Liberty University throws Falwell under the bus to defend Beck’s convocation sermon

Liberty University’s official spokesman responded to concerns about Glenn Beck’s appearance at the final convocation of the academic year, in which the university had compelled ten thousand students to listen to a Mormon-infused sermon. The spokesman, Johnnie Moore, was either unaware of earlier statements by the president of the school, Jerry Falwell, or didn’t mind contradicting Falwell on several key points, often to Falwell’s embarrassment. The response was emailed to Jonathan Merritt at Religion New Service, and I’ll reproduce it here with some commentary.

I would like to thank you for expressing your concern. Liberty takes concerns like yours extremely seriously, and that’s why I’m writing to personally address your concerns.

They didn’t take similar concerns seriously in 2012 when students objected to Mitt Romney’s appearance at commencement. Falwell belittled their concerns, dismissing the students as an irrelevant minority. From Falwell’s CNN interview at the time:

There were a few complaints from very small minority of students before the speech because [Romney is] Mormon and we’re an evangelical Christian school and have 80,000 online students, 12,500 here in residents and the world’s largest Christian school. …Complaints we received were in the hundreds and when you have 93,000 students, that’s a very small percentage.

Deciding whether the Mormon issue warrants your attention based on how many people object is not how you take concerns seriously. Perhaps their approach has changed now, but the concerns about Mormonism were brushed aside in 2012.

Back to Moore’s statement:

You should remember that Liberty University’s Convocation is not a church service.

Do Paul’s warnings against false teachers only apply to the Sabbath? Are we free to entertain heretics from Monday through Saturday? Liberty’s convocation had most of the trimmings of a church service, with singing, prayers and even a distribution of Good News for Modern Man Bible tracts (a translation that denies the virgin birth). Beck began by claiming that his message was divinely inspired, then Liberty’s campus pastor finished with a heartfelt benediction that reinforced the general themes of Beck’s sermon. How does Liberty distinguish this from a church service? What’s the practical difference?

One of the problems here is that Liberty made attendance compulsory, punishing students with a fine if they didn’t attend. If Beck’s appearance had been a come-if-you’re-interested type of event, we wouldn’t be as concerned, but because Liberty has been given the responsibility of spiritually nurturing and instructing tens of thousands of young people, it deserves close scrutiny in the types of teachings it subjects its students to.

We have explained over the decades repeatedly that convocation is an opportunity for students to hear from people of all faiths and from all walks of life. Liberty has also made it clear repeatedly that it does not endorse any statements made by any convocation speaker.

Jerry Falwell responds to Beck with a standing ovation, making his lack of endorsement very clear

Jerry Falwell honors Beck with a standing ovation, making it clear that he does not endorse any of his statements

How exactly is that made clear? Beck’s sermon was not prefaced by any warning or explanation of why he had been invited besides effusive praise and reminders that Beck and Liberty were long-time partners. The standing ovation that President Falwell offered Beck after his heresy-filled sermon muddies the supposed clarity of Liberty’s non-endorsement. Christian leaders ought not greet false teachers with even tepid applause, let alone standing ovations.

A glance at the types of people that have participated in Liberty’s convocations in the past (including Steven Furtick and Clayton King) suggests that almost all are invited because Liberty agrees with their message or mission.

By contrast, our faculty are all required to profess Liberty’s statement of faith and to affirm our doctrinal statement.

The doctrinal statement unambiguously defines Mormonism as non-Christian, though President Falwell doesn’t appear to think that many faculty members actually agree with it. When CNN pointed out that Liberty’s theology classes teach that Mormonism is a cult, Falwell conceded that only the professor who wrote the course might believe it:

There are hundreds of professors here and I’m sure you could find someone like the professor who authored that course that you just mentioned. I’m sure there are some that believe it is a cult. [emphasis added]

Falwell doesn’t even assume that other professors who teach the religion course believe that Mormonism is a cult, only the professor that wrote it, and “some others” like him or her. Falwell implies that almost all of Liberty’s faculty think Mormonism is just a Christian denomination, and assumes that you’d have to survey the hundreds of Liberty faculty to find more than one who disagreed.

Back to Moore’s statement:

Our students are all required to take many credit hours of theology and Bible courses, regardless of their major. Our students have no question about what Liberty’s doctrinal statement is. It is posted publicly for all to see. Our doctrinal statement is our public statement on Mormonism. It is the same statement that Liberty was founded upon and it will never change.

