An Atheist at Liberty University, Part IV

Our next stop was the Liberty campus bookstore. It was run by Barnes & Noble, and it looked pretty much like any other campus bookstore. I was surprised by the range of books available there, some of which I would have expected to be verboten on campus – from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods to Jeff Sharlet’s The Family, as well as books on global warming and dream interpretation. That said, there were also four or five whole racks of shelves, a good half of the store, devoted to Christian material – Bibles, apologetics manuals, theology texts, proselytizing handbooks, and one shelf given over to books written by Liberty faculty, including the current president, Jerry Falwell’s son Jonathan.

This is a good place to comment on Liberty University’s code of conduct, the “Liberty Way“, which all students living on campus must obey (students who are under 21 and not married are required to live on campus). Among other things, it requires student groups to get prior approval from the administration for all on-campus speakers, demonstrations, and petitions, with the clear implication that permission will be denied if the activity would “compromise the principles and policies of Liberty University”. (Remember what Johnnie Moore said about “disputable matters”? Not too many of those in sight around here, it seems.)

Even more surprisingly, the code of conduct bans Liberty students from seeing any R-rated movies – even while off-campus. (I asked; there was a special exemption for The Passion of the Christ.) Also banned are any video games, posters or music whose content is incompatible with a “healthy Christian atmosphere” or not “in harmony with God’s word”. This is why it surprised me to find such books in the bookstore – although, like most totalitarian states, I’m certain that Liberty has many unwritten rules in addition to the written ones. It may well be that students are expected not to read or possess unorthodox books, even if the rules don’t say so explicitly.

Outside the bookstore, we came across this interesting little pavilion. I’m still not certain why Jerry Falwell chose the Liberty Bell as the symbol of his university, or why he named it “Liberty” in the first place. The Christian belief that Jesus provides “liberty” from sin may be part of it – but if that’s the reason, why use a secular symbol like the Liberty Bell, rather than a cross or something else explicitly religious?

This could, yet again, be an example of how the evangelical mindset so often values image over substance. Doubtless, it serves rhetorical ends to proclaim their love of liberty, even while the rules they impose on their students and faculty regarding permitted speech, correct belief and so on are the antithesis of this.

Last but not least, there was our visit to the on-campus memorial to Jerry Falwell. It was on a hilltop, set aside from the other campus buildings, behind the house that Falwell lived in while he was alive and that’s now used as an administrative center. There was a stone cross rising out of a reflecting pool, with an eternal flame on top, and a fenced-off plot of land watched over by a small bronze plaque. The snow was well-trampled, but in the chilly peace of that Sunday morning, my friends and I were the only ones there. On the far side of the memorial, someone with a less-than-reverent cast of mind had built a fort in the snow.





I shed no tears over Falwell’s death; he was a spiteful, small-minded hatemonger, and proud of it. And to judge from all the accounts I’ve read, Liberty reflected that attitude while he was in charge of it. For instance, The Preacher’s Son tells of several students being instantly expelled if they were even suspected of being gay; some of them were kicked out of their homes because of it, and at least one committed suicide.

Yet it does seem that Liberty has mellowed at least somewhat since Falwell’s passing. The Preacher’s Son also said that when the author attended Liberty, in the early 1990s, students were forbidden to see any movie or to listen to any contemporary music, even Christian pop; that girls were required to wear dresses or skirts; and that the administration put wheel locks on undergraduates’ cars to stop them from leaving campus without permission. None of those things still seem to be true today.

Make no mistake, Liberty hasn’t gone very far from its roots. It’s still a deeply conservative Christian fundamentalist college, still teaches its students young-earth creationism and the Rapture, still makes attendance at religious services mandatory, still engages in the policing of viewpoints and the monitoring of thoughts, and still views voting Republican as synonymous with Christianity. (As I was writing this, I heard that Americans United has asked the IRS to investigate Liberty’s tax-exempt status in light of the administration using the school newspaper, the Liberty Champion, to endorse political candidates.) But despite its origins, Liberty hasn’t been able to completely resist the tides of modernity, it seems.

But the problem is that even what’s moderate by evangelical standards is not moderate by the standards of wider society. From biology classes that teach creationism to law classes that teach Christian dominionism, Liberty is systematically deceiving its students about the facts of the world. And the old, ugly paranoia and hatemongering isn’t far beneath the surface either. And while, by the strict letter of the law, they have every legal right to lie and mislead, we likewise have every right to call this behavior what it is and denounce it. It seems a feeble weapon, but in the long run, no belief system is entirely immune to questioning.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • chancelikely

    This could, yet again, be an example of how the evangelical mindset so often values image over substance.

