So Jesus WAS on a Dinosaur…?

We just don’t know what we’re talking about.

Could've happened...?

Could’ve happened…?

A new poll inspired by the hit movie Jurassic World suggests that Americans don’t know much about much. Thanks to the ever-watchful folks at the National Center for Science Education, we see some startling responses to a simple question: Did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time?

As YouGov explained,

YouGov’s latest research shows that 41% of Americans think that dinosaurs and humans either ‘definitely’ (14%) or ‘probably’ (27%) once lived on the planet at the same time. 43% think that this is either ‘definitely’ (25%) or ‘probably’ (18%) not true while 16% aren’t sure. In reality the earliest ancestors of humans have only been on the planet for 6 million years, while the last dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago.

Ouch.

For evangelicals, the numbers are even more skewed. A clear majority (56%) of evangelical Protestants think humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Only 22% of evangelicals thought that dinosaurs and humans did not.

...doh!

…doh!

As the National Center for Science Education points out, there are a couple of possible wrinkles in this poll. Most scientists these days consider birds to be dinosaurs. Is that what the respondents meant? The NCSE charitably suspends judgment, but it seems obvious to your humble editor that most of us just don’t know what we’re talking about.

Gay Marriage and Christian Resistance

What is a conservative Christian to do? The US Supreme Court’s decision in favor of gay marriage has sent shock waves across America. Will conservative Christians accept this decision? Or, as some have warned, does this move our culture war over sexuality one step closer to real war?

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms...

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms…

Of particular interest at ILYBYGTH these days, the new ruling will likely meet its first test at conservative religious colleges. As we’ve noted (and as the New York Times eventually noticed) the SCOTUS ruling has brought up questions about the limits of acceptable dissent in higher ed. Can schools discriminate against homosexual “practice?” As I’m writing about in my current book, the same tension played out in the 1970s, when Bob Jones University insisted on its religious right to racial discrimination. It seems colleges will be the first institutions to feel pressure to accommodate demands to end institutional discrimination against homosexuals.

The reaction to the SCOTUS decision has been fast and furious among conservative evangelicals and other Christians. Rick Scarborough of Vision America told the New York Times that the decision must be resisted. “If they change the playing field and make what we do out of bounds,” Scarborough said,

we will disobey; we will disrespect this decision. . . . We’ll treat it like Dred Scott and other decisions courts have handed down over the years that counter natural law. God made a male and a female, and no amount of surgery is going to change that.

Similarly, Robert Jeffress told the Christian Post that the decision proves America’s persecution of Christians. As the Rev. Jeffress put it,

I think today’s decision is just one more step in the marginalization of conservative Christians. I made this argument and have been ridiculed for doing so, but I think it is very legitimate. The Nazis did not take the Jews to the crematoriums immediately. . . . The German people would not have put up with that. Instead, the Nazis begin to marginalize the Jewish people, make them objects of contempt and ridicule. Once they changed the public opinion about the Jewish people, then they engaged the [Holocaust]. . . . Once secularists have made Christians objects of contempt, I think it will be very easy to revoke other rights that they have as American citizens.

And in the pages of World Magazine, Ryan Shinkel advocated Christian resistance to an overweening state and society. “The movement for marital restoration is beginning,” Shinkel wrote just before the SCOTUS decision,

and the chance for moral courage and a life daring to be countercultural is at hand. By continuing to speak up for religious freedom, the restoration of a marriage culture, and dignity of the family in the face of potential setbacks at the Supreme Court, we can become the Nietzscheans who hammer the libertine and atomistic idols of our age.

Secular folks like me, progressive people who celebrate the SCOTUS decision, might blanch at these dire warnings. Some of my friends and colleagues might take these statements as proof that conservative Christians will never admit to marriage equality. But folks like us need to listen also to the other voices of conservative Christians.

In the Washington Post, for example, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention suggests Christians calm down. It is a terrible ruling, Moore agrees. And it does indeed push conservative evangelicals into a dissenting position that might seem “freakish” these days. But so what? Moore wants conservatives to “embrace a freakishness that saves.”

Similarly, Mark Galli of Christianity Today worries that evangelicals will react badly. “The temptation,” he writes,

is to go off and sulk in our holy corner. Or to dig in our heels and fight harder. Or to lash out in anger. Or to despair. We can do better.

