How Did Christian Colleges Become Racist?

People keep asking: Why are white evangelicals so racist? This week we see it in The Atlantic and at Forbes. At leading evangelical colleges—in the North anyway—there’s a big, obvious answer that this week’s pundits don’t mention.

Here’s what they’re saying:

  • Michael Gerson wondered what happened. At his alma mater Wheaton College in Illinois, a strident anti-racism among white evangelical leaders slipped away.
  • Chris Ladd places the blame on slavery and the lingering dominance of Southern Baptists. As Ladd writes,

Southern pastors adapted their theology to thrive under a terrorist state. Principled critics were exiled or murdered, leaving voices of dissent few and scattered. Southern Christianity evolved in strange directions under ever-increasing isolation.

The question should bother all of us, white or not, evangelical or not. Why do so many white evangelicals seem comfortable or even enthusiastic about Trump’s Charlottesville-friendly MAGA message?

1940s postcard library

Not a lot of diversity, c. 1940s

Since neither Gerson nor Ladd bring it up, I will. At some of the leading institutions among white evangelicals, there is an obvious culprit. It’s not the political power of the slave state. It’s not craven lust for political influence. As I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, Christian colleges have always been desperate to keep up with trends in mainstream higher education. And those trends pushed white evangelicals to mimic the white supremacy of mainstream higher education.

Of course, evangelical colleges were happy to stick out in some ways. In the classroom, for example. Evangelical institutions of higher education have always prided themselves on teaching dissident ideas about science, morality, and knowledge. In social trends, too, evangelical colleges didn’t mind having stricter rules for their students about drinking, sex, and dress codes.

When it came to academic luster, however, fundamentalist academics in the first half of the twentieth century were desperate for the respect of outsiders.

At Gerson’s alma mater, for example, President J. Oliver Buswell quietly discouraged African American attendance in the 1930s. Why? There’s no archival smoking gun, but Buswell explicitly discouraged one African American applicant, suggesting that her admission would lead to “social problems.”

When we remember the rest of Buswell’s tenure, his reasons for discouraging non-white applicants become more clear. Against the wishes of other Wheaton leaders at the period, Buswell fought hard for academic respectability. He tried to decrease teaching loads, increase faculty salaries, and improve faculty credentials. As Wheaton’s best historian put it, Buswell

passionately believed that one of the best ways to earn intellectual respect for fundamentalist Christianity would be to make certain that Wheaton achieved the highest standing possible in the eyes of secular educators.

In the 1930s, that respect came from a host of factors, including faculty publications and student success. It also came, though, from limiting the number of African American students and the perceived “social problems” interracialism would impose.

Buswell and Wheaton weren’t the only northerners to impose segregation on their anti-racist institutions. Cross-town at Moody Bible Institute, leaders similarly pushed segregation in order to keep their institution respectable in the eyes of white mainstream academics.

Like other white evangelical institutions, in the late 1800s Moody Bible Institute was committed to cross-racial evangelical outreach. On paper, in any case. And MBI always remained so on paper, but by the 1950s the dean of students broke up an interracial couple. The dean was not willing to say that there was anything theologically wrong with interracial dating, but he separated the couple anyways, worried that public interracialism would “give rise to criticism” of MBI and its evangelical mission.

Why do so many of today’s white evangelicals seem comfortable with Trump and his white-nationalist claptrap? Why didn’t they hold on to the anti-racism that had animated white evangelicals in the past? Both Ladd and Gerson make arguments worth reading.

On the campuses of northern evangelical colleges, though, there was another powerful impulse. For evangelical college leaders, being a real college meant earning the respect of white non-evangelical school leaders. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge, mainstream white college leaders expected racial segregation. White evangelical college leaders weren’t more racist than non-evangelicals. They were just more desperate to seem like “real” colleges.


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  1. Was there ever a point when they started to make an effort to diversify their student bodies? Were there ever similar concerns about the “wrong” kinds of Christian, Mormon, and Jewish applicants?

    • For sure. By the 1970s, the schools I studied–except for Bob Jones–had officially switched over to actively recruiting non-white students. It was a mixed bag in practice. I shared one of those stories from MBI here on the blog a while back. The record with non-evangelical students is more mixed. Jewish students were always courted, but in a weird prophetic way. LDS/Mormon students never were, as far as I could tell. Catholic converts were welcomed, and eventually Catholic students and even faculty at some schools. Of course, that’s all pre-1990. Things now are much different. I’ve been told even super-conservative places such as Patrick Henry have a sort of Catholic lovefest going on among conservative students.

      • Thanks, that’s all very interesting. I have heard of LDS applicants turned down out of fear they would proselytize the other students, which is really a fear of parent/donor/community reaction if the school introduces any perceived “impurity.”

