Can Christian Colleges Say the R-Word?

Do conservative Christians encourage rape?  It’s a difficult thing to talk about, but it is a question these days at the center of discussions about conservatism, Christianity and higher education.  Most recently, blogger Samantha Field related the stories of students at Pensacola Christian College who had been punished by the school after suffering sexual assaults.  The accusations have attracted enough attention that PCC has felt obliged to make a public denial.  The school said it has been “harassed and victimized” by these accusations.  PCC, the school insisted, has always acted in accordance with the law.

This is not only an issue at Pensacola Christian College.  As journalist Kiera Feldman argued in a recent New Republic article, a similar culture of institutional arrogance prevails at Patrick Henry College.  And Bob Jones University has gone back and forth with its efforts to examine its own culture.  More broadly, Billy Graham’s grandson attracted attention a few months back for asking if evangelical Protestants had a worse record of dealing with sex abuse than did the Catholic Church.

These are difficult questions to ask.  For an earlier post about this issue, I’ve been called insensitive (fair, and I apologize again), ignorant (sometimes fair, sometimes unfair) and guilty of condoning or excusing cover-ups (utterly unfair).  What I asked was whether or not these accusations of institutional misconduct rely on stereotyped assumptions about conservative evangelical Protestants.  In other words, is there something specifically about the religion of these schools that is somehow to blame?  Or is it an institutional culture at these conservative schools that blames victims and excuses criminals?  Is there something about the Christian nature of these schools that promotes and excuses rape?  Or is this a question of institutional mismanagement?  Finally, we have to ask, is this whole thing somehow more aggravated at these schools than it is at secular or pluralist schools?

After reading more about these cases, it seems the attitude toward rape of school leaders really is wrapped up intimately with their institutional tradition, and maybe even with their theological tradition.  It seems this is more than just another case of fundamentalist-bashing.  In the past, I have defended young-earth creationists against accusations that they are guilty of criminal abuse.  I’ve chided secular journalists—with whom I’m generally sympathetic—for misrepresenting the claims of young earth creationists.  These cases from conservative colleges seemed to me, at first, to represent similar sorts of knee-jerk anti-fundamentalist stereotyping.  I didn’t try to cast doubt on the sincerity of the victims, to be clear, but I did ask whether the accusations against the schools unfairly tied belief in an inerrant Bible to cases of institutional misconduct.

I do not come from a conservative evangelical or fundamentalist background.  But for a living, I study conservative educational activism, especially the educational thinking of conservative Protestants in the United States.  I’m aware of the history of American fundamentalism, including the ways theology has been profoundly combined with hierarchical gender notions.  As I wrote in my 1920s book and as Margaret Bendroth argued in hers, in its early decades American fundamentalism relied on notions of male dominance and female submissiveness.

We know that all colleges these days are struggling with proper ways to handle sexual assault cases.  The charges against schools such as Patrick Henry College, Pensacola Christian College, and Bob Jones University suggest that the campus culture at these conservative schools makes that difficult task much harder.  It seems the fundamentalist culture of these schools has intensified the already brutal culture on many secular college campuses.

This does not mean that every fundamentalist condones sexual assault, of course.  This does not even mean that every student, faculty member, or administrator of these schools agrees with the overall school culture.  Nor can we even say with confidence that this culture is somehow a necessary outgrowth of the theology of the schools, rather than primarily a question of hierarchical, closed-off, inflexible administrative structure.  But it does seem that the dominant atmosphere of these schools needs to share blame in this aggravated culture of condoning and excusing sexual assault.

The best comparison, it seems to me, is the atrocious record of the Catholic Church with its recent sex-abuse scandals.  No one says that every Catholic—let alone every Catholic priest—is part of this scandal.  Nor do we even say with confidence that this is something caused directly by the theology of the Catholic Church.  And we can of course point out that far more non-Catholics committed sex abuse than did Catholic priests.  But such objections miss the point.  There was something profoundly wrong with the way the power structure of the church handled those cases.  It seems there’s a similar connection here between institutional structure and moral accountability.

