Liberty University is one of the largest Christian universities in the world and arguably the most prominent example of Christian higher education in America. But under Mr. Falwell, it has not been a good example of Christian higher education.
There is a long history in Christian education that focuses on the formation of the affections, alongside the training of the intellect. This reflects one of the religion’s foremost insights about human nature. Augustine famously wrote, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” That is, humans navigate our way through the world via the things we love — the stories about the world that captivate us, the desires that motivate us, the material or spiritual goods that attract us — and we need guidance to make sure that the things we love are ordered beneath our ultimate love of God. Christians have often described sin as misdirected love — loving the wrong things or loving the right things in the wrong way.
Christian education, then, has historically focused not merely on delivering the right information, but also on giving students the tools — music, prayer, storytelling — to shape our loves. Yet evangelicals — and Liberty, in particular — have often neglected this focus, falsely believing that if we know the right information, we will act rightly. What we’re seeing in Mr. Falwell now are the consequences of that neglect. How does a man who knows all the right answers come to do so much wrong? By underestimating the power of the loves in our lives — in this case, political power — to shape our actions and alter our moral commitments.
At Liberty, our minds may have been receiving correct content, but our hearts were being trained to love wrongly: to love political power, physical security and economic prosperity as higher goods than they are. The leaders of the university may have believed that we could be immersed in the stories and values of the Republican Party while maintaining any theological truths incompatible with them, but the power of our affective education was stronger. The ethics we learned in a classroom were not nearly as powerful as the emotion and desire created in a stadium full of people singing, praying and hearing stirring messages about making America great again.
With each succeeding Falwell scandal, the failure of this approach becomes clearer. For Liberty University as a whole, and for Mr. Falwell as an individual leader, there’s compelling evidence that proximity to power is its own kind of education. It shapes who you are and what you desire in life. A thirst for political power — and sometimes, obtaining that power — begets more than corruption: It often involves sexual immorality, degraded moral judgment and financial malpractice.