    You mentioned this in another one of the Atheist at Liberty posts, and I think it’s a fascinating idea – have you done a blog post on it?

  • BJ Marshall

    I had never thought of this question until now: Do you know whether students can apply for Federal financial aid to attend “universities” such as this? I shudder to think that my tax dollars are helping some “college” student learn YEC.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Perhaps you should find some random students and talk to them about atheism. Recommend some websites and reading material to them.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Also banned are any video games, posters or music whose content is incompatible with a “healthy Christian atmosphere” or not “in harmony with God’s word”.

    I wonder if that includes the Left Behind video game, in which good little Christians hunt down UN staff and other bad guys during the rapture.

    Last but not least, there was our visit to the on-campus memorial to Jerry Falwell…

    Was that after I visited? Did the reflecting pool smell of urine?

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Even more surprisingly, the code of conduct bans Liberty students from seeing any R-rated movies – even while off-campus.

    And how precisely the fuck do they enforce this? Do people come back smelling of forbidden film? Perhaps they have secret cameras in the area movie theaters? WTF?!

    …the evangelical mindset so often values image over substance.

    Because so many of their crimes are thoughtcrimes, and vigilance is paramount, yes: the plumage and posturing are huge. I wouldn’t be surprised if they kept a list of who buys American Gods. I’d wager the whole “liberty” thing is about double-speak, since actual liberty includes the liberty to fuck up, whereas “libery from sin” is just a nifty code-phrase for “kept in line”. You see, what you’re being liberated from is your capacity for disobedience. What a nice euphemism!

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    And how precisely the fuck do they enforce this?

    Remember D, these people aren’t like you (or me either for that matter). They live their lives with God riding their conciences

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Yeah, but they also think that having God on the brain isn’t enough, and there needs to be Earthly enforcement of divine law. My question is as to why this is on the books instead of strictly between the believer and the deity – same thing for sodomy laws and abortion laws (many who say abortion ought to be illegal because it’s wrong have no ideas at all about what should be done to the women who commit such crimes, they just want abortions to stop).

    It plays into the appearances again, but still, if nothing’s to be done about it then what’s the point of having the rule in the first place? You might as well say, “You can’t talk with atheists when you’re home on Christmas vacation.” It’s just stupid.

    Oh, dammit, I just answered my own question. Way to go, Steve, ruining my fun and wonder. I was so enjoying my thoughts of Jerry Falwell in black pajamas, creeping about town and placing spy cameras in local theaters in the middle of the night!

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    And how precisely the fuck do they enforce this?

    I recall in the movie Heaven Help Us the priests at the Catholic school attended by the male characters raided the malt shop and rousted the students out of there. I doubt Liberty U has anything like that, though they might have some staff members keeping an eye out, as well as drumming the “fear of the Lawd” enough into the heads of the students so that they in effect police themselves.

  • Andrew T.

    I’m surprised they didn’t layer superlatives into the wording on Falwell’s memorial plaque. (I can think of other words with which to describe the man, myself.)

  • Katie M

    “I’m still not certain why Jerry Falwell chose the Liberty Bell as the symbol of his university, or why he named it “Liberty” in the first place. The Christian belief that Jesus provides “liberty” from sin may be part of it – but if that’s the reason, why use a secular symbol like the Liberty Bell, rather than a cross or something else explicitly religious?”

    I think Falwell wanted to imply that conservative Christianity and the good ol’ USA are simpatico.

  • Kevin Morgan

    The religious right wants Americans to make certain associations:

    Liberty = Jesus
    Jesus = America
    America = Jesus

    They want America seen as a fundamentally Christian society, based on the most rigorous and strict interpretation (theirs) of the bible. We’re supposed to equate freedom and liberty with Jesus and capitalism at all costs.

    If you don’t agree, get out. (Or just die, they’ll accept that too since all who fail to agree with them 100% are going to hell any way.)

  • Caiphen

    ‘I was so enjoying my thoughts of Jerry Falwell in black pajamas, creeping about town and placing spy cameras in local theaters in the middle of the night!’

    D

    I wonder how many times he went to see X rated movies in his black pyjamas. He probably would have needed it to relieve himself once in a while from the money grabbing rubbish he was spinning.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Do you know whether students can apply for Federal financial aid to attend “universities” such as this?

    Yes. I attended a conservative Christian college and got federal aid. The aid is awarded to the students, not the universities; students are free to choose which schools they want to attend. Also, many Christian colleges and universities are accredited by the same agencies that accredit secular schools. So, students attending sectarian colleges that meet the accreditation criteria have access to all the resources that their cohorts have.

