In the lead-up to and during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, we’ll be profiling some of the activists and politicians invited to speak at the event. Find more of our Meet the Speakers series here.
It was hardly surprising to see Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. on the speakers’ list for the Republican convention. After all, Falwell has compared Trump to Jesus Christ, the biblical King David, Martin Luther King Jr., and his own father, Jerry Falwell Sr. That’s the kind of adoration Trump appreciates.
Falwell was one of the speakers at last month’s meeting between Trump and hundreds of Religious Right leaders and activists. At that meeting, Falwell called Trump a “bold and fearless leader” and said that the day after Trump becomes president, “every terrorist in the world will crawl under a rock.” Falwell declared, “I personally feel strongly that Donald Trump is God’s man to lead our nation at this crucial crossroads in our country’s history.”
Falwell’s man-crush on Trump began long before the current campaign. In 2012, he told Newsmax that Trump’s speech at the university’s weekly convocation was “probably the best” in the history of the school. Trump’s message — he told students to be sure to “get even” with anyone who slights them — was seen by some as not particularly Christian, but Falwell defended Trump’s remarks as not at all contrary to the turn-the-other-cheek message of Jesus.
Like Trump, Falwell is not one to worry about ideological consistency. In February, when Trump was embroiled in a war of words with Pope Francis, Falwell rushed to his defense, saying “Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run the country.” This was a hilariously un-self-aware comment from someone presiding over the empire that his father built on the premise that the Bible has clear instructions for people who run the country.
Falwell has had his own political ambitions for Liberty. In 2008 the school hosted campaign events for John McCain, and Falwell organized a student voter registration drive in hopes that Liberty could “go down in history as the college that elected a president.” In 2010, he tried and failed to engineer a takeover of the city council in Liberty’s home of Lynchburg, Virginia.
And this year, Falwell is holding nothing back. He invited Trump to speak at Liberty on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, something he said was a purposeful decision, one that generated some student protest. Falwell’s endorsement of Trump came just before the Iowa caucuses, and his effusive introductory remarks were turned into a radio ad by the campaign. And that was in spite of the transparent, cynical charlatanism of Trump’s Bible-waving. The candidate’s actual familiarity with the Bible was revealed by his laughter-provoking reference to “two Corinthians” when his written speech referred to the book of Second Corinthians.
Remarkably, Falwell has made “character” one justification for his endorsement. In March, Falwell recorded a robocall for Trump in which he attacked the candidate favored by most Religious Right leaders, calling Ted Cruz a “master politician” and practitioner of “dirty tricks.” Said Falwell, “Ambition must never be a substitute for character. Please vote for Donald Trump.”
Falwell has had little patience with other conservative Christians who have been critical of his embrace of Trump; when some expressed dismay about a picture of Falwell standing with Trump with a framed Playboy magazine cover visible on the wall behind them, he compared them to Pharisees.
Falwell may see parallels between Trump’s business doings and his own empire-building style. Thanks to a decision to push into distance learning — online education that doesn’t require much infrastructure — and thanks to a massive flow of federal student aid, Falwell has built Liberty into the biggest nonprofit private university in the U.S. and the largest Christian college in the world.
While providing a platform for right-wing candidates who trash federal involvement in education, Liberty has taken advantage of Democratic-supported increases in student aid that were part of the much-maligned-by-the-Right 2009 stimulus bill. At the same time, Falwell preaches the small-government gospel that portrays care for the poor as the responsibility of the church, not the government.
Falwell also seems to envision himself as something of a Trumpish flouter of political correctness. In December, after the mass shooting in Bernardino, Falwell told Liberty students:
If some of those people in that community center had had what I've got in my back pocket right now [applause] ... is it illegal to pull it out? I don't know. I've always thought that if more people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill. So, I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. Let's teach 'em a lesson if they ever show up here.
Earlier this year Falwell’s comments about Muslims led several Virginia high school debate teams to boycott the state finals because they were being held at Liberty.
Under Falwell’s leadership, Liberty reflects an institutional commitment to much of the Religious Right’s political agenda. For example:
- In 2010 it hosted some of the country’s most well-known anti-gay activists for a conference and symposium on the “homosexual agenda” and its threat to religious freedom.
- A few years ago, journalist Sarah Posner reported that Liberty Law School Dean Mat Staver taught students that when faced with conflict between “God’s law” and “man’s law,” they should resolve that conflict through “civil disobedience.”
- In 2010, AFP profiled a Liberty science class field trip to the Natural History Museum to help them learn to debunk the theory of evolution in favor of the Creationist belief that God created the world in a week about 6,000 years ago.
- Falwell has invited climate change denialists as a way to challenge environmentalists who use “pseudo-science to promote political agendas” and help students “who come from public schools where the truth of global warming and the science of global warming is now always known.”