Why Jimmy Carter?

If you didn’t know much about Liberty University or conservative evangelical higher education, you might be surprised to hear that President Jimmy Carter will be giving the commencement address at Liberty this year.

Trump at liberty

Glories of past Liberty commencements…

For SAGLRROILYBYGTH, it makes perfect sense. I lay out my case this morning at The Conversation why Jerry Falwell Jr. would want President Carter to come to Lynchburg.

Why would he? Click on over and check it out. Let me know if you think I’m off base.

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Gone but Not Forgotten

Do I have a problem? For sure. Am I embarrassed about it? Not at all. But I do want to make my case for the importance of old grudges and festering scars in understanding the world of evangelical higher education.

griffith moral combat

Good company…

Here’s the context: I’m grateful to Professor John Compton and the LA Review of Books for a recent review of Fundamentalist U. I’m doubly honored to have my book partnered with R. Marie Griffith’s recent blockbuster Moral Combat.

Even better, Compton has nice things to say about my book. As he puts it, Fundamentalist U

offers an invaluable introduction to the esoteric world of Christian higher education. Few existing studies offer this level of insight into the inner workings of schools like BJU and Liberty.

Compton captures the central dilemmas I emphasized, such as the tension between keeping students safe and keeping up with changing academic trends. He notes the important divisions that emerge between new “evangelical” colleges and stalwart “fundamentalist” ones.

I can’t help but comment, though, on one of Compton’s points. He is doubtless absolutely correct when he states,

some readers may be turned off by Laats’s fascination with long-forgotten rivalries involving long-dead university administrators[.]

I am certainly fascinated by such things. And I don’t doubt that sensible people have better things to do with their time than ponder the administrative squabbles in Cleveland, Tennessee or Wheaton, Illinois in 1937. This is why I don’t get invited out very often. Most people are, in fact, turned off by my fascination with these questions.

For those of us who hope to understand American evangelicalism, though, there’s no way we can consider such rivalries “long-forgotten.” As in any family feud, time may have obscured the details, but it has not tempered the animosity. If anything, bitter feelings caused in 1937 may have earned angry compound emotional interest over the decades, giving original squabbles a power and fury they didn’t originally possess.

To give just one example from the book, I can certainly see how many readers might not immediately care about the firing of President J. Oliver Buswell from Wheaton College in the 1930s. President Buswell wanted Wheaton to pursue a more theologically pure separatist approach. He wanted Wheaton to encourage its faculty and students to withdraw from mainline Protestant denominations and focus instead on creating a consistently conservative evangelical institution.

Wheaton’s trustees disagreed. They insisted that Wheaton maintain its efforts to attract conservative students who remained within mainline denominations as well as those that joined breakaway fundamentalist churches.

As Professor Compton notes, all the players in this 1930s drama are long-dead. But their squabble is anything but long-forgotten. Throughout its history, Wheaton struggled to figure out how to handle the tension between conservative purity and (relatively) big-tent inclusiveness. Time after time, whenever faculty members challenged the vagaries of Wheaton’s assumptions about orthodoxy, they were given the boot.

If you think these patterns are no longer in effect, just ask Professor Hawkins. Perhaps no one in that recent Wheaton battle invoked the specter of President Buswell’s 1930s ouster, but the college as a whole still deals with the echoes of every long-ago conflict.

A New Low?

It was despicable. It was crass. It was ugly. IMHO. But as far as I’m concerned, Professor Randa Jarrar’s comments about war criminals, Barbara Bush, and the status of tenured radicals were not much different from what we’ve seen already.

The topic came up when a journalist called me yesterday to talk over the case. Among her questions, she wondered if Professor Jarrar’s hateful tweets represented a new low in academic discourse. I invite SAGLRROILYBYGTH to disagree, but I think Jarrar’s comments, as nasty as they were, are nothing new in academic life.randa jarrar 1

Here’s what we know: Professor Jarrar teaches English at Fresno State University. When former First Lady Barbara Bush passed away, Professor Jarrar seized the opportunity to tweet her outrage about President Bush’s policies. As Jarrar put it,

Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who . . . raised a war criminal. . . . I’m happy the witch is dead.

As Jarrar attracted attention from friends and foes for her comments, she bragged that she made a six-figure salary and couldn’t be fired. Trolls dug up video clips of Jarrar’s public talks, in which she seemed to call for violence against white-supremacist Richard Spencer, among other things.randa jarrar 2

Loud. Brash. Unpleasant. But a new low? I don’t think so. I think Professor Jarrar, like so many other academics these days, was scrambling to build her brand. She was looking for attention—as all humanities academics these days feel pressed to do—and she did so in a particularly nasty way.

