Pope Francis in the Wilderness


Within the church, Francis, a Jesuit, has been assailed by conservatives threatened by his efforts to undo three decades of their domination, as well as by liberals who had hoped for even more. Both sides complain that the pope is taking the church in the wrong direction and that he has been ruthless with his opponents.

Lucetta Scaraffia, editor of the monthly magazine Women Church World, said that expectations among some secular liberals that Francis would ordain women were “unrealistic,” and that the pope had purposefully taken “little steps” to avoid engendering more resistance. Just this month, she pointed out, he appointed three women as consultants to the church’s doctrinal watchdog.

There has also been more widespread consensus on his failure to hold bishops accountable for clerical sex abuse. It is an issue in which — despite recent notable apologies — critics say he has demonstrated a remarkable tone deafness.

But it is Francis’ prioritizing of social justice over culture-war issues such as abortion that has caused the sharpest internal divisions, with a small but committed group of conservative cardinals publicly suggesting that he is a heretical autocrat leading the faithful toward confusion and schism.

“Dictators usually are not nice,” said H.J.A. Sire, the author of “The Dictator Pope,” one of several new books by conservative Catholics that criticize Francis’ effect on the church. “He is able to present this very subdued image, but people know behind the scenes he works very effectively to hit at his enemies.”

Photo

At the time of Pope Francis’s election five years ago, global political trends seemed to be going his way.

Credit
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Conservatives, accustomed to getting their way over the past three decades, speak of a culture of fear inside the Vatican — and worry about Jesuit spies reporting back to Francis.

They point to examples like Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, once the top doctrinal watchdog in the Roman Catholic Church.

Last year, the pope ordered Cardinal Müller, an ideological conservative who is often at odds with Francis, to fire three priests in his congregation. He said the pope did not give him a reason.

“I’m not able to understand all,” Cardinal Müller said at the time, when asked why Francis had sent them away. He added, “He’s the pope.”

Then the pope fired Cardinal Müller, and observers say he has since stripped the once-powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the protector of church orthodoxy, of its power, replacing it with his own council of loyal cardinals.

They also point to the way the pope has essentially sidelined Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, the conservative leader of the Vatican office overseeing liturgy, and removed the conservative leader of the medieval Roman Catholic order the Knights of Malta.

When it was revealed that Mr. Sire, a member of the order, was the author of “The Dictator Pope,” which had been published under a pen name, he was suspended from the order by the new, pope-approved leader.

“It is an example of the way critics are persecuted under Pope Francis,” Mr. Sire said.

But the main rallying point for conservatives has been the doctrinal opposition to the pope’s exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which contained a footnote that seemed to open the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive holy communion.

A small group of cardinals demanded a formal clarification from Francis, who has ignored them for years. Two of the cardinals have since died, but the group’s leader, the American cardinal Raymond Burke, has pushed on.

On a recent Saturday, Cardinal Burke sat on a panel in the basement of the Church Village hotel in Rome for a conference about confusion in the church. As he noted that the pope can “fall either into heresy or into the dereliction of his primary duty,” conservative supporters cheered him on.

Photo

Pope Francis met migrants at the at the Moria detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016.

Credit
Andrea Bonetti/Greek Prime Minister’s Office, via Getty Images

“They matter: Catholics look to cardinals for moral leadership,” said the Rev. James Martin, an editor at large with the Jesuit magazine America and a papal appointee to the Vatican’s secretariat for communications.

But he said that the cardinals, not Pope Francis, were generating confusion in the church.

“The crashing irony is that some of the same people under John Paul II and Benedict XVI said that any disagreement with the pope is tantamount to dissent,” Father Martin said.

Francis usually lets his supporters do the trench fighting for him, but he seemed to have his conservative critics in mind for a major document released this month, in which he bemoaned the harsh attacks in Catholic media.

For a Christian, he wrote, helping migrants was no less holy than opposing abortion.

“Christianity is meant above all to be put into practice,” the pope wrote.

Francis appears to be winning the battle with his conservative critics, said Joshua J. McElwee, a Vatican correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter and co-editor of “A Pope Francis Lexicon,” a collection of essays about Pope Francis.

“He is one of the last absolute monarchs in the world, and what’s happening is he has a vision and he has time to put it in place,” Mr. McElwee said. “The longer he continues, the more likely these changes will be irrevocable.”

Outside the church is another story. Armed only with gestures and prayers, Francis has often found himself on the losing side.

Donald J. Trump, who Francis once suggested was “not Christian” for his desire to build a wall on the Mexican border, is in the White House. In Europe, increasingly authoritarian leaders — among them Andrzej Duda of Poland, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — style themselves as defenders of Christian Europe while barring the gates to migrants and refugees.

Closer to home, in Italy, elections in March rewarded the League, an explicitly anti-migrant, right-wing party led by Matteo Salvini. Mr. Salvini visits with Cardinal Burke and makes a point of referring to the pope’s conservative predecessor instead of Francis.

“Happy holy Christmas also to Pope Benedict, who recalled the right not only to emigrate but to not emigrate and defend our history and our culture,” Mr. Salvini said at a rally in Rome in December.

Photo

A number of Chilean Catholics reacted with disappointment and anger when Pope Francis, on a visit to the country, defended a bishop who they say protected a pedophile priest.

Credit
Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

Francis has also made it clear that, globally speaking, he does not like the way things are going.

On the day that Mr. Trump was sworn in as president, the Spanish newspaper El País asked Francis if he was worried about populism, xenophobia and hatred. The pontiff responded with a reference to Hitler.

“Hitler didn’t steal power,” Francis said. “His people voted for him and then he destroyed his people. That is the risk.”

Some of Francis’ supporters believe that he is uniquely prepared to face this rising populist tide because he understands it.

“Francis’ election prepared the church for precisely the challenges posed by the rise of populism and nationalism,” said Austen Ivereigh, the author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”

He said that Francis’ views were formed in Argentina by a Latin American strain of nationalism and populism focused more on standing up to multinational powers than a European nostalgia for a past of mythic purity.

Nevertheless, his economic critique of transnational powers allowed him to appreciate the grievances of frustrated and unemployed workers.

“He understands why people are angry at globalization,” Mr. Ivereigh said.

But whereas Pope Francis sees migrants — from Myanmar to Milan — as the primary victims of globalization and unrest, the nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic see them as a hostile, unsettling force.

For anti-immigrant populists, the pope simply doesn’t get it. The former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, for example — himself a Catholic — likes to call Francis a communist for his economic policy and the pontiff from Davos for his cultural elitism.

In an interview after the Italian election, in which populist parties won the majority of the electorate’s support, Mr. Bannon said that the result was “a big no vote to the Vatican, not to Catholicism, but particularly these policies.” He rubbed his hands together as he added, “Which you know I got to love.”

But Francis seems comfortable with his new role as a lone voice in the populist wilderness.

This month in the Casa Santa Marta, the residence he has chosen over the grand Apostolic Palace, Francis gave a homily about prophets.

“Sometimes truth is not easy to listen to,” Francis said, noting that “prophets have always had to deal with being persecuted for speaking the truth.”

“A prophet knows when to scold but knows also how to throw open the doors to hope,” he added. “A true prophet puts himself on the line.”

Continue reading the main story

Shrugging Off Trump Scandals, Evangelicals Look to Rescue G.O.P.


But Christian conservatives say Mr. Trump has also more than honored his end of the bargain that brought reluctant members of their ranks along during his presidential campaign. He has begun the process of moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, won the confirmation of numerous judges and a Supreme Court Justice who seem likely to advance their anti-abortion cause, moved against transgender protections throughout the government, increased the ability of churches to organize politically and personally supported the March for Life.

“I don’t know of anyone who has worked the evangelical community more effectively than Donald Trump,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which this year plans to devote four times the money it spent in the 2014 midterms.

In essence, many evangelical leaders have decided that airing moral qualms about the president only hurts their cause.

“His family can talk to him about issues of character,” said Penny Young Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, an evangelical organization that is framing the midterm elections to potential donors as a civilizational struggle.

So far, the decision by most conservative evangelical leaders to double down on their support for Mr. Trump is playing out like most of the other moments when skeptics of the president believed he had finally undermined himself with his base.

A poll released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute found white evangelical approval for Mr. Trump at its highest level ever: 75 percent. Only 22 percent said they had an unfavorable view of the president.

Much as in the 2016 presidential campaign, Christian conservative events are designed to be highly visible and to convey the movement as one united voice. Hundreds of evangelical leaders plan to gather in June at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for a conspicuous show of support for Mr. Trump. The event will be part pep rally, part strategy session.

Photo

Penny Young Nance, center, is president of Concerned Women for America, an evangelical organization that is framing the midterm elections to potential donors as a civilizational struggle.

Credit
Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Paula White, a pastor for Mr. Trump for more than 16 years, has facilitated events for conservative evangelicals to meet senior White House officials, including a gathering for women and another for pastors of megachurches in recent weeks.

“Let’s pray there’s not apathy,” Ms. White said.

In the states, leading religious and socially conservative groups will be propped up by the Republican National Committee, which will encourage voter registration at churches and schedule round tables with local pastors and evangelical liaisons close to the president.

Some of the organizers call themselves “the watchmen on the wall,” a reference to guards who looked over Jerusalem from the Book of Isaiah.

The message to energize Christian conservatives has twin purposes: to inspire them to celebrate their victories and to stoke enough grievance to prod them to vote.

But in a midterm election, no singular political enemy will emerge the way Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Instead, leaders of the movement plan to lean hard into a message that fans fears and grudges: that the progressive movement and national media mock Christian life and threaten everything religious conservatives have achieved in the 15 months of the Trump administration.

“Show the left that you can put labels on us, you can shame us. But we’re not giving up,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who explained that many conservatives of faith see attacks on Mr. Trump as an attack on their judgment.

The Family Research Council has already activated its network of 15,000 churches, half of which have “culture impact ministries” that organize congregations to be more socially and civically engaged. The group’s efforts will gear up with voter registration drives around the Fourth of July and voter education that will focus on a half-dozen states that could determine control of the Senate.

Their tactics are almost identical to the work they used during the presidential campaign to unite a fractured evangelical base. The June meeting in Washington is a follow-up to a gathering in New York in the summer of 2016 that soothed tensions after it became apparent that Mr. Trump would be the Republican nominee.

Leaders of the Christian right have not only largely accepted Mr. Trump’s flaws and moved on; they seem to almost dare the president’s opponents to throw more at him. Ms. Nance said she heard a common sentiment from volunteers and supporters who did not seem bothered by the allegations of Mr. Trump’s infidelity. “We weren’t looking for a husband,” she said. “We were looking for a body guard.”

Concerned Women for America’s fund-raising pitch claims, “This is our Esther moment,” referring to the biblical heroine whose resourcefulness saved Persia’s Jews from annihilation hundreds of years before Jesus. The group plans to have get-out-the-vote organizers in 10 states where Democrats are defending Senate seats in states where Mr. Trump won.

Mike Mears, the Republican National Committee’s director of strategic partnerships and faith engagement, described the midterm campaign as “a call to arms.”

“You like what the president is doing?” he asked. “We need your help.”

The danger for Republicans is the many evangelicals who do not like what the president is doing. His petty insults, coarse language, lack of humility and private life are difficult to square with Christian faith, opponents say. The president has helped devalue character, morality and fidelity as essential qualities in political leaders, they say.

A meeting of evangelical leaders in Illinois last week featured a frank and candid discussion of the president’s failings, prompting some pro-Trump attendees to walk out.

But for evangelicals loyal to Mr. Trump, the criticism is irrelevant. They say that as challenging as the political realities may be, they remain hopeful that voters understand what is at stake. “We are living in unusual times,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and one of Mr. Trump’s earliest evangelical supporters. “And after what happened in 2016, I think anything is possible.”

