On Sept. 8, students stood outside the Berry Performing Arts Center to protest the invitation of conservative author and radio host Eric Metaxas to speak on the John Brown University campus.
The Center for Faith and Flourishing (CFF) hosted the event “Should Christians Vote for Trump?” which aimed to offer a voice to Christians who either support or oppose the reelection of President Donald Trump. Representing the affirmative side was Metaxas and the opposing side was David French, attorney, political commentator and author.
Given Metaxas’ controversial actions featured in the news since May, some students and JBU alumni felt concern that the public figure would be visiting campus. In response to Metaxas’ involvement in the event, a group of students decided to form Love Activates Action, a university movement which advocates for marginalized students on campus, according to its Instagram profile, @love_activates_action. The movement encouraged students who opposed Metaxas’ invitation to JBU to email the organizers to express their discontent.
Emily Branum, senior Spanish major and leader of Love Activates Action, further explained the meaning behind the movement. “If you identify strongly as a Christian, loving your neighbor is one of the tenets of Christianity,” she said. “It definitely is just a continual process of encouraging you to listen to people asking you to love them, and I feel like that’s more of the goal of Love Activates Action.”
Before the debate began, students gathered with signs that expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ pride. Attendees who arrived at the recital hall could read Love Activates Action’s signs laid on the grass next to the sidewalk. According to Love Activates Action’s official statement on Instagram, the goals of the protest were to “create awareness surrounding the harmful, toxic effects Eric Metaxas can have on our student body” because of the remarks that “devalue BIPOC thought and life.”
At the scene, students, some of whom expressed support for Metaxas’ invitation, also gathered to share their views and engage in discussion. Easton Hubbard, sophomore accounting major, shared his experience hearing the protesters’ stance on Metaxas. “I think that if they were more educated on the topics they would be able to have more conversations,” he said. “They didn’t have any research, statistics and facts to back up what they were saying, and I think they took a couple of things from Metaxas out of context, too.”
A few minutes after the event wrapped up, student protesters held their signs high for Metaxas to see as he walked out of the building. A couple of students shouted, “Black lives matter,” and, “Conversion therapy kills.” Some requested answers from Metaxas on the physical altercation with a protester at the Republican National Convention. Although he did not comment at that moment, he previously mentioned in an email to Religion Unplugged that the protester was menacing.
As student opinions grew more divisive leading up to the event, CFF addressed student concerns with Metaxas’ invitation to campus a week prior to the debate. “JBU knows how to respectfully and reasonably engage with those with whom we disagree. We also trust that no one in our community will use the past statements or behavior of an invited speaker as an excuse to harass or act offensively toward any other member of our community,” the emailed statement read. “Verbally aggressive or violent approaches are not in keeping with principles of civil dialogue or engagement, nor are they consistent with JBU’s core guiding principles to support and care for individual uniqueness.”
After receiving word of the event on social media, Kacie Galloway, JBU alumna 2016, joined the movement and emailed the university. “I think an event like this definitely has the capacity to bring things to the surface that are already tense, which is one thing that I noted in my email to the school,” she explained. “I am perfectly okay with an event like this happening, but Eric Metaxas is not the appropriate person to be on that panel.”
However, students were not only divided on Metaxas’ visit to campus, but on the debate itself. The conversations shifted to more serious topics like LGBTQ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. “When I heard that [the protesters] are in support of the LGBTQ people on JBU, I think as a Christian, we shouldn’t hate people of the LGBTQ community, but we also shouldn’t outwardly go out there and support it,” Hubbard said regarding the student organization. “Personally, I also think that what motivated me to go out there is that they’re anti-Trump and anti-right conservative, not anti-Eric Metaxas, because every time there’s a conservative speaker, there’s usually a protest.”
The debate and Metaxas’ coming to campus gathered the attention of a large population and sparked political conversations among the student body, faculty and staff. Immediately after the event, Instagram accounts shared memes related to the event and the protests. However, some of the students found the memes to be offensive. “It’s sad that those meme pages are what a lot of our underclassmen see,” Branum said. “That’s not what you want to promote on your younger students.”
Hubbard, on the other hand, advocates for free speech. “I think all groups should have the freedom of speech because, when you start censoring any speech, then where do you stop? Who’s in control, censoring this?” he said. “No one’s ever going to be in the middle, so you can’t censor anything, but when people start making threats, that’s where you draw the line.”
Galloway, who graduated from JBU with a degree in journalism, further explained the difference between free speech and hate speech. “When someone’s ideas or writings bleed over into causing direct, indirect or suggested harm, then that’s a problem,” she said. “If you give a platform to hateful speech just in order to criticize it, you’re still giving a platform to hate speech, and, in the internet world, we call that ‘feeding the trolls.’”
In order to continue the conversations already happening both online and offline, JBU’s Residence Life hosted a talkback session on Sept. 9 with JBU faculty and staff serving as facilitators. The event provided a safe space for sharing ideas and asking questions relevant to the debate. “You have a bunch of different people with different perspectives talking about [the event], and so you can hear what different people think about it,” Hubbard said.
Photos: Brooke Baldwin and María Aguilar, The Threefold Advocate