Fundamentalist U & Me: Justin Lonas at Bryan College

Welcome to the latest edition of Fundamentalist U & Me, our occasional series of memory and reflection from people who attended evangelical colleges and universities. [Click here to see all the entries.] The history I recounted in Fundamentalist U only told one part of the complicated story of evangelical higher education. Depending on the person, the school, and the decade, going to an evangelical college has been very different for different people.bryan college logoThis time, we are talking with Justin Lonas. Justin is an editor and content developer for a non-profit organization near Chattanooga, Tenn. He is also working on an M.Div degree at an evangelical seminary in Atlanta.  

ILYBYGTH: When and where did you attend your evangelical institutions?

From 2002-2006, I attended Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., graduating summa cum laude. I majored in communications (journalism emphasis) with minors in history and Spanish.

ILYBYGTH: How did you decide on that school? What were your other options? Did your family pressure you to go to an evangelical college?

I first heard about Bryan when I was 16 through a speaker at a homeschool convention in North Carolina who was on their faculty. His thoughtful engagement with cultural issues intrigued me, so I added the school to my mental list.  After visiting Bryan about a year later, I felt like it would be a good place to pursue—it was small (a very attractive point to someone who grew up in a crowded university town), and the students and faculty I met seemed very down-to-earth. Moreover, it was 4 hours from home so I could enjoy not having to go home all the time without quite fully “rebelling” by choosing a college on the other side of the country.

The other schools I considered were a mix of small-to-mid sized evangelical schools and public universities. Though I didn’t want to go to my hometown school (Appalachian State University), the other schools I seriously considered were all in NC: Mars Hill College (where I was offered a scholarship to study botany), Gardner-Webb University, and UNC (Chapel Hill).

As to family pressure, growing up in an evangelical family, and being educated both in private Christian schools and homeschooling, going to an evangelical college was, if not expected, at least not a surprise for me. Both my parents went to a state school and had found good Christian community through campus ministry groups, so they weren’t dead-set on any particular school for me. The only thing that I always felt was non-negotiable was that I go to college and do well. Where was secondary.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

On balance, yes, my Christian faith was strengthened during my time at Bryan. The semi-compulsory chapel times were usually interesting, with many gifted outside speakers and often student-led music. The school’s baseline curriculum forced me to study the Bible at a deeper level than Sunday school, which I found fascinating. I was also able to connect with a local church in a nearby city (Chattanooga) that I actually joined and continued to attend for many years post-college as well. Many of the friendships forged on campus have lasted to the present, and though there were plenty of typical college shenanigans among us, there were also plenty of deep conversations about life and faith. Faculty routinely ate meals in the dining hall with students, and hosted students at their homes, seeing opportunities for spiritual discipleship as an extension of their educational mission.

Probably the most powerful religious aspect of my years at Bryan was not so much any particular high point as the consistency with which I saw Christian faith lived out by students and faculty alike (with plenty of exceptions, to be sure—including some pretty massive moral failures).

Connection to the school is a bit of a different question. On many levels, yes, I do feel very connected. Friendships with classmates and current and former faculty are still very much a part of my life, but I feel no particular connection to the school itself as an institution. I live just 40 minutes down the road, and I’ve been back to campus maybe 5 times in the past 13+ years. A large part of this has to do with some of the very public recent failings of the school (as referenced in the epilogue of Fundamentalist U). [Editor’s note: also discussed in these pages. See here or here.]

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college? If so, why, and if not, why not?

It’s an open question. My wife & I have four daughters, the oldest of whom is still a few years out from college, so I’d like to think I’d be willing to trust their judgment on which school is the best fit for them and the path they’re embarking on for life, career, etc. At the very least, I’d probably offer some strong cautions about any school they chose, as I don’t think you can ensure life outcomes through institutional structures—i.e. I don’t expect a school to do the work of the Holy Spirit in keeping them in the faith. I do think we’d be OK if they chose a Christian college, but these days, I’d feel better about a denominationally affiliated school with transparency and oversight than about an independent evangelical college. I’ve seen from Bryan in recent years how easy it is for an administration to gaslight people and become autocratic (even co-opting the board of trustees) without a much larger web of accountability at play.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still support your alma mater, financially or otherwise? If so, how and why, and if not, why not?

Neither my wife (who is also an alum) nor I have never financially supported Bryan College beyond one small gift to a regional scholarship fund some years ago. We both have felt for years (even during our time as students) that the current administration of the school was untrustworthy, and have had no confidence that any gifts would be spent wisely. We have also counseled friends away from sending their children to Bryan (in spite of some good things still going on there in several departments). We might be inclined to support the school in the future, if changes are made to how it is run. Time will tell.

ILYBYGTH: If you’ve had experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions of higher education, what have you found to be the biggest differences? The biggest similarities?

