Falwell’s 2014 Liberty: ‘Fundamentalist Baptist’ university?

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Here at GetReligion, the “F-word” always catches our attention.

I’m referring, of course, to fundamentalist.

It’s a loaded word that can carry a negative connotation when applied to religious groups or institutions.

The Associated Press Stylebook — “the journalist’s bible” — contains this entry:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

That brings us to a Washington Post story this week on former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell taking a part-time teaching job at Liberty University.

From that story:

McDonnell began the job this semester by giving a few lectures at the fundamentalist Baptist college founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., who died in 2007. He will resume the lectures in the fall, making six to eight appearances per semester, said Johnnie Moore, a senior vice president at the school.

Here’s the question — actually, two questions: Is Liberty fundamentalist? And is Liberty officially Baptist?

In an email thread among your inquiring-mind GetReligionistas, editor tmatt noted:

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Seeking the sympathetic critics of Bob Jones University

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As any journalist knows, institutions — secular or religious — do not like to talk about their failures, let alone their sins.

Often this is caused by their lawyers who are anxious to head off lawsuits or to protect their client’s rights when conflicts take place. When this approach is applied to media relations, the result is either total silence or a bullet-proof form of public relations that seeks to protect the mother ship — period.

We talk about this all the time in classes at the Washington Journalism Center, where my students come from a variety of different kinds of Christian college and university campuses, most of them linked to evangelical Protestantism. Sometimes it’s hard to separate legitimate legal concerns from a faith-lingo-soaked “do not hurt your Christian brother” brand of public relations that rejects all attempts to do journalistic work in times of pain, crisis or scandal.

Trust me. This is not a conservative vs. liberal situation. As a reporter, I have faced toxic denial among liberal faith leaders as well as conservative. As I have said many times here at GetReligion, the hellish sins in the clergy sexual abuse crisis touched liberal Catholic heroes as well as conservatives. There were devils on both sides, as well as heroes.

This brings me to that important, but strangely shallow, New York Times report about a sexual-abuse scandal that is unfolding at Bob Jones University, one of America’s most important academic institutions that can genuinely be called “fundamentalist.” The copy desk showed restraint in leaving the f-word out of the headline: “Christian School Faulted for Halting Abuse Study.”

As you read the story, look for the tell-tale marks left by lawyers and public-relations professionals. Here is the opening of the report.

GREENVILLE, S.C. – For decades, students at Bob Jones University who sought counseling for sexual abuse were told not to report it because turning in an abuser from a fundamentalist Christian community would damage Jesus Christ. Administrators called victims liars and sinners.

All of this happened until recently inside the confines of this insular university, according to former students and staff members who said they had high hopes that the Bob Jones brand of counseling would be exposed and reformed after the university hired a Christian consulting group in 2012 to investigate its handling of sexual assaults, many of which occurred long before the students arrived at the university.

Last week, Bob Jones dealt a blow to those hopes, acknowledging that with the investigation more than a year old and nearing completion, the university had fired the consulting group, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or Grace, without warning or explanation. The dismissal has drawn intense criticism from some people with ties to Bob Jones, and prompted some victims and their allies — including many who were interviewed by Grace investigators — to tell their stories publicly for the first time, attracting more attention than ever to the university’s methods.

At this point, it helps to know several things. First of all, the Grace organization has major evangelical credibility, but I stress the word “evangelical.” As the story notes, Grace was founded by Basyle J. Tchividjian, a grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University, which was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In other words, the current leaders of Bob Jones sought help from an organization linked to two Christian leaders who had been condemned as inadequately fundamentalist by previous Bob Jones leaders.

Second, it appears that the vast majority of the reports being discussed here are about abuse that is alleged to have taken place in churches, institutions and homes that shaped students before they arrived on the Bob Jones campus. In other words, there are other lawyers of lawyers involved.

But here is the phrase that most interested me in the opening chunk of the story.

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The new evangelical Goliath? Online ed at Liberty U

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Back in November, The New York Times produced a downright nauseating account of Liberty University’s effort to become a big-time college football program.

