Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by the late political firebrand and Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, removed visiting anti-Trump evangelical author Jonathan Martin from its campus and its president announced he would be permanently barred.
Martin, a longtime critic of Liberty University’s close association with the Trump administration, was visiting the Lynchburg, Virginia, campus earlier this week as a guest of Johnnyswim, a band that was performing on campus, and had planned to host a prayer meeting with like-minded students the following morning. Instead, Martin told Vox, armed security guards escorted him out of the backstage area following the show.
Martin’s expulsion reveals deep fault lines within the evangelical community over some of its most prominent members’ willingness to partner with an administration that has been criticized by Christians and non-Christians alike for displaying white nationalist and xenophobic sympathies.
The growing political influence of an evangelical university
Much of Jonathan Martin’s criticism of Liberty University centers on the actions of its current president (and Falwell’s son) Jerry Falwell Jr., who has been one of Trump’s most high-profile and consistent evangelical supporters. Falwell’s strong affinity for Trump, as well for former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, has often provoked dissent within the evangelical community. Liberty is distinctive among evangelical colleges for the way in which it explicitly politicizes its Christianity. For example, its statement of purpose, authored by the senior Falwell, includes the idea that Liberty believes in:
an inerrant Bible, a Christian worldview beginning with belief in biblical Creationism, ... an absolute repudiation of "political correctness," a strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism, and firm support for America’s economic system of free enterprise.
Since the younger Falwell took over Liberty in 2007, the university has expanded. Its assets have grown from $100 million to $1.7 billion, and on-campus enrollment has spiked from 9,600 to about 14,000 (over 100,000 students take additional courses online). This has made Liberty, and by extension Falwell, an even more powerful voice in American evangelicalism.
The younger Falwell has historically had little tolerance for dissent among faculty. Last year, Mark DeMoss, longtime confidant and chief of staff of Falwell Sr., was forced to resign from Liberty’s board of trustees after criticizing the younger Falwell’s choice to personally endorse Trump for president. In 2015, Falwell rescinded the invitation of Jonathan Merritt, an alumnus of the school currently at the Atlantic, to speak on campus as a result of some articles critical of Liberty, telling him, “You don't seem to remember who your friends are.”
In a statement emailed to Vox, Liberty defended expelling Martin on the grounds that as someone unaffiliated with the university, he had not gone through the proper procedures necessary for protest on campus. “While University community members can freely make arrangements for their events, those who are not members of the University community have a higher burden to be granted access to Liberty University’s facilities for their private purposes,” the statement read.
The statement suggested that Martin’s act was a publicity plot: “It may be possible that Jonathan Martin knew his unauthorized event would ultimately not be permitted to occur on the private property of Liberty University but he simply hoped to garner more attention to his cause by having his efforts stopped. So be it. ... The University cannot be concerned with whether its actions provide additional oxygen to either side of a debate but rather must be concerned about safety and security of its campus.”
Liberty’s press spokesperson, Len Stevens, also pointed out to Vox that the university has in the past issued invitations with speakers whose policy positions do not align with Liberty’s own. “[We] seek a wide mix of experts in politics, business, religion, sports, and more. Bernie Sanders spoke at convocation in 2015 and Hillary Clinton was invited to speak, but declined.”
Jonathan Martin is a longtime critic of Falwell’s “Christian nationalism”
Martin has frequently called out Falwell and Liberty on social media, including Twitter and Instagram. Many of his criticisms center on what he calls “Christian nationalism,” a conflation of evangelical rhetoric with white supremacist attitudes and a jingoistic approach to patriotism.
“We have come a long way from ‘let my people go,’ religion to ‘the important thing is to be polite to Pharaoh” religion,” Martin wrote in one Instagram post in late October, using the biblical story of Moses to critique the way in which American evangelicals have partnered with the White House. “Jesus comes to set the captives free. American Christianity has too often come to make the captives mannerly. Jesus comes to bring good news to the poor.”
In another post, he called out Liberty specifically as "ground zero strategically for the counterfeit faith that is sweeping many evangelical churches right now,” and called for “peaceful action” and protest on the part of Christians, calling the movement #LiberateLiberty.
Martin told Vox that worrisome Christian nationalism had been “the trajectory for a while” at Liberty: citing earlier instances when Falwell had encouraged students to arm themselves on campus, and when Falwell had praised Trump’s controversial comments on Charlottesville. (That praise caused more than 100 Liberty graduates to return their diplomas in protest.)
