Liberty University has a World Vision problem.
Until World Vision announced and quickly reversed its policy on same-gender marriage, most of its donors probably thought they were giving money to help feed and evangelize poor children and families all around the world. While World Vision lost donors because of its betrayal of orthodox Christian doctrine, the furor created by the decision focused attention on what World Vision actually did–and didn’t do–with its donors’ money. Donors learned that their money didn’t actually go to the child pictured on the refrigerator (but to the child’s village), nor did World Vision always share the gospel as a part of its outreach. While people have been grieving the fact that thousands of children have lost sponsorships, we don’t know how much of that has been offset by donors redirecting their philanthropy to denominationally based efforts that promise to more effectively take the gospel to the people who need to hear it.
The World Vision public relations crisis had three related components:
- We discovered that World Vision was willing to reject clear biblical teaching.
- We discovered that World Vision isn’t actually a gospel-preaching missions organization.
- We discovered that our own churches and denominations do a better job than we thought.
Last week, we learned that Liberty University, America’s largest Christian college, had engaged in a partnership with Benny Hinn that would permit students to watch 10 hours of video, take an easy quiz, and qualify for ordination through Hinn’s World Healing Fellowship. The news spread quickly through blogs and Twitter, and Liberty, realizing they had an unfolding public relations disaster on its hands, released a statement that asserted that they and Hinn were not in partnership.
Not only does the statement appear to be false (keep reading), but the attention that this story is bound to create is going to cling to Liberty in unflattering ways as parents of college-aged teens start to discover just what has been happening at the nice little Baptist school tucked away in the Virginia mountains. It’s not just the Benny Hinn affiliation that will damage Liberty, it’s the discovery that Liberty has made something of a habit of consorting with cultists and charlatans over the last few decades. We’ll return to the interesting histories of Hinn’s Liberty friends, but first we’ll examine Liberty’s denial that it is in a partnership with Hinn.
There is a Liberty-Hinn Partnership
Liberty University’s name and brand was stamped all over the Hinn announcement, and the video starts with Hinn showing off a Liberty diploma that students would earn for watching 10 hours of video and answering a few quiz questions. Ron Godwin, Liberty’s provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, was watching Hinn brandish the certification, so we can be sure that it is authentic.
The diploma contains the following language:
By the authority of Liberty University and upon the recommendation of the Institute of Biblical Studies, the faculty hereby awards ___ the diploma of Bible Survey. Given at Liberty University at Lynchburg in the State of Virginia March 21, 2014, with all the scriptural rights and responsibilities pertaining thereto.
The diploma is signed by Jerry Falwell, Jr, the president of Liberty University, and Ed Hindson, the dean of Liberty’s School of Religion and its Institute of Biblical Studies. Somebody at Liberty University thought that they were about to enter into a partnership with Benny Hinn, and produced a framed diploma specifically for the Hinn video interview.
The webpage for the Liberty Bible Institute Online, which is also known as the Liberty Home Bible Institute (as it’s still identified in the page’s title), claims that it is a “division” of Liberty University. (To see the complex relationship between Liberty’s various Bible institutes, see this earlier post.)
Lending even more credibility to Liberty’s own claims that it and the Bible Institute are one is the statement of the president of the university itself from July 2013 (though the statement is not dated, the background HTML shows it was posted on 7/21/2013). Jerry Falwall, Jr, said of the online program, “You can earn an Advanced Biblical Studies Diploma from Liberty University right in the convenience of your own home” [emphasis added]. He promises students that they’ll be able to transfer up to 30 hours (after they read the fine print) to a Liberty degree program. The relationship between the university and the institute is close enough that Falwell tells prospective students that the university can even fund their studies.
So, while Liberty’s recent statement says they transferred the operation of the Bible Institute away from the university “some years ago,” the university’s president, provost and website still operate under the assumption that they’re one and the same. When Benny Hinn entered into a partnership with the Liberty Bible Institute Online, he truly entered into a partnership with Liberty University. Even Jerry Falwell thinks so.
What makes Liberty’s hand washing even more remarkable was the presence of Ron Godwin at the announcement, the person whose sole responsibility is to manage the academic integrity of the university. Not only did Godwin not contradict Hinn’s claims of partnership, his presence gave Hinn’s promotion an enormous boost.
