A Christian in the Lion’s Blog

Okay, be honest: How many of us are brave enough to try talking with people who really really hate us?  I talk a good game, but in real life I hardly ever interact with people very different from me.  Recently on the arch-evolutionist/atheist blog Why Evolution Is True Don McLeroy tried to defend his religion.  I don’t agree with McLeroy’s ideas about God or science, but I have to give him credit for his willingness to talk civilly with his culture-war enemies.

You may remember Dr. McLeroy as the Texas dentist who came to educational power a few years back on the Texas State Board of Education.  Viewers of the documentary The Revisionaries will remember some of McLeroy’s positions.  He wanted less evolution and more country music.  He wanted less hip-hop and more Ronald Reagan.

Those of us outside the world of young-earth creationism were wowed to hear McLeroy teach his Sunday-school class the verities of his religion.  How did all those animals fit on the ark?  Easy! How was it possible that all the evidence of an ancient earth was wrong?   No problem!

And some viewers poked fun at McLeroy for his anti-expert opinions.  “I disagree with the experts,” McLeroy famously intoned in The Revisionaries.  “Someone has to stand up to them.”  To many skeptics, this sort of attitude demonstrated McLeroy’s willful ignorance.  Why WOULDN’T we want experts to decide our school curricula, critics asked incredulously?  As I argued at the time, however, McLeroy’s ideas about proper expertise have a long and storied history among educational conservatives.

In his recent appearance on Why Evolution Is True, McLeroy defends his Biblical epistemology.  McLeroy had pointed out elsewhere that 500 witnesses had attested to Jesus’ rebirth.  For McLeroy, that seemed to be important evidence.  Not surprisingly, the commenters of WEIT tore McLeroy apart.  Some did it politely, calling him “Dr. McLeroy.”  Some did not, referring to him as “Donnie-boy.”

The crux of the disagreement concerned the nature of evidence and how we can know something.  For McLeroy, Paul’s biblical statement that 500 witnesses had seen the Risen Jesus seemed conclusive.  As the readers of WEIT pointed out—and I wholeheartedly agree—there are enormous holes with this sort of knowing.  How can we know Paul really consulted 500 other witnesses?  How do we trust what Paul thought he saw?  Indeed, how can we know Paul was a real person at all?  For folks like me and the commenters on WEIT, such evidence does not count as convincing.

For folks like Dr. McLeroy, the Bible’s writings carry greater weight.  If the Bible attests to something, we know with confidence that it is true.  If the Bible says God created the universe in six days, then we have no need to doubt it.  We can trust that it is true.  Indeed, if we don’t trust that it is true, we risk calling God Himself a liar.

'Cause the Bible Tells Me So...

‘Cause the Bible Tells Me So…

Obviously, these two very different attitudes toward knowledge have a difficult time communicating with each other.  But there seems to be a cottage industry of efforts to do so.  Conservative theologian Doug Wilson and atheist-at-large Christopher Hitchens spent some time together in the film Collision.  As Wilson and Hitchens found out, there is not much point in shouting at each other.  Each side misunderstands the other in such fundamental ways that time is better spent chatting politely and drinking beer.

In his recent appearance, Don McLeroy thanked WEIT commenters for their opinions, and promised to read the books suggested.  But he did not seem likely to be convinced.  Nor did WEIT readers seem likely to turn to the Bible the next time they had a question about science, history, or politics.  Nevertheless, McLeroy pointedly maintained his famous good-natured politeness.

In the end, that might be the extent of dialogue we can expect across these profound culture-war chasms.


Sneaky Subversion in Teaching US History

If standards and curricula seem balanced and fair, does that mean that subversives have done a good job of disguising their sneaky ideological poison? That has long been the accusation of conservative intellectuals. Leftist academics, conservatives have charged for decades, make their work seem neutral, while really injecting a biased and enervating leftism.

We see this tradition alive and well in conservatives’ recent attack on the teaching of US History. As I noted in an essay in History News Network, Dinesh D’Souza’s new film warns that leftist teachers have taught America’s kids to hate America.

Other conservative intellectuals take a similarly skeptical view of the new curriculum for Advanced Placement US History. Peter Wood of the conservative National Association of Scholars accused the new APUSH curriculum of insisting on a “worldview that emphasizes America as a place of European conquest, economic exploitation, and the struggle for basic rights against the power of the privileged.” Similarly, conservative activists Jane Robbins and Larry Krieger have warned that the new APUSH curriculum peddles a “consistently negative view of the nation’s past.”

