Three times a week, 15,000 students stream into the Vines Center, a huge silver-domed building on the campus of Liberty University for “convocation”, an intoxicating mix of prayer, political rally and entertainment. Thousands more watch a live stream of the event.
The star attraction has twice been Donald Trump, in 2012 and 2016. His first appearance was as a successful businessman and reality TV star, the second as the man campaigning to be the Republican party’s candidate for president. Last year, he made a third appearance at Liberty, to address the university’s graduation ceremony. By then, he was one of the most divisive leaders in the country’s history.
But not at Liberty. The Christian university which dominates the town of Lynchburg, Virginia, has become almost synonymous with Trump. It sits at the heart of the alliance between the president and conservative evangelical Christians – an alliance forged in part by Jerry Falwell Jr, Liberty’s president, Lynchburg’s most prominent citizen and Trump’s close associate.
Falwell was instrumental in delivering 81% of white Christian evangelical voters for Trump in 2016. Ahead of next month’s midterm elections, that support appears to be holding up, although there has been some erosion among evangelical women. A survey published in early October by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 72% of white evangelical Protestants had a favourable opinion of the president.
In Liberty’s coffee bars, random conversations with a dozen or so students found they all backed Falwell’s full-throated support for Trump. But not everyone in the town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains is happy. A minority at the university, along with a few churches in town, are deeply concerned. Some speak of a “toxic Christianity”.
Falwell endorsed Trump’s candidacy two weeks after his January 2016 appearance at Liberty’s convocation, a move which triggered the resignation of a member of the university’s board of trustees, Mark DeMoss.
Later, Falwell dismissed the furore around the candidate’s “grab them by the pussy” comments, saying:
“We’re never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot.”
He has defended some of the president’s most egregious remarks and tweets since taking office. He recently sent 300 Liberty students to Washington to demonstrate in support of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the supreme court. The next day, he tweeted:
“Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing “nice guys”. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!”
Falwell told the Guardian that Trump was a
“good moral person, a strong leader, a tough leader – and that’s what this country needs”,
and that support among white evangelicals was solid in the run-up to the midterms,
“The sentiment is there, it’s going to come down to turnout”
Polls show a drop in the proportion of white evangelicals from a peak in the 1990s of around 27% of the population to between 17% and 13% now, alongside a significant rise in religious pluralism and those – particularly young people – who say they have no religion.
Changing attitudes and legislation on abortion, divorce, gender equality and LGBT rights were “powerful indicators of the loss of Protestant privilege and a prelude to white evangelicals moving in such large numbers to supporting Trump”, said Leonard.
Crucially, they wanted a president who would nominate conservative supreme court justices.
“Presidents come and go, but appointments to the supreme court are for life. With the right nominees, you could change the supreme court majority for half a century. [Evangelicals] tell themselves that Trump is the vehicle God has chosen to drive the conservative evangelical agenda.”
Leonard suggested that one of the “primary goals” in the establishment of Liberty University by Jerry Falwell Sr, the founder of the Moral Majority, and its massive expansion under his son’s leadership, was “to create generations of rightwing Christians who would run for public office for everything from dog-catcher to US president”.
Under Jerry Falwell Jr, Liberty has become one of the biggest, and certainly the most influential, Christian educational institutions in the US. As well as 15,000 students on campus, an additional 90,000 or so are enrolled in online courses. The university employs almost 7,000 people full-time, with a further 12,000 jobs in the Lynchburg area connected to it.
Faculty members are vetted at interview for their conservative theological views. Classes start with prayers, the campus is dry, dorms are strictly segregated, students are subject to a curfew, and there is an informal dress code.
Linked to the university is the Thomas Road Baptist church, run by Jerry Falwell’s brother, Jonathan, a mega-church with a membership of up to 20,000 and a full-time staff of 125. After a Sunday morning service recently, Pastor Matt Willmington explained the church’s outlook.
“We are biblicist, that is what anchors our belief. It is a worldview, not something compartmentalised, not something that we do on Sundays. Our worldview drives everything,” he said.
“We encourage people to live out their faith by voting according to their conscience – not just as a citizen but as a disciple of Jesus. People in the congregation generally support that. It’s not always about the individual candidate, it’s about voting for an agenda.”
That agenda focuses on traditional “family values”, gender roles and opposition to abortion; support for the state of Israel; and a strong nationalism.
A Liberty faculty member who attended the Sunday morning service at Thomas Road said the majority of the university’s staff and students agreed that Trump was their best hope of implementing their agenda.
“I would say 65% vocally agree, 30% don’t talk about politics, and 5% disagree,”
said the professor, who asked for his name to be withheld.
“As long as Trump does things that are consistent with conservative Christian ideals, he’s a good guy. I don’t think he’s a nice guy, but as long as he goes along with my worldview, I’ll support him.”
Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty, who did not vote for Trump in 2016, insisted that “no one imposes views” on staff and students at the university. She understood the evangelical enthusiasm for the president, while not sharing it. “Evangelical Trump supporters fall into two categories: those that voted for him holding their noses because of his personal behaviour, and those who are really enthusiastic,” she said.
The former group may find the midterm Senate race in Virginia especially uncomfortable, Prior added. The Republican candidate, Corey Stewart – who has past associations with white supremacists and antisemites, rails against illegal immigration and defends Confederate monuments – “makes Trump look wise and mature”.
All the Liberty students the Guardian spoke to on campus expressed support for Trump, although few articulated reasons other than his “strength” and ability “to get things done”.
But according to one student who spoke at length to the Guardian in a downtown cafe, beneath the surface there is unease. “People are quick to put one stamp on Liberty, but there are a lot of students who are embarrassed by Falwell,” said Jack Panyard, who is in his final year of journalism studies.
“A good chunk of students are unhappy with the public face of Liberty, but the ones that support Falwell speak louder and are promoted by the university.”
Panyard, 21, has direct experience of the consequences of dissent. Since enrolling at the university, he devoted almost all his free time to working on the campus newspaper, the Liberty Champion. But following Falwell’s endorsement of Trump, faculty members intervened several times to spike or change articles considered critical of the president.
Earlier this year, Panyard wrote a story about Liberty’s involvement with the production of a feature film, The Trump Prophecy, which told the story of a firefighter who claimed to receive a message from God in 2011 that Trump would become US president.
Panyard’s article mentioned that some students had doubts about the movie’s premise. When those reservations were removed in pre-publication vetting of the article, Panyard took his byline off the story. Another article, about university policy towards female students who became pregnant, was spiked.
So he was surprised and delighted to be chosen as editor-in-chief of the Liberty Champion for the current academic year. But within a few weeks, there was a U-turn; Panyard was told a “restructuring” of the Champion’s staff meant his services were no longer required in any capacity.
“Falwell will not put up with people who disagree with him. I was a victim of that culture,” Panyard told the Guardian. “The Champion was my world, I practically lived in that office. Now it’s run by people who are compliant, those with the same political agenda. Yes-men. Anyone who’s going to raise a ruckus will quickly be ejected.
“Falwell has the right, he owns the paper. The question is not can he or can’t he, it’s should he or shouldn’t he. We’re a Christian university, we’re called to pursue the truth. If the university is obstructing that, then it’s an issue.”
Elsewhere in Lynchburg, there is also concern about the pressure on Liberty students to conform to Falwell’s views. Cyd Cowgill, the pastor of First Christian church, a progressive, inclusive church a few miles from campus, said there were about 20 Liberty students in her congregation of about 200. “But they keep quiet about it. They won’t post anything on social media about coming to our church.”
Students were given a list of churches they were encouraged to attend, she said. “First Christian, which flies a rainbow flag in our front yard, won’t be on it.”
The few liberal churches in Lynchburg were a “hidden secret” in the town, she said. “We feel a very keen responsibility to represent something different in the way we preach and the way we present Christianity. But the Trump phenomenon is so strong, it’s hard not to feel puny in the face of that.”
Falwell was seen as the public face of Liberty and the Thomas Road Baptist church. “We need to come out of hiding and say there is an alternative to a toxic Christianity which is full of vitriol and hate. Christianity is loving and inclusive and compassionate. Toxic Christianity is anti-Christianity to me. It’s not what Jesus represents.”
Back on campus, Falwell made time in his schedule to meet the Guardian in his office overlooking the campus. Casually dressed in a pink polo shirt, he was affable, voluble and proud of his achievements at Liberty. The university had gone from “the brink of disaster to become the most prosperous university in the US”, he said, with $1.7bn in endowments, and gross assets of $3bn.
He dismissed the idea of “toxic Christianity” as an invention of a losing side. “More than 80% of evangelicals supported Trump [in 2016], which means there are a few that didn’t. They’re liberals, and they come up with stuff like ‘toxic Christianity’.
BLOGGERS NOTE: 26% of the US population identify as evangelical. 40% of evangelicals voted for Trump. 18% of evangelicals strongly favored Trump. 42% of evangelicals did note vote. White evangelicals account for 17% of Americans, while white evangelicals under the age of 30 represent 8%. In 2016, 46% of white evangelicals who were eligible to vote did so. 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. 25% of younger white evangelicals report having a “very favorable” opinion of Trump.
“You don’t have to be a conservative to come here. You don’t have to be a Christian. But people come here knowing what Liberty’s about, and the vast majority are conservative and Christian.”
Since its foundation in 1971, Liberty University’s mission has been “training champions for Christ”. Almost half a century on, it also appears to be training champions for Trump.
Panyard said he was now focused on finishing his degree. Did he regret coming to Liberty? “No, the experience has helped me grow, it’s made me stronger. I don’t regret coming here, but I do regret what’s happening to this school in pursuit of a political agenda.”