Students at Virginia’s Liberty University are speaking out against a conservative think tank co-founded by the school’s disgraced ex-president Jerry Falwell Jr., worried that the think tank’s partisan rhetoric is damaging the school’s reputation.
Falwell, who was toppled by scandals in August, launched the Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty in 2019 with the help of right-wing activist Charlie Kirk. The professed goal was to build an “army” of believers who would defend America’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage.
But the center’s combative language has some students concerned that it is placing conservative politics above Christianity. Liberty’s student body vice president Joel Thomas said he is worried about the “rhetoric, tone, content” emerging from the center, “specifically when it comes to our greater, crucial mission to further the kingdom of God.”
“Freedom of speech and sharing of ideas are extremely important, yes,” Thomas wrote in a Dec. 22 tweet. “Yet our priority must remain fixed on what truly matters: exalting the cross of Christ through the witness we bear. Conservative must never supersede Christian.”
Student body president Constance Schneider tweeted in response that she and Thomas have had “dozens of conversations” with students who are “embarrassed” to be associated with the university because of the Falkirk Center’s commentary.
“Our concern is how the name of Christ has been used time and time again to support divisive rhetoric and insults,” Schneider wrote.
Schneider and Thomas did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
It’s rare for top leaders of Liberty University’s student government to publicly criticize the institution. Former students have alleged that during Falwell’s tenure as president, he quashed dissent, particularly from students and professors who were critical of his politics as a close ally of President Donald Trump.
Falwell and Kirk launched the Falkirk Center in November 2019 to “play offense against the secular left.” One of the original reasons Falwell gave for its formation was to challenge the idea that Jesus would have supported Democrats’ efforts to increase government aid to the poor. Since its founding, the center has railed against coronavirus lockdown orders on Twitter and published articles condemning the Black Lives Matter movement. Its fellows ― people like Christian radio host Eric Metaxas and Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis ― continue to spread the myth that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump.
Save71, an alumni group that is advocating for changes at the school, insists that Falwell’s resignation was not enough to redeem Liberty’s reputation ― and that the Falkirk Center needs to shut down. Co-founder Dustin Wahl, a 2018 Liberty graduate, told HuffPost that the center’s “low quality content” is “embarrassing” to the university’s best professors. The center presents Christians as a persecuted religious minority in the United States who need to fight their persecutors, Wahl said, which he believes is both untrue and unbiblical.
Wahl said that Liberty’s leadership has long been “dismissive” of students’ concerns and that he isn’t hopeful the administration will take a different approach now. But “whether or not Liberty’s administration wants to begin taking its student body’s desires seriously, the administration needs to realize that allowing Falkirk to remain open is dangerous for the school,” he said.
Liberty University did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. School spokesperson Scott Lamb told The Christian Post that Liberty’s board of trustees “unanimously endorsed” the Falkirk Center.
“While any academic think tank will have its detractors, the University and the Center have received hundreds of supportive emails from students, parents of students, faculty, and donors,” Lamb said.
The recent push from students against the Falkirk Center appears to have been prompted by a marketing stunt that an energy drink company staged at a recent conference organized by Turning Point USA, Kirk’s conservative student group. The act involved two models in skin-tight fitness clothing firing money cannons into the crowd. It drew criticism from other conservative Christians, including current and former Liberty University professors.
The Falkirk Center tweeted on Dec. 21 that Turning Point USA is a separate organization and that the stunt had “nothing to do with us except in the minds of folks who peddle in innuendo.”
But Schneider suggested the stunt wasn’t the only thing that prompted students to speak up.
“There have been many instances where the center is not reflective upon the mission of our school to train champions for Christ,” she tweeted.
Some Liberty alumni have also chimed in to ask the university’s board to drop the school’s ties to the Falkirk Center. Maryland pastor Tally Wilgis called the Falkirk Center a “distraction” from Liberty’s mission and urged the administration to invest in Liberty’s Helms School of Government instead.
“We can and should engage the public policy debate with a biblical worldview but let us appreciate that no singular American political party fully encapsulates the gospel,” he posted on Twitter.
Matthew Morris, a Liberty University freshman, started an online petition on Dec. 22 calling for the Falkirk Center to shut down. The petition calls the center’s fellows “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and accuses the center of waging war “against decency, respect, and Christian charity, all while misrepresenting Liberty students and the Christian church.”
Morris told HuffPost that he’s collected about 450 signatures through a Google form, some of which still need to be verified. He said he intends to eventually present these signatures to the school but isn’t too hopeful that the administration will listen.
The student, whose parents also attended Liberty, said he’s been concerned about the Falkirk Center for months, primarily because of the way some of its leaders express Christian nationalistic views.
“They’re trying to mix Christianity with a very nationalistic view of America first, this mentality that Christianity and conservatism in America are inseparable, which we find to be completely wrong,” Morris said.
He said he wanted the public to know that not all Liberty students are on board with the center’s stances.
“This is a Christ-centered movement. This isn’t politically motivated at all,” he said about those criticizing the Falkirk Center. “We have nothing against conservatism or liberalism. We’re not choosing one side over the other.”
“There’s just no place for one group to be representing the whole school,” Morris said.
One Liberty student, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the school, told HuffPost he is upset about how the center paints Democrats as the enemy and how it insists that “you cannot be a Christian when you are on the left.” The student agrees that it is important for Christians to engage with politics, but said using combative rhetoric, promoting Christian nationalism and idolizing Trump isn’t the right way.
He hopes to see the Falkirk Center revived with new leadership and advisers from across the political spectrum ― Republicans, Democrats and independents.
“If we’re going to be influencing the political realm as Christians, let’s conduct ourselves to what Scripture tells us to do,” the student said. “We need to do this in a way that’s different from how the left and the right is doing it. We should do it better.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.