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Opinion: To save Liberty University’s soul, its board must reject Jerry Falwell’s vision

By Marybeth Davis Baggett
jerry falwell jr
Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., gestures during an interview in his offices at the school in Lynchburg, Va., on Nov. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

As a two-time graduate and former professor at Liberty University, I am grateful that the Liberty University board found the courage last week to finally put a check on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s misbehavior.

I am cautiously optimistic this is the first step toward the school’s recovery of its central mission — providing a loving, caring Christian environment where students can thrive and become equipped to fulfill their God-given vocations. 

Especially for students like me. 

Here is my story. 

I didn’t intend to tell my professor much detail about the situation. 

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I had gone to Dr. Isaac’s office in the fall of 1996 simply to let her know I would be missing class for an upcoming court date and to find out how to make up the missed work. But her caring demeanor collided with my desperate need for encouragement, and out all the details came.

I don’t think she knew before that moment that I was a single mother, let alone that I was shouldering those responsibilities on my own since my son’s father had long since abandoned him.

She didn’t know that despite my upbringing in conservative evangelicalism I often felt like a fish out of water at Liberty, that my reliance on food stamps, Medicaid, welfare and subsidized housing were both necessary means for our survival and a source of shame.

And she certainly didn’t know I was facing the excruciating prospect of a humiliating paternity trial callously insisted on by a man who had already caused me much pain.

Dr. Isaac didn’t know any of that, at least not until I wept in her office that day.   

It’s been 24 years since our conversation, but Dr. Isaac still stands out to me as the best of what Liberty University offers, despite that she hasn’t taught at the school in years. It was a pivotal moment in my academic and spiritual formation.

By worldly standards, I mattered very little: I was a drain on taxpayer resources, I barely contributed to the economy, and my paltry experience and skills were not much use to anyone at that time.

Yet to Dr. Isaac I mattered implicitly.

She listened without judgment, empathized without detachment and prayed without reserve. I had had few interactions with Dr. Isaac before that meeting, but I knew then that she had a deep love and care for her students. That day, she served as the hands and feet of God to me in my hour of real need, and her response made the difference between self-condemnation and self-acceptance.

As I think back to the life-giving words of compassion and reassurance she spoke over me there in her tiny office over the school’s post office, I better understand why Jerry Falwell Jr.’s presidency has viscerally troubled me for at least a decade.

While the last four years have introduced the public to Falwell’s fixation on money and power, these values have infiltrated the school’s ethos and increasingly taken hold under his leadership.

For years, Falwell’s vision for the school and his leadership style have threatened to overshadow humane, private unsung acts of love like those of Dr. Isaac.

In his demeaning tweets, his misplaced priorities and his hyper-partisan spirit, Falwell has repeatedly shamed Liberty faculty who have invested much into the lives of their students and who have so earnestly sought to live out the gospel as Christian academics.

Again and again, Falwell undermined their work, both implicitly by publicly misrepresenting the faith they stand for and explicitly through the administrative and fiscal burdens placed on departments, programs and faculty, leading the school further and further away from its stated biblical mission.

So many of my dear friends were victims of the calculating indifference that put profits over people, their careers cut short to satisfy the bottom line despite the school’s ballooning endowment.

But money and power as a mark of success or a satisfying objective for one’s life run counter to what I was taught at Liberty. It was through the faculty that I learned the importance and value of education in shaping one’s character and life, not merely in pursuit of job training.

My professors, especially in the English department, cared passionately about their faith and its implications for scholarship. They pushed me to hone my thinking and communication skills; they saw my talents and encouraged them. I could never have finished my undergraduate degree without their support, and I wouldn’t have found my vocational calling without their guidance.

I know that others tell less flattering tales about their time at Liberty, and I don’t mean for my account to paper over those negatives. Those stories flesh out the complicated picture of the institution and are necessary to tell.

I know only that there are many at the school who reach out to the vulnerable and embody love. Even schools with a Christian label can be a mission field.

When I began teaching at Liberty after finishing graduate work at Longwood University, I strove to show that same kind of dedication to scholarship and service that teachers like Dr. Isaac showed to me. A former colleague of mine often cites Roger Lundin, a longtime Wheaton College professor, who calls teaching a way of paying back an endless debt of gratitude.

For me, things changed at Liberty during the election of 2016, especially after Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape dropped and Liberty’s president defended the then-Republican candidates. 

