If, as the national media has reported, some Liberty University students absent themselves from their graduation ceremony tomorrow morning in protest of the school's choice of a Mormon commencement speaker, their absence isn't likely to be noticed. The university will confer degrees on 14,012 residential and online students, with about 6,000 graduates in attendance among a crowd expected to swell to over 34,000. Security protocols surrounding the address by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney require students and faculty to show up hours ahead of time in order to be screened by metal detectors before passing into the area where ceremony's procession will begin. Fewer bodies might, in fact, be welcomed by those (full disclosure), like me, who will be attending.
Every year at Liberty University at least some students, as do students at commencement ceremonies everywhere, express disagreement with the school's choice of speaker, but never has their discontentment been so amplified by both national media coverage and the power of social networking. However, while the reach of both traditional and social media may be wide, it isn't deep, nor is its memory long. It was only three years ago, when most of the current graduates were sophomores and not likely paying attention, that Glenn Beck, who is Mormon, delivered the commencement address amidst a few largely unheard grumblings.
Touting itself as "the world's largest evangelical university," the conservative institution has a history of hospitality to speakers from outside the not-so-big evangelical tent, including Democrats such as the late Ted Kennedy and former Virginia Governor and Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine. Joining Romney among the ranks of non-evangelical commencement speakers are Jewish comedian and economist Ben Stein, Episcopalian Karl Rove, and Catholics Dinesh D'Souza and Sean Hannity.
Hosting such speakers falls squarely within the vision of the university's late founder, Rev. Jerry Falwell, who also founded the Moral Majority. The now-defunct activist organization, long held as central to the rise of the so-called "religious right" was, in fact, a broad coalition of religious, not strictly evangelical, conservatives.
However, since Falwell's death in 2007, the voting bloc of the "religious right" has been largely replaced by the narrower demographic of "evangelical voters" whose energies lit bright but short-lived sparks for fallen presidential contenders Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. While great momentum is gaining among evangelicals and Catholics working together, the larger interfaith vision of Falwell seems to be fading. As Lucas Wilson, 22, who will graduate from Liberty tomorrow surmised, "I am not sure why we are allowing a Mormon to speak at commencement just because he is conservative; we sure would not invite a conservative Muslim to speak."
The late Falwell, on the other hand, influenced by Francis Schaeffer's concept of "co-belligerents" teaming up for battle in the culture wars, pioneered a brand of political activism based on heterogeneous political bedfellows.
In 1980, for example, Falwell dissociated himself from the statement of the then-president of the Southern Baptist Convention who claimed that "God does not hear the prayer of the Jew." In response, calling America a "pluralistic republic," Falwell told The New York Times, "This is the time for Catholics, Protestants, Jews,Mormons,and all Americans to rise above every effort to polarize us in our efforts to return the nation to a commitment to the moral values on which America was built." He also argued, "We may have differing theological positions, but we must never allow this to separate us as Americans who love and respect each other as a united people." Falwell later told The Washington Post, "I'm a fundamentalist, but I believe in a pluralistic America. This country belongs to the Hebrew Americans, theMormonAmericans, black Americans, white Americans." Falwell's political ecumenicism reached even further than these, at least in a tongue-in-cheek way: in mobilizing religious conservatives to elect Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Falwell said they'd support Reagan "Even if he has the devil running with him, and we'll pray he outlives him."
As a writer for Time described in a 2007 retrospect of Falwell's approach in the Moral Majority,
Instead of enlisting just fundamentalists and other conservative Protestants, Falwell opened the Moral Majority up to everyone: Jews, Catholics and Mormons—in short, the very people (and faiths) that fundamentalists had been separating themselves from for generations. That was Falwell's greatest political discovery: he understood that fundamentalists, orthodox Jews, conservative Catholics and Mormons had so much in common politically that they could overlook their theological differences.
Addressing the university's choice of Mitt Romney as speaker, Mark DeMoss, an adviser to Mitt Romney who also serves on Liberty's board of trustees, told CNN yesterday that having the presumptive Republican nominee for President speak at graduation would be a "proud day" for the late Jerry Falwell. "He loved these kinds of days where the university could be on display to a large audience and to host a prominent leader, which the governor certainly is. So this was his kind of day," DeMoss said.
Less enamored with such displays is Katie Smith, 22, who will also graduate from Liberty on Saturday. She said that the choice of Romney as commencement speaker "bothers" her not because of Romney's religion, but because of what she called "the continuing trend of Liberty's prioritizing politics over all else."
Even taking into consideration the magnifying effects of the media coverage, the commencement speech controversy, however minor, reflects a growing generation gap between the millennial generation of evangelicals and the generation represented by Liberty University's founder. The younger generation of evangelicals appears less partisan than the previous generation and tends to draw different lines in the political sands on issues such as the environment and poverty. Even more to the point of the current presidential campaign, these younger evangelicals are also, increasingly, more inclined to be accepting of homosexual relationships and gay marriage, the newest wedge to widen the political space between President Obama and his opponent.
A poll released yesterday by the Public Religion Research Institute suggests Romney's lead among white evangelicals is nearly 50 percentage points, with 68 percent choosing Romney and 19 percent choosing Obama in the survey. Within the same group, two-thirds (67 percent) say it is somewhat or very important for a presidential candidate to share their religious beliefs. However, while Liberty University sits on the buckle of the Bible belt, the evangelical students who attend the school differ not insignificantly from that sample in their ethnic and political diversity. With a student body representing over 75 countries, even an address by the person who might be the next U.S. President could prove to be a blip on the radar screen. Dorcas Lam, 23, whose family traveled from their home in Malaysia to the continental United States for the first time in order to watch their daughter graduate and give the keynote speech at her departmental ceremony on Saturday, said, "Considering all that Romney has achieved in his business and political career, I am sure he has some sound advice to share with the graduates, in spite of his religion."
Karen Swallow Prior is English department chair and associate professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She regularly contributes to Her.meneutics.
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Previous stories on Liberty University include:
Why Mitt Romney's Upcoming Liberty Commencement Address Fits the University's Past Speakers | Romney will continue a long line of speakers who find common ground with Liberty on political issues. (May 4, 2012)
The Difference Between Michele Bachmann's and Rick Perry's Liberty University Pitches | An analysis from someone inside the university. (September 29, 2011)
Liberty Unbound | How Jerry Falwell's ambitious sons have led the Lynchburg university to financial success and a burgeoning student body. (September 10, 2009)
CT covers more political developments on the politics blog.