LYNCHBURG, Va. — At Liberty University, the conservative Christian school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, talk these days in hallways, cafeterias and arenas flows easily from God to guns.
University President Jerry Falwell Jr. kick-started the conversation with a fiery call for the campus community to take up arms to deter terrorist threats following the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
“Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here,” Falwell told thousands of students here Dec. 4, with an unsubtle reference to a pistol in his back pocket. Five days later, he announced plans to let qualified students store guns in residence halls for the first time.
Many students, faculty members and administrators said they agreed with his views. Hundreds said they planned to take free classes from Liberty police on gun safety, a step toward obtaining a state permit to carry a concealed weapon. Among them were 21-year-old students Alvonta Tarrant and Dominique Richburg.
“It never hurts to be prepared,” said Tarrant, a commercial music major from Detroit. He and Richburg, a biomedical-sciences major from Westminster, Md., had just finished bacon burgers one recent evening in a student dining hall. They said they felt totally safe here. “But anything could happen,” Richburg said.
Falwell’s comments on guns — including pointed language about “those Muslims,” which he later said was referring only to Islamic terrorists — put a fresh spotlight on a fast-growing university with a distinctive blend of cultural conservatism, religious faith and academic ambition. Liberty aspires to be a flagship for the nation’s evangelical Christians, a position that would offer power to influence society far beyond the campus. Politicians already recognize the potency of Liberty’s stage, which can reach the nation’s evangelical audience on a mass scale.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) launched his presidential bid here in March, and Lynchburg is a regular stop on the GOP campaign trail. A Democratic hopeful, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), addressed Liberty students in September. Well aware that his politics are far to the left of most students here, he told them that “it is important to see where if possible, and I do believe it is possible, we can find common ground.”
Some observers say Falwell is seeking to use Liberty’s influence to steer national debate in the way his blunt-spoken father, who died in 2007, once did through his Moral Majority political movement. Jonathan Merritt, a Liberty graduate who writes about evangelicals in the United States, said recent events show “a more aggressive posture both for him and for the university, to reengage in the cultural conversation in a similar way and with a similar tone to his father.”
Falwell said he has no desire to inject his voice further into the national gun debate, or any other.
“That’s not what I’m going to spend time doing in the future, commenting publicly on political issues,” Falwell said in an interview in his suite overlooking the campus ballpark and football stadium. “That’s not why we’re here.”
Liberty will wield influence through its graduates, he said. “Our mission is only to provide a world-class Christian education to our students and let them be the world-changers, not us,” he said.
Some evangelical students elsewhere said Falwell does not speak for them. Student leaders at Wheaton College in Illinois, a Christian school, condemned Falwell’s comments about guns and Muslims. “We desire to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, supporting the shared principles of justice, well-being and compassion,” they wrote in an open letter.
With 14,000 students in Lynchburg this fall and 66,000 more connected from afar via computer, Liberty is one of the largest universities in the country and is known as an innovator in online education.
A showcase of campus life is the convocation — a religious, spiritual and cultural gathering that helps set Liberty apart from colleges elsewhere. Three mornings a week, more than 10,000 students pack the Vines Center sports arena to hear high-decibel Christian music, sermons and speeches. The gatherings are mandatory, but many say they are rewarding.
“Even if I’m having a stressful day, it helps me relax,” Madeline Cartwright, 18, a nursing student from Grandy, N.C., said after a convocation Wednesday as final exams were nearing. “I feel so close to the Lord here.”
Many colleges have Christian connections. Among the most highly regarded are the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University and Boston College, all Catholic; Pepperdine University, tied to Churches of Christ; Southern Methodist University; and Baptist-affiliated Baylor University. Brigham Young University is the premier school of the Mormon faith. U.S. News & World Report ranks all seven among the top 75 universities nationally.
Liberty’s reputation has not reached their level. U.S. News judges it 80th among Southern regional universities, tied with Florida Gulf Coast and Northern Kentucky.
Founded in 1971, Liberty was at first a small Baptist college that sometimes struggled to stay afloat. Nowadays it has enviable financial reserves of more than $1 billion. The campus in central Virginia, near the Blue Ridge Mountains, is abuzz with construction in a multi-year overhaul estimated to cost $500 million. The Jerry Falwell Library and the College of Osteopathic Medicine opened last year. A new science hall opened this year. A new student center is expected to open next year, and the 275-foot Freedom Tower, home to the divinity school, is planned for 2017.
“Really, there’s no place like Liberty,” said John Luke Robertson, 20, of West Monroe, La., a member of the Robertson clan from the reality-television series “Duck Dynasty.” He is majoring in adventure leadership and outdoor ministry. “When I first came here, I felt something big was happening. And it’s growing into something bigger. I wanted to be a part of that.”
The campus teems with fervent believers in the school’s mission, “Training Champions for Christ.” Many students and faculty members talk freely about education, faith, ambition — and guns.
In the cinematic arts program, which boasts high-tech sound mixing and editing equipment, students help produce short and full-length films. “God’s Compass,” a 90-minute drama, is scheduled for release in May. Emily Mance, a senior from Charlotte, earned a credit on the film as a grip and camera production assistant. She said faith drew her to Liberty.
