I have just finished reading Kevin Roose’s undercover exposé on his semester at Liberty University called The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. Roose was a sophomore at Brown University when he decided to transfer to LU for the Spring semester of 2007 (which, incidentally, was the same semester that the school’s founder and the leader of the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell, passed away). Roose wanted to understand the evangelical movement from an insider’s perspective and, most importantly, to get to know LU students on a personal level—the “culture warriors” who will one day be influential leaders of mega churches, CEOs of big corporations, and high-ranking politicians. The book is compulsively readable and very entertaining, made better by the fact that the author was able to leave his baggage at the door and go into LU with an open mind.
Roose grew up in a semi-religious Quaker household of left-leaning Democrats. Before arriving at Liberty, he knew very little about evangelism or the Bible, and admitted that
The closest I came to consistent faith was during my senior year religion class, when we learned about the Central and South American liberation theology movements and I became briefly convinced that God was a left-wing superhero who led the global struggle against imperialism and corporate greed.
The connection between social justice and Christian belief seemed to have made a strong impression on Roose earlier in his life. It is no wonder that, after having settled in for orientation at LU, he recounted a particular passage from Jerry Falwell’s welcome address that contradicted the very spirit of liberation theology (which is basically a Christian reappropriation of Marxist thought):
Dr. Falwell also had a political mission. As one of the nation’s leading conservative voices, he wanted Liberty to be “as far to the right as Harvard is to the left.” That meant clearly articulating the school’s political views to all incoming students. (One promotional brochure I received touted Liberty’s “strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism, and firm support for America’s economic system of free enterprise.”)…
“America’s colleges and universities, I’m sad to say, have become breeding grounds for immorality and drugs, and worse than that, an attitude that is anti-Christian and often anti-American. Very frankly, we are conservative. We don’t have a single socialist on our faculty. Not one. We don’t have a single liberal working on our campus, either. We’re trying to build a university that brings America back to God and to the faith of our fathers. And I’m glad you’ve joined us in that mission. Students, welcome to Liberty!”
LU’s mission statement — the “total rejection of socialism” coupled with “firm support” for the free market — was intriguing to me, as it placed the goals of the evangelical movement during the Fourth Awakening into the broader scope of American postwar politics. I now get the strong impression that this glorified Bible boot camp is not just a training ground for cultural conservatism — a place where young evangelicals can learn about creationism, for example— but also for inculcating bourgeois ‘American’ values that embrace free-market capitalism. The concern about the ungodliness of socialism coming into contact, and possibly polluting, Christian faith seems to have been born out of deeper Cold War-era anxieties equating capitalism to “being American” and socialism to “being UN-American.” For Biblical literalists such as Falwell, the irony that Jesus would have found free-market capitalism repulsive was entirely lost on him.