November 17, 2016; WSET-TV (Lynchburg, VA)
President-elect Donald Trump met with the president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., last week to discuss a potential role for Falwell in the U.S. Department of Education. Falwell refused to confirm whether he was in the running for the job of Secretary of Education but told media he would “definitely play a role” in the administration.
Falwell endorsed Trump’s run for president early in the primaries and delivered a speech at this year’s Republican National Convention. He was also appointed to the president-elect’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board at its formation in June. White evangelicals came out in force to vote for Trump on Election Day; 81 percent voted for him, a boost from the 78 percent who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
As a proponent of creationism (Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world, requires every student take a course in the subject at their Center for Creation Studies), a top job for Falwell in the DOE would further threaten the line that separates church and state in the nation’s public schools. Some taxpayer money already goes towards teaching creationism as a viable alternative to science-backed evolution, while issues like school prayer and the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance also continue to add fuel to the church-vs.-state public school fire.
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Falwell wouldn’t be the only creationist in the Trump administration; vice president-elect Mike Pence is also a creationist. (Trump’s own religious beliefs are, well, open for interpretation.) Trump’s meeting with Falwell comes after rumors that another creationist, Dr. Ben Carson, had also been under consideration to head up the DOE.
Given his leadership of Liberty University, a 501(c)(3) organization, Falwell’s endorsement of Trump has raised ethical questions and upset many of the school’s students and faculty. Falwell has made it clear that his support of Trump is personal, not representative of the views of Liberty University. But some at the school feel that Falwell’s close association with Liberty (founded by his father) makes that distinction impossible. It has also caused division in the school’s community, many of whom cannot understand how Falwell can in good religious conscience approve of a candidate who owns casinos, has been married three times, and speaks nonchalantly about groping women.
Falwell is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment—he carries his own concealed weapon and encourages students on his campus to do the same—but perhaps is not so keen on the First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and speech. He caused controversy last year when he said the victims of the San Bernardino shooting could have “end[ed] those Muslims” had they been carrying guns. A student’s piece for the school paper critical of Trump was pulled by Falwell, and long-term Liberty University board of trustees member Mark DeMoss—who called Jerry Falwell, Sr. a “second father” and whose actual father has a building named after him on campus—resigned after his public disagreement with Falwell’s endorsement of Trump made his position untenable. Students and faculty of the university indicated they were wary of speaking publicly against Trump or Falwell’s support of him as a result.—Melinda Crosby