Glenn Beck’s comments about social justice and evangelicalism are matters of deep concern for people of faith. His urges to be wary of the phrase “social justice” strike many of us as odd and alarming. Especially to those in church communities that support social justice causes, the call to leave them is both shocking and offensive. Implying that these churches could be controlled by the federal government in some way is a hindrance to worship. 

What is more alarming is that Liberty University appointed Beck to speak at this year’s commencement. Liberty is the worlds largest evangelical university; the late Dr. Jerry Falwell founded the school in 1971 with the goal of “training champions for Christ.” After his death, the mantel of leadership fell upon his son Jerry Falwell, Jr. I attended Liberty for the entire 2009 calendar year, and I know the place very well. They love church and social justice. They love churches that love social justice. 

Something seems amiss. Seriously, this is a school that markets itself by its unique spiritual environment and heart for social justice. I can recount dozens of sermons I’ve heard there that rally for social justice. This, in addition to the campus wide crusades for the Invisible Children, food drives, the countless pairs of TOMS Shoes, prayer meetings, etc.

Steve McConkey, founder of the apologetics ministry 4 Winds, believes the university is sending a dangerous message by allowing Beck to speak at the ceremony. He stated, “we believe that…Christians, at supposedly the largest evangelical university in the United States…should be the commencement speaker[s] there because they have weathered the storm of life and as a Christian.” He continues, insisting that “a Mormon that teaches false doctrine” should not be the speaker.

Due to my sympathies toward Liberty, I wanted to know the full story so I dug into the ordeal. I talked with students and, for a week straight, tried to get a hold of Jerry Falwell, Jr., the school’s chancellor. I sent emails, called his office: nothing.

A friend suggested sending him a message on Facebook, so I did. In my message I said that I would love to talk about this on behalf of Patrol. (I’m aware how crazy this sounds: I sent Jerry Falwell’s son a Facebook message to discuss politics and ask for public statements regarding an important news piece.) He declined my invitation to talk over the phone and kindly invited me ask any question I liked via Facebook message. 

These are questions I prepared and sent to him: 

  1. Why did you decide on Glenn Beck to speak at this years commencement? Why not bring in someone with a scholarly/academic background?
  2. Based on Beck’s recent comments antagonizing those who advocate social justice from the context of church (found here, being a school that I know LOVES both church and social justice, was there any hesitation to invite him to speak? 
  3. In the past, convocation speakers have included other members of the Fox News “info-tainment” line-up, most notably Sean Hannity. Do you think this furthers the stereotype that the religious right does the bidding of the Republican party? 
  4. You’ve stated many times (at least during my attendance at LU in 2009) that you do not invite speakers or guests based on their spiritual convictions or religious affiliations, do you still hold to that? Also, as an educational institution seeking to further the kingdom of God wouldn’t that come into conflict with making decisions about speakers and guests?
  5. Many students I’ve spoken to have suggested that you have compromised your religious convictions and beliefs for the sake of your political ideology and affiliation. How do you respond?

He responded with a short statement:

Charles, you must not have read the press release and my other public statements. I covered all these issues. Hope you have a great Summer.

I had read his public statements and the form letter his secretary circulated as an answer to nearly every inquiry made on the subject. 

This was the core of it: 

Liberty University is blessed to have two national conservative leaders speak at our 2010 Commencement ceremony,” Falwell, Jr. said. “Beck is one of the few courageous voices in the national media standing up for the principles upon which this nation was founded. Both speakers continue Liberty’s long tradition of Commencement speakers who are making a positive impact on society in all walks of life.” “Commencement, however, has always featured leaders from all walks of life and all faiths who share the university’s social values and traditional family values. Commencement speakers have included representatives from the following faiths: Roman Catholicism, Judaism, mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church, and even some speakers with no religious affiliation at all.”

Those of you keeping score at home, that hardly answers even two of my questions. 

I have no malicious intent with this story. It would be petty. I don’t hate Liberty University, I don’t hate Falwell, Jr., the students, or the things they claim to uphold. I have a great deal invested there; my life was transformed at Liberty many times over. 

