Since the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. has been a staunch supporter of Donald Trump. For some students and alumni of the Evangelical Christian School in Lynchburg, Va., Liberty’s perceived alignment with the president has been a source of “shame and anger,” a group of graduates wrote last week.
Last week, many reached their breaking point. After Trump’s equivocation about neo-Nazi groups following the violence in Charlottesville, Falwell tweeted that he was “so proud” of Trump for his “bold truthful” statement on the tragedy.
Falwell appeared on “Fox & Friends” Monday morning to reiterate his support for the president.
“President Donald Trump does not have a racist bone in his body. I know him well,” Falwell said. “He loves all people. He’s worked so hard to help minorities in the inner cities. … He’s doing all the right things to help the people that are in need, the minorities.”
His television appearance earned him a nod from Trump, who tweeted Monday that Falwell had been “fantastic” on the show.
“The Fake News should listen to what he had to say,” Trump said on Twitter. “Thanks Jerry!”
In response to Falwell’s unwavering support of Trump, Liberty University graduates are calling on fellow alumni to take a stand by returning their diplomas. They are also writing letters to Falwell’s office and to the board of trustees, calling for his removal. More than 260 people have joined a Facebook group titled “Return your diploma to LU.”
By publicly “revoking all ties, all support present and future,” the graduates hope to send a message to the school that “could jeopardize future enrollment, finances and funding,” according to the Facebook group. They are urging graduates to return their diplomas to Falwell’s office by Sept. 5.
In addition, several alumni have written a letter to university officials, calling for Falwell to disavow Trump’s statements, NPR reported. In it, the graduates said Falwell’s characterization of Trump’s remarks were “incompatible with Liberty University’s stated values, and incompatible with a Christian witness.”
“This sort of sends a wake-up call that you can’t just align the entire university with Donald Trump’s stance on a whim,” Chris Gaumer, a former Liberty University Student Government Association president and a 2006 graduate, told CNN.
Liberty University graduates are “ashamed, embarrassed, horrified,” and sending back their diplomas is “the least we like minded can do,” Gaumer wrote on Facebook. On Instagram, he added, “Many reasons to return LU degree, like a class called Creation Studies, but no reason more important than Falwell Jr. backing Trump backing white supremacists.”
Falwell dismissed the petition as “grandstanding” by some alumni to get “five minutes of fame” while calling in to a Fox News Radio show Monday.
“It happens at every college from time to time. It’s a way of grandstanding and protesting,” Falwell said on the “Todd Starnes Show.” “But I guarantee you, if that graduate applies for a job and he needs that degree to get the job, all of a sudden, he’ll show that degree, and he’ll put it on his resume. So he’s not giving anything back. You can’t give back a degree. Once you’ve earned it, you’ve earned it.”
Responding to the student’s criticism on ABC’s “The Week” Sunday, Falwell attempted to clarify his stance and said the students misunderstood him.
Falwell, who attended law school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said Trump “left the door open” for the incident to be considered domestic terrorism.
“He has inside information that I don’t have,” Falwell said on “The Week.” “I don’t know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statues.”
Falwell called the Charlottesville clashes “pure evil versus good” and said “there’s no good white supremacist.”
“I understand how some people could misunderstand his words,” Falwell said of Trump. “Yes, he could be more polished and politically correct, but that’s the reason I supported him, because he’s not.”
Most of Trump’s evangelical advisers have refrained from criticizing him for his response to Charlottesville. But on Friday, New York City megachurch pastor A.R. Bernard announced that he had stepped down from the unofficial board of evangelical advisers to Trump, The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported. Bernard’s Brooklyn-based Christian Cultural Center, which claims 37,000 in membership, has been described by the New York Times as the largest evangelical church in New York City.
Falwell, son of the late televangelist Jerry Falwell, has served as an essential evangelical voice in support of Trump. In some instances, his university community has followed suit. Students at the school voted overwhelmingly for Trump in November. Of the 3,205 votes cast on campus, Trump took 2,739, while Hillary Clinton received just 140.
As The Post’s Joe Heim wrote:
Perhaps no Christian leader in the United States has more closely aligned himself with Trump than Falwell. The Liberty president delivered a glowing tribute to Trump during a campaign visit in January 2016. And his support was critical after the release in October of the “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump was overheard bragging lewdly about groping and trying to have sex with women. Falwell went to bat for Trump, saying that his comments were reprehensible but that “we’re all sinners, every one of us. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t.”
In May, Trump delivered the commencement address to Liberty’s class of 2017.
Many of the students at Liberty, the nation’s largest Christian university, have been critical of Trump since before the election. In October, a statement issued by the group Liberty United Against Trump admonished Trump as well as Falwell for defending the then-candidate after he made vulgar comments about women in a 2005 “Access Hollywood” video. In the weeks that followed, more than 2,000 Liberty students and faculty signed the statement.
“Falwell has shown himself to be unabashedly in service of money and power, at the expense of others, not of the message of the gospel he claims,” Liberty graduates wrote in the Facebook group for the diploma return protest. “He is unfit to lead any institution, but particularly one that professes a moral, ethical, or religious mission.”
Many graduates on social media declared their intentions to join the protest and write their own letters to university officials.
“Truth is, I’ve been ashamed of the source of my diploma since long before Jerry Jr. started backing Trump, one alumna, Lauren Martin Day, wrote on Facebook. “Grateful to know there are some other sensible alums decrying that deplorable institution.”
She added that she took Liberty University off her résumé over a decade ago and “never looked back.”
In a similar vein, 2002 graduate Rebekah Tilley told NPR that she no longer wanted to be associated with her alma mater because the name “can be so loaded.”
“There’s such a strong affiliation now between Liberty University and President Trump that you know that reflects badly on all alumni,” Tilley said.
Not everyone supported the efforts to return diplomas. Some stood by Falwell, and others criticized the students as “snowflakes.”
Phil Wagner, who received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Liberty University, told NPR that he disagrees with the president’s comments, he won’t be sending back his degrees. “I earned it,” Wagner said. I worked hard for it.” But he does plan to send a respectful letter to university officials, he added.
The affiliation between Trump and Falwell is even affecting some prospective students.
Chadwick Brawley, who identified himself as an “African American Christian Worship Pastor,” wrote that he had been “excited” about enrolling in the Doctor of Worship program at Liberty this month.
Posting on Liberty’s official Facebook page, Brawley wrote that Christian leaders had a valuable opportunity after the “hatred, bigotry and violence” in Charlottesville to take a stand.
“You used your platform to escalate hate and further divide,” Brawley wrote to Falwell. “Supporting President Trump’s lamentable response to the situation showed me who you are, what you support and how you’re aligned politically and spiritually. Because of who I am, I find it extremely difficult to align myself with you and Liberty University. The search begins for other schools at which I may apply; schools that will appreciate my African-American heritage, perspective, gifts, genius and money.”
This post has been updated.
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