Why Aren’t Evangelicals More Embarrassed by This?

Watch out! Sending your evangelical children to non-evangelical colleges puts them in harm’s way. For the past hundred years—as I’m arguing in my new book—that has been the consistent message among conservative evangelicals. We see it again in living color this morning in the pages of the Christian Post. And it puzzles us. Here’s why: Why aren’t evangelical pundits more embarrassed about it? That is, why do so many evangelicals seem unfazed by the notion that their faith is so darn fragile that the merest exposure to mainstream ideas will shatter it?

In its latest incarnation, Christian Post columnist Greg Stier offers four “super effective” ways to keep students’ faith safe in those “tricky college years.” Stier’s suggestions make sense to this non-evangelical reader. If students are involved in evangelical organizations, if they are coached in advance, and if they see their college years as a Christian mission, they will be more likely to remain steadfast in their faith.

Stier also advocates praying for those college students. As a heathen, I can’t see how this will really help. However, if a college student belongs to a home community and knows that his faith is of interest to the folks at home, I agree that it might encourage the student to remain true to his or her childhood faith.

For our purposes, however, the most intriguing part of Stier’s column is not his advice itself. Rather, the most important fact is that Stier takes for granted that a “majority” of high-school graduates will walk away from their religion in college. Once they find out about beer or hear “the Philosophy 101 professor of their secular university,” they will ditch their family faith.

I don’t know if that’s really true, but I do know that it is an assumption shared by conservative evangelicals for the past century.

Back in the 1920s, for example, evangelical celebrity William Jennings Bryan popularized a 1916 study of college religion by Bryn Mawr psychologist James Leuba. Leuba found that 85% of college freshman called themselves Christians, but only 50-55% of graduates did. The upshot? College must be doing something to discourage religious belief.

leuba study

College: Bad for Christianity

Similarly, in 1948, Clarence Mason of the Philadelphia School of the Bible exhorted evangelicals to send their kids to Bible institutes before college. Why? Bible institutes would provide the spiritual armor students needed to protect their faith in the sensitive college years.

In every case, in every decade, the assumption has been the same. Without extraordinary precautions, evangelical youth could be expected to lose their faith in college. This leads us to our difficult question this morning: Why aren’t evangelicals more embarrassed by this? I’m not trying to start a fight or poke fun at evangelical culture. I’m really asking.

To put it another way, why don’t evangelicals assume that their faith has the power to convince children on its own? .  . . that its Truth would be enough to punch holes in the worldly temptations of college life or the cynical ponderings of a secular Philosophy 101 professor?

I have a couple of ideas and I welcome corrections and counterarguments from the SAGLRROILYBYGTH.

Guess #1: Evangelicals like to exaggerate the dangers of non-evangelical higher education in order to energize their listeners. If preachers and pundits said that children were likely to do fine on their own in college, no one would pay attention. In order to mobilize their evangelical public, that is, activists tend to talk in catastrophic terms.

Guess #2: Lots of the people I’m studying were trying to woo students and parents to their evangelical schools. Obviously, such folks would want to tell people that non-evangelical schools were very dangerous. Clarence Mason of the Philly Bible School, for instance, was pleading with parents to send kids to his school. They wouldn’t be likely to do so unless they thought it was absolutely necessary.

Are there other reasons? Reasons why evangelicals would play up the fragility of their faith? To this non-evangelical reader, it seems like such arguments belittle the power of evangelical belief.

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  1. Such great questions, Adam! We have puzzled over the same questions when it comes to Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. If you have the Truth, if you have faith, why the necessity for the hermetically sealed creationist bubble? Of course, and as we would argue, Ham and co. are not really interested in engaging the non-evangelical world, but are instead focused on constituting evangelicals as culture warriors. Anyway, great questions!

    • Ken Ham is very interested in engaging the non evangelical world.

      • Donna,
        You have an invaluable personal insight into this question. As someone who converted to young-earth creationism at least partly due to Ham’s outreach, you are living proof that he does indeed want to reach out to people, to bring more people into the YEC tent. (Correct me if I’ve got that wrong; I don’t want to put words in your mouth.)
        However, I am getting more and more convinced that AIG’s overall mission is not really an old-fashioned “mission” at all, but rather an attempt to convince already-convinced evangelicals that they need to be more interested in young-earth creationism. In other words, AIG isn’t standing on random street corners preaching the gospel, but rather targeting specific evangelical churches to pull them into a YEC conviction. AIG isn’t reaching out to Americans in general, but rather to evangelicals who are not sure they need to embrace YEC to be “real” evangelicals.
        Ham himself has made no secret of this distinction. A few years ago, for example, he explained the limited ambition of his missionary work:

        Since the call that God placed in our hearts over 25 years ago to become missionaries to America, I have always said that our calling was not primarily to the culture as a whole but to the church. I earnestly believe the call on our lives was to be missionaries to the American church, and our first priority was to get the church back to the authority of the Word of God.

