Sport and Religion at “Jerry Falwell U”

I only recently attended my first Liberty University (LU) athletic event. Although I have lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, for over two years, I typically avoid the ever-expanding school on the “other side of town.” On the one hand, the traffic surrounding Liberty is always a pain. LU’s campus is encircled by bypasses, strip malls, and chain restaurants, which blocks any sort of transportation flow. On the other hand, the idea of walking around campus makes me a little bit uneasy. I envision Falwellian coeds encircling me to ask my views on abortion, feminism, and same-sex sexuality, only to have them pull out a Bible to tell me I am wrong. Fortunately, my trip to Liberty to watch the Virginia Tech women’s lacrosse team play the LU Flames was not interrupted by spiritual debate. Plus Tech (my alma mater) won the game. While my impression of Liberty may be exaggerated, it is not wholly inaccurate. Evangelical Christianity, sport, and conservative ideologies shaped—and continues to shape—the way of life at “Jerry Falwell U.”

Liberty University Founder and Chancellor Jerry Falwell

Liberty University Founder and Chancellor Jerry Falwell. Wikimedia Commons.

Evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell was not the first to recognize the symbiotic relationship between religion and sport. As historian William J. Baker explained in Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport, the two are made in the image of each other as “both are bathed in myth and sustained by ritual; both reward faith and patience; [and] both thrive on passion tempered with discipline” (pg. 2). The history of Western civilization illustrates this long and interdependent connection. For example, many creation myths feature physical activities, while early religious temples were oftentimes adjacent to ball courts. Perhaps most famously, people in ancient Greece viewed physical contests as dedications to the gods. In the United States, Puritan disdain of leisure initially stunted sports’ growth; however, the animosity did not halt it completely. By the mid-nineteenth century, more liberal Protestants accepted such amusements, and physical activities gained widespread support with the onset of Muscular Christianity.

Furthermore, religiously affiliated universities, such as Notre Dame and Brighman Young, quickly recognized the value of school-sponsored sport as it promoted institutional visibility and increased alumni donations. Finally, evangelicals embraced sport in the 1950s. As Baker noted “Today religious believers embrace sport because both religion and sport have changed, each making itself acceptable—even useful and desirable—to the other” (pg. 3).

As religion became increasingly enmeshed in sport, Falwell himself gained notoriety. He was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, to an agnostic bootlegger. After graduating from Baptist Bible College, Falwell founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1956 with a thirty-five person congregation. Today the megachurch claims more than 24,000 members. Starting in 1956, he also broadcasted sermons on the Old Time Gospel Hour, a nationally syndicated radio show. Within six months the program appeared on a local television network. It eventually went into national and international syndication with more than 50 million regular viewers.

Soon thereafter, Falwell extended his religious aspirations into education. In 1967 he established the Lynchburg Christian Academy (LCA), today named the Liberty Christian Academy, a Christian day school for grades K-12. LCA offered white students a haven against desegregation for Falwell was a staunch segregationist. After the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, he told his congregation:

“If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made . . . The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

Although started as a private school for white students, LCA desegregated two years later due to legal pressures.

Along with his educational interests, Falwell is perhaps most remembered for his role in the Moral Majority. Started in 1976 and formalized in 1979, the organization gained over four million members who all shared similar religious and social beliefs. Falwell and other conservative Christian leaders hoped to mobilize society against the ills they believed plagued the country. In particular, the Moral Majority promoted “traditional” family values and opposed women’s rights–including the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment–abortion, and same-sex sexuality. According to Liberty’s website, the Moral Majority was “a conservative political lobbying group that was pro-life, pro-family, pro-Israel and favored a strong national defense.”

Although Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989 due to leadership disputes, sex scandals, and financial problems, he maintained a similar line of conservatism through the remainder of his life. For example, in 1999 he warned that Tinky Winky, a character on the show Teletubbies, was a damaging gay icon for children. His most infamous comment occurred on Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club when Falwell identified the reason for the 9/11 attacks: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way–all of them who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen’.”

Although Falwell quickly apologized, many condemned his ideologies. Max Blumenthal of The Nation labeled the televangelist an “agent of intolerance,” while Christopher Hitchens of Slate claimed he was guilty of “faith-based fraud.” Falwell’s inciting rhetoric and intolerant reputation underlines my own unease about living down the road from Liberty. As a sport management professor, I also cannot help but wonder, how has sport helped spread his views?

