Protests: Part of Life at Fundamentalist U

Shut em down! That’s what radical college students are saying these days. As Molly Wicker writes in the New York Times, even conservative students at conservative colleges are getting in on the action. We shouldn’t be surprised. As I describe in my new book, student protest has always been part of life at conservative evangelical schools.

Wicker is a junior at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. As she writes, her school and her fellow students are firmly conservative. The school is dedicated to a conservative, free-market sort of philosophy, one that bundles interdenominational evangelicalism with small-government enthusiasm.

pence trump clown car

Not conservative enough for GCC?

The school’s commencement speaker this year will be Vice President Mike Pence. We might think it a perfect fit. Pence, after all, is the White House’s living symbol of conservative evangelical values.

As Wicker relates, however, many of her fellow students are protesting Pence’s presence. Not because Pence is so conservative, but because Trump is not. As a representative of the Trump administration, Wicker writes, Pence represents Trump’s brand of “toxic, fear-inflating rhetoric.”

Like their fellows at Berkeley and other leftist havens, Grove City’s protesters are planning to demonstrate their displeasure at their school’s choice of commencement speaker. Wicker and the NYT editors suggest we should be surprised at this decision by conservative students at a conservative school.

We shouldn’t.

Student protest—sometimes polite, sometimes not—has always been a part of life at fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical colleges.

During the campus protests of the 1960s and 1970s, evangelical and fundamentalist schools witnessed their own wave of student activism. Many of those protests took on the tones of the continuing family feud between new-evangelicals and fundamentalists.

At Wheaton College, for example, students published a searing criticism of fundamentalist rules. The Wheaton administration tried to get them to cool it. The school, President V. Raymone Edman warned students, needed to protect the faith of all students, even fundamentalists.

Student protesters weren’t convinced. As one leader put it,

We must note that the ‘protective’ approach proscribes the natural freedom of man to seek truth where he will. . . . Christian education must exist in the free atmosphere of such a perspective or we will have no choice but to reject Christian education.

Student protests at conservative schools happened long before the Sixties, too. As long as there have been fundamentalist colleges, there have been fundamentalist student protests.

In the late 1930s, for example, Wheaton College President J. Oliver Buswell was on the ropes. Trustees wanted him out. Buswell was accused of many things, including a too-ferocious opposition to mainline denominations.

Students dived into the controversy with enthusiasm. One student of Buswell’s wrote an open letter to the Wheaton community. Buswell had to go, she wrote, because he was not doing a good job of training young fundamentalists. She had taken Buswell’s capstone ethics class. She didn’t want to complain; she prayed hard that God would “take away entirely my murmuring.” However, she felt compelled to voice her protest.

Buswell’s class, she protested, did not do what fundamentalist college classes were supposed to do. “It is most necessary,” she wrote,

for an educated young person, and especially a Christian, to know the struggle men have had through the ages to come to satisfactory conclusions about the First Cause, the final culmination, and the reason behind life. We cannot meet people of our day on an intelligent basis if we have no idea of their philosophy of life.

Unfortunately, though this student worked hard at every task Buswell assigned, she did not learn what she needed to know. Why did Buswell need to go? As this conservative student protested, Buswell had failed to perform the most important task of conservative evangelical higher education.

These protests were part of life at fundamentalist schools all over the country. Students felt obligated to speak up—as conservatives—to defend the true conservative ideals of their conservative schools.

At Bob Jones College in the 1930s, for example, this sort of more-conservative-than-thou student protest was institutionalized in the Pioneer Club. In this student club, members gathered every day to pray and organize school activities. They also pledged to root out “any atheistic or modernistic teacher” who might have somehow infiltrated the fundamentalist perimeter. And, most tellingly, they promised to shut down the school itself if they ever suspected a slide into liberalism and modernism.

Like the students at Grove City today, student protests at conservative evangelical colleges have often fought for a more consistent conservatism. Protests have sometimes succeeded when students have articulated their goals as the true goals of the schools themselves.

However, students like Molly Wicker and her conservative friends might take note: They might find themselves unpopular among their school’s administrators. The fervent evangelical student editor at Wheaton, after all, was kicked out for a full year. Any student—even members of the Pioneer Club—who questioned Bob Jones Sr.’s decisions was similarly shown the door.

Even when students insist that they are only protesting in favor of their school’s true values, administrators tend to expel first and ask questions later.

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  1. The students may be ignorant of their institution’s history. You didn’t mention the key association of J. Howard Pew with Grove City — oilman, Presbyterian, fan of R. J. Rushdoony, hater of the New Deal … I think he’d be OK with Pence — and Trump too.

    • Dan

       /  June 5, 2017

      Come to think of it, you also omitted significant context that differentiates Grove City sharply from Wheaton. Grove City has long had a significant Libertarian presence and I think a kind of anchor in old mainline or “oldline” Presbyterianism even while it draws from the younger, moderate-conservative PCA denomination and would be seen as intolerably liberal from the standpoint of Geneva College and its RPCNA community over in Beaver Falls, PA. (I have some personal experience with this wing of the American reformed traditions as well.) What sets Grove City apart most, to my mind, is its recent apology for firing a faculty member as a “communist” in the cold war, for their toleration of a well known but unofficial student Gay-Straight Alliance type of organization, and for their toleration of Warren Throckmorton, a psychologist who has taken a complicated mix of regressive and progressive stands on gender and sexuality issues from what seems to be a sincere effort to be just and faithful to his religious tradition and science. It’s an impossible mix, but it seems to have led him away from conversion/reparative/restorative therapy, and he’s openly attacked the vicious bigotry of influential fundamentalist clergy like Scott Lively and Mark Driscoll.

      In this context, students speaking out against Pence/Trump on conservative grounds might be an ingrained strategy at a place that has carved out an in-between niche that needs to be neither too progressive nor too reactionary.

      Another example I wish you had commented on is Maddi Runkles’ letter in the Washington Post — this is the Christian high school senior headed for BJJU who was kicked out of her school and pregnancy shamed. Her and her parents’ reaction, while a pushback against the school, was still based on an affirmation of their shared views and values — e.g., pro-lifers should not pregnancy shame — it might increase abortions.

      In neither the Runkles’ case nor Wickers’ do these young women stand up for for their civil rights or equal protection under the law, which is something Grove City professor Throckmorton has said makes same-sex marriage legitimate — something that drew a lot of heat from disagreeing conservatives. Both women are attempting to address radical inequality in Christian institutional contexts where it is tenuously legal and historically practiced — nowadays it’s defended as a matter of essential orthodoxy and religious freedom. You’ve remained highly aloof on the question of whether that type of situation can or should be tolerated, particularly at institutions receiving federal funds.


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