I don’t like it, but I don’t think it’s worse than other provocations from pundits of both the left and the right. Am I missing something?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

What a week–dancing on graves, predatory Liberty, and chicken controversies. Here are some of the biggest stories:

Another view of conservative sex ed: A review of Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body at FT.

Wow: What NYC looked like in 1911, thanks to restored Swedish film.

White evangelicals and Trump: Greg Carey reviews John Fea’s Believe Me at RD.

Chik-fil-A’s “creepy infiltration” of New York.

Did “lax discipline policies” cause the Parkland school shooting? RCI.

How Liberty Online U. got so big, at NYT.

Here’s a weird one: Michigan high school closed after Confederate-flag-waving trucks parked outside. At DN.

And it gets even weirder–I missed this story when it first came out, but schools in my neighborhood are arming students with buckets of rocks to repel invaders. At Reuters. HT: SMSL.

Lovin Trump: White evangelical support higher than ever, at PRRI.PRRI-Trump-Favorability-and-white-evangelicals-2015-2018-1-1024x683

Are we dancing on graves now? The Randa Jarrar/Barbara Bush story. HT: MM.

I Love You, Donald Trump

Fumes of bewilderment are still rising above the academic swamp. Nerds like me just can’t figure it out: Why do white evangelicals love President Trump so much? Why, that is, do they not merely hold their noses and grudgingly support Trump as the least-worst candidate, or the practical-but-boorish choice, but actively embrace his leadership? New poll numbers suggest that white evangelicals are the only group that is liking Trump more and more as the scandals roll out.

PRRI-Trump-Favorability-and-white-evangelicals-2015-2018-1-1024x683

Lovin the Donald.

The contradiction that seems so obvious to me is apparently a false one. To me, it would make sense if white evangelicals became disaffected with Trump’s in-your-face leadership style, with his reputed sexual dalliances, and with his hazy patriotism.

Among white evangelical respondents, there is no problem. A whopping seventy-one percent of white evangelical women like Trump. An even higher eighty-one percent of men do.

Could this be a division between “faculty-lounge” evangelicalism and the popular sort? The numbers suggest otherwise. True, college-educated white evangelicals support Trump in lower numbers, but still at a very high sixty-eight percent. Among those who have not been to college, seventy-eight percent of white evangelicals are pro-Trump.

Why so much Trumpism? One of my conservative evangelical friends offered his two cents. As he put it,

Adam, it is very simple why Trump has such wide-spread support among conservatives, we finally have a president on our side in the culture wars.

This Can’t Be For Real…

I get it, I really do. I think arming teachers is a terrible idea, but I understand that lots of people disagree with me. When it comes to ideas like the ones we’re seeing this morning, though, we can’t possibly disagree. Does anyone really think this is a good idea? More important, the kerfuffle might tell us something about how schools work in the real world.

mini bats pa school district

The superintendent explains his plan…

Here’s what we know: Some school districts in Pennsylvania have approved plans to arm their teachers…with miniature baseball bats. You know, the kind you got as a kid when you went to a Brewers game, then left on your desk in your bedroom until finally someone threw it out or something.

The head of the local teachers’ union defended the move. As he put it,

This is a tool to have in the event we have nothing else. . . . Part of the formula now is to fight back. . . . The theory behind the attack option is to create noise, distract, or defend against an active shooter. For a classroom or office setting, this translates to books, staplers, chairs, fire extinguishers, etc. being used as defensible tools.

It gets even weirder. Another district in my area doesn’t give teachers sports memorabilia, but it does provide each classroom with…wait for it…buckets of rocks. When an alert SAGLRROILYBYGTH informed me of this plan, I thought it was a joke. But it seems real. Superintendent David Helsel told Reuters he planned to put buckets of rocks in every classroom. As he explained,

We didn’t want our students to be helpless victims. . . . River stones were my idea. I thought they would be more effective than throwing books or book bags or staplers.

Can they be serious? Is there any support out there for these sorts of preposterous plans?

It seems merely wacky, but this story tells us something about the way public schools often work in practice. There will be a controversial idea—evolution, sex ed, or, as in this case, arming teachers. District leaders will want to be seen taking action, but they also want to avoid controversy at all costs. The result? Half measures that veer sharply into the ridiculous.

What They Missed about Liberty Online

Want to understand evangelical higher education these days? Then you need to read the recent exposé of Liberty University’s online program in the New York Times. But when you do, remember that they left out a central piece of the picture.

moody literature mission

Early distance-learning programs at MBI claimed to reach the world with cutting-edge technology, c. 1947. These “mountaineers” got free Gospels if they read them in school. And, yes, that is their school building.