Liberty has claimed that Godwin didn’t know that Hinn was going to announce the partnership, though one is allowed to wonder why he was being invited to appear on his international television program with Dan Reber, a recently printed diploma, and Liberty curriculum. Reber told Hinn that he had talked to other people at Liberty who seem to have been surprised that they were about to add Hinn to their team, so this wasn’t an arrangement that ought to have surprised the institution, as they have claimed. Liberty administrators knew what they were getting into, though they were embarrassed at the reaction to the pairing, and have tried to walk the decision back.
Perhaps the Liberty-Hinn relationship will fail, but why would two senior officials at an institution like Liberty take the time to be so publicly associated with a man of Hinn’s poor reputation? The answer is that Hinn is a much higher class of charlatan than Godwin and Liberty administrators are used to consorting with.
Who is Ron Godwin?
About himself, Godwin has said, “My own little career beats the fool out of fiction.” He has helped save Liberty from bankruptcy, helped create and progressively whittle down an enemies list of Liberty faculty and administrators for Falwell Snr, and fronted for a Korean cultist. Much foolishness, for sure, but it’s not fiction.
In the 1980s, Godwin was the executive vice president for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, which disbanded late in the decade when it ran out of money. From there, Godwin accepted an invitation from Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church to help run the company that published the Washington Times, which had been purchased by Moon’s church. According to this article in Forbes, Falwell and Godwin were so close that Falwell shed tears when Godwin told him he was leaving to join Moon.
Moon was a notorious Korean cult leader who proclaimed himself to be a messiah one thousand times greater than Jesus. He had a Driscollian view of the expectation that women selflessly serve their husbands with sex, and often attracted media attention with mass arranged marriages of his church members. He was incredibly wealthy, though the source of his wealth remained a mystery even to congressional investigators. Although he predicted the demise of American individualism in favor of his totalitarian collectivism, he sought to influence American politics, and often contributed money to right-wing politicians and causes to advance that end. The Washington Times, the conservative counterpoint to the liberal-leaning Washington Post, was a natural pairing for him. As was his later relationship with Falwell and Liberty University.
While working for Moon, Godwin entered into a business relationship with Dan Reber, the other Liberty representative in the Hinn video, though we’ll get back to that soon.
In 1999, Godwin returned to Liberty as Falwell’s spokesman to find that Falwell was barely welcome on his own campus. The school had barely survived bankruptcy and its regional accreditation had been put on probation. When it appeared that the new university president was likely to further marginalize Falwell, Falwell responded by having Godwin appointed as chief financial officer. From there, Godwin created an enemies list and worked with Falwell to remove faculty and administrators that Godwin perceived to be hostile to Falwell. This Forbes excerpt of a book on the Falwell empire describes how the enemy’s list worked:
[Godwin] drew up a list, much like the one he brought to breakfast with Falwell each morning, only this one had names of those he considered [university president] Borek’s base of support: Liberty administrators and faculty Godwin identified as “enemies.” It did not take long to whittle it down, he says. “Let’s just say there’s no one left on it.” From that point on Godwin became Falwell’s Karl Rove.
Godwin wasn’t alone in his association with cult-leader Moon or in his role in Liberty’s financial turnaround. For much of his dealings with Liberty and Moon, he has worked with the man sitting beside him in the video, Dan Reber.
Who is Dan Reber?
Dan Reber operated a direct-mail business, Direct Mail Communications, in Virginia that helped various conservative causes and candidates like the National Rifle Association and Oliver North. Because of his friendship with Jerry Falwell, he also offered significantly discounted services for Falwell’s organizations. An investigative report based on court records generated from a business conflict in the mid ’90s shows that about a third of DMC’s income came from the Rev. Moon’s cult. Reber also ran the Christian Heritage Foundation with a man named Jimmy Thomas. Like the mail business, the foundation also tied Jerry Falwell and Rev. Moon together, and eventually became a conduit for Liberty University’s financial preservation.
By the early ’90s, Liberty University had accumulated crushing debt and was heading into bankruptcy, and Reber started to direct much of his time and attention to helping Liberty survive. In the summer of 1993, Fallwell, Reber and Godwin set up a meeting in Lynchburg with one of Moon’s men, Dong Moon Joo, who was the publisher of the Washington Times. A few months later in January 1994, Falwell, Reber and Godwin secretly flew to Korea for a week to meet with the cult leader in person.