Wood, especially, has offered examples of the sorts of negative attitude he critiques. One of the subtopics for the early period, Wood points out, depicts European settlers as devilish racists:

Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontation with native peoples.

But more important than the specific examples of egregious anti-American sentiments, Wood charges, is a more subtle attitude embedded within the curriculum. As he puts it, “Sometimes these concerns break out into overt emphasis but they are present throughout.”

Apparently unconsciously, these conservative critics are echoing a long tradition of conservative educational thinking. As I argue in my upcoming book, throughout the twentieth century conservatives warned that schools were being led in leftist directions, often by this same sort of sneaky subversion. The leftists were so sneaky, conservatives warned, that readers might not even notice their subversion.

In the 1939-1941 conservative campaign against Harold Rugg’s social-studies textbooks, for example, critics warned that unwary readers could be duped into thinking the books were balanced and fair. One coalition of conservative activists called the books’ leftism “extremely clever.” Instead of openly proclaiming their leftist bias, Rugg’s books led children “with gentle language and a pedagogic smile . . . through the successive stages of indoctrination.” These conservatives conceded that many readers might find nothing wrong with Rugg’s books. But that only meant, they warned, that the danger was that much greater.

This sort of obvious-only-to-the-initiated analysis of leftist bias seems a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it presents conservative intellectuals with a difficult task. They must convince readers that even seemingly balanced curricular material is secretly anti-American, secretly leftist. That’s a tall order. But when school subversion is embedded cunningly within seemingly neutral material, conservative intellectuals are able to explain why so many popular textbooks and curricula have prospered in spite of their leftist implications.

Are the new APUSH materials really biased? Try it. Read the new curriculum guide. Does it seem like a biased leftist document to you? Its makers didn’t think so. But does that prove that conservative intellectuals are paranoid? Or does it show, rather, that the educational establishment is so dominated by left-leaning academics that they don’t even notice their own bias?



Protect Children from Jesus

Have you heard the Good News?  If you live in Portland, Oregon, your children might hear It in their public schools.  Or they might not.

Activists in Portland have protested against the school-based evangelical outreach of the Child Evangelism Fellowship.  According to protesters, the CEF is inflicting damaging psychological messages on unwary children through its aggressive Good News Clubs.  For their part, the evangelists claim to be the victim of anti-religious discrimination.  Do parents have the right to kick out Christians?  Do evangelists have the right to preach to children?

These are big and potentially scary questions.  Each side in this case is warning that the other side is using sneaky tactics to target children.  But that kind of rhetoric belies the fairly restricted nature of this protest.  In this case, at least, the activists on each side are actually limiting themselves to fairly modest goals.

Save Our Children from Jesus!

Save Our Children from Jesus!

The Child Evangelism Fellowship has been active for a long time.  This summer, it planned to expand its Good News Clubs into more schools nationwide.  These clubs invite children to come to meetings at which they learn prayers and conservative Protestant doctrine.  In a 2001 decision from a town in my backyard, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Good News Clubs must be allowed to use public-school facilities after school hours if other groups are allowed to do so.  A few clarifications: the Good News Clubs are not active as part of the school day; public schools are free to ban ALL after-school activities if they choose; and Good News Clubs are not mandatory for children.  Still, for the CEF, the Supreme Court’s decision came as a welcome shot in the arm.

Portland protesters were not impressed.  This summer, the Protect Portland Children group mobilized to warn Portland parents away from Good News Clubs.  Due to the SCOTUS decision, the PPC is not trying to ban the clubs, but only to encourage parents to keep their kids away.  Why?  According to Katherine Stewart, a parent and author of an anti-CEF book, kids exposed to the Good News Clubs come away with a terrible message.  As Stewart told The Oregonian recently,

I started to hear about how kids attending the clubs were targeting their peers for what I can only describe as faith-based bullying and bigotry. The kids attending the clubs would say they knew the religion of the Good News Club “must be true” because they learned it in school. As one little six-year-old girl said to her classmate, “They don’t teach things in school that aren’t true.”