The goal for Christians, Galli writes, is to take confidence that they are on the right side, God’s side. This decision provides another healthy—if intensely uncomfortable—opportunity for Christians to re-engage with important questions above love, marriage, and the proper relationship between Church and society. Though some conservatives might offer extreme rhetoric, Galli warns, evangelicals in America “are far from living at the margins.”

If we are to make sense of the culture-war rhetoric surrounding this SCOTUS decision, we need at least to remember some historical precedent. As I’ve argued elsewhere, for generations evangelical Christians have been battered by landmark SCOTUS decisions that seem to kick them out of public life. In every case, evangelical pundits have insisted that each new SCOTUS decision changed America from a Christian nation to a persecuting Babylon. In every case, however, evangelicals have continued to wield enormous cultural and political power.

Will this decision be any different? Will this decision really change the balance of power in America’s continuing culture-war debates?

Good Seats Still Available!

The 2015-2016 lineup at Binghamton University is looking like another winner. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School has just agreed to come up in the spring for a talk about his work with science communication.

We had a very exciting year last year, too. Michael Berkman visited from Penn State. Professor Berkman gave a great talk to our Evolution Studies program about his work with evolution education. Then in May, Jonathan Zimmerman from New York University delivered our annual Couper Lecture. Professor Zimmerman blew our minds with some of the most provocative ideas from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Folks who spend a lot of time with science, creationism, and public perceptions will be familiar with Professor Kahan’s work. His Cultural Cognition Project has explored exciting new directions in the tricky field of science communication. As Professor Kahan will tell you, we’re all Pakistani doctors; we’re all Kentucky farmers.

Details of Professor Kahan’s talk to follow. It will likely be a Monday evening in the early months of 2016. As always, the seminars hosted by Binghamton’s stellar Evolution Studies Program are free and open to the public.

Can’t wait.

Creationism Then & Now

Do you read Ted Davis? For folks interested in the creation/evolution debates, Professor Davis has long produced essential historical analyses of the various voices of creationism in all their befuddling complexity. I was reading one of Professor Davis’ essays on the Biologos Forum recently and it raised some perennial questions: Can we compare the dissenting science of today’s creationists to the scientific ideas of long ago? Can today’s creationists claim a long legacy of prestigious scientific antecedents?

Cutting-edge creation science, c. 1827

Cutting-edge creation science, c. 1827

Davis is writing these days about science and creationism in antebellum America. In this post, he explains the school of “Scriptural Geology” that attracted religious scientists in the early 1800s. Scholars such as Princeton Seminary’s Samuel Miller and Anglican minister George Bugg rebutted new(ish) ideas of an ancient earth.

Professor Davis pointed out the remarkable similarities of their 19th-century arguments with the 21st-century arguments of today’s young-earth creationists. As Davis put it,

Readers familiar with Henry Morris or Ken Ham will find many of their ideas, expressed in substantially the same ways and for the same reasons, in the pages of Bugg’s book.

Now, Professor Davis would be the last person to ignore historical context or to misunderstand the historical changes that have wracked the world of creationist scientists. Yet his comparison to the Scriptural Geologists to Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research points out the radical changes that have taken place in the realms of creationism and science.

In the 1820s, discussions of the age of the earth still had some fading legitimacy among mainstream scientists. Even as late as the 1920s, when American politicians such as William Jennings Bryan insisted that “Darwinism” was losing scientific prestige, their claims made some sense. In the 1920s, for example, mainstream scientists had not yet cobbled together the modern evolutionary synthesis. They had not yet figured out how to reconcile the mechanism of natural selection with the maintenance of beneficial mutations.

As I describe in my upcoming book, mainstream science has changed enormously over the course of the twentieth century. Positions that made some scientific sense in 1827, or 1927, lost those claims as the 20th century progressed.

As an obvious result, there yawns an enormous gulf between the work of George Bugg and that of Ken Ham or Henry Morris. Today’s young-earth creationists are forced to take the role of utter scientific outsiders. They are forced to dismiss the entirety of mainstream evolutionary science as deluded.

Of course, as Professor Davis explains, earlier “creationists” such as Miller and Bugg also felt like scientific outsiders. But their position was radically different. Saying nearly the exact same thing, as always, can mean very different things, depending on when one says them.