    As for how rules – such as attending R-rated movies – are enforced, in my day (which was a few days ago, I’ll admit), it wasn’t unusual for “concerned brothers and sisters in Christ” to report transgressors to the school authorities. They were doing their Christian duty, as they saw it. Yeah, it was ugly sometimes.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    And how precisely the fuck do they enforce this? Do people come back smelling of forbidden film? Perhaps they have secret cameras in the area movie theaters? WTF?!

    I don’t think there’s any formal effort made to enforce it, but as the chaplain said, if someone else sees you watching a forbidden film, they can report you. Marc Adams, who wrote The Preacher’s Son, says that when he attended, the RAs would sometimes drive to the theater and scan the parking lots for cars with Liberty parking permits.

  • Caiphen

    ‘They were doing their Christian duty, as they saw it. Yeah, it was ugly sometimes’.

    It goes to show the human mind can be twisted to do anything. This is similar to persons reporting their ‘errant’ neighbours to Chairman Mao’s represntatives during the cultural revolution. China is now over that but American society is not yet over Christianity.

  • KShep

    And how precisely the fuck do they enforce this?

    Easy—with heaping load of guilt at every church service. Those poor students—they undoubtedly walk around believing god is monitoring everything they do, just like most evangelicals do.

  • TEP

    I’m still not certain why Jerry Falwell chose the Liberty Bell as the symbol of his university, or why he named it “Liberty” in the first place.

    Probably for the same reason that Communist dictatorships like to call themselves “People’s Democratic Republics”.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Odd it is that a faith claiming to be at such odds with communism ought to present so many similarities to, say, Minsk in 1962. ‘Tis a good thing they’re kept out of power.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    I’ve really been enjoying your series about your trip to Liberty University. The school really amazes me in disturbing way. To me, one of the benefits of education is the ability to learn about a great variety of topics, even if others disagree with them, and the ability to learn actual science, history, etc. The idea of an eduation which controls students to the degree that Liberty University controls its students seems the exact opposite of a real education.

    I wonder how much of the content of the bookstore is determined by the University and how much is determined by the bookstore itself (perhaps based on which books are popular and sell well).

    One of the points you made in a previous post about Liberty University’s unwilligness to consider different opinions on relevant matters while saying they will consider different opinions on basically irrelevant topics that aren’t really topics of controvery right now was especially great.

    You’re right about the weird use of the word “Liberty” when the University stands for anything but liberty.

    Thanks for writing this!

    -Sharmin

  • Cosmo Wafflefoot

    From The New York TIMES 3/4/10
    [article] SCIENCE in the TIMES (Foes add Warming…)

    Out of over 1000 comments submitted 35 were selected by the editors. This was one.

    AD of New York asks… “How does anyone expect this country to maintain its edge in science and technology when people like Tim Moore want kids to graduate with a deliberately distorted view of the foundational theory of modern biology?”

    They don’t! They expect to be “raptured” when, or shortly after, full scale nuclear war erupts in the Holy Land. This is what they are taught and this is what they teach their children. This is what is taught at the largest University (10,000 students) in my home town in Central Virginia. This is what Virginia’s Governor firmly believes and the view he actively promotes.
    Anyone who is interested in just how this kind of thinking turns out should pay a visit to Lynchburg Virginia. You will be welcomed, provided you are not gay or wish to do any kind of “dancing”, because that’s right out! You will find a college town with a difference. You will find a university where science is how Satan fools mankind. A university without a Geology or Anthropology department because the earth is but 6000 years old and “anthropologically” there are only the saved and the damned. You will find a devastated economy. You will find a local newspaper that censors any negative comments regarding Fundamentalist thinking.
    In short, if you want to find out how all these laws and plans to teach creation science on a par with real science turn out, visit Lynchburg Virginia. Don’t worry, you will be completely safe. Planned Parenthood was driven out of town, thank God, but, if you happen to be a Yankee or think President Obama is really an American… I would advise you to keep that to yourself.

  • KacyRay

    When I went to Dade Christian School in Maimi, FL back in 88-89, a few kids were expelled because a couple administrators decided they were going to drive to the Michael Jackson concert and catch any of their students who showed up.

    That was pretty sobering, even for an 8th grader. I wonder how many converts they think they won that night.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Caiphen “This is similar to persons reporting their ‘errant’ neighbours to Chairman Mao’s represntatives during the cultural revolution.”
    Wrong example, sinner. China is bad. When the Chinese do it, it’s communism. When Americans do it, it’s patriotism. Think McCarthy, instead.

