Can a College Be Christian?

After Ben Carson’s stupid and hateful comment that the USA should not have a Muslim president, Baylor theologian Roger Olson noted that we really could not have a Christian president, either. In my current work about evangelical colleges, I’m struggling to define what it meant to be Christian at school, too. It raises an ancient question: Can an other-worldly religion (successfully) run worldly institutions?

Olson noted that the only sincere evangelical to sit in the Oval Office in recent decades has been Jimmy Carter. And Carter, Olson argued, was a terrible president. Not by accident, either, but because he was an honest-to-goodness Christian. As Olson put it,

I am not cynical, but neither am I naïve. America is no longer a true democracy; it is run by corporations and the super-rich elite. Occasionally they don’t get their way, but, for the most part, they do. One reason they do not seem to is that they do not agree among themselves about everything. So, sometimes, a president, a senator, a congressman, has to choose between them in decision-making. But, in the end, the policy remains that “What’s good for business is good for America” even when what’s good for business is bad for the working poor (to say nothing of the destitute).

No, given how modern nation states work, I do not think a real Christian, a true disciple of Jesus Christ who seeks to put first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, can be president of the United States or any modern nation state.

The deeper question of belief and institutional necessity is one I’m wrestling with these days. As I write my new book about the history of evangelical higher education, I find myself struggling to offer a satisfactory definition of what it has meant to be a fundamentalist. It’s a question that has bedeviled historians (and fundamentalists) for a good long while, so I feel I’m in good company.

For good reasons, historians have insisted that we need a fairly narrow definition of fundamentalism. In his great book Revive Us Again, Joel Carpenter argued, “more generic usage obscures more than it illumines” (page 4). Carpenter was leery of commentators who slapped a “fundamentalist” label on any and all conservatives or conservative Protestants. As he argued,

Labelling movements, sects, and traditions such as the Pentecostals, Mennonites, Seventh-day Adventists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Churches of Christ, black Baptists, Mormons, Southern Baptists, and holiness Wesleyans as fundamentalists belittles their great diversity and violates their unique identities (4).

If we need a straightforward definition for those reasons, Matthew Sutton’s recent definition of fundamentalism as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism” will do the trick. Certainly, fundamentalist theology was defined by its vision of end-times as well as by the centrality of those apocalyptic visions to the movement.

But such definitions don’t seem to match the ways fundamentalism has been defined in its leading institutions. At the colleges I’m studying—schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, Bryan College, Biola University, The King’s College, and similar schools—there’s more to the school than just theology.

When these schools called themselves “fundamentalist” (and they DID, even relatively liberal schools such as Wheaton), they meant more than theology. They meant more than just “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” They meant more than just “not-Mennonite-or-Pentecostal.”

Defining fundamentalism as it was used in fundamentalist institutions is a trickier issue than simply defining fundamentalist theology. By and large, when schools talked about themselves as “fundamentalist,” they meant that the professors and administration all signed on to fundamentalist theology. But they also meant that the students would have a vaguely conservative atmosphere in which to study. No smoking, no dancing, no etc. They also meant that students would be controlled and guided in their life choices. And they also meant that students would be more likely to socialize with similarly fundamentalist friends and future spouses.

I’m not sure how to define that kind of fundamentalism. I like the way historian Timothy Gloege has done it in his new book about the Moody Bible Institute. Gloege focuses on what he calls the “corporate evangelical framework” that guided MBI since its founding in the 19th century.

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

As Gloege argues, at a school like MBI, fundamentalism was more than a set of “manifestos and theological propositions.” Rather, it worked as a set of “unexamined first principles—as common sense.” Fundamentalism, Gloege writes, is better understood as a certain “grammar” than as a list of religious beliefs.

That kind of definition seems closer to the ways it was used in the schools I’m studying.

Roger E. Olson argues that it will be impossible for any sincere evangelical Christian to be president. There are simply too many worldly factors that violate the otherworldly morality of Christianity. Similarly, evangelical colleges have not defined themselves merely along theological lines. They couldn’t. Instead, they have defined what it has meant to be a “fundamentalist” based on a range of factors. Of course, they care about student religious belief. But they also care about student fashions, patriotism, diets, and social lives. And such things were usually considered a central part of making a school authentically “fundamentalist.”

