Home > History > Liberty circa the mid-Eighties: the generalized other

Liberty circa the mid-Eighties: the generalized other

I don’t fault Liberty for having a music code per se; many schools intentionally attempt to foster a particular atmosphere on campus, and I suppose the music code contributed to this atmosphere directly. During the time I was on campus I got the impression that the school was meant to feel a particular way to fit the expectations of an audience that was never named; in retrospect this audience was probably fundamentalist pastors of a certain age. The last thing Jerry wanted was for one of his fellow pastors to call his office and break ties with him because the pastor had visited Liberty (with or without a bunch of prospective Liberty freshmen in tow) and been offended by something he saw or heard.

This generic thought experiment — that someone might see us behaving a particular way and have a particular reaction — defined fundamentalism as a subculture as much as any of our other distinctives. We didn’t go to movies at the mall for fear someone might think we were there to see an R-rated movie. We didn’t eat (or work) in restaurants that served alcohol for fear someone would see us there and think we were getting drunk. The Scriptural basis for this was our interpretation of Paul the Apostle’s instructions in 1 Thessalonians 5:22, as rendered in the King James Version: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” Better translations of this verse would have saved us a lot of grief: “Abstain from every form of evil” (NASB) or “Avoid every kind of evil” (NIV).

But in our case this nameless observer went from generalized other to real life named person often enough to matter a lot. In fact, one of the churches I attended within the last ten years was the source of one of these stories. Our pastor was on a college tour with the senior class from the Christian school the church sponsored, and they visited among other places Wheaton College (Illinois) and Liberty. When they were on the Wheaton campus the pastor stopped a passing professor and asked him “Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?” and the professor responded “That depends on what you mean.” When the group reached Liberty and he did the same thing, the Liberty professor said “Yes.” And that was a major part of the justification for the pastor choosing Liberty for his daughter and encouraging the other seniors from the school to attend Liberty as well.

I really have no idea how frequently similar incidents were happening on the Liberty campus; I’m sure some of them cast Liberty in a favorable light and others not so much. And I’ve gotten indications that Jerry’s if not Liberty’s generalized other was pretty well-defined. Dirk Smillie claims Jerry acquired the Sword of the Lord mailing list from John R. Rice late in Rice’s life; this gave Jerry a “generalized other” of roughly 120,000 fundamentalists, many of them pastors. Needless to say not all of them sent students to Liberty, but I suspect it’s safe to say that much of what we did at Liberty was meant to be safe for their consumption.

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