Could This Happen at an Evangelical College?

As John Leo reports at Minding the Campus, Professor Anthony Esolen is under pressure. He’s accused of being “racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, and religiously chauvinistic.” He says he’s just being truly Catholic and accuses his Catholic college of straying. As I finish up my book on the history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education, the story brings a question to mind: Would this—could this—DOES this happen at evangelical colleges?

For those who are outside the orbit of Catholic higher education, let’s start with an inadequate primer: The Catholic Church and its schools include several different orders. Many Catholic colleges, including famous ones such as Georgetown, Boston College, and Marquette, are run by the Jesuits. Other big names, such as Catholic University and Notre Dame, are run directly by the Church. Esolen’s Providence College is Dominican. All of them are Catholic, but they have different bureaucracies and different ways of doing things.


Plus Catholique que L’Administration?

Why does it matter? Each order has its own history and its own theological, cultural, and educational traditions. Some tend to be more conservative; some more liberal. As a very loose and general rule, American Jesuits and Franciscans tend to be more liberal when it comes to some things. Dominicans, in my very limited experience, tend to be more conservative. But it varies enormously.

At his Dominican school, Anthony Esolen thinks that the Dominicans are not being nearly conservative enough. As he has complained,

The dirty not-so-secret is that the same people who for many years have loathed our Development of Western Civilization program — the focus of curricular hostility — also despise the Catholic Church and wish to render the Catholic identity of the college merely nominal.

In a lot of ways, it sounds like the perennial tensions at evangelical colleges. Since the early 1960s, market pressure among evangelical and fundamentalist colleges has been so great that any rumor of faculty heterodoxy at evangelical schools has been ferociously squelched by school administrators. In other words, in their life-or-death struggle to attract as many students as possible, administrators at evangelical colleges have worked hard to shut down any whiff of liberalism among their faculty. They have been terrified of alienating conservative parents and losing their tuition dollars.

And school-watchers know it. Conservative and fundamentalist critics—including trustees and celebrities—have scrutinized the goings-on at evangelical schools with a gimlet eye. In many cases, they have threatened to publicize the liberalism of evangelical schools, hoping to cow administrators into cracking down. Time and time again, evangelical administrators have taken drastic action to head off any accusation that they are no longer trustworthy.

It sounds as if Professor Esolen is working from a similar playbook. As he said on Facebook recently, “It is no longer clear to me that Providence College would qualify as ‘worth attending’.”

In the world of fundamentalist and evangelical higher education, these sorts of enrollment threats carry a great deal of weight. Young-earth creationist Ken Ham, for example, has been able to push schools to shore up their creationist credentials by wondering, in effect, if some evangelical schools are still worth attending.

But here’s where I’m puzzled. Have evangelical schools had to wrestle with professors who are too conservative? Too creationist? Too fundamentalist?

I can think of a few cases, but nothing seems perfectly analogous.

For example, take the story of Gordon Clark at Wheaton. Back in the 1930s, Clark had a sterling resume, with an Ivy League PhD. Wheaton College was happy to have him, for a while. Clark’s ferocious Calvinism, however, sat roughly with Wheaton’s interdenominational, big-tent-evangelical tradition. Clark pooh-poohed the emotional revivalism so popular among Wheaton’s students. In 1943, for instance, he dismissed a campus revival as mere “mass psychology,” not true salvation. And he disdained a popular evangelical method of Bible reading, the dispensational approach. So Clark didn’t last at Wheaton.

It’s sort of similar to Esolen’s case, but not exactly. Professor Clark never accused Wheaton of abandoning its evangelical tradition. Rather, Clark wanted evangelical students to be more rigorously conservative, more systematically Calvinist. But Clark never thought Wheaton had abandoned its Calvinist roots, because it hadn’t. Professor Clark understood that Wheaton shared the perennial problem of interdenominational evangelical schools everywhere: They wanted an impossibly generic orthodoxy.

On the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities, we mostly hear about professors who get in hot water for being too liberal, not too conservative. Most recently, for example, the case of Larycia Hawkins comes to mind. She was booted (yes, she was booted, no matter that she officially agreed to depart on her own) for wearing a hijab, bragging about it, and proclaiming that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worshipped the same God.

For all you SAGLRROILYBYGTH out there who know the world of evangelical higher education better than I do….am I missing something? Are there other conservative professors who get in trouble for being more fundamentalist than their evangelical schools? Could Professor Esolen’s dilemma be repeated on an evangelical campus? HAS it been?

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  1. You could argue the profs fired for “open theism” at a few Evangelical colleges got in hot water for a type of intense biblical literalism that was probably seen as having too-liberal implications.

    Conservative Calvinists (like Clark) and Catholics (like Esolen) have been the most likely to get in trouble (or simply be banned from hiring) at Evangelical institutions, but movement conservatism largely united these northern constituencies (i.e., Evangelicals, Catholics, and also conservative Jews) in the arena of cultural politics. As concieved by Marsden et al (a Calvinist Evangelical at Notre Dame), the main chance for saving the “soul of the university” came to be a broadly “Christian” identity based in a tight integration of faith and learning modelled by fairly antiliberal, antimodernist reformed and catholic traditions that explicitly reject the compartmentalization and privatization of religious faith. This wasn’t just a suggested model for Christian colleges but a program bankrolled and implemented even where it was resisted. (If you follow the money, like with Esolen, paleoconservative Straussian networks and Claremont will keep coming up.)