Did Fundamentalism Make Her Do It?

Okay, enough already about Rachel Dolezal and her weird tale of cross-racial activism. But before we let it go, let’s consider one new angle: Did Dolezal’s strange behavior result in part from her upbringing in an abusive fundamentalist homeschooling family?

A fundamental flaw?

A fundamental flaw?

That’s the charge leveled by the folks at Homeschoolers Anonymous. Worried that their coverage seemed to be excusing Rachel Dolezal’s behavior, they have since retracted their argument. (You can still read their original article here.) But it seems to me they raised an important question.

For those of us outside the world of fundamentalist homeschooling, Rachel Dolezal’s life history seems simply bizarre. Why did she list “Jesus Christ” as a witness to her birth? Why did she claim to have been beaten with a “baboon whip” as a child? Most important, why would someone go to such extreme and unnecessary lengths to alter her appearance and life history?

I do not want to excuse anyone’s actions, but I think Homeschoolers Anonymous has a right to point out Dolezal’s extreme evangelical upbringing. It doesn’t prove anything, but it adds background information.

The family was active in young-earth creationism. They apparently subscribed to the abusive philosophy advocated by Michael and Debi Pearl. Last year, Rachel Dolezal’s brother published a shocking memoir of their childhood. As HA summarized,

In his memoir, Joshua recounts growing up in the Dolezal’s conservative, Pentecostal home and church. He recounts a raging father, a mother with extreme suspicions of medicine and doctors, home-birthing with birth certificates listing Jesus as witness to the births, and much more.

Now, we need to add some of the usual caveats:

1.) Behavior that seems odd to secular folks like me does not equal child abuse.

2.) Many conservatives use corporal punishment in a loving, caring way.

3.) It does not excuse Rachel Dolezal’s apparent lies to point out her parents’ extreme beliefs.

4.) Homeschoolers Anonymous certainly has an axe to grind with this expose.

Even taking all those factors into consideration, however, knowing a little bit about Rachel Dolezal’s childhood helps me understand how someone might be driven to immoral extremes in order to separate herself from her past.

Nuf sed.

Wal-Mart and the Death of College

Don’t be fooled. Just because the rumors of Sweet Briar College’s death have been greatly exaggerated, don’t think that small colleges have any reason to be optimistic. And for small conservative religious colleges, there is an even more difficult problem. They need to perform an impossible feat—get more religious and less religious at the same time.

Adorable but unaffordable?

Adorable but unaffordable?

As I’m arguing in my current book, fundamentalist and evangelical colleges and universities have always faced all the same challenges of mainline schools, plus many unique ones. The situation today is exactly the same. Conservative religious colleges face the same sorts of Wal-Mart-style challenges of scale, plus the additional constraints of remaining true to religious orthodoxy.

Though its affluent alumni seem to have saved Sweet Briar College, small evangelical and fundamentalist colleges have been winking out like dead fireflies lately. The reasons are clear. Just as the Wal-Martification of retail stores has made Mom-and-Pop stores impossible, so have the twentieth century’s slow academic revolutions made small colleges impossible. Many of them just don’t seem to know it yet.

What happened at Sweet Briar? The numbers just didn’t add up. Writing in the pages of Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik quoted a gloomy financial report:

A report last month by Moody’s Investors Service said, “In Sweet Briar’s case, challenges included small scale, which, combined with weakening demand, declining pricing flexibility and an insufficient endowment, led to an unsustainable business model.” Some of the very qualities that make alumnae so loyal also make it hard to balance the books, Moody’s said. “Sweet Briar’s model of providing highly personalized education with small class sizes is expensive, as indicated by educational expenses per student of approximately $42,000,” said the report. “Although this cost structure is commensurate with the other rated women’s schools, standing at the median, colleges either need greater pricing flexibility, larger endowments or more gift revenue to sustain the model.”

Small colleges are trapped in a terrible pickle. To survive, they have to achieve a certain minimum size. Otherwise, they can’t afford to offer all the programs and services that students these days expect from a college. But they can’t achieve that minimum size if they keep their prices high. Students will go elsewhere if they are charged the full sticker-price. If schools lower prices, however, they will also die.

