Christianity Kicked Out of Public Universities

Ball State University doesn’t want any more attention. It has been the subject of a nationwide campaign by pundits who were shocked—shocked!—to hear that one professor spoke kindly of intelligent design. But my current work in the archives at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College shows me just how dramatically things have changed in the past fifty years.

You may remember the intelligent-design case. In mid-2013, Eric Hedin was accused of larding his class with religious content. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation complained, and eventually Ball State’s president announced that religious ideas must not be taught as part of science classes.

Hedin’s use of religious themes became objectionable for two reasons. Mainly, observers complained that he was presenting religious ideas as if they were scientific. But Ball State University was also criticized as a public school using taxpayer dollars to favor one religious group.

According to Jerry Coyne, when Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora made her announcement that religious ideas should not be taught as science, she emphasized both of these notions. Intelligent design should not be taught as science, Gora told the Ball State community, since

Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory. Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses.

But Gora specified that even if such religious ideas were taught as part of humanities courses, they must only be taught as ideas, not as dogma. That is, even non-science classes could not teach religious ideas as true, but only as history or literature. As Gora put it,

Discussions of intelligent design and creation science can have their place at Ball State in humanities or social science courses. However, even in such contexts, faculty must avoid endorsing one point of view over others. . . . As a public university, we have a constitutional obligation to maintain a clear separation between church and state. It is imperative that even when religious ideas are appropriately taught in humanities and social science courses, they must be discussed in comparison to each other, with no endorsement of one perspective over another.

Things have changed. As I’ve dug through the archives here at the Billy Graham Center, I’ve come across an intriguing historical coda to the Eric Hedin story. These days, professors at Ball State may not teach religious ideas as science. They may not even teach any single religious idea as history or literature.

But as late as 1957, Ball State University—like many other public universities—taught evangelical Protestantism explicitly and purposefully. Many public colleges, especially teachers’ colleges, had entire programs devoted to what was usually called “Christian Education.” In these courses, public-school students could learn the basics of evangelical proselytization, usually under the heading of learning to be “Sunday School” teachers. Most typically, students were women who hoped to begin or enhance their careers as part-time religious educators.

The current logo hints at this heavenly history...

The current logo hints at this heavenly history…

In some cases, today’s public colleges used to be religious or denominational schools. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Ball State. It claims to have always been part of the government system.

Not only did universities such as Ball State teach courses in spreading the evangelical Gospel to children, but they also accepted transfer credits from unapologetically fundamentalist seminaries. In my archival work, I’ve found several examples of students using their credits from the Winona Lake School of Theology to advance their degrees at public universities like Ball State and the University of Georgia. Even the state of California apparently accepted Winona Lake credits toward public-school teaching certificates.

At the time, Winona Lake School of Theology was a firmly fundamentalist summer school. It was going through an ugly separation from the Fuller Theological Seminary over Fuller’s alleged drift away from Biblical inerrancy. Now defunct, the Winona Lake school refused to go along as Fuller Seminary moved into a more ecumenical attitude.

And in 1957, teachers could use their credits from this religious school to complete their religious program in Christian Education at Ball State University. Though there is too much heated rhetoric about God being “kicked out” of American public education, this example shows us how things really have changed over the past decades.

In 2013, the president of Ball State had no problem announcing that her university must not favor one religion over another; as a public school it must not teach religion, though it can and should teach about religion. But as late as 1957, Ball State and other public universities found it unexceptional to teach entire programs in Christian evangelism. Ball State had no problem taking credits from a fundamentalist seminary, since both programs taught similar course content.

More evidence that we are not just replaying every old culture-war script. Things really have changed.

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  1. Wasn’t the first Bible printed in America printed exclusively for use in the public schools?

    • Tim, can you give me some idea where you got that idea? I was taught in American history that the first Bible printed in the Americas was the Eliot Bible, an Algonquin-language translation in the… 1650s? 1660s? 1670s? Somewhere in there. I’d guess based on the language that the purpose was evangelism rather than education of good (born-)Puritan boys and girls.

      I poked around a bit online and found a Patheos post back in 2012 about the Aitken Bible. (here) It was apparently the first Bible printed after America’s independence and the first English-language Bible, but the idea that it was printed specifically for school use seems… complicated. Aitken made a reference to that hope, but Congress never affirmed the purpose, and they seemed to be more driven by a desire to have an authentic, common Bible for Americans to pull from rather than wanting to put the Bible in the public school curriculum.

      It’s an interesting moment in history, no doubt.

  2. Now that I’ve actually read this, I’m a bit struck by Gora’s distinction between ideas and dogma. It makes me wonder where my own field of study, philosophy, would fit in.

    The best philosophy classes, the ones where they’re actually prompting debate and critical thought and not just a more historical approach of “hundreds of years ago this group of thinkers thought ____”, will involve a professor making the most convincing case she can for a certain philosophical argument. For instance, even if I think Descartes’s cogito argument is nonsense (and I do), I’m doing my students a disservice if I don’t set up the argument as best I can. Sometimes it’s just a rhetorical move to start out discussion and sometimes I actually do believe it’s the best explanation (or that students will be well-served by being forced to challenge it). Even if the goal isn’t to churn out a bunch of logical positivists or scholastics or whatever my preferred philosophical approach is at the end of term, it could definitely come away like that, particularly if you took what I said in class out of context. But I have to believe my students would be worse off if they didn’t have a space to debate these ideas. If all I’m allowed to say is “Group A thought that _____” they may be getting a class on intellectual history, but I’m not convinced they’d really be doing philosophy. And that would apply even when the philosophers I was teaching were discussing religion and God stuff, even when they were starting from distinctly religious premises.

    Full disclosure: I was only a philosophy grad student instructor and I’m not anymore. I don’t want to pretend to represent the whole discipline, and as I was teaching in a Jesuit school, this was hardly an issue for me in practice. But I have to wonder how you teach critical thinking and give students the space to think about the ideas presented and work out whether they actually agreed with them or not, if we can only present something as what is commonly believed rather than opening up the question to whether that belief makes sense.

    (I don’t know a better way to approach this and still respect religious freedom. But it does strike me as something we should be concerned about.)


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