Getty Images

Liberty University is not a rebel's paradise. The evangelical Christian mega-university in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded in 1971 by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, has a decades-long legacy of encouraging lockstep conservatism in its students. Smoking and drinking are prohibited on campus, a strict dress code governs student fashion, and until several years ago, even political protest was forbidden. (According to a 2007 copy of the Liberty Way, the school's student handbook, "participation in an unauthorized petition or demonstration" was punishable by 12 reprimands and a $50 fine.)

But on Wednesday afternoon, a group of Liberty students did something unexpected and bold: they began circulating a statement and gathering signatures on a Google Doc with the title "Liberty United Against Trump."

Advertisement

In the statement, the students publicly attacked the school's president, Jerry Falwell Jr.—Donald Trump's most stalwart surrogate on the Christian right—for supporting a man they called "one of the worst presidential candidates in American history." They began circulating it just hours after Mike Pence, Trump's running mate, visited Liberty's campus in an attempt to solidify Trump's support among evangelicals.

Tyler McNally, a student involved with the group, tweeted out the 500-word statement, which sent shock waves through Liberty's conservative student body. The students wrote, in part:

Associating any politician with Christianity is damaging to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But Donald Trump is not just any politician. He has made his name by maligning others and bragging about his sins. Not only is Donald Trump a bad candidate for president, he is actively promoting the very things that we as Christians ought to oppose.

A recently uncovered tape revealed his comments bragging about sexually assaulting women. Any faculty or staff member at Liberty would be terminated for such comments, and yet when Donald Trump makes them, President Falwell rushes eagerly to his defense – taking the name “Liberty University” with him. “We’re all sinners,” Falwell told the media, as if sexual assault is a shoulder-shrugging issue rather than an atrocity which plagues college campuses across America, including our own.

It is not enough to criticize these kinds of comments. We must make clear to the world that while everyone is a sinner and everyone can be forgiven, a man who constantly and proudly speaks evil does not deserve our support for the nation’s highest office.

Dustin Wahl, a junior at Liberty who is serving as a spokesman for Liberty United Against Trump, told Fusion that he was inspired to speak out last week, after seeing Falwell Jr. publicly defend the candidate's lewd sexual comments about groping women.

Advertisement

"I’ve been opposed to Donald Trump for over a year," Wahl said. "But recently, especially with the comments in which Trump sounded a lot like a sex predator, it kind of made us say: we really want the world to know that Liberty University is not a monolith behind whatever Jerry Falwell Jr. says."

Falwell Jr. has been among Trump's most loyal and influential supporters. During a CNN appearance on Wednesday, he said that even if the flood of recent sexual assault allegations against Trump were true, he would still support him. As a not-for-profit university, Liberty can't officially support a candidate, but Falwell's support for Trump (sometimes given in TV appearances, in front of a Liberty-branded backdrop) is often construed as an unofficial school endorsement.

The goal of making a public anti-Trump statement, Wahl said, "is to let people know: this is not Trump University. It’s Liberty University."

Wahl, a politics and policy major from South Dakota, says that he doesn't fear being punished for his public anti-Trump stance at Liberty. Moreover, he points to GOP primary results showing that Trump received only 90 votes in Liberty's precinct as evidence that he and his friends aren't alone.

"I think the majority of students and staff don’t support Trump," he said. Still, he added, he knew that speaking out could have a cost. "It’s not an easy place to be a dissenter. I’ve felt alone on numerous occasions."

Trump's support among evangelicals appears to be falling since the leak of the 2005 "Access Hollywood" tape that showed Trump bragging about groping women. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after the tape's release showed that Trump had only a 1-point lead over Clinton among self-identified evangelicals, down from a 12-point lead in July.

Advertisement

At Liberty, where students live in single-sex dorms and learn Christian Ethics in required seminars, Trump may still garner a large fraction of the student vote on November 8. But his sexual scandals may cost him among young evangelicals like Wahl, who see his playboy antics as anathema to their religious beliefs.

Wahl, who supported Marco Rubio in the Republican primary but says he's "definitely considering" voting for Hillary Clinton, chalks Falwell's support for Trump up to "being bitten by the populist bug." But he says that Liberty students are capable of critical thinking. And he's adamant that Liberty United Against Trump won't be silenced. The group won't officially support Clinton, but it plans to keep collecting signatures from other Liberty students (it has more than 300 so far, according to Wahl) and making the anti-Trump case on campus.

"We’re taught things like sexual purity, and then Donald Trump is talking about women…I can’t even quote what he says, it’s disgusting," Wahl says. "Jesus preached love—Donald Trump preaches his sins."

Falwell Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.

Here's the Liberty United Against Trump letter in its entirety:

In the months since Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed him, Donald Trump has been inexorably associated with Liberty University. We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history. Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.

A majority of Liberty students, faculty, and staff feel as we do. Donald Trump received a pitiful 90 votes from Liberty students in Virginia’s primary election, a colossal rejection of his campaign. Nevertheless, President Falwell eagerly uses his national platform to advocate for Donald Trump. While he occasionally clarifies that supporting Trump is not the official position of Liberty University, he knows it is his title of president of the largest Christian university in the world that gives him political credentials.

Associating any politician with Christianity is damaging to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But Donald Trump is not just any politician. He has made his name by maligning others and bragging about his sins. Not only is Donald Trump a bad candidate for president, he is actively promoting the very things that we as Christians ought to oppose.

A recently uncovered tape revealed his comments bragging about sexually assaulting women. Any faculty or staff member at Liberty would be terminated for such comments, and yet when Donald Trump makes them, President Falwell rushes eagerly to his defense – taking the name “Liberty University” with him. “We’re all sinners,” Falwell told the media, as if sexual assault is a shoulder-shrugging issue rather than an atrocity which plagues college campuses across America, including our own.

It is not enough to criticize these kinds of comments. We must make clear to the world that while everyone is a sinner and everyone can be forgiven, a man who constantly and proudly speaks evil does not deserve our support for the nation’s highest office.

Jesus tells a story in the Bible about a man who tries to remove a speck of dust from his brother’s eye, while he has a log stuck in his own. “You hypocrite,” Jesus says, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

We Liberty students are often told to support Donald Trump because the other leading candidate is a bad option. Perhaps this is true. But the only candidate who is directly associated with Liberty University is Donald Trump.

Because our president has led the world to believe that Liberty University supports Donald Trump, we students must take it upon ourselves to make clear that Donald Trump is absolutely opposed to what we believe, and does not have our support.

We are not proclaiming our opposition to Donald Trump out of bitterness, but out of a desire to regain the integrity of our school. While our president Jerry Falwell Jr. tours the country championing the log in his eye, we want the world to know how many students oppose him. We don’t want to champion Donald Trump; we want only to be champions for Christ.