        It seems to me Ham has decided to focus on a different sort of missionary work–missionary work to people who already think of themselves as evangelical Christians.
        What do you think? I’d love to hear your take and I bet the RACM folks would too.

      • (I hope this didn’t post twice)

        Hi Adam. That’s correct. I did convert to YEC due to Ken Ham’s ministry.

        I still think he wants to reach the non evangelical world. I can’t argue with a quote, but IMHO, I think you and Righting America have misinterpreted his ministry.

        The job of the church is to share the gospel and make disciples. So it makes sense that the first priority is to “get the church back to the authority of the Word of God.” Teaching people about YEC and Biblical authority is a goal, but not the end goal. It’s a means to an end.

        For the questions you asked above in your post, I think they presume that just because truth exists that it will necessarily convince people.

        Faith is very individual. My faith isn’t fragile. Every person has to make their own choice. I can talk to people about the Bible, but I can’t pass along an acceptance of the gospel or force anyone to grow in their faith. How strong or weak someone’s faith is, is a personal decision. So I guess I’m not clear what there is for me to be embarrassed about?

        What do you think?

      • Donna,
        Here’s the question I’m wrestling with: Would Mr. Ham accept an invitation to give a lecture about YEC at my public, pluralist university, home to the Evolutionary Studies Program? We know Ham is happy to debate mainstream science folks if they come to the Creation Museum, but would he give a talk–not a debate, but just a talk–at a non-YEC venue?
        It seems to me Mr. Ham is in a position similar to that of his YEC great-godfather George McCready Price. Back in 1925, Price quit speaking to “mixed” audiences after he was booed and heckled at a London debate. Instead, Price focused on convincing evangelical Protestants that flood geology (aka YEC) was an important part of real Christian belief.
        I’m really not sure if this is a similar situation, but it really seems as if AIG and Ken Ham have given up on converting people in general, in order to focus on converting people who are already creationists of a different sort.

      • Dan

         /  May 25, 2017

        There is a difference between not wanting to debate mainstream academic scientists on their own turf and not wanting to convert religious and non-religious people beyond the Evangelical fold. Are mainstream evangelists for evolution lining up to go speak at Bryan College? Nobody likes going on the road as the away team. Ham seems like a practical-minded opportunist. It makes sense for him to target only the markets where he sees evidence of significant penetration as at least a realistic possibility.

        The era of a sincere attempt at Creation Science has been over for quite some time. What remains is an opportunity for all manner of fake news and conspiracy theory businesses that tell the many fearful and receptive subcultures of the world what they already know and want to hear validated: the institutional elites have lied to them and are secretly working for shadowy forces of evil. These evildoers who look down on us and have long manipulated us will soon be made low, and the simple will be raised up. This is the main conviction and motive that drives every form of alt-reality fundamentalism. The details of the beliefs are just filler.

        There can be more to it than that, but his is the essence. For example, I have friends and relatives who have bought into YEC and similar things which all circle around some kind of anti-statist, anti-liberal core politics. The religious material bolsters that, but it also addresses personal insecurities about death, suffering, and injustice. Especially with age or traumatic injury, oddly enough, things like a literal creation or flood story can become a fixation as a source of comfort — the fact that it is “proven” means the rest of the Bible is true as well, particularly the reality of heaven/hell and a “last judgment.” People in their 60s-80s who have believed this all their lives are going to accept any confirmation they can get rather than decide they lived their lives in delusion.

      • I would say that Ham participates more in disparaging than engaging the non-evangelical world. Virtually everyone who does not tow the Ham line is labelled a “compromised Christian.” Not particularly winsome. I really would like to know how someone can reject nearly all reality of natural world that science has, and continues to, describe for us. Augustine said long ago that if someone speaks nonsense about the natural world, why would anyone listen them regarding the gospel? Ham speaks nonsense about the natural world and his theology follows along. If you think that it is the other way around, myriad biblical scholars and believers would argue that is not the case. Read Pete Enns.

      • Dan

         /  May 25, 2017

        That is exactly the appeal. Ham is part of a post-Christian fundamentalist morass that is primarily about a vague ethos of world-rejectionism. The appeal of a Savonarola. Everyone out there is wrong, a bunch of liars who sell us out. It absolves the believer from all responsibility for everything.

