Sunday, March 19, 2006

Betcha Didn't Know That about Jerry Falwell

An article by Zev Chafets in the New York Times highlights the debate team at Jerry Falwell's Liberty Unviersity. Coached by Brett O'Donnell, the team is winning top ranks at national debate tournaments. Jerry Falwell wants "champions for Christ" and hopes debate will train them.

Along the way you get this fascinating bit of history:

To get to O'Donnell's office, you pass the Jerry Falwell Ministries Museum, in which the most prominent exhibit consists of two Prohibition-era figures loading booze into a Model T Ford. One figure is said to be Jerry Falwell's father.

Carey H. Falwell was a successful Lynchburg businessman who founded two bus companies. He was also a hoodlum, who, in addition to moonshining, organized cock and dog fights and ran a notorious nightspot. In 1931, he shot his brother Garland to death. The killing was ruled self-defense, but it cemented Carey Falwell's local reputation as a very bad man.

This sort of family laundry is not usually hung in the personal museums of university founders. But Doc Falwell, as O'Donnell calls his boss, is proud of his hardscrabble, entrepreneurial heritage.

But in debate, the school's winning strategy is different from that of other schools. It doesn't have the real top champions, but it does develop an "overall program," a team that is strong on all three levels: novice, junior varsity, and varsity. Where that's the big factor, Liberty wins. But in single elimination shoot outs, the team doesn't do so well. O'Donnell:

"If we changed the way we recruit and concentrated on fielding an elite varsity, we'd definitely have a shot at winning the national tournament every year," he says. "But that's not who we are. I spend more of my time with the novices than I do with the varsity. The evidence we work up gets shared among all the debaters. Our goal here is to grow an entire program. We want to educate a lot of kids and instill them with a sense of mission. That's the secret of our success — that and a lot of hard work."

Some people quoted in the article think the debaters will end up loosing their Christian focus. To compete in policy debates, Liberty University debaters have to argue for, as well as against, Roe v. Wade. The whole culture is northeastern, and liberal. Will that change them?

The debate team wants winners, kids who aren't afraid to defeat the other guy. Curiously, the high percentage of home schoolers at Liberty is a problem:

Being a Christian is a necessary but insufficient requirement for making the Liberty squad. A lot of students are home-schooled; some have even taken part in special home-school debate leagues. But according to O'Donnell, they lack the starch for serious debate. "These kids pray with each other before the matches," he says. "They put a big emphasis on good manners. I've got nothing against manners or praying, but we want to win. I've never met a home-schooled debater who was aggressive enough for college competition." (This was an interesting comment in light of the debate going on in the Crunchy Con blog about home schoolers -- con and pro).

Somehow this article seemed to bring in all the themes of American Christianity today. Is the entrepreneurial instinct rampant in evangelicalism good? Should Jerry Falwell feel proud or ashamed of having a bootlegger for a dad? Should Christians in their vocations play the game like everyone else? Should they want to win as much the world wants to win? Are Christians team players, or individuals? Will playing with the secular schools cause you to lose your faith? Do you have to have a theology of glory to train "champions for Christ"?

It's a great piece of journalism that makes you think of all these questions.