Falwell and Moon made a public appearance on July 26, 1994, when they posed for photos at the inauguration of a Moonie organization called Youth Federation for World Peace.
By early 1995, Reber and Godwin were flush with money funneled to them from Moon. One of Moon’s organizations had donated $3.5 million to Reber’s Christian Heritage Foundation for “educational purposes,” which Moon’s people understood to mean Liberty University. The foundation subsequently purchased almost half of Liberty’s $73 million in debt for $2.5 million and immediately forgave it, wiping approximately $35 million of debt off Liberty’s books. The LA Times describes Falwell’s gratitude:
On Jan. 28, 1995, during his nationally televised “Old Time Gospel Hour,” Falwell credited the directors of the foundation, Daniel A. Reber and Jimmy Thomas, with saving Liberty. Falwell made no mention of his more prominent financial angel, Moon, who is objectionable to many fundamentalist Christians because of his unusual biblical interpretations and his recruitment of young people away from their families.
Falwell also didn’t mention the thousands of small investors, many from Texas, who had thought they were helping fund church construction, who were paid back just pennies on their dollar. (The debt story is also chronicled in the book, The Hunting of the President, which can be previewed on Amazon.)
When Benny Hinn sat down in front of his cameras, he wasn’t talking to two random employees from Liberty University. He was talking to the two men, besides Falwell and Moon themselves, who were most responsible for Liberty even existing today. Reber and Godwin are the Men Who Get Things Done.
This may explain why, despite Liberty insisting that Reber and Hinn didn’t have their permission to offer these courses, nothing has actually changed. Hinn’s website is still offering the deal, accepting payments, and showing the video.
Who is Liberty University?
This is the most interesting question coming out of this story. When Reber and Godwin stepped into the limelight again after 20 years, we are reminded of their unsavory history of forming alliances and financial bonds between the university and a notorious cult. Not only has Liberty allowed itself to be bought out by someone who fits the qualifications of an antichrist, but it has cultivated other public friendships over the years with nonChristian groups by extending invitations to the likes of Glenn Beck and Mitt Romney, both Mormons, to speak at their graduation ceremonies.
If Liberty’s commitment to Christian orthodoxy was in question, Godwin’s emphatic denial that Liberty was still a Baptist school surely didn’t help. The message to Hinn’s followers was that Liberty can be whatever religious shape or flavor you want it to be. We just want your money. What you and we believe is rather secondary.
There’s some evidence that Godwin has a chilly relationship with Liberty’s faculty, whose beliefs and willingness to entertain false teachers and religion are nothing like what’s practiced by the school’s leadership. If the relationship had been repaired any, it is probably estranged again now. For teachers and students who spend long hours of labor learning a wide range of disciplines, including theology, it must have been galling to see the school’s senior academic officer endorse a course that could be completed with 10 hours of video and a couple of quizzes. Many churches offer Sunday School classes more rigorous than that, yet Godwin and Reber were offering to give three hours of accredited transfer credit for such a paltry effort.
In offering the courses as a speed bump on the way to ordination by Hinn’s “World Healing Fellowship,” Liberty threw in its lot with a disheartening anti-intellectual impulse within evangelicalism. How can Liberty’s leaders possibly think that a few hours of listening to someone talk about the Bible is anywhere close to meeting the standards of 2 Timothy 2:15 (Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth) for pastors in Christ’s church?
Which brings us back to World Vision. In both cases, institutions were widely loved based on the perception that they were solidly evangelical in orientation and practice. Liberty is thought to be a reliably Baptist school, still connected to its founding church through Falwell’s two sons, with Jonathan running the church, the Jerry running the school. Godwin not only corrected us on that in his ecumenical assurances to Hinn, but he was instrumental in driving Jerry Snr into the arms of a sex-crazed modern-day messiah.
Based on that kind of history and leadership, it ought to surprise no one that the leaders of the school saw no impediment to forming an alliance with a deceiver like Benny Hinn.
As with World Vision, perhaps some of the Christian parents who might have looked at Liberty as a safe place for their children will now look at smaller denominational schools and see that they might do a more reliable job of defending the faith.
There are many smaller Christian schools without cultist money coursing through their bank accounts and cult-embracing leaders at their helm. Their admissions and development officers will be delighted to take the calls that might otherwise have gone to Liberty.
Because, especially at Christian colleges, discernment matters.