Continue reading the main story

Feature: How Liberty University Built a Billion-Dollar Empire Online


Liberty has also played a significant role in the rise of Donald Trump. Falwell was an early supporter of the reality-TV-star candidate, staying loyal through the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape and giving Trump a crucial imprimatur with white evangelical voters, who widely supported him at the polls. “The evangelicals were so great to me,” Trump said in an interview last year. The first commencement speech he gave as president, last spring, was at Liberty. And in August, Falwell stood by Trump following his much-criticized remarks on the violent rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville, declaring on “Fox & Friends” that “President Donald Trump does not have a racist bone in his body.”

Such steadfast allyship has prompted ridicule even from some fellow evangelical Republicans. But it makes more sense in light of an overlooked aspect of Liberty: its extraordinary success as a moneymaking venture. Like Trump, Falwell recognized the money to be made in selling success — in this case, through the booming and lightly regulated realm of online higher education. Falwell’s university has achieved the scale and stature it has because he identified a market opportunity and exploited it.

The real driver of growth at Liberty, it turns out, is not the students who attend classes in Lynchburg but the far greater number of students who are paying for credentials and classes that are delivered remotely, as many as 95,000 in a given year. By 2015, Liberty had quietly become the second-largest provider of online education in the United States, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, its student population surpassed only by that of University of Phoenix, as it tapped into the same hunger for self-advancement that Trump had with his own pricey Trump University seminars. Yet there was a crucial distinction: Trump’s university was a for-profit venture. (This month, a judge finalized a $25 million settlement for fraud claims against the defunct operation.) Liberty, in contrast, is classified as a nonprofit, which means it faces less regulatory scrutiny even as it enjoys greater access to various federal handouts.

By 2017, Liberty students were receiving more than $772 million in total aid from the U.S. Department of Education — nearly $100 million of it in the form of Pell grants and the rest in federal student loans. Among universities nationwide, it ranked sixth in federal aid. Liberty students also received Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, some $42 million in 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available. Although some of that money went to textbooks and nontuition expenses, a vast majority of Liberty’s total revenue that year, which was just above $1 billion, came from taxpayer-funded sources.

And it was no secret which part of the university was generating most of that revenue, said Chris Gaumer, a Liberty graduate and former professor of English there. “When I was there, at faculty meetings the commentary was that online was funding the school, while they were trying to just break even on the residential side,” he said. “It was understood that on the online side, they were making a killing.”

Photo

The main quadrangle of Liberty University.

Credit
Glenna Gordon for The New York Times

Jerry Falwell Sr. was raised in Lynchburg by a Christian mother and a nonbelieving father, whose knack for business gained him a small empire of restaurants, bus lines, nightclubs and gas stations and eventually carried him into bootlegging. Falwell cast this dual inheritance in the terms of a clash between God and the Enemy, but it was hard not to see his career as a successful fusing of his parents’ influences, salesmanship wrapped in Christian cloth.

He founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in the former offices of a bottling company in 1956 and soon began broadcasting recordings of his sermons on regional radio and television. In 1971, the same year his “Old Time Gospel Hour” went national, he founded Lynchburg Baptist College, subsidizing it with revenues from the show. “I believe there are thousands of young students who will catch the vision and who will carry what God is doing in Lynchburg to cities all over the continent and around the world,” he declared at the time, according to his 1996 autobiography. At first the college was scattered in rented spaces around town — a vacant high school, a Ramada Inn — but by 1977 it had been renamed Liberty Baptist College and moved up to an initial 2,000-acre swath of land on the mountain.

By 1984, nearly 400 local broadcasters around the nation were carrying “The Old Time Gospel Hour.” The toll-free number flashing on the screen reportedly helped bring in more than $72 million per year in donations. Some $10 million of those funds flowed to the college, which at that point numbered about 4,500 students. Another of Falwell’s enterprises pulled in about $12 million a year — the Moral Majority, an attempt to build a cross-denominational political coalition against the common foes of abortion rights and, as he later put it, “moral permissiveness, family breakdown and general capitulation to evil and to foreign policies such as Marxism-Leninism.”

Liberty University, as it has been named since 1985, grew steadily, drawing families attracted by the “Liberty Way,” which forbade premarital sex, drinking, smoking and cussing. In 1987, it secured tax-exempt status, which Falwell described in his autobiography as an existential necessity: “If a tax exemption could not be granted us,” he wrote, “it would have been impossible to carry out the dream of a 50,000-student Christian university in Lynchburg.”

But another element of the business model — evangelical broadcasting’s aura of rectitude — was about to take a hit. That March, Jim Bakker resigned as head of the televangelist PTL ministry amid revelations of a sexual encounter with a former church secretary, Jessica Hahn, who received a payoff to keep quiet about it; Bakker later served just under five years in prison on a federal fraud conviction related to PTL’s fund-raising. In 1988, the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart declared, “I have sinned,” following reports of his consorting with a prostitute in New Orleans; three years later, the police pulled him over with another prostitute in Southern California.

No such scandals attached to Falwell, who succeeded Bakker as host of “The PTL Club.” But the bubble had burst. Amid what Falwell later referred to as the “credibility crunch” caused by the televangelist scandals, the college’s finances deteriorated. Within a few years, annual contributions dropped by $25 million; the college’s debt swelled to more than $100 million.

In 1996, the accrediting body overseeing Liberty presented a list of more than 100 “recommendations” for staying accredited, including a demand that it reduce its debt. Falwell went on a 40-day liquids-only fast, praying for deliverance. “I am certain that we will become a world-class university training champions for Christ in every important field of study,” Falwell vowed in his autobiography. “And I am asking God to give me more time to guide and fund that dream.”

One educational novelty that Falwell dabbled in, starting in the mid-’70s, was an early form of distance learning. Liberty would mail lecture videotapes and course packets to paying customers around the country — at first just certificate courses in Bible studies, and by the mid-’80s, accredited courses in other subjects as well. By the time of Liberty’s financial embattlement, other education innovators had taken the idea much further — none more so than a man named John Sperling.

Sperling was an unlikely capitalist entrepreneur. The son of a failed farmer in the Missouri Ozarks, he joined the Merchant Marine, embraced socialism and ended up receiving a Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge. He got a job teaching at San Jose State University, where he took over the faculty union and led a big strike in 1968. His humble origins and early socialist leanings had given him a jaundiced view of elite schools, and his experience teaching a course to police officers and teachers as part of a federally funded effort to reduce juvenile delinquency furthered his belief that traditional colleges were leaving out a whole swath of Americans eager for higher education. He decided to start a university of his own — not a nonprofit but a for-profit, and not in California, where he had clashed with skeptical accreditors, but in the laxer regulatory climate of Arizona.

In 1976, Sperling rented space in a boilermakers’ union hall in Phoenix and started offering weekly classes there to eight students — all adults who’d had some college education and were looking to complete their degrees. A decade later, University of Phoenix had 6,000 students. But things really took off three years later, in 1989, when Sperling started offering M.B.A.s online through Prodigy, the early electronic communications service. Sperling took the university’s parent company public in 1994; by 2000, enrollment had reached 100,000.

By the early 2000s, for-profit colleges were booming: Access to the internet was spreading, and the Bush administration was employing a notably light regulatory touch, even as the programs were devouring an ever-greater share of federal student aid. Among the adopters of Sperling’s model was Falwell, who in 2004 began expanding the family’s primitive distance-learning programs into what would become known as Liberty University Online.

In his autobiography, Falwell praised Jerry Jr.’s business instincts, crediting him with saving Liberty from ruin through his management of its debt. “God sent him to me just in time,” he wrote. “He is more responsible, humanly speaking, for the miraculous financial survival of this ministry than any other single person.” When Falwell died in 2007 at age 73, his younger son, Jonathan, took over the pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist, and Jerry Jr. took over the university — an indication of where the heart of the ministry now was.

As the Great Recession hit, laid-off Americans turned to online education to seek a new economic foothold. After years of trying to save Liberty by cutting costs, Falwell Jr. said, he adopted his father’s vision of saving it through increasing revenues. In a recent telephone interview, Falwell described the surge in online enrollment as a kind of revelation. “It took us about 20 years to perfect” the distance-learning model, he said, “but when we did, that was about when everyone started getting high-speed internet in their homes, and we were the only nonprofit poised to serve that huge adult market of people who had not finished college or needed a master’s degree to get a promotion.”

Liberty had another advantage over online competitors, he said: its status as a religious-based institution, “that long history of Liberty being a leader among Christian universities,” the “faith-based mission” that “makes us so unique and puts us in a class by ourselves.”

The River Ridge Mall spreads out on the flat ground below Liberty’s campus, among motels and fast-food restaurants. Like much commercial real estate in Lynchburg, it is majority-owned by Liberty University. In 2013, the mall lost one of its anchor tenants, Sears, which occupied a 112,000-square-foot space behind gray, nearly windowless walls. The retailer was replaced by Liberty University Online. When it first arrived inside the mall, the L.U.O. operation numbered 675 employees; it grew so large that in 2015 L.U.O. began moving its operation into a former Nationwide Insurance building several miles away.

At the front lines are the “admissions representatives,” some 300 phone recruiters working two shifts from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., deploying call lists that Liberty gets from websites where people register and search for information about online higher education, like BestCollegesOnline.com. There is such a race to get to customers before University of Phoenix and other rivals that the prospective students sometimes marvel at how little time has elapsed — just a handful of minutes — between their providing their information on a website and the call coming from Liberty. Liberty’s tax filings show that in 2016, the university paid Google $16.8 million for “admissions leads generation.” In other words, advertising Liberty to those searching online for degree options.

The recruiters work under intense pressure, according to several former L.U.O. employees I spoke with. They get no more than 45 seconds between calls, and sometimes managers override even that short break. There are no formal quotas — a federal regulation that went into effect in 2011 forbids them. But as one former employee put it, the “highly motivated goal” is for each recruiter to sign up eight new students a day. Multiplied across 300 cubicles, that is 2,400 per day. Of those, only a small fraction end up paying and starting courses, but that is still an extraordinary haul for any kind of education business.

Every day, according to the former employee, managers send out a report showing the previous day’s tallies. Recruiters who signed up four or fewer new students get their names in red, visible for all to see, and are sometimes subject to a disciplinary conversation. Monthly tallies are also scored as green, yellow or red. Top performers are in the running for a small raise from the base salary, which is about $30,000. “It was that carrot and stick,” the former employee told me.

A separate division of about 60 people focuses on courting members of the military, who have access to even greater federal tuition assistance, and then advising them on campus. A former employee in that division said that given the smaller crew, the work there was if anything even more intense than in the main branch: More than 30,000 L.U.O. students are from the military or military families.

Photo

Liberty University took over an entire section of a shopping mall when Sears, an anchor tenant, went out of business.

Credit
Glenna Gordon for The New York Times

Two recruiters told me they were instructed to quote L.U.O.’s cost on a per-credit basis, rather than per-course, which makes it sound more affordable. Undergraduate courses for part-time students are $455 per credit, or $1,365 for a typical course; master’s courses are typically about $600 per credit. They are instructed not to press prospective applicants too hard on their academic qualifications. Applicants have to submit past transcripts, but any grade point average above 0.5 — equivalent to a D-minus — would suffice, said the former employee in the nonmilitary division. Recruiters, he told me, “would say, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted.’ They’d make it seem competitive.”

The two recruiters also said they were told not to mention Liberty’s Christian orientation until people agree to apply, when this fact is made clear in the user agreement they sign online. It also becomes clear at the moment that the recruiters sign up students for their first classes, typically an orientation class and three required Bible-studies classes. Students often can’t transfer credits for these courses to other colleges, which deters many from dropping out: Leaving L.U.O. without signing up for more courses would mean wasting the money spent on the first four.

