Taking Liberty by Gordon Blaine Steffey
‘When liberty is mentioned, we must always be careful to observe whether it is not really the assertion of private interests which is thereby designated.’ GWF Hegel
Recently I took a Muslim friend to study the buffet of print laid into the Liberty University bookstore. The university and its bookstore sit on Liberty Mountain in Lynchburg, Virginia, where an SUV trimmed with stickers reading ‘Not I, but Christ’ and ‘Socialism isn’t cool’ abridges the local temper. Liberty University is the latest iteration of the institution founded as Liberty Baptist College in 1971 by the late Jerry Lamon Falwell, Sr. Americans remember Falwell as skipper of the Moral Majority, a political action group born in 1979 as a consequence of the political realignment of conservative Christians in the wake of the excesses of the 1960s and the increasingly secularist drift of the Democratic Party since the presidential campaign of George McGovern. Dissolved by Falwell in 1989 and succeeded by the Christian Coalition of America, the inter-denominational Moral Majority lobbied politicians and solicited voters to reverse a regnant acceleration into decadence, hallmarks of which included Roe v. Wade and the broad media assault on ‘family values’. The British may recall an incongruously sober philippic on the sexual politics of the BBC programme Teletubbies. Falwell’s National Liberty Journal insisted that the purple, purse-toting Teletubby topped with a triangular aerial was the fifth column in a ‘subtle’ re-education of straight children worldwide. Muslims will recall Falwell less for outing Tinky Winky than for his incendiary twaddle about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, twaddle no more forgivable for being de rigueur among demagogues on the Christian Right in the aftermath of 9/11. This followed Falwell’s daft attempt on 9/13 to blame 9/11 on ‘the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians . . . who have tried to secularise America’. None of these inanities were commemorated on the artless exhibits cluttering the Jerry Falwell museum, whence my friend and I launched an informal tour of this Christian evangelical madrasa.
The earnest young man tending the museum armed us straightaway with a courtesy copy of Falwell: An Autobiography, the mood of which appears in exhortation form near the book’s terminus: ‘Let your vision become an obsessive reality.’ Falwell presently confesses his ‘burning obsession,’ to wit, ‘I truly believe the only way I can evangelise the world in my generation is to train Young Champions for Christ at Liberty University.’ Now forty years on from its inception, Liberty enrolls 12,560 residential Champions for Christ with another 61,000 Champions enrolled online. Neither Falwell’s prodigious and profuse gaffes nor his 2007 translation into celestial bliss have dimmed the flames of Liberty or dammed its emanation of Champions. Clamorous efforts by pillars of the so-called New Atheism to replace ‘delusion’ with ‘renewed Enlightenment’ have not discernibly abated the achieving of his vision. Infrequent stopovers by Richard Dawkins nourish the lean tribe of Nay-saying lions who prowl the periphery of Lynchburg but fail to constitute the ‘great noon’ whereof Nietzsche’s Zarathustra speaks. Every inch as imperious and frothy as the late Falwell, Dawkins speaks a language native to Liberty Mountain. While both malcontents court the attentions of Nemesis, Dawkins’ diatribes find no refuge in the Liberty University bookstore, where my friend cocked his head at a book titled Stuff Christians Like, an intramural raillery with a dulled edge. He mused aloud about members of the set stuff: ‘Shopping?’