As a result, at least a dozen Liberty students have probably contracted coronavirus. Outsiders might think this decision represents only stubborn loyalty to President Trump, who is insisting American businesses should soon start reopening. In fact, its roots go back a century to when fundamentalist Christian colleges developed an authoritarian structure that leaves the decision to reopen institutions like Liberty in the hands of Falwell and Falwell alone.
When Liberty University was founded as Lynchburg Bible College in 1971, it joined a thriving network of conservative evangelical Protestant colleges and universities. During the tumultuous fundamentalist crusade of the 1920s, institutions such as Bob Jones College established this network as an alternative to secular universities and more-liberal religious colleges.
These fundamentalist colleges and universities promised a different kind of higher education. Yes, they would prepare students for careers as teachers, engineers, doctors and lawyers. But they would do so in an atmosphere that was safely fundamentalist. All faculty members agreed to the schools’ strict statements of faith and students were held to a strict behavioral code.
These institutions differed from mainstream colleges in other ways, too. For one thing, schools such as Bob Jones College (it became a university in 1947) struggled to figure out who was in charge. As interdenominational religious institutions, these schools had no higher powers — at least no human ones — to which they could turn. Unlike Catholic colleges or Protestant denominational colleges with defined governing bodies, interdenominational fundamentalist colleges could not turn difficult decisions over to a synod, convention or presbytery.
A few of the more conservative institutions eventually hit on an alternative that allowed them to remain stubbornly independent: a single, unquestioned leader.
At Bob Jones College — the most prominent example of the more conservative type of fundamentalist institution — the president held all power. Beginning in the 1930s, founder Bob Jones Sr. laid down a simple rule for all faculty, students and administrators: there would be no questioning his decisions. Dissent, or as Jones often put it, “griping,” was absolutely forbidden. As Jones explained, “Gripers are not welcome here. If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us.”
This authoritarian pattern had many downsides, but in the world of fundamentalist higher education it also offered significant appeal. Unlike more moderate evangelical schools such as Wheaton College, which had a command structure more similar to secular universities, Bob Jones College never had to worry about dissenting professors or divisions among the board of trustees.
Fundamentalist parents could rely on the college to remain firmly committed to the personal fundamentalism of Bob Jones himself. As Jones promised in 1928, “Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teachers will steal the faith of their precious children.”
Though staunchly conservative, the omnipotence of Jones meant that rules conformed to his whims — often as much as to religious doctrine. For example, most fundamentalist colleges, in addition to banning drinking, smoking, dancing and attending movies, also prohibited dramatic productions on campus. Not BJU. Because Jones, along with his son and heir-apparent Bob Jones Jr., loved the theater, drama became a required part of the Bob Jones undergraduate experience.
Other fundamentalists took notice. As a president of Wheaton College accused, “theatricals and grand operas lead young people … into a worldly life of sin.” The Bob Joneses didn’t care. When parents complained in 1955 that the mandatory theater program was too close to worldly entertainment, Bob Jones Sr. explained in no uncertain terms that they had only two options: accept the theater requirement or take their son and their tuition dollars elsewhere.
When it came to defining what it meant to be a properly fundamentalist university, at schools like Bob Jones, the quirks of the leader became the rules for everyone.
This leadership principle became most infamously apparent with the university’s unshakable commitment to white supremacy, which mirrored Jones Sr.'s embrace of strict racial segregation. Unlike some segregationists, in 1960, Jones elevated his racism to a religious principle, a Scriptural necessity. Once he decided that Scripture required strict segregation, it became nearly impossible for the university to change its policy.
By the 1980s, most other white evangelicals had moved away from Bob Jones’s unyielding racism. As Christianity Today magazine put it in 1982, by that time it had become “Bob Jones versus Everybody.” Even other Southern fundamentalist colleges had softened their historic racism somewhat. The fledgling Liberty Baptist College, for example, bragged about the fact that it had enrolled 200 African American students (out of 3,000) by 1982. By 1987, Liberty University (as is has been known since 1985) boasted of its “Black Student Fellowship.”
Bob Jones University’s refusal to reconsider its racial policies led, in the long run, to increasing isolation. Certainly, sticking to its racist guns secured for BJU a certain niche appeal. But in the wider world of evangelical higher education, such starkly racist policies had lost their appeal. Newer fundamentalist institutions such as Liberty repackaged their beliefs and moderated their racist policies.
In many ways, Liberty’s approach worked. These days, under the leadership of Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty University has become the 800-pound gorilla in the world of evangelical higher education. Claiming billions of dollars in assets from its lucrative online programs, the university has splashed funding into its facilities and programs, growing to over 100,000 students with its online options.
In some ways, Liberty tried to learn from BJU’s mistakes. Under the direction of its first authoritarian leader, Jerry Falwell Sr., Liberty took an ambitious “moral majority” approach, working with conservatives from other religious backgrounds to accomplish conservative political goals. On campus, too, Falwell Sr. embraced a grander vision for his school. As one early Liberty leader announced in 1982, their school wanted to become “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.”
Nevertheless, Liberty remained hobbled by the authoritarian structure it inherited from schools like Bob Jones University. Like its predecessors in the world of fundamentalist higher education, Liberty has no alternative centers of institutional authority besides the president’s office. At Liberty, just like during the old days at Bob Jones College, when leading faculty members at complain, they are shown the door.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, Falwell Jr.'s authoritarian rule put Liberty under intense strain. Liberty insiders have worried about a culture in which Falwell dishes out jobs and favors to a tight circle of friends and family members. Just as at Bob Jones University, Liberty’s culture has encouraged this concentration of power. In a hostile world, Liberty loyalists believe they can only trust leaders who have no need to compromise.
Now, that culture has led to potentially deadly consequences, consequences that could spread far beyond Liberty’s sprawling campus. With no one able to question Falwell’s decision to reopen Liberty’s dorms and welcome students back into close, face-to-face contact, it has led to predictable results. With over a thousand students squeezed together into dorms, Falwell created near-perfect conditions for covid-19 to spread. When infected Liberty students travel home or venture out into the community, the virus will travel with them.
These results won’t be mere accidents. They will be the legacy of a long history of authoritarian leadership at fundamentalist institutions like Liberty. At schools like Liberty, policies are not determined by careful deliberative processes or the best facts and information available. Rather, as they have been for a century now at authoritarian fundamentalist universities, policies are determined by the whim of the leader. And in this case, those whims have the potential to spread deadly disease far beyond campus.