        “Catholic lovefests” (and then reactions to them) are very traditional at Evangelical and often Reformed campuses. Usually they all have lore about some prior era of conversions among faculty and/or students. Grove City and Geneva College both had these in recent memory in the 90s; I remember hearing about it from people who went to each school. The allure of C. S. Lewis himself is one gateway drug; natural theology and philosophy is another.

        The reason why Patrick Henry is interested in Catholicism now is for the natural law resources. Some PH faculty are involved in the “retrieval” project started by a group of scholars out of Moscow, Idaho (Doug Wilson’s New St. Andrews) who have secured financial backing (see The Davenant Trust) to develop ideas that seem to originate with Wilson: Calvinists should be “Reformed Catholics.” (Similar positions exist among conservative Lutherans and Anglicans.) The idea seems to be that a correct understanding of Reformation Protestantism (primarily the Reformed tradition) is far more Catholic than anything else of a contemporary nature, especially Evangelicalism. Keep your eye on that movement; it’s supposed to be the new path for the Theocons and might pick up steam if there’s a scuttle of conservative Evangelicals off their sinking ship. The various categories of “reformed” have always chafed mightily at having to work under someone else’s umbrella.

  2. otming

     /  March 15, 2018

    But why, when it became “respectable” to be integrated, diverse, multicultural, didn’t the Evangelical colleges become so?

    I was at Wheaton in the early ’70s. There was a handful of US black students, and a few more — mostly grad students — from Africa and the Caribbean. And I can tell you stories of profs’ gratuitous insensitivity and thinly veiled rudeness to students of color.

    Nearly a decade later, after grad school on the South Side and working in DC, I came close to crying because of the unbroken sea of white faces at a younger sibs’ Wheaton graduation.

    35 years later, in the mid-teens, I had some reason to want to know Wheaton’s percentage of African-American students. It was hard to find out because of the way Wheaton reports ethnicity on its public website, but I finally came up with about 2%. I would be glad to be _proved_ wrong.

    Why has nothing really changed?

    And, even if black students were sacrificed to academic respectability, why wasn’t Creationism? Or the privileging of Protestant literature? Or utterly senseless codes of behavior, e.g., no dancing?

    • I imagine the hostility in the 70s was largely influenced by the terrible desegregation process Chicago (and other communities in the region) had been through.

      One should read Arthur Holmes Idea of a Christian College in this light, as it came out in the mid 70s. The original version is full of Paleoconservative (the old nationalist Christian right) sources like Russell Kirk, who was then active at Hillsdale College, I think. Kirk and especially his Southern partisan compatriots were often prone to say anti-semitic and racist things, and to entertain “race theories” that are vile pseudoscience. This has all been chronicled and happily cited by Paul Gottfried over the years; he was the paleocon who helped found the “alt-right.” The 80s revision of Holmes came after Kirk and others effectively split the Buchananite wing of the GOP from the NY neocons with their bigotry. This split involved Evangelicals like Greg Wolfe and (after a fashion) Richard John Neuhaus. Respectable religious conservatives went neo; the racists went paleo. Today this is all back in new wineskins.

      Your questions can’t be easily answered. Everyone who had their early lives (and maybe longer) stolen from them by the mind-killing Evangelical world has been asking these questions for a long time. There are no brief answers, but PRIDE is probably the best single explanation for people who double-down on insane, failed ideas and practices that damage rather than redeem the world.

    • Thanks for sharing your story. In the book, I include the efforts of Wheatonites such as Ron Potter, John Alexander, and James Murk, who tried hard to push for more awareness of race and racism among white students and faculty at Wheaton in the 1960s and 1970s. Officially, at least, the administration listened. They tried to recruit more African American students and faculty. In 1971 they offered, for example, new classes in “Black Americans in American Society,” “Urban Sociology,” and “People of Africa.” Those new classes were a direct response to student and faculty activism. Why didn’t it sink deeper roots? Hard to say. My hunch is based more on my experience with secular college administrators than from Wheaton’s archive. It seems most administrators have more pressing day-to-day needs and only give lip service to diversity issues. I wonder if that has been the case at Wheaton.
      Similar moves were made in the field of creationism. In the 1940s-1960s, faculty in the Bio department and elsewhere, led by Professor Russell Mixter, tried to move Wheaton away from young-earth creationism. Mixter advocated what he called “progressive creationism,” something similar to today’s BioLogos approach. By the time arch-young-earth-creationist Henry Morris visited Wheaton’s campus in 1974, he complained that none of the faculty took his flood-geology ideas seriously, even though they all still called themselves “creationists.”

      • otming

         /  March 15, 2018

        There was plenty of creationism — even among the faculty and administrators — at Wheaton in the early ’70s. I knew of people who paid for questioning it with their jobs.

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