for the source of my grief to surface. It had to do with the book I had just finished.
The Great Spiritual Migration is about three shifts or movements that many Christians are experiencing: a move away from defining our faith as a system of beliefs and toward a love-centered way of life; a move away from conceiving of God as a violent Supreme Being who favors “us” at the expense of “them” and toward a vision of God as the healing and reconciling Spirit embodied in Jesus; and a move from the church as organized religion to organizing religion—organizing spiritual activists who will work for the common good.
As I was wrestling these thoughts into their final form, I was watching Trumpism mobilize people in exactly the opposite direction, a reverse migration if you will, with Evangelical Christians serving as Trump’s most dependable base. And that, I think, explained the source of my sadness: I was losing the last shreds of my innocence about my religious heritage. I was feeling at a deeper level how much Evangelicalism had harmed me, and with me, many others.
Long-forgotten memories began coming back to me. Some were related to my family, like memories of disciplining my children with patriarchal fervor, following “Focus on the Family” guidelines that were the norm in my Evangelical tribe but now filled me with intense regret. Some were related to my career as a pastor, like preaching sermons that evaded inconvenient truths and repeated convenient falsehoods, or giving people pastoral counsel I then considered “biblical” but now considered downright hurtful. As these memories would arise, I would literally wince, sometimes groan, sometimes pray, “Lord, have mercy.”
Somehow, my grief was intensified by watching my adult kids raise their kids … without the slightest connection to the Conservative Evangelical Project. It wasn’t that I was sad about this, but the reverse: I was happy. Relieved. Grateful. My beloved grandkids, I realized, were better off than their parents or grandfather because they weren’t being indoctrinated in a belief system and political atmosphere that would denigrate others and make the world a worse place.
This persistent, profound grief was telling me that I needed to admit something to myself that I had never before admitted: the Evangelicalism that I had been a part of and that was a huge part of me had done me much harm, more than I had realized. My many years in the pastorate, my many books, my busy speaking schedule, I realized, have been an extended attempt to heal from the damage that was done to me by good people who were loyally trying to carry on a once-good tradition that had now gone undeniably wrong.
Around this time in the summer of 2016, we were all touched by photographs coming out of Syria, and a new realization hit me: I had written a book about a “great spiritual migration,” but perhaps what I hadn’t fully acknowledged was the degree to which we spiritual migrants are actually refugees, spiritual refugees. We are safe in our homes, but escaping the “failed state” of a war-torn religion whose leaders—through some combination of ego, incompetence, fear, and greed—have misled us. We are spiritually homeless, landless, displaced, feeling a combination of hope and desperation about our prospects for building a better future.
I am now on a book tour to talk to clergy and lay leaders around the country and beyond about The Great Spiritual Migration. I am rested, recharged, and eager to get back to work and back on the road. This unexpected grief will help me, I know, speak with more intensity and integrity about the great migration we find ourselves in, a journey that feels increasingly to be a matter of spiritual life and death.
“My bent is to say that, to the degree that a pastor, for the gospel’s sake, becomes political, he probably in the long run, blunts his gospel power to transform culture.”~John Piper
Liberty University Students Want to Be Christians—Not Republicans
Evangelicals at the school are tired of politics—and the party that gave them Trump.
Andrew Harnik / Carolyn Kaster / Steve Helber / AP / Joshua Roberts / Willie Vicoy / Reuters / Paul Spella / The Atlantic
OCT 26, 2016
LYNCHBURG, Va.—When Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University in 1971, he dreamed of transforming the United States. As he put it, “We’re turning out moral revolutionaries.”
Forty-five years later, the school formerly known as Liberty Baptist College has become a kingmaker and bellwether in the Republican Party. Politicians routinely make pit stops in Lynchburg; Ted Cruz even launched his ill-fated presidential campaign from Liberty’s campus in March of 2015.
That’s why it was such a big deal when, two weeks ago, a group of Liberty students put out a letter explaining why they’re standing against the Republican presidential nominee. Jerry Falwell Jr., who has run the school since his father died in 2007, announced his support for Donald Trump back in January, and he has since spoken on the candidate’s behalf in interviews and at events. “We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history,” the students wrote. “Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.”