I’ve written about this before: 

“To hear a rich and famous man speak with such casual pride on the license his power gives him to have his way with women—married or not—sparks shame deep within me. Shame because I know he’s right,” I wrote in a 2016 essay. 

I can’t help but look at my female students at the university where I teach and wonder if they feel the same shame. 

It’s to that, that I speak now.

I want desperately for them to know that — no matter who has failed them, no matter what they have done, no matter who speaks lies to and about them — they are loved abundantly. They are created for a purpose they will find only in their Maker; they are unique and wonderful and valuable beyond measure.

I can’t speak to how successful I’ve been, as that’s for others to decide, but over my seventeen-year tenure, I have certainly done all I can to inculcate in my students a deep commitment to human dignity and dedication to the Christian gospel. I’ve seen so many of my colleagues do the same.

For me, this is Liberty University, and it’s why I’m hopeful the board will use this moment as a reckoning, that it will take stock of where and how the leadership has jettisoned the mission for expediency and profit, where it has failed to live up to the school’s doctrinal commitments.

In order to honor the faithful service of so many like Dr. Isaac, and even more importantly, in order to honor the gospel, it absolutely must chart a new course, one that seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, not the prestige or position that Falwell so highly prized.

My prayer is that the new leadership will focus on the real business of the university, not NASCAR sponsorships, propagandistic think tanks, or yucking it up with political firebrands. This renewed vision must see the school as part of the church, understanding its role as in service of the great commandment and commission, not as a partisan platform.

New leadership should use the school’s substantial endowment to protect essential but non-lucrative programs. It must turn away from the notion that bigger is better, from the rapacious and insatiable greed that easily tramples those seen as expendable.

To be true to the school’s Christian roots, the new leadership must embrace weakness, relying on God’s strength and not human achievement to meet its mission. The way up is the way down, as Marlena Graves so beautifully reminds us, echoing Paul’s charge in Philippians 2.

This new leadership would do well to follow William James’ example and be “done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success.”  

Instead, they must center “those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride.”

Falwell’s chastening is a somber moment both for him and the school, and there’s much to be lamented about how the situation played out. But it’s a mercy, too — for Falwell and the school alike. For, rightly handled, it’s a moment that can be bathed in grace and hope, and veritably rife and redolent with redemption. Indeed, disruptions like this can throw what’s important into sharp relief. Worldly success is fleeting, yet it can be a powerful temptation to pride and can easily obscure what’s of ultimate value.

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Jesus asks in Mark 8:36. That same question is being put to the Liberty University board right now. For the sake of the broader community and the church, for the sake of the university and Falwell himself, I pray that they embrace the right answer.

Marybeth Davis Baggett is a former English professor at Liberty University and two-time alumna of the school. She is co-author of “The Morals of the Story.”



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24 Responses

  1. This was a refreshing article, beginning with the true Christian standards of God at work at Liberty. In the beginning, Biblical standards were the foundation upon which Liberty was built. But just like Old Testament Israelites, Liberty has turned away from God.
    Now is the time for the righteous to rise up and call upon the Lord to turn Liberty back to Him through repentance, prayer, fasting and change.
    I join all my brothers and sisters in Christ in prayer, fasting and repentance that through God’s process of change, Liberty University will examine its foundations and turn back to God in every way.
    The author of this article conveyed great hope in the Lord that through Him, Liberty will repent and turn back to its foundation based upon the Lord. Praise God that even Christian institutions made up of members of the body of Christ can be redeemed.

    1. I am very touched and inspired by the wonderful examples of caring professors illustrated in this article. I am grateful that the author’s life is a success story of redemption and blessing by God’s mercy and grace. It seemed that Liberty University served as a vehicle in the process. It’s comforting to hear such reports.

      It’s sad that in a world of spiritual and cultural crisis and more, very visible Christian leaders get off the track or experience shipwreck in their personal life and their public responsibilities. Their political views and social connections may not be balanced, just like many of us who have a hard time choosing political leaders at the local or national levels.

      Leaving any partisan stuff aside, could we say it with a soft voice that Trump may also be a redemption story in progress? So far he has in action done things to support religious freedom, and pro-life causes. He has gone through a change of his understanding about life in the womb in recent years. In reality he is also more friendly to the Christian church. Sometimes the media magnifies one leader’s failings and conceals the faults of another. Jesus knew what was in men and women regardless of what they said or what they appeared to be. We don’t always know how God views people.

