When I was told to look at a Washington Post story on changing rules at Liberty University, I readied my scalpels for some dissecting. What good could come from a Beltway view of a Southern fundamentalist school?
Then I read the story and put away the blades. The piece is restrained but perceptive, respectful and balanced. Writer Alexandra Markovich does basic reporting: reading documents, digging into newsclip's and interviewing campus sources -- students and outside critics as well as administrators. And she gets through all 1,400 words without using the "F" word -- "Fundamentalist."
In her freelanced article, the 19-year-old Princeton student looks at change from more than one angle. She notes a slight loosening of dress and conduct codes, toward guidelines more than tight rules. And she holds up a strong sign of toleration: Bernie Sanders, who addressed a university convocation in September -- a nod to diversity that isn’t matched on some liberal campuses.
At first, the article looks like a typical "tee-hee" at blue-nosed Southerners:
Change is in the air at Liberty University: couples can now do more than hold hands in public without fear of fine, men can wear ponytails, and students can watch R-rated movies(with “caution”). Liberty, the largest Christian university in the world, has relaxed its rules this semester to give its students more freedom.
The university has simplified the Liberty Way, its code of conduct, dropping outdated rules. Witchcraft, for instance, “or other satanic or demonic activity,” no longer risks a $500 fine and possible administrative withdrawal, a change from the 2014 edition of the Liberty Way.
The university has also cut a full page from the document’s dress code description, essentially leaving the students to decide what they mean by “Hairstyles and fashion should avoid extremes.” However, shorts are still not permitted in class and women’s’ skirts may not be shorter than two inches above the knee.
Then Markovich tells us that Liberty University has hosted talks by avowed socialist Sanders as well as the conservative Ted Cruz. She says the changes in the Liberty Way are "merely an update to match what things already looked like in practice."
But as she says, the school maintains a strict attitude toward sexual relations "outside of a biblical ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural born woman." Markovich doesn't say it, but the stilted wording is probably a reaction not only to the gay rights movement, but the current push for transgender people.
Here's a nice summation via Robert Mullen, dean of students: "The changes to the code of conduct and to convocation policy are an intentional move to give students more freedom of choice, Mullen said. 'It’s an effort to get our students to think for themselves and evaluate and make good decisions,' Mullen said."
And few mainstream media writers get what Markovich gets: that Liberty draws criticism from both wings for its practices. Liberal media have long dissed the school for its conservatism. And nowadays, conservative observers act alarmed at its move toward moderation.
I don’t often see this type of acknowledgement in a mainstream newspaper, especially quoting a student like Liberty sophomore Shelby Livingston:
When Liberty students gave Sanders a warm welcome, the national media cast them as surprisingly tolerant, Livingston said. At liberal universities, conservative speakers don’t always enjoy the same treatment. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rescinded her invitation to speak at Rutgers’ commencement after student and faculty protests, and Christina Hoff Sommers was greeted by protests when she spoke at Oberlin College. “I think the left might be surprised [that we invited Bernie Sanders] because the left doesn’t tend to invite conservatives, and hear the conservative point of view,” Mullen said.
Campus pastor David Nassar may raise eyebrows for saying, "The lost are not the enemy. They’re the prize." In a secular newspaper, that could sound either redemptive or predatory. But oh well, the university is clearly prepared to take heat for what it says and does.
A few flaws -- a very few -- mar this mostly well-done piece. It calls Liberty the largest Christian university in the world, but it offers no numbers. It also doesn't give examples of liberal criticism against the university, although, as you've seen, it does mention other schools that rebuffed conservative speakers.
Nor does the story reference the late founder Jerry Falwell, the fiery preacher whose Moral Majority helped launch conservative Christian political activism. That would have shown even more strongly how far Liberty University has come.
There's also a cryptic paragraph about Kevin Roose, who took a semester at Liberty, then wrote a book on his experience. Roose is cited for saying that before he attended, almost all he knew of the school "came from the Liberty Way: R-rated movies and hugs that lasted longer than three seconds were not permitted at the time."
OK, so what did he learn during that semester? Did he gain a better or worse image of Liberty? I'm guessing worse, because he titled his book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. But I shouldn't have to guess.
Those are fairly minor items in a story that stands above most on the topic of conservative Protestantism. The mere fact that Markovich got this good a story into a major newspaper speaks well of her work, and the newspaper itself. Change is in the air at Liberty University, she writes. Apparently at the Washington Post, too.
Photo: Liberty University logo on Candler's Mountain, Lynchburg, Va. Public domain photo by Tim Ross, via Wikimedia Commons.