But Falwell’s most recent decision to call for an “evangelical army” to help Steve Bannon oust “fake Republicans” was, for Martin, the most serious indication yet of a dangerous conflation of religion and jingoism, and the impetus for Liberate Liberty. While Martin was careful to stress that his planned action on campus was a prayer meeting, not a protest, the desired outcome was nevertheless to connect with students at Liberty who felt less than comfortable with Falwell speaking for them.
Martin expressed worry that the evangelical community would not survive Trump’s presidency intact. “I think the split is growing rapidly; I think it’s bordering on being a full-fledged schism,” he told me. Younger evangelicals, he said, were less willing than their older counterparts to accept Falwell’s hardline politics unquestioningly.
Certainly, that generation gap is borne out among some of Liberty’s students. Dustin Wahl, a Liberty senior who planned to attend Martin’s prayer meeting after learning he would be joining Johnnyswim on campus, expressed concerns to me about Falwell’s leadership.
“I wanted to share the experiences of our student body, because many have misconceptions about what we're really like, due to Falwell's misusing his platform,” said Wahl. He added that while Falwell technically speaks only for himself, and not the Liberty student body, his political points are amplified because of Liberty’s influence as an institution. “Falwell has been somewhat successful in leaving the impression that Liberty itself is behind Trump, which is one of many reasons I believe dissent here is so necessary,” Wahl said.
Wahl pointed out that while the campus was certainly conservative, many students weren’t as pro-Trump as Falwell’s rhetoric might suggest. “While the on-campus precinct voted for Trump when the other option was Secretary Clinton, they flatly rejected him in the primary. Rubio won, and Trump finished fourth with only 90 votes, around 7 percent of the precinct. ... Therefore, most Liberty students are in the camp of evangelicals who may have voted for Trump but did so reluctantly — a far cry from Falwell's enthusiastic endorsement.”
Faculty, Wahl said, are likewise wary. “Liberty's faculty are also a far cry from Falwell, but aren't tenured, and don't feel safe speaking out when they think he's wrong.”
Falwell is one of many evangelical leaders to ally with the current administration
Although Martin condemned the political stance of Falwell and other evangelical leaders who sought to curry favor with the Trump administration, he said he did not believe they did so out of pure self-interest. Rather, he said, many had come up with a theological context for their actions.
“There’s a certain theology of influence,” he said. “When people who haven’t had a seat at the table of power get a seat of power for the first time. There’s a way they can read that, as, I am like the biblical Daniel here,” referring to a biblical prophet who became a trusted adviser to the Persian king Darius. “And this gives me an opportunity to widen my platform. And [this means] God must have raised up this king. I don’t think most of these people are selling out. I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose. But that’s why they’re doing it.”
Certainly, the idea that Trump’s election is part of a “divine plan” to give evangelicals access to the White House is a common trope among members of Trump’s evangelical advisory board: an unofficial group of pastors and religious leaders with whom the president regularly consults. Earlier this fall, prosperity gospel preacher and board member Paula White stoked controversy when she implied in an interview that Trump should be obeyed because he’d been elected by God (she later walked back her comments). Robert Jeffress, another major member of the council, has made similar comments. The idea that Trump is, like the Persian kings Cyrus or Darius, a pagan “vessel” for God’s will is likewise commonplace.
Martin said he doesn’t think many of these figures necessarily believe in white nationalism or care about the administration per se. Rather, they think that the ends — a strong evangelical presence in the White House — justify the means, and that this end has been determined by God. “What’s driving it is not a theological conviction but pragmatism. In that these evangelical leaders have a lot in common with President Trump."
Wahl is less generous, seeing White and Jeffress as “craven sycophants” less focused on Christianity than on power. “Just as when Falwell perverts his platform as the leader of the world's largest Christian university for the service of his nationalist political ideology, he does not represent Christianity either. Only Christ and those who humbly seek to emulate him represent Christianity,” he says.
Regardless of Falwell’s personal theology, his political decisions remain clear. On Wednesday, two days after Martin’s expulsion, the University welcomed its next speaker: Anthony Scaramucci.
Correction: the article has been updated to better reflect Martin and Wahl’s communication