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Liberty University responds to Romney controversy, angers online students
April 23rd, 2012
04:43 PM ET

Liberty University responds to Romney controversy, angers online students

By Dan Merica and Laura Bernardini, CNN

Washington (CNN) – Liberty University reacted over the weekend to a brewing controversy over the fact that the evangelical school has selected Mitt Romney, a Mormon, to speak at the school’s graduation.

In a statement from Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., the school says that the complaints have significantly died down and that many of those complaining “had no affiliation with the university.”

“We have also noticed over the last few days that students with reservations about Romney's appearance at Liberty basically fit into one of two categories,” Falwell, Jr. wrote. “They were either strong supporters of other candidates who were seeking the Republican nomination or they were online students who were not as familiar with Liberty University's traditions.”

After last week’s announcement, hundreds of comments were registered under the announcement on Liberty’s Facebook page. While some were supportive of the decision to invite Romney, a number of respondents were angered and posted their frustration to Facebook.

As of Monday morning, the announcement was deleted from the page, along with all the comments.

“Complaints died down because they took the ability to complain down from the website,” said Janet Loeffler, a 53-year old freshman at Liberty who takes classes online. Loeffler was a frequent poster to the Facebook page.

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According Johnnie Moore, vice president of executive projects and spiritual programs, the post was removed because "people who had no affiliation with the university were using our Facebook page to air their grievances and to engage in conversations that violated our policies with regard to social media etiquette."

"We just decided to eliminate the post all together rather than let our page be the place where these arguments were taking place," Moore wrote in an e-mail to CNN. "With regard to our students, the university has a number of channels for our students and constituents to express feedback, and that feedback is attended to by Liberty staff who have input in, and understanding of, the university's operations and decision making."

Though the deletion of the post bothered Loeffler, it was the statement about online students familiarity with Liberty’s traditions that she says deeply offended her.

“It is just a complete lie. You cannot get through your first semester at Liberty Online without taking their Theology 101 and Apologetics 101,” Loeffler said.

Loeffler provided CNN with a copy of the page in the freshman textbook “The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics” which includes a number of passages on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called Mormons. “Mormon doctrine stands in stark contrast to Jewish and Christian monotheism,” reads the passage, “which teaches that there is only one true God and that every other ‘God’ is a false god.”

Liberty's handling of the situation "has very much altered my thinking of Liberty,” Loeffler said. “I haven’t registered for my fall classes yet because of it. I am offended that they would talk to us like that, telling us that we just don’t understand.”

Many of the anti-Liberty comments, including Loeffler’s charged that Mormonism goes against the teachings of the school and claimed that the religion is a cult. The charge of Mormonism as a cult is not a new one for the church, however. In a 2011 column, Michael Otterson, head of public affairs for the LDS Church described the word as a, “a neat, shorthand and rather lazy way of putting a whole group into a box.”

The nation’s largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Conference, lists the LDS Church as a cult. They specifically cite differences in theology surrounding salvation, baptism, belief in the Trinity, and marriage. A major sticking point between other Christian traditions and Mormons is the Book of Mormon, which Mormons believe is divinely inspired scripture and on par with the Bible. Other Christians do not recognize the Book of Mormon as scripture.

Oyindamola Bankole, a 22-year old online psychology major at Liberty, said she was disappointed that the comments had been deleted from the website.

“I thought it was very cowardly,” Bankole said in an interview with CNN. “There were a lot of good conversations and debates and people were arguing both sides and I was shocked when they took it down.”

Bankole will be graduating this year from Liberty but has opted to walk in 2013. Though the school differs between online and on-campus students, all walk in the same graduation. This year, 14,000 students will walk and 35,000 are expected to attend as guests.

“Even though we're online students, it's still our graduation,” Bankole said. “The Liberty University Online students are going to be flying in, renting rooms in hotels, and going to the same graduation, so why does our opinion not matter as much? There are 70,000 online students compared to the 12,500 residential students, according to Liberty's website. Glad to know we're just numbers and income in their eyes.”

Liberty University was founded as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971 by the influential pastor and Moral Majority co-founder Jerry Falwell. He founded the school to be a Christian university for evangelical believers, according to Liberty’s website. Today, Liberty brands itself as the largest evangelical university in the world, with 82,500 students enrolled either on campus or online.

