Stoking Fire: Why is the Federal Government Supporting Evangelism?

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Stoking Fire: Why is the Federal Government Supporting Evangelism?

Eleanor J. Bader

Separation of Church and State? Many tax-exempt religious colleges and universities are now using tax-payer subsidies to train the next generation of “Champions for Christ.”

When progressive pro-choicers think about enemies of reproductive justice, Blue Dog Democrats and the Republican Party come to mind. Of course, these forces merit our constant scrutiny on both the state and federal levels. At the same time, we’re missing the boat if we don’t also look at the many government-sanctioned institutions that are training the next generation of evangelical leaders to become what they call “Champions for Christ.”

Take, for example, tax-exempt Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. The 38-year-old school boasts a 5000-acre campus, complete with 123 buildings, 60 accredited undergraduate majors, and schools of aeronautics, arts and sciences, business, communications, education, government, religion, and law. More than 11,000 residential students were enrolled in September 2009 and an additional 24,000 were online distance learners. This makes LU the largest evangelical Christian university in the world, quite a legacy for founder Jerry Falwell. It’s also one of the most affordable private colleges in the US: tuition, room, and board fees come to $21,200 a year, about half the cost of its competitors.

The Helms School of Government—yes, it’s named for deceased lawmaker Jesse Helms—crows that it turns out “Christ-centered leaders, able to apply God’s word in every area of life.” What’s more, LU’s webpage showcases its mission, promising students an “action-oriented curriculum dedicated to world evangelism and repudiation of political correctness.”

Not sure what that means? The site explains:

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A strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism, and firm support for America’s economic system of free enterprise.

Thrice weekly chapel attendance is mandatory and it is here that the collision of faith and conservatism comes to the fore, with sermons delivered by such rightwing luminaries as Dinesh D’Souza, Fox TV personalities Sean Hannity and Shannon Bream, and LU alum, Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council.  But convocation—AKA chapel—is not the only place that students are lectured about morality and politics.

Hannah Sailsbury, a sophomore majoring in Elementary and Special Education, explains that all students are required to take GNED101 and GNED102. “The first,” she wrote in an email, “is designed to aid the student in the development of a biblical worldview.” Among the lessons, she continues, “is an affirmation of absolute truth.” The second class covers contemporary ethical issues.

“During GNED102 we learned about abortion history, the different types of abortion, and Bible verses that support that new life begins at conception. The class also covered helping strategies for women considering abortion and how to help those women who suffer from guilt because of an abortion.”  A

After taking the class, Sailsbury says that she committed herself to ending abortion in her lifetime and determined to share her reaction with everyone she knew. “The pro-life belief is an essential belief to Liberty University because God created life at conception and each individual life is important and unique,” her email explained.

Student government president Matthew Mihelic agrees with Sailsbury, and is working to “unify our student voice in support of the unborn.” To supplement GNED102, he and his colleagues organized a four-day Fall conference called ROSE, an acronym for Reclaiming Others’ Sacred Existence. Republican Congressmen Bob Goodlatte [VA] and Trent Franks [AZ] spoke, as did Norma McCorvey, LU Law School Dean Mathew Staver, [recently in the news for pressuring the FCC to fine ABC TV for airing Adam Lambert’s risqué performance at the 2009 American Music Awards] and Wendy Wright, President of Concerned Women for America.

“The Lord says for us to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves and to stand up for the rights of those who have no justice,” Mihelic says. “We, as the next generation of evangelical Christians in America, are not willing to be silent on the issue of abortion and we will not stop until it is ended once and for all.”

Like most LU students and faculty members, Mihelic and Sailsbury place abortion in the center of an anti-secular worldview. As they see it, raising money for a local crisis pregnancy center or for the Liberty Godparents Home, a Christian residence for pregnant girls ages 12-21, is as much a part of their education as required classes in English, History, or a language.

Not surprisingly, they have no problem with the fact that most LU students finance their coursework with Virginia Tuition Assistance monies and federal Pell, Supplementary Educational Opportunity, Teach and Smart grants.

But not everyone is so accepting. Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a still-pending complaint with the Internal Revenue Service in May, asking that body to review LU’s tax exempt status. According to Barry Lynn, AU’s Executive Director, “The courts in Virginia and at the federal level have seemingly forgotten that the Constitution bars expenditures for religious purposes.”

Lynn’s ire was further raised last month when LU’s student newspaper was distributed off campus in what he calls a blatant attempt to deter Democratic voters. “During the last election cycle they sent the paper to large numbers of people in the wards. This was the deliberate use of resources by a tax-exempt entity to promote Republicans. You would literally have had to be sight impaired not to understand exactly who you were supposed to vote for when you read this paper.”

Folks at LU seem nonplussed by the critique. After all, the Republicans took the state Capital and were locally victorious.  And, the LU student body continues to grow;  Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. predicts a total of 50,000 students within a decade.