“God was calling me to go live in a community that was really Christ-based,” she said.
Now that she is 21, Mance is eligible to obtain a permit from Virginia to carry a concealed weapon. She said she plans to take a gun safety class, a first step. “You just never know what happens out there,” she said. “You want to be safe, protect yourself, your family.”
In the science hall, which is stocked with the latest laboratory equipment — a gene sequencer, a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and so on — faculty members take pride in teaching evolution alongside biblical creationism.
David A. DeWitt, who holds a doctorate in neurosciences from Case Western Reserve University, chairs Liberty’s biology and chemistry department. He is also director of its Center for Creation Studies. It’s a combination of portfolios unusual in academia.
The overwhelming majority of the scientific community accepts evolution as the basis for modern biology, according to the National Academy of Sciences. DeWitt said Liberty presents the topic to students through scientific textbooks that are standard at universities elsewhere.
“Our students know what evolution is,” DeWitt said. “They know the evidence needed to support it.” But he said Liberty shows them another view, from the book of Genesis, etched into stone pavement at the science hall’s entrance: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” One room, Creation Hall, displays skeletons that DeWitt said show telling structural differences between humans and apes.
Asked about Liberty’s gun policies, DeWitt said it caught him “off-guard” when the university decided to allow people with permits to carry concealed weapons on campus in 2011. School officials described the change as a response to the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, west of here in Blacksburg. Now DeWitt said he is comfortable with the idea.
“I’m glad there are faculty and staff and students who are armed,” he said. “I feel safer.”
Ralph Linstra, dean of the School of Health Sciences, said he intends to get a concealed-carry permit. He said the school’s policy will deter would-be attackers. “We don’t want to be a soft target,” he said.
Jim Schoffstall, a professor of exercise science, said he carries a loaded handgun for the same reason.
Debates about college campus gun policies have arisen elsewhere. A panel at the University of Texas reluctantly recommended Thursday that the school allow concealed handguns in classrooms as UT weighs how to comply with a new state campus-carry law.
Here in Lynchburg, Liberty officials have much more on their minds than guns.
Falwell is itching to get his football team, the Flames, into the NCAA’s top echelon to enable it to compete for bowl games and play for national television audiences. The Flames now play in the Big South Conference, part of the Division I-AA Football Championship Subdivision. The team finished 6-5 overall this season and missed the playoffs. But Falwell said the program is ready to move up. He believes big-time football would do for Liberty what it did for Notre Dame decades ago — connect the university to a huge, ready-made fan base.
“There are millions of evangelicals, just as there are millions of Catholics,” he said.
But Notre Dame had much more than football going for it when it rose to prominence in the second half of the 20th century. It also built a top-flight faculty and nurtured the development of major scholarship and research. Liberty officials say they, too, plan to invest more in research and compete for more research grants. Their research budget until now has been minimal.
Liberty officials say their professors have strong credentials even though the university does not offer tenure protection. (The law school is an exception to the no-tenure rule.)
“Our faculty didn’t come from little Podunk schools,” said Liberty Provost Ronald Hawkins, who received a doctorate in counselor education from Virginia Tech.
With tuition and fees of $22,000 a year, not counting room and board, Liberty is less expensive than many private schools. That helps with recruiting. University officials say SAT scores for residential students are on the rise, with the middle group of freshmen scoring from 950 to 1170, out of a maximum 1600 in reading and math.
Those who enroll are choosing a school with a strict no-alcohol policy, part of a code called “the Liberty Way.” Also against the rules: “sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman.” Students are not allowed to wear shorts to class.
Robertson said students don’t mind all the do’s and don’ts at Liberty: “We’re paying to come here and follow the rules. Everyone recognizes that. We don’t feel oppressed by them.”
The university recently has eased up, some. Long hair is now acceptable for men, but they must avoid “extremes,” and R-rated movies are allowed if students exercise “caution.”
There are no fraternities or sororities at Liberty. But recreation and athletics are big. Paintball is a club sport. Skiing and snowboarding are possible year-round on Liberty Mountain on a slippery synthetic material called “snowflex.” Hockey is popular; there are two levels of hockey for women, three for men.
Kyle Garcia, 24, a senior from Costa Mesa, Calif., plays right wing on the top men’s team. He played junior hockey in Canada and came to Liberty in part because of the university’s affinity for the sport. He also liked the Christian atmosphere and academic opportunities. His major is electrical engineering.
Garcia said “party” schools held no attraction for him. “It just gets old really quick,” he said during a practice break at the campus rink. “I don’t have a desire to drink, get drunk and act like an idiot. It’s not fulfilling.”
What is his take on the school gun policy? He is all for it. But he does not carry any firearms.
“It’s not about Christians waving guns around,” Garcia said. “It’s about protecting yourselves from some people who want to kill.”
On Thursday night, roughly 200 people, many of them students, came to the law school for what was said to be one of Liberty’s largest gun safety classes to date.
“The day they take our guns away is the day we lose our religious freedom as well,” a training officer said. Then police led the crowd in prayer before starting a lesson on muzzle and trigger-
Michelle Boorstein and Sarah Pulliam Bailey in Washington contributed to this report.