Can a college be Christian? In the sense that Roger E. Olson is asking, I guess not. Just as every president has to violate evangelical morality, so every institution of higher education has to consider a range of non-religious factors in order to survive.

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  1. I went to a center-left Christian SLAC in the South in the early 2000s and my college was denounced as “not Christian” by other fundamentalist Christian colleges since it did not have mandatory worship services. At my freshmen convocation, my religion professor explained that Christian education was about opening one’s mind and discovering more about the world (God’s world) and ourselves. You can’t force people to believe in something, like God, through threats or punishments. You need an open community that embraces curiosity and the love of knowledge. Sometimes that does test a faith and you may even lose your faith, but living in a closed-minded community does a great disservice to yourself and a disservice to God who gave you a mind and free will. All colleges, by his definition, are engaging in “Christian education.” I guess you can see why some Christian colleges might hate my college’s philosophy. Even the two mandatory religion classes I had to take (Introduction to the Bible and Medical Ethics) focused on objectivity and scholarly research with less emphasis on theology.

    I see “fundamentalism” as focusing more on “them versus us,” isolation and separation. When I think of a fundamentalist college, I picture an institution that tries to withdraw from secular and religious institutions and philosophies. I know from reading Samantha Field’s “Defeating the Dragons” blog that Liberty U. is reviled by Pensacola Christian College as “liberal” for reasons I don’t understand. Then there’s Bob Jones University being hated on by other fundamentalist colleges for it’s refusal to accept KJV as the only true biblical translation. I’m surprised fundamentalist colleges get along enough to present a united front on certain issues. I think most would prefer to be alone and keep their respective worldviews from being tainted by “otherness.”

  2. “Grammar”. I call it “Christianspeak”. Some hear certain phrases as “dog whistles”, such as Huckabee decrying the potential downfall of Western Civilization.

  3. Patrick

     /  September 29, 2015

    The undergraduate institution I attended was originally named “Florida Christian College,” but changed its name in 1963 to “Florida College” for various reasons, including the idea that a college can’t be “Christian”–only a person can. The school nonetheless retained its ultra-conservative Church of Christ affiliation. (The result, unfortunately, was a rather lame sounding name for a school which has spurred many people to have asked me over the years, “You went to Florida College? Is that made up?”)

  4. As Kierkegaard said, when everyone is a Christian, no one is. Institutions labelled “Christian” tend to demonstrate this very well.

    The adjectival Christianity on the Protestant right is an identity politics and marketing scheme, nothing more. Most of their colleges are or have been intensely sectarian. Protestant sectarianism used to be about white ethnics negotiating the American melting pot and class mobility. As that sectarianism ceases to be confessional, racial, and class-based it tends to be reconstituted as a more broadly separatistic, culture warring evangelicalism. It is still fundamentalist in its core commitment to resisting modern critical thought and science, at least when they touch on biblical texts and doctrines. None of this is really in line with history Christianity, Protestantism at its best, or the idea of the university, in its classical or post-classical Christian forms. To wall off one’s assumed truths from all other sectors of knowledge is as good as an announcement of disbelief. Ahead of Max Weber, George Santayana observed this in the progression of the old Ivy League from its original Calvinism to deism, universalism, and finally “moral materialism.” The moral materialist is obsessed with quantity of product. Such evangelicals know God is winning by reference to statistics.

    Roger Olson makes some good points and articulates the general failure of Christianity to absorb Machiavelli. Prior to the Reformation, there was a major effort among European humanists to define and shape the “Christian prince” so as to avoid economic predation and warfare. Power elites were simply presumed to be damned in the middle ages. That allowed the church to shake them down, which was not always a bad thing. Fear and pity were the only real checks on power for the weak. Later, a culturally empowered Protestant pragmatism shed that old view but did not solve the problem of how power should relate to grace, or justice to mercy, and its most universal express is secular liberalism. The Augustinian two-kingdom view of church and state had not real successor to it. When religious sects fall into withdrawal and reaction to the secular state their ressentiment becomes their defining vice.


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