    As you may know, the “Battle for Baylor” provides some examples of more and less successful resistances to “too-conservative” Catholics at a Baptist institution. This Baylor dissertation (under Barry Hankins’ direction) examines that period: However, the author seems uncritically sympathetic to the northern reformed-evangelical-catholic agenda, which styled itself as “conservative” and “orthodox” but was very much an incursion of geographic and confessional outsiders within a traditional Baptist institution and community whose different approach to faith and learning was suddenly attacked as a “secularizing,” “liberal,” and slipping orthodoxy. The story gets told differently from the old Baylor and free will Baptist perspective, naturally.

    Among the profs and centers brought in to help Baylor “preserve” its orthodoxy was William Dembski and his intelligent design project. Naturally this was a huge lightning rod as the most reactionary change foisted upon the university. However, Demski was not the only one who was eventually frozen out. To my knowledge, faculty opposition to perceived “carpetbaggers” shoehorned into Baylor by northern culture warriors did not succeed at getting anyone pushed out, at least not in the short term. Some were ostracized and essentially driven as close to “out” as you can be and still have an office, including the imported Wheaton alum provost who was the point man for bringing Catholic scholars to Baylor. Ironically the resistance was criticized as anti-Catholic prejudice while Catholics remain unwelcome at Wheaton, Calvin, etc.

    • Actually that’s a long undergrad honors thesis, not a dissertation, that I linked to. It seems to provide a good, albeit highly biased overview of a tumultuous and odd period prior to the author’s time at Baylor and the conclusion of the Baylor 2012 period. (

      At one point she discusses how former Wheaton president Litfin (!) criticized Baylor’s orthodoxy and supported changes that involved faculty hires Wheaton would and could never accept. (Imagine Wheaton going from zero Catholics to having them as the second largest faculty denomination! — that’s what happened at Baylor.)

      The student author’s autobiographical comments on her motives as a Catholic who chose to go to Baylor because of these hires notably do *not* set up a liberal narrative about increasing ecumenism and tolerance in a post-sectarian university. Instead it is a story of how Catholic faculty and an integrationist model of faith and learning have saved or renewed Baylor’s Christian identity.

      What this renewal looks like, as of 2011-12, is described by some rather interested principals as a kind of Evangelical laïcité, a default culture created by design: “The people they’ve brought in have been firstrate, solid Christian scholars who are serious and very good at what they do… and that’s the coolest part about Baylor 2012: the seamlessness. There’s no religion over here, it is just part of the atmosphere.”

      To get to that point, however, it required an administrative and donor revolution from above. The old Baylor that resisted and in some cases pushed faculty and administrators down or out was one where you could be “too conservative.” Maybe that has changed now, but Demski’s eventual ouster, though short of a firing, seems to fit the criteria of someone who was too conservative, or simply too far outside the scientific mainstream, to be tolerated.

      Demski then became the campus liberal by taking a position at a seminary that favored young earth creationism, and as of last year he has put intelligent design aside for good.

  2. Agellius

     /  April 25, 2017

    There are certain Catholic colleges which are geared towards a certain type of Catholic, basically, doctrinally strict Catholics, and which would have to assure parents of their own doctrinal strictness in order not to risk losing applicants, since those people make up their target applicant pool. People refer to them as “orthodox Catholic colleges” or “faithful Catholic colleges”, to distinguish them from the Providences and Notre Dames, which are considered lukewarm Catholic colleges. They’re also sometimes referred to as “Newman Guide colleges” since they’re listed in the college guide put out by the Cardinal Newman Society.

    It seems to me that calling a Protestant college an “evangelical” college is something like referring to a Catholic college as a Newman Guide college. The title “evangelical” inherently implies doctrinal and moral strictness. So, you wouldn’t expect a situation like the Esolen situation in either a Newman Guide college or an evangelical college, for the same reason in both cases, whereas you might well find it in a liberal or lukewarm Catholic college, or a liberal or lukewarm Protestant college.

    • You can also tell what those “real” Catholic colleges are by how many of the faculty have associations with Regnery/ISI publications and organizations, like Esolen does. Having published articles in Crisis is another tell. Keep in mind this is what a certain paleo-trad right reactionary brand of Catholicism defines as faithful or orthodox, and they are also the folks who gave birth to the alt-right. Would they fire anyone for being too conservative? Probably yes, if they joined a schismatic group of traditionalists who say the pope isn’t legit, or if they joined certain extreme right wing political groups. Joining the League of the South would probably be OK though, as they’ve had a long history of with the Crisis types. E.g., William Murchison also of Baylor (briefly) and Dallas Morning News. That might fly less well at Wheaton College, at least 10-20 years ago.

      Of course “Evangelical” literally and historically has nothing to do with doctrinal and moral strictness. I think that is the kind of negative identification evangelical leaders were trying to get away from initially to shift emphasis to intellectual seriousness and “cultural engagement” that could also embrace progressive social and political causes that in some cases were less available to evangelicals than they were to Catholics. Piety or even pietism might be preferred over docrinalism and moralism as descriptors. However, on a popular level where the reactionary antiliberal politics provided the real orthodoxy and identity, evangelicalism really was just a rebranding of politicized fundamentalism. It is hard to get to the right of that. Selling the Evangelical college to parents as a safe place secured against sexual and intellectual derailments has a similar effect.

  3. Agellius

     /  April 25, 2017

    Or you could just look at the Newman Guide.


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