      It seems that the American church needs a real revival that will purify us. It seems that Liberty University needs some revival, too. I hope that the school will see a clear path ahead with God’s vision, led by God’s own Spirit and Truth, not colored by human feelings or human wisdom.

      1. Farmer, well said. But to many Christians, there is no possible redemption for Trump. In fact, many of them will likely be upset or “triggered” at the mere suggestion of it.

      2. Farmer: You are really stretching it by believing Trump is a redemption in progress. He will never ever repent because in his own words he has done nothing to repent of. He has conned you. He and Falwell, Jr. need to remove themselves from the limelight as they are both IMO are hurting the cause of Christ. They both are very poor representatives of a Christlike life. BTW, I am really tired after these last almost four years of a nightmare, that folks continue to apologize for the Trumps and Falwells of this world. One last thought-the spiritual damage done to this country over the last four years IMO will take decades to recover from and shame on the “spiritual” folk that have enabled this.

        1. I am glad the author had a professor to encourage her in a rough time. Amen. And God is doing a shaking of many things this year so what’s heavenly can stand (2020-it’s a whole shaking!) Indeed He may want to give Liberty “liberty” from the influences of ” money and power as a mark of success”. And I pray he will purify it.

          As to the mention of Trump, it probably wasn’t necessary. We have no idea if Trump will “never ever repent.” He might.

          We don’t know people’s hearts. God gives the insight. He is the ONE who truly Knows the heart.

          The visceral ire some hold for Trump fascinates me, because others have done things just as awful or disgusting. I’m not blind to his faults,Trump’s “jerky” moments are so visible, so it’s easy to judge. Yet Biden could be just as jerky on the inside. Maybe.

          Yes, Trump is a loud, blaring trumpet of a man. That can be jarring, annoying. Trumpets also awaken attention, and alert. What is God trying to do through this President? How does this all look when we look at it with spiritual eyes?

          All right, don’t give his faults a pass. Don’t get distracted by them. Use it all as fuel for prayer. What does God want to do?

          And, considering the upcoming election, I’m thinking we need to be careful to not get distracted by who the candidates are, but to consider their platforms. WHO is behind them. WHAT they stand for. WHY. All of those things.

          You might come to a different conclusion than me, but that’s okay. Look into the times, pray, discern.

          1. Sabrina: You said:”What is God trying to do through this President? How does this all look when we look at it with spiritual eyes?” IMO there has never been a more godless president in the history of the Republic. Why do “christians’ keep giving him a pass? I know people that support him give him multiple mulligans.

        2. Tom Parker, the “spiritual damage” done by Trump? The most godless President in the history of the Republic? Such hyperbolic language. That is one way to look at it. Here are some others.

          First, God is in control no matter who is President, whether it is Presidents such as Kennedy, Clinton, or Trump (none of which are virtuous).

          Second, how about the spiritual damage done to a country that has allowed over 60 million abortions since 1973, including 20 million unborn Black babies?

          Third, how about the spiritual damage done to a country that is denying the basics of biology? What spiritual consequences will be wrought when all our children in schools are taught that there is no such thing as male and female?

          Fourth, what is going to be the spiritual damage done when there is no more religious freedom in this country, since the secular-progressives and socialists are continuing to influence the government at all levels?

          Lastly, I don’t have to like Trump personally. Yet any political party which continues to support unrestricted abortion, which continues to support the redefinition of marriage and family, which continues to support the redefinition of gender, which continues to deny basic biology of male and female, and which continues to condone the lawlessness and chaos in our cities, will never get my vote. Pure and simple.

  2. Well, since Trump was mentioned in this article, including Trump’s imperfections as a fallen human being, like the rest of us, it could be taken to its logical conclusion that Hillary Clinton, with her perfect political and moral record, should have been the 45th President of the United States of America. Also, Jerry Falwell Jr’s soul might also be in jeopardy. 2 options were given in the last Peesidential election: one candidate would torture you to death by removing every single bone out of your body while alive. The other would put you in jail for the rest of your life until you die of natural causes. In a fallen world, whatever happened to choosing the lesser of two evils?

