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 the religious and political ideology represented at 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 prejudicial ideology and ugly rhetoric that comes out of Liberty University, particularly from the Jerry Falwell dynasty that still controls it, and to explain that not every professor or student at Liberty agrees with the beliefs or practices of LU’s more outspoken leaders. 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 (spanning almost 9 years) 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. 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 has come to symbolize today—religiously, academically, and politically.
Critical Thinking at 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 one of my most defining characteristic is my love for knowledge (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, back in 2010 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 hadn’t yet blossomed into the critical thinker I am today), 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 was so preoccupied with the low prices that I failed to anticipate their attempts to indoctrinate me with outdated and discredited theo-political prejudices.
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. LU’s 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 a defunct 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 (a case of “cognitive dissonance”). More than anything else, I continually observed this confirmation bias in the majority of required readings and lectures at Liberty. Essentially, much of what I learned as being “true” really only pandered to what we, as unquestioning evangelicals and Republican loyalists, wanted to see and hear as true. Sadly, many of my fellow students, and even some of the faculty, seemed to know how to exist only in their own culture’s echo chamber. What I witnessed on many occasions was a clear example of religious homophily and religious agnomancy.
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 in Liberty’s textbooks (or student lectures). 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 belief system that promoted the systemic bigotry, tribalism, violence, social apathy, and hypocrisy of what has become the culture-religion of American exceptionalism. 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 any prejudicial thinking or inflammatory rhetoric that I might hear in the classroom, as well as to advocate for the marginalized and oppressed of society. 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 spoke 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 stereotypical image of Liberty University.
Why is This Disavowal Necessary?
There are times I definitely regret having gone to Liberty University. I believe my love for knowledge and critical thinking would have been better suited for a secular, liberal institution. Ironically, 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 utterly 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 buy into the political and religious ideology associated with Liberty University. 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 the tools (and later) a chance to express true critical thinking in my academic research. I learned to fight against bigotry and intolerance, even if it meant occasionally standing up to my own peers. Nine years of attending Liberty provided me with a unique opportunity to witness and confront injustice head on, as well as speak truth to power in defiance of its leadership’s prejudicial rhetoric.
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. This is why I must explicitly and publicly disavow much of what the university has come to represent. I am not Jerry Falwell. And Jerry Falwell does not represent me.
Darren M. Slade, PhD
A Fellow Liberty PhD Student Reflects on Darren Slade
“‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence.”
More than two dozen current and former Liberty University officials describe a culture of fear and self-dealing at the largest Christian college in the world.”
“Liberty students protest in wake of reports about Falwell.”
“Sex and self-dealing at Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University?”