Falwell and other top Liberty officials pushed back on some of these points in my interview with them, insisting, for instance, that the minimum G.P.A. for applicants is 2.0 and that recruiters are assessed according to “the same H.R. evaluation form that’s standard across the university.” But Ron Kennedy, the executive vice president for online enrollment management, acknowledged that the recruiters working under pressure to meet their targets might say otherwise. “It’s a call center,” he said.

In 2010, undercover investigators from the Government Accountability Office scrutinized 15 for-profit colleges, finding that every one of them had misled applicants and that four had encouraged them to lie on their federal student-aid forms. The Obama administration seized on the findings as it began a yearslong clampdown on for-profit education, which by 2013 was gobbling up a fifth of all federal student aid, more than $25 billion, despite enrolling only 10 percent of students — and also producing about a third of all federal student-loan defaults.

Liberty, too, was hugely reliant on federal money, in the form of Pell grants, Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and federally subsidized loans. By 2010, it had more than 50,000 students enrolled and was pulling in more than $420 million annually. But because Liberty was technically not for-profit, it was spared many of the administration’s new regulations, including its requirement that a certain threshold of graduates be able to attain “gainful employment,” which was designed to hit for-profit colleges much harder. It was also spared from the pre-existing rule that for-profit colleges could get no more than 90 percent of their revenue from federal sources.

If anything, Liberty benefited from the crackdown. The Obama administration’s actions helped put out of business large for-profit chains like Corinthian and ITT Technical Institute, clearing formidable competition from the field. Though there were other nonprofit institutions with online offerings — Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors, as well as premium players like Stanford and Duke — none were operating at Liberty’s scale. The university now touts itself on its website as “the largest private nonprofit university in the nation.” In a sense, said Ben Miller, who served as a senior policy adviser in Obama’s Department of Education, the crackdown on for-profits offered Liberty a “marketing advantage.”

Falwell was candid about the benefits of the nonprofit status. “It insulated us from the attack on the for-profits,” he told me. And it put him on the same footing with other, more established universities. “There’s no way that an Obama federal government that probably doesn’t care much for schools like Liberty can treat us different than Harvard or Yale or Indiana Wesleyan or the University of Maryland.”

Liberty’s ability to distance itself from for-profit colleges was especially notable given that, by several key metrics, it resembled them more closely than the private nonprofits it was grouped with. The rate of Liberty graduates who default on their loans within three years of graduating is 9.9 percent, several points higher than the average for nonprofit colleges, though still below that for for-profit colleges. Most striking, though, is how little the university spends on actual instruction. It does not report separate figures for spending on the online school and the traditional college. But according to its most recent figures, from 2016, the university reports spending only $2,609 on instruction per full-time equivalent student across both categories. That is a fraction of what traditional private universities spend (Notre Dame’s equivalent figure is $27,391) but also well behind even University of Phoenix, which spends more than $4,000 per student in many states. It is also behind other hybrid online-traditional nonprofit religious colleges like Ohio Christian University, which spends about $4,500. In 2013, according to an audited financial statement I obtained, Liberty received $749 million in tuition and fees but spent only $260 million on instruction, academic support and student services.

By 2016, Liberty’s net assets had crossed the $1.6 billion mark, up more than tenfold from a decade earlier. Thanks to its low spending on instruction, its net income was an astonishing $215 million on nearly $1 billion in revenue, according to its tax filing — making it one of the most lucrative nonprofits in the country, based simply on the difference between its operating revenue and expenses, in a league with some of the largest nonprofit hospital systems.

Falwell, whose Liberty salary is nearly $1 million, does not apologize for those margins. Liberty, he said, is simply being shrewd about keeping costs down, while plowing revenue back into the university. He noted proudly that Liberty’s net assets are now $2.5 billion, up from just $150 million in 2007, when he took over. He said he was surprised more universities weren’t following Liberty’s example of increasing online enrollment by keeping instructional spending and tuition low. And he freely acknowledged that the online revenues were going to buttress the residential campus. From Falwell’s perspective, there was nothing wrong with the university’s benefiting so much from the online program. “As long as we’re keeping the quality up, we don’t think it’s a disservice to anyone,” he said. “All that is, is ensuring the future of the university.”

Students at Liberty often quote a favorite line of Falwell Sr.’s: “If it’s Christian, it ought to be better.” Even those who have misgivings about the university’s conservative culture are quick to defend the education they’ve received on campus. Yet despite its ambitions to become the “evangelical Notre Dame” that Falwell envisioned, Liberty is still ranked well behind that university and other religious-based institutions like Brigham Young and Pepperdine; U.S. News and World Report clumps Liberty in the lowest quartile of institutions in its “national universities” category. Some of its programs have strong reputations, among them nursing, engineering and flight school. But the college is limited in its ability to compete for premier faculty, not only because its politics are out of step with the greater academic community, but also because none of its programs, with the exception of its law school, offer tenure.

In his autobiography, Falwell made virtually no distinction between these students on the Lynchburg campus and those receiving their instruction remotely. All of them, in his telling, were being prepared for the same goal, to be “Champions for Christ,” as the Liberty motto had it. But many students on campus, at least, are openly dismissive of the online experience. They take some classes online, for the convenience of not having to drag themselves to class — and, they readily admit, for the ease of not having to study much. “People know it’s kind of a joke and don’t learn that much from it,” Dustin Wahl, a senior from South Dakota, told me. “You use Google when you take your quiz and don’t have to work as hard. It’s pretty obvious.” (Liberty says using Google during quizzes or exams is cheating.)

Campus students are especially scornful of the online discussion boards that are in theory meant to replicate the back and forth of a classroom, but that in reality tend to be a rote exercise, with students making only their requisite one post and two comments per week, generating no substantive discussion. “It’s very minimal engagement,” said Alexander Forbes, a senior from California. Recently, a satirical campus newspaper, The Flaming Bugle, ran an Onion-style article with the headline “Cat Playing on Keyboard Inadvertently Earns ‘A’ for Discussion Board Post.”

Chris Gaumer taught English courses both on campus and online at Liberty after getting his bachelor’s degree on campus in 2006. The difference between the two forms of teaching was startling, he told me. As an online instructor, he said, he was not expected to engage in the delivery of any actual educational content. That was all prepared separately by L.U.O.’s team of course designers and editors, who assemble curriculums and videotaped lectures by other Liberty professors. This leaves little for the instructor to do in the courses, which typically run eight weeks. “As professor, you show up and your job is to handle emails and grade,” Gaumer said. This helps explain why the instructors — the roughly 2,400 adjuncts scattered around the country, plus the Liberty professors who agree to teach online courses on the side — are willing to take on the task for what’s long been the going rate for the job: $2,100 per course. (Falwell Jr. said it will soon go up to $2,700.)

Until recently, the course designers and editors, a team of about 30 people, worked out of the old Thomas Road Baptist Church — the congregation moved out of the former bottling plant years earlier — in a concrete room that got so cold in winter that they sometimes kept scarves and hats on. For editors, starting pay is now around $11 per hour. As L.U.O. boomed in size, they became so overwhelmed by the challenge of shaping hundreds of courses that L.U.O. decided in 2015 to focus designers and editors on the hundred or so highest-enrollment courses per term, leaving the maintenance of the remaining hundreds of courses up to the instructors themselves. One former editor recalled having a professor send a syllabus along with, essentially, an apology for throwing something together at the last minute.

Gaumer, who now works at Randolph College in Lynchburg, said the steep drop-off in quality from the traditional college to the online courses was both openly acknowledged among Liberty faculty and not fully reckoned with. The reason was plain, he said: Everyone knew that L.U.O. was subsidizing the physical university. “The motivation behind the growth seems to be almost entirely economic, because it’s not as if the education is getting any better,” he said.

Photo

Chris Gaumer, a former Liberty University English professor. “The motivation behind the growth seems to be almost entirely economic,” he said of Liberty’s online expansion.

Credit
Glenna Gordon for The New York Times

Falwell acknowledged that Liberty’s faculty initially resisted the rise of the online program, fearing the degradation of academic standards. “The big victory was finding a way to tame the faculty,” he said. But he disputed that there was any great difference in quality. For one thing, he said, the university made sure that all of its online instructors “adhere to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, our doctrinal statement.” Physical distance was a challenge, he said, but online instructors overcame it by making an extra effort to reach out. “They spend a lot more time taking a personal interest in the students,” he said.

One of the 65,000 students who enrolled with L.U.O. in 2013 was Megan Hart, a woman from New Jersey with unflaggingly high spirits. Hart, who is in her 40s, started her working life at the glass company where her father worked, too, until he was laid off. From there, Hart made her way into education, teaching communications at the local community college and the local prison. Adjunct courses at the college paid just $525 per credit, netting her only about $5,000 per semester, so she got a low-level administrative job there, too.

Her first marriage, to the father of her daughter, ended in divorce. In January 2012, her second husband suddenly vanished. Hart and her daughter, then 9 years old, lost their home shortly afterward, and she filed for bankruptcy. She and her daughter moved into her parents’ basement and got by with donations from her local Assemblies of God church, where she was active. In 2013, she signed up to take three courses at L.U.O. that would provide her with a certificate in communications, allowing her to become a full-time instructor at the community college, which would reimburse her L.U.O. tuition.

Hart, who had a master’s in communications and leadership through Pat Robertson’s Regent University, chose L.U.O. because of its affordability and Christian cachet. But in her years of teaching and taking courses, she said, she had never seen anything as flimsy as what L.U.O. passed off in its supposedly graduate-level courses. She had little interaction with the instructor, and the questions for the midterm and final exams were so arbitrary that it seemed to Hart as if they had been randomly generated by a computer program. She spent the open-book exams wildly flipping back and forth through the textbook and course materials trying to find the relevant passages. It was, she wrote to L.U.O. officials later, like “looking for Waldo.”

When she wrote the instructor for the second class to ask about the test, he responded: “As to exam question, I have no clue how the final is run.” He said he’d get back to her. He ended his note, “Do remember that God is in control and he works all things for our good.”

When Hart emailed the instructor for her third course, which had a closed-book exam, she confirmed Hart’s suspicions: “The exam questions are random.” Hart got good grades in the first two courses but was increasingly convinced she was paying for a meaningless experience. She sent an email outlining her concerns to the instructor and an L.U.O. academic mentor, adding that she might quit the third course. “We will certainly take your input very seriously,” the mentor responded. “May the Lord bless you richly in your studies and future endeavors.”

Finally, Hart told the officials that she was withdrawing from the third course, even though she had been informed that she would still have to pay 25 percent of the cost. “My spirit has been so sick over what I have experienced,” she wrote. In late 2013, she filed a complaint with a little-known government agency called the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which oversees the state’s colleges.

Between 2009 and summer 2017, L.U.O. students filed 49 complaints with the council, more than for any other institution in the state. For some, the problem was administrative bungling — L.U.O. registered them for the wrong class, or required a class it turned out they didn’t need, and so on. For some, it was endless technical or logistical troubles that kept them from being able to submit their assignments or get textbooks. For others, it was disputes about tuition and financial aid that left them feeling as if L.U.O. was demanding more money than was fair, and withholding their transcripts until they paid up.

Several complainants said they were particularly taken aback by their L.U.O. experiences because of Liberty’s religious underpinnings. “I just expected that Liberty University being a Christian university,” they’d be more helpful, wrote a complainant who went to prison and then became homeless after a stint enrolled in L.U.O. He had been seeking to have his transcript released despite his still having a balance at L.U.O., so that he could resume his education elsewhere; Liberty responded by recommending homeless shelters. “Liberty’s motto is they are a Christian school that is training champions for Christ and they are the light of the world,” another student wrote six years ago. “That motto needs to be revised.”