This week, the Washington Post followed up with an in-depth report on Liberty’s transformation into an “evangelical mega-university.”

The front-page headline described the university’s progress this way:

Falwell’s university grows from David to Goliath size

Bottom line: The Post’s story made my stomach churn much less than the earlier Times report. Of course, the Post focused on Liberty’s burgeoning online enrollment figures, while the Times zeroed in on the gridiron. Even better, the Post story relied much more on actual facts and less on breathless pronouncements.

In the end, however, the Post story — like the Times report — left me with a number of unanswered questions.

Let’s start at the top:

LYNCHBURG, Va. — The small Baptist college that television preacher Jerry Falwell founded here in 1971 has capitalized on the online education boom to become an evangelical mega-university with global reach.

In the almost six years since Falwell’s death, Liberty University has doubled its student head count — twice.

Total enrollment now exceeds 74,000, with nearly 62,000 working toward degrees online in fields such as psychology, business, education, criminal justice and, of course, religion. That makes Liberty the largest university in Virginia — with more than double the number of students at No. 2 George Mason — and the largest private, nonprofit university in the country. With a slogan of “training champions for Christ,” Liberty also is the nation’s largest university with a religious affiliation.

For me, key questions include: Exactly how does Liberty “train champions for Christ” through its online programs? Can the evangelical culture of the university really be duplicated via the Internet? To what character and behavior standards, if any, must the online students adhere?

The Post hits — albeit vaguely — at some of the answers:

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Ready, set, barf: An evangelical football feature

Grab your air-sickness bag and let’s dive right into this New York Times sports feature.

The italicized phrases below are courtesy of me, not the Times:

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Football is not just a sport at Liberty University, the Christian institution founded by Jerry Falwell, it is a mission.

At Liberty, once a tiny Bible college but now a budding giant, the plan is for college football — big-time, always-on-television college football — to do for evangelical Christians in the 21st century what Notre Dame football did for Roman Catholics in the 20th.

Hey, homogenized evangelicals all over America, are you ready for some football!? Finally, we have a place for all the future Tim Tebows to chase their dreams!

Liberty is already packing the house for its campus games, but Jerry Falwell Jr., the businesslike son of the founder and the current university chancellor, gazes from his office in the western hills of Virginia and sees a worldwide congregation united in faith and in football. 

Hallelujah, praise the official Evangelical football team!

Other football teams run a spread offense. Liberty’s team will spread the word.

“We think there would be a vast, committed fan base of conservative, evangelical Christians around the country and maybe even folks who are conservative politically who would rally behind Liberty football,” Falwell Jr. said, smiling at the thought. “They would identify with our philosophy.”

Pssssssst, Alabama, Georgia  and Oklahoma. Enjoy elite football while you can because all the Bible Belt fans are fixing to jump ship. Go, Liberty!

The university has a motto for the cause: “Champions for Christ.”

“And yes, there are parallels to Notre Dame,” Falwell continued. “There might even be a little rivalry there — the Catholics against the Protestants.”

Given all the mentions of Notre Dame in this story, it’s amazing that the Times did not seek comment from the Fighting Irish. Apparently, the following call never occurred:

Notre Dame: “This is sports media relations.”

Reporter: “Yes, I’m calling from The New York Times. I was hoping that someone could comment on how soon Notre Dame might be able to add Liberty University to its football schedule.”

In case my subtlety has confused you, this was not my favorite story. On the bright side, I now have a solid example next time I need to define nauseating. 

Here’s my major problem with this piece: It overshoots in a big-time way, with little or no evidence to back up the breathless pronouncements about the program’s powerful potential. And the Times never bothers to talk to anyone outside of Liberty.

To read this 2,500-word account, it’s as if an evangelical university never has attempted to excel in the world of big-time college football. (On a probably totally unrelated note, does anybody remember where last year’s Heisman Trophy winner played? I seem to have forgotten.)

I could go on. But I’m starting to feel rather queasy.

What’d I do with that Pepto-Bismol?


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