A new rollout of convocation speakers for Liberty University includes two national political figures in Tomi Lahren and Corey Lewandowski and former NFL running back Ray Rice, who sent shockwaves throughout the sports world in 2014 when he was caught on camera punching his then-fiancée.
The Liberty Office of Spiritual Development announced the lineup via Twitter on Monday.
David Nasser, LU’s senior vice president for spiritual development who is responsible for scheduling convocation speakers, said Rice would appear with Janay Palmer, who now is his wife, to discuss the healing power of the gospel and how they have worked to repair their relationship in the aftermath of the assault. Nasser described Rice as repentant and aware of the mistakes he made.
“He wants to talk about how the Gospel affords him a chance to redeem his life. Certainly the consequences are still there, he’s not playing in the NFL anytime soon — or ever — but that doesn’t mean that God can’t restore a life or a marriage,” Nasser said in a phone interview.
Rice, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, played for the Baltimore Ravens from 2008 until his release in 2014 after a video surfaced in which Rice assaulted Palmer. Rice initially was suspended two games. He then was suspended indefinitely and later cut by the Ravens when the video was released.
Rice has not played in the NFL since the assault.
The video, first published by TMZ, was taken by a security camera in an elevator in an Atlantic City casino and showed Rice punch Palmer and then drag her limp body out when the doors opened.
Nasser said domestic violence would be a central theme of Rice’s convocation address, and Rice and his wife went to counseling to restore their relationship following the famous assault.
“We love a redemption story at Liberty,” Nasser said.
Like Nasser, LU student Michael Cyrus sees Rice’s appearance as a teachable moment.
“I know Ray Rice is not a common or popular choice but the fact that Liberty invited him is a great thing. I think that in order for students to really have a wide array of view points and experiences we need to hear from all sides on every issue. It can be a powerful opportunity to teach us about forgiveness and the gospel,” Cyrus wrote to The News & Advance via social media.
Nasser noted LU has booked other speakers in the past — such as former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci — who have made mistakes they’ve had to live with.
“Our students need to see all kinds of people walk up to our platform and speak,” Nasser said.
Like Scaramucci, Lahren and Lewandowski also have been lightning rods for controversy.
Lahren, who began her broadcast career with One America News Network, gained a national following as an outspoken conservative commentator on social issues. She has stirred controversy with her commentary, including comparing the Black Lives Matter movement to the Klu Klux Klan.
Earlier this year, Lahren allegedly was fired from Glenn Beck’s online network The Blaze, which she joined in late 2015, for making pro-choice comments. She now is a Fox News contributor.
Nasser noted Lahren’s pro-choice views aren’t shared by the majority of Liberty students and cited her convocation appearance as an example of Liberty bringing in a speaker it has differences with.
Lewandowski served as campaign manager for then-Republican candidate Donald Trump from January to June 2016, and later was replaced by Paul Manafort. Lewandowski later would go on to serve as an analyst for CNN throughout the 2016 presidential election. He too was a controversial figure, allegedly committing battery against Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields at a campaign event.
Ian Parish, an LU student and member of the College Republicans, expressed frustration at the pro-Trump speakers announced, because he believes they are not reflective of traditional conservatives.
“I think the fact that we’ve invited two outspokenly avid Trump supporters sends a stark message to not only the student body, but the rest of the political sphere: The LU Administration is willing to do whatever it takes to show that it unabashedly supports Trump, no matter what he says or does,” Parish wrote to The News & Advance via social media.
Parish added he was disappointed LU scheduled a “bomb thrower” such as Lahren, when he would rather see Ben Shapiro, a well known conservative who has spoken out against Trump.
Nasser noted with 88 convocations a year, Liberty brings in a variety of speakers. Political figures are common at convocation, which previously has featured Trump and other 2016 presidential candidates such as Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders and sitting U.S. Congress members. Religious leaders, athletes, musicians and comedians also are regular fixtures at LU’s convocation.
Nasser added LU also has invited a number of liberal leaning speakers, who have declined.
Lahren will speak at convocation Dec. 4, Rice will appear Dec. 6, and Lewandowski is scheduled for Dec. 8. Appearing alongside Lewandowski are Steve Strang and David Bossie. Strang authored the book “God and Donald Trump,” and Bossie is a former Trump campaign official, Fox News contributor and president of Citizens United, a conservative activist group known for suing the Federal Election Commission to prohibit restrictions on political donations from corporations.
Convocation is held thrice weekly, and attendance is mandatory for residential students.
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