      • Right on. Ham relies heavily on “Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise.”

      • Dan

         /  May 25, 2017

        It’s interesting you mentioned Augustine, since he had to go through his own process of intellectual humbling to convert to Christianity. To do this without becoming anti-intellectual, and to continue to give value and credit to pagan learning at the same time was a feat Evangelicals have never been able to pull off — ironically this is because they try so hard at being rationalists in world where truth is truth and fact is fact — if the Bible speaks of demons and the sun standing still, then these must be entities and events as objective as the earth and its rotation. All of it must hang together rationally somehow, even under the same physical laws.

        Augustine was a bit of a fideist. He did not try to eliminate the tension between faith and reason, least of all by forcing all knowledge to conform to literal readings of the Bible. His intellectual gifts and education made the poor Latin biblical texts of his day unreadable and repulsive to him for decades. That only changed after he struck up a relationship with the church through people like Ambrose whose teaching allowed him to understand the truth intention was one of unmerited grace and love.

        When Augustine tried to read and reason his way to faith by himself and the Bible (the classic Evangelical path) it never worked — he was perpetually unable to see the lousy pre-Vulgate Latin Bible as anything respectable or coherent. The hermeneutic he developed later says you have to presuppose the overall meaning of the text to understand any part; you read toward that presumed intention (which the church tells you), not the other way around.

        It turns out this is actually how the mind works; we project what we expect to see, hear and read on what we are picking up and perform error correction later. A great deal of trust is necessarily involved in this arrangement. If you have to believe to understand, this entails opening yourselves to others who provide meaning, value, and order to your life. They will invariably be wrong about many things, but it is the real breaches of trust that shatter people and discredit institutions. To abuse authority that is the gift of others’ trust and dependent need by setting them against each other, by telling them they are less worthy for being female or gay — or more worthy for being western and white — that is the kind of thing that does the most harm.

        Like Augustine the early church fathers did not engage in a primarily rationalist apologetic — while they might have respected the “science” of their day and based arguments on biblical proof texts, their main argument for why they should be trusted was often an assertion of objectively demonstrated truth in the visible goodness of the Christian community — superior moral behavior and good will, a lack of conflict, and care for even the poorest and most despised people. They were pacifists, communistic in their living, and they adopted abandoned children. The divisive cultlike messages of fundamentalist profiteers like Ham bear no resemblance to that tradition.

  2. MJ Visser

     /  May 23, 2017

    Adam, isn’t the fear about losing faith the same fear as losing other family values – drinking, drugs, sex, political beliefs, even cleanliness. My son didn’t learn the habit of wearing socks until they were stiff from us! They go to college and continue the on the path to becoming separate beings and we can’t help but worry about that. Maybe we should have chosen a college that had washers in every dorm room, or a required class on detergents.

  3. Agellius

     /  May 23, 2017

    I think you’re overstating things a bit, when you say parents fear “the merest exposure to mainstream ideas will shatter” their children’s faith. The Leuba study found that basically 1/3 of college students lost their faith during college. But that means that most of the students maintained their faith, and those who lost it might have lost it anyway.

    It’s a simple matter of not wanting our children exposed to bad influences. As you’ve admitted before, this is something common to left and right, religious and irreligious. Why are atheists so determined to stamp out the least hint of public schools supporting religion? Is the atheism they have so carefully instilled into their children that fragile?

    As a parent, my concern about my kids attending a liberal, secular college is the pressure that may be brought to bear to toe the progressive line, the verbal or other kinds of abuse they may be subjected to for voicing their views on traditional morality or conservative politics. Perhaps it’s the same kinds of fears that prevent liberal parents from sending their kids to places like Liberty or Hillsdale.

    Another issue is that I might want my kids to learn certain subjects, taught in a certain way, which liberal secular colleges are not likely to offer — and again, liberal or atheist parents might have the same concern about sending their kids to a college that doesn’t teach e.g. Marx or Nietzsche, or teaches them from a critical perspective, or doesn’t offer gender studies or the like.

    • Exactly, you *fear* “bad influences.” Theologically speaking, traditional Christian orthodoxy says conversion and salvation have nothing to do with ideological positions or moral actions, especially for Protestants, especially Evangelicals. What has happened is western Christianity as a form of reactionary cultural politics has very little (often nothing) to do with faith. It is, in the real mind of its proponents, a culture and fairly arbitrary — a matter of dominant influences, which could be anything.