But in 2012 Falwell insisted that the doctrinal statement was silent on Mormonism. Here’s what he said to CNN: “Liberty has no official position on Mormonism. Our statement does not define Mormonism as a cult. …That’s not part of our doctrinal position and not our official position.” Perhaps it’s true that Liberty students have no question about what Liberty’s doctrinal statement is, but its president appears to have no inkling what it means.

College is about learning. How can you defend what you believe if you don’t understand what others believe?  I believe our students are stronger in their faith because of our convocation speaker series and the wide diversity of views that they have been privileged to hear in person over the last few decades.

It didn’t sound like the students were strengthened in their Christian faith, judging by the warm applause with which they greeted Beck’s deceptions. We’ve also seen a few Liberty students in the discussions on this blog who, like Falwell, have trouble seeing the problem with Beck and Mormonism.

The other problem with Beck is that he didn’t talk about what he believed. Instead, he hid his beliefs behind Christian terms, leading his audience to think that he believes the same thing as they do. In 2012, Romney’s commencement address at Liberty also obscured his Mormonism, as a CNN interviewer pointed out to Falwell: “Not once did he mention Mormonism. Didn’t say the word Mormon. Do you think that he should just give a flat out speech on his Mormon faith sort of like JFK back in 1960 when he addressed his Catholicism?” Falwell said that Romney didn’t need to, but if Liberty wants to defend its Mormon guests on the basis that they are helping students understand Mormon beliefs, they need to look for speakers who don’t try to camouflage their Mormonism with Christian language.

Our president, Jerry Falwell, Jr. actually spoke to this during his remarks at our 41st annual commencement exercises this weekend. You can watch those remarks here.

In Falwell’s speech, he equates liberal political protests against conservative speakers like Condoleezza Rice and the Benham bothers with the criticism Liberty received for inviting Beck to preach at its convocation. In equating the two criticisms, he then makes this ad hominem charge that critics are just insecure and afraid:

If you fervently believe something and have confidence in your faith and in your worldview, you don’t feel threatened by contrary opinions. On the other hand, if you are insecure in your beliefs, or if you don’t really believe what you claim to believe, you’re more likely to fear the expression of opposing views. (Section starts at 16:57)

The context of the remarks make it clear that he’s addressing the objections to Beck, although he’s also characterizing political liberal objectors this way, too. The irony is that we object because we do know what we believe, and we know that the Liberty doctrinal statement defines Beck as a heretic. As for fear, we are supposed be afraid of expressions from false teachers like Beck. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:26)

By the way, many conservative evangelical leaders who are closer to Beck than me have told me that they believe Beck has had a born again experience recently.

Astonishing. Liberty tries to have it both ways here, on one hand saying that hearing from people of different faiths helps students learn from them, then Liberty erases the differences by suggesting that Beck is actually of the same faith. It was Beck’s unchallenged assertion in his Liberty sermon that Mormonism was just a different Christian denomination that concerned us. Liberty University’s leaders actually believe it.

The only conservative evangelical leader that has claimed that Beck is born again, that I know of, is David Barton, whom Warren Throckmorton has demonstrated has a propensity to invent history so long as it’s favorable to evangelicalism.

I do not know his heart

Neither do I, but I do know his confession. Beck is a proud Mormon, which means that he is not born again. Perhaps by God’s grace he will be in the future, but he rejects Christ now, and we do him no spiritual favors by letting him think that he is right with God.

but our audience knows that he was speaking only for himself and expressing his personal opinions and beliefs, not those of Liberty University or even of Mormonism generally.

If they were merely his personal views, why invite him as a speaker? The point of the exercise, I thought, was to expose students to a diversity of views on different religions. If Beck is only speaking for himself, what’s the benefit to Liberty’s students? They can’t learn anything about Mormonism if he doesn’t speak for it.

As Jerry Falwell, Sr., our founder, often used to say about speakers at Liberty who had different views than him, Liberty students are smart enough to eat the fish and spit out the bones! I believe that’s as true today as it was in his day.

What is the basis of Liberty’s optimism? Not even Falwell knows that Mormonism is a non-Christian cult, and many (not all, for sure) of Liberty’s students loudly applauded Beck as if he were a Christian brother. At what stage did Liberty or its students spit out any bones? Beck was clever enough to hide the lethal bones in his message, and there’s no evidence – even in this statement’s bone-choking claim that Beck might be born again – that many of the students and any of the administrators really are smart enough to find the bones.

You know what kind of restaurant serves fish that requires you to spit out the bones?

One you don’t go back to.