From the Archives: Campus Rape in the 1930s

Do fundamentalist colleges encourage sexual assault?  It’s a terrible and difficult thing to talk about.  As we’ve seen in these pages, some alumni insist that fundamentalist schools force victims of sexual assault to blame themselves.  But we’ve also seen that sexual assault is not at all unique to religious schools.  As I continue the research for my new book about the history of evangelical colleges and universities, I’ve stumbled across a story that might shed light on these tricky questions.

Despot in Denver

Despot in Denver

The way we word the questions themselves is controversial: Are fundamentalist schools cults that pander to the lusts of authoritarian leaders?  Or do the strict sexual ethics of conservative evangelicalism help protect young women and men from predatory teachers and authority figures?

Critics of conservative evangelical colleges warn that that the pervasive “purity culture” of these schools leads directly to rape.  Bloggers such as Samantha Fields have accused fundamentalist colleges of blaming victims of sexual assault.  Journalists have blasted schools such as Patrick Henry College for fostering a rape-friendly environment.  Prominent evangelicals have suggested that the problem is not one of theology, but of an authoritarian institutional culture.  For example, Boz Tchividjian famously suggested that abuse can happen “in any culture, elevating leaders beyond accountability, leaving victims’ rights to their whim, and sidelining critics who challenge their rule.”

I’ve stumbled across a story from the 1930s that might illuminate the longer history here.  In 1936, a high-powered panel of fundamentalist leaders convened to investigate Denver Bible Institute (now part of Colorado Christian University).  At the time, DBI was led by charismatic founder Clifton L. Fowler.  Fowler wanted to join the Evangelical Teacher Training Association, and to do so ETTA demanded that rumors be cleared up.

Unfortunately for Fowler, an extremely disturbing picture emerged.  Fowler, the investigators concluded, ran DBI like a sex-crazed despot.  Students and faculty were pressured to declare lifelong commitments to the schools.  Married faculty members were pushed into pledging “continence.”  (I’m not sure what was meant by “continence” in this context.  Any suggestions?)  Students were encouraged to separate from parents and home churches.  Community members felt pressure to offer Fowler detailed confessions of their sexual sins.  And, yes, Fowler apparently routinely engaged in sexual activities with male students.

From one perspective, this historical episode might seem to confirm the dangers of authoritarian fundamentalist schools.  For as long as there have been fundamentalist schools, we might conclude, leaders have felt free to engage in predatory sexual practices.  Community members felt constrained by their own admitted sexual sinfulness from criticizing the dictatorial leadership.

On the other hand, as Michael Hamilton argued in his excellent 1994 dissertation, Fowler did not have a free hand to do as he pleased.  The accusations against Fowler forced DBI out of decent fundamentalist company.  Local fundamentalist churches cut off DBI.  The Evangelical Teacher Training Association would not let DBI join.  Fowler, in other words, was restrained in his behavior because of the network of fundamentalist schools and churches in which he worked.

As usual, history does not offer any pat solutions.  But this episode does demonstrate the long lifespan of these questions at fundamentalist schools.  It shows that school founders have always been accused of sexual predation.  But it also shows that fundamentalist leaders and communities worked hard to police their own ranks.

In this case, at least, both national leaders and local community members refused to look the other way.

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8 Comments

  1. I wonder how often fundamentalists police their own. This is an interesting story, but it is ONE story. Perhaps you will find more. It seems to me that fundamentalists perceive themselves as “persecuted”, and thus, turn a deaf ear towards any criticism which comes their way. The insular construct of strict fundamentalism makes it hard to make inroads. I was born and raised into that culture, and it is very hard to get out of it. Once out, it is also just as difficult to try to persuade others. Fundamentalism is a real problem in education. That’s my opinion.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing. I should note, too, that a hard core of supporters continued to back Fowler the entire time. A lot of the anti-Fowler evidence came from his estranged wife. The Fowler supporters did just what you say: They accused both her and anyone who listened to her of persecuting a godly Fowler.

      Reply
  2. Agellius

     /  September 22, 2014

    I think “continence” within marriage means abstaining from sex.

    Of course, any time you have an authoritarian structure within an institution there is the danger that authority may be used for evil. It seems to me that this can happen any time someone in authority has the ability to intimidate those under his authority. I can happen in public schools as well as private, and in secular schools as well as religious. It can (and does) also happen in corporations and in the military, as well as in families. Unfortunately we can’t function without some kind of authority structure, so the answer can’t be to get rid of all authority, but to police it and hold it accountable for misconduct.

    It seems to me that within Christian institutions, you at least have as a safeguard the Christian tenet that all sexual activity outside marriage is forbidden. Obviously this doesn’t prevent misconduct since people are free to disobey. But you can see from the incident you relate, that it does at least provide a basis for condemning such behavior and shunning those who are guilty of it.

    In situations where people are taught that it’s more important to obey people in positions of authority than it is to obey God’s law, then you have a perversion of true Christian teaching, and it’s not surprising if it results in perverted behaviors. But in that case it’s not Christian teaching per se, but the perversion of Christian teaching that is the problem.

    Reply
  3. Looking at the scandals that have erupted recently, it seems to me that accountability often has more to do with public exposure than an actual “Christian” desire to prevent sexual sinning. The predators in the Catholic clergy, Gothard, Driscoll, PHC, Pensacola, BJU and more… the one thing I see in common is that powerful people in powerful organizations are only criticized and rejected by the evangelical movement at large once their misdeeds are openly and publicly exposed. In other words, I think major Christian organizations tend to be happy to turn a blind eye to each others’ faults in order to protect the Christian image. This only tends to fall apart once the allegations can no longer be safely denied. In many of these scandals, people knew of the abuses for decades without acting. In others (like Pensacola, etc) the leadership is still denying the problem vehemently.

    I don’t think this is a Christian problem, exclusively. I think it is an issue of authoritarian leadership and a sense of shared community among some people (heightened by a persecution complex) that causes criticism to be viewed as a threat to the “whole”. These things are a volatile and dangerous combination for victims.

    Reply
  4. Donna

     /  September 22, 2014

    Galactic, What do you mean by ” the evangelical movement at large?”

    Reply
    • I mean the evangelical churches and organizations that are directly involved in these scandals, along with many influential conservative evangelical leaders that may either lend their support or withdraw it from an organization or person who is involved in misconduct.

      The particular case I had in mind when I wrote that, which might help clarify, is the Bill Gothard scandal. Although members of his board apparently addressed Gothard over the course of several DECADES about his inappropriate behavior with minor girls, no one actually stood up to him until after 34 women came forward with allegations of abuse. At that point, Gothard was suddenly put on leave and resigned, and Christian organizations began to denounce him and distance themselves. Michael Farris, prominent figurehead and leader of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) even wrote an article claiming that he had always had misgivings about Gothard and had never supported his organization (or Doug Phillips’, also involved in sexual abuse allegations). However, HSLDA had given Gothard one of their most prestigious awards only 4 years ago, and had long promoted both Phillip’s and Gothard’s materials.

      This is just one example, but I see similar patterns in many of the other scandals I listed… leadership in the conservative Christian community knew of the problems, but ignored them in favor of a strong image and continued support. Abuse allegations are often denied or covered up until they cannot be hidden anymore. Suddenly everyone distances themselves and insists that they NEVER had anything to do with that, even if they had long enjoyed the mutual support of that leader or organization. Again, this is not a Christian problem, but an issue of any authoritarian organizations, especially if they feed off of the shared sense of identity that drives other similar (although perhaps unaffiliated) people to uncritically defend these figureheads against criticism.

      Does that clarify?

      Reply
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