Christian College? Or Hetero U?

What’s the problem? That’s the question I’ve heard from interested evangelical-higher-ed watchers the last couple days. Since I warned that Gordon College’s ‘uge new donation could put them in a difficult position, people have asked me to explain my concern. What is so bad about a gigantic donation? In short, I worry that huge donations—and even the promise of huge donations—has always threatened the religious mission of evangelical universities and colleges.

american studies conference 1966 program

…the plans for the canceled NFEC conference at Gordon:

First, a quick reminder: Gordon College announced last year that it was in financial straits. To survive, Gordon restructured its academic offerings and reduced its faculty. This week, Gordon announced a $75.5 million donation from an anonymous source.

Second, a disclaimer: I have absolutely no inside information about the goings-on at Gordon. I do not know anything about the goals of the anonymous donor. I don’t know if there were any formal strings attached to the donation. Plus, I have no skin in this game. I am not an alumnus or financial supporter of any evangelical colleges. I’m just a mild-mannered secular historian with a lot of respect for evangelical academic life.

Third, the history: Back in the 1960s, Gordon faced a similar dilemma, as did many conservative evangelical colleges. As I described in Fundamentalist U, Gordon’s president in the 1960s was excited about a new funding source. The National Freedom Education Center offered evangelical colleges financial support if presidents signed their schools up. Participating schools would agree to align their teaching with free-market/free-enterprise conservatism. As the NFEC leaders put it,

Objective: Inclusion in the curricula and teaching emphasis in Christian colleges of a pervading high regard for Freedom in its spiritual, economic and political dimensions and to create an informed student-citizen leadership needed to safeguard and extend Freedom in the years ahead.

President Forrester was on board. Faculty members on campus pushed back. When President Forrester announced his plans for a big free-enterprise conference on Gordon’s campus, faculty rejected the plan. One influential faculty leader said Gordon was against a merely political program. He insisted Gordon would not ever indoctrinate students with “a program of education in conservative thinking”. His vision, and the vision of most faculty members at the time, was that their conservative religion was far broader than mere political conservatism. Even if many of them personally supported free-market ideas.

national freedom education center letterhead

There are ALWAYS strings attached…

Fourth, the problem: Back in the 1960s, evangelical intellectuals at Gordon and elsewhere rejected the pressure to adapt their teaching to only one secular conservative goal. They also rejected the funding that went along with it.

Today, institutions such as Gordon College are taking a lonely stand in favor of conservative evangelical thinking about gender identity and sexual morality. As today’s President [and, full disclosure, a former postdoc colleague of mine] D. Michael Lindsay told evangelical journalists, his school has become a “city on a hill” in secular New England.

In my view, this presents a 2019 version of Gordon’s 1965 dilemma. If they take money from people who want them to over-emphasize only one part of their evangelical mission, it is a dangerous move. It threatens to narrow their traditionally broad evangelical emphasis to only one issue. Yes, many conservative evangelicals today hope to emphasize traditional sexual morality and marriage rules, but that has never been the sole defining issue of their religion. It has certainly never been the sole defining issue of a Gordon College education.

Back in the 1960s, faculty leaders had the power to reject the free-marketeering imposition of the National Freedom Education Center. They rejected the pressure and temptation to turn their Christian college into a single-issue education center.

Today’s faculty members at Gordon and other schools might not have the same power. They are very aware of the effects of financial hard times, with programs slashed and faculty positions eliminated. But the danger seems the same. To survive, will Gordon and other evangelicals schools take money that pushes them to emphasize only one aspect of their complex Christian goals? Will they give up their goal of being an evangelical Christian college to focus on being primarily a Traditional-Marriage University?

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