When the band finished their set, they departed and the pastor took the stage. He was relatively young, probably not much older than most members of the audience, and dressed in a plain shirt and jeans. His name, displayed on the giant screens overhead, was Johnnie Moore – a self-conscious use of the diminutive that was probably intended to emphasize the similarity between himself and the churchgoers.
I had come to Liberty expecting a fire-and-brimstone sermon, unapologetic quotations from the more hateful parts of the Bible, pulpit-pounding denunciations of Democrats, feminists and gay rights advocates. That wasn’t what we got; if that ever was the atmosphere on campus, it’s mellowed a bit since the Falwell days. Instead, like the music, his sermon seemed self-consciously bland, intended to be inspirational rather than wrathful. But there were a few points of interest which I’ll talk about here.
The major theme of the sermon came from Philippians 2:14, which Moore translated as “Do everything without grumbling or complaining”, and compared it with several other New Testament verses that teach similar lessons. He repeatedly described this as an absolute command – no complaining, ever, about anything, under any circumstances! Even if your life is hard or your job is terrible, he said, it’s the duty of Christians to turn the other cheek and to always be so happy and contented that the rest of the world will wonder what they’ve got that makes them feel so good.
As part of this, he urged his audience to consider how good they have it in America. He pointed out that Christian converts in developing countries regularly suffer much greater poverty, deprivation, and persecution than American believers (such as one Indian convert whom he says was beaten and forced to drink cow urine by unfriendly villagers). And while this is indisputably true, he didn’t point out the obvious implication: that American evangelicals are being deceptive when they depict themselves as a besieged, persecuted minority, as they routinely do. Nor did he mention that millions of people worldwide, not just Christians, are often subjected to unjust and cruel treatment from their culture or their government. It would have been nice to have some acknowledgment of that, especially in a sermon whose theme was that we should consider ourselves fortunate, but there wasn’t any. Instead, in the moral universe of his sermon, Christians are apparently the only ones whom we should feel sympathy for.
I also want to draw attention to a dangerous implication of this teaching. I certainly wouldn’t object if evangelicals ceased their perpetual whining about persecution, but there are real injustices that call for a response. Very often, it’s been the complainers and the grumblers who succeeded in abolishing these evils. If we all heeded the advice that no one should complain about anything, ever, there would be no women’s suffrage, no civil rights movement, no labor unions, no gay rights movement, no environmental movement, none of the social reform groups that work to improve conditions for the average person. The end result of following this teaching would be meekness, passivity, and docile compliance in the face of authority, even when it abuses its power – and perhaps, for good reason, this is exactly the attitude that the religious right seeks to instill in its followers.
Moore also cited Romans 14:1 to call for unity among evangelicals on “disputable matters”, saying that senseless argument and contention over unimportant points of doctrine divides the church where there should be unity. But the question he never addressed, of course, is who decides what’s a disputable matter? After all, it was Liberty University that only last year tried to ban the College Democrats from campus, claiming that the political positions of the Democratic party are incompatible with Christianity, and still refuses to hire any professor who does not swear allegiance to young-earth creationism. Clearly there are very few things, if any, that the religious right considers to be disputable. (The sole example that Moore cited was the biblical controversy over whether it’s OK for Christians to eat meat that’s been sacrificed to idols, hardly a live issue today.) It would have been helpful for him to list some modern issues where Liberty considers there to be room for dispute, just to get a sense of their position on this.
To finish up, Moore spoke of evangelistic efforts abroad. He exulted over how Christianity is exploding in South America and Africa, rising from just a few million believers several decades ago to tens of millions today. As my fiancee astutely observed, he obviously doesn’t count Roman Catholics as Christians. As for myself, I was thinking of the savage anti-gay madness unleashed in Uganda by its booming evangelical population, or the witch frenzies in Nigeria, or the harm done by Pentecostalism in the Republic of the Congo. Such things, of course, were entirely omitted by Moore in his sermon. It was no surprise at all that he presented the rise of African evangelicalism as an entirely one-sided picture, portraying Christian missionary efforts as wholly noble and good and the converts solely as the victims of unjust persecution and never its initiators.
Coming up: Part III of my tour of Liberty University. We visit an academic hall to see what’s being taught to Liberty students, check out the campus bookstore to see what the administration wants us to read, and make a pilgrimage to the university memorial to Jerry Falwell!