Thousands of people signed onto the letter, including, the students said, roughly 2,000 students or alumni with liberty.edu email addresses. Dustin Wahl and Alex Forbes, two of the letter’s authors, were featured on MSNBC and CNN. They said they received supportive emails and tweets from Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Erick Erickson, the conservative radio-show host.
But there was also a backlash. Jack Heaphy, the student-body president at Liberty, tweeted out a statement of his own, claiming that most students at the school support Falwell, hate Hillary Clinton, and will be voting for Trump in November. He also pointed out that the current students who signed the Liberty United Against Trump letter only account for a fraction of the campus, which claims 15,000 residential students and 94,000 online. A third group of students then created yet another petition, lampooning the dueling letters: LU Students United for Pizza.
This kind of controversy is relatively rare at Liberty. When the subject turns to politics, it’s difficult to find much intellectual diversity and disagreement there. This seems to be complicated by three factors: the attitudes surrounding free speech on campus, the deference to authority that’s deeply ingrained in campus culture, and the widespread perception of community consensus on political and social issues. While these are problems on traditional liberal-arts campuses—as Falwell pointed out in an interview—those schools are also known for protests, clashes with the administration, and constant debates about everything from foreign policy to sexual politics to free speech itself. Liberty, by contrast, has a largely harmonious campus culture.
Talking with students on Liberty’s campus, the overwhelming sense is not division, but fatigue. “Liberty is shockingly anti-politics in some ways,” said Wahl, a junior from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “Some students are kind of tired of all the political leaders we get here.” The administration requires all students to attend thrice-weekly speeches called Convocation; in a single October week this year, Ralph Reed, Mike Pence, and Dinesh D’Souza all presented. Philip Sitterding, a junior from Virginia Beach, said these meetings have often felt like a “pro-Trump rally” this fall, since many of the speakers support the Republican nominee. While the small number of students who aspire to careers in politics might find this energizing, many others wanted a different Liberty.
“I wish we were less political,” said Jessica Brown, a junior from Dinwiddie, Virginia. “I really do.”
The old stomping ground of the religious right is becoming a different place. It’s not that there’s anything about the school that suggests conservative Christianity is in decline; in fact, Liberty has recently had some of the best years in its history, with construction booms and growing interest in its online-education program. But Liberty’s students seem to want a new model for their Christian education—one that’s less tied to Republican politics and more focused on Christ.
“You can’t link politics with salvation,” said Paige Cutler, a senior from New Jersey who’s involved with the Liberty United Against Trump effort. “That’s just a line you can never cross. And it never should have been.”
The Republican vice-presidential candidate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, shakes hands with the president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., after speaking at the school in October of 2016. (Steve Helber / AP / Paul Spella / The Atlantic)
Liberty’s Trump Coalition knows how to throw a good party. At a photo booth near the entry of their presidential-debate watch in October, attendees could toss on hard hats proclaiming, “Build the Wall,” and get their pictures taken in front of an American-flag background. Other students took selfies with the life-sized Hillary Clinton cut-out, dressed in her prison-jumpsuit best, or posed next to one of several giant Trump-Pence signs. While the room wasn’t full, the spirit of optimism—however unwarranted—
“The press wants to make you think there’s all this bad news,” the master of ceremonies, 20-year-old Josh Rosene, declared from a podium. “Trump is going to cream Hillary Clinton.”
Most of the students at the debate-watch party seemed to believe Trump is winning. Hanna Debnam, a senior from Greensboro, North Carolina, explained that the media creates a skewed perception of the race by “highlighting in his Trump rallies that he’s racist. I’ve been to five Trump rallies. All the videos that I’ve seen based on him being racist are bits and pieces of what he says to make it seem bad, but those don’t really portray what he’s trying to get at.” Her boyfriend, Zac Dunn, a senior from Charlotte, agreed that the media is biased: “If you look at … how much they cover these ‘Trump scandals’”—he used big air quotes here—“and then you look at the lack of coverage of Hillary Clinton and her email scandals, the American people aren’t stupid. They’re well aware of what’s going on.”
