Last week, students at Liberty University arrived on campus for the fall semester and found that their conservative Christian school—the 100,000 evangelical powerhouse that was started by Rev. Jerry Falwell and has become a routine campaign stop for GOP candidates like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush—had turned into a den of sin.
Okay, maybe not that extreme. But the famously conservative school's student handbook, known as "The Liberty Way," did get edited over the summer to allow a number of more permissive behaviors.
“There are some things that we took out [of the handbook] because where we are trying to go with the Liberty Way is more of a principled approach to life such that you don’t need a whole big … list of things that say do this and don’t do this,” the school's senior vice president for Student Affairs, Mark Hine, told the campus newspaper.
Hine didn't elaborate on any specific changes to the handbook, and he didn't respond to a request for comment. "The Liberty Way" isn't available to the general public, or viewable on the school's website. But a copy of "The Liberty Way," obtained from a source with connections to the school, shows that the changes are pretty major.
The first big change is that Liberty students are now allowed to watch R-rated movies and play M-rated video games. Here's the passage from last year's handbook, mandating a $50 fine and 12 "points" (demerits, basically) for breaking the rule:
And here's this year's version:
Liberty students will also be allowed to dress more stylishly. Last year's dress code mandated that female students keep their dresses and skirts knee-length or longer:
But this year, skirts "no shorter than two inches above the knee" are allowed. Whoa, Nellie!
Liberty's new handbook also edits out some of the more archaic rules from years past. For example, this section from last year's Liberty Way, which punished "immorality" and "involvement with witchcraft, séances or other satanic and demonic activity," has been removed from this year's edition. Go nuts with those spells, kids!
But Liberty's new handbook isn't a total free-for-all. Activities like "possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages" and "procuring/financing/facilitating/obtaining an abortion" are still banned. (Back in 2007, when I attended Liberty for a semester as research for a book, "The Liberty Way" was even stricter, and it mandated fines and reprimands for innocent activities like kissing and dancing. Even hugs lasting longer than three seconds between members of the opposite sex were discouraged.)
Also still banned: vaping, gambling, and attending a dance.
The strangest addition to this year's Liberty student handbook is a section called "Sexuality and Relationships," which didn't appear in last year's handbook at all. The section prohibits "sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman." (In other words: if you're a Liberty student and you're gay or transgender, you're not allowed to have sex even if you're married.)
If a policy that explicitly prohibits gay and transgender students from getting the same rights as their straight, cisgender counterparts sounds cruel, Liberty University wants to assure you it is not. In fact, elsewhere in the handbook, it says that students are expected to treat each other "in a spirit of Christian love, mutual respect, and individual dignity."
The cultural evolution of the religious right is a fascinating thing to observe, and the way it's playing out at Liberty is indicative of what's happening in the evangelical community at large. Young evangelicals aren't as conservative as their parents, and the restrictive, "Footloose"-esque rules of years past are gradually giving way to a more permissive culture. Liberty—which has been led by Jerry Falwell, Jr. since Jerry Falwell, Sr. died in 2007— has had to adapt to the changing times. (A school spokeswoman declined to comment.)
Liberty, like many other evangelical colleges and universities, is (very) gradually starting to resemble its secular counterparts. Still, it's remarkable that a school that receives millions of dollars in federal grants and subsidies, and which is treated by much of the Republican Party as hallowed ground, is just now getting comfortable with the idea of its students watching "Birdman" or wearing above-the-knee skirts.