The anodyne responses the students received from L.U.O. were frequently glossed with Christian bromides. To a student whose financial aid was suspended in 2015 after the student failed a course because the textbook didn’t arrive in time, an instructor sent “quiz tips that may help” that included “Eat a healthy meal before taking your quiz” and “Pray before beginning each quiz!” Other L.U.O. responses included language errors so extreme that they bordered on confusing: One administrator wrote in 2014 about a complainant’s having submitted work that “appeared to have been copied from an unsighted source,” while a professor responded to a student in 2012 that “no other acceptions will be made.”

Other students were left simply to flounder, contrary to Falwell’s claims of close attention from distant instructors. Lydia Terry-Dominelli, who lives in a suburb of Albany, N.Y., signed up with Liberty in 2013, when it looked as if she and her husband were headed for divorce and she was worrying about how she could support herself and her 9-year-old daughter. She decided to get her teacher’s certification and chose Liberty partly because she was an observant Anglican. “I was ready for something that had some kind of value system,” she told me.

In 2015, Terry-Dominelli failed a graduate-level education course when, she said, one of the assignments she submitted vanished from Blackboard, the online system used by Liberty. After twice failing a writing course and puzzling over what she was doing wrong, she asked the course instructor for an explanation. He wrote back to suggest that she might do better if she found a “new work space” like the local library. After she assured him that her apartment sufficed and the conversation continued, he wrote: “I wonder if you can’t find a great prayer group through L.U.O.?”

Terry-Dominelli struggled further with confusing assignments in another graduate-level education course. She was starting to feel helpless over the lack of guidance. “I have prayed very hard, and what I keep being told is I am in the wrong place,” she wrote to the education instructor in late October of 2015.

“Bless your heart. I am so sorry,” the instructor responded. “I will join you in prayer for you to have wisdom and discernment.”

In early 2016, Terry-Dominelli was unable to access online the spring-semester courses she had registered for. She took it as a final sign and left Liberty, just a few courses short of the master’s degree she had borrowed more than $20,000 to pay for. In August 2016, having failed to establish a decent income, she moved back in with her husband. Lacking certification, she took a part-time job as an aide at a local elementary school. Unable to afford the loans she’d taken out, she filed for help under the U.S. Department of Education’s Borrower Defense program, which is intended for students who have incurred student debt after being misled by higher-education programs. (Her application is still pending.)

She also filed a complaint with the Virginia agency: “I feel that I was being pushed out of the program and I need to know why,” she had written to one of her professors. The agency declined to take action, finding no clear violations by Liberty. “What’s killing me is that I went into this program to try to change my situation,” she told me, “and I’m worse off than I was at the beginning.”

The Trump-Falwell bond has if anything grown even stronger in recent months. In October, Falwell Jr. told Breitbart News that Trump could “be the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln” and urged an evangelical army to rise up against the “fake Republicans” standing in his way. In December, he joined Trump in promoting Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy, quoting the song “Sweet Home Alabama” in a tweet on the eve of Election Day: “AL voters are too smart to let the media & Estab Repubs & Dems tell them how to vote. I hope the spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd is alive/well in AL. ‘A southern man don’t need them around anyhow & Watergate does not bother me, does your conscience bother you, tell me true?’ ” In late February, he joined in on Trump’s mau-mauing of Jeff Sessions, calling the attorney general a “coward” in a tweet for his handling of the Russia investigation.

But on campus, Falwell has proved a more divisive leader than his father. In May 2016, conflict over his pro-Trump stance prompted the resignation of the chairman of the university board of trustees’ executive committee, Mark DeMoss, whose father was a major donor to the university. DeMoss previously told The Washington Post that “the bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ.” It also prompted students on campus, including Wahl and Forbes, to gather hundreds of signatures in opposition to Trump following the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape. After Falwell’s support for Trump following Charlottesville, several Liberty graduates mailed back their degrees in protest. One protester was Laura Honnol, a banking officer in Lubbock, Tex., who attended from 2003 to 2007. “There’s been a huge climate shift from Falwell Senior to Falwell Junior,” she told me. “You felt like you disagreed with Senior, but he had good intentions and just didn’t do it right sometimes. But Junior came along, and it’s become more of a profit machine and a numbers machine.”

The Trump connection is not without risk for Falwell. Some people who worked for L.U.O. in late 2016 and early 2017 blamed it for a dip in applications at the time and said the decline led to an April 2017 leadership overhaul and the departure of many employees. Falwell told me that Liberty has deliberately brought online enrollment down to around 85,000, explaining that “we wanted to make sure we kept the student quality at a certain standard.” And he said that his alliance with Trump has only helped the university: “For every student we lost because of political concerns, we picked up two or three inquiries who support us because of that political stand.”

A relationship with Trump could benefit Falwell Jr. and Liberty in other ways too. One of the top orders of business for Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has been to roll back Obama-era regulations on online-degree providers. She named a former official from for-profit DeVry University to lead the D.O.E. unit that polices fraud in higher education. Claims for student-debt relief under the Borrower Defense program are being considered at a far slower rate under DeVos, who is delaying by two years an Obama rule that would make it easier to file debt-relief claims. And DeVos is expected shortly to roll back several key regulations geared toward online providers: ones giving states regulatory powers over distance-learning programs, establishing clear standards for a credit-hour and requiring “regular and substantive” interactions between online instructors and students. Falwell told me that Liberty officials have had a major hand in some of DeVos’s actions: “A lot of what we sent them is actually what got implemented,” he said.

Photo

As Liberty University rapidly expands, there is a lot of construction on the campus and in the area directly adjacent.

Credit
Glenna Gordon for The New York Times

After the convocation on the first weekend in November, I met with Dustin Wahl in Liberty’s student center, overlooking the campus quad. He said that the unbridled success of the online program couldn’t help putting him in mind of the profit-seeking tradition within American Christianity, which is closely aligned with evangelical Christianity’s prosperity gospel — the notion that financial success, far from distracting us from the higher values, is an affirmation of godliness. Wahl told me he’d frequently heard people justify the school’s new wealth in these terms. “A lot of people just talk about it generally, how God has blessed us,” he said.

Falwell rejects such prosperity-gospel talk. “I’m not going to tell you that we’ve done better because we’re better people,” he told me. “What I will say is that we’ve always operated from a business perspective. We’ve treated it like a business.” And that’s what first drew him to Trump, he said: the kinship of one businessman to another. “I thought to myself, if there’s one thing this country needs, it’s exactly the methods we employed at Liberty to save the school and make it prosper, and that’s just basic business principles.”

As I sat with Wahl, the spoils of that prosperity were visible all around us: not just gleaming new buildings like the $50 million library with its robotic book-retrieval system, but also, up the mountain, a $7 million “Snowflex Centre,” with a polymer surface for year-round skiing — the only one of its kind at any university in the country. Elsewhere, the university is completing a $3 million shooting range. But, Wahl said, once you knew about the thousands of people far from Lynchburg who funded this splendor, it was hard to take your mind off them, and off the faith with which they signed up for L.U.O. “You get a phone call,” he said, “and it’s God telling you, ‘I’ll give you an education.’ ”

When we spoke before my visit, Wahl raved about the campus: “It’s beautiful,” he said. Then he added: “And it’s funded by the online program that’s sold to people who can’t really afford college.”

Continue reading the main story

Feature: How Liberty University Built a Billion-Dollar Empire Online


Liberty has also played a significant role in the rise of Donald Trump. Falwell was an early supporter of the reality-TV-star candidate, staying loyal through the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape and giving Trump a crucial imprimatur with white evangelical voters, who widely supported him at the polls. “The evangelicals were so great to me,” Trump said in an interview last year. The first commencement speech he gave as president, last spring, was at Liberty. And in August, Falwell stood by Trump following his much-criticized remarks on the violent rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville, declaring on “Fox & Friends” that “President Donald Trump does not have a racist bone in his body.”

Such steadfast allyship has prompted ridicule even from some fellow evangelical Republicans. But it makes more sense in light of an overlooked aspect of Liberty: its extraordinary success as a moneymaking venture. Like Trump, Falwell recognized the money to be made in selling success — in this case, through the booming and lightly regulated realm of online higher education. Falwell’s university has achieved the scale and stature it has because he identified a market opportunity and exploited it.

The real driver of growth at Liberty, it turns out, is not the students who attend classes in Lynchburg but the far greater number of students who are paying for credentials and classes that are delivered remotely, as many as 95,000 in a given year. By 2015, Liberty had quietly become the second-largest provider of online education in the United States, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, its student population surpassed only by that of University of Phoenix, as it tapped into the same hunger for self-advancement that Trump had with his own pricey Trump University seminars. Yet there was a crucial distinction: Trump’s university was a for-profit venture. (This month, a judge finalized a $25 million settlement for fraud claims against the defunct operation.) Liberty, in contrast, is classified as a nonprofit, which means it faces less regulatory scrutiny even as it enjoys greater access to various federal handouts.

By 2017, Liberty students were receiving more than $772 million in total aid from the U.S. Department of Education — nearly $100 million of it in the form of Pell grants and the rest in federal student loans. Among universities nationwide, it ranked sixth in federal aid. Liberty students also received Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, some $42 million in 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available. Although some of that money went to textbooks and nontuition expenses, a vast majority of Liberty’s total revenue that year, which was just above $1 billion, came from taxpayer-funded sources.

And it was no secret which part of the university was generating most of that revenue, said Chris Gaumer, a Liberty graduate and former professor of English there. “When I was there, at faculty meetings the commentary was that online was funding the school, while they were trying to just break even on the residential side,” he said. “It was understood that on the online side, they were making a killing.”

Photo

The main quadrangle of Liberty University.

Credit
Glenna Gordon for The New York Times

Jerry Falwell Sr. was raised in Lynchburg by a Christian mother and a nonbelieving father, whose knack for business gained him a small empire of restaurants, bus lines, nightclubs and gas stations and eventually carried him into bootlegging. Falwell cast this dual inheritance in the terms of a clash between God and the Enemy, but it was hard not to see his career as a successful fusing of his parents’ influences, salesmanship wrapped in Christian cloth.

He founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in the former offices of a bottling company in 1956 and soon began broadcasting recordings of his sermons on regional radio and television. In 1971, the same year his “Old Time Gospel Hour” went national, he founded Lynchburg Baptist College, subsidizing it with revenues from the show. “I believe there are thousands of young students who will catch the vision and who will carry what God is doing in Lynchburg to cities all over the continent and around the world,” he declared at the time, according to his 1996 autobiography. At first the college was scattered in rented spaces around town — a vacant high school, a Ramada Inn — but by 1977 it had been renamed Liberty Baptist College and moved up to an initial 2,000-acre swath of land on the mountain.

By 1984, nearly 400 local broadcasters around the nation were carrying “The Old Time Gospel Hour.” The toll-free number flashing on the screen reportedly helped bring in more than $72 million per year in donations. Some $10 million of those funds flowed to the college, which at that point numbered about 4,500 students. Another of Falwell’s enterprises pulled in about $12 million a year — the Moral Majority, an attempt to build a cross-denominational political coalition against the common foes of abortion rights and, as he later put it, “moral permissiveness, family breakdown and general capitulation to evil and to foreign policies such as Marxism-Leninism.”

Liberty University, as it has been named since 1985, grew steadily, drawing families attracted by the “Liberty Way,” which forbade premarital sex, drinking, smoking and cussing. In 1987, it secured tax-exempt status, which Falwell described in his autobiography as an existential necessity: “If a tax exemption could not be granted us,” he wrote, “it would have been impossible to carry out the dream of a 50,000-student Christian university in Lynchburg.”

But another element of the business model — evangelical broadcasting’s aura of rectitude — was about to take a hit. That March, Jim Bakker resigned as head of the televangelist PTL ministry amid revelations of a sexual encounter with a former church secretary, Jessica Hahn, who received a payoff to keep quiet about it; Bakker later served just under five years in prison on a federal fraud conviction related to PTL’s fund-raising. In 1988, the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart declared, “I have sinned,” following reports of his consorting with a prostitute in New Orleans; three years later, the police pulled him over with another prostitute in Southern California.

