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Some Liberty University Grads Are Returning Their Diplomas To Protest Trump

Updated August 22.

A group of alumni from one of the country's most influential evangelical Christian universities is condemning their school's president for his continued alignment with President Trump.

A small but growing number of Liberty University graduates are preparing to return diplomas to their school. The graduates are protesting university President Jerry Falwell Jr.'s ongoing support for Trump. They began organizing after Trump's divisive remarks about the deadly white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Va.

Chris Gaumer, a former Student Government Association president and 2006 graduate, said it was a simple decision.

"I'm sending my diploma back because the president of the United States is defending Nazis and white supremacists," Gaumer said. "And in defending the president's comments, Jerry Falwell Jr. is making himself and, it seems to me, the university he represents, complicit."

Liberty graduate Chris Gaumer said that "Jerry Falwell Jr. is making himself and, it seems to me, the university he represents, complicit," with President Trump's comments about white supremacists.
/ Courtesy of Chris Gaumer
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Courtesy of Chris Gaumer
Liberty graduate Chris Gaumer said that "Jerry Falwell Jr. is making himself and, it seems to me, the university he represents, complicit," with President Trump's comments about white supremacists.

Trump has been criticized — including by many Republicans — for a series of statements after an anti-racist counterprotester was killed by an alleged Nazi sympathizer who drove his car into the crowd.

Trumpinitially responded by blaming "many sides" for the violence, and then made a statementcondemning white supremacists, before eventually giving an off-the-cuff statementin which he claimed that there were "very fine people on both sides."

Falwellresponded the next day with a tweet praising Trump's statement and adding, "So proud of @realdonaldtrump."

Falwell later followed up with a tweet calling white supremacists, Nazis, and other hate groups "pure evil and un-American."

In a statement Tuesday, the University said it supports its students' right to express their opinions but also jabbed at the tactic of returning diplomas:

In January 2016, Falwell became one of the earliest evangelical leaders toendorse the billionaire candidate, at a time when many conservative Christian leaders were expressing concern about Trump's multiple marriages and past support for abortion rights.

Last October, some Liberty students circulated a petition opposing Trump after the release of a 2005 Access Hollywood video where he could be heard bragging about groping women without their consent. Students also criticized Falwell for defending Trump.

Falwell invited Trump to give the first commencement speech of his term as president to Liberty University graduates. During his remarks, President Trump thanked evangelicals for their support at the voting booth last November.

Falwell isn't alone among his evangelical peers in continuing to stand with the president. In recent days, multiple members of Trump's evangelical advisory board have publiclycondemned white supremacy, though mosthave stopped short of criticizing the president by name.

A university spokesman told NPR that Falwell "wants to make it clear that he considers all hate groups evil and condemns them in every sense of the word."

In a group letter being prepared to be sent to university officials, several alumni declare their intention to return their diplomas and call for Falwell to repudiate Trump's remarks:

"We're asking that Liberty University return to its stated values and accept that the pursuit of power is leading it into some dark places, and really repudiate that," said Georgia Hamann.
/ Courtesy of Georgia Hamann
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Courtesy of Georgia Hamann
"We're asking that Liberty University return to its stated values and accept that the pursuit of power is leading it into some dark places, and really repudiate that," said Georgia Hamann.

Georgia Hamann, a 2006 alumna and an attorney in Phoenix, Ariz., helped pen the letter.

"We're asking that Liberty University return to its stated values and accept that the pursuit of power is leading it into some dark places, and really repudiate that," she said. "The word in Baptist and evangelical circles is 'repent.'... You know, truly a turning away from wrong conduct."

Alumni who can't find their diplomas are being asked to sign the group letter or write individual letters to Falwell expressing their concerns.

Some Liberty graduates see Falwell's association with Trump as both a personal liability and a moral embarrassment. Rebekah Tilley graduated from Liberty in 2002 and now works in higher education in Iowa.

"I was to the point where I didn't even want to include my alma mater on my resume when I was applying for jobs, just because I think that can be so loaded," Tilley said. "There's such a strong affiliation now between Liberty University and President Trump that you know that reflects badly on all alumni."

For Doug Johnson Hatlem, a 1999 graduate who now works as a Mennonite pastor in Ontario, Canada, Charlottesville feels like a tipping point for many alumni who have been concerned about the university's association with Trump.

"It really is a watershed moment to have people openly chanting Nazi chants ... holding white supremacist signs, and carrying weapons along with all of that, and killing somebody, injuring many in the process," he said. "For there not to be an unconditional condemnation of that kind of action and behavior is just completely anathema."

Johnson Hatlem said returning diplomas is an important symbolic statement.

"I'll have to have my mom dig it out of storage," he said. "But I do plan to send back my diploma to Liberty."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.