Oct 21, 2008

Mixing religion and politics

by Tim Mattingly

Liberty University has garnered local and national attention for its campaign to register students to vote in Virginia this semester. With the voter registration deadline passed, Liberty is posed to make an impact in Virginia and throughout the country. The newly registered students, faculty and Thomas Road Baptist Church members number 4,200 strong.

The 4,200 eager and ready voters did not appear out of thin air. They were called forth by Liberty University Chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr., who was a driving force behind out-of-state students registering to vote in Lynchburg.

“Liberty students have never been permitted to register locally in the past. The recent change in election law is giving Liberty University the chance to make history,” said Falwell in a CNN article entitled, “Conservative university could swing Virginia.”

The article’s title implies that each registered Liberty student is expected to vote for Sen. John McCain. It is true, that as a school Liberty is known as a conservative institution. But even more than that, the school is built atop Christian values, which it encourages in its students. The Dean of Liberty School of Law, Mat Staver, spoke recently and stressed the importance of putting Christian values above political affiliation.

“God is neither democrat, republican or independent or Green Party,” Staver said in convocation, according to the Liberty Journal.
But if Liberty students stay true to their generally-conservative mindsets at the voting booths, then they will only amplify the historically-republican, presidential voting habits of Virginia.

Since 1964, Virginia has consistently backed a republican candidate for president, reports CNN. The state has proven itself to be conservative, or at least republican, in its presidential voting allegiance. By this fact, any conservative leanings of Liberty students would only amplify the historical presidential voting habits of Virginia.

But for those crunching the numbers, Liberty could appear to be just another small log on the conservative voting fires of Virginia. After all, compared to the 4.8 million voters registered in the state of Virginia, according to State Board of Elections, the 4,200 from Liberty would seem insignificant. However, in the 2004 elections, the state of Florida was decided by as little as 500 votes.

Also, the election on Nov. 4, 2008 will be witnessing a new Virginia — one that has become a swing state. The term “swing state” implies that Virginia’s voters are not decided on their presidential selection. The state’s 13 electoral votes could end up in either candidate’s corner and even decide who ascends to the Oval Office.

“Wouldn’t it be something if Liberty’s votes were enough to change which presidential candidate won Virginia and maybe even the presidency itself,” said Jerry Falwell Jr. in a Washington Post article.

The article goes on to highlight the effect Liberty could have on the upcoming presidential election by citing two recent state elections — the 2006 U.S. Senate and the 2005 attorney general race. Both offices were decided by less than 10,000 votes.

Liberty’s impact on the national political scale will soon be apparent, but it is the local impact that has some longtime Lynchburg citizens up in arms.

“With bloc-voting by Liberty students, the university could control all three at-large seats on city council, as well the Ward III seat where the school is located,” said Stewart Hobbs, a concerned citizen, in a letter to the News and Advance. “Within the next few years, permanent residents of Lynchburg should be prepared to see the control of city government passed to the control of the university.”

Hobbs’ fears have some factual merit. As of Sept. 30, 2008, the city of Lynchburg had 4,990 new voters register this year, bringing the city total to 44,639 citizens registered to vote, according to the State Board of Elections. Liberty students make up about 84 percent of the new Lynchburg voters and nearly 10 percent of Lynchburg’s total voting muscle. This being said, some locals worry that the city’s politics will soon become unbalanced with this tilt in the scales.

“City Council and the School Board have provided pragmatic, sensible leadership for Lynchburg, largely because moderate democrats and moderate republicans have long put aside partisan differences at the local level and elected sensible candidates,” said Lynchburg resident John Guthrow, in a letter to the News and Advance. “With thousands of LU students voting in at-large council elections,Lynchburg could easily see council dominated by religious zealots.”

Despite local suspicions, there are some factual differences between the Lynchburg city elections and the presidential election that may put them at ease.

The first major difference is the fact that students are constantly inundated with media related to the 2008 presidential elections. It is impossible to watch the news with out the election, the candidates or their running mates being mentioned in some way or another.
Also, Liberty students will be provided every conceivable convenience on Nov. 4, 2008, in order to allow them the opportunity to vote.

The day has been blocked off as far as academics are concerned — a political campus field day. Buses will transport students back and forth between the voting booths and campus. Neither of these comforts will be provided to students for the city of Lynchburg elections.

A final note of importance is the fact that the last city of Lynchburg elections took place on May 5, 2008, according to the News and Advance. Generally in May, a student’s main concern lies with finals and going home. In order for Liberty students to impact the city’s 2009 elections, they would have to set aside their studies and preparations for the end of the semester. Quite frankly, students value their GPAs far more than whoever is elected Lynchburg’s city council.

Then the only remaining “concern” for locals is the students who stay, work and live in Lynchburg. While they may not have lived in Lynchburg their whole lives, it is still their home. The constitution gives these students the right to be heard and if they so choose, to voice their local political opinion.

Nothing is certain as the presidential election hangs in the balance and Liberty’s red flames mingle with Virginia’s red clay in the political arena. For the first time in history, this school on the mountain is positioned to set sparks to the presidential election. And who knows, maybe Liberty can even coax the old red clay into a landslide.

 


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