No such scandals attached to Falwell, who succeeded Bakker as host of “The PTL Club.” But the bubble had burst. Amid what Falwell later referred to as the “credibility crunch” caused by the televangelist scandals, the college’s finances deteriorated. Within a few years, annual contributions dropped by $25 million; the college’s debt swelled to more than $100 million.

In 1996, the accrediting body overseeing Liberty presented a list of more than 100 “recommendations” for staying accredited, including a demand that it reduce its debt. Falwell went on a 40-day liquids-only fast, praying for deliverance. “I am certain that we will become a world-class university training champions for Christ in every important field of study,” Falwell vowed in his autobiography. “And I am asking God to give me more time to guide and fund that dream.”

One educational novelty that Falwell dabbled in, starting in the mid-’70s, was an early form of distance learning. Liberty would mail lecture videotapes and course packets to paying customers around the country — at first just certificate courses in Bible studies, and by the mid-’80s, accredited courses in other subjects as well. By the time of Liberty’s financial embattlement, other education innovators had taken the idea much further — none more so than a man named John Sperling.

Sperling was an unlikely capitalist entrepreneur. The son of a failed farmer in the Missouri Ozarks, he joined the Merchant Marine, embraced socialism and ended up receiving a Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge. He got a job teaching at San Jose State University, where he took over the faculty union and led a big strike in 1968. His humble origins and early socialist leanings had given him a jaundiced view of elite schools, and his experience teaching a course to police officers and teachers as part of a federally funded effort to reduce juvenile delinquency furthered his belief that traditional colleges were leaving out a whole swath of Americans eager for higher education. He decided to start a university of his own — not a nonprofit but a for-profit, and not in California, where he had clashed with skeptical accreditors, but in the laxer regulatory climate of Arizona.

In 1976, Sperling rented space in a boilermakers’ union hall in Phoenix and started offering weekly classes there to eight students — all adults who’d had some college education and were looking to complete their degrees. A decade later, University of Phoenix had 6,000 students. But things really took off three years later, in 1989, when Sperling started offering M.B.A.s online through Prodigy, the early electronic communications service. Sperling took the university’s parent company public in 1994; by 2000, enrollment had reached 100,000.

By the early 2000s, for-profit colleges were booming: Access to the internet was spreading, and the Bush administration was employing a notably light regulatory touch, even as the programs were devouring an ever-greater share of federal student aid. Among the adopters of Sperling’s model was Falwell, who in 2004 began expanding the family’s primitive distance-learning programs into what would become known as Liberty University Online.

In his autobiography, Falwell praised Jerry Jr.’s business instincts, crediting him with saving Liberty from ruin through his management of its debt. “God sent him to me just in time,” he wrote. “He is more responsible, humanly speaking, for the miraculous financial survival of this ministry than any other single person.” When Falwell died in 2007 at age 73, his younger son, Jonathan, took over the pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist, and Jerry Jr. took over the university — an indication of where the heart of the ministry now was.

As the Great Recession hit, laid-off Americans turned to online education to seek a new economic foothold. After years of trying to save Liberty by cutting costs, Falwell Jr. said, he adopted his father’s vision of saving it through increasing revenues. In a recent telephone interview, Falwell described the surge in online enrollment as a kind of revelation. “It took us about 20 years to perfect” the distance-learning model, he said, “but when we did, that was about when everyone started getting high-speed internet in their homes, and we were the only nonprofit poised to serve that huge adult market of people who had not finished college or needed a master’s degree to get a promotion.”

Liberty had another advantage over online competitors, he said: its status as a religious-based institution, “that long history of Liberty being a leader among Christian universities,” the “faith-based mission” that “makes us so unique and puts us in a class by ourselves.”

The River Ridge Mall spreads out on the flat ground below Liberty’s campus, among motels and fast-food restaurants. Like much commercial real estate in Lynchburg, it is majority-owned by Liberty University. In 2013, the mall lost one of its anchor tenants, Sears, which occupied a 112,000-square-foot space behind gray, nearly windowless walls. The retailer was replaced by Liberty University Online. When it first arrived inside the mall, the L.U.O. operation numbered 675 employees; it grew so large that in 2015 L.U.O. began moving its operation into a former Nationwide Insurance building several miles away.

At the front lines are the “admissions representatives,” some 300 phone recruiters working two shifts from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., deploying call lists that Liberty gets from websites where people register and search for information about online higher education, like BestCollegesOnline.com. There is such a race to get to customers before University of Phoenix and other rivals that the prospective students sometimes marvel at how little time has elapsed — just a handful of minutes — between their providing their information on a website and the call coming from Liberty. Liberty’s tax filings show that in 2016, the university paid Google $16.8 million for “admissions leads generation.” In other words, advertising Liberty to those searching online for degree options.

The recruiters work under intense pressure, according to several former L.U.O. employees I spoke with. They get no more than 45 seconds between calls, and sometimes managers override even that short break. There are no formal quotas — a federal regulation that went into effect in 2011 forbids them. But as one former employee put it, the “highly motivated goal” is for each recruiter to sign up eight new students a day. Multiplied across 300 cubicles, that is 2,400 per day. Of those, only a small fraction end up paying and starting courses, but that is still an extraordinary haul for any kind of education business.

Every day, according to the former employee, managers send out a report showing the previous day’s tallies. Recruiters who signed up four or fewer new students get their names in red, visible for all to see, and are sometimes subject to a disciplinary conversation. Monthly tallies are also scored as green, yellow or red. Top performers are in the running for a small raise from the base salary, which is about $30,000. “It was that carrot and stick,” the former employee told me.

A separate division of about 60 people focuses on courting members of the military, who have access to even greater federal tuition assistance, and then advising them on campus. A former employee in that division said that given the smaller crew, the work there was if anything even more intense than in the main branch: More than 30,000 L.U.O. students are from the military or military families.

Photo

Liberty University took over an entire section of a shopping mall when Sears, an anchor tenant, went out of business.

Credit
Glenna Gordon for The New York Times

Two recruiters told me they were instructed to quote L.U.O.’s cost on a per-credit basis, rather than per-course, which makes it sound more affordable. Undergraduate courses for part-time students are $455 per credit, or $1,365 for a typical course; master’s courses are typically about $600 per credit. They are instructed not to press prospective applicants too hard on their academic qualifications. Applicants have to submit past transcripts, but any grade point average above 0.5 — equivalent to a D-minus — would suffice, said the former employee in the nonmilitary division. Recruiters, he told me, “would say, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted.’ They’d make it seem competitive.”

The two recruiters also said they were told not to mention Liberty’s Christian orientation until people agree to apply, when this fact is made clear in the user agreement they sign online. It also becomes clear at the moment that the recruiters sign up students for their first classes, typically an orientation class and three required Bible-studies classes. Students often can’t transfer credits for these courses to other colleges, which deters many from dropping out: Leaving L.U.O. without signing up for more courses would mean wasting the money spent on the first four.

Falwell and other top Liberty officials pushed back on some of these points in my interview with them, insisting, for instance, that the minimum G.P.A. for applicants is 2.0 and that recruiters are assessed according to “the same H.R. evaluation form that’s standard across the university.” But Ron Kennedy, the executive vice president for online enrollment management, acknowledged that the recruiters working under pressure to meet their targets might say otherwise. “It’s a call center,” he said.

In 2010, undercover investigators from the Government Accountability Office scrutinized 15 for-profit colleges, finding that every one of them had misled applicants and that four had encouraged them to lie on their federal student-aid forms. The Obama administration seized on the findings as it began a yearslong clampdown on for-profit education, which by 2013 was gobbling up a fifth of all federal student aid, more than $25 billion, despite enrolling only 10 percent of students — and also producing about a third of all federal student-loan defaults.

Liberty, too, was hugely reliant on federal money, in the form of Pell grants, Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and federally subsidized loans. By 2010, it had more than 50,000 students enrolled and was pulling in more than $420 million annually. But because Liberty was technically not for-profit, it was spared many of the administration’s new regulations, including its requirement that a certain threshold of graduates be able to attain “gainful employment,” which was designed to hit for-profit colleges much harder. It was also spared from the pre-existing rule that for-profit colleges could get no more than 90 percent of their revenue from federal sources.

If anything, Liberty benefited from the crackdown. The Obama administration’s actions helped put out of business large for-profit chains like Corinthian and ITT Technical Institute, clearing formidable competition from the field. Though there were other nonprofit institutions with online offerings — Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors, as well as premium players like Stanford and Duke — none were operating at Liberty’s scale. The university now touts itself on its website as “the largest private nonprofit university in the nation.” In a sense, said Ben Miller, who served as a senior policy adviser in Obama’s Department of Education, the crackdown on for-profits offered Liberty a “marketing advantage.”

Falwell was candid about the benefits of the nonprofit status. “It insulated us from the attack on the for-profits,” he told me. And it put him on the same footing with other, more established universities. “There’s no way that an Obama federal government that probably doesn’t care much for schools like Liberty can treat us different than Harvard or Yale or Indiana Wesleyan or the University of Maryland.”

Liberty’s ability to distance itself from for-profit colleges was especially notable given that, by several key metrics, it resembled them more closely than the private nonprofits it was grouped with. The rate of Liberty graduates who default on their loans within three years of graduating is 9.9 percent, several points higher than the average for nonprofit colleges, though still below that for for-profit colleges. Most striking, though, is how little the university spends on actual instruction. It does not report separate figures for spending on the online school and the traditional college. But according to its most recent figures, from 2016, the university reports spending only $2,609 on instruction per full-time equivalent student across both categories. That is a fraction of what traditional private universities spend (Notre Dame’s equivalent figure is $27,391) but also well behind even University of Phoenix, which spends more than $4,000 per student in many states. It is also behind other hybrid online-traditional nonprofit religious colleges like Ohio Christian University, which spends about $4,500. In 2013, according to an audited financial statement I obtained, Liberty received $749 million in tuition and fees but spent only $260 million on instruction, academic support and student services.

By 2016, Liberty’s net assets had crossed the $1.6 billion mark, up more than tenfold from a decade earlier. Thanks to its low spending on instruction, its net income was an astonishing $215 million on nearly $1 billion in revenue, according to its tax filing — making it one of the most lucrative nonprofits in the country, based simply on the difference between its operating revenue and expenses, in a league with some of the largest nonprofit hospital systems.

Falwell, whose Liberty salary is nearly $1 million, does not apologize for those margins. Liberty, he said, is simply being shrewd about keeping costs down, while plowing revenue back into the university. He noted proudly that Liberty’s net assets are now $2.5 billion, up from just $150 million in 2007, when he took over. He said he was surprised more universities weren’t following Liberty’s example of increasing online enrollment by keeping instructional spending and tuition low. And he freely acknowledged that the online revenues were going to buttress the residential campus. From Falwell’s perspective, there was nothing wrong with the university’s benefiting so much from the online program. “As long as we’re keeping the quality up, we don’t think it’s a disservice to anyone,” he said. “All that is, is ensuring the future of the university.”

Students at Liberty often quote a favorite line of Falwell Sr.’s: “If it’s Christian, it ought to be better.” Even those who have misgivings about the university’s conservative culture are quick to defend the education they’ve received on campus. Yet despite its ambitions to become the “evangelical Notre Dame” that Falwell envisioned, Liberty is still ranked well behind that university and other religious-based institutions like Brigham Young and Pepperdine; U.S. News and World Report clumps Liberty in the lowest quartile of institutions in its “national universities” category. Some of its programs have strong reputations, among them nursing, engineering and flight school. But the college is limited in its ability to compete for premier faculty, not only because its politics are out of step with the greater academic community, but also because none of its programs, with the exception of its law school, offer tenure.

