Falwell's remarks on Trump spur Liberty grads to return their diplomas

By  | 

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — A small group of Liberty University graduates are planning to return their diplomas to the evangelical Virginia school as a rebuke of President Jerry Falwell Jr.'s latest show of unwavering support for Donald Trump.

The Liberty alumni organized the "Return your diploma to LU group" on Facebook after Falwell, in tweets and interviews, defended the president's response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that led to deadly violence.

After members of the so-called alt-right, KKK and neo-Nazis clashed with counter-protesters, Trump said several sides deserved blame. Two days later, Trump condemned neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the KKK by name, calling them hate groups. But a day after that, Trump again said Charlottesville was an issue with multiple sides.

"You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent," Trump said.

Democrats and Republicans, business executives, artists and religious leaders have criticized Trump for saying "both sides" were to blame. But Falwell, an early and ardent Trump supporter, is among a number of evangelicals standing up for the president.

In a Sunday interview, he reiterated that support, saying he agreed with Trump's statement that there were "very fine people on both sides" in Charlottesville.

"President Donald Trump does not have a racist bone in his body. I know him well. He loves all people," Falwell said Monday in an interview with "Fox & Friends." He said the president had made "very clear" who the culprits were because he called out "the Nazis, the white supremacists, the KKK members by name."

After Falwell's "Fox & Friends" interview, Trump tweeted his appreciation, saying Falwell had been "fantastic."

"The Fake News should listen to what he had to say. Thanks Jerry!" Trump tweeted.

Chris Gaumer, a former Student Government Association president, told NPR, "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."

The alumni group has more than 300 members on Facebook. They plan to return their diplomas by Sept. 5.

In the following group letter to the University, alumni ask Falwell to retract his remarks:

"While this state of affairs has been in place for many months, the Chancellor's recent comments on the attack upon our neighbors in Charlottesville have brought our outrage and our sorrow to a boiling point. During the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, white supremacists, nationalists, and neo-Nazis perpetrated brutal violence against anti-racist protesters, murdering one woman and injuring many. Instead of condemning racist and white nationalist ideologies, Mr. Trump provided equivocal and contradictory comments. The Chancellor then characterized Mr. Trump's remarks, which included the claim that some of the persons marching as white nationalists and white supremacists at the rally were 'very fine people,' as 'bold' and 'truthful.' This is incompatible with Liberty University's stated values, and incompatible with a Christian witness."

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

The alumni group hopes "revoking all support" will send a message to the board of trustees that Falwell is unfit to lead the university.

The group says it plans to return diplomas to Falwell's office by Sept. 5.

Falwell dismissed the protest on Monday, telling The Associated Press that it's "all just grandstanding."

A group of students called Liberty United Against Trump attracted national media attention by rebuking Falwell for expressing support of Trump after he was heard making vulgar comments about women in a 2005 video.

Still, election results showed Trump won the vast majority of votes on campus.

Trump has earned some of his highest approval ratings from evangelicals throughout his tumultuous presidency, and Falwell isn't alone among religious leaders who continue to support him. Trump dismantled other presidential boards amid multiple defections last week, but only one of Trump's evangelical advisers has quit.