I’m not really a fan of professional or college sports and don’t normally look at the Sports page of the newspaper. But a recent New York Times piece about Liberty University’s football program did catch my eye.
The Lynchburg, Va.-based university founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell has an ambitious agenda. As The Times put it, “[T]he 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.”
These days, Liberty U. is run by Jerry Falwell Jr. Like his father, the younger Falwell tends to see everything through a religio-political lens – and, of course, he is very hostile to church-state separation and his politics are very far to the right.
“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 said, “They would identify with our philosophy.”
Needless to say, Liberty faces significant hurdles in its quest to join the upper ranks of college football. Think about the teams that dominate in Division I-A: Ohio State, the University of Florida, Louisiana State University, University of Southern California, the University of Alabama, etc. Liberty’s just not in the same league.
And, as the article points out, Liberty, with its strict fundamentalist-oriented code governing student life and behavior, might have difficulty recruiting top high school players.
But Liberty has defied expectations before. Many of us are surprised that the school even still exists. Back in the 1990s, it was struggling under so much debt that some observers thought it was just a matter of time before the whole shebang collapsed. Ironically, only a generous infusion of cash from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his controversial Unification Church saved the school.
You may not know it, but you’re also helping prop up Liberty. The university, journalist Bill Berkowitz has reported, receives “massive government aid.”
Liberty now has 12,000 students living on campus and is expanding to accommodate 8,000 more. An additional 82,000 students study there online.
As The Times reported, “Liberty’s net assets have ballooned by more than $900 million in the last five years. The once sleepy Liberty campus, which used to be no more than a few nondescript structures and a parking lot, has been transformed with a multitude of technologically advanced brick buildings in the Jeffersonian architectural style. Huddled against the foothills outside Lynchburg’s historic downtown, Liberty has a 500,000-square-foot learning center with a new 170,000-square-foot library under construction. An observatory will open in the spring next to the equestrian center…. There is an expanding law school, and a medical school is scheduled to open in 2014.”
That law school, I should point out, is led by Mat Staver, a longtime Religious Right attorney who has dedicated his life to undoing the handiwork of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other advocates of church-state separation. Staver is no fan of Americans United and once opined that we are “out to literally destroy America.”
Religious groups, of course, have the right to open, own and operate schools. When the primary goal of these institutions is to spread religious doctrine, I think the people who believe in that faith should pay 100 percent of the bill. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court long ago opened the door for religiously affiliated colleges to get taxpayer aid, and now most of them are on the dole.
Liberty’s growth should alarm advocates of church-state separation. The university has become a major base of operations for opponents of the church-state wall. Liberty says its main goal is to promote “champions for Christ.” The elder Falwell may be gone, but his radical agenda lives on through these “champions,” who were given marching orders to infiltrate public education, the legal profession, the political world and other power centers of our national life.
Falwell’s “champions” have a vision of a “Christian America” that most Americans don’t share. It’s based on their exceedingly narrow interpretation of Christianity and would exclude millions of Americans who are atheists, gay, liberal Christians, non-Christians, political progressives and so on. The Liberty crowd says it wants government to be faith friendly. What they don’t tell you is that under their scheme, only a certain faith (theirs) would be favored.
The school has friends in high places. When political figures like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and others want to show the Religious Right some love, increasingly they head straight to Lynchburg.
It behooves all of us to keep an eye on the growing fundamentalist empire in Lynchburg. Its “champions” want to run our lives, and they’ll use any means at their disposal to do that – even a football team.