Donald Trump’s candidacy hasn’t just ripped a gash through the Republican Party; it’s also deeply divided one of American Evangelical Christianity’s most important institutions.
Campus organizers say that 1,100 Liberty University students signed a blistering letter last week criticizing the college’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., for backing Donald Trump despite the candidate’s boast in 2005 that he could get away with grabbing women’s genitals without their consent. Falwell’s endorsement of Trump on Jan. 26 of this year––right before the Iowa caucuses––played an outsize role in helping the mogul court court conservative Christians who were concerned about his moral character.
Falwell’s blessing was controversial at the time. And his decision to stand by his man is generating even more furor now––and fear.
Dustin Wahl is a spokesperson for the group Liberty United Against Trump, which released the letter on Wednesday ripping Falwell. He said the letter now has 2,500 signatories, but that the names won’t be public because students and staff worry they could face retaliation for criticizing the university president.
The letter itself is unflinching.
“A recently uncovered tape revealed his comments bragging about sexually assaulting women,” it reads. “Any faculty or staff member at Liberty would be terminated for such comments, and yet when Donald Trump makes them, President Falwell rushes eagerly to his defense – taking the name ‘Liberty University’ with him.”
In a statement on Thursday, Falwell indicated that students shouldn’t worry about any retaliation for criticizing him.
“I am proud of these few students for speaking their minds,” he said. “It is a testament to the fact that Liberty University promotes the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out.”
But Wahl said Falwell has already punished his top critic at the school. In a March 1 interview, Mark DeMoss––then a member of Liberty’s board of directors, and once a close confidant of Jerry Falwell Sr.––told the Washington Post that he strongly disagreed with Falwell’s Trump endorsement.
“Donald Trump is the only candidate who has dealt almost exclusively in the politics of personal insult,” he told the paper. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense—and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ. That’s what’s disturbing to so many people. It’s not Christ-like behavior that Liberty has spent 40 years promoting with its students.”
DeMoss’s comments didn’t go over well. He resigned from the board two months after the Post story ran, according to Religion News Service, citing “concern about a lack of trust.”
DeMoss told The Daily Beast that he doesn’t know whether students will face retaliation for criticizing Falwell.
“I honestly don't know if they should be worried or not, though I think it would be a sad mistake for the school to retaliate,” he said. “If I had worried about retaliation I would not have voiced my convictions on the matter though.”
Wahl said he believes Falwell’s critics could face pushback.
“There is intimidation here,” he said.
And he added that DeMoss’s case made some students nervous about publicly criticizing Falwell.
“It’s a real instance of how Jerry Falwell Jr. has really thin skin and doesn’t like to be disagreed with,” he said.
“As Christians, we’re taught that we’re supposed to hold our Christian leaders accountable,” he added. “So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
There is a tense divide among Evangelical Christians over whether or not to stick with Trump. Some back him because they care deeply about the Supreme Court and abhor Hillary Clinton. But others say Evangelicals’ embrace of the mogul is hypocritical, given their calls for leaders with good character during Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and that his erratic personality and sexist comments about women make him fully indefensible. Female Evangelical leaders seem particularly repulsed by Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment.
Part of the problem for Falwell is that he’s handled this presidential cycle differently than his father did. Jerry Falwell Sr. avoided playing favorites during Republican primaries, and focused primarily on ripping Bill Clinton for his marital infidelities. He was also a loyal Republican. He famously welcomed John McCain back into social conservatives’ good graces, despite the senator calling them “agents of intolerance.” And he helped burnish George H. W. Bush’s conservative bona fides, even though he had previously supported pro-choice policies. Falwell Sr. liked being close to powerful politicians, and didn’t relish intra-party spats.
His son, however, has done the opposite. By endorsing Trump in the primary, he became one of the mogul’s early adopters––giving him a boost with Evangelical Christian voters in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, which they dominate. And one Liberty University insider pointed out that Falwell sometimes sounds more like a Trump surrogate than a university president. He even suggested the release of the Trump 2005 audio was part of a “conspiracy among establishment Republicans” to undermine Trump––which, well, no. And on Thursday, Falwell told CNN Trump told him he has evidence disproving all the sexual misconduct allegations he now faces. Trump has yet to produce that evidence.
So Liberty University, as an institution, has come to embody the crisis facing Evangelical Christian conservatives: Can you still claim to be the “Moral Majority” when you support a man who has boasted about sexual assault?