Many of the students at the debate seemed skeptical of surveys. Dunn described the polls used by journalists as “liberal” and argued that their samples are constructed “to be pretty biased to repress the Republican vote.” (Most polls cited by mainstream journalists use data that’s weighted to mirror the national electorate.) Alexis Rucker, a senior from St. Louis, Missouri, who helped to organize the event, explained that she has been door-knocking for Trump for months. The enthusiasm she’s seen on the ground has made her question polling numbers that show Clinton up by as many as six percentage points. Rosene, the event’s leader, was completely confident in Trump’s prospects. “I put money on it. Damn right, I did,” he said. “We’re talking lump sums of my paychecks. … If I’m wrong, God help my country, and God help my wallet.”
Other students were more doubtful about Trump’s chances of success. Rachael Glavin, a junior from northern Delaware, cited polling numbers and Trump’s recent withdrawal from Virginia—“Hillary is significantly winning,” she said. But she still doesn’t plan to vote for the Democrat. “She’s a liar, and she murders people, and that’s just a major problem to me,” she said. When asked for specifics, she explained: “There have been a lot of just really suspicious deaths around her candidacy and her husband’s candidacy back when he was running. People who were close to them would suddenly die, and there’s no explanation and no good reason, and it’s super sketchy to me.” (There is no evidence that either of the Clintons have murdered or ordered the murder of people associated with their campaigns.)
“It says a lot for Liberty that we’re not politically correct and we welcome free expression of thought and ideas.”
Of the roughly two dozen Liberty students with whom I spoke, though, most seemed thoughtful and informed about the election and American politics. While a lot of them said they feel like the media has a liberal bias, they were also up on the latest articles from Politico and other wonky outlets. Yet the students’ persistent skepticism of empirical information provided by these sources seems like a potential obstacle to the free flow of ideas on campus. If students disregard any facts that don’t fit with their worldview, they’ll likely have a hard time changing their minds about anything—or debating their peers, who largely believe the same things.
In some respects, Liberty’s students, faculty, and administrators at least seem to prize free speech on campus. Jerry Falwell Jr., for example, responded to the criticism from Liberty United Against Trump with disagreement—and praise. “I am proud of these students to be bold enough to speak their minds,” he said in an interview. “At Ivy League universities, I think conservative students would probably be afraid to do something similar for Donald Trump. It says a lot for Liberty that we’re not politically correct and we welcome free expression of thought and ideas.” Heaphy, the student-body president, said something similar in his letter defending Falwell. “I … am blessed to go to a school where the diversity of thought and a free exchange of ideas are not only accepted but encouraged,” he wrote.
There have been moments, though, in which speech on campus has become controversial. In October, for example, Falwell yanked an article set to run in the student paper, the Liberty Champion, that was critical of Trump’s “locker-room talk.” Joel Schmieg, the paper’s sports editor and author of the story, was told that Falwell pulled it because there was already a letter to the editor on a similar topic planned for that issue. And indeed, a piece about “locker-room talk,” written by Tom Ilustrisimo, a medical student, ran in the October 18 edition of the paper. Falwell has confirmed this version of events.
While the desire to eliminate redundancy seems totally reasonable, the incident reveals how closely the administration regulates the school paper—the university president himself pulled an article. “As a student newspaper of a private university, we at the Liberty Champion submit to the authority of the university in our publishing of the weekly paper,” wrote Sarah Rodriguez, the editor in chief, in an email. “There’s a line of what you can and can’t say,” added Schmieg. “I’m not going to call for a coach to be fired. As a member of the community, that would be inappropriate.”
Appropriateness seems to be a big concern on campus—one that can also suppress speech. I spoke with several faculty members who were unwilling to go on the record to criticize Falwell’s endorsement of Trump, even though they, and many of their peers, say they’re unhappy with the association. These faculty didn’t think it would be right for staffers to criticize their employer in the media—to so publicly air their dirty laundry. Wahl, the organizer of Liberty United Against Trump, said he had heard from a number of faculty members who expressed support for what the students were doing but who stopped short of signing their own names.
“A lot of people love Jerry, very much. … He [is] kind of lovably awkward.”
Faculty may also have good reason to be nervous about speaking out. Mark DeMoss, a longtime Liberty trustee and former chief of staff of sorts to Jerry Falwell Sr., said the board of directors asked him to step down last spring after he criticized Jerry Jr.’s Trump endorsement in an interview with The Washington Post. “I didn’t think this candidate represented the values that Liberty had spent 40 years trying to instill in its students,” DeMoss said in an interview. Many Liberty leaders were upset that he had publicly spoken out against Falwell, especially given DeMoss’s strong association with the university; one of the most prominent buildings on campus carries his family name. (“Individual board members have varied reasons for their displeasure regarding Mark DeMoss’ comments to The Washington Post,” the school said in a statement last spring, “most of which are not related to his disagreement with Jerry Falwell’s personal endorsement of Donald Trump or a belief that Mark DeMoss’ motivations were entirely political.”)
