Pompeo and Huckabee top list of new 'fellows' as Liberty University rebrands culture war arm

Liberty University's Standing for Freedom Center—until recently known as the Falkirk Center—announced its new class of fellows Thursday, making it clear that the organization may have a new name but it has not abandoned its purpose of promoting the religious right's "biblical worldview" in culture and public policy. The new fellows are former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Arkansas Governor and failed presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, anti-abortion rights activist Abby Johnson, and brother anti-LGBTQ culture warrior duo David and Jason Benham.

Earlier this year, the university ditched the Falkirk name, presumably to distance the center from its disgraced co-founder and former president, Jerry Falwell, Jr. It has also said goodbye to its earlier crop of fellows, which included Falkirk Center co-founder Charlie Kirk, president of right-wing youth organization Turning Point USA; Jenna Ellis, a Trump attorney who now hosts her own TV show, unironically called "Just the Truth"; pundit, conspiracy theorist, and so-called Stop the Steal activist Eric Metaxas; and Steve Bannon acolyte and former White House aide Sebastian Gorka.

Executive Director Ryan Helfenbein remains in place. As Right Wing Watch noted in December, when the center celebrated its first anniversary, Helfenbein touted the organization's aggressive posture, saying, "We don't just want to be an organization that barks; we want to be an organization that bites." The center bragged that it had "consistently encouraged churches and pastors to defy" pandemic-related "lockdown orders." Among the center's first-year accomplishments was "Get Louder," a "faith summit" held last September, which included Christian Reconstructionist Gary DeMar on a panel moderated by Metaxas.

The Standing for Freedom Center's new fellows have the credentials one would expect for a religious-right center that aims to bite:

Mike Pompeo used his position as secretary of state to promote the religious right's agenda at home and abroad. He created the Commission on Unalienable Rights—which has been repudiated by the Biden administration—to create justification for a narrow view of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. As secretary of state, Pompeo opened doors in other countries for a Bible study ministry that teaches public officials that the Bible requires them to back right-wing social, economic, environmental, and criminal justice policies. Pompeo and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar worked to create a new global "pro-family" coalition of anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice regimes and to celebrate governmental enforcement of "traditional" religious values on gender, sexuality, and family. Pompeo is a longtime religious-right favorite who, as a member of Congress, promoted Christian nationalism and associated with anti-Muslim activists. Axios reported this week that Pompeo is "pouring money" into a new PAC called Champion American Values in apparent preparation for a 2024 presidential run. Update: "Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo violated federal ethics rules governing the use of taxpayer-funded resources when he and his wife, Susan, asked State Department employees to carry out tasks for their personal benefit more than 100 times, a government watchdog has determined," Politico reported Friday.

Mike Huckabee, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2016, has remained active in religious-right politics since turning to punditry after his failed 2016 campaign. The former Arkansas governor is the honorary chairman of the religious-right get-out-the-vote operation My Faith Votes, which was active in the 2020 elections, including the Georgia Senate runoffs. Huckabee spoke at the Falkirk "Get Louder" summit last year and appeared on an Intercessors for America call in September, where he warned that if conservative Christians didn't turn out to vote, the government would force churches to shut down. He also appeared in "Trump 2024: The World After Trump," a religious-right "documentary" that promoted Trump's reelection. Last year, Huckabee said, "Redefining gender and sexual identity is the 'greatest threat' to the moral fiber of America," and blamed the existence of transgender people on Christian churches' failure to teach a "biblical standard of maleness and femaleness." Huckabee has railed against the Supreme Court's marriage equality ruling and has claimed that the president could criminalize abortion without a Supreme Court decision or constitutional amendment. Huckabee's daughter, former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is running to follow in her father's footsteps and become the next governor of Arkansas.

Abby Johnson is an anti-abortion rights activist who spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention and participated in the so-called Stop the Steal campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Johnson has become a religious-right superstar with her disputed story—dramatized in the movie "Unplanned"—about having worked for Planned Parenthood before having an epiphany about abortion. The day before the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Johnson spoke at the D.C. rally at which Stop the Steal's Ali Alexander led cheers of "Victory or Death!" Johnson told the crowd she was there "to defend the most pro-life president we have ever had in the history of the United States." She said that she is tired of "compromise," which she said "has led to our houses of worship being unconstitutionally closed for months and months." In her speech at the Jan. 5 rally, she shamed American Christians for not doing more to shut down clinics that perform abortions, saying, "It is time, patriots, to stop worrying about offending your neighbor and start worrying offending the heart of God." She also targeted COVID-19 vaccine research, saying, "Shame on us for accepting and peddling vaccines that were produced on the back of aborted babies." And she exhorted, "It's time to rise up. It is time to fight back. It is time to be bold. Enough! Enough of these cowardly leaders!" Johnson once said it would be "smart" for police to racially profile her adopted biracial son because "statistically, my brown son is more likely to commit a violent offense over my white sons."

David and Jason Benham. The Benham brothers became religious-right folk heroes and martyrs to "political correctness" in 2014 when HGTV canceled plans for a television show starring the duo after Right Wing Watch and others reported on their anti-LGBTQ activities. The brothers, who have repeatedly portrayed the "homosexual agenda" as aligned with Satan, were actively involved in pushing anti-LGBTQ legislation in North Carolina in 2016; they had earlier called for the Charlotte city government to deny permits for LGBTQ pride events and organized an anti-gay prayer rally when the Democratic National Convention was held there. The brothers are also active opponents of reproductive choice. In 2017, a month before they appeared at the Values Voter Summit—not for the first time—they said that hurricanes striking the U.S. were a warning for the country to repent for "breaching the boundaries of God" on gender, sexuality, and marriage. That summer, they declared, "Discrimination against gay people simply does not exist." Earlier that year, the pair said they would skip the Super Bowl halftime show featuring Lady Gaga, warning, "The vine of Sodom has pierced and penetrated our nation at one of the biggest sporting events of the year." The Benhams initially backed Sen. Ted Cruz for president in 2016 and joined a campaign advisory council that recommended that a President Cruz roll back federal job protections for LGBTQ people. In 2015, David Benham spoke at the supposedly "nonpolitical" prayer rally organized by Christian nationalist political operative David Lane and railed against the LGBTQ movement and the church for not doing enough to stop it.

In other news, on Thursday, Liberty sued Falwell for $10 million, alleging that he "withheld scandalous and potentially damaging information from Liberty's board of trustees while negotiating a generous new contract for himself in 2019 under false pretenses," the New York Times reported. The lawsuit also alleges that Falwell failed to disclose his "personal impairment by alcohol."

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