One Seattle activist agreed.  She insisted she was not anti-religion, but rather only opposed to the sneaky way the CEF attracted kids to their clubs, and to the terrifying message spread by those clubs.  As she put it, “Good News Clubs teach dark, divisive and potentially traumatic doctrines that are unique to fundamentalist forms of Christianity.”

Not surprisingly, conservative evangelical Protestants are defending the Good News Clubs. Creationist leader Ken Ham argued that this anti-gospel activism represented just another tactic in the continuing culture wars. “Many secularists,” Ham warned,

are deliberately and aggressively targeting our children and Christian ministries that teach the truth of God’s Word to children—and for a reason! They are going after the hearts and minds of this and coming generations, and if they continue to do so successfully, they’ll win the culture.

Ham’s interest makes sense.  After all, as he points out, anti-creationism activists have insisted that teaching creationism amounts to “child abuse.”  This Portland parent protest makes similar claims.  The protesters warn that this sort of religious message can be “psychologically harmful to children.”

According to protesters, both the tactics of the Good News Club and its message are dangerous to young people.  Learning that one is sinful and destined to eternal damnation, some parents feel, is not the proper religious message for children.  And luring those children to after-school activities with promises of treats and prizes seems immoral.

For their part, CEF activists claim that their clubs teach only the central doctrines of Christianity.  Whatever protesters may assert, according to the CEF, the Good News really is good news.  Schools with active Good News Clubs report improved student behavior and school environment.  Students act more kindly toward one another.  Students act more politely and thoughtfully about their behavior.  Who would have a problem with that?

But let’s clarify the issue: Portland protesters are NOT trying to block Good News Clubs from Portland schools.  And Good News Clubs are not part of the public-school day.  In spite of heated rhetoric, this case will not decide whether or not conservative Christian doctrines are dangerous for children.  This case will not decide whether or not evangelists can preach in public schools.

Nevertheless, activists on both sides are bringing out the big guns: Both sides warn that the other side is targeting their children.  That is a scary thing.  But neither side in this case really hopes to stop the other side from doing so.  Rather, each side seems to be limiting itself to more immediate goals.  Protesters are encouraging Portland parents simply to keep their kids home.  And evangelists are simply running an afterschool club and hoping to encourage kids to attend.

In my opinion, this is exactly where these discussions belong.  Evangelists should be free to spread whatever non-violent messages they choose.  And parents should be free to encourage others to keep their kids away.  If parents think Christianity is psychologically damaging, they should certainly tell their friends and neighbors about their concerns.  And if conservative evangelicals think that their message is the only way to avoid eternal damnation, they should certainly be free to tell anyone they like about it.


Are Christians Too Bigoted to Work With?

You may have seen the headline by now: Christian College Discriminates Against Homosexuals.  And the follow-up: City Cuts Off Christian College.  But isn’t it weirdly ironic that non-religious governments now seem to be repeating the separatist struggles of fundamentalists?  Doesn’t it seem odd that the drive for tolerance pushes pluralists to act like the more extreme religious separatists?

In this case, it was the public decision of Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay to sign a letter to President Obama that sparked the furor.  [Full disclosure: Lindsay and I worked together as 2009 Spencer/National Academy of Education postdoctoral fellows, and I admire Lindsay personally and consider him a friend and colleague.]  Along with a host of other prominent evangelical leaders and intellectuals, Lindsay asked President Obama for a religious exemption to a planned executive order banning workplace discrimination against homosexuals.

Lindsay’s participation caused a furious reaction.  Gordon alumni and students petitioned Lindsay to retract.  Gordon College’s accrediting agency promised to investigate.  And most notably, the nearby city of Salem, Massachusetts canceled its partnering contract with Gordon to operate an historic city building.

Let me be clear about a couple of points.  First, I personally agree that institutions should not discriminate against homosexuals.  Public governments, especially, have a duty to include all members of society, not only passively, but actively.  IHMO.  Also, I do not wish to argue whether Lindsay’s position is or is not “anti-gay,” since he has publicly insisted that Gordon College does not discriminate against homosexuals.  And though I find it curious, I don’t want to ask why President Lindsay has become the center of this controversy, even though the letter was signed by many other evangelical leaders as well.  Even on my humble little blog, for example, I’ve experienced a surge of search terms such as “D. Michael Lindsay bigot” and “Gordon College Anti Gay.”  Why has Lindsay become the focus in this case?  Why not all the other signatories?

