The marriage of conservative religion and politics at Liberty University has always been transparent. When Religious Right icon Jerry Falwell founded the school in 1971, its statement of purpose called for commitment to a “Christian worldview” that includes Creationism, political conservatism “and a firm support for America’s economic system of free enterprise.”
The clarity worked. Since Ronald Reagan, Republican leaders have been making the pilgrimage to the mountains of central Virginia to speak at Liberty, which boomed under Falwell and his ability to draw evangelicals out of their churches and into public and political life.
But the cachet of appearing at Liberty has grown even more in the past decade as the school has exploded in size, financial resources and in its presence in places like Capitol Hill, where its alumni are now a familiar sight. Almost every single GOP presidential contender in recent years has spoken at Liberty, usually at its massive thrice-weekly chapel, which is held in a 12,000-seat sports arena and also watched by thousands of its 95,000 on-line students. It is the world’s largest Christian university with nearly 110,000 students.
But Ted Cruz’s announcement Monday was the first time a candidate has actually unveiled their run for president at Liberty, solidifying it further as the symbolic hub of conservative Christianity.
“Liberty has become to the academy what Fox News is to the media,” said Johnnie Moore, an author, pastor and a former senior vice president at Liberty, where he was responsible for organizing the chapel sessions, called convocations. Appearances by more centrist GOP candidates John McCain (in 2006) and Mitt Romney (in 2012) helped establish its place, he said. “No one was talking anymore about whether Liberty was the heart of conservatism. It became an institution that, whether you liked it or not, everyone in America has to pay attention to.”
Liberty exemplifies in some ways the journey of conservative evangelicals in public life.
Just in the last decade it has created a law school, a medical school, an engineering school and has gone from $30 million in debt when Falwell died in 2007 to having $1.2 billion in cash reserves, buoyed by its on-line students. Liberty’s convocation is a must-stop not only for candidates but is also popular with well-known athletes, actors, political movers and shakers and megapastors who typically speak about religion’s essential role in public life. At a time when it’s common to hear about the death of the Religious Right, Liberty’s daily existence pushes back, an argument for the success and relevance of conservative evangelical Christianity.
Yet some feel evangelical political power is still a work in progress. While half of GOP primary voters are evangelical, according to states with exit polls, the candidate they pick hasn’t been selected as the nominee since George W. Bush, and no leader since Falwell has been able to assemble coalitions of such impact. Evangelicals are also somewhat more divided on some of the core issues that united them in Falwell’s day – including issues of human sexuality and church-state relations.
“To a group of Americans who wonder if their way of life is sustainable, Liberty is a promise that evangelicals can still thrive in the United States. Everywhere else you see churches with empty pews or Christian organizations that are bankrupt,” said Liberty graduate Jonathan Merritt, son of a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention and author of a book criticizing aspects of conservative evangelical culture. “Liberty embodies a hope that a lot of conservative evangelicals need right now.”
Merritt believes that part of the appeal of Liberty for a candidate looking to announce themselves to religious conservatives is that there aren’t other obvious options.
“Presidential candidates have always seen universities as being attractive because it feels sort of intellectual. But if you’re a conservative, where do you go?” said Merritt. Bush faced criticism in 2000 when he spoke at Bob Jones University, which at the time banned interracial dating.
Cruz announcing at Liberty could set up a test of conservative evangelical influence, he said.
Brett O’Donnell, a former award-winning Liberty debate team coach who went on to become a speechwriter and consultant to GOP candidates including Bush, said Liberty’s influence – and that of speaking there – has grown and solidified as the school’s population has boomed in the last decade and a generation of people trained on Falwell’s philosophy have poured into public life. But today that influence is more subtle than in Falwell’s era.
Falwell’s sons – Jerry Jr. and Jonathan – are less outwardly political. “You don’t see them on television commenting on politics.” In the 1980s, he said, people went to Liberty because “they were committed to Jerry’s mission.” Now they come for a broader education.