    Sharmin “The idea of an eduation which controls students to the degree that Liberty University controls its students seems the exact opposite of a real education.”
    On the plus side, I’m sure that if you scratch the surface they’re still getting drunk, high and laid. You know, all the dumb shit that you’re supposed to do at that age. They just have to be sneakier about it.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    I’m sure that if you scratch the surface they’re still getting drunk, high and laid.

    Speaking as a graduate one of these colleges, and a former professor at another one of them, the dirty little secret at many of these colleges is that a substantial number of their students are, indeed, getting laid. A smaller number are getting high and drunk, but that happens too. Students caught engaging in these activities face a range of disciplinary actions that range from grounding (early curfews, no weekend overnight passes, etc.) to expulsion (often for a semester or a year, I’ve never known of a lifetime expulsion).

  • Caiphen

    Modus

    Who the hell is McCarthy? Doesn’t the world revolve around the USA? Damn, I must have received a bad ejamacation. Ha, ha, ha.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    You know…Paul McCarthy. From the Beatles. They’re from the same country that those Harvey Potter books are from.

  • Cosmo Wafflefoot

    It’s a great day at Liberty “University”. The LORD has worked His miracles once again in Virginia (with the help of the voting block of students at Liberty) to put homosexuals in their place. Let the angels sing.

    http://www.roanoke.com/news/nrv/wb/238943

    Our new Governor, a graduate of Pat Robertson’s lunatic law school and adamant “young earther” has got his Barney Fife of an AG out doing God’s great work. He is the “Jobs Governor” you know. So, obviously, to attract jobs to Virginia the first order of business would be to offend the 490 out of 500 Fortune 500 companies that already have policies in place to treat employees as people… I mean “real people”… “Not like them there Atheist/gay/liberal/socialists coming down here from up north, tellin US what to do.”

    ….Ahh the “New South”

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Ah, man, Cosmo Wafflefoot! That news link is depressing as hell. I knew Bob McDonald was going to be a disastrous governor, but this is really nauseating. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe – all outstanding Virginians – must be rolling in their graves at what McDonald is doing to their state. I guess I’d better settle in for living through Virginia’s Dark Ages.

  • Caiphen

    Modus

    You’ve hit it right on the nose. McCarthy was one hell of a BS artist and so are YEC’s.

    I’ve heard of McCarthyism but I never knew the full story. Thanks for the info.

  • ed

    To answer the question of enforcing the movies, they actually use student spys just like the comment about how the RAs scope parking lots. There are also two specific churches in town which are accepting of homosexualty; students are not allowed to attend these churches. They do send student spys to the services to be on the look out for other students and report them. They have been known to have students work at the local theaters, restraunts, etc to report on student activity. Ironic that these are the same conservatives afraid of government playing big brother!

    Fortunately many students do not become fully brainwashed. Liberty students fall into three distinct groups:1) the jesus freaks we all think they are, 2) regular college students who could care less about their faculty rules and can’t wait to get off campus to party, 3) kids who’s parents feel they need reform from their ways (such as homosexualty) who attend and can’t wait to leave. Unfortunately, all but the last group tend to have some of the ‘liberty way’ rub off on them. I get a chuckle out of the ones who call themselves liberal because they don’t agree with EVERYTHING Beck or Fox news has to say.

  • POV of a Student

    This was an interesting piece. Thanks for writing it. I know it’s “old” now, but I’m a current Liberty student. I don’t identify as Christian (or atheist for that matter). I do believe in a higher power and generally respect all beliefs. I’m an ONLINE grad student and I knew that Liberty was a conservative Christian school. I honestly chose them because the tuition is reasonable and I stayed because I thought it was be interesting. I never knew of their strict campus rules, but I am not surprised.

    I’ve had fairly good professors, and my classmates (though some seem a little slow) are OK. BUT although I do not announce that I am not Christian (I don’t have time for that drama just trying to get my degree) I have challenged the Bible, and some assignments and still get good grades. However, I think that says more about my individual professors than the actual school.

    Also, many of my research papers have been about gender and sexuality as I find the topic interesting, and I definitely use it as a way to incorporate empirical research (or as you would say anti-hatemonger rhetoric lol). I certainty do not agree with Liberty’s views or tactics. But honestly, so far as an online student at least it hasn’t been that bad. But to be more honest I typically don’t tell people where I go because it is a little embarrassing.

    If I were an atheist however, I would run….far far away because the biggest drawback thus far is HAVING to incorporate the Biblical perspective into most assignments. Sometimes I just do it and get my grade, other times I do it while challenging the Bible it self (when I’m in the mood). But yeah overall the school is ridiculous in many ways.


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