In Sweet Briar’s case, activist alumni pledged to raise 12.5 million dollars to keep the school running. That’s a lot of moolah. And no school—not even one with wealthy and involved alumni—can expect to survive only on the good wishes of its past students.

For conservative evangelical schools, the outlook is even more gloomy. In order to attract students, they must continue to demonstrate beyond question their religious orthodoxy. In some cases, such as the controversies lately at Bryan College, Mid-America Nazarene, and Northwest Nazarene, this will mean clamping down on faculty who seem to be moving in a liberal direction. At the same time, however, in order to attract students, they need to widen their pool of potential students. That means offering more programs and more courses. It also means opening up to students from different religious backgrounds. After all, if tuition dollars are getting harder to find, it will get harder and harder to turn paying students away.

Some fundamentalist schools are thriving in this difficult environment, at least for now. Most prominently, Liberty University in Virginia is raking in the dough. By making itself into a leader in online education, Liberty has managed to grow at a breakneck pace in the past decade.

Raking in mountains of dough...

Raking in mountains of dough…

As its online offerings increase, however, Liberty has to somehow demonstrate that it has not watered down its strict religious requirements. Those requirements, after all, are the school’s primary raison d’etre. Even as it pumps money into its football team and its all-year faux snowboard hill, Liberty’s leaders need to watch out for the creeping liberalism that tends to accompany higher-ed growth.

I’m happy for those folks who love Sweet Briar College. But their impressive display of life-support should not give comfort to other college leaders. The fundamental financial situation has not changed. Small colleges have to remain small to maintain their traditional style of teaching, but they have to grow in order to be financially solvent.

Small evangelical colleges face those same impossible challenges, plus some unique ones. They have to remain orthodox in order to keep their niche, yet they have to broaden their appeal in order to survive at all.

I’m glad I’m not in charge of one of those schools.

Mixing It Up with Pope Francis

Confused by the incessant culture-war back and forth on the issue of climate change? Usually, it’s pretty easy to pick a side. Since, as Yale Law School’s Dan Kahan argues, what we “believe” about issues such as evolution, vaccinations, and climate change tells us more about who we are than what we know. Usually, those of us who consider ourselves progressives push for more and faster action on climate change. Those who consider themselves conservatives pooh-pooh the urgency of the issue. Yesterday, Pope Francis threw a St.-Peter’s-size monkey wrench into the works with his encyclical about the environment. In this searing statement, the pope challenged all of us to take a stronger stand about the changing climate.

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Now, I admit, I have not read the full document. It weighs in at 184 pages and I’ll be sure to put it at the top of my reading list. Analysis by the New York Times paints a picture of a fairly radical stand by the Argentinian pope. In short, Pope Francis went further than tut-tutting the bromides of climate science. The pope blamed affluent throwaway culture for the dangerous changes that have already begun. What are we to do? Not just consume smarter, but change our feelings of entitlement and our endless apotheosis of appetite.

Climate change, the pope wrote, is nothing less than “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” It is not enough for us to merely cap-and-trade carbon emissions. It is not enough for us to merely “grow” our way out of the dilemma. The pope’s message is clear, and rather startling in its Greenpeace-scented tones. Those of us who follow culture-war-related developments are more accustomed to the Vatican as a world headquarters for staunchly conservative thinking on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

The new Popemobile?

The new Popemobile?

What does this mean for our climate-change culture wars? It will certainly mess up any bright lines between “conservative” and “progressive” orthodoxies. Of course, we’ve seen conservative intellectuals at places such as Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative who have long promoted this sort of less-is-more conservatism. But by and large, American conservatives might be more likely to agree with Richard Viguerie, who called Pope Francis’ statement a “confusing distraction.”

As Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education has pointed out, American Catholics have been divided on the issue of climate change. “Traditional” Catholics in the USA have tended to be split on the issue and generally have been more interested in preserving traditional religious practices than in environmental activism. Could Pope Francis’ statement push them to action?