Though interesting, we have to leave such questions aside for now.  From an historical point of view, there is a more interesting aspect to this case.  It seems that those who support tolerance and diversity have, in some ways, adopted the position of the traditionally conservative fundamentalists.

Here’s what I mean: In the twentieth century, conservative Christian colleges carried on a furious and often angry internecine debate about the propriety of partnering with non-Christian institutions.  Schools such as Gordon and Wheaton College earned the vicious denunciation of more conservative schools such as Bob Jones University.  Among the many accusations, more conservative, “fundamentalist” schools often insisted that the more open, “evangelical” schools had tainted themselves by their open association with non-Christian ideas.  Separatist fundamentalists often cited the Bible passage 2 Corinthians, chapter 6, verse 14:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

In order to be truly Christian, separatists argued, believers could not allow themselves to be joined with those who did not share their belief.  So, for instance, when fundamentalist megastar Jerry Falwell worked with conservative Catholics and Jews in the Moral Majority, fundamentalist leaders at Bob Jones University denounced Falwell as the “most dangerous man in America.”

This rigid separatism, indeed, has been one of the hallmarks of American fundamentalism.  Some fundamentalists have insisted that they must practice even a “secondary separation,” not sharing Christian fellowship with other Christians if those other Christians share fellowship with questionable folks.

Now, it seems the city of Salem feels it must practice a strangely similar form of separatism.  As Salem Mayor Kimberly Driscoll informed Gordon College in a recent letter, the city must separate itself from the college.  Why?  Because, Driscoll wrote, Lindsay’s position implied open discrimination against the LGBT community.  The college had every right to do so, Driscoll believed, but the city could no longer be affiliated with such things.  The city’s non-discrimination law, Driscoll informed Lindsay, “prohibits our municipality from contracting with entities that maintain discriminatory practices.”

This is not the only time when the beliefs of liberals and fundamentalists have neatly swapped sides.  In the creation-evolution debates, for example, creationists took over evolutionists’ positions.  As historian Ronald Numbers has pointed out, by the 1990s creationists began appropriating the language of 1920s liberals.  In the 1920s, evolution supporters insisted that teaching only one theory was bigotry.  By the 1990s, creationists started saying the same thing.

In this case, we see a weird and clearly unintentional echo.  Mayor Driscoll feels compelled to separate her government from any entity that practices discrimination against homosexuals.  It is not enough, morally, for her government itself to avoid such discrimination.  The principle of separation seems to have migrated from fundamentalists to their supposedly tolerant opponents.


America: Schools Taken over by Scheming Progressives

What sorts of history did you learn in school?  As I argue in a recent commentary published on History News Network, conservative thinkers and activists have often insisted that school history has been taken over by a scheming, America-hating, progressive history cabal.

It looks as if Dinesh D’Souza’s new film dives headfirst into that tradition.  In America: Imagine the World without Her, D’Souza denounces American education as woefully slanted.

In a recent interview about the film, D’Souza accuses even the best schools of teaching a “doctored account” of history.  Young people, D’Souza believes, have all been taught a skewed leftist history.  In his film, D’Souza hopes to counter this horrible history with a heroic counter-argument.

But as I found when I researched the twentieth-century history of conservative activism in the United States, I found that conservatives have exerted just as much influence over the nature of American education as have progressives.

So why do conservatives like D’Souza continue to insist that schools have been taken over by dunderheaded progressives?  If you want to read my humble opinion, you’ll have to check out the HNN essay.

The Kids Are Alright

Want to see a progressive society? Just wait. Each new generation gets less uptight about gay marriage, evolution, abortion rights, and gender equality. Right? Maybe not. Controversy-loving sociologist Mark Regnerus has produced another study sure to provoke more outrage. In this case, Regnerus claims to find that young conservative evangelicals are not swinging toward a glowing progressive future.

Regnerus first came to culture-war attention with his 2012 study of gay-marriage parenting. Unlike most other sociological studies, Regnerus found that children raised by same-sex parents did not fare as well as children raised by their biological parents.

In his new study of attitudes towards sex in America, Regnerus concluded that young conservative evangelicals are bucking the trend toward youthful progressivism. While young Americans in general might be more welcoming toward gay marriage, abortion rights, and gender equality, young conservatives are not, Regnerus claims.

