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Liberty University's Flip-Flop Moment
Liberty University's Flip-Flop Moment

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the political maturity of Liberty University than its flip-flops.

In the summer of 2005, the Lynchburg, Virginia, school made national news when it announced the most drastic change in a slowly evolving dress code: Flip-flops would be permitted in class. It was a watershed moment for the university. Severe side parts, collared dress shirts, and ties for men; knee-length skirts, lace-panel dresses, and poufy hair for women were out. Flip-flops, jeans, and capris were in.

The symbols reflected substance: since the school's inception, its business-attire dress code had been as much a part of its identity as its controversial founder, Jerry Falwell, and its rules against drinking, dancing, and (according to legend) going to the movies. Notably, along with flip-flops, "movement" and movies are allowed now. (The teetotaling stands.) Clearly, there was more afoot at the university than a simple sartorial rule.

Administrators knew that the university couldn't meet the goal of its founder of becoming a "world class" evangelical university by requiring its students to dress like Mormons on mission. More important, it was clear that changing the world for Christ would require more than a handful of well-placed politicians from among its graduates. Instead, it would take an infusion of "Champions for Christ," as the school calls its students, working in every vocation. The flip-flops, then, exemplified the late Jerry Falwell's ability to leverage politics to achieve greater aims.

Falwell's national and international reputation stemmed from his political activism, but his real focus was both narrower and broader: his heart always lay with the local church he founded and with the university begun as a ministry of that church. Yet his political activism—and the media attention that accompanied it—allowed his dream for the university to come to fruition.

When he organized the Moral Majority in 1979, Falwell was catapulted into the limelight. With the momentum gained from its endorsement of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Moral Majority registered millions of new voters and mobilized 80 million American conservatives during its 10-year life span. As a result, one small-town fundamentalist preacher changed American politics forever.

Ronald Godwin, onetime executive director of the Moral Majority and now provost at Liberty University, explained in a recent interview that Falwell was a "pioneer in cultivating among conservative Christians the mindset that they had not only the right but a biblically based obligation to be politically involved." Godwin echoes the pundits' consensus in crediting Falwell for "awakening the evangelical voting bloc."

Falwell's son, Jerry Falwell Jr., succeeded his father as the university's chancellor. He noted in the same interview that as a result of the senior Falwell's mobilization of conservative Christian voters, now "every politician has to include this voting bloc" in campaign strategies.

Indeed, The New York Times stated in its obituary following Falwell's unexpected death in 2007:

As much as anyone, he helped create the religious right as a political force, defined the issues that would energize it for decades and cemented its ties to the Republican Party. Behind the controversies was a shrewd, savvy operator with an original vision for effecting political and moral change. He rallied religious conservatives to the political arena at a time when most fundamentalists and other conservative religious leaders were inclined to stay away. And he helped pulled off what had once seemed an impossible task: uniting religious conservatives from many faiths and doctrines by emphasizing what they had in common.
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Liberty University's Flip-Flop Moment