Students at Liberty University have disavowed university president Jerry Falwell Jr.'s support of Donald Trump, revealing fractures in the once cohesive evangelical voting bloc.
Many evangelical Christians have continued supporting Mr. Trump, despite the candidate's personal conduct that contrasts sharply with Christian teachings. Now, a group of Millennials at the world's largest Christian university says that there are factions within that religious group who think about politics differently than those in generations before.
“A 40-year partnership between the Christian right and the Republican party is cracking up,” David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., tells The Christian Science Monitor.
“It was a kind of a mutual agreement that the Christian right – pastors, presidents, lobbyists, and other bigwigs – would support whoever the Republican party put forward for president as long as that person promised to advance their agenda," he says. "Younger evangelicals have been less satisfied by this arrangements for a good long time.”
On Wednesday, students at Liberty University launched a campaign dubbed “Liberty United Against Trump,” issuing an online statement that takes a stance against the Mr. Falwell and his vocal support of Trump's run for president. The group quickly went viral, surprising some who had assumed evangelical students would stand behind the Republican candidate as the voting bloc had in previous elections.
“We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell's endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history,” the students wrote. “Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.”
While Falwell has said his personal politics don’t reflect any official university position, the students argue that his public and unwavering support has led those outside of the university community to believe Liberty students agree with his political views.
In the statement, the students don't endorse Hillary Clinton or any third-party candidate, but solely denounce Trump for his inappropriate actions, noting that any staff member at the school would likely be fired for saying the sexually aggressive remarks made by Trump on a hot mic in 2005.
“We Liberty students are often told to support Donald Trump because the other leading candidate is a bad option. Perhaps this is true. But the only candidate who is directly associated with Liberty University is Donald Trump,” they wrote.
They referred to a passage from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, writing:
Jesus tells a story in the Bible about a man who tries to remove a speck of dust from his brother’s eye, while he has a log stuck in his own. ‘You hypocrite,’ Jesus says, ‘first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.’
... While our president Jerry Falwell Jr. tours the country championing the log in his eye, we want the world to know how many students oppose him.”
Young evangelicals, while still predominately Republican voters, have become more moderate, or even liberal, than their predecessors, says Dr. Gushee. Today, some 20 percent would not vote for a Republican candidate, he adds.
This shift began during the tail end of George W. Bush’s presidency, and became more clear in the 2008 election. Some evangelicals became concerned with how President Bush handled human rights, including allowing the US to engage in torture practices. Young people began to look at a wide array of issues when casting their ballots, rather than simply choosing a candidate who opposed abortion and gay marriage, two of the group’s strongest shared beliefs.
The students at Liberty may be some of the most outspoken young people to assert the value of character over policy.
“[Falwell] likes very populist messages. That’s what a lot of the old generation was,” Tyler McNally, a student in the group, tells the Monitor. “This younger generation doesn’t want to hear their ears tickled, as much as they want to hear answers whether they like it or not.”
Mr. McNally says students have become concerned with how the outside world will view the school, and wonder if employers will look at "Liberty University" on their résumés and assume the graduates follow Falwell’s views.
McNally stressed that the group doesn’t intend to disrespect their president’s personal views, but to distinguish themselves as independent thinkers and voters.
Falwell defended his support of Trump on CNN, saying Wednesday evening that he took the candidate “at his word” when it came to denying recent allegations of sexual assault. The college president also separated Trump's conduct from his own without severing support.
"I'm a college president. I'm an attorney. He has his own style. He has his own way of saying things. He's a New York businessman. He grew up in a different culture than I did," Falwell said. "What sounds raunchy to me might not sound raunchy to him. But the point is, I think he's a changed man. I think he has seen the pain of the American people. I think the reason that he's come so far in this campaign, in this election is because he is not for the elitist. He's for the average American."
By accepting Trump’s remarks, some observers say that Falwell and other evangelical leaders have shown they’ll stretch their character standards for a leader if he or she backs party polices that are important to them.
“They’re dropping the consideration of character, but this is very unnatural for religious people, for most religious people who have always cared very deeply about character and not just policies,” Gushee says.
Trump may still carry the evangelical voting bloc. A poll released Tuesday by PRRI, an independent, nonpartisan research organization, found that 65 percent of white evangelicals supported the Republican candidate. The poll was taken between Oct. 5 and 9, so some respondents were surveyed before the "Trump tape" came out on Friday, Oct. 7. While the support from 2 in 3 white evangelicals is less than in past years, the drop isn’t as large as some expected for such an unconventional candidate.
Gushee says he expects that evangelical voters will return to their party in future elections and rally around more subdued figures like Mike Pence and Ted Cruz. For younger voters, character could continue to prove just as – if not more – important than policy platforms.
“We like to see the church be the church, not necessarily the church being involved in politics for its own sake,” McNally, the Liberty student, says. “We want to see the gospel spread because we want to see people become part of Christ’s body, but we don’t want to see it sacrifice its values for political gain.”