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Kevin Roose
Associated Press/Photo by Stew Milne
Kevin Roose

Spotlight on Liberty

Religion | Liberal magazines take keen interest in evangelical university's stance on homosexuality

Issue: "Boston Terrorthon," May 4, 2013

In recent months increasing numbers of American Christians have endorsed gay marriage, and evangelical institutions are coming under increasing pressure to affirm homosexual relationships. Two recent articles have spotlighted the way that one such institution, Liberty University, is addressing the politics of gay marriage, as well as its homosexual students. 

In “Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University,” former Liberty student Brandon Ambrosino, writing for The Atlantic, tells of the non-condemning response he received from Liberty faculty when he came out as gay. Most professors affirmed that they (and God) loved Ambrosino, and encouraged him to seek counseling. 

Ambrosino recalls that when he divulged his homosexuality to Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty, she wept with him, assuring him “It’s going to be OK … You’re OK.” Dr. Prior told me via email that she has been surprised that many reactions to Ambrosino’s article cast her “as either a hero or a villain,” and that she does not see why expressing love to a “struggling student” should be so controversial. She believes that her response “reflects the spirit of my colleagues at Liberty University as well as the school’s administration. Liberty University treats all sexual misconduct the same, without discriminating based on sexual orientation.”

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Kevin Roose, author of The Unlikely Disciple, an account of Roose’s time as a secret skeptic enrolled at Liberty, also argued in New York Magazine that Liberty has backed away from vocal opposition to gay marriage, especially as it has emphasized campus and online growth. Even though the school’s behavioral code still bans homosexual acts, along with any kind of sex outside of marriage, Roose says that Liberty’s muted official response to recent Supreme Court arguments over gay marriage was telling.

But Liberty’s chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr., told Roose that the school is not going liberal on gay marriage or other social matters. Although the university takes no official positions on political issues, “most of our faculty, staff and students are very conservative politically and theologically. I do not see that changing at all,” Falwell said, noting that in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney won 93 percent of the vote in Liberty’s voting precinct.

Bleachers vs. pews

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A new study of declining North American churches reveals that the most common explanation for congregational malaise is the “secularization of Sunday,” or the way that other activities, especially childrens’ sports, have reduced attendance at religious services. Stephen McMullin of Acadia Divinity College (Nova Scotia) says that one pastor in his study lamented how many parents “will make sure Johnny goes to sports,” sacrificing church “for the sake of their son or their daughter’s sports program.” 

McMullin is not convinced that sports are actually a determining factor in these churches’ troubles, however. He observed that the same congregations often had internal problems, such as poor quality music, or making little attempt to welcome guests.

Others say that Sunday sports are a challenge that vibrant congregations can negotiate. Kevin Dougherty, a sociology professor at Baylor University, told me that faith groups “that generate high commitment,” including evangelicals and Mormons, “are less prone to members choosing bleachers over pews on Sunday,” and that overall church attendance in America has not declined markedly in the past decade. 

James Wellman, a University of Washington religion professor, agrees that sports leagues are significant competitors for churches. “Coaches are less and less intimidated by religious norms and conventions and simply see Sunday as yet another day to schedule practices and games,” he says. But Wellman sees sports as only one threat of many to church attendance, as Americans lose respect for religious institutions generally. —T.K.

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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