From the very beginning, I was primed to be a Liberty University student. My upbringing as a dissatisfied fundamentalist Christian had built an aching for a more accepting, understanding religion that focussed less on the semantics and more on the sincerity. Growing up, I was surrounded by people who defined their faith as the drinks they avoided and the movies they skipped, and I longed to find a community that emphasized their personal relationship with Christ over their public acts of piety.
After spending a chaotic year at Bob Jones University (a notoriously rigid fundamentalist college) and finding myself expelled [you can read about my experience in my last post for ATP], I was lost. I spent 7 months working to pay down my university debts and searching for a new school to call home. That’s when I found Liberty.
My father and I visited the campus in late 2006, and I was thrilled to find young people with shaggy hair, torn jeans, t-shirts, and headphones (all banned at BJU). People acted more like humans and less like drones and the culture shock was intoxicating. The buildings seemed to ooze enthusiasm and I absorbed it like a sponge. I knew this would be my new home.
Every new student at Liberty is required to attend what’s called “General Education”. Its a credited class that teaches and grades students on their world views. They lecture on topics that include abortion rights, LGBTQ issues, political parties, logic, absolutes, biblical interpretation, and drug use. Think of a standard orientation class for freshmen and mix in a flavoring of evangelical, Christian-Republican ideology: Homosexuality is wrong, abortion is murder, the government was meant to be Christian… you get the idea.
In my first semester, this class was my favorite. Controversial topics that I’d long fought my peers or restrictive parents over were considered non-issues. Political positions shaped by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck were spouted to be gospel-truth, and topics like “worldly” music and rigid restrictions on entertainment choices were soundly ignored. While students weren’t encouraged to raise their hands with dissenting opinions, those that did were promptly rebutted with what sounded like air-tight counter arguments (but in retrospect seemed more like memorized apologetical lines). To some, this class was a nuisance to be dealt with, but to me it was an affirmation of all the internal conflict I’d felt. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but this class set the stage for how Liberty shapes it’s students’ environment. This was the construction of an echo chamber, and I’m ashamed to admit that I loved every minute of it.
This constant, congratulatory back-patting was a perk enjoyed by students who towed the line. Every teacher in every class worked their hardest to spin even the most obscure subjects into some form of worship or evidence of their god. English 101 was a path to learning to better interpret your Bible. Speech 101 was a chance to learn to lead people to Christ. Illustration 101 was an opportunity to learn skills that could help a church some day. Where Liberty differed from my previous fundamentalist school was in the way they enforced their values.
Liberty is nothing if not an encouraging place. The campus’ enthusiasm for their truth bled into everything they did. Concerts, sporting events, stadium preaching, and small prayer groups all shared a common theme: We figured it out. We have truth. The fact that we’re here and doing so well proves it. I felt lucky to be a part of something so self-assured.
By my second year, as the classes grew more specialized and my social circles began to grow larger, I began to notice cracks in the school’s shell. The more sermons I heard preached, the more similarities I recognized to my home’s fundamentalist roots. While Liberty didn’t have the crusty exterior of a place like Bob Jones, they still believed all the same things: Man is an utterly-depraved creature placed on the earth 6,000 years ago. Evolution is a lie being forced on the children of America. Women are subservient to men in nearly all matters. Abortion is the greatest threat to mankind.
I realized that Liberty wasn’t liberal and it wasn’t fundamentalist. It was both. It was fundamentalism wearing a mohawk. It was a hyper-capitalist evangelical church packaged as a university. Their ideologies were easily disproven, but rather than read the latest study they’d parade celebrity after celebrity onto their convocation stage as if to say “See how successful they are? This proves our point!” Rather than research modern scholarly insights into the historicity of Biblical texts, they’d install 2 or 3 new laser light fixtures into their stadium so that people could really get lost in their worship. They held up campus staff as celebrities who, when they fell, fell hard. The lights, glamour and drama were stand-ins for the substance they lacked.
At its core, Liberty’s greatest failing was the thousand lies it told itself. The emperor wasn’t the one without clothes; it was the subjects. All of the enthusiasm and accepting, smiling faces helped reinforce an echo chamber of ideas that formed logical circles in which students and faculty alike lounged comfortably. The Roman poet Juvenal perfectly summed up the campus leadership’s strategy toward developing spiritual or intellectual pursuit almost two thousand years ago when he penned “panem et circenses”. Give the people bread and circuses, and they’ll neglect their surroundings.
This is the danger of the evangelical movement. It is fundamentalism married with capitalism and sold as the solution to all your friends’ problems. Focus on the lights, property, trendy visuals, and catchy music, all while dutifully dispensing cash into the offering plate, and maybe patrons won’t notice the complete nonsense that’s being passed as wisdom. Maybe they won’t hear it when the their leadership blames 9/11 on gays, feminists, and abortion. Students will be so lost in learning the new chord progression they saw in worship class that they won’t see the hypocrisy of their college building a $60 million dollar football stadium for the furthering of the gospel. Science students won’t think anything is odd about what they are taught and political students won’t realize they are running out of people to debate with.
I enjoyed the time I spent at Liberty University the same way I enjoy my time spent drunk. It’s comfortable not to think. Being numb is easier than broadening my horizons. Did I learn at LU? Yes. And had I left that school and immediately joined a similar evangelical, logic-hammock of a church, I may never have learned again.