In his autobiography, Falwell made virtually no distinction between these students on the Lynchburg campus and those receiving their instruction remotely. All of them, in his telling, were being prepared for the same goal, to be “Champions for Christ,” as the Liberty motto had it. But many students on campus, at least, are openly dismissive of the online experience. They take some classes online, for the convenience of not having to drag themselves to class — and, they readily admit, for the ease of not having to study much. “People know it’s kind of a joke and don’t learn that much from it,” Dustin Wahl, a senior from South Dakota, told me. “You use Google when you take your quiz and don’t have to work as hard. It’s pretty obvious.” (Liberty says using Google during quizzes or exams is cheating.)

Campus students are especially scornful of the online discussion boards that are in theory meant to replicate the back and forth of a classroom, but that in reality tend to be a rote exercise, with students making only their requisite one post and two comments per week, generating no substantive discussion. “It’s very minimal engagement,” said Alexander Forbes, a senior from California. Recently, a satirical campus newspaper, The Flaming Bugle, ran an Onion-style article with the headline “Cat Playing on Keyboard Inadvertently Earns ‘A’ for Discussion Board Post.”

Chris Gaumer taught English courses both on campus and online at Liberty after getting his bachelor’s degree on campus in 2006. The difference between the two forms of teaching was startling, he told me. As an online instructor, he said, he was not expected to engage in the delivery of any actual educational content. That was all prepared separately by L.U.O.’s team of course designers and editors, who assemble curriculums and videotaped lectures by other Liberty professors. This leaves little for the instructor to do in the courses, which typically run eight weeks. “As professor, you show up and your job is to handle emails and grade,” Gaumer said. This helps explain why the instructors — the roughly 2,400 adjuncts scattered around the country, plus the Liberty professors who agree to teach online courses on the side — are willing to take on the task for what’s long been the going rate for the job: $2,100 per course. (Falwell Jr. said it will soon go up to $2,700.)

Until recently, the course designers and editors, a team of about 30 people, worked out of the old Thomas Road Baptist Church — the congregation moved out of the former bottling plant years earlier — in a concrete room that got so cold in winter that they sometimes kept scarves and hats on. For editors, starting pay is now around $11 per hour. As L.U.O. boomed in size, they became so overwhelmed by the challenge of shaping hundreds of courses that L.U.O. decided in 2015 to focus designers and editors on the hundred or so highest-enrollment courses per term, leaving the maintenance of the remaining hundreds of courses up to the instructors themselves. One former editor recalled having a professor send a syllabus along with, essentially, an apology for throwing something together at the last minute.

Gaumer, who now works at Randolph College in Lynchburg, said the steep drop-off in quality from the traditional college to the online courses was both openly acknowledged among Liberty faculty and not fully reckoned with. The reason was plain, he said: Everyone knew that L.U.O. was subsidizing the physical university. “The motivation behind the growth seems to be almost entirely economic, because it’s not as if the education is getting any better,” he said.

Photo

Chris Gaumer, a former Liberty University English professor. “The motivation behind the growth seems to be almost entirely economic,” he said of Liberty’s online expansion.

Credit
Glenna Gordon for The New York Times

Falwell acknowledged that Liberty’s faculty initially resisted the rise of the online program, fearing the degradation of academic standards. “The big victory was finding a way to tame the faculty,” he said. But he disputed that there was any great difference in quality. For one thing, he said, the university made sure that all of its online instructors “adhere to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, our doctrinal statement.” Physical distance was a challenge, he said, but online instructors overcame it by making an extra effort to reach out. “They spend a lot more time taking a personal interest in the students,” he said.

One of the 65,000 students who enrolled with L.U.O. in 2013 was Megan Hart, a woman from New Jersey with unflaggingly high spirits. Hart, who is in her 40s, started her working life at the glass company where her father worked, too, until he was laid off. From there, Hart made her way into education, teaching communications at the local community college and the local prison. Adjunct courses at the college paid just $525 per credit, netting her only about $5,000 per semester, so she got a low-level administrative job there, too.

Her first marriage, to the father of her daughter, ended in divorce. In January 2012, her second husband suddenly vanished. Hart and her daughter, then 9 years old, lost their home shortly afterward, and she filed for bankruptcy. She and her daughter moved into her parents’ basement and got by with donations from her local Assemblies of God church, where she was active. In 2013, she signed up to take three courses at L.U.O. that would provide her with a certificate in communications, allowing her to become a full-time instructor at the community college, which would reimburse her L.U.O. tuition.

Hart, who had a master’s in communications and leadership through Pat Robertson’s Regent University, chose L.U.O. because of its affordability and Christian cachet. But in her years of teaching and taking courses, she said, she had never seen anything as flimsy as what L.U.O. passed off in its supposedly graduate-level courses. She had little interaction with the instructor, and the questions for the midterm and final exams were so arbitrary that it seemed to Hart as if they had been randomly generated by a computer program. She spent the open-book exams wildly flipping back and forth through the textbook and course materials trying to find the relevant passages. It was, she wrote to L.U.O. officials later, like “looking for Waldo.”

When she wrote the instructor for the second class to ask about the test, he responded: “As to exam question, I have no clue how the final is run.” He said he’d get back to her. He ended his note, “Do remember that God is in control and he works all things for our good.”

When Hart emailed the instructor for her third course, which had a closed-book exam, she confirmed Hart’s suspicions: “The exam questions are random.” Hart got good grades in the first two courses but was increasingly convinced she was paying for a meaningless experience. She sent an email outlining her concerns to the instructor and an L.U.O. academic mentor, adding that she might quit the third course. “We will certainly take your input very seriously,” the mentor responded. “May the Lord bless you richly in your studies and future endeavors.”

Finally, Hart told the officials that she was withdrawing from the third course, even though she had been informed that she would still have to pay 25 percent of the cost. “My spirit has been so sick over what I have experienced,” she wrote. In late 2013, she filed a complaint with a little-known government agency called the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which oversees the state’s colleges.

Between 2009 and summer 2017, L.U.O. students filed 49 complaints with the council, more than for any other institution in the state. For some, the problem was administrative bungling — L.U.O. registered them for the wrong class, or required a class it turned out they didn’t need, and so on. For some, it was endless technical or logistical troubles that kept them from being able to submit their assignments or get textbooks. For others, it was disputes about tuition and financial aid that left them feeling as if L.U.O. was demanding more money than was fair, and withholding their transcripts until they paid up.

Several complainants said they were particularly taken aback by their L.U.O. experiences because of Liberty’s religious underpinnings. “I just expected that Liberty University being a Christian university,” they’d be more helpful, wrote a complainant who went to prison and then became homeless after a stint enrolled in L.U.O. He had been seeking to have his transcript released despite his still having a balance at L.U.O., so that he could resume his education elsewhere; Liberty responded by recommending homeless shelters. “Liberty’s motto is they are a Christian school that is training champions for Christ and they are the light of the world,” another student wrote six years ago. “That motto needs to be revised.”

The anodyne responses the students received from L.U.O. were frequently glossed with Christian bromides. To a student whose financial aid was suspended in 2015 after the student failed a course because the textbook didn’t arrive in time, an instructor sent “quiz tips that may help” that included “Eat a healthy meal before taking your quiz” and “Pray before beginning each quiz!” Other L.U.O. responses included language errors so extreme that they bordered on confusing: One administrator wrote in 2014 about a complainant’s having submitted work that “appeared to have been copied from an unsighted source,” while a professor responded to a student in 2012 that “no other acceptions will be made.”

Other students were left simply to flounder, contrary to Falwell’s claims of close attention from distant instructors. Lydia Terry-Dominelli, who lives in a suburb of Albany, N.Y., signed up with Liberty in 2013, when it looked as if she and her husband were headed for divorce and she was worrying about how she could support herself and her 9-year-old daughter. She decided to get her teacher’s certification and chose Liberty partly because she was an observant Anglican. “I was ready for something that had some kind of value system,” she told me.

In 2015, Terry-Dominelli failed a graduate-level education course when, she said, one of the assignments she submitted vanished from Blackboard, the online system used by Liberty. After twice failing a writing course and puzzling over what she was doing wrong, she asked the course instructor for an explanation. He wrote back to suggest that she might do better if she found a “new work space” like the local library. After she assured him that her apartment sufficed and the conversation continued, he wrote: “I wonder if you can’t find a great prayer group through L.U.O.?”

Terry-Dominelli struggled further with confusing assignments in another graduate-level education course. She was starting to feel helpless over the lack of guidance. “I have prayed very hard, and what I keep being told is I am in the wrong place,” she wrote to the education instructor in late October of 2015.

“Bless your heart. I am so sorry,” the instructor responded. “I will join you in prayer for you to have wisdom and discernment.”

In early 2016, Terry-Dominelli was unable to access online the spring-semester courses she had registered for. She took it as a final sign and left Liberty, just a few courses short of the master’s degree she had borrowed more than $20,000 to pay for. In August 2016, having failed to establish a decent income, she moved back in with her husband. Lacking certification, she took a part-time job as an aide at a local elementary school. Unable to afford the loans she’d taken out, she filed for help under the U.S. Department of Education’s Borrower Defense program, which is intended for students who have incurred student debt after being misled by higher-education programs. (Her application is still pending.)

She also filed a complaint with the Virginia agency: “I feel that I was being pushed out of the program and I need to know why,” she had written to one of her professors. The agency declined to take action, finding no clear violations by Liberty. “What’s killing me is that I went into this program to try to change my situation,” she told me, “and I’m worse off than I was at the beginning.”

The Trump-Falwell bond has if anything grown even stronger in recent months. In October, Falwell Jr. told Breitbart News that Trump could “be the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln” and urged an evangelical army to rise up against the “fake Republicans” standing in his way. In December, he joined Trump in promoting Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy, quoting the song “Sweet Home Alabama” in a tweet on the eve of Election Day: “AL voters are too smart to let the media & Estab Repubs & Dems tell them how to vote. I hope the spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd is alive/well in AL. ‘A southern man don’t need them around anyhow & Watergate does not bother me, does your conscience bother you, tell me true?’ ” In late February, he joined in on Trump’s mau-mauing of Jeff Sessions, calling the attorney general a “coward” in a tweet for his handling of the Russia investigation.

But on campus, Falwell has proved a more divisive leader than his father. In May 2016, conflict over his pro-Trump stance prompted the resignation of the chairman of the university board of trustees’ executive committee, Mark DeMoss, whose father was a major donor to the university. DeMoss previously told The Washington Post that “the bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ.” It also prompted students on campus, including Wahl and Forbes, to gather hundreds of signatures in opposition to Trump following the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape. After Falwell’s support for Trump following Charlottesville, several Liberty graduates mailed back their degrees in protest. One protester was Laura Honnol, a banking officer in Lubbock, Tex., who attended from 2003 to 2007. “There’s been a huge climate shift from Falwell Senior to Falwell Junior,” she told me. “You felt like you disagreed with Senior, but he had good intentions and just didn’t do it right sometimes. But Junior came along, and it’s become more of a profit machine and a numbers machine.”

The Trump connection is not without risk for Falwell. Some people who worked for L.U.O. in late 2016 and early 2017 blamed it for a dip in applications at the time and said the decline led to an April 2017 leadership overhaul and the departure of many employees. Falwell told me that Liberty has deliberately brought online enrollment down to around 85,000, explaining that “we wanted to make sure we kept the student quality at a certain standard.” And he said that his alliance with Trump has only helped the university: “For every student we lost because of political concerns, we picked up two or three inquiries who support us because of that political stand.”