Conservative Baptists Russell Moore and Andrew Walker take great solace from Regnerus’ findings. Moore and Walker, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, celebrate the “sexual counter-revolution” heralded by Regnerus’ study. Conservative Christians, Moore and Walker noted recently in the pages of National Review Online, can trust that the new generation will cling to tradition. As they put it,

Regnerus’s research suggests that younger Evangelicals aren’t hewing to the culture’s expectation that they conform to its values. That’s a welcome reality, especially given the significant cultural pressures that young Christians face in today’s culture. This lines up with what we, as conservative Evangelicals, see happening in our own congregations across America.

As American culture secularizes, the most basic Christian tenets seem ever more detached from mainstream American culture. Those who identify with Christianity, and who gather with the people of God, have already decided to walk out of step with the culture. Beliefs aren’t assumed but are articulated over and against a culture that finds them implausible. Evangelical views on sexuality seem strange, but young Evangelicals in post-Christianizing America have already embraced strangeness by spending Sunday morning at church rather than at brunch.

Certainly, ever since the birth of conservative evangelicalism as a dissenting identity in the 1920s, young evangelicals have stayed true to conservative ideas. In the 1920s, as I argue in my 1920s book, young members of the new “fundamentalist” coalition defied new stereotypes of “flaming youth” to assert a proudly traditional, religiously orthodox youthful conservatism. And as I’m exploring in my current research, in the 1960s conservative evangelical college campuses were hotbeds of a different sort of student activism, the “sexual counter-revolution” noted by Moore and Walker.

An Earlier Generation of Youthful Counter-Revolutionaries: YAF, 1967

An Earlier Generation of Youthful Counter-Revolutionaries: YAF, 1967

But just as Regnerus’ gay-marriage research seemed too pat, too comforting to conservative activists, so this finding does not seem to deserve the celebration lavished upon by Moore and Walker. Young conservatives may be more traditional than their young contemporaries. But those young conservatives might also be more progressive than their elder evangelicals. The times might not be a-changin’ as fast as some progressives have often assumed, but it seems a little weird for conservative evangelical leaders to conclude that young evangelicals are not moving toward the new mainstream on sexual issues.


I Hart Lyle Spencer

I want to shout it from the rooftops. I love this man!

Mr. Spencer, I Love You.

Mr. Spencer, I Love You.

Thanks to his Spencer Foundation, I’ll be able to spend the next year traveling to archives to research my new book. My grant from the Spencer Foundation will fund my trips to a variety of evangelical colleges. I’m looking forward to diving into the world-class collection at the Billy Graham Center Archives, for example.

My goal in this book is to explore the history of evangelical higher education in the twentieth century. What did schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, Biola University, Bryan College, John Brown University, and a host of others hope to teach their students? Most interesting, since the emergence of “fundamentalism” in the 1920s, how did these colleges try to teach their students what it meant to be an evangelical Christian in a rapidly secularizing America?

Naturally, these questions changed over time. In the 1920s, for example, the first decade of “fundamentalism,” evangelists and evangelical intellectuals struggled to define what it meant to be a “fundamentalist.” For Bob Jones, it meant eschewing many of the outward trappings of modern life as well as cultivating a Bible-first way of knowledge. For President Blanchard of Wheaton College, it meant more of a theological steadfastness.

By the late 1940s, the world of conservative evangelicalism had changed radically. I want to explore the ways these changes emerged on evangelical campuses. What would it mean for a family in 1950 to choose to send their sons or daughters to “evangelical” Wheaton instead of “fundamentalist” Bob Jones? Or to Biola instead of one of the growing crop of non-religious colleges, including my own beloved Binghamton University (founded 1948)?

Each new generation offers new topics. Moving into the late 1960s, conservative colleges experienced a very different “Sixties.” I’m interested in exploring the ways evangelical students and faculty developed a counter-counter-culture. And in the late 1970s, the emergence of a “New Christian Right” in mainstream American politics was both fueled and influenced by developments in evangelical higher education.

Central to all these investigations will be the experience of students and faculty at evangelical colleges. Luckily, the archives of all these schools have rich collections of their own students’ experiences. At the Billy Graham Center Archives, a host of oral history interviews also tracks the school memories of evangelicals from across the decades.