If anything, the risk of speaking out is even greater for faculty who are similarly unhappy about the school’s association with Trump. At Liberty, there’s no tenure—a practice specifically put into place at other universities to protect professors’ intellectual freedom.
Despite all of this, by and large, Falwell seems extremely popular on Liberty’s campus. Most students call him by his first name, and when he shows up at Convocation, they’ll boom it out in two guttural syllables: JERR-REEEE. “A lot of people love Jerry, very much. … He [is] kind of lovably awkward,” said Sitterding, the student from Virginia Beach. “He injected life into the university—Jerry Sr. had a vision for it, but he was driving it into the ground economically.”
As Falwell has significantly increased his political profile during this election cycle, that love has become more complicated. While Falwell emphasized in an interview that he endorsed Trump as a private citizen, rather than as a representative of the university, many see Liberty and the Falwells as inevitably entwined. This has had a chilling effect on what some people in the Liberty community feel they can say.
A number of students said they’ve cringed at Falwell’s political comments over the past year, like when he said concealed-carry permits would let people “end those Muslims before they walked in” and urged students to get gun licenses. “So much respect was lost at that moment,” said Emmy Brien, a junior from Northern Virginia. “It was just so insensitive and not intelligent. It was like, ‘You’re our president, you’re supposed to represent us. How could you slip like that?’”
A lot of the backlash to Liberty United Against Trump wasn’t actually about Trump—it was about respect for Falwell, Wahl said. Like the faculty, the students, too, have a deep sense of appropriateness. As Rylee Young, a freshman from Pennsylvania, put it, the letter was “disrespectful to our leader, especially when our president said that was his personal view. I think all it did was give the liberal media an avenue to criticize and pit people against Trump, like they do.”
“It teaches you to be afraid of the fact that you don’t have the majority view.”
There are theological reasons why Liberty kids would be reluctant to criticize their leader. “Biblically, authority figures are placed over us by Christ,” said Cutler, the senior from New Jersey. “God gives them that authority. The problem is that a lot of people misunderstand respect for agreement.”
At a school like Liberty, which is definitively Christian and publishes a doctrinal statement on its website, it’s fair to expect agreement within the community on a lot of issues. But sometimes, the assumption of consensus can be overwhelming, students said.
“You’ll hear a lot of racist jokes on the hall—not bad ones, but people will make jokes about racial stereotypes,” said Sitterding. According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Liberty’s population of African American students is roughly on par with other U.S. campuses—an estimated 11 percent of Liberty students are black, although that figure may be low. But the school is still contending with a difficult racial history. Before he founded Liberty, Falwell Sr. opened Lynchburg Christian Academy. The school briefly served only white students, many of whom did not want to attend racially integrated schools.
“People will make jokes about liberalism or pretend homosexuality is a big thing on the hall,” Sitterding added. “You learn, through the way people treat a subject [lightly], that they don’t expect anyone to be affected by it.” For students like him, this can feel silencing. “It teaches you to be afraid of the fact that you don’t have the majority view,” he said.
Trump’s behavior and comments are clearly controversial on campus, yet the students I spoke with said they haven’t heard much public discussion on campus of his boasts about groping women, for example. “People don’t talk about them in face-to-face conversations for the same reason we don’t talk about a lot of stuff in church culture,” said Emily Meadows, a junior from Jacksonville, Florida. “It makes us uncomfortable.”
This, above all, seems to be the reason why Trump has been so trying for the students at Liberty. They may hate what he says and does. They may be planning to vote for him anyway. But because the campus has such a strong history and culture of alignment with the Republican Party, there seems to be little authentic discussion of how to think about Trump in the context of a Christian worldview—especially when it comes to issues of gender and race.
Soon-to-be U.S. President Ronald Reagan greets Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of Liberty University, and his wife Macel in October of 1980. (Charles Harrity / AP / Paul Spella / The Atlantic)
“I feel like I’m the stereotype of an English major at Liberty,” said Kelly Kramer, a senior from Los Angeles. “I’m in flannel, with an engagement ring.”
