LYNCHBURG, Virginia (Christian Examiner) – Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. has given an answer to a group of students who started a petition drive asking him to drop his support for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump – he will not.
On Friday, Oct. 13, Falwell said he was proud of "these few students speaking their minds" in the climate of free speech fostered at the university. He said the ability to express ideas contrary to those of others makes the university "unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out."
But he wouldn't budge on his endorsement of Trump, for which he has been widely criticized in traditional media and even among conservative evangelical groups.
"I am only fulfilling my obligation as a citizen to 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's' by expressing my personal opinion about who I believe is best suited to lead our nation in a time of crisis," Falwell said in response to the petition from Liberty United Against Trump.
Days before, student Tyler McNally posted on social media that he and other students were starting a petition to pressure Falwell into dropping his endorsement for Trump because the Republican had been "inexorably associated with Liberty University."
McNally's Twitter posting has since been retreated more than 6,600 times and received 9,700 "likes."
In it, McNally claims to be the voice of Liberty University students "who are disappointed with President Falwell's endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history. Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him."
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The petition claims that few students (only 90) voted for Trump during the Virginia primary, evidence of the "colossal rejection of his campaign." McNally did not indicate how such specific voting statistics, usually confidential, were gathered.
"Nevertheless, President Falwell eagerly uses his national platform to advocate for Donald Trump. While he occasionally clarifies that supporting Trump is not the official position of Liberty University, he knows it is his title of president of the largest Christian university in the world that gives him political credentials," the petition claimed.
"Associating any politician with Christianity is damaging to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But Donald Trump is not just any politician. He has made his name by maligning others and bragging about his sins. Not only is Donald Trump a bad candidate for president, he is actively promoting the very things that we as Christians ought to oppose."
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The petition mentions Trump's recently revealed, but 11-year-old comments about touching women inappropriately and criticizes Falwell's "we're all sinners" approach to dealing with the candidate's campaign crisis.
"We must make clear to the world that while everyone is a sinner and everyone can be forgiven, a man who constantly and proudly speaks evil does not deserve our support for the nation's highest office," the petition said.
The students then claimed they wanted to restore the integrity of the school and make certain the world knows Liberty University students are opposed to Trump.
"While our president Jerry Falwell Jr. tours the country championing the log in his eye, we want the world to know how many students oppose him. We don't want to champion Donald Trump; we want only to be champions for Christ," the petition said.
Falwell said in his statement that several of the claims made by the students in the petition were false, first among them that Trump has no support at Liberty. He cited the enthusiastic reception received by Gov. Mike Pence, Trump's running mate, as evidence of the student body's support.
"In fact, he received five standing ovations during his speech [earlier in the week]. The group of students now speaking out against Trump represents a very small percentage of the Liberty student body of 15,000 resident students and 90,000 online students. The group (led by a Never Trump activist, I am told) claims to have between 200 and 1200 signatures on a petition but admits that many of these signatories are not Liberty students," Falwell said in his statement.
He rejected the idea that he had been traveling around the country to stump from Trump and also claimed he had made it repeatedly clear that his endorsement of Trump was only his endorsement and not that of the university. He also said he had only campaigned for Trump on "one weekend in January."
The student petition is not the only petition aimed at Falwell. Another, unlike the student petition, called for the university's board of trustees to terminate Falwell.
"Even as sexual assault allegations against Trump continue to mount, Falwell has become a fixture on cable news defending and making excuses for Trump. And he's shamefully exploited his position as a college president, hosting both Trump and running mate Mike Pence at convocations that students are required to attend," that petition said.
The other petition, launched by a group calling itself Act Faithful America, said Liberty students are actively rebelling against Falwell. It also pointed to Falwell's previous statement that called the McNally petition "false and incoherent" and criticized its organizers as out of touch with Jesus's teachings on judging others.
In the previous statement, Falwell dismissed the seriousness of the petition, claiming the students are "young and still learning."
The Act Faithful America petition claims Falwell is undermining the school's reputation as a Christian institution and should be fired because of it.
A third petition from Liberty University alumni at Change.org, which has gathered only 109 signatures, also claims Falwell should "keep his political affiliations separate from the university spotlight."
"While we understand that Mr. Falwell's endorsement is meant to be a personal endorsement, we ask that he seek to keep his political views out of the media. This separation will ensure that no assumptions are made about the university or students' political affiliations. Furthermore, this separation will make it evident that this endorsement is a personal endorsement and not representative of the majority of evangelical Christians," the alumni petition said.