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Falwell Power Play: Jerry's Liberty University Students Grease the Partisan Political Machine in Virginia

Falwell spent months developing the students at his university into a Republican voting bloc. But was what he did legal?
 
 
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Falwell and Co. made sure that students knew exactly which candidate was the preferred one.

Jerry Falwell Jr. seems well on his way toward setting up his own little fundamentalist theocracy in Lynchburg, Va.

Falwell, chancellor of Liberty University, has been working for months to forge students at his school into a voting bloc that will control local elections. According to the Lynchburg News & Advance, as many as 1,700 LU students registered to vote in the city this fall.

And the impact has already sent a tremor through local politics. Incumbent Democratic Delegate Shannon Valentine apparently lost her legislative seat to Republican challenger Republican Scott Garrett by just over 200 votes. (A recount is possible.)

Valentine was ahead with 19 of 20 precincts reporting. But when the Heritage Elementary precinct that includes Liberty came in, that lead disappeared. Voters there went for Scott by a 1,964-324 margin.

Falwell was overjoyed.

“I’m elated, to say the least,” he told the local newspaper.

Falwell said his happiness came “not so much because of who won and who lost, but because Liberty students got out and exercised their rights, and their civic duties.”

Yeah, right.

Falwell and Co. made sure that students knew exactly which candidate was the preferred one.

Liberty’s student newspaper ran many articles attacking Valentine and published a slanted voter guide that depicted Scott as the “right” candidate on abortion, gay rights and a range of other issues. Falwell even arranged for copies of the newspaper to be sent to every household in Lynchburg in the days before the election. The school also cancelled classes and ran buses to the voting precinct in four-minute intervals.

The Liberty University Web site seems to confirm that university officials made their inclinations clear.

LU College Republicans Chairman Caleb Mast told the Web site he saw a steady turnout of LU students, up until 3 p.m., when some of his board members, along with Dr. Ergun Caner, president of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, went back to campus in a truck decorated with campaign signs and carting an elephant made of chicken wire and rallied more students to go vote.

“Other members of LU’s administration also showed up at the polls to encourage students,” the LU Web site said, “including Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., campus pastor Johnnie Moore and LU co-founder Dr. Elmer Towns, dean of the School of Religion.”

Said Mast, “I think it’s clear –  if Liberty students hadn’t come out, if Ergun Caner and my board members hadn’t gotten out,” the election, especially for the House of Delegates race, could have had a different result. “Liberty had a direct impact on that.”

All this raises some interesting questions about federal tax law. Liberty officials, as individuals, have every right to support candidates. But when does their personal preference become a matter of official support by the tax-exempt university? Were university resources used to support a candidate? How about the distinct partisan tilt of the university-sponsored student newspaper?

We’ll be looking into this issue in upcoming days.

In the meantime, Falwell is setting his sites on city elections next year.

Read more at Church and State magazine.

 
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