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.
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.