Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post wrote a charming front-page story last week about the debate team at Liberty University -- yes, the university founded by Jerry Falwell, everybody's favorite "fundamentalist" whipping post. (Boorstein could have been one of the few journalists to use fundamentalist within the standards of AP; for several years Falwell published a magazine called Fundamentalist Journal. But she had a more interesting story to tell.) Boorstein's story, like the acclaimed documentary film Spellbound (2003), takes us into the drama of tournament subculture, including the technique of debating about debate:
In one recent tournament in Richmond, for example, a Liberty team arguing that the United States should give more money to Turkey laid out a plan to make that happen but never used the word "enact," or anything like it. The other team, from Weber State University in Utah, seized on the error and took off in a tone that sounded like a poetry slam, demanding to know how a policy plan can exist if it was never enacted.
"You chose your ground, homeboy, not me," said Desaray Brown, 23, a Weber State junior, closing her argument with some confrontational street lingo for effect. Weber State won.
How many people know that Liberty has a debate team -- or that in a report (PDF) distributed through the National Debate Tournament website, it earned more sweepstakes points than teams from Harvard, Dartmouth, Northwestern and Cornell?
Boorstein gives Falwell credit for his appreciation of his school's debate team, which he calls "the most important of our 18 sports." Toward the story's end, there is this entertaining detail:
One of the most talked-about events in the policy debate world is Liberty's annual tournament, where Falwell opens the floor after dinner to any debater who wants to take a crack at him. In a scene that reflects the sport's peculiar social rules, one bluejeaned youth after another approached the microphone in November and challenged the preacher and chancellor, often in caustic language, on everything from how a "pro-lifer" can support war to whether Jews are going to hell.
Falwell seemed comfortable playing defense and explained in an interview just before the event why debate is so important to Liberty.
"Our debaters' mouths will be running long after football players' legs are not," he said. "Debaters, unlike any athlete, have the potential to change the culture."
Liberty's debaters "try to stick with Christian arguments, which could mean, for example, resisting an argumentative device that sets up nuclear war as a good thing because it would reduce overpopulation," Boorstein writes. "Even though they learn only at the last minute what side of any issue they'll be arguing, it's unlikely that Liberty debaters would ever be called on to defend something that runs overtly counter to their beliefs. Debate topics virtually always avoid socially controversial issues such as abortion."
The Liberty team's defense of one topic would warm the heart of Yale law professor (and Christianity Today columnist) Stephen Carter, who in The Culture of Disbelief defended religious freedom not just for his fellow Christians but for all Americans:
When religion does come up, the Liberty team relishes the opportunity to exploit its point of view. Two years ago, for instance, team members argued that Native Americans should have the right to keep the government off sacred burial grounds. They made the case that religion has a worthwhile place in politics and public life.
"It was a neat experience to watch our debaters argue something we believe," said Elisha Nix, 23, a senior debater from Gilbert, S.C., who lives in the women's "debate quad."