Thanks to the Spencer Foundation, I’ll be able to devote the next year to full-time research. For readers who are unaware of the Foundation, it is the best thing going in education research. I’m not saying that only because of my generous grant. Every academic knows about the Spencer Foundation’s programs, including its dissertation fellowship and its postdoctoral fellowship. In my case, a postdoc from the Spencer Foundation and National Academy of Education allowed me to complete two books, my 1920s book and my upcoming one about educational conservatism in the twentieth century.

So I say it with unabashed enthusiasm: I Love Lyle!


Christians CAN Think

Just because someone is a Christian, he or she is not therefore incapable of reasonable thought. That’s the argument recently from Provost Stanton Jones of Wheaton College. But is this true everywhere? Or only in the hallowed halls of Wheaton itself?

Jones was responding to a hatchet job from University of Pennsylvania English Professor Peter Conn. As we noted at the time, Conn accused Wheaton and other evangelical colleges of scamming their way into intellectual respectability. No school that demanded a faculty statement of faith, Conn argued, should be eligible for federal student aid. It was an intellectual and constitutional outrage.

In the discussion in these pages, commenters mostly took Conn to task for closedmindedness. Provost Jones takes a different approach. Not only are Wheaton faculty free to think and research, Jones writes, but they are actually freer than most faculty at non-religious schools. And their work will ultimately be more productive than that of their unfortunate colleagues at those schools.

Those researchers who fit in with the “contemporary intellectual tides,” Jones argues, might feel very free indeed at non-religious colleges. But for those who dissent, the “free” academic environment feels deadeningly constricting. A Bible-believing Christian professor, for example, might not feel entirely comfortable in a rigorously pluralist university like mine. “When we hire colleagues away from nonreligious institutions,” Jones asserts,

we often hear they feel intellectually and academically free here for the first time in their professional careers, because they are finally in a place where they can teach from and explore the connections between their intellectual disciplines and their religious convictions.

That’s not all. Jones uses the tools of postmodern academic life to undermine Conn’s attack. If “truth” is something we can only put in ironic quotation marks, we will be severely limited in our search for it. As Jones puts it,

Purely skeptical and unfettered inquiry is likely to simply chase itself in circles. Disciplined, rigorous, and self-critical inquiry grounded in a thoughtful understanding of one’s particularities can contribute to a vigorous and diverse intellectual marketplace.

Christian academics at schools such as Wheaton, Jones writes, are freer and more productive than their fettered colleagues at secular schools.

We should note, Jones only defends the rigor of academic work at his own school, Wheaton College. Conn’s attack was a broad-brushed condemnation of conservative Protestant colleges in general. Jones does not insist that other evangelical colleges offer conducive research homes for top-notch academics. I can’t help but wonder if this is mere oversight, or an unwillingness to vouch for the academic chops of evangelical higher education in general. Seems like Provost Jones is confident of the high-caliber intellectual firepower at Wheaton, but maybe not so sure of the strength of other evangelical schools.


Close Down Religious Colleges!

Can someone learn to examine ideas critically at a religious college?  To reason and think deliberately and without coerced conclusions?  And if not, should those schools receive federal tax-funded support?  Peter Conn of the University of Pennsylvania says no.

In a recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Conn calls attention to the way religious schools receive accreditation.  The problem, Conn believes, is that accrediting bodies scrupulously avoid judging the religious content of some colleges.  As a result, religious schools such as Wheaton and Bryan receive regional accreditation.  Their students are then eligible for federal financial aid.

There lies the problem, according to Conn.  Schools such as Bryan and Wheaton require their faculties to sign statements of belief.  At such colleges, Conn argues, “the primacy of reason has been abandoned by the deliberate and repeated choices of both its administration and its faculty.”

The problem is not that “religious fundamentalists” convene colleges. The “scandal,” Conn writes, is that accrediting bodies legitimize such anti-intellectual organizations. Further, once such schools are accredited, tax dollars go to support their students.

I hate to speak so harshly, but Conn’s argument seems pigeon-headed to me. I’m not religious; I don’t work at a religious college. But my research has centered on the ways conservative Protestant schools have worked to construct a sub-cultural identity as “evangelicals” or “fundamentalists.” And unless I’m missing some nuance of Conn’s essay, he seems to have very little idea what he’s talking about.

