Ding! There it is again—the sound of another evangelical professor being ousted for harboring evolution-friendly ideas. Some of us outsiders might think that evangelical colleges would slowly become more relaxed about evolution as time went on. As this case shows, we’d be wrong. The history of the past century has demonstrated that many evangelical colleges have grown MORE uptight, not less, about proving their creationist credentials.
In this case, the school is Bethel College in Indiana and the professor is Jim Stump. As Karl Giberson described recently, the flap at this Bethel [n.b., there are about one bajillion Bethel Colleges out there and it’s easy for outsiders to mix them up] echoes the trends of the past hundred years: Time and again, creationist colleges have sought to tighten both the image and reality of unshakeable creationist orthodoxy among their faculty.
As I’m uncovering as I work on my new book, this pattern has been the dominant theme at conservative evangelical colleges since the 1920s.
Beginning in the 1920s and repeated every generation, schools have tightened the requirements on their faculty. In every generation, some professors have sought to follow a middle path—exploring the science of evolution while remaining firmly committed to their religion. In every generation, nervous college administrators have sought to prove to the creationist community that their school will not tolerate any such thing.
In the 1920s, most schools agreed on ironclad faculty creeds. The hope was that these creeds would prevent faculty from becoming too friendly to evolutionary thinking. At flagship Wheaton College in Illinois, for instance, the trustees in 1926 adopted a creed that all faculty, staff, and administration had to sign annually. They included the following statement:
4. We believe that man was created in the image of God; that he sinned, and thereby incurred, not only physical death, but also that spiritual death which is separation from God; and that all human beings are born with a sinful nature, and in the case of those who reach moral responsibility become sinners in thought, word and deed.
At the time, this statement was thought to define the proper “fundamentalist” attitude toward creation. In 1960, however, a conference about evolution and creationism on Wheaton’s campus attracted ferocious criticism from the more stalwart creationists among the fundamentalist/evangelical community. Too many of the assembled theologians and scientists, critics thought, embraced the principle of evolution.
Among Wheaton’s faculty, zoologist Russell Mixter came in for the fiercest criticism. In spite of his protestations to the contrary, Mixter was accused of teaching and preaching evolution in his classes. In order to calm the storm, Wheaton’s administration altered its faculty creed. At the end of 1961, the school agreed to add the following item:
By Article IV of its ‘standards of faith,’ Wheaton College is committed to the Biblical teaching that man was created by a direct act of God and not from previously existing forms of life; and that all men are descended from the historical Adam and Eve, first parents of the entire human race.
The pattern continues today. At schools such as Bryan College and Northwest Nazarene University, creeds are tightened and faculty are ousted in order to preserve an impeccable reputation for creationism. Time and again, the sticking point has been the historicity of Adam & Eve. It is not enough, evangelical communities insist, for faculty vaguely to endorse the idea of a God-directed creation. Especially when it comes to the origins of humanity, some evangelicals require a belief in a real, literal origin in two real, literal people.
According to Karl Giberson, the folks at Bethel College in Indiana have taken this tradition one step further. Under pressure from the sponsoring denomination, the Missionary Church, Bethel now requires faculty to advocate its firm position on the historicity of Adam & Eve. In the past, at Bethel as at other evangelical colleges, faculty members could sign their annual statements of faith even if they thought that such statements did not require them to disavow mainstream evolutionary science. This policy hopes to push faculty members into a tighter relationship with the denomination’s official position on evolution.
Furthermore, from now on Bethel faculty are not allowed to take leadership positions in organizations that disagree on this point. As BioLogos leader Deborah Haarsma argued, Bethel’s new policy puts evangelical scholars like Jim Stump in a very difficult position. Stump has served as the content manager for BioLogos, an organization that embraces “evolutionary creationism.” The new Bethel policy, in effect, forced Stump to choose between the two organizations.
As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, I am a fan of the BioLogos approach. I’m no evangelical, but I think the way forward in our continuing evolution/creation battles is for both sides to agree to the science of evolution and the freedom of religious belief. As I argue in my upcoming book Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (due to hit shelves in February 2016), secular folks like me need to recognize the right of religious dissenters to disbelieve the claims of evolution, even as religious folks need to recognize the duty of public schools to teach evolution as the best available science.
But as I argue in my other upcoming book, schools like Bethel are also in a difficult position. In order to maintain intellectual credibility, they must embrace changing norms of academic excellence. But in order to maintain religious credibility, they must conspicuously root out any whiff of compromise. Not on every issue, but on issues such as evolution and same-sex marriage that seem to make up the foundations of their faiths.
As a result, over the course of the past ninety years, many evangelical colleges–including the relatively “liberal” ones–have made their policies more rigid when it comes to faculty beliefs about human origins. The recent news from Mishawaka is only the latest attempt by an evangelical college to remove faculty fudge factors.