Hundreds of former and current Liberty University students are calling on the evangelical Christian school to shutter the Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty, a campus "think tank" known for promoting conservative political causes.
More than 450 students and recent graduates have signed a student-led petition demanding the university-funded center be dissolved, according to Matt Morris, a Liberty freshman who created the online petition last month.
“The Falkirk Center constantly preaches the message that the church needs to defend Donald Trump at all costs and rescue western civilization,” the petition reads. “Falkirk is wrong. Associating any politician or political movement with Christianity bastardizes the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Morris, who is studying religion and counseling at Liberty, said he objects to what he believes is the center’s attempt to blend conservative politics with religion and to prioritize national identity over Christian identity.
“In Christian theology, all the church is supposed to do is submit to government, to pray for our government, and to make disciples. There’s no biblical command to get engaged with culture, and politics,” Morris said. “The Falkirk Center is trying to merge Christianity with their political views.”
The Falkirk Center was founded late last year by then-Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and Charlie Kirk, the executive director of Turning Point USA, a conservative youth organization with close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump, “to uphold the Christian faith and defend America’s Constitution,” according to its website.
Falwell, who stepped down as president and chancellor of Liberty in August following a string of personal scandals, was a prominent early supporter of Trump’s 2016 campaign. Trump rewarded Falwell’s loyalty by delivering a commencement address at the university in 2017.
The Falkirk Center, which unlike other research institutions has published no academic studies, openly waded into the 2020 presidential election and other races this campaign season to bolster conservative candidates and causes.
According to Politico, the think tank purchased at least $50,000 worth of political ads this year boosting Trump and other Republicans. Since Election Day, the center has amplified Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread election fraud through its podcast and social media feeds. Falkirk fellows include Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to Trump, and Eric Metaxas, a prominent conservative pundit who has shared conspiracy theories about the presidential election.
The center’s partisan nature has prompted dozens of former faculty members, current students and alumni to publicly speak out against the institution, including members of Liberty’s student leadership.
“When an organization like [the Falkirk Center] is attached to Liberty, it impacts the reputation of not just our school, but our students as well,” Constance Schneider, the student body president, wrote in a series of tweets on Dec. 22. “We have had dozens of conversations with students who are embarrassed to claim the name of our school due to the rhetoric that comes from this center.”
Fellows and employees at the center have defended Falkirk’s aggressive approach and have pledged to continue the center’s mission “to promote, preserve, and defend American values through continuous cultural renewal and political engagement.”
“As long as politics results in real policies concerning the life of the unborn, marriage, family, Religious Liberty, education, economic freedom — even the air we breath — then Christians should always be engaged in politics,” Ryan Helfenbein, the center’s executive director, wrote in a tweet Wednesday. “Abdication and abandonment is disobedience to God.”
In a statement, the university said that despite its detractors the Falkirk Center has “received hundreds of supportive emails from students, parents of students, faculty, and donors.”
“The Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed the Falkirk Center and has received detailed reports on its activities at its fall meetings in the last two years,” the university said. “We always welcome and receive input from the student body — both progressive and conservative students — and cherish their First Amendment right to free speech. Standing on the shoulders of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr. who founded this University, the Falkirk Center equips Christians to be courageous Champions for Christ, to advance the Kingdom of Christ, and to preserve American freedom.”
Morris said he hopes to meet with university officials during the spring semester to present the petition and to discuss concerns about the center. On Wednesday, he reached out to Helfenbein directly on Twitter to set up a face-to-face discussion.
“Matt, my door is always open to students,” Helfenbein replied.