As several students explained with a smile, a lot of kids come to Liberty and get hitched. The hook-up culture is apparently marginal, at least on campus; the code of conduct prohibits students from going into opposite-sex dorms. “I honestly would say that we have such a chivalrous group of men on campus,” said Brien, the junior from Virginia. She’s seen little of the kind of behavior that Trump displayed on TV sets and allegedly at Miss Universe pageants. “The majority just respect women and would normally never stand up for any of these things if politics weren’t involved.”
This is one of the greatest paradoxes Liberty students have to grapple with as they figure out who to vote for in November: They’re part of a culture that is intensely focused on sexual purity and holding up women’s distinctive spiritual gifts. The cognitive dissonance between Trump’s comments and the way Liberty students are taught to behave is intense—even more so because Falwell defended Trump after the tapes came out. “I heard him apologize. He was very contrite about it,” Falwell told me. “All these stories and allegations and salacious comments are all designed to distract from the issues. When you look at the issues, the American people are with Trump, and Hillary cannot win when the debate stays focused on the issues. It’s just when it gets off on these rabbit trails that people get confused.”
“I want to talk about the fact that the president of my own university is defending a man who repeatedly degrades women.”
These comments have been “so hard for me to listen to,” said Cutler. “The fact that no one wants to talk about [Trump], and instead just want to highlight Hillary’s own flaws—that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the fact that the president of my own university is defending a man who repeatedly degrades women.” She was particularly concerned about the possibility of increased violence against women. “Dismissing what he said as ‘just comments’ is why rape culture exists, because people are okay with letting ‘just comments’ go,” she said.
Words like “rape culture” might seem out of place at Liberty, where, as one student said, women would “probably be associated more with Phyllis Schlafly’s brand of feminism” than the kind of progressive feminists who developed such terms. It’s true that the hot debates on campus would likely seem out of place elsewhere: whether women should be allowed to preach the Bible or lead churches, for example, or whether women should work after graduation. But the students I met, and the women in particular, were deeply concerned with issues like sex trafficking—they described advocacy efforts and documentary screenings in which they’ve taken part.
No doubt, there’s misogyny on Liberty’s campus. Rosene, the master of ceremonies at the debate-watch party, wore a nametag that read, “Locker Room Talker.” When I asked him whether Trump’s words could potentially create a bad environment for women on campus, he said no. It’s more “confusion as to, ‘Is this really what guys are saying about me?’” he said. “As sad as it sounds, newsflash, ladies: Guys say stupid things. … I don’t think most girls talk in that manner, but guys do.”
But even though some of the women I spoke with reported being catcalled on campus and hearing sexist jokes from older professors, they didn’t think their experiences were specific to Liberty. “Whenever I say there might be sexism [on campus], it’s not a sexism based in evangelicalism,” said Sara Heist, a senior from Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s a sexism based in American culture that I would face at any academic institution.”
For those who are part of minority groups at Liberty, conversations about identity can feel even more marginalized. Students said there’s a small but active LGBT community at Liberty, although people in same-sex relationships generally don’t advertise that fact for fear of punishment from the university. And discussions about race are often nonexistent or hurtful, said Brown, the junior from Dinwiddie. While members of the Liberty community pride themselves on the lack of “political correctness” on campus, it seems like the school has its own speech code: Certain topics and conversations are implicitly unwelcome.
“There are people who will stereotype me—not on purpose, but you can feel it if it’s there,” Brown said. “I’ve learned to look at every interaction like that as an opportunity to grow. … It is tough, and it stinks. But you get to choose how you’re going to react.”
Brown, who is African American, said it was particularly hard for her to be on campus last January, when Trump visited on Martin Luther King Day. With all of Trump’s “slurs,” Brown said, “having him come on a day that’s meant to memorialize the work that Martin Luther King Jr. did during his time … made a huge impact on people.” When other students reacted defensively, saying that Trump should be able to visit campus at any time, that hurt even more, she said. “As Christians, there’s a huge opportunity to love people better and understand where they’re coming from. Empathy would have been great, and I didn’t see a ton of it.”