From the beginning, Falwell used intercollegiate athletics to promote his conservative religious beliefs.

Thomas Road Baptist Church

Thomas Road Baptist Church in 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

Falwell founded Lynchburg Baptist College (LBC) in 1971.[1] During the school’s inaugural academic year, 154 students met in Thomas Road Baptist Church for coursework. Although small in enrollment, LBC maintained large aspirations. The institution intended to “save” society by preparing Christian students for careers in an assortment of professions, not just for futures in church work. “We need a spiritual army of young people who are pro-life, pro-moral, and pro-American,” Falwell explained. “We need to train a generation of young people who can carry this nation into the twenty-first century with dynamic Christian leadership.[2] To fulfill these aims, he established a history department and education department in 1971, added men’s basketball in 1972, and started a football program in 1973.

Sport was a prominent part of Falwell’s plan. “We called a press conference, in the spring of [1971], to announce we were opening a Christian evangelical liberal arts university,” he recalled in 2004. “I said we planned to be academically excellent. I also said we planned on competing athletically in Division I sports at every NCAA level.”[3] In his mind, the dual aims worked in tandem; academics would teach the faith while athletics would advance the cause. “We feel that through athletics we can glorify Christ and capture the attention of America’s young people in a very significant way,” Falwell reasoned. Said later head football coach Sam Rutigliano, “Sports is a powerful force. [Falwell] wants to spread the word, save some souls.”

The founder thus prioritized the development of a competitive athletic program. In January 1973, he appointed Harold Lee “Rock” Royer, the former assistant at US Naval Academy, LBC’s head football coach. Under Royer’s reign, the team competed primarily against small junior colleges and prep schools; on October 25, 1973, LBC posted its first win against Ferrum Junior College, 29-7. For Falwell, there was no looking back. He quickly added wrestling and soccer to the athletic dossier, much to the enjoyment of the 1,428 students enrolled at LBC in 1974. He followed with women’s basketball in 1975, and track and field in 1976. In the midst of this rapid expansion, Lynchburg Baptist College changed its name to Liberty Baptist College and earned accreditation.

By 1975, most sports had earned membership in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Falwell was pleased with the NAIA affiliation; however, he regularly expressed higher aims. For example, Byron Rosen of the Washington Post foreshadowed:

Look out, sports world, out of the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginny the word from on high: Here comes Liberty Baptist College. And don’t guffaw. LBC hopes to reach major college athletic status within four years, declares Dr. Jerry Falwell.[4]

LBC’s chancellor also continued to articulate his goal of using athletics to support religion. “It’s our goal to be the Harvard of academics, the Notre Dame of athletics and the Brigham Young of religious schools to evangelical and fundamentalist boys and girls,” he explained.

Falwell’s prophecies seemed to ring true in the 1980s. His school rose in prominence as he gained notoriety for his role in the Moral Majority. The 1979-1980 men’s basketball team won the National Christian College Athletic Association Championship, which helped push LBC toward Division II status. Enrollment reached 3,528 the following year. With increased admissions and a new spotlight on sport, Liberty Baptist College became Liberty University in 1985. That same year, LU produced its first NFL players when the Cleveland Browns selected Fred Banks in the eighth round of the draft and the Indianapolis Colts signed quarterback Phil Basso as a free agent. Moreover, due to his televisions appearances, Old-Time Gospel revenues, and Moral Majority fame (infamy), the chancellor’s enterprises grossed $200 million that year. And after seventeen years of Falwell’s campaigning, the NCAA finally inducted all of Liberty’s sixteen sport teams into Division I.

Yet, the Flames football program was marked as DI-AA and Falwell longed to see his team compete in DI-A. He therefore “promoted” head coach Morgan Hout to assistant athletic director in 1988 to make space for former NFL head coach Rutigliano. Hout learned of his ousting the same day he was named Virginia Division I Coach of the Year, an accolade he earned for posting an 8-3 record during LU’s inaugural season in DI-AA. Despite Hout’s recognition, Falwell desired a more distinguished coach to lead the program to the next level. “I think that now is a good time for Liberty to attempt to become, for evangelical young people, what Brigham Young is for Mormon youth, Notre Dame is for the Roman Catholic youth; that is, a world-class university both academically and athletically,” he said. The chancellor also hired former New York Yankee Bobby Richardson to coach the baseball team.