A relationship with Trump could benefit Falwell Jr. and Liberty in other ways too. One of the top orders of business for Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has been to roll back Obama-era regulations on online-degree providers. She named a former official from for-profit DeVry University to lead the D.O.E. unit that polices fraud in higher education. Claims for student-debt relief under the Borrower Defense program are being considered at a far slower rate under DeVos, who is delaying by two years an Obama rule that would make it easier to file debt-relief claims. And DeVos is expected shortly to roll back several key regulations geared toward online providers: ones giving states regulatory powers over distance-learning programs, establishing clear standards for a credit-hour and requiring “regular and substantive” interactions between online instructors and students. Falwell told me that Liberty officials have had a major hand in some of DeVos’s actions: “A lot of what we sent them is actually what got implemented,” he said.

Photo

As Liberty University rapidly expands, there is a lot of construction on the campus and in the area directly adjacent.

Credit
Glenna Gordon for The New York Times

After the convocation on the first weekend in November, I met with Dustin Wahl in Liberty’s student center, overlooking the campus quad. He said that the unbridled success of the online program couldn’t help putting him in mind of the profit-seeking tradition within American Christianity, which is closely aligned with evangelical Christianity’s prosperity gospel — the notion that financial success, far from distracting us from the higher values, is an affirmation of godliness. Wahl told me he’d frequently heard people justify the school’s new wealth in these terms. “A lot of people just talk about it generally, how God has blessed us,” he said.

Falwell rejects such prosperity-gospel talk. “I’m not going to tell you that we’ve done better because we’re better people,” he told me. “What I will say is that we’ve always operated from a business perspective. We’ve treated it like a business.” And that’s what first drew him to Trump, he said: the kinship of one businessman to another. “I thought to myself, if there’s one thing this country needs, it’s exactly the methods we employed at Liberty to save the school and make it prosper, and that’s just basic business principles.”

As I sat with Wahl, the spoils of that prosperity were visible all around us: not just gleaming new buildings like the $50 million library with its robotic book-retrieval system, but also, up the mountain, a $7 million “Snowflex Centre,” with a polymer surface for year-round skiing — the only one of its kind at any university in the country. Elsewhere, the university is completing a $3 million shooting range. But, Wahl said, once you knew about the thousands of people far from Lynchburg who funded this splendor, it was hard to take your mind off them, and off the faith with which they signed up for L.U.O. “You get a phone call,” he said, “and it’s God telling you, ‘I’ll give you an education.’ ”

When we spoke before my visit, Wahl raved about the campus: “It’s beautiful,” he said. Then he added: “And it’s funded by the online program that’s sold to people who can’t really afford college.”

Continue reading the main story

Nonfiction: Erasmus vs. Luther — a Rift That Defined the Course of Western Civilization


Both men displayed a fierce determination in the way they overcame their inauspicious beginnings. Erasmus was the illegitimate son of a physician’s daughter and a priest; he rued the unlawfulness of the union all his life. He named himself Desiderius, meaning longed for. More apt would have been Desiderans, for longing. Both parents died early, and he was coerced by his guardian into a monastery and later into taking the vows of priesthood. He found monastic life suffocating, longing for the spirit of the Renaissance that had taken hold in Italy, inspired by the newly awakened passion for classical wisdom. Like Petrarch, Erasmus searched out the pagan manuscripts disintegrating in monasteries, laboriously taught himself ancient Greek and cultivated a stylistically dazzling Latin. Such achievements counted, for him, as moral achievements, almost on a par with the Christian virtues. He was a firm believer in human perfectibility, which is one of the convictions that would put him on a collision course with Luther, committed to the incorrigible depravity of human nature.

Erasmus’s humanist scholarship and reformist Christianity converged in his “Novum Instrumentum,” the first Greek New Testament ever to be published. His motivation was to better Christianity by correcting corruptions of the original Greek that had insinuated themselves into the Latin Vulgate. While the orthodox condemned him, the implication that errors were embedded in church tenets made him a hero to some, including an obscure young man seeking certitude in a monastery in Wittenberg.

Photo

Where Erasmus had found it necessary to flee from monastic life, Luther fled to it, against his father’s wishes. But even within the monastery, his Anfechtungen continued. How could one know that all one’s pious efforts would be judged adequate in the eyes of God? He eventually found his answer, gleaned from his reading of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: We need not worry about failing, since nothing we do makes any difference. Our fate is predestined by God, and our salvation will come through faith in that conviction. Luther’s famous principle of “justification by faith,” making (some of) us passive recipients of God’s unearned love, would become central in the movement that would eventually be known as Protestantism.

For Luther, nothing he didn’t personally hear reverberating within the words of Scripture could be sanctioned, including the vast hierarchy of the church and its self-serving dictums. Erasmus’s declaration (in his “Enchiridion”) that “monasticism is not piety” resonated with him. He also used Erasmus’s New Testament (the second of the five editions it would undergo) for his own translation of Scripture into German, so that the people themselves might take their religion directly from that one true source. “All Christians are priests,” Luther provocatively wrote.

Into that narrow space of questioning the church’s authority that Erasmus had pried apart, Luther stepped, and blasted it wide open. Erasmus was horrified — horrified at the violence of Luther’s certitude, horrified at the violence his certitude bred within Christendom. Erasmus was among the earliest of pacifists, calling Mars “the stupidest of all the gods,” so there is a tragic irony in his having contributed, no matter how indirectly, to the bloody sectarian turmoil that erupted from Christianity’s splintering.

In his divergence from Luther, Erasmus is often viewed as the one at a disadvantage. Whereas Luther displayed the courage of his convictions, Erasmus comes off as a self-protective pragmatist, seeking accommodation with the church so as to pursue his life with a minimum of upset. Little suggests otherwise in “Fatal Discord,” and that is regrettable. In the dialogue between Luther and Erasmus, Massing has omitted Erasmus’s strongest lines, which are epistemological in nature. Erasmus doubts Luther’s absolute rule of faith more than he doubts the institution of the church, whose flaws — he hoped — could be corrected. He is justifiably skeptical of a self-verifying criterion for truth that can generate the kind of knowledge Luther claimed for himself. This principled skepticism is the epistemological backbone that stiffened his anti-Lutheran stance.

Massing writes that Erasmus’s influences on us today, unlike Luther’s, are faint. I disagree. Modern philosophy was born in the century after Erasmus and Luther. It emerged, not coincidentally, in the wake of the ensanguined doctrinal disputes that killed off Europeans at a higher percentage of their population than did World War I. Modern philosophy would be marked by its refocus on epistemology, which scrupulously analyzes the conditions for knowledge, as opposed to mere belief, and which recognizes, in the spirit of Erasmus, that among the threats to human flourishing, we should not underestimate the dangers of misplaced certitude.

Continue reading the main story

Qasr al-Yahud Journal: Clearing Land Mines From the Spot Where Jesus Is Said to Have Been Baptized


Now, in an effort to rehabilitate and open up the rest of the site, the Halo Trust, a British-American mine clearance charity, has begun a mine-clearing operation with the cooperation of the Israeli National Mine Action Authority, working under Israel’s Ministry of Defense, and the Palestinian Mine Action Center under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority.

The charity has raised more than $1 million so far for the mission, which will probably take at least a year.

Despite the political awkwardness of working in occupied territory, the Palestinians and Israelis share an interest in promoting Christian tourism. Both Israel and the West Bank boast major Christian sites like Nazareth and Bethlehem, and the pilgrim trade is lucrative.

Experts estimate that there could be as many as 3,000 mines and other explosive devices littering the site, an area less than half a square mile, as well as other war detritus like unexploded rockets, mortars and artillery rounds.

“War is a way of achieving a political objective,” said James Cowan, the chief executive of the Halo Trust. “Land mines remain lethal for decades after that political purpose has passed.”

Mr. Cowan, who was a major general in the British Army, described the anti-personnel mines as being “about the size of a Camembert cheese” and the anti-tank mines as being around “the size of a 12-inch pizza.”

Photo

“War is a way of achieving a political objective,” said James Cowan, the chief executive of the Halo Trust. “Land mines remain lethal for decades after that political purpose has passed.”

Credit
Corinna Kern for The New York Times

Photo

“The churches have time,” said Ronen Shimoni, the Halo Trust’s program manager in the West Bank. “They will remain here after all of us.”

Credit
Corinna Kern for The New York Times

The idea is to restore the properties to the churches, allowing monks — and pilgrims — to return.

The work, which started on March 11 in the southern Ethiopian Church compound, is painstaking. The various Israeli units passing through left no record or maps of where they put the anti-personnel mines, and commanders who could be tracked down could not remember with any precision. Recently, a multinational team of Israelis, Palestinians and Georgians worked gingerly, using detectors and armored mechanized equipment.

“The churches have time,” said Ronen Shimoni, the Halo Trust’s program manager in the West Bank, standing by an abandoned Israeli military post atop a hill with a commanding view in the already searing heat of spring. “They will remain here after all of us.”

The expansion of Qasr al-Yahud may heat up the competition between the two banks of the Jordan River, over which is the authentic baptism site. The Jordanian side, which boasts a church complex with a golden dome, is known as Al Maghtas, Arabic for baptism, or as Bethany beyond the Jordan.

In 2012, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, designated the eastern, Jordanian bank as a World Heritage Site, declaring it is believed to be the location of Jesus’s baptism.

Though remains of ancient churches, chapels and monks cells dating to the Roman and Byzantine periods have been found on the eastern side, there does not appear to be any archaeological evidence on either side from the first century.

Continue reading the main story

Contributing Op-Ed Writer: We Forgot What Dr. King Believed In


Dr. King passionately believed that a commitment to God is a commitment to bettering humanity, that the spiritual practices of prayer and worship must be translated into concern for the poor and vulnerable. Dr. King would want us to live his specific faith: work to defeat racism, speak out in principled opposition to war and combat poverty with enlightened and compassionate public policy.

Photo

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the National Cathedral in Washington. He was assassinated four days later, on April 4, 1968.

Credit
Morton Broffman/Getty Images

In his lifetime, he was disappointed in the complacency of both black and white churches. He would be as disappointed today. The white church largely remains a bastion of indifference to the plight of black people. White evangelicals continue to focus on personal piety as the measure of true Christianity, while neglecting the Social Gospel that enlivens Jesus’ words for the masses. Dr. King saw faith as an urgent call to service, a selfless ethic of concern that, he said, quoting the Hebrew prophet Amos, made “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Today, in the midst of resurgent bigotry and deep divisions in this country, faith is too often viewed as an oasis of retreat, a paradise of political disengagement. On this Easter Sunday, as we mark 50 years since Dr. King’s death, it is a perfect and necessary time to remember his faith — and rekindle its urgency.

Dr. King often declared his preacher’s vocation by citing something like a biblical genealogy of black sacred rhetoric that traced through his family: “I grew up in the church. My father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher. My daddy’s brother is a preacher. So I didn’t have much choice.”

But Dr. King’s faith underwent significant change. At first, he was discouraged from the ministry by a strain of black preaching that was long on emotion and short on reason. Then, at Morehouse College, his encounter with preachers like the school’s president Benjamin Mays convinced him that the ministry was intellectually respectable.

A midnight kitchen experience over a cup of coffee after he received phone calls threatening to blow out his brains and blow up his house during the Montgomery bus boycott gave the fear-stricken Dr. King a sense of God’s unshakable presence. He said that instead of inherited faith, he had to forge the terms of his own relationship to the Almighty.

“I had to know God for myself,” he explained. “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’”

For the rest of his life Dr. King did just that. His faith propelled him to fight Jim Crow, the ugly hatred it bred in the white soul and the haunting inferiority it left in black minds. It led him to speak valiantly against the lynching, bombing and shooting of black people who merely wanted what white people took for granted: a cup of coffee at any lunch counter, a room at any hotel they could afford, a drink at any water fountain they passed, a seat on a bus wherever they pleased and a desk in the nearest schoolhouse.

