NPR reported yesterday that some Liberty University graduates are sending back their diplomas because the school’s president Jerry Falwell, Jr. continues to support Donald Trump even after his unhinged comments about the events in Charlottesville.
Chris Gaumer, a former Student Government Association president and 2006 graduate, said it was a simple decision.
“I’m sending my diploma back because the president of the United States is defending Nazis and white supremacists,” Gaumer said. “And in defending the president’s comments, Jerry Falwell Jr. is making himself and, it seems to me, the university he represents, complicit.”
Gaumer is referring to Falwell’s tweet, which came after Trump’s WTF-IS-HAPPENING press conference. Falwell referred to the President’s comments as a “bold truthful stmt about #charlottesville tragedy”… even though Trump clearly equivocated on condemning white supremacy groups.
The truth as stated by @realDonaldTrump is that violent white supemacists, Nazi, KKK and similar hate groups are pure evil and un-American.
— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) August 17, 2017
There’s now a Facebook group for alums who plan to send back their diplomas in protest. 202 of them and counting, according to CNN.
For his part, Falwell says the students are misinterpreting his tweet, though his non-stop defense of Trump has long been a problem.
And it’s that last bit that makes me think twice about this gesture from the alumni. It’s a powerful symbolic move, but it won’t make one damn bit of difference for a number of reasons.
Back in October of 2016, not long after the Access Hollywood tape came out and Trump was caught talking about grabbing women without consent, Falwell defended him. In fact, he said the tape must have been leaked by “establishment Republicans.” (As if the leaker’s identity was the real issue…)
At the time, an ad hoc group of students calling themselves “Liberty United Against Trump” issued a statement saying they did not share Falwell’s political views (at least this particular endorsement) and were frankly embarrassed he was using the school’s credibility to boost Trump’s campaign.
And then what happened? Nothing.
Hell, a week later, when a student wanted to publish an article denouncing Trump in the school’s newspaper, Falwell personally nixed it. Life went on. Falwell has continued to back Trump ever since, even saying he was being considered to run the Department of Education (a position he claims he couldn’t accept because he didn’t want to leave Liberty for that long).
In other words, the students’ protests before the election changed nothing. So why would this gesture by alumni move Falwell in a different direction now? (Plus, the damage is already done.)
The graduates say of Falwell that “the Chancellor’s recent comments on the attack upon our neighbors in Charlottesville have brought our outrage and our sorrow to a boiling point… This is incompatible with Liberty University’s stated values, and incompatible with a Christian witness.”
I’m glad they’re condemning Falwell over what he said… but why is this the tipping point? There’s a long, long list of horrible things Trump has done that contradicts Liberty’s (and Christianity’s) supposed values. He’s torn apart tight-knit families. He’s blocked Muslims from entering the country, contradicting the idea of religious freedom. He’s pushing policies that will lead to more abortions. He bragged about sexual assault. And there has always been evidence that Trump is racist.
No one’s denying this is a symbolic gesture at best, but why would Falwell be bothered by it? These students have already paid their tuition. Their résumés still list Liberty on them, and if they don’t, maybe that’s because they have a job and where they graduated from is now irrelevant. They’re statistics to him now.
Here’s something we don’t know: Were any of these graduates donating large sums of money to the school, but are now choosing to give nothing? Because that would be a big deal. Sending Falwell a piece of paper? Not so much.
It’s like Eagle Scouts returning their badges in protest of the Boy Scouts’ anti-gay policies. They mean well, but they’re already out of the system, so why would the BSA administrators care? It’d be more impressive if boys currently enrolled in the Scouts dropped out.
Speaking of which…
If you take donations out of the equation, graduates of Liberty aren’t as powerful as students attending the school right now. The current students are the ones paying the bills.
What could they do to make a difference? The nuclear approach would be leaving the school entirely. Kick Falwell right in the school’s bank account. That would make him pause. That would get him to reconsider his allegiance to Trump.
That has no chance in hell of ever happening.
Obviously, that step is more complicated and life-altering for students. But if they’re worried that Falwell is sullying the school’s reputation, why wouldn’t they want to find another school anyway? Either they still see value in their Liberty education, their parents are pressuring (and/or paying) for them to attend, or they’re not bothered by Falwell’s comments. None of those options are ideal. And none of them put any pressure on Falwell to reverse course.
Sending back your diploma will create headlines.
Not giving any money to your conservative Christian church will create change.
I know Liberty graduates aren’t about to walk away from the faith, but they could easily walk away from the kind of churches that lend tacit support to Trump’s agenda and Falwell’s complicity.
There are churches that do incredible work fighting racism and bigotry, but they’re not necessarily the ones sending kids to Liberty. Falwell, like his father, will never be mistaken for a champion of civil rights. By giving money to the sort of churches made up of Trump’s base, you’re giving them more power and access than they deserve.
What’s happening at Liberty is a symptom of a larger problem among conservative Christians. Rebuking Falwell won’t make as big of a difference as turning your back on the entire conservative Christian bubble.
Seriously, have you seen Liberty’s science courses?
As Bill Maher once joked, “This is a school you flunk out of when you get the answers right.”
Falwell may not like the negative publicity from the NPR story, but he’s not going to lose sleep over it. His Twitter timeline continues to be a steady stream of Trump talking points and words of praise for the President. Unless students push back more effectively, their gestures are hollow and Falwell won’t change.
(Screenshot via ABC News)