Along with hiring decisions, Falwell helped with recruiting. Oftentimes, he joined Rutigliano on home visits, his presence helping convince those interested in a Christian environment that Liberty was the right choice. Not all blue chip prospects could be persuaded, however. “It’s not for everybody,” noted Rutigliano. Some balked at the conservative campus environment. The strictest guidelines stemmed from the Liberty Way, a student handbook. For example, the 1985 edition explained that drinking, smoking, and rock and roll music were not permissible. Men were required to wear coats and ties, with their hair cut an inch above the collar, and women required to wear skirts to class. Interracial couples needed parental permission to date.

With Rutigliano at the helm, Liberty’s football team improved, as did the other sport programs. In 1991, LU joined the Big South Conference. Three years later, the men’s basketball team won the Big South and earned the school’s first NCAA tournament berth. While many may have been surprised by LU’s appearance, Falwell was not. “This day, this game, this forum has been in his plan for decades,” wrote Thomas Boswell. “And, make no bones about it, sports is the primary instrument of Liberty’s proselytizing.”[5] The successes and the sporting proselytizing continued. From 1997-2006, the women’s basketball team earned a spot in every March Madness tournament.

As the school pushed into prominence, Falwell’s health deteriorated. After suffering a heart attack in 2005, he performed an overhaul on the athletic department. That year the chancellor replaced football coach Ken Karcher with Danny Rocco, associate head football coach at the University of Virginia, and employed Jeff Barber as the new athletic director. According to Falwell, the reason for the changes stemmed from his mortality. “I’m 72. I don’t have much time to get the football program in the Top 20,” he explained.

SnowFlex

Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre. Wikimedia Commons.

Falwell died before he saw his dream fulfilled. On May 15, 2007, he suffered from sudden cardiac arrest. His son, Jerry Jr., took over as chancellor and continued his father’s ambition of moving the Flames into the upper-tier of athletics. The school collected on Falwell Sr.’s $29 million life insurance policy, consequently clearing its debt and allowing for the expansion of athletic facilities. With the money, and the increase of online programs (in 2014 LU had 95,000 online students), Liberty built a new high-tech library, health sciences building, music school, osteopathic medicine school, student center, student recreation space, baseball stadium, softball complex, and Snowflex, the country’s only year-round ski mountain, as well as new facilities for basketball, field hockey, golf, lacrosse, soccer, tennis, track and field, and volleyball. The additions were aimed for acceptance into the Football Bowl Subdivision. Or as Dan Wolken of USA Today explained, “there is almost no amount of dirt they won’t move or concrete they won’t pour these days to help break into the big-time.” In 2014 Liberty lobbied to be included into the Sun Belt Conference. The conference decided to hold off any additions until next year.

With the Flames inching toward DI-FBS, it seems that Falwell Jr. will continue his father’s legacy of using sport to promote evangelical Christianity. If (when) Liberty competes in the top-tier of intercollegiate athletics, one cannot help but wonder how it will influence the social and religious temperament of both the country and the school. Will FBS status help grow the “spiritual army” Falwell Sr. envisioned? Or will the competitive nature of the FBS convince coaches and students to ignore the Liberty Way for the sake of winning? As the Sun Belt Conference is likely to expand, we could have the answer soon.

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu.

[1] For information about the history of Liberty University, see Abigail Ruth Sattler, “Timeline and Important Dates of Liberty University,” Faculty Publications and Presentations, http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/lib_fac_pubs/52.

[2] Quentin Schultze, “Liberty University and the Impact of Television on Fundamentalist Higher Education,” in Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education, eds. Martin E. Marty and Scott Appleby (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993), 506-508.

[3] Mike Kern, “Liberty Makes its Mark,” Philadelphia Daily News, March 16, 2007, The (PA) Newspaper Source Plus, EBSCOhost.

[4] Byron Rosen, “In the Beginning, the Word,” Washington Post, February 19, 1976, E4.

[5] Thomas Boswell, “North Carolina Denies Liberty’s Pursuit of No. 1 Upset,” Washington Post, March 19, 1994, G1.

One thought on “Sport and Religion at “Jerry Falwell U”

  1. Pingback: Virgin Evangelical Athletes and the Campaign to Make Abstinence Sexy | Sport in American History

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