    1. It is unfortunate that what you took out of this was to talk about Hillary Clinton.
      Anything to avoid confronting what is happening to Liberty under Falwell Jr’s leadership, huh?
      Anything to avoid addressing the pattern of sinful behavior that led to Falwell Jr’s leave of absence, huh?
      Instead of holding Falwell Jr accountable – looking for signs of repentance, confession, proper discipling, and submission to our Lord – it’s “what about Hillary Clinton”.
      Deflection, whataboutism, downplaying, and making excuses are ALL reasons why Falwell Jr’s sinful behavior was allowed to continue, and ultimately tarnish the name, legacy, and witness of one of the largest Christian universities in the country. And if you want to talk about Hillary Clinton, that’s your right. Go ahead. Just answer me this: when has addressing someone’s sin by listing someone else’s ever solved anything?

      1. M H,

        Regarding your reply to UWE: “It is unfortunate that what you took out of this was to talk about Hillary Clinton.”

        Yet it is also unfortunate that the article brought up President Trump.

        Regarding the Falwell Jr. story, I agree that he has crossed a line, and there should be consequences for it. If the university board doesn’t believe he is best suited to run the university, then they should vote him out. I have no attachment to Falwell Jr.

        However, the fact that Falwell Jr. supports Donald Trump should have nothing to do with anything, and I, too, was surprised that Trump was brought up in this article. It was unnecessary.

        In elections, it is always a choice between the lesser of two evils, and it will always be such a choice. We are not voting for an apostle, a saint, or a pope. We are voting for a politician; and likely a very flawed one at that.

        Moreover, I do not have to personally like the candidate, but I may strongly prefer their platform (and their party’s platform) over the other candidate’s platform. That’s the beauty of living in a Constitutional Republic.

        1. Agree with you Daniel. It’s always such a shock to me that people expect moral perfection from an unsaved President. And I have always held the position of vote responsible and with your own convictions but ultimately God allows who He allows for all of His greater purposes!
          How many times has God used evil leaders in the bible to further His plans!
          And who are we to say Trump will never repent! Oh my we sure are playing a dangerous game there. We should be praying for everyone, no one is beyond Gods miraculous hand to move.

        2. Daniel –

          Many Christians say, “We are not voting for an apostle, a saint or a pope” to justify their support of Trump. Many also say, “he’s a sinner just like we all are”, “perhaps God is using him”, “let’s pray for him”, “don’t say what God won’t do”, “I forgive him as all Christians should” and use other “Christianese” language. But I have a question: where is this attitude when it comes to those who aren’t conservative? It seems that Christians limit forgiveness, grace, and being used by God to conservatives. To hear Christians tell it, forgiveness and grace should never include those whose last names are Clinton, Pelosi, or Obama.

          Also, there are SEVERAL examples throughout scripture where God punished kings for idolatry, pride, and disobedience. So I have no idea where the “we are not voting for a saint” argument comes from. It sure isn’t the Bible.

          My biggest concern about Trump (even more than some of his policies and downright dishonesty) comes from when he claimed he has never asked God for forgiveness because he didn’t need to. That should have been a HUGE flag for Christians, ESPECIALLY the leader of one of the largest and most influential Christian univerisities in the country. If anything, it should’ve been called out by Falwell, Jr. IMO that is why I can see Christians – including faculty, students, and alumni of Liberty (and the author of this blog) – having an issue with Falwell Jr being so openly supportive of Trump.

          1. M H,

            I’ve already stated earlier that if the university board doesn’t believe Falwell Jr. is best suited to run the university, then they should vote him out. I have no attachment to Falwell Jr. But it doesn’t bother me that he supported President Trump.

            You said: “there are SEVERAL examples throughout scripture where God punished kings for idolatry, pride, and disobedience. So I have no idea where the we are not voting for a saint argument comes from. It sure isn’t the Bible.”

            In biblical times, no one voted for anything; neither in Old Testaments times or New Testament times. So your argument isn’t relevant.

            And of course God punished kings for idolatry, pride, and disobedience. But is Trump the only American President who this would apply to? Hardly.

            Moreover, God is in control no matter who the President is.

            Secondly, our country, from a spiritual standpoint, has much deeper problems than President Trump. For example, our country has allowed over 60 million abortions since 1973. It’s a travesty on an epic scale.

            Also, many people in our country (mostly supported by one political party) are denying the basics of biology. What spiritual consequences will be wrought when all our children in schools are taught that there is no such thing as male and female? It’s bad enough that most of our kids are being taught that transgenderism is normal, as if it’s just one option among many.

