Lynchburg, Virginia, became the site of a battleground over the future of American evangelicalism last weekend.
On one side of the conflict was Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (who died in 2007) and now run by his son, Jerry Falwell Jr.
Liberty has become a de facto stronghold of pro-Trump evangelicals, and the younger Falwell has frequently spoken out in support of both the president and his policies. In 2017, he called Trump a “dream president.” Just last month, as debates about campus gun violence rocked the nation, the university opened a new gun range for students, celebrating it as a triumph of Christian values.
Leading the other camp was Shane Claiborne, the self-described “radical evangelical,” author, and activist, who lives in a faith-based intentional community in Philadelphia.
The “Red Letter Revival” he co-organized — a direct repudiation of Falwell’s values — exhorted the people in attendance to divorce evangelicalism from politicized Christian nationalism and white supremacy.
Featuring a Native American prayer for the land, a Christian rapper who presented a prayer in poetry, and an openly bisexual speaker, the Red Letter Revival was diverse (only two of 18 presenters were white men) and passionately political.
Its speakers repudiated what Pastor David Anderson called “evangelicals … more committed to the amendments than to the commandments.”
One Charlottesville pastor, Brenda Brown-Grooms, spoke up to declare “Christian nationalism” a form of “apostasy”: a serious and willful deviation from the Christian faith.
Their goal of the event? As Claiborne put it in an interview with Vox: “a Christianity that looks like Jesus again.” The racialized rhetoric of Trumpism, he said, meant that “the words of Jesus are getting lost in white evangelicalism.”
The revival was relatively small. Its approximately 350 attendees paled in comparison to the 8,000-odd on-campus Liberty students. But Liberty’s response was swift — and intense.
According to Claiborne, he invited Falwell to the event, and asked Falwell to pray with him as a show of unity. The university immediately responded with a letter from its police department, informing Claiborne he was barred from campus and that he would be arrested for trespassing if he set foot on campus. (Claiborne posted the exchange, including both letters, on Twitter.)
That wasn’t Liberty University’s only retaliation. According to Jack Jenkins at Religion News Service, Erin Covey — a Liberty junior and assistant news editor at the university paper the Liberty Champion — was barred from writing an article about the event.
According to Covey, after she reached out to Falwell via email for comment about the event, he responded by telling her: “[L]et’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.” Covey told Religion News Service that senior administrators frequently killed articles from the student newspaper. Because the university is privately owned, they have the right to do so.
Liberty University officials have not responded to Vox’s request for comment.
Liberty’s outsize response to the Red Letter Revival points to a wider, and increasingly important, issue for evangelicals: the degree to which opposition to Trump is an unacceptable viewpoint in many pockets of the evangelical community. Support of Donald Trump — and of policies on immigration and gun control — is, to certain bastions of the evangelical right, seen as a necessary element of Christianity.
Click here to read more.