This debate over Romney’s selection further tests the relationship between Mormons and evangelicals. With Romney as the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party, many political commentators are asking whether the evangelical base, an important voting bloc to the GOP, will come out for Romney.

Tony Perkins, a Liberty graduate and the president of the Family Research Council, said he sees the Romney speech as an opportunity.

"As Christians we can disagree strongly but we show respect and I think they will show respect for Mitt Romney," Perkins said on CNN's Starting Point Monday morning.

"They may not warmly applaud him and may continue to express differences and clearly there are differences theologically between Mormons and Christians, but here's an opportunity for Mitt Romney to talk about what he has in common with evangelicals and that is on the value issues," Perkins said.

But if the evangelical vote hinges on how evangelicals see Mormonism, Romney may need further outreach to the evangelical community. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds 47% of white evangelicals say that Mormonism is not a Christian religion, while 66% say Mormonism and their religion are “very or somewhat different.”

Loeffler and Bankole both look at this as a way for Liberty to help Romney with evangelical voters.

“This is nothing more than a political rally, at a time when graduates are having their lives dedicated to the work they were trained to do at Liberty,” Loeffler said.

In their statement, though, Falwell Jr. said over the past 25 years, many people have been invited to speak at graduation and “most of them did not share Liberty’s doctrinal beliefs.”

Graduation at Liberty, like at most colleges and universities, features a baccalaureate event before the final graduation. This year, Liberty has invited Luis Palau, a preacher that Liberty bills as "among the most influential Christian leaders of all time."

Mark DeMoss, a Liberty graduate, member of the Board of Trustees and a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, when reached on Monday made mention of Glenn Beck being the first Mormon to address Liberty graduates at commencement and added some background to how the decisions have been made.

“I remember the first time Falwell, Sr. decided to use a commencement speaker that was not evangelical because it was controversial to some at the time," Demoss said of Liberty's founder Jerry Falwell Sr. "And he explained, or justified it, by virtue of us having a baccalaureate service that was a decidedly Christian service. And commencement could feature a prominent figure from politics or business – evangelical or not evangelical.”

“Liberty has never held a commencement that did not include a strong gospel message from a evangelical leader at baccalaureate,” Falwell Jr. wrote.

– CNN's Eric Marrapodi contributed to this report.

- Dan Merica

Filed under: 2012 Election • Christianity • Mitt Romney • Mormonism • Politics • Virginia

soundoff (688 Responses)
  1. Kayleighk Begemanq

    I just couldn't go away your website before suggesting that I really loved the usual information an individual supply on your guests? Is gonna be back incessantly in order to investigate cross-check new posts.

    July 30, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  2. Rebecah Hiltunenc

    You can definitely see your skills in the paintings you write. The sector hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren't afraid to mention how they believe. Always follow your heart.

    July 13, 2012 at 2:14 am |
  3. Jeff Wilson

    My concern is that electing Mr. Romney will “normalize” Mormon teachings, making it easier for Mormon missionaries to lead converts to their beliefs.
    Mormons believe that the God of the old testament is not God the Father but Jesus himself. That God, Jesus, and “Mrs. God” have physical bodies and live on a planet called Kolob. They believe there are many gods, that our god is just the local god here for earth who has worked his way up to being a god. Is normalizing these beliefs as “Christian” worth having only 4 years of Obama instead of 8. How you would feel if your child or grandchild decided to “try out” the Mormon church because they have “good family values” and, after all, the President is a Mormon so how bad could it be.

    May 25, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Al Porter

      Mormons are considered by orthodox Christians to be a "cult" because their beliefs and scriptures go beyond what is accepted by orthodoxy. The term "cult" is highly subjective. Cults can usually be identified by the skewed translation or use of scripture and usually begin with a charismatic leader who claims that all the other denominations of Christianity are wrong, and that only he is right, and backs this up with 'new' scripture, either in the form of a new, 'better' interpretation of the Bible (usually skewed and badly translated to back up the cult ideas) or by introducing completely new writings to back up the cult ideas. Therefore both the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses can be classed a cults as each use a skewed form of Bible(though the Mormon's Bible is pretty much the same as the bible that most Christians use), each was started by a charismatic leader, each believes that all other Christian denominations are wrong(Mormonisms doesn't consider them wrong they consider all the other religions having a piece of the truth but their doctrine is complete and they have the authority from God), (the Jehovah's Witnesses regarding them as the work of Satan) and each using their own scripture to back up claims (such as the new World Translation of the Bible, and the Book of Mormon which is used in conjunction with the Bible in Mormonism).