When Brown needs to have tough conversations without feeling stifled, whether they’re about race, sexuality, or something else, she can find them, she said—she just has to look hard at the margins of Liberty culture. As putatively political as Liberty is, it seems to lack a robust culture of political debate around these kinds of issues—ones that are challenging for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Liberty students’ votes seem to be the least interesting thing about them.
And yet, Brown said, she’s really happy to be at Liberty. Her sister graduated a few years ago, and her mom recently completed the online-education program. She feels like she’s deepened her faith during her three-plus years at the school, which was part of why she came. All of the Liberty students I met seemed to feel similarly: They love their school. Even people like Sitterding, who says he’s “not a huge fan of Christianity or the established church,” found things to praise about the evangelical university.
In part, their loyalty might come from a sense of shared values. On at least on one issue, Liberty kids seem to find near-total solidarity: abortion. Even though Trump says he is pro-life and recently made graphic (and incorrect) claims to express his disgust over late-term abortions, students aren’t necessarily persuaded. “I find his pro-life stance to be suspicious,” said Heist, the senior from Ohio. “Everyone on campus has been struggling with the decision.”
It’s impossible to know definitively how Liberty students will vote in November. The consensus among the people I met is that most of the school will choose Trump, however grudgingly. Students gave all sorts of pragmatic explanations for their choice, including a deep hatred of Clinton—while a few Clinton supporters are rumored to be on campus, they seem to be a tiny minority. Others on campus brought up flawed leaders from the Bible, like Nebuchadnezzar, arguing that God can work through anyone, including Trump.
Liberty students’ votes seem to be the least interesting thing about them, though. Most of these teens and 20-somethings have been making the same political calculation as the rest of America this election cycle: Facing two major-party choices they don’t like, they’re trying to figure out the least distasteful compromise. When these students talk about the people they admire, they don’t name Ralph Reed-style, Moral Majority-era political operatives—in fact, most students said they didn’t even know who Reed was before he came to campus this fall. Their idols are “strictly Christ-centered leaders, and not so much political leaders, or pastors that give their political opinions,” said Brien. Cutler agreed: “It’s people who use their platform well, who use their platform for Christ—not to exclude the world, but to … reach the world.”
Falwell Sr.’s Liberty may be gone. The community that has emerged seems to have no less fire for Christ, and no less conviction. But they may be done paying lip service to the party that gave them Trump.
Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation
Image credit: CAC Interns in Action (detail), Juarez Mexico, 2008. CAC Archives.
Contemplation in Action:
The Great Turning
Friday, July 7, 2017
Contemplation is no fantasy, make-believe, or daydream, but the flowering of patience and steady perseverance. When we look at the world today, we may well ask whether it can be transformed on the global or even personal level. Our hope lies in the fact that an authentic inner life is going to change the society that we live in, just as we allow it to change us. God seems to patiently participate with us and kindly invite us into a long-term process of growth. Love and life are infinite.
I know the situation in the world can seem dark today. We are seeing theological regression into fundamentalist religions which believe all issues can be resolved by an appeal to authority (hierarchy or Scripture) and so there is no need for an inner life of prayer. In the United States we have seen the rolling back of a compassionate economic system and the abandonment of our biblical responsibility for the poor, the sick, and refugees. Fear and anger seem to rule our politics and our churches. We see these same things in many parts of the world.
The negative forces are very strong, and the development of consciousness and love sometimes feels very weak. But a “Great Turning” is also happening, as believed and described in many ways by such people as Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Joanna Macy, and David Korten. There is a deep relationship between the inner revolution of prayer and the transformation of social structures and social consciousness.
The Apostle Paul has a marvelous line: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). In so many places, there are signs of the Holy Spirit working at all levels of society. The church might well have done its work as leaven because much of this reform, enlightenment, compassion, and healing is now happening outside the bounds of organized religion. Only God gets the credit.
The toothpaste is out of the tube. There are enough people who know the big picture of Jesus’ thrilling and alluring vision of the reign of God that this Great Turning cannot be stopped. There are enough people going on solid inner journeys that it is not merely ideological or theoretical anymore. This is a positive, nonviolent reformation from the inside, from the bottom up. The big questions are being answered at a peaceful and foundational level, with no need to oppose, deny, or reject. I sense the urgency of the Holy Spirit, with over seven billion humans on the planet. There is so much to love and so much suffering to share in and heal.