Scores of Liberty University alumni expressed surprise, dismay, and even embarrassment Tuesday after the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., endorsed Republican front-runner Donald Trump for president.
“I love and respect Jerry Falwell Jr. and consider Jerry and Becki friends, but I strongly disagree with his endorsement of Donald Trump,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America and one of several influential Liberty graduates who spoke with WORLD following the announcement.
Falwell’s endorsement came eight days after he gave Trump a glowing introduction before a speech at Liberty on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Trump’s visit stirred controversy, including protests, but alumni said they thought the flirtation was finished.
“If we’d known an endorsement was imminent, we may have spoken up louder and sooner,” said Liberty graduate Janet Kelly, who was Virginia’s secretary of the Commonwealth from 2010 to 2014. Kelly said she has “nothing but overall praise” for Falwell but disagrees with his decision: “For a school that focuses on loving God and loving other people, it’s odd to endorse someone who only seems to love himself and other people who love him.”
At Liberty last week, Trump, who identifies as a Presbyterian, drew laughter when he called the Bible’s Second Corinthians “Two Corinthians.” Many evangelical leaders have criticized his admitted extramarital affairs and failure to ever ask for God’s forgiveness, but Falwell today called him “a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”
“To try to equate Christian fruit with creating jobs is laughable,” said Dean Inserra, a 2003 Liberty graduate and lead pastor of City Church Tallahassee, a Southern Baptist congregation in Tallahassee, Fla., with about 1,500 attendees. “It’s insulting to anyone who paid a lot of money to attend that school.”
Liberty’s alumni network came alive in the aftermath of Falwell’s announcement—with almost all of the conversation negative, according to numerous graduates. Most of the disagreement revolved around which candidate Falwell endorsed, not the fact that he endorsed a candidate.
But several alumni said the endorsement illustrated that Falwell had lost sight of the university’s mission to “build champions for Christ.”
“The goal of Liberty University is not to defeat Democrats,” Inserra said. “A populist nationalism has become the chief religion of the day at Liberty. … This is a tangible example of what it looks like to gain the whole world but lose your soul.”
In a series of Twitter posts, the university said it would have no comment on the endorsement. Although Falwell endorsed Trump in his personal capacity, many believed that fact would go unnoticed or ignored.
“[Fallwell Jr.] would not have his platform if not for his father’s name and the school,” said Chelsea Patterson, Liberty’s 2013 senior class president, who now works on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. “Even though he did make the endorsement in his personal capacity, he’s not stupid—he has to realize that it reflects on students, on teachers, on staff, on donors, and on the school.”
Patterson and several others said the announcement makes them less likely to give to the school and predicted long-term effects among donors. They said they’re becoming increasingly reluctant to be associated with their university in public.
“When Jerry Falwell Jr. makes a personal endorsement of Donald Trump, there are tens of thousands of us in our workplaces and stations who have to explain the rationale for it,” said former Pennsylvania state Rep. Jeff Coleman, a 2001 liberty graduate. “It’s not just a decision that impacts one person or one family.”
Jerry Falwell Sr. founded the Lynchburg, Va., institution in 1971, and it became Liberty University in 1984. For years the school struggled financially, but it became debt-free upon the elder Falwell’s 2007 death and has grown into the largest Christian university in the world.
After their father’s death, Jerry Falwell Jr. took over as Liberty’s president, while his brother Jonathan Falwell assumed his father’s pastorate at Thomas Road Baptist Church. A significant number of Liberty alumni remain loyal to Jonathan, who they say is more gospel-focused than his business-minded brother—a focus evident in his tweets on Tuesday.
“Biblical truths shouldn’t be shelved just because you’re in the voting booth,” Jonathan Falwell tweeted, two days after posting: “Arrogance is not a desirable personality trait. We are to live by Christ’s example of humility.”
Several Liberty graduates said they want Jonathan Falwell to take a more active role in representing them. In a statement to WORLD, Jonathan said it is his role to point people not to a political candidate but to “Jesus Christ as the ultimate and only hope for mankind and the problems we face as a nation.”
Kristi Way, a 1999 graduate who was former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s chief of staff from 2008 to 2014, said she hopes the university will step back and reevaluate how it handles politics. She called the decision to allow Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to launch his presidential campaign at Liberty “a huge mistake” from which she thought the university would learn, but “it sounds like they’ve really dug in.”
Falwell’s endorsement comes at a critical time for Trump, who is in a dead heat with Cruz in Iowa polls heading into next week’s caucuses. Late Tuesday Trump, who has had a running feud with Fox News and anchor Megyn Kelly, announced he would not participate in the Thursday night debate hosted by the cable news channel. It is the last scheduled debate before Monday’s Iowa caucuses.
In a statement emailed to WORLD late Tuesday—the same day his brother, Jerry Falwell Jr., endorsed Donald Trump for president—Jonathan Falwell, pastor of the Thomas Roads Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., commented on Christians’ endorsements of political candidates:
“As a pastor of a local church attended by people of different political parties and persuasions, I have made it my practice not to endorse political candidates. I do not believe it is my responsibility to point people to a candidate but rather to point people to Jesus Christ as the ultimate and only hope for mankind and the problems we face as a nation. I do, however, believe every follower of Christ should exercise their citizen right to vote. In every election cycle, I strongly urge our church members and attenders to make sure they are registered, and then to make sure they vote for a person of character, moral leadership and who most closely aligns with their beliefs and values.
“I recognize every pastor and Christian leader must do what they believe God has called them to do, and I understand that many choose to endorse candidates. I respect their right to do so, even if I don't believe it is the best thing for me to do as a pastor of a local church. Whether or not we agree on making endorsements or even agree on who would make the best next president, I think we can agree America is in need of divine intervention, spiritual renewal, and a return to righteousness if we are to solve the great challenges of our day.”