Liberty University

Faith-based colleges and real news? Gossip is not more Christian than journalism

Faith-based colleges and real news? Gossip is not more Christian than journalism

Journalism professors at Christian colleges and universities know the drill all too well.

Semi-official reports spread that something terrible has happened on or near campus. It may be an accident that was said to have involved alcohol and a student driver. It may be rumors about a sexual assault. It may be a suicide or attempted suicide.

At the student newspaper, students are sure they know what happened and want to run the story. When they contact administrators -- as they should -- they are told that no one can comment because, first and foremost, this is a private school, student-discipline issues are involved and officials cannot comment because of privacy laws.

What next? After decades in Christian higher education, here is the question that I teach students to ask: Did this event lead to a public police report?

The goal is to get past the "everyone knows what happened" stage. Rumors are not enough. Gossip is not more Christian than journalism.

Truth is, journalism educators have to understand that concerns about privacy laws are very real for leaders at private schools and universities. And if administrators cannot comment about campus discipline issues -- including faculty cases -- then it's hard for students to provide accurate, balanced, fair reports about these stories. 

At the moment, debates about journalism and faith have been stirred up -- yet again -- by a Washington Post essay by Will Young, former editor of the student newspaper at Liberty University. 

Readers should focus on this passage: "In my first week as editor in chief of the Champion ... our faculty adviser, Deborah Huff, ordered me to apologize. I'd noticed that our evangelical school's police department didn't publish its daily crime log online, as many other private university forces do, so I searched elsewhere for crime information I might use in an article. I called the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to find out what the law required Liberty to disclose. But the public affairs worker there told the Liberty University Police Department, which complained to Huff. ... Huff and Chief Richard Hinkley convened a meeting inside a police department conference room, and Huff sat next to me while I proffered the forced apology to Hinkley -- for asking questions. Huff, too, was contrite, assuring the police chief that it wouldn't happen again, because she'd keep a better eye on me."

It's safe to assume -- during the President Donald Trump era -- that there are other journalism-related conflicts at Liberty.

Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, Jr.: Seeking some common ground at Liberty U

It's hard for anyone -- let alone a former president -- to visit Liberty University these days without mentioning President Donald Trump.

Sure enough, former President Jimmy Carter opened his recent Liberty commencement address with a quip linked to Trump's claims that his inauguration crowd was as large, or larger, than that of President Barack Obama.

The set-up: Trump addressed the school's 2017 graduates.

"This is a wonderful crowd," said Carter, after being introduced by Liberty President Jerry Falwell, Jr. "Jerry told me … that it's even bigger -- I hate to say this -- than it was last year." With a slight grin, he added: "I don't know if President Trump would admit that or not."

The crowd laughed, and some people cheered. Carter avoided any further Trump references -- at least by name.

The key to this day was that Carter and Falwell treated each other with respect, and even affection, setting the tone for an encounter between the evangelical left and right. In 2015, Falwell also made headlines by inviting Sen. Bernie Sanders to speak on campus.

Calling the 93-year-old Carter the "world's most famous Sunday school teacher," Falwell praised his declaration of born-again Christian faith while in public life and his legacy, as an ex-president, of serving others. Liberty's leader stressed that Carter showed political courage, and paid a high price among Democrats, when he signed the Hyde Amendment banning the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions.

"The longer I live, the more I want to know about a person, and to give my political support to a person," said Falwell. "Policies are important. But candidates lie about their policies all the time in order to get elected. The same elite establishment that Jesus condemned remains the real enemy today."

Carter's visit, he added, was an example of Christians "uniting … on issues where they agree, rather than fighting about issues where they disagree."

The long, tense dance between Donald Trump and the old-guard evangelicals

The long, tense dance between Donald Trump and the old-guard evangelicals

It's impossible to win the GOP presidential nomination without making peace with millions of evangelical Protestants.

Thus, Donald Trump traveled to Liberty University in 2012. If he ever got serious about winning the White House, team Trump knew he would need a solid faith story.

The New York billionaire told students to "work hard" and "love what they do," but raised eyebrows by urging them to "get even" when wronged, and to "get a prenuptial" before marriage. He joked about saying naughty things at Liberty.

"That remarkable speech showed what he did and didn't know" about evangelicals, said Stephen Mansfield, author of the new book "Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope and Why Conservative Christians Supported Him."

"Trump basically told Liberty students, 'Follow Jesus' and 'Shoot your enemies between the eyes.' ... He sees no conflict between those two messages."

