Last month, evangelical mega-college Liberty University made a splash in the news by inviting, yet again, Glenn Beck to speak at its final convocation.
The reasons that Liberty’s president, Dr Jerry Falwell Jr., gave for Mr Beck’s invitation to the university are hardly objectionable, especially considering the university’s history with American conservatism. Dr Falwell introduced Mr Beck as a “patriot, one of America’s leading multimedia personalities” whose radio and television programs have “ordained him as an iconic figure in American culture.”
With this introduction, any conservative-leaning institution could have such a speaker. But there’s one crucial aspect that Dr Falwell left out – Mr Beck’s faith. As a Mormon, or Latter-day Saint (LDS), Glenn Beck is at stark odds with much of what is taught at Liberty.
Luckily, Mr Beck did not neglect to touch on his faith.
“I share your faith,” Mr Beck claimed in his speech-turned-sermon. “I am from a different denomination. And a denomination, quite honestly, that I’m sure can make many people at Liberty uncomfortable. I’m a Mormon. But I share your faith in the atonement of the savior Jesus Christ.”
A Latter-day Saint, speaking at an evangelical university, stated that not only is the Mormon faith simply a denomination of Christianity, but that he shares in the same “faith in the atonement of the savior Jesus Christ.”
And with one sweeping statement, the problem of inviting a Mormon to speak at an evangelical university was made painfully apparent.
POLITICAL GAIN > THEOLOGICAL CLARITY
As you could imagine, the blogosphere has exploded over this speech (of which, admittedly, I am now adding a few more powder grains). Some have sharply criticized Liberty while others have jumped to her defense. Many have discussed the most glaring issue of inviting a Mormon to speak (or, rather, preach) at an evangelical university, but few have identified this event as one more step in a continuing development of Liberty bending her theological identity to accommodate for political gain.
The problem isn’t that Glenn Beck spoke at Liberty; the problem is that Liberty has, intentionally or not, made concessions to allow for Glenn Beck to speak. And this is not the first time.
“Beck is best known for his message, not his medium,” Dr Falwell clarified. That message, of course, is patriotic conservatism. Again, a conservative political pundit speaking at a conservative university is nothing to be surprised about. The issue comes when one considers that Mr Beck is not simply a conservative, but a conservative Mormon, and Liberty is not just a conservative university, but a conservative evangelical university.
And the one who bent their identity to allow for the other’s company wasn’t the conservative Mormon, but the conservative evangelical.
I say this not as an apathetic observer, but as someone with a Liberty degree hanging on his wall. I don’t hate Mormons, neither am I angry with Liberty, but I am concerned that Liberty is exhibiting a continual pattern of blurring important theological lines in exchange for a temporary political alliance.
To demonstrate what I mean, consider that this is not the first time Liberty has invited Mr Beck to speak, nor is it the first time they have invited a Mormon. Previously, Mr Beck spoke at the 2010 commencement when he received an honorary doctorate from the university. During the height of the last presidential campaign, Liberty invited Mitt Romney, also a notable Latter-day Saint, to speak at the 2012 commencement.
It struck me as very strange when Mr Beck was first announced as the 2010 commencement speaker. When I first applied to Liberty I was required to fill out a theological questionnaire that was very unfriendly to LDS theology. Most notably, I was expected not to hold the following beliefs:
- Exaltation (The LDS doctrine that a man can become a god)
- Satan and Jesus are spirit brothers
- Satan was born, not created
- Ancient American tribes are equated with the lost tribes of Israel
- Book of Mormon is true revelation from God
If I held any one of these beliefs, which are all uniquely Mormon, then I would be denied admission to the university.
Yet, here was Mr Beck speaking in front of many students who testified that Mormonism is untrue through Liberty’s own questionnaire. Not only this, but Mr Beck later received an honorary doctorate from a university that would have otherwise denied him entrance due to his beliefs.
I decided that there must have been some type of mistake. How could anyone receive a doctorate from Liberty University who believes that the Book of Mormon is an inspired work from God? Surely, they would have violated the theological questionnaire that I had signed.
That day, I went to the seminary’s website and retrieved the questionnaire I had filled out just one year earlier. Much to my surprise, there was an updated version. However, the new version was different from the first – they had removed many of the unfriendly LDS theological statements. Essentially, they softened their stance on LDS theology, so far as this questionnaire was concerned.