O’Donnell said Cruz’s talk was “almost sermonic” and preacher-like, as he used no teleprompter or notes and wandered away from the podium. “You could have interchanged him with a lot of evangelical pastors.”
Long-time watchers of candidate announcements said Cruz’s pick of Liberty was curious. Traditionally candidates select a backdrop that speaks intimately and specifically to their own story. President Obama in 2007 announced his first candidacy on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., his home state and where Abraham Lincoln began his political career. Sen. John McCain announced his 2008 candidacy in New Hampshire, a symbolic place of comeback for him after the state gave him a primary win over Bush in 2000. Cruz is the son of a preacher and speaks openly about his faith –though he also talks about the “special obligation” for politicians “to avoid ostentatiously wrapping yourself in your faith.”
He is seen as a solid Tea Party candidate, while other potential entrants such as Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee are considered much more likely evangelical vote-getters. Some election watchers believe the fight for the overwhelmingly Republican evangelical vote will be very competitive and could include plays by Rand Paul and Marco Rubio as well. Cruz is seen as a scrappy fighter, one longtime consultant in conservative evangelical politics said, not a happy warrior – a persona that this consultant believes would be more attractive to evangelicals.
Another GOP operative who works with conservative evangelicals said that in the last decade a significant gap has opened between the Republican establishment and conservative evangelicals like the ones who make up Liberty’s core. “The Christian right thinks they’ve been abandoned on social issues in particular,” this person said, which might be an opening for candidates like Cruz, who can appeal “to a group that is really feeling rejected.” They also feel the establishment isn’t as committed as they are, the person said, to smaller government and controlling spending.
Both experts spoke on condition they not be named in case they wind up working with one candidate or another.
Other experts on evangelical voting say Cruz’s pick of Liberty to actually announce his candidacy symbolizes unprecedented evangelical political power – and the culmination of Falwell’s dream of both creating a cultural and religious cocoon to protect students from the broader culture as well as the creation of a powerhouse institution that can get out there and change it: through law, medicine and politics.
While the close partnership between Reagan and Falwell gave Liberty significant publicity for what was then a small Bible college in rural Virginia, two events made clear it had become an important stop: the appearances of McCain and Romney.
They both also speak to the continued challenge of connecting religious conservatives with social and economic conservatives.
Falwell and McCain made significant news in 2006 when the senator – preparing for an eventual presidential run – delivered the commencement address at Liberty – six years after calling Falwell one of the political “agents of intolerance.” The two, who were united in their support for the war in Iraq – among other military and economic things – made a show of healing their division, with the pastor hosting a reception and then a private dinner for the senator.
“It became very very clear on a national level that both wings of the party needed one another,” said Moore.
Romney – like McCain, a centrist Republican – chose Liberty to give his most extensive comments about his faith. That speech made clear that the conservative evangelical establishment was fine with its many voters supporting a Mormon. Bobby Jindhal, a Catholic, gave the commencement address last year.
But Liberty also represents challenges for conservative evangelicals. Moore believes Falwell and his “pragmatic” approach to politics –creating broad coalitions of otherwise-disparate conservatives on issues they shared – suffered when he passed away.
“When he died, people on the right lost the sense of pragmatism that made him so influential. Religious conservatives in America swung even farther to the right and became ideologues rather than pragmatists,” Moore said.
Liberty also remains off-putting to many younger and less conservative evangelicals. It asks students to adhere to an honor code that forbids pre-marital sex, attending a dance or watching R-rated movies. In order to keep focus on its ideology, tenure is not offered. Some felt the marriage of politics and religion went overboard Monday, as students were required to attend Cruz’s announcement — making some feel they were used as props. Students are always required to attend convocations. Liberty has few women in its leadership ranks and halted its recognition of a student Democratic club.
Not that liberals never appear there. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, had been the one scheduled to speak Monday before Cruz asked to make his announcement. Ted Kennedy delivered a famous speech there and Jesse Jackson addressed a convocation as well. However, it has been more common for Democrats to refuse invitations to speak at Liberty. President Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton politely declined.