In my 1920s book, I looked at the ways the first generation of self-labeled fundamentalists founded and operated schools such as Bob Jones University and Dallas Theological Seminary. In my current research, I’m looking more broadly at the twentieth-century history of evangelical higher education.

To suggest that such schools ought not be accredited due to mandatory faculty creeds seems ridiculous.  After all, as a faculty member at a large public university, I have to sign a loyalty oath.  Does that make me unfit to teach young minds?  Does that make my research anti-intellectual, bound by previous ideological commitments?

More profoundly, the notion that people who agree to a religious creed cannot conduct rigorous research seems a woeful misunderstanding of the nature of religious belief.  In particular, it demonstrates a shocking ignorance of the history of religious colleges in the US.

I know some readers feel more strongly about the pernicious nature of fundamentalism.  Does anyone agree with Conn’s conclusion?  He writes,

The retrograde battle that religious fundamentalists are waging against science has become a melancholy fact of our contemporary cultural life. Legislators around the country conspire to find academic room for the oxymoronic charade called “creation science.” According to Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican who sits on the House science committee, evolution is a lie “straight from the pit of hell.” By effectively endorsing such blinkered sentiments through its accreditation process, American higher education is betraying itself, and providing aid and comfort to those who would replace reason with theology.


Conservatives and Campus Rape

No one defends rape.  But these days conservative intellectuals often defend students accused of rape.  Why?  What is “conservative” about defending accused rapists?  And what does it have to with higher education?

This is a different question than a similar one we’ve asked lately.  At some conservative religious colleges, we’ve seen a debate over the relationship between theology and sexual assault.  I’ve asked if religion might deter some students from booze-fueled assault.  I’ve also wondered if the top-down authoritarian culture of many fundamentalist schools might encourage assault.

In this discussion, however, we see secular conservatives complaining about the process by which colleges handle accusations of assault.

For instance, columnist George Will attracted a firestorm of controversy when he suggested that assault victims win extra privileges on college campuses.  Liberal-dominated campuses, Will accused, were learning that “when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.”

Other commentators also take the system to task.  Legal scholar David Bernstein worried that the bar for proving guilt had been lowered to dangerous levels.  At some universities, Bernstein commented, any touching that did not have explicit approval could count as rape or assault.  By that measure, Bernstein argued provocatively, only prostitutes and their clients were safe from accusations of rape.

Peter Berkowitz, too, demanded a revision of campus assault rules.  In a case from Swarthmore College that attracted a great deal of attention, Berkowitz insisted that the accused rapist did not get a fair hearing.  Too many “elite” schools, Berkowitz argued,

convene kangaroo courts to adjudicate accusations of grave crimes that should properly be left to the police and government prosecutors. Although they cannot sentence students to jail time — the cavalier manner in which these proceedings treat evidence would never pass muster in the criminal justice system — the campus bureaucracies nevertheless impose penalties capable of upending students’ lives.

None of these writers condones sexual assault. Their gripe is with the process by which those assaults are handled. Too often, being accused equals being condemned. Too often, campus committees do not respect the American traditions of being innocent until proven guilty. Each of these writers warns that a rush to convict—even with the best intentions of protecting the innocent—risks trampling the rights of the accused.

But there’s also a deeper rumbling in these essays that points to an important element of conservative thinking. In each case, by attacking campus procedures, these conservative writers condemn the leftist-dominated culture of higher education as a whole.

Peter Berkowitz, for example, located this discussion within a broader problem. Elite schools, Berkowitz wrote, have struggled with

the hollowing out of the curriculum, the aggressive transmission of a uniformly progressive ideology, the promulgation of speech codes, and the violation of due process in campus disciplinary procedures.

And George Will blamed “academia’s progressivism” for its current sorry state. “Academia,” Will concluded, “is making itself ludicrous.” But left-leaning professors and administrators brought it on themselves, Will believes. Colleges have asked for ridiculous rules and short-sighted policies, Will said, “by asking for progressivism.”

There is something more going on here than just procedural complaints. Conservatives are not only complaining about the rights of accused students. Rather, these arguments about sexual assault are part of a longer conservative tradition of fretting about university leftism. For these conservative writers, recent cases of sexual assault serve as yet another example of college radicals gone wrong.



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