More broadly, might the pope’s statement encourage American conservatives to consider tackling climate change as a conservative mission? What about conservative Christians who are not Catholic? Some American evangelicals have openly attacked environmentalism as a “green dragon.” Others have talked about an evangelical environmentalism, calling it “creation care” or respect for the “doctrine of dominion.” Still others have voiced more complicated positions. American creationists, for example, have wondered about their theology of climate change. At the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, for instance, readers are told that climate change is certainly a real phenomenon. But should we worry? Here is AIG’s advice:

should we be alarmed about climate change? Not at all. Yes, climate change is real, but according to the true history book of the universe, we should expect it as a consequence of the cataclysmic Flood. Also, Earth—and Earth’s climate—was designed by the all-knowing, all-wise Creator God. He built an incredible amount of variety into the DNA of His creatures so that they could survive and thrive as Earth’s environments change. Surely the God who equipped life to survive on a changing Earth also designed Earth with the necessary features to deal with environmental changes.

No one doubts the pope’s credentials as a smart, earnest, conservative Christian thinker. Might his encyclical spark a dialogue between conservative Catholics and other conservative Christians about the issue of climate change? Could an inter-Christian, inter-conservative dialogue move conservative Christians towards the pope’s position?

College Sex

More bad news: Sexual assault is more than just another crime on college campuses. It is a crime that has been woven into the fabric of college life itself. Will it cause an exodus to conservative colleges?

The Washington Post recently released the findings of its new poll of college life. After surveying 1,053 students and interviewing fifty, the pollsters concluded that a quarter of college women had suffered “unwanted sexual incidents in college” and a fifth had endured “sexual assault.” That is bad news. The worse news is that the cause of these alarmingly high numbers is college itself. Part of what Americans want out of college has long been a licentious student atmosphere. For Frank the Tank and millions of other Americans, the allure of college includes binge drinking, casual sex, and “streaking the quad.”

These numbers have become—like most contentious issues in education—something of a culture-war football. As the Washington Post report points out, different polls have come up with very different results. The Post poll used a broad definition of sexual assault. Victims are those who have experienced

five types of unwanted contact: forced touching of a sexual nature, oral sex, vaginal sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object. . . . assailants used force or threats of force, or they attacked while their victims were incapacitated.

It is this last phrase that has caused the statistical battle. Last year, a government Bureau of Justice Statistics claimed that only 6.1 out of 1,000 college students experienced sexual attacks, a lower number than non-college students of the same age. But the BJS poll did not include sex that occurred when people were too drunk to give consent.

These days, there are orthodox positions on campus sexual assault. Progressives generally push for harsher punishments for perpetrators. Conservatives often lament the absence of due process on campuses. Hardening culture-war positions can be tested with high-profile cases: Do you think Emma Sulkowicz is a hero or a kook? Do you think Lee Bollinger is a monster?

All sides agree, however, that today’s student culture contributes to the problem. It is normal for students to binge drink. It is normal for students to engage in casual sexual encounters. In such an environment, it can be devilishly difficult to determine if and when students crossed a line from casual drunken sex to incapacitated sexual victimization.

For college leaders, this situation presents an unsolvable puzzle. As historian Roger Geiger has argued, by 1890 most schools participated in the emergence of the modern student lifestyle. Instead of days packed with required chapel visits and several recitations, modern colleges and universities offered students an array of possible majors and a much freer daily schedule. As a result, now-familiar student organizations such as fraternities and athletic teams became important parts of college experiences.

What Geiger called the “collegiate revolution” soon became an expected part of a full college experience. University leaders these days might huff and puff about fighting binge drinking. They might offer counseling and classes about appropriate sexual behavior. But if school leaders really cracked down on the drunken partying that leads to so much of this sexual assault, they’d quickly find themselves out of a job. Alumni donors insist on it. Potential students look for it. Like it or not, one of the expected parts of a college education these days is irresponsible behavior.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m working on a book these days about a dissenting group of colleges and universities. These conservative evangelical schools—schools such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones University in South Carolina—have often participated in many elements of modern academic life. For example, like mainstream schools, fundamentalist colleges divided their work into academic disciplines. They encouraged faculty research. They insisted that students complete high school before entering college. All of these things seem obvious to us, but they all came as revolutionary changes between roughly 1870 and 1920.

But fundamentalist schools resolutely refused to accept some of the revolutionary changes at mainstream colleges. For instance, they did not agree to the emerging concept of academic freedom for faculty. At fundamentalist colleges, professors had to agree every year to various school creeds. For students, fundamentalist college life also looked very different. Though most fundamentalist schools allowed student clubs and athletic teams, most of them banned fraternities. They also banned smoking, drinking, and sex.

