An Authoritarian Power Structure Brought Coronavirus to Liberty University

tags: fundamentalism, evangelicals, Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr.

Adam Laats is professor of education at Binghamton University (SUNY) and author of "Fundamentalist U." and "The Other School Reformers."

When Liberty University was founded as Lynchburg Bible College in 1971, it joined a thriving network of conservative evangelical Protestant colleges and universities. During the tumultuous fundamentalist crusade of the 1920s, institutions such as Bob Jones College established this network as an alternative to secular universities and more-liberal religious colleges.

These fundamentalist colleges and universities promised a different kind of higher education. Yes, they would prepare students for careers as teachers, engineers, doctors and lawyers. But they would do so in an atmosphere that was safely fundamentalist. All faculty members agreed to the schools’ strict statements of faith and students were held to a strict behavioral code.

These institutions differed from mainstream colleges in other ways, too. For one thing, schools such as Bob Jones College (it became a university in 1947) struggled to figure out who was in charge. As interdenominational religious institutions, these schools had no higher powers — at least no human ones — to which they could turn. Unlike Catholic colleges or Protestant denominational colleges with defined governing bodies, interdenominational fundamentalist colleges could not turn difficult decisions over to a synod, convention or presbytery.

A few of the more conservative institutions eventually hit on an alternative that allowed them to remain stubbornly independent: a single, unquestioned leader.

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