That 2012 presentation also showed an image of young Donald on the day of his baptism, then a picture of his baptism certificate. Trump seemed to think this flash of faith would buy evangelical credibility, canceling out his Playboy appearances and interviews in which, as Mansfield wrote, his sexual conquests were "tallied like wild game bagged on safari."

The candidate who kept returning to Liberty was, of course, a grown-up edition of the boy who punched his second-grade teacher in the face, the lad whose real-estate magnate father nicknamed "killer." As a teen-ager, Trump was shaped by "The Power of Positive Thinking" sermons of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the cultural tastes of Hugh Hefner and the strict disciplines of a military academy.

But Mansfield noted Trump was also the man who couldn't bear to throw away stacks of Bibles given to him by fans, creating a Trump Tower storage room for them.

The young Jerry Falwell meets the old, high-flying Donald Trump

When the late Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, one of his main goals was to oppose President Jimmy Carter, the Southern Baptist who forced American politicos to learn the term "born again."

Months later, Ronald Reagan coyly told a flock of evangelicals: "I know you can't endorse me. But I want you to know that I endorse you."

People may have forgotten how odd that marriage was back then, recalled the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., as he introduced Donald Trump at Liberty University.

"My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher," said Falwell, Liberty's president, at a campus Martin Luther King Day convocation.

"My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out we are all sinners. … Dad explained that when he walked in the voting booth, he was not electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs. He was electing the president of the United States and the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation might not line up with those needed to run a church."

The GOP frontrunner's campaign trail pilgrimage to Liberty was a two-act drama -- Falwell's sermon-length introduction and then Trump's stump speech, with a few extra shots of faith. Falwell stopped short of endorsing Trump, but the New York billionaire and reality-television icon did everything he could to endorse Liberty.

Mitt Romney faces the Moral Majority

When the Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, many fundamentalist pastors were appalled by his decision to wade into the muck of politics. Even more shocking, Falwell said this would be an interfaith project from the get-go, one open to conservatives in many flocks -- including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The goal was to focus on the moral convictions that united believers in different faiths, not the scriptures, creeds and theology that separated them.

Clearly, Mitt Romney or a campaign staffer did his history homework before the candidate arrived at Liberty University to embrace the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., and address the class of 2012, as well as -- via mass media -- millions of conservative Christians who have shunned him, or worse.

"People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology," said Romney, in an address that included many references to faith and family. "Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."

Over in the faculty section, this "people of different faiths" passage hit home for the well-known author and Christian apologist Gary Habermas, who has taught at Liberty for 31 years and currently leads its philosophy department.

"I'm surprised that he said that, that he chose that combination of words," said Habermas. "You see, he's not really talking to our people, alone. He's talking to the whole Southern evangelical presence that he needs at the polls this fall. He knows they need to hear from him on this issue."

In particular, it was significant that Romney acknowledged that some theological disputes are so basic -- such as disagreements about the nature of God -- that the creeds of ancient Christianity divide Mormons from Trinitarian Christians.

"I was surprised that he was so clear in pointing out this fact -- that we are different, that our theologies are so different," said Habermas. "He needs to say that, to acknowledge that, before he can go on to say that we can still work together."

Obviously, Romney knew that his audience included many who were upset that he was delivering the commencement address, said the Rev. Tal Davis, who for many years led interfaith evangelism projects for the Southern Baptist Convention. It was smart for Romney to gently acknowledge this and, thus, preempt some critics.

"I thought he was refreshingly candid," said Davis. "He wasn't trying to ignore or gloss over the obvious. He was saying, 'I'm not here representing my church. Our faiths are different. I'm running for president. Let's move on.' "

The candidate certainly knew to quote or praise heroes that would appeal to his listeners, including John Wesley, William Wilberforce, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Viktor Frankl, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Chuck Colson and, of course, the late Jerry Falwell. He also alluded to recent church-state conflicts, at one point drawing sustained applause with the simple statement: "Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."

The times are so tense, noted Romney, that the "protection of religious freedom has also become a matter of debate. It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with. Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government. ...

"Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution. And whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action."

Liberty University's founder would have applauded those words, as well as the fact that a Mormon leader delivered them, said Habermas. While the Moral Majority organization no longer exists, some of its strategies have become part of America's political landscape.

"Mormons were always a crucial part of that coalition, from day one," said Habermas. "Everyone knew that we had our differences, but we were still trying to stand shoulder to shoulder. ... The key is that everyone needs to know that we are not trying to blur or combine our theologies."