Those few who might use these cases to suggest that Christianity as a whole is a rape-centered religion are just as wrong as they have ever been.  And we must remember that there is a wide variety in conservative evangelical colleges.  A culture that dominates at BJU, PHC, or PCC will be very different from the culture at other evangelical schools such as Wheaton.  But even remembering those important caveats, there is something deeply troubling with the institutional power structure in these fundamentalist schools.

What will colleges do to respond?  As I’ve argued elsewhere, these schools rely on their reputation as havens of religious orthodoxy in a secularized society.  As the first Bob Jones insisted when he founded Bob Jones College in the 1920s,

Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children.

Today’s school leaders, no less than the founders, must be able to say confidently that students will be theologically and physically safe.  How can they reassure parents and future students that they have responded to these accusations?

Leave a comment


  1. I am extremely heartened to read this. I was troubled by your previous post on the subject but didn’t feel equipped to give an adequate response. I felt that your desire not to descend into fundamentalist-bashing and to remain impartial had led you to give the institutions in question the benefit of more doubt than there actually was available.

    I imagine you’ll be criticised in some quarters for saying this, but I think it’s absolutely the case that fundamentalist narratives about purity, modesty, sin, and forgiveness contribute to cultures in which allegations of sexual abuse are not properly handled and victims are not adequately supported.

  2. I am glad that you revised your views on this topic. Growing up in this culture led me to be significantly vulnerable to being taken advantage of by my ex-boyfriend (which, thankfully, didn’t go too far, but was still extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant). I’m not saying that this is an exclusively Christian problem, but this particular Fundamentalist culture certainly supports this sort of problem, even if it is entirely unintentional.

  3. Here’s how I would answer your questions:

    “Is there something specifically about the religion of these schools that is somehow to blame?”

    I’m convinced that the key factors are money and power, not religion. Colleges sell themselves as a safe haven for students, and parents especially consider low crime rates to be a big selling point. One of the most effective ways colleges have maintained a good safety record is by suppressing the actual crime records as much as they can. The more power a college has over its community, the more effectively it can suppress reports of rape.

    The difference I see between religious and secular schools is twofold: first, both kinds of schools engage in suppression and victim-shaming, but the language and manner in which religious schools do it is more explicitly tied to ideology. Second, since the parents and students at religious schools usually subscribe to the ideology the colleges teach, religious schools have a wider range of weapons they can use to shame and blame rape victims.

    To put it another way, how different was the Catholic Church’s treatment of its victims compared to how Penn State handled its child molestation scandal? The scale was different of course, but ultimately it came down to looking the other way for the sake of the institution’s image, With Penn State, the financial motive was more explicit, but the Catholic Church clearly knew that donations would plummet if they outed pedophile priests. And I can tell you that the language Penn State alumni have used when the reputation of their university has been called into question is pretty much the same language churches use when their reputation is damaged.

    “Or is it an institutional culture at these conservative schools that blames victims and excuses criminals?”

    All institutions are susceptible to blaming victims and excusing criminals. Look at how corporate whistleblowers are treated. Look at how political scandals unfold. In my view, what makes college unique is that you have a large number of young omen with no social leverage (unless they’re the children of powerful alumni), not enough worldliness to know how to stand up for themselves when they are wronged, and no place to turn to when they are victimized.

    The culture at conservative colleges makes it worse because it uses patriarchal language and ideology to shame the women and reinforce the environment that caused the problem to begin with. But don’t think for a second that women at secular colleges don’t face a similar problem (especially if the criminal is a local sports hero.)

    “Finally, we have to ask, is this whole thing somehow more aggravated at these schools than it is at secular or pluralist schools?”

    I suspect that it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, colleges like Bob Jones take pains to control how and when men and women socialize. Fewer opportunities for students to be alone will mean fewer rapes. On the other hand, those rapes that do take place will be much harder on the victims because the religious dogma will amplify the social shame and psychological struggle they will experience.

    • Thanks, CV. You’ve articulated clearly some of the notions I have been struggling to ask about without sounding as if I were somehow pooh-poohing the seriousness of this phenomenon on conservative evangelical campuses. I doubt that it is much comfort, for instance, to victims of assault at Penn State to hear that the use of Football rather than Fundamentalism to justify and cover up their suffering is somehow less horrible.

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