Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Of Jerry Falwell, Religious Conversion and the School of Life

As thousands of people gather for Rev. Jerry Falwell's funeral this morning, I spoke with my mom about the ongoing legacy of his Liberty University. Recalling Newt Gingrich's recent claim that Falwell has "planted 120,000 seeds of Christianity" in the form of Liberty graduates, I said, "That guy has built a factory to manufacture their hatred." Mom replied, "Oh I wouldn't worry too much. The school of life will teach those students another kind of lesson. Just wait until they get out into the world."

I was not relieved and plagued by the thought of 120,000 Falwell zealots, I said, "Ma you can put your head in sand if you want to but those right wingers have got plans." She replied, "Well, I've lived a lot longer than you have and I'm telling you it's not a big as a problem as it might seem."

A story today in C-Ville, Charlotte's on-line weekly, suggests Mom may have been right. In an article entitled, "Not Much Liberty at Falwell School, the author, Jayson Whitehead, a Liberty graduate describes the educational straight jacket of the school's rules and curriculum, a straight jacket that turned many students off. According to Whitehead, cursing, watching R-rated movies, and drinking beer were prohibited by university authorities, and risked expulsion. Apparently Liberty provided another kind of education. It seems even before going out into the world, at least a few of in the student body got rubbed the wrong way.

Life too had similar effect. One big complaint was the politicizing of religion. Writes Whitehead:

"After I left Liberty, I continued to loosely follow Falwell's actions over the years. Despite his obvious flaws, he was definitely a man who hewed to his own beliefs, even though it was quite unpopular at times. Were it not for the last few years, I would have retained respect for the Reverend but his repeated and pronounced avocation from the pulpit for the Republican Party and their policies was dismaying, as support for any political body, let alone the one we've had in recent years, seems to fly in the face of the teachings of a guy named Jesus."

Thinking over Mom's more seasoned (she'll be 86 in a few weeks, bless her heart), view, it's likely that most Liberty students are not right-wing ideologues, but working-class youth simply seeking a better life. I'm sure that many too who are of religious bent see through the Reverend's shallow politics. Perhaps, their experiences will make them fertile seeds for a different kind of conversion, a conversion inspired by the school of life. Thanks Mom!

joe sims

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