Does Liberty University hurt the GOP?
An influential movement of very conservative evangelical voters is still alive and well in America. But is that good for the GOP?
"We're just uncomfortable with some of the things you've been writing," Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. told me. That's why I was being disinvited from giving an alumni lecture at my alma mater.
This conversation took place in a phone call last fall. When I asked for specifics, Falwell said he was quite concerned that I had authored a column criticizing Hobby Lobby, a conservative company owned by the Green family, which has donated millions in financial and land contributions to the Christian college. He also cited an article he believed painted an unfavorable picture of his father. The senior Falwell founded the Moral Majority in the late 1970s and helped give birth to the religious right movement.
I explained that I was quite conservative in many ways, but that it is my job as an opinion columnist to explore all issues honestly and fairly, and not cater my work to the party-line ideology of any specific political group. He was not moved.
"You don't seem to remember who your friends are," Falwell lamented. "So we'll continue to keep an eye on you and if things change on your end, we'll reevaluate."
I was nearly knocked off my chair by this power play.
It's not that I have some sort of inherent right to speak at Liberty — but it's strange to be uninvited, particularly in this way. Conservatives of all stripes have spoken at Liberty — Rick Perry, Rand Paul, John McCain, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and many more. And unless you've been locked in the cellar, you know that Senator Ted Cruz added his name to the list this week when he stepped onto Liberty's stage and announced his run for president.
The message seems to be clear: All who kowtow to Liberty's brand of political conservatism are welcome. Everyone else need not apply.
Or as Ken Cuccinelli, president of Senate Conservatives Fund and former Virginia attorney general put it, "You're probably not going to see Chris Christie at Liberty."
But here's the thing: That may be bad for the GOP.
Liberty's brand of conservatism is not the moderate, David-Brooksy kind. It's the kind in which people can tell you the "Christian position" on any range of issues — not just abortion and gay marriage, but also on environmental policy, healthcare reform, immigration, and the size of government. It's the kind that believes if America deviates from these positions, we will almost certainly trigger God's divine judgment. These are not mainstream positions by any stretch. They are not the sort of thing that appeals to moderate conservative and independent voters. But when GOP lawmakers embrace Liberty University, they embrace these stances, too.
In 2009, Liberty revoked approval for the campus Democratic organization because its "parent organization stands against the moral principles held by Liberty." After the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010, Liberty sued the federal government and claimed their religious freedom was violated. (The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.) In 2013, after a slew of school shootings, Liberty instituted a policy allowing students and visitors to carry guns on campus and even in classrooms. The college has even launched a program training its aeronautics students to pilot drones to continue its legacy as "one of America's top military-friendly schools." Liberty's statement of purpose says it all:
An uncompromising doctrinal statement, based upon an inerrant Bible, a Christian worldview beginning with belief in biblical Creationism, an eschatological belief in the pre-millennial, pre-tribulational coming of Christ for all of His Church, dedication to world evangelization, 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.
This is why Ted Cruz fit so nicely on their stage, applauded by thousands of students who were forced to listen or face a fine. Cruz promised to repeal ObamaCare, bone up border security, and abolish the IRS. He said satellite data disproves human-caused global warming and called those who believe otherwise "modern day Flat Earth proponents." Cruz has called school choice "the civil rights issue of the 21st century" and claims it is "the job of a chaplain to be insensitive to atheists."
We've been inundated of late with news and commentary claiming that conservative evangelicals are shrinking, aging, fracturing, liberalizing, and changing their minds on a range of issues. The conventional wisdom seems to be that unbending God-and-country conservatives will soon be replaced by those of a kinder, more tolerant persuasion.
While many of these assertions are true, let's be clear: A movement of very conservative, very Christian voters — which are largely those who think I’ve just repeated myself — is still alive and well in America. And their most influential institutions still have enough clout to garner the attention of the nation and attract a sitting U.S. senator and presidential contender who wants to shore up his religious base.
The question that is yet to be answered is whether their kind of conservatism — the Liberty University kind — is too rigid, radical, and Tea Party-friendly for most Americans, including moderate conservatives and centrists like me. If so, then Sen. Ted Cruz will have placed the wrong bet and will be left standing where I was after I hung up the phone last fall: out in the cold.
Editor's note: After this article was published, Falwell contacted the author asking that we note that many liberals have also spoken at Liberty over the years. He is right — though the number of conservative speakers outnumbers liberals — so we're noting it here.