Friday, July 26, 2019

Surviving Liberty University (and finding liberty)

Will E. Young,
from his Twitter feed
I've just been reading Will E. Young's account of struggling for press freedom at Liberty University -- "Inside Liberty University's 'Culture of Fear': How Jerry Falwell Jr. Silences Students and Professors Who Reject His Pro-Trump Politics." Young was the student editor in chief of The Champion, the student weekly newspaper on campus, during the time Liberty's president, Jerry Falwell Jr., began promoting and defending Donald J. Trump.

Will Young was trying to learn how to be an investigative reporter and soon learned that he couldn't investigate Liberty University nor any of Falwell's friends (including a local member of the Virginia House of Delegates). After two of his fellow editors on the paper were fired for trying to report on a group critical of Falwell, the Red Letter Christians, who had planned a Lynchburg rally to oppose Falwell's "toxic evangelicalism," Will Young himself resigned in protest. He would be the last student editor of the paper, because soon after that the Falwell admin seized complete control of the paper and turned it into an official house organ.

[Background on Red Letter Christians, which organized even before the rise of Trump to counter the politicizing of Christianity, here and here.]

Young, who's become an editorial assistant at Sojourners, writes: "I’m realizing the extent to which I internalized the fear tactics; I still sometimes self-censor my thoughts and writing. How can a college education stifle your freedom of thought? When people ask me if I regret going to Liberty, as many do, I usually pause. I don’t know."

The long piece Young wrote is new insight into the culture of Trump acquiescence among otherwise good Christian believers. It made me reevaluate my own history, because, O my brethren, I attended a Southern Baptist College in West Texas and had a wholly different experience with free thought and dissent.

I had to attend mandatory "chapel" services three times a week (at Liberty University, it's only twice a week). I had to take a required course in Bible and religion. I had to check in and out of my men's dorm, and women could not under any circumstances be out of their dorms past 10:30 p.m. Any form of alcohol was strictly verboten.

Yet I felt very free there and got a good education, especially in the humanities. It was a classic education, and my professors inspired inquisitiveness. My favorite history professor would declare in class with a wink that there were certain books we probably shouldn't read, like Voltaire's Candide. I promptly went looking for Candide and immediately found a paperback copy in the college's own bookstore. He also put me onto The Decameron, and I happily read the raciest parts to my dorm mates, and they happily listened.

I got into Sartre and Camus and the French existentialists, and in a reading group founded by my journalism professor, I wanted to read John Updike's Rabbit, Run, which was making literary news at the time, and we did read it and no one complained to the thought police.

I worked on the student newspaper, and when a group of my guy friends wanted to start a fraternity -- which were banned on our little campus -- I wrote a strongly worded editorial defending their right, and no one called me on the carpet. The guys started their fraternity. I now feel extremely dubious about carrying the torch of freedom for Chi Omicron, but we've all got to start somewhere.

The one time I remember the college administration trying to squelch strong student juices was over the insurgency of a charismatic group -- and naturally, I went to their meetings too, because I always jumped into anything new and dangerous. In those prayer-and-praise meetings we were being encouraged to go around the church, especially the church hierarchy, to have tongues of fire to denounce hypocrisy where we saw it, so naturally we were a threat to the established order of things.

My favorite literature professor admonished his students to "keep the windows of your soul wide open so that the light shines in from many different directions." That's what I did through four years, sampling every philosophy, every viewpoint, every radical departure that crossed my path, and I'm so thankful I had a safe environment to do it. No Jerry Falwell Jr. No attempt to bend religion and thought to satisfy the veering path of an unprincipled national political figure.

I don't know what that Baptist college is like now. I hope it hasn't become "Liberty-ized." But the example of Will E. Young, and my own experience, makes me believe that freedom of thought has a way of breaking out in the most unlikely places and under the most adverse circumstances. I cling to that belief in this dark time.


DWhisnant said...

Excellent, Jurry Wayne! I’ve always wondered how you got so cranky and obstreperous at such a young age. DW

Unknown said...