Gay Students and the New Fundamentalism

The distinction between “new evangelicalism” and “fundamentalism” was never all that clear. As a story from my neighborhood this week shows, though, it is getting easier to see the difference on the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities. We seem to have a new fundamentalist checklist, not of policies necessarily, but of institutional attitudes on certain key issues.

campbell csu

Out and out.

As I described in Fundamentalist U, the split between fundamentalists and new evangelicals was not a clean break on evangelical campuses. Between the late 1940s and, say, the late 1980s, there were a lot of continuing close connections between evangelical schools that remained with the “fundamentalist” branch of the family and those that had moved to the “new evangelical” side.

These days, generally, the “fundamentalist” label is out of fashion, even among fundamentalist stalwarts such as Bob Jones University. But the meaning remains, and these days we are seeing a clearer and clearer dividing line between evangelical colleges and no-longer-fundamentalist-in-name-but-fundamentalist-in-spirit institutions.

How do you know these days if a school is fundamentalist? It’s not necessarily a question of policies, but rather a spirit in which certain hard-line positions are maintained and a zeal with which they are publicized. ALL evangelical colleges and universities will be creationist, for example. And all will—from a mainstream perspective—have discriminatory policies against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. All conservative-evangelical schools will also tip toward conservative politics and cultural traditionalism.

The fundamentalist branch of the family, though, will insist on the hard edge of these positions in a consistently aggressive way and they will go out of their way to publicize their hard stand on these issues. Fundamentalist schools will trumpet their insistence on the following:

  • Young-earth creationism ONLY;
  • Political and cultural traditionalism;
  • And, most relevant for our purposes today, a loud, publicized hard line against any whiff of homosexuality on campus.

Consider the news from Clarks Summit. A former student has tried to re-enroll. Gary Campbell dropped out in 2005, only six credits shy of his degree. After a rough stint in the Navy, Campbell now wants to return. The school says no.

According to Campbell, the Dean of Students contacted him to let him know Campbell won’t be allowed to return, because Campbell is homosexual.

To be clear, from a mainstream perspective, all evangelical colleges discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. Even firmly non-fundamentalist evangelical institutions such as Gordon College and Wheaton College have issued reminders recently that gay is not okay.

But Clarks Summit University’s stance has a hard edge to it that helps define the new fundamentalism. Campbell’s sexual identity was apparently revealed to administrators by a fellow student, at least according to Campbell. The school could easily have re-admitted Campbell quietly.

Instead, the school’s administration chose to use this case as a chance to publicize its hard line. When journalists called about Campbell’s story, the university issued the following statement:

As a Christian college, we expect all students to act in a way that is consistent with our biblical belief system. We have always clearly stated those beliefs and have exercised the freedom to uphold our faith. . . . To prepare students for worldwide service opportunities, CSU clearly affirms biblical sexuality. We clearly communicate to all prospective students that we adhere to biblical truths, and expect them to do the same. That is part of what has made CSU a successful educator for more than 80 years. We would be happy to assist any former or prospective student who does not choose to agree with those faith standards to find another school in order to finish a degree.

These days, to be a fundamentalist institution means flying and flaunting the fundamentalist flag. It means taking every opportunity to enforce hard lines on sexual identity.

We see the same phenomenon in other issues such as creationism or political conservatism. In order to remain attractive to fundamentalist students and parents, school administrators take drastic steps to ratchet up their commitment to young-earth creationism or knee-jerk political conservatism.

What does it mean to be “fundamentalist” these days in evangelical higher education? As has Clarks Summit University, it means taking and, importantly, publicizing a hard line on issues of sexuality, creation, and political conservatism.

Fundamentalist colleges want their level of commitment to be known. They hope students, alumni, parents, and donors will recognize their positions and reward them with continued enrollments, donations, and support.

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5 Comments

  1. “biblical sexuality” – that’s a hoot! There are so many examples to choose from 🙂

    Reply
  2. Rob H

     /  September 13, 2018

    I am a long running reader of ILYBYGTH and putting all my cards on the table, I am an alumnus of CSU, so I have been following this story. Not sure if the school’s response to the situation is a valid way to distinguish between evangelical and fundamentalist, since as you stated, “all evangelical colleges discriminate…. Even firmly non-fundamentalist” ones, even though my guess is that CSU would fall toward the fundamentalist side of the continuum.

    How would other evangelical (non-fundamentalist) schools have responded any differently? If a student is found to be in violation of the code of conduct, are there not consequences? And isn’t that appropriate? Your statement that “the school could easily have re-admitted Campbell quietly” implies that it is not appropriate for there to be consequences for our actions, even if we agree to the rules. Just because we may or may not agree with the code or the consequences, that should not change the truth that schools (private and public) have rules that need to be followed.

    Likewise, I am not sure the school is “flaunting the fundamentalist flag” or “publicizing a hard line” this issue. It seems to me that they quietly informed the prospective student who has subsequently posted it to social media and thereby created the publicity. Over the past week, I would guess that the school has done much to say as little as possible to the media, while giving a brief summary of the underlying reasons for its decision in response to news reports and questions.

    Again, I would ask, how would an evangelical school respond differently? Or any school who has made a controversial decision?

    Reply
    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m certainly no expert on anything that has happened since 1980 at evangelical colleges, but from what I read in the papers, it seems many evangelical colleges welcome gay students and faculty. Wheaton, for example, has both official and unofficial support networks for LGBTQ+ students. And some evangelical schools have committed to hiring non-celibate LGBTQ faculty members. From my perspective, none of these things are enough to fully include non-heterosexual people. From the perspective of twentieth-century American fundamentalism, though, they are radical innovations.
      My sense is that more conservative schools want to publicize their differences from schools such as Wheaton, Goshen, and Eastern Mennonite on these issues. When they get a chance to show their continuing adherence to the traditions of fundamentalism, they take it, as The Master’s College did not so long ago.

      Reply
      • Rob H

         /  September 14, 2018

        It does seem that the thing we lack the most would be a clarity of definitions, as you addressed in Fundamentalist U. What does it mean to be fundamentalist and/or evangelical? My guess is that depending on where one falls on the continuum would definitely impact the definition. In trying to distinguish or define, should the categories be more traditionally theological ones or more contemporary issues based? You have written recently on the difficulty of making this distinction since many christians don’t live out what they claim to believe consistently.

        Many (theological) fundamentalists avoid the term because of its connotation with legalism. This would be my read on the situation. They are wrestling with how to maintain a commitment to traditional theology while not being railroaded by one side or the other. So, they respond to give clarity without attempting force their view on others. This is different than how The Master’s College responded to the other situation.

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