Why does Ken Ham care where you go to college? Where you send your kids? Because “college” is more than just a collection of classes and academics. For religious conservatives as for everybody else, “college” represents a formative experience. The ideas one will encounter, the personal connections one will make, and the changes in one’s outlook and worldview all make the college years some of the most transformative in our lives.
In recent years, Ham, America’s (and Australia’s) leading voice for young-earth creationism, has established himself as the arbiter of creationist orthodoxy in college attendance. And his word carries weight in the world of evangelical higher education.
Recently, for instance, Ham warned readers at Answers In Genesis about the dangers of attending Calvin College. Students at that storied Christian school, Ham explained, were “being influenced . . . to undermine the authority of Scripture in many ways.” When faculty engage in evolutionary research and teaching that might turn away from Ham’s strict attitudes about knowledge and creation, Ham warns, students will too often abandon their creationist faith.
As a precaution, Ham offers readers a list of schools that adhere to the young-earth creationism taught by Ham’s Answers In Genesis ministry. To be safe, Ham warns, parents and students ought to stick with schools that have proven their fidelity to these ideas.
Ham’s anxiety over the crumbling orthodoxy in Christian higher education is nothing new. As I argue in my 1920s book, many of today’s evangelical schools had their origins in the founding decade of American fundamentalism. Back in the 1920s, religious schools often faced a choice between fundamentalist orthodoxy and modernist adaptation. Most chose modernism. The University of Chicago, for example, founded as a Baptist beacon of learning, became the leading voice for theological modernism, employing such folks as Shailer Mathews and Shirley Jackson Case. In contrast, a few Christian schools, most famously Wheaton College, sided with the fundamentalist movement.
Leading fundamentalists in the 1920s also founded a spate of new schools to embody their theological and cultural conservatism. Perhaps most prominently, evangelist Bob Jones Sr. opened Bob Jones College (now Bob Jones University) in 1926. The goal of this school was to form the fundamentalist character of young people while educating them in the best traditions of arts and sciences. In order to reassure parents that the school would never slide toward theological modernism or cultural liberalism, Jones and his allies established a rock-ribbed charter. This charter hoped to guarantee the continuing orthodoxy of the school. The charter’s second paragraph outlined that orthodoxy:
The general nature and object of the corporation shall be to conduct an institution of learning for the general education of youth in the essentials of culture and in the arts and sciences, giving special emphasis to the Christian religion and the ethics revealed in the Holy Scriptures, combating all atheistic, agnostic, pagan and so-called scientific adulterations of the Gospel, unqualifiedly affirming and teaching the inspiration of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments); the creation of man by the direct act of God; the incarnation and virgin birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ; His identification as the Son of God; His vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind by the shedding of His blood on the Cross; the resurrection of His body from the tomb; His power to save me from sin; the new birth through the regeneration by the Holy Spirit; and the gift of eternal life by the grace of God.
Perhaps most notably, the next line specified that this charter “shall never be amended, modified, altered, or changed as to the provisions hereinbefore set forth.” Also remarkable, according to a 1960 reminiscence by Bob Jones Sr., at its founding BJU decreed that every graduating senior would pledge to monitor the school’s continuing fundamentalism. “Should the policy and conduct of the University ever, in my lifetime, deviate, in the slightest particular, from the letter or spirit of this Creed,” seniors would promise,
I hereby pledge myself to exert all my influence to affect a change in conditions; failing which, I will resort to such legal measures as the courts may offer to the end that the institution may be kept true to the University Creed and the original intentions of the founder.
Most evangelical colleges established similar creeds and many promised never to amend them. Not many others, to my knowledge, required such strict supervision by their alumni.
These days, Ken Ham has taken over the role of orthodoxy’s gadfly. In addition to his warnings about waverings from his definition of creationism at Calvin College, Ham has warned that other evangelical schools might be threatening the faith of their students. And Ham’s warnings carry weight.
In one recent episode at Bryan College, for example, Ham’s public worries about faculty orthodoxy led the school’s leadership to instigate a new sort of creationist orthodoxy pledge for faculty. From now on, faculty must publicly avow their belief in a real, historic Adam and Eve. As I argued at the time, the fallout from Bryan College’s policy shift might lead to a shake-up of faculty. More directly relevant, the furor at Bryan seems to testify to Ham’s influence. Worried that creationist parents might not send their students and their tuition dollars, Bryan’s leaders acted to shore up their image as a home of young-earth creationist orthodoxy.
Also intriguing, I must ask again if the drive to protect their reputations as safe theological and cultural havens has led some conservative evangelical schools to cover up incidents of sexual assault. Of course, these are very serious allegations, and I do not ask these questions lightly. I am certainly not accusing Ken Ham or the leadership of these schools of condoning sexual assault. But the drive to present a public face as a uniquely safe environment for fundamentalist students certainly puts undue pressure on college leaders. It is not unfair to wonder if such pressure might lead schools to downplay any cases that might threaten those reputations.
Outside the world of conservative evangelical Protestantism, colleges spend an inordinate amount of time and treasure to attract students. Flashy dorm rooms, high-visibility sports programs, celebrity faculty, and lavish campus lifestyles all hope to convince families to send their kids and their money to certain schools. The pressure on recruiters is intense.
There is a similar pressure on evangelical colleges. Influential voices such as that of Ken Ham are able to exert outsized influence by warning creationist families toward or away from certain schools. Without Ham’s imprimatur, conservative schools may lose the loyalty of students and families.