My Journey toward Renouncing America’s
Largest Christian College
In this deeply personal blog post, our research director Darren Slade recounts the journey of discernment that led to his parting ways with Liberty University, the institution from which he received his PhD. in Theology.
In a nutshell, this post is simply my explicit and public disavowal of the ideology and outspoken teachings of Liberty University, particularly the Jerry Falwell dynasty that still controls it. Why do I feel the need to make such an explicit and public disavowal of my alma mater?
It’s not because I am disgruntled, opportunistic, or backslidden. On the contrary, like anything else, my experience with Liberty University was a mixture of wonderful growth through great joy and turbulent hardship. I made some amazing friends and (probably) some enemies, too. Most importantly, I learned a lot about myself and the Christian tribe I once ascribed to (this in spite of Liberty’s teachings, not because of them). I eventually learned what I always knew: I am a man of strong conviction and have a passion for truth and justice. As such, I learned that I needed to separate myself from the political ideology and prejudicial theology behind Liberty University. Thus, this disavowal comes from a genuine disappointment in having chosen to attend Liberty in the first place, as well as a grave concern for what the university symbolizes today—religiously, academically, and politically.
Critical Thinking Versus Liberty
Truth be told, I have always dreamt of being an academic scholar and an advocate for social justice. Anyone who knows me can tell you that my most defining characteristic is probably my intelligence (coupled with a lack of common sense, as my wife will tell you). So, I had always dreamed of one day obtaining a PhD. And because of my passion for studying religion and philosophy, I believed that a degree in theology would be my best course of action. However, at this point in my life when I began looking into graduate schools, I was a staunch evangelical conservative and Republican loyalist. Naturally, this meant I sought out specifically Christian programs.
I soon learned that graduate school was expensive. Knowing nothing of its history, ideology, or political stance, I joined Liberty University only because it was significantly cheaper than any other school that offered a PhD track in theology. I now recognize that I fell for a kind of bait-and-switch: they lured me into the program with their low prices so as to indoctrinate me with their politics, all the while keeping me isolated from knowing anything about their checkered past.
During this time, my critical thinking skills advanced far beyond what I previously thought possible. Interacting with graduate-level work opened my mind to the incredible world of academic research, and I was hooked. By this time, it was clear that I “suffered” from acute autodidacticism, an insatiable desire to research and learn anything and everything I could find. The textbooks and writing assignments no longer sustained my expanding knowledge base. My professors and (eventually) publishers routinely expressed amazement at the depth of my research skills and the breadth of my knowledge. I have Liberty University to thank for introducing me to academic research and critical thinking.
Unfortunately, therein lies the problem. Liberty taught my fellow students and I to think critically and polemically toward everything but our own conservative evangelical identity. I learned how to investigate (and challenge) the truth claims of other people’s religious and philosophical belief systems, even those of other Christian traditions that were not evangelical (or evangelical “enough”). But we were never encouraged to question or scrutinize our own beliefs. Indeed, students were only ever exposed to the writings of fellow evangelicals whose entire purpose for research appeared to be for the sake of defending their culture-religion. If information from the scientific community or the perspectives of others were ever introduced, it was only for the purpose of “debunking” their claims.
Echo Chambers at Liberty
Not surprisingly, then, my passion for true academic research led me to two important things: the “confirmation bias” and falsificationism. The former is a well-established psychological phenomenon where people (purposely and subconsciously) seek out the kinds of data that only confirm their already held beliefs. When people are exposed to facts that conflict with their belief system, they tend to minimize or ignore the disconfirming information entirely (i.e. “cognitive dissonance”). More than anything else, I continually observed this confirmation bias in the majority of students and professors at Liberty. They had an agenda, and they were going to propagandize it at all costs, even if it meant sacrificing truth and justice in the process. Essentially, they saw and heard only what they wanted to see and hear. Interestingly, when I brought this bias up to the classes, the best rationalization given was that others do it too; therefore, they were okay with doing it, as well. Many seemed to derive a great sense of worth from existing in their own echo chamber.
This then led me to falsificationism, a practice of deliberately seeking out disconfirming data in order to counteract the confirmation bias. On every subject matter taught, I wanted to know what the scientific, religious, and philosophical community had to say about the conventional wisdom and traditions promoted at Liberty. Oftentimes, the dissonant information was so overwhelming (and so evidentially compelling) that I eventually abandoned my conservative evangelical beliefs. I could no longer support any institution that promoted the systemic bigotry, tribalism, violence, social apathy, and hypocrisy of America’s culture-religion. This also meant that I could no longer retain an association with the injustices of the Republican Party and its culture wars against homosexuals, the poor, and other minorities.
So, I made it my mission while at Liberty to challenge the prejudices and inaccuracies of Liberty’s ideology, as well as to advocate for the marginalized and oppressed of society, especially in response to the routine (and unnecessary) gay bashing I heard from teachers and students alike. In so doing, I learned that I was not alone. Many times, I had professors and students approach me with immense gratitude. They were truly happy that someone was speaking up for truth and justice against what was so obviously a defunct system of beliefs. Indeed, I was relieved to learn that many of the board members, professors, and students attending Liberty were closeted atheists, homosexuals, activists, or simply non-conformists who no longer ascribed to the institution’s brand of Christian conservatism. As such, I found myself part of an emerging group of people actively trying to change the culture of intolerance at Liberty.
Why is This Disavowal Necessary?
There are times I definitely regret having gone to Liberty University. I believe my academic prowess would have been better suited for a secular, liberal institution. It is ironic that my time at Liberty could well lead most colleges and universities to associate me with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Jerry Falwell, Jr, whose beliefs and behavior I find deplorable. And that would be unfortunate because I might never be given the opportunity to fulfill my dream of teaching at a place of higher learning. I desperately wish I could compel potential employers to examine my publications and discover how little I resemble the typical Liberty graduate. Indeed, my PhD dissertation reflects my uniqueness as a researcher and as a critical thinker.
Yet, there are also parts of my experience at Liberty that make me thankful. I was given a chance to advocate for true critical thinking and academic research. I was able to fight against bigotry and intolerance. My time on campus provided me with a unique opportunity to confront injustice head on and speak truth to power in defiance against Liberty’s indoctrination processes.
But it is important for people to know that I do not support or adhere to the kind of ugliness displayed by Liberty’s more outspoken personalities. It is also important for people to understand that not every professor or student at Liberty agrees with the beliefs or practices of the university. There is great irony in the fact that my exposure to Liberty’s failure as a religious and academic institution has, in fact, made me a better person. This is why I must explicitly and publicly disavow much of what the university has come to represent. I am not Liberty University. And Liberty University does not represent me.
Darren M. Slade, PhD
A Fellow Liberty PhD Student Reflects on Darren Slade