      The false equivalences you draw are pretty plain on their face; there’s not atheist/secular/”progressive” plot to stamp out religious or religious education nor to seek out education that is safe from religious or politically diverse content and perspectives. It’s a pretty crappy education, Christian or otherwise, if you censor Marx, Nietzsche, etc. from the curriculum. Since only fundamentalists do that, it’s not something anyone else worries about because they’re not considering or even aware of fundamentalist educational options. Meanwhile no secular colleges are teaching from a single, let alone, “Nietzschean” (still less Marxist) perspective. Secular liberal kids got to Yale and Harvard and come out more conservative, even religious sometimes. You get all kinds of patterns and paths. People are complicated; they’re not sausages coming out of a grinder unless they’ve been broken down early by truly abusive environments. Even then they tend to recover.

      You’ve more to validate the stereotype of fearful reaction here than counter it. Fear of “bad influences” that can’t handle certain books or thinkers turns education into dogmatic prophylaxis with a hefty dose of censorship where wrong thinking and wrong doing are closely correlated — e.g., “progressive” ideas lead to freewheeling fornication and vice versa.

  4. Dan

     /  May 23, 2017

    Adam, I don’t see much difference between your guesses. They’re fairly accurate, but there’s more.

    Yours is a question I’ve asked people in conservative Protestant (“Christian”) education for a very long time where their traditional theology very clearly makes it impossible to define the “true Christian” by reference to mere beliefs and actions. The usual answer from those who see the problem is complete agreement with you. They’ll say it’s a marketing decision made by administrators catering to parent (and grandparent) fears. Others who have more of a theological grasp or confessional identity will admit it is a complete abandonment of core theological beliefs. They will blame generic free-will and theologically vague pop Evangelicalism for this and/or the role of the culture wars in reducing faith to a political religion. Some younger profs will say straight out, it’s not really “Christian” at all. But it is Christian; this is what it as come to mean and has generally meant in the past. It is the Christianity of Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor.

    Those who see the problem and still remain committed to Christian education in such a context do so because they think they can problematize, broaden, and complicate the process — which is to say, subvert it. They’re the ones who are perpetually rooted out and lynched as “liberals” or liable to be kept on a short leash. There’s an odd symbiosis at work in this, since its the educators who challenge easy dogma and are least willing to give people what they want who keep their schools more credible and engaged with the cultural mainstream because their education was like that as well. Without them, their schools would become enclaves of pure reaction with very low standards as long as the company line is followed. On the right, there is an awareness of this problem — that the liberals are often good, popular educators who have good degrees and research/publication records. Hence the drive to make places like Notre Dame, Baylor, and others into respectable Christian research institutions of a sufficiently “orthodox” nature, by conservative standards. Then it becomes possible to produce a K-PhD experience that is both credible and fairly inoculated against atheism and the four horsemen of modernity, or whatever.

    It may be that many, even most Christian (conservative Protestant) educators really buy into the reduction of faith to religion as a kind of party-line perspective that can and should be indoctrinated and disciplined into people. This is not unusual but the historic norm. The confessionalization of Europe into distinct ethnoreligious identities formed the modern age and was explicit even in the US until the 1960s. We are seeing a return to all that, or a loss of the fig leaf or denial and liberal optimism for post-racial, post-religious, more universal notions of humanity, at least in the western world. Protestant out-groups, like north European Pietists and Anabaptists, once had a huge influence (especially groups like the Quakers in the US) that formed a dominant WASPy liberalism that was far more individualistic and concerned with individual conscience as the seat of religious and political liberty. The legacy of that strand of western Christianity is now, again, attacked as “liberal,” “secular,” and corrosively libertine from the standpoint of cultural supremacist and nationalist Christianities. Culture warring Evangelicals came to resemble Catholic traditionalists more than the reverse; their Pietist forbears would be shocked. The Evangelical right today is not coming from the standpoint that says, with Kieregaard, that if you make everyone Christian by cultural default, then nobody is a Christian at all. They don’t see the problem. It’s either this or fall to Islamicization in their view. Families and societies obsessed with mortality do not see the problem with a religion of beliefs disengaged from conscience. Their goal is a semblance of tribal continuity as a dominant group, not the inner person of each individual. Ironically however, as Muslim immigrants in Europe convert to Christianity because it is just culture to them, and they want to go along to get along, then Christian conservatives react to that as a threat due to a lack of sincere conversion. This has all been seen before with Christian antisemitism and racism. The Jew, the Muslim, the Black — they cannot be assimilated or tolerated unassimilated. This is the same logic that says we can and must indoctrinate and discipline “our own” — it is the re-emergence of white imperialist Christian Identitarianism that does not see its gospel as universal and efficacious all on its own, wherever the spirit moves.


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