The Liberty Online story is a big one. As the Times article describes, Liberty now claims $2.5 billion (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) in net assets, largely from its online department. Because Liberty is a non-profit, it is not subject to the same oversight as for-profit schools such as Corinthian and the University of Phoenix.

Some online students, the article describes, felt pressured to sign up and ripped off with the results. As one unhappy former Liberty student told the Times,

What’s killing me is that I went into this program to try to change my situation . . . and I’m worse off than I was at the beginning.

It’s an ugly story. There is no doubt that Liberty’s online program has been a cash cow. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, there’s also no doubt that Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. has plowed his online profits back into the brick-and-mortar campus. Sports, star faculty, and campus facilities all get plenty of funding. Recently, the Liberty football squad used that money to fulfill one of the school’s long-standing dreams by defeating top-ranked Baylor.

But the Times story leaves out a crucial part of the historical context. The way they put it, Liberty’s online program came about as part of an experiment, an “educational novelty.” As the article explains,

One educational novelty that Falwell dabbled in, starting in the mid-’70s, was an early form of distance learning. Liberty would mail lecture videotapes and course packets to paying customers around the country — at first just certificate courses in Bible studies, and by the mid-’80s, accredited courses in other subjects as well.

The inspiration, according to the NYT, was the work of John Sperling and the University of Phoenix. I don’t doubt that President Falwell Jr. admired Sperling’s business model. I don’t dismiss the importance of the notion that Falwell has treated his school, as he told NYT, “like a business.”

However, if we really want to understand Liberty’s online success, we have to also understand its context as part of the history of evangelical higher education. It is difficult for some secular people (like me) to notice or acknowledge, but evangelical schools and missionary institutions have always led the way with finding new ways to use new technology to deliver distance education.

letterhead from BGC 3

Check out the 1950s-era “high-tech” logo! More evidence of the evangelical obsession with technology and distance learning, from Fuller Seminary, c. 1956.

Perhaps the best example might be the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. No matter the decade, no matter the technology, the Moody educational empire has found ways to expand its reach using new technological means. The drive is obvious: For MBI and other evangelical institutions, the primary goal is to deliver the Gospel to as many human eyes and ears as possible, as fast as possible. If new technology will help accomplish that mission, all the better.

To note just a few of the best-known programs, MBI was a pioneer in early radio, with its WMBI established in 1926 to bring the Word to the world. By 1940, WMBI’s Radio School of the Bible had over 10,000 registrants. In 1942, WMBI claimed to broadcast its programs through 187 radio stations across the USA, Canada, China, and Latin America.

In the 1940s, MBI set up its Moody Institute of Science, distributing missionary science films to a wide audience.

At the same time, MBI carried out less-well-known distance-learning programs as well. As I discovered in the MBI archives, from the 1920s through the 1960s the Moody Literature Mission delivered millions of books and tracts to readers throughout the country and throughout the world.

The point of these distance-learning programs was always the same. MBI, like all evangelical colleges and universities, had a mission of missions. It was dedicated to training young people to carry the Gospel around the world. And, unlike some people’s image of stuffy Luddite conservatives, evangelical institutions were always pioneers in every type of technology: print, radio, film, and internet.

So when the Jerry Falwells experimented with distance education, they weren’t innovating at all, really. Rather, they were merely continuing the long tradition of evangelical higher education—using all available means to deliver the Gospel around the world.

Biblical Peanut Butter at the Museum of the Bible

What is the Museum of the Bible for? Its conservative-evangelical founders insist it is supposed to be more like the Smithsonian than the Ark Encounter, but recent revelations have left me puzzled.motb-peanut-carver.jpeg

Here’s what we know: Thanks to the generosity and diligence of an ILYBYGTH correspondent who prefers to remain anonymous, your humble editor recently came into possession of some MOTB publications.

Most intriguing, MOTB publishes a glossy booklet, 99 Earth-Shattering Events Linked to the Bible. As the title promises, this publication offers biblical connections to 99 key events in human history, from the Magna Carta to Nelson Mandela.

Some of them have left this reader scratching his head. They certainly seem more Ark Encounter than Smithsonian. Am I missing something?

For example, the book credits the Bible for inspiring George Washington Carver to “Unlock . . . Peanut’s Potential.” We all know Carver’s remarkable story. In this telling, though, it was not grit or genius or perseverance that fueled Carter’s career, but rather the text of Genesis I. “To Carver,” the booklet explains,

This Bible passage revealed the potential of what he could do with the peanut to help others be lifted from poverty—particularly, the struggling African American farmers.

To this reader, the connection seems…strained, to say the least. Dr. Carver may have been an earnest Bible-believing Christian and he may have given his faith credit for his work. But so did the white-supremacist politicians and their violent allies who forced African American scientists into segregated institutions.

