LYNCHBURG, Va. — Liberty University is defending its decision to invite Glenn Beck to take center stage to address thousands of students during its annual convocation ceremony, whose speech included references to Joseph Smith and Mormon theology.
As previously reported, the outspoken conservative talk show host, and founder of the news outlet The Blaze, compared Mormonism to Christianity during his half-hour speech-turned sermon last month and cited that the Lord gave him a message of coming back to “settle scores.”
“I am Mormon and share your faith,” Beck asserted during his spiritually-mixed charge to students, as he stood in front of a large banner bearing the university’s motto, “Training Champions for Christ.”
Beck was introduced by President Jerry Falwell, who noted that the university presented the political commentator with an honorary doctorate in 2010 as he likewise addressed the students during that time. Falwell remarked that the “Sounds of Liberty” also performed at Beck’s “Restoring Honor” event that year in Washington, which the university chancellor attended.
“I heard him yesterday on the radio,” Falwell remarked. “He probably didn’t realize this, but he was using Liberty’s verse—sort of our motto here—’Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’”
Beck then took the podium to applause and cheers, explaining that he believed he was given a message from God that day to share with the students.
“Are you willing to give your life?” Beck asked fervently. “What are you willing to do? What is it that means something to you?”
“Days before Joseph Smith was martyred he was taken out by the sheriff; they tried to tar and feather him several times,” he explained. “The last time they took him, they said, ‘You owe $25.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t owe a man anything.’ They said, ‘No, you stole a stove’—one of the most ridiculous charges I’ve ever heard.”
“At that time, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his pocket watch,” Beck continued, displaying the relic that he said belonged to Smith, considered a prophet of God in Mormonism. “He gave it to the sheriff and said, ‘I owe no man nothing.’ They let him go. They killed him, but on the warrant for his arrest, he wrote on the back of his warrant to his people, ‘Put down your guns. No matter what happens, put down your guns. Put down your guns and trust in the Lord.’”
He then compared Smith’s story to the challenges that Liberty students may face in the days ahead.
“You are going to be pushed and challenged every step of the way,” Beck said. “What is it that you truly believe?”
Later in his message, the Mormon talk show host told the students that “no one in the Grand Councils” sent them to earth just to make a living. Beck was referring to the Mormon belief that human souls pre-existed in heaven, and that a gathering of heavenly beings known as the Grand Councils, send certain individuals to earth to accomplish a special purpose.
“You didn’t come down for a job. You came to this university maybe thinking, ‘I have to have an education to get a job.’ You need this education from Liberty University because of your only true job, the purpose you were sent here for,” he said.
Beck’s comments were met with cheers and applause during several points in his speech, and was given a standing ovation by many in attendance upon his conclusion.
But some expressed dismay at the invitation, including ex-Mormons who said that those of other religions should not be given the platform, which creates an appearance of credibility.
“It’s wrong,” Tricia Erickson, daughter of a former Mormon bishop and author of Can Mitt Romney Serve Two Masters? told Christian News Network. “It’s like me opening my front door and saying to a Muslim, ‘Come on in. If [my children] like what you have to say, it’s up to them. They can decide; you can just preach to them.’”
“If you’re a parent, certainly you’re not going to have someone come into your home [and be] around your children that is going to distort their judgment of Christianity, and that’s going to tell them things that are blasphemous to a living God and pose them as the truth,” she said. “At universities, we as adults have to protect our youth. These are going to be our future leaders.”
On Monday, Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service published a response from Liberty University regarding Beck’s appearance, stating that the university often uses its convocation services to present those of diverse beliefs, which it believes can be beneficial for students’ faith.
“You should remember that Liberty University’s Convocation is not a church service,” Johnnie Moore, senior vice president of communications, told Merritt. “We have explained over the decades repeatedly that convocation is an opportunity for students to hear from people of all faiths and from all walks of life. Liberty has also made it clear repeatedly that it does not endorse any statements made by any convocation speaker.”
“College is about learning. How can you defend what you believe if you don’t understand what others believe?” he continued. “I believe our students are stronger in their faith because of our convocation speaker series and the wide diversity of views that they have been privileged to hear in person over the last few decades.”
Moore also asserted that he had been informed that Beck recently had become born again.
“By the way, many conservative evangelical leaders who are closer to Beck than me have told me that they believe Beck has had a born again experience recently,” he explained. “I do not know his heart but our audience knows that he was speaking only for himself and expressing his personal opinions and beliefs, not those of Liberty University or even of Mormonism generally.”
“As Jerry Falwell, Sr., our founder, often used to say about speakers at Liberty who had different views than him, Liberty students are smart enough to eat the fish and spit out the bones! I believe that’s as true today as it was in his day,” Moore concluded.
Beck likewise went on the defense during his radio show on Tuesday, acknowledging that his faith is unlike that of Liberty University, while denouncing those who disagreed with his speech.
“This is why your churches are dwindling,” he said. “You think you’re standing for something, when indeed, you’re standing for hate and bigotry. I think Jesus was hanging out with prostitutes and sinners, wasn’t He?”
“You won’t even listen to a man who says … ‘I challenge you to know your faith—not my faith—your faith so well that you’re willing to die for it. Stand with one another,’” Beck continued. “That frightens you so much? If it does, you might want to consider that you’re on the wrong side.”
Still, some remain concerned over the invitation, stating that the university seemed to embrace Beck rather than repudiate his Mormon teachings.
“The alarming feature of [the] message is that Beck did not appear as a political or cultural leader; instead, he used his time to preach a message full of theological assertions that were unchallenged by the university, and which received a standing ovation from Jerry Falwell at the end of the event,” wrote James Duncan, an associate professor of communication at Anderson University in South Carolina, in a recent blog post. “Liberty’s website boasted of the event’s success, again without providing any disclaimer from or correction to Beck’s deceptive and anti-Christian teaching.”
“Glenn Beck was invited to a Christian university and was able to preach to thousands of its students as if he were a brother in Christ,” he said. “If Liberty’s administrators knew [his beliefs], they did not warn their students of Beck’s apostasy, and in so doing flatly ignored Paul’s instructions on how to treat such teachers.”
Duncan then pointed to Galatians 1:6-8, which says in part, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
According to reports, as with other convocations, students who skipped the event were fined $10 for their failure to attend the ceremony.
Liberty University did not respond to requests for further clarification.