My initial reaction was disappointment. Shouldn’t an evangelical university with a seminary not be more concerned with theology than any other topic? The reason seemed obvious to me – although they disagree with Mormon theology, Liberty University valued mutual ideologies with a Mormon and wanted to honor him with the highest degree the university can confer.
For Liberty, political gain seems more important than theological clarity and distinction. Or, at least, that’s the message that they are sending to the world. Unfortunately, it seems that Liberty has latched on to a policy that mutually agreed upon social values trump theological truths.
WHAT HAS SALT LAKE TO DO WITH LYNCHBURG?
I must say, though, that I’m not entirely against every aspect of Mr Beck’s speech. He spoke about liberty, specifically religious liberty, which is wonderful because it is such a wonderful gift! Anytime a Mormon and evangelical can publicly support religious liberty, we should celebrate. But the same could be said of a Muslim and evangelical, a Buddhist and evangelical, a Scientologist and evangelical.
Yet, for some reason, Liberty has allowed Mr Beck to take it a step further. By allowing Mr Beck to say what he said, Liberty has communicated to the world that they believe the LDS Church and evangelicals are not merely allies in religious liberty, they are two stripes of faith in the same vein of Christianity. Here, then, is where the issue lies. Not that Liberty sees itself allying with Mormonism politically, nor for championing religious liberty, but for blurring the lines between Joseph Smith and the Apostle Paul.
Let me put it another way. In tear soaked eyes, Mr Beck recounted that he prayed to the Lord that he would pour over his “word” and challenged Liberty’s students to do the same. In a world where politics is valued over theology, so long as that “word” is from the God of Judeo-Christian morality, then it doesn’t really matter what that “word” precisely entails. We can include Christians of every stripe, Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even (to a very limited extent) Muslims in the arena of pouring over God’s “word.”
Nonetheless, in a world where theology is valued over politics, we cannot seriously respond to Mr Beck’s challenge for Liberty’s students to pour over the “word” knowing full well that Mr Beck’s definition of the “word” goes beyond the Bible and into the realm of unique LDS works such as Doctrine & Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and Book of Mormon.
Do you suppose Liberty would invite a Jehovah’s Witness to speak at convocation? A Muslim at commencement, even if they were running for president on a conservative platform? Perhaps a Christian Scientist during chapel? These all seem highly unlikely. So, here’s the question – why this exception?
What has Salt Lake to do with Lynchburg? Political similarities: sure. Religious liberty issues: yes. Interfaith dialogue: absolutely. Preaching to evangelical students about matters with deep, theological meaning: no.
If a Jehovah’s Witness challenged Liberty’s students to study the Bible, would we agree knowing that the official New World Translation of the Watchtower Society intentionally strips Jesus of his divinity? If a Christian Scientist implored Liberty’s students to study the scriptures, would we agree if we knew she included the writings of Mary Baker Eddy in her idea of “scriptures”?
So why, when a Mormon implores the students of Liberty to read the “scriptures,” are we not shocked to realize that he includes Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine & Covenants, and Book of Mormon, whose collective teachings alone count for many of the differences between Christianity and Mormonism – differences that Mr Beck himself identified as “uncomfortable”?
There is no difference between Glenn Beck challenging Liberty’s students to read the “scriptures” as there would be if a 3rd century Gnostic were to do the same. Both Mr Beck and the Gnostic seem like Christians, but they cherish different scripture that teach a different gospel.
And this here is my concern – the gospel.
Each time Liberty bends her theological identity to accommodate social conservatism, I believe she is leaning further away from theological clarity in the public eye. Sure, Liberty gains a louder voice in American conservatism, but the university also gives credence to the Mormon couplet “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.” True, Liberty may pull more sway with the political right, but the university also nods to the Book of Mormon's idea that salvation comes only “after all we can do.”
Liberty University is doing these things – unintentionally, I’m sure – whether her leaders know it or not and whether they like it or not. If a university claims to train champions for Christ, then it needs to do so. Part of what it means to champion Christ is to champion his gospel, something that is difficult to find within the pages of the Book of Mormon.
Kyle Beshears (@kylebeshears) is a pastor at the People of Mars Hill in Mobile, Alabama and blogs at Dear Ephesus on church issues and apologetics. He is the author of Robot Jesus and Three Other Jesuses You Never Knew and holds a Master of Religious Education from Liberty University ('11).