Though, I could easily be upset. Falwell, Jr. is my former educator, a man I have a great deal of respect for and he dismissed the questions he invited me to ask. I would like to invite the Chancellor again to address my questions. I’m still interested, and I still care. I still have no desire to paint him or Liberty University in a negative light. I’m not full of malice, I’m not up in arms, I’m simply concerned about the quality of education and public portrayal of those I love and care about. 

About The Author

Charles Peters

0 Responses to The Time Jerry Falwell, Jr. Gave Me the Brush Off

  1. Nelson H. Keener says:

    Charles I just found you May 2010 blog post on Beck speaking at LU’s commencement.

    I don’t have your email, so I’m pasting an Op-Ed I wrote last month for our local papger>


    Politico-free graduations
    An alum laments Liberty University’s choice of commencement speak
    Sunday News, Lancaster, PA
    Jul 01, 2012 00:02
    By NELSON H. KEENER, In My Opinion

    Since the founding of Moral Majority 33 years ago, a slice of conservative evangelical Christendom has become a formidable and controversial political force known as the religious right.

    In his column, “Know where to draw the line” (June 3), Gil Smart expounded that religion has “always been part of the American political fabric.” He understands and concedes that religion inevitably informs our politics as a moral force.

    But Smart questions whether there is danger of religion crossing a line in politics if laws were proposed to enforce certain moral codes. He referenced Mitt Romney’s commencement address at Liberty University.

    Smart’s question is a fair one. But I have a different question: Should politics mix with religion?

    Seven of the last 10 Liberty University commencement speakers have been politicians or culture war pundits. As a highly touted Christian university whose motto is “Training Champions for Christ,” is LU excessively exploiting its graduation venue to promote partisan candidates?

    Thirty-six years ago I graduated from Liberty University, which was founded by the late Jerry Falwell who also founded Moral Majority. In those early years, Falwell sought out pastors of large fundamentalist churches to preach at commencements. “Fundamentalist” was the term he used — often and emphatically, intentionally and proudly.

    Nowadays we hear orators like Newt Gingrich, John McCain and Glenn Beck; same fiery style, different content. Preachers simply don’t garner coverage by major news networks.

    It is appropriate that Liberty moved away from pulpit-pounding preachers for commencement speakers. But it’s time to drop the high-profile politicians too.

    Why? Because too few politicians speak hard truth when running for office. Rather they usually protect their own partisan interests and say what is expedient to increase votes.

    Did Gov. Romney offer insights and observations in his LU speech that stretched graduates beyond their parochial world? Not really. What he delivered was more campaign speech than commencement address.

    As expected, Romney’s speech was carefully crafted. It included catchphrases like “purpose driven,” delighting eager ears with platitudes about their religious faith and political penchants. He dropped all the right names: C.S. Lewis, William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

    While politicians can and do certainly affect change in our world, the late Chuck Colson reminded us in his last public speech that “Politics is nothing but an expression of culture … so if things are bad, don’t think it’s going to be solved by an election. It’s going to be solved by us.”

    In New Testament accounts, political power was not something Jesus sought. In fact, he shunned it. The Gospel of Matthew records that after Jesus was baptized he spent 40 days and nights fasting in the wilderness after which Satan tempted him three times.

    Having failed on the first two attempts, Satan shamelessly offered Jesus control of the world’s kingdoms if Jesus would bow and worship him. Jesus sharply reprimanded Satan who finally slinked away, pointed tail between his legs.

    Later in Jesus’ ministry the religious powerbrokers brought him to Pilate to be judged. Pilate asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus simply replied, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

    Has the religious right somehow missed, or worse ignored, Christ’s eschewing of political power?

    There are many compelling speakers who would respect and affirm, if not share, Liberty’s Christian faith and ideological tenets. Columnists like Michael Gerson, Peggy Noonan and David Brooks; thinkers who, without rhetoric, plow deep and challenge us to ponder and wrestle with the nitty-gritty nuances of reality.

    Purportedly many LU students objected to Romney as commencement speaker. So, here’s a suggestion for the 2013 class officers. Compile a list of speakers you’d like to hear at your graduation. Entreat the university administration to invite a speaker from your list. You’ll be spiritually and intellectually stimulated.

    Nelson H. Keener served as the late Jerry Falwell’s administrative assistant during the seminal days of the Moral Majority and later, in a similar capacity, with the late Chuck Colson. A Lancaster resident, he is a real estate and marketing consultant.

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