Has lightning struck twice at the Washington Post? In November, the newspaper ran a nuanced, fair-minded look at Liberty University. And this week, they did it again!
"For many at Liberty University, guns and God go hand in hand," says the new headline, which used to be equivalent to "Coordinates set -- commence bombardment." But no, this is a full-bodied, 2,100-word feature that uses a broad array of voices and avoids cheap shots.
True, the story is occasioned by the "fiery call" by university president Jerry Falwell Jr. for staff, students and faculty to start carrying firearms in the wake of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif. "Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here," WaPo reports him saying Dec. 4 at a student convocation.
But the Post counters the image of wild-eyed yahoos that many mainstream media might have raised. One way is quoting students like senior Kyle Garcia: "It's not about Christians waving guns around. It's about protecting yourselves from some people who want to kill." Another way is to note that Liberty has hosted talks by the liberal Bernie Sanders as well as the conservative Ted Cruz.
Here's a good summary from the new story:
Falwell’s comments on guns — including pointed language about "those Muslims," which he later said was referring only to Islamic terrorists — put a fresh spotlight on a fast-growing university with a distinctive blend of cultural conservatism, religious faith and academic ambition. Liberty aspires to be a flagship for the nation’s evangelical Christians, a position that would offer power to influence society far beyond the campus. Politicians already recognize the potency of Liberty’s stage, which can reach the nation’s evangelical audience on a mass scale.
The sizable workforce -- reporting by Godbeat veterans Michelle Boorstein and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, with Nick Anderson as the main writer -- gets a satisfying range of facts in this article. We learn that the university is big on sports but not fraternities; that morality is left more to individual judgment than a few years ago (although shorts are still banned from class); that the campus includes an osteopathy college and a cinematic arts program that produces full-length films. And although Liberty teaches creationism, it boasts a gene sequencer and a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.
We also get hard numbers: The university has more than $1 billion in reserves; 14,000 students attend onsite, paying $22,000 tuition a year; and 60,000 distant students cement its reputation as "an innovator in online education."
The 10 quoted sources include students, staff and faculty. Students quoted include a hockey player, Luke Robertson of the Duck Dynasty series, and two young women who say they plan to take gun safety classes, a step toward obtaining weapons.
This article doesn't just deliver happy talk. It points out that despite the success, Liberty University doesn't score as high as many colleges with Christian connections. Baylor, Pepperdine, Notre Dame, Boston College, all are rated much higher by publications like U.S. News & World Report.
WaPo also recalls the confrontational style of the late Jerry Falwell Sr., who founded the school as well as the Moral Majority pressure group. The story mentions an open letter by students of the evangelical Wheaton College near Chicago, accusing Falwell of having "ostracized those of the Muslim faith."
The Post article also takes a "some observers" approach, this time quoting an actual observer -- and it allows Falwell to talk back:
Jonathan Merritt, a Liberty graduate who writes about evangelicals in the United States, said recent events show "a more aggressive posture both for him and for the university, to reengage in the cultural conversation in a similar way and with a similar tone to his father."
Falwell said he has no desire to inject his voice further into the national gun debate, or any other.
"That’s not what I’m going to spend time doing in the future, commenting publicly on political issues," Falwell said in an interview in his suite overlooking the campus ballpark and football stadium. "That’s not why we’re here."
Liberty will wield influence through its graduates, he said. "Our mission is only to provide a world-class Christian education to our students and let them be the world-changers, not us," he said.
Students, too, get to defend their choice of Liberty. One felt called to "a community that was Christ-based." Another says she finds the convocations bring her "close to the Lord," although attendance is required. Both those opinions are given without obvious sarcasm.
I don't really know if lightning struck twice at the Washington Post, of course. I'd rather hope it will become a steady current.
Thumb: Springfield XD 9mm handgun. Public Doman photo by AdamHill via Wikimedia.org.