taking the words of Jesus seriously

Regarded as the largest evangelical Christian university in the world, Liberty University attracts thousands of students each year to its Lynchburg, Va., campus. The private institution, founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell in 1971, is committed to developing “Christ-centered men and women with the values, knowledge, and skills essential to impact the world.” And that’s exactly what Liberty alumni are doing – including those returning their diplomas one at a time.

Liberty’s current president, Jerry Falwell, Jr., who assumed leadership after his father died in 2007, publicly endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential bid, stating that the billionaire businessman would “lead our country to greatness again.” Since the election, Mr. Falwell has been an unapologetic supporter of Trump, even defending him in August when Trump failed to condemn the white supremacist rally and deadly car attack in nearby Charlottesville, Va.

For many alumni, these incidences have become anathema to their faith and an affront to their association with the university. In the days after Charlottesville, a private Facebook group was created called “Return your diploma to LU,” urging alumni to mail their diplomas back to Liberty with letters explaining their decision.

“My family has been attending Liberty University since 1999,” states Joseph Autry in his letter to the LU administration. “My three older brothers attended the university, and I did as well. Mr. Falwell mentioned my family during the commencement because we had three different family members graduating that day with three different degrees. This brings me to what I most wanted to say during this letter. I don’t feel that I could send my children to Liberty University with how it is right now.”

But it’s not just legacy alumni getting in on the act. Laura Honnol, a 2013 graduate, also returned her diploma along with a convicting statement:

“In light of the incidents in Charlottesville, in Liberty’s backyard, I can no longer grieve privately when you repeatedly and uncritically escalate your commitment to adulation of our sitting President as a hero to the faith and to the cause of Christ – a man who refuses to unequivocally call out the blatant, blasphemous sin of racism in the face of clear and incontrovertible evidence of white supremacist, Neo-Nazi incitement. There is no moral equivalency to be made between the KKK and counter-protestors. Racism is an outright denial of the image of God in His creation and should be repudiated swiftly, decisively, and thoroughly – full stop.”

Despite various calls to repentance, Mr. Falwell and LU have yet to turn from their ways. In response to the return of diplomas, Liberty University issued a statement in support of “our students’ right to express their own political opinions,” yet was quick to chastise alumni, reminding them “that those same diplomas are quite helpful in helping these graduates secure well-paying jobs.”

It’s no wonder why Emily Gibbs left Liberty in June after completing undergraduate and graduate programs and working there as a full-time staff member for three and a half years. Her decision to leave was grounded in the realization that her association with the university was harmful to her testimony and the name of Christ.

“As Christ followers, our first priorities must be to love God (Matthew 22:37) and to fulfill the Great Commission by making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19–20). As a Christian university representing the name of Jesus Christ, Liberty University’s priorities must be the same. It has become evident through the words and actions of Mr. Jerry Falwell, Dr. Ronald Hawkins, and the leadership of Liberty University as a whole that the priorities of the university are political power and earthly wealth. For this, I call Liberty University and its leadership to repent and return to the gospel… We must take Jesus’ words seriously. Therefore, we cannot celebrate ‘ending’ our enemies, we cannot shy away from calling evil by its name, we cannot place our hope in political leaders, and we cannot spit in the face of those who call us to repentance.”

For many graduates, their time at Liberty was a formative experience, including Rebekah (Meador) Tilley who received a degree in government in 2002 and first met her husband at the university. But she can no longer call herself a proud alumna of LU.

“Mr. Falwell’s vocal support of President Trump has made it such that you cannot think of Liberty University without associating the institution and its alumni with President Trump. It’s becoming a political action committee instead of an academic institution. This is not what I signed on for when I made the decision to attend Liberty almost 20 years ago. I’m also disgusted by the callous disregard and demeaning comments Mr. Falwell has made toward Liberty alumni in the wake of their outspoken sorrow and outrage. That demonstrates poor judgement and leadership.

To demonstrate how deeply felt these sentiments are, with a heavy heart I am enclosing every remnant of my time at Liberty as a student: my honors thesis, final grade slips, my graduation program, my award ceremony program, and a 2002 graduation invitation. I would include my diploma if I could, but it was destroyed in a house flood. I am also scrubbing Liberty University from my resume and my LinkedIn profile.”

Likewise, Rebekah’s spouse expressed his deep disappointment with Liberty. An ordained elder, J. Michael Tilley, PhD, boldly declared:

“I call on the Board to publicly repudiate Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s initial comments, for it to demand that he resign from his position at Liberty University or step down from the Evangelical Council, and for it to discipline him for his inappropriate treatment of Liberty University alumni. Until that occurs, I will provide no support, financial or otherwise, to Liberty University, I will express to prospective students and parents that they should not attend or allow their children to attend Liberty University, I will not allow any of my four children to attend, and I am removing Liberty University from my resume so that it receives no credit for any of my accomplishments. I write this not out of spite or political disagreements with Jerry Falwell, Jr., but out of a concern for the cause of Christ around the world.”

At the risk of jeopardizing future finances and enrollment, the Liberty administration continues to support Mr. Falwell’s leadership. Regardless of the impact of their diploma protest, participating alumni remain resolute in standing with Christ – even as Falwell, Jr., continues to stand up for Trump.

About The Author

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Elaina edits and coordinates content for Red Letter Christians. With a decade of campaign, advocacy, and communications experience at the intersections of faith and politics, Elaina loves listening to people’s stories and engaging communities for social change. She has served as a gender justice advocate and community organizer for various nonprofits and campaigns, including Sojourners, Women’s Action for New Directions, and Obama for America. She holds a master’s in theological studies from Wesley Theological Seminary and a master’s degree in international peace and conflict resolution from American University. Elaina freelances as a copy editor and consultant to help elevate the stories of underrepresented voices in digital and print media. She resides in Ohio with her boxer-pit and is an avid singer, traveler, and boxer.

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