I’m a “lifer” in evangelical schools, I suppose.  I do get to spend a lot of time with the faculty and administration of a denominationally accountable college now because of my job, and there are important distinctions there. The chief difference seems to be the level at which faculty are given academic freedom and encouraged to go deep into their disciplines with excellence rather than threatened when they don’t tow the party line.
On balance, campus life is culturally very similar to Bryan, and certainly when compared to a secular college.

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

I only took a couple of science classes during my time at Bryan (since I was in a B. A. humanities track). The botany class I took was very straightforward, proceeding in much the same way as I’d expect a similar introductory class to go anywhere, with the exception of a devotional at the beginning of each class. The professor (who is still a personal friend) really emphasized the historic role of wonder and religious awe in driving scientific inquiry, quoting people like Newton and Kepler, and reading George Herbert’s poetry.

I did also take a non-lab science course on physical origins—i.e. the origin of the material world—from Kurt Wise. Dr. Wise was no intellectual slouch, having earned a Ph.D. in paleontology at Harvard under Stephen Jay Gould, but was firmly a young earth creationist. In that course, though, he taught the first seven weeks from a materialist perspective, refusing to admit any religious or biblical arguments, and focusing on evidence and mainstream scientific theory. In the second half of the course, he made a case, based on his own work, for how the evidence could be read in such a way as to affirm a literal reading of the Genesis narrative. It was fascinating, really.

It is telling that both science professors I had left the school under the current administration, which has used an accusation of unfaithfulness to literal young-earth creationism as a pretext to purge several faculty. I suppose that even teaching alternate perspectives for the sake of intellectual honesty and ensuring students were well-informed was a bridge too far. I do feel, though, that the scientific education offered at Bryan was quite solid, given that several classmates who majored in sciences have gone on to become doctors or work at research institutions like the WHO and the CDC.

ILYBYGTH: Was your social life at your evangelical college similar to the college stereotype (partying, “hooking up,” drinking, etc.) we see in mainstream media? If not, how was it different? Do you think your social experience would have been much different if you went to a secular institution?

Social life was generally bounded by a Christian ethos—a fact which I’m actually quite grateful. Sex outside of marriage was very taboo, but dating couples weren’t required to be chaperoned. Public displays of foul language, drinking, smoking, drugs, etc. weren’t seen (though you could find them in private). Friends and I spent plenty of time camping, hiking, and rock climbing at a local wilderness with lax campus “sign-out” policies and late curfew. I never felt like someone was watching me to ensure compliance with social life standards. Most of our free time was spent in recreation—card games, fishing, intramural sports, etc.—but the school was academically rigorous, so free time was limited if you wanted good grades. It was a small place, where everyone knew everyone, so community accountability more than anything else served to enforce standards. About the most transgressive things I did was going out to smoke cigars in the shadow of a nearby nuclear power plant (which seemed, I guess, like a safe place) and partaking in the god-awful “wine” a hallmate made from Welch’s grape juice.

ILYBYGTH: In your experience, was the “Christian” part of your college experience a prominent part? In other words, would someone from a secular college notice differences right away if she or he visited your school?

Bryan was unmistakably a Christian school. There was a 50 ft. tall cross at the top of the entrance road, for one thing. The rhythms of church and chapel punctuated student life, and every class had some tie-in to faith. Nobody would’ve mistaken it for a secular school.

Ironically, one of the craziest run-ins I had with administrative autocracy while a student was the school’s attempt to change its motto from “Christ above all” to “faithful brilliance.” Our student newspaper (where I was an editor) ripped the administration over the issue, and helped spark an alumni backlash against the shift. This was one of many instances that helped convince me that the school’s president cared more about authority than any actual issues of “defending the faith.”

ILYBYGTH: Did you feel political pressure at school? That is, did you feel like the school environment tipped in a politically conservative direction? Did you feel free to form your own opinions about the news? Were you encouraged or discouraged from doing so?

There was definitely political pressure at school, but far more of it came from fellow students than faculty or administrators. There was a definite sense that God must be a Republican, and it was hard to imagine how anyone could be anything other than pro-life and anti-same-sex marriage. Capitalism was in vogue, too. It was also the heady post-9/11 and Iraq War days, so there was a strong pro-military vibe going around, and a busload of students volunteered to go canvas for Bush in Florida during the 2004 election. If anything, several faculty tried to be moderating influences on rampant student conservatism, hoping to get us to widen our lenses a bit. I did not try very hard to form my own political opinions, and when I did (considering the legacy of racism in evangelicalism and conservative politics, for instance) I found ready encouragement from faculty. These days, I’d consider myself much more politically liberal than my collegiate self, not because I’ve drifted from my faith, but precisely because I’ve gone deeper into studying and applying the teachings of Scripture (particularly around care for the poor).

ILYBYGTH: What do you think the future holds for evangelical higher education? What are the main problems looming for evangelical schools? What advantages do they have over other types of colleges?

The future of higher education in general in the U.S. seems to be in doubt. Student loans have been a crushing weight on so many of my friends that many of us have openly considered whether college is worth it, and shared that we’d be perfectly happy if our kids went into a trade or other career that didn’t require a degree. Evangelical schools