            At the end of the day, I don’t have to like Trump personally. But it doesn’t matter, since I am voting for a politician, and all politicians have flaws. More importantly though, I am voting for the political party that I believe best represents my worldview (albeit imperfectly).

            Thus, any political party which continues to support unrestricted abortion, which continues to support the redefinition of marriage and family, which continues to support the redefinition of gender, and which continues to deny basic biology of male and female, will never get my vote. Pure and simple.

    2. UWE,

      Actually, Hillary Clinton does think she’s the 45th President, since she still hasn’t conceded (nor accepted) the 2016 election results. But she doesn’t have to, since she is morally superior than you or I.

      1. Apologies for my late reply, as I had a lot going on. Appreciate your patience.
        Your reply didn’t address my comment: where is this same level of forgiveness and understanding that we are all sinners when it comes to those who are not conservative? The downright scathing hatred for those with the last name Clinton, Obama, Pelosi, etc sure doesn’t reflect that same grace. Why is that?

        And when it comes to scripture, the Israelites did ask God for a king (against what He wanted). But no there was no voting. However, I’m referring to comments from Christians on how they are ok with Trump’s behavior because he is a President and not a pastor. Again, in the Bible, kings weren’t pastors or priests (the Levites were the tribe of priests), but were STILL punished for ungodly behavior. Being a political leader (or NOT being in ministry) does NOT warrant a pass for ungodly behavior.

        And it would’ve said a LOT of Falwell Jr would’ve found a way to demonstrate support for conservative stances while calling for Trump to have a better understanding of what it means to be a Christian – especially since he (Trump) claims to be a Christian yet openly claims to have never asked God for forgiveness. That could’ve been a great teaching opportunity on the difference between “cultural Christians” and repentant disciples of Jesus Christ, thus addressing the spiritual issue that is at the core of what’s going on today.But…we know what happened there.

        I respect your having dealbreakers. Everyone has a right to dealbreakers (one of mine is bigotry), and I’d question anyone who claims not to have any. But my comment was addressing how and why Christians say things like “we are all sinners” ONLY when talking about those we agree with, but bring out the pitchforks and rebukes when talking about those we don’t.

  3. I don’t think I know Mary Beth, but we were at Liberty at the same time. I concur with what she said. The professors I had were amazing and their influence on me is felt even today. Dr. Fink, Dr, Hartman, Dr. Brindle, Dr. Habermas, and Dr. Leveret left a lasting impression on me. I am saddened and upset with what Liberty has become and the carnage I have seen from the Jr. legacy. We need to return to why I went to Liberty–to be a shining place on a hill where I learned about the greatness of God.

  4. Marybeth

    Thak you so much for telling your story.

    Very inspiring. I enjoyed reading it.

    Be blessed
    And continue to be a blessing

  5. I appreciate this article because it strikes to the heart of us all. Who among us can say that were it not for the grace of God that it would be us who were being chastened?

    I know precious little about Liberty, except to say I am old enough to remember when Falwell senior stirred up no small amount of controversy himself with his Moral Majority. If this is indeed a university that accepts the Lordship of Christ as its head, than let the necessary decisions be made to ensure that Christ is not mocked in all of this.

    As for Mr. Trump, He will answer for his own deeds, as will you and I. Perhaps if more Christians would follow the advice of scripture and pray for those in authority over us, even someone as unlikeable as DJT might feel the need to draw closer to God. One thing is certain however, if Christians spent even a fraction of their time now spent vilifying him on their knees in prayer FOR him, all of us would be better for it.

  6. Excellent Piece Ms. Baggett,
    Some folks seem to have taken offense to your inclusion of DJT. I find that silly since Falwell himself brought DGT firmly into the “conversation” on numerous occasions.

    I would suggest though that the ills you notice are not limited to Falwell, Liberty or DJT. This tendency of Christian leaders to chase after politicians, political power, partisanship, financial gain and fame runs through many of our evangelical institutions and Churches. Pray that the outcome at Liberty would be leadership that returns focus to the Gospel and that institutions with similar leaders would do likewise.

    1. “This tendency of Christian leaders to chase after politicians, political power, partisanship, financial gain and fame runs through many of our evangelical institutions and Churches.”

      I agree with this. In addition, it seems that too many pastors view their role of pastor as a profession rather than a calling. Thus, many of them feel entitled to be pastors perpetually, no matter what they have done. This needs to change.

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