How can we credit the Bible for one, without also blaming it for the other? To me, this seems like Wallbuilders history–not a sincere attempt to understand the past, but rather a collection of awkward celebrations that distort the historical record.

Keeping the Faith in Evangelical Colleges

Thanks to Eric Miller and Religion & Politics for publishing an interview this afternoon about Fundamentalist U.Bob-Jones-GettyImages-50615822-780x508

Professor Miller asked questions that got right at the heart of the book: What does it mean to be a “real” college? How did students react to the strict rules at evangelical colleges? Do evangelical schools have academic freedom?

Click on over to read the entire thing.

At first, I thought Professor Miller was simply a peculiarly acute reader, but it turns out he himself spent some time in evangelical higher ed, so he really knew what he was talking about.

Are Christians Allowed in New York?

It makes conservatives furious, but is Dan Piepenbring right? Piepenbring recently blasted Chik-fil-A’s “creepy infiltration” of New York City in the pages of the New Yorker. The brouhaha shows how little most of us understand about New York’s real status in our continuing culture wars. It has never really been the Great Sodom that conservatives excoriate and progressives celebrate.

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The Christians that never sleep?

Piepenbring is mad that Chik-fil-A is sneaking into his city. He dislikes the conservative evangelical politics of the chain’s founder. More than that, though, he seems put out by the Midwestern aw-shucks-ism at play. Piepenbring seems offended by the way Chik-fil-A imported a family-values vibe into his grunge-chic citycape. The company’s trademark Cows exemplify the problem. As Piepenbring puts it,

The joke is that the Cows are out of place in New York—a winking acknowledgment that Chick-fil-A, too, does not quite belong here.

Conservatives reacted with predictable hauteur. For example, American Conservative’s Rod Dreher blasted Piepenbring’s “Yankee bigot[ry].” “In terms of parochial, un-self-aware narrow-mindedness,” Dreher opened,

it is hard to beat this piece from the New Yorker on how the a [sic] popular purveyor of delicious chicken and waffle fries is making Manhattan into an unsafe space.

It should be funny, Dreher notes, to read anything that soberly invokes phrases such as “suburban piety.” In actual fact, Dreher concludes, Piepenbring’s half-baked screed is more than a sad joke; it serves as yet more evidence of widespread “anti-Christian bigotry.”

I can’t agree with Dreher’s main point about anti-Christian bigotry, but I do think that Piepenbring’s brand of “keep New York weird” rhetoric misses some important truths. Full disclosure: I share the desire to sponsor local over chain. Up here in sunny Binghamton, I go to Laveggio instead of Starbucks; Consol’s instead of Olive Garden. But even though I share Piepenbring’s anti-corporate aesthetics, I can’t help but think he is willfully ignoring some fundamental truths about his city.

It’s beyond obvious, of course, that New York City is the headquarters of America’s financial and corporate culture. Less obvious, perhaps, is that New York has also served as a center of conservative evangelical intellectual culture and activism.

A century ago, progressive New Yorkers were similarly riled by the fiery fundamentalism of New York’s John Roach Straton, pastor of Calvary Baptist and one of the undisputed national leaders of the 1920s fundamentalist movement. I spent some time with Straton’s archived papers a few years back and they are chock-full of ardent correspondence with all the top conservative evangelicals of his generation.

Again and again, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists praised Straton and acknowledged his New-York-based leadership of the national fundamentalist movement. In 1922, for example, the president of fundamentalist Wheaton College in Illinois wrote to Straton

to thank you for the attack you are making on the infidel teaching of our time.

Beyond any dispute, Straton used his New York City headquarters to fight evolution and theological liberalism. He used the cultural clout of his big-city address to add oomph to his fundamentalist activism. Yet even his fundamentalist admirers tended to assume that fundamentalism was not a true product of the Big Apple. Straton himself sometimes agreed. In spite of the fact that he had built his fundamentalist empire from Manhattan, Straton told the New York Times in 1925 that fundamentalism was a Southern thing. As Straton put it, fundamentalism represented

a rising tide of spiritual earnestness preparing in the South and West which will sweep the country.

Even today, New York City is home to some of conservative evangelicalism’s most vital institutions. Most notably, The King’s College moved downtown in order to exert its presence in the heart of Gotham. As one enthusiast put it, by moving to New York, TKC could be

a counter cultural Christian college in New York City that leads with academic excellence and ‘convictional civility.’

Though both conservatives and progressives have tended to assume that conservative evangelicals don’t fit in New York’s hurly-burly cultural landscape, both sides have frequently missed the long, continuing tradition of New York’s role as a capital city of conservative evangelicalism.

They don’t agree on much, but both sides seem to ignore New York’s real role as an international headquarters of conservative evangelical religion. Why?