      There are a number of Christian groups that define a cult as any religion that claims to follow Christ but denies the central doctrines of the traditional Christian faith as taught in the 66 books of the Bible. The LDS and a number of other religions that believe themselves Christian fit that definition.

      October 14, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Kurt

      Funny, but I don't really consider myself a member of a cult or a bad person. While your comments don't really reflect the teachings of my church, I don't mind it - I'm pretty used to the accusations. "You're a cult!" "You're weird!" "You have your own Jesus!" Whatever. I still consider myself a Christian. I wish you'd respect my beliefs a little more. I don't insult you, do I?

      June 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  4. Pastor Jack Wilson

    For those who would rail against Mitt Romney coming to speak at Liberty University, I give you this.

    As Christians we do not recognize Mr Romney as a Christian. That is understood. However if we are going to be led by someone, it needs to be someone with Christian values. He does bring that to the race.

    For those of you who are indignant, remember this, it probably was you who did not want Pat Robertson because he wasn't a Baptist or Mike Huckabee or Gov Perry or Michele Bachman. Every time we have a Christian candidate, half of Christianity puts them down. It is also their own fault because none of them have put their chest out and proudlt said I am a follower of Jesus.

    So here we are. You might be one of the ones crying but this is what the Bible says:

    Rom 13:3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
    Rom 13:4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
    Rom 13:5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
    Rom 13:6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing

    To have him come and speak and say he is in sync with your morality is a good thing.

    Who do you have now? We are sold down the river. We have the “Arab Spring” and the Muslim brotherhood, Egypt is lost and has denounce Israel, Syria and Libya and Yemen and others are all powder kegs waiting to explode. Sharia law is creeping into our Country and foul is fair and fair is foul as they attempt to take over the minds of our children in schools and fight against home
    schoolers at every juncture because they realize they can't control the children who are home schooled.

    Instead of being so full of yourselves, ask God to forgive you laziness and to forgive the fact that you have not spread the Gospel and now evil is overwhelming us.

    Thank god that he has given us a man who has integrity and morality and is not against us.

    The Bible tells us to pray for our leaders. You should have been doing it for Obama, now at least do it for Romney.
    May God help us all.

    May 13, 2012 at 5:47 am |
  5. ACBaughman

    This is simply a political move to get the evangelicals into the Romney camp. If it works, great. Mitt is running for President, not Pastor.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  6. Jobert

    To me, I am most saddened by this – The Church in America has become so wish washy and pathetic. True, a commencement speech is about honoring the students. But I must ask, why is it that we are honored to have Mitt Romney speak simply because he is an important man in the world's eyes? God looks at the heart of man, and from there makes His judgment. I would rather see an ol' back country pastor that no one has ever heard of give the speech than a man who disregards the truth of a inspired, inerrant and undeniably unique book – the Bible. This displays to me that the Church of America is becoming more about this world than it is about the "heavens above" (Col 3:2). Shame on the Administration of LU for EVER having ANY non-Christians speak at the University! Falwell's response clearly shows where his priorities are, and I have to say, they are NOT along the lines of the Apostle Paul and Christ who despised false religions (but did not despise the people involved in them btw). Shame on all Christians who think its "ok" just because Romney is important. He's no more important in God's eyes than anyone, and as a Mormon, he stands against Christ not with Him. So where are Christians going to stand? The Nation of America might actually see positive change happen if we started supporting Biblical morality rather than focusing on saving ourselves from financial issues. This country is going to continue down hill as long as we continue forgetting God and the Scriptures.

    May 11, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Kurt

      Jobert - Mormons stand against Christ? Really? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is against Christ? Come on... I'm a Mormon. I spent two years teaching people about the Savior. How am I against Christ? Your comment is silly. I'm not perfect, but I do follow the Son of God.

      June 28, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.