Dr. King’s faith put him at odds with white Christians who believed it was their mission to keep separate the races — the same people whose forebears believed it was their duty to enslave Africans and punish blacks who sought to escape their hardship. Dr. King realized that he wasn’t simply in battle against a society built on legal apartheid, but that he also had to fight against a racist culture that derived theological support from white Christianity.

White evangelicals were opposed to Dr. King because they conveniently divided body and soul: Race was a social issue that should be determined by rules in society and laws generated by government. Such a view meant that the racist status quo was sacred. The point of religion was to save the souls of black folk by preaching a gospel of repentance for personal sin, even as segregation often found a white biblical mandate. After Dr. King spoke at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961, the most prominent institution of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, many white churches in the South withheld financial contributions to the school.

If rabid racists were a clear threat to black well-being, it was the white moderates who claimed to support civil rights but who urged caution in the pursuit of justice who proved to be a special plague. In 1963, eight white Alabama clergymen issued a statement pleading for black leaders to slow their aggressive campaign against segregation in Birmingham, Ala. The clergymen cited “outsiders” who had come to Birmingham to lead demonstrations that were “unwise and untimely.”

The white clergymen blamed the black protests for inciting hatred and violence through their “extreme measures,” arguing that their cause “should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

Their statement led Dr. King, imprisoned for his protests against injustice, to draft his well-known “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in which he “almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” It was the same white moderates who led Dr. King near the end of his life to conclude that “most Americans are unconscious racists.”

It wasn’t only the white church Dr. King had to combat. In 1961 he joined other black ministers who were dissatisfied with the conservative leadership of the National Baptist Convention to form a rival body, the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Dr. King reserved some of his harshest criticism for the black church. Less than two months before he perished, Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference organization convened a meeting of ministers in Miami.

“We didn’t come to Miami to play,” Dr. King warned his listeners in an address titled “To Minister to the Valley.” And he didn’t. “Let us admit that even the black church has often been a taillight rather than a headlight,” Dr. King preached. As social injustice roared, these ministers kept silent “behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.” As their members struggled with poverty, they mouthed “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

Then Dr. King came in for the kill: “Let us honestly admit that all too often we’ve been more concerned about the size of the wheelbase on our automobiles, and the amount of money we get in our anniversaries, than we’ve been concerned about the problems of the people who made it possible for us to get these things.” Dr. King argued that “the great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see that it had the revolutionary edge.”

Christianity is again failing to see that edge.

While black bodies are punished or disappear into oblivion, under the repressive reign of police brutality, many white churches remain silent. Instead, an overwhelming number of white evangelicals line up in support of a president who has evinced even less of a public embrace of religion than Ronald Reagan did. Yet President Trump has been prayed for by white evangelicals as his administration and his words have preyed on black people, immigrants, transgender people and the poor. There are some brave contrarians among Southern Baptists, like the Trump critic Russell Moore, who have dared to dissent. But their voices are too few.

The black church’s behavior has been shameful as well. With a few notable exceptions, black churches have often been chronically indifferent to the fight against white supremacy. . On this Easter Sunday, many ministers will dutifully preach about a crucified God without dwelling on the death in Sacramento of 22-year-old Stephon Clark in a police shooting that even the city’s mayor, Darrell Steinberg, said was “plain wrong.”

Instead, black churches have been invested in personal prosperity and upward climbing at the expense of the Social Gospel that Dr. King preached. For every progressive pastor like Frederick Douglass Haynes in Dallas, there are hundreds more who turn their dire warnings about sin into bigger cars and more cash for their lucrative pastoral anniversaries. For every preacher of the virtue of social conscience, like Gina Stewart in Memphis, there are so many more pastors who use the Bible only to reprimand fornicators and backsliders.

Some black ministers have even frowned on Dr. King for his moral failures as an excuse to avoid the message that he trumpeted as an itinerant preacher for social justice. To Dr. King’s credit, he acknowledged his flaws and warned people against making him a saint.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of faith who didn’t mind making trouble for God. He believed his purpose in life was to bring justice to as many of God’s children as possible while proclaiming the revolutionary power of belief. And that wasn’t a mere metaphor: He believed that America must undergo a “revolution of values” so that it might begin to fulfill the mandate of the Gospel to look after those who needed God’s help the most.

“God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now,” Dr. King said in his famous “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, delivered from his home pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta two months before his assassination. “God has a way of even putting nations in their place. The God that I worship has a way of saying, ‘Don’t play with me.’”

As America in its present incarnation, with its present leadership, teeters toward an arrogance, isolationism and self-importance that are the portals of moral decline and political self-destruction, the nation must recall the faith of Martin Luther King Jr. He saw faith as a tool for change, a constant source of inspiration to remake the world in the just and redemptive image of God. On this holy day, instead of shrinking into the safety of faith, we should, as Dr. King did, bear the burdens of the less fortunate and rise again to serve humanity.

Continue reading the main story

Bach Was Far More Religious Than You Might Think


Where does all this science get us? Bach’s notations bear witness to a life of conservative Lutheran observance.

Within Calov’s scripture verses, there are many small printing errors that would doubtless go undetected by even the most biblically literate reader. Yet time and again Bach has restored text that was far from clearly missing, or has changed perfectly plausible sounding, but in fact unattested, wording to the standard Lutheran rendering. None of these corrections stem from the list of errors printed in Calov’s appendix.

Photo

A 1748 portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, a religious conservative at odds with the progressivist currents of his day, and ours.

Credit
Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

Some biblical scholars have concluded from this that Bach acted like an astute textual critic, poring over Calov’s volumes and painstakingly comparing them, line by line, with other Lutheran Bibles. But there’s a simpler and more likely scenario, fully grounded in conservative 18th-century social and religious practices.

Picture the people of Bach’s household on free evenings, gathered in their living room for the activity of reading aloud. The children take turns reciting from a family Bible for practice in reading and elocution, not to mention spiritual edification. The patriarch follows along in his magnificent Study Bible, in part to make sure there’s no passage-skipping from the lectors, and in part to allow him to reach for his inkwell whenever he spots, compared with what he’s just heard, an error in Calov’s scriptural verses.

Tellingly, in something akin to what linguists call a mondegreen, Bach at several passages apparently misconstrued what the children — in this reconstruction of the scene — had said, and emended a scriptural verse’s legitimate Lutheran rendering to a similar-sounding but unattested wording. At Isaiah 16:8, Luther’s text reads: “its vine-branches are scattered, and over the sea.” Bach caught sight of Calov’s obvious typographical error “Fesser,” but he evidently misheard a lector’s utterance of the correct wording, and thus emended Luther’s intended “Feser” (vine-branches) to the biblically unattested “Fäßer” (wine-casks).

The Calov volumes also provide insight into Bach’s professional and personal concerns, showing that he understood himself less as a modern artist than as a preacher who was following his religious vocation. An annotation in Latin that the Crocker Laboratory physicists have filed under “definite Bach entries” makes for especially poignant reading, as it takes note of manifold passages in the Bible’s Solomonic literature speaking of how to find godly solace in a world that is hostile to people faithfully pursuing their divine callings. Sundry administrative records indicate that Bach often fell into trouble over philosophical differences with his employers about the place of music in worship and in education.

Only a handful of Bach’s entries in Calov concern music, and these have received the most extensive — indeed, typically the only — attention from biographers. Leading writers have striven to explain these marginalia as progressive. In truth, all of them straightforwardly reflect conservative Lutheran thinking. What they share as well is a premodern interpretive approach called “typology,” whereby events and principles in the era of ancient Israel act as “types” or “shadows” for their correlated “antitypes” or “substances” in the era of Christianity. Typology was looked upon less as a scholarly path to intellectual understanding than as a doctrinal path to spiritual comfort.

Photo

A manuscript page from Bach’s cantata “Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (“Only Upon You, Lord Jesus Christ”).

Credit
Scheide Library, Princeton University

Citing one of Bach’s annotations on music as key progressivist testimony, John Eliot Gardiner, in his 2013 biography “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” wrote: “Bach understood that the more perfectly a composition is realized, both conceptually and through performance, the more God is immanent in the music. ‘NB,’ he wrote in the margin of his copy of Abraham Calov’s Bible commentary, ‘Where there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present.’ This strikes me as a tenet that many of us as musicians automatically hold and aspire to whenever we meet to play music, regardless of whatever ‘God’ we happen to believe in.”

What a lovely, modern idea! Alas, no aspect of it could possibly have been part of Bach’s understanding.

Lutherans like Bach certainly would have condemned as a grievous sin of idolatry any notion that the essence of a piece of music is, or turns into, the essence of God. And Bach’s somewhat cryptic note is not even about the less heretical notion of God’s possibly just “dwelling” within music, either. Its language plainly echoes more particularized orthodox Lutheran observations about God and music that were laid out in Johann Gerhard’s “School of Piety” (1623), one of many books of practical theology listed in Bach’s estate inventory.

Thus the impetus behind Bach’s remark was not progressivist but doctrinal. The Old Testament text Bach commented on presents the “shadow”: At the sound of the priestly music, the “Glory of the Lord” inhabited the Jerusalem Temple. Bach’s marginal note points to the orthodox Lutheran understanding of the “substance”: At a rendering of devout music, the “Grace-Presence” of God will always inhabit the hearts of Christian believers, whose bodies, according to the New Testament, are “a temple of the Holy Spirit.” Bach had worked with these very tenets earlier in his career, when he composed glorious musical settings of them in his Cantata No. 172, “Ring Out, Ye Songs.”

J.S. Bach Cantata BWV 172 “Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten” Video by meinhardo

Beside another significant passage in Calov, Bach wrote, “A splendid demonstration [‘Beweis’] that music has been mandated by God’s spirit.” Christoph Wolff’s magisterial biography, “Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician” (2000), identifies Bach’s use of “Beweis” here as an approving nod toward the term’s centrality in the progressive methodology of scientific empiricism, a methodology that was held already during Bach’s lifetime to be applicable also to theological principles.

But the noun “Beweis” was also used frequently, from the 16th through 18th centuries, in the same conservative way it’s used in Bach’s note: for the “demonstration” of theological principles through study of biblical revelation alone. Bach’s music likewise employs the word “Beweis” in its conventional pre‑Enlightenment, nonscientific sense. A recitative in his “Christmas Oratorio” proclaims that a believer’s heart should safeguard the biblical account of the miracle of Christ’s birth “as a sure demonstration [‘Beweis’]” of salvation.

BWV 0248 3-09 Ja, ja, mein Herz soll es bewahren Video by Willem-Jan Visser

Bach was contractually answerable for choosing the liturgical poetry he set to music, and modern-day critics, in a bit of wishful thinking, often proclaim that his theologically conservative choices were designed simply to please his employers. But on this biographical question, the Calov volumes turn out to be acutely instructive. The sentiments expressed in Bach’s vocal music are continually paralleled in his Calov notations. Most of his vocal music was composed from the 1710s to 1730s, whereas his Calov notations were entered in the 1730s and 1740s. In view of the fact that almost all the private notations come well after the public compositions, Bach obviously subscribed to the sentiments expressed in his vocal music.

Both Bach’s music and his Calov notations put powerful stress upon: (1) contempt for human reason, along with the exalting of biblical revelation as the proper arbiter of truth; (2) disparagement of notions of human autonomy and achievement, along with the exalting of dependence on God, including for one’s position in the social hierarchy; (3) contempt — explicit or implicit — for Judaism, Catholicism and Islam, along with the exalting of orthodox Lutheranism; (4) disdain for foreigners, along with the exalting of German faithfulness and goodness; and (5) the emphatic exalting of monarchical power, as authorized not by the people but by God. Nowhere in Bach’s music or Calov notations are these sentiments contradicted.

In short, Bach, in his unswerving religious conservatism, was living and working very much at odds with the progressivist currents of his day, and ours. While we’re arguably free to make use of him and his music in whatever new ways we find fitting, we ought also to be on the ethical alert for casting Bach in our own image.

Continue reading the main story