There Is No Free-Speech Crisis at Evangelical Colleges

Have you seen it yet? Sarah Jones recently excoriated evangelical higher education as the home of the real free-speech crisis. Students and faculty alike, Jones reported from experience at Cedarville University in Ohio, are continually deprived of any right to authentic self-expression. She’s right. But that doesn’t mean there’s a free-speech crisis at evangelical colleges. There can’t be.

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No one said it was for freedom of speech…

Why not? It’s not for the reasons Pietist Schoolman Chris Gehrz describes, though he makes an important point. As he argues, different evangelical schools have hugely different records and policies when it comes to free speech.

And it’s not because Jones misses the boat on the ways evangelical colleges restrict student and faculty speech. I agree with her entirely that the environments of many evangelical campuses can be restrictive, oppressive, and even dangerous. When students don’t feel free to report sexual assault or abuse, for example, they are put in a horrible position.

Yet even granting the truth of Jones’s alarming exposé, I don’t agree that evangelical colleges represent the real free-speech crisis in American higher education. They can’t. Evangelical colleges don’t have a free-speech crisis any more than my school faces a religious crisis for not adequately teaching students how to be good Christians. We don’t want to train good Christians. And evangelical colleges have never wanted to open their chapels, classrooms, and cafeterias to unrestricted speech.

Rather, as I argue in my recent book about evangelical higher education, restricting free speech is a central, defining element of the tradition. It sounds sinister when I say it like that, but it’s true. Professor Gehrz is absolutely correct that some schools today have stricter rules than others, but for almost a century now, the point of evangelical higher education is precisely to impose certain restrictions on faculty and students, restrictions abandoned by mainstream colleges.

To suggest that these restrictions are part of a “crisis” misses the point. Please don’t get me wrong: I sympathize whole-heartedly with Jones and the other students and faculty who dislike their alma maters’ heavy hand. I would dislike it, too. But that heavy hand is not a “crisis.” It can’t be. It is the entire raison d’etre of evangelical higher education.

Consider the promises of evangelical leaders throughout the twentieth century. Explaining the purpose of his new college in Florida, founder Bob Jones Sr. explained it this way in 1928:

Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teachers will steal the faith of their precious children.

At Bob Jones College, as at all the schools that joined the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s, restricting faculty speech was a primary purpose, not an unfortunate necessity. Unlike mainstream colleges, including mainline Protestant ones, fundamentalist colleges would willfully impose strict lists of mandatory beliefs for faculty members. They would impose long list of behavioral rules for students. And they insisted always that their goal was to shape students’ hearts in a certain religious direction.

Lest readers think the tradition was only in the 1920s, or only at fundamentalist Bob Jones University, consider this quotation from relatively liberal Wheaton College in 1963. President V. Raymond Edman told recalcitrant students about his vision for Wheaton. “This college,” Edman told students,

will be a place Christian parents can send their children to with the confidence that their faith will be established and not shaken.

In other words, the entire point of the network of dissenting evangelical colleges was to police faculty belief and student thought. Evangelical colleges that restrict speech these days don’t face a crisis. They fulfill a promise.

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8 Comments

  1. That’s right. Whereas public and secular schools break their promises when they restrict free speech.

    Reply
    • As you know, you and I disagree about this one. I agree that free-speech issues really are a “crisis” at mainstream universities, since those schools were founded on a promise of unfettered research freed from the strictures of any religious orthodoxy. But I don’t agree that all restrictions are bad. Any threatening speech has always been illegal. The hard part these days, IMHO, is figuring out what constitutes threatening speech and arguing about such things without merely flinging insults and threats at one another.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  April 13, 2018

        I don’t think that all restrictions are bad either. I favor the evangelical approach, generally speaking. My quarrel with the effort to restrict speech at modern American public and secular schools is the hypocrisy. For decades we were told that all manner of indecency needed to be allowed for the sake of the First Amendment. The right acquiesced in the name of liberty. But it turns out that this only applies to the kinds of indecency that the left doesn’t consider indecent. Now that the question is whether to allow speech that offends the left, they’ve suddenly turned into puritanical prudes.

        I think that as a legal matter, what constitutes threatening speech has been settled for a long time.

  2. Kevin Smythe

     /  September 1, 2018

    Anyone that rejects the Bible as God’s written word to man, and is the basis of faith and practice, automatically don’t know what they are talking about. That would include the hate filled Sarah Jones, who has hated God and His imperfect followers for years. Jones is a true mental case, as she made public her various mental illnesses over the years to get sympathy. She need treatment of the heart, which only Jesus can give her.

    Reply
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