Fundamentalist colleges have plenty of problems of their own when it comes to sexual assault. Most egregiously, as we’ve noted in these pages, some schools have accused victims of causing the problem. Others have participated in the kinds of shameful cover-up common among mainstream colleges as well.

Yet students at fundamentalist and conservative evangelical colleges will not likely suffer from the same sort of drunken, incapacitated sexual assault that seems so depressingly common at mainstream schools. I’ve been accused of ignorance and insensitivity for pointing this out in the past.

I still can’t help but wonder, though: If the sort of sexual assault reported in the WP poll really shocks people, will the teetotaling atmosphere on conservative campuses begin to seem more attractive? Will secular or liberal Protestants think about enrolling their children at conservative schools just to avoid drunken hookups and assaults?

Academic Impostors

What does Rachel Dolezal have to do with Woodrow Wilson? Her story has been poked and prodded from every angle, it seems, except one. In important ways, this is a story about higher education. Universities have always had non-academic categories that they have preferred. Students and faculty—like Dolezal and President Wilson—have always allowed schools to think they fill those categories, even if they don’t.

Dolezal then & now...

Dolezal then & now…

If you haven’t heard about Dolezal yet, congratulations. Her strange tale of a white woman passing herself off as an African American leader has attracted bajillions of comments from all over the punditocracy. In very brief form, here are the highlights: Dolezal has served as the successful chapter leader of the Spokane NAACP. She has either allowed people to think of her as African American, or has even checked that box herself. She may have performed some Facebook fakery to make her family look more African American. She attended graduate school with a full scholarship at the historically black Howard University. She teaches African American Studies classes at Eastern Washington University. Recently, her very white parents outed her as white. The family had split over Rachel’s accusations of abuse. Rachel had fought for custody of one of her younger brothers.

As journalists have noted, this story has raised tricky questions about race and racism in the United States. Conservative commentators have wondered why people can be transgender but not transracial. The NAACP has issued a statement affirming that its leaders can be from any racial background.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for a new book about the history of American higher education. To my tired eyes, one angle of this story jumps out and I haven’t heard any other nerds talking about it. As a student and as a teacher, Dolezal’s imposture has reaped significant rewards. If nothing else, her story can give us another example of the ways preferred categories have always affected higher education.

At Howard University, according to Dolezal’s father, Rachel allowed the school to assume she was African American. They gave her a full scholarship for her graduate program in art. She also teaches part-time at Eastern Washington University in the Africana Education Program. It is not certain that she lied to the people who hired her there, but the director of the program told the New York Times he thought she was black.

It seems evident that Dolezal would not have had the same opportunities at Howard or EWU if she had not been perceived as African American. Academic positions, especially in relevant areas such as Africana Studies, usually have explicit preferences for members of underrepresented groups.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against hiring preferences in higher education. I agree that personal background can be an important factor when it comes to teaching and scholarship and universities are correct to prefer some candidates based on non-academic qualifications. IMHO. Indeed, I only got my job because of my experience as a secondary-school teacher.

The interesting point, rather, is that these non-academic preferences can tell us a lot about the nature of higher education, the non-academic values of colleges. In the past, elite schools used to prefer Christian professors, for example. This is where Woodrow Wilson comes in. When Wilson, future POTUS, was elevated to the Chair of Political Economy and Jurisprudence at Princeton University in 1890, he received a forceful letter from Princeton President Francis Patton. To keep his chair, Patton warned, Professor Wilson would need to be far more explicit in his Christian testimony.

Patton worried in a letter to Wilson

That in your discussion of the origin of the State you minimize the supernatural, & make such unqualified application of the doctrine of naturalistic evolution & the genesis of the State as to leave the reader of your pages in a state of uncertainty as to your own position & the place you give to Divine Providence.

Princeton, Patton insisted, was determined to “keep this College on the old ground of loyalty to the Christian religion.”

Even at the time, as Patton’s language suggested, such Christian orthodoxy was becoming rarer and rarer in American higher education, at elite schools at least. Patton wanted to hire only Christian scholars. Wilson, for his part, allowed Patton to think he agreed, though Wilson’s later work never embodied the sort of loud-and-proud supernatural thinking Patton desired.

What does any of this have to do with Rachel Dolezal? Back in the 1890s, if one wanted a job at Princeton, one was wise to allow school leaders to think one supported orthodox Calvinism. These days, if one wants a job in a university, one is wise to allow school leaders to think one is a member of an historically underrepresented group.

Back then, conservative schools such as Princeton and Yale were clinging to an older tradition of explicitly Christian education. These days, schools are scrambling to include a wider diversity of racial backgrounds.

Wilson’s career was certainly not hurt by his willingness to let Patton believe his Presbyterianism was stronger than it really was. Dolezal—until this ugly scandal, of course—has not been hurt by people’s assumptions about her racial background.

Christians & Caitlyn

What are conservative evangelical Christians to do? Mainstream American culture seems to be celebrating our newfound openness about sexuality and gender identity. Caitlyn Jenner is feted and adored, not stigmatized and isolated. Should evangelicals join in the celebration? In the pages of Christianity Today, evangelical psychologist Mark Yarhouse lays out his vision of the proper Christian response to transgender issues. Will it work? Can it lift evangelical churches above the culture-war fray?

First, the usual caveat: I’m no evangelical. I’m just a mild-mannered historian interested in culture-war issues. Today’s article by Professor Yarhouse will help outsiders like me understand one way conservative evangelicals might understand those issues.

Good news for the Good News?

Good news for the Good News?

Yarhouse works at Regent University in Virginia, where he directs the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. For evangelicals, Yarhouse argues, there are three common reactions to today’s discussions about gender dysphoria.

First, some Christians think of it as a question of “integrity.” God created us male and female, some think, and we need to respect that.

Or, Christians might think of gender dysphoria as a “disability.” Like depression or schizophrenia, gender dysphoria is a mental-health issue. It is not a moral question, Yarhouse argues, though the decisions people make as a result of their mental-health issues can certainly have moral consequences.

Finally, Yarhouse notes, many mainstream Americans see gender dysphoria through the lens of “diversity.” Seen this way, transgender persons should be celebrated for their bravery and moral courage.

In language that some conservative folks might find disconcerting, Yarhouse thinks there is value in all three of these approaches. Churches must continue to value ideas about gender integrity, he believes. Understanding maleness and femaleness must be part of any attempt to live Christian lives. But he thinks evangelicals should also approach transgender people with “empathy and compassion.” Not least, Yarhouse values the notion that transgender people should be welcomed and celebrated, just as every person who comes to every church should be welcomed and celebrated.

As he puts it,

When it comes to support, many evangelical communities may be tempted to respond to transgender persons by shouting “Integrity!” The integrity lens is important, but simply urging persons with gender dysphoria to act in accordance with their biological sex and ignore their extreme discomfort won’t constitute pastoral care or a meaningful cultural witness.

The disability lens may lead us to shout, “Compassion!” and the diversity lens may lead us to shout “Celebrate!” But both of these lenses suggest that the creational goodness of maleness and femaleness can be discarded—or that no meaning is to be found in the marks of our suffering.

Most centrally, the Christian community is a witness to the message of redemption. We are witnesses to redemption through Jesus’ presence in our lives. Redemption is not found by measuring how well a person’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex, but by drawing them to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us into his image.

Churches, Yarhouse argues, must rise above “culture wars about sex and gender that fall closely on the heels of the wars about sexual behavior and marriage.”

Now, I’m not an evangelical and I’m not a transgender person, so I’m probably getting this wrong. But as an outsider, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by Yarhouse’s prescription. I can’t help but notice that many conservative evangelical communities are influenced at least as much by their conservative identity as by their evangelical one. For many thoughtful conservatives, the rush to embrace transgender people as part of a “new normal” seems pusillanimous. Even if they recognize the Christian weight of Yarhouse’s arguments, they still feel bound to defend traditional gender rules and norms.

And from the other side, if I were a transgender individual, I don’t think I’d feel fully welcomed into a church that still insisted on maintaining a respect for the “integrity” of male-female gender duality. That is, even in the best-case scenario, if a Yarhouse-ite church allowed me to become a member, but maintained a strong sense that I was suffering from a disability and that I was somehow going against the integrity of God’s gender plan, I don’t think I’d rush to join.

Am I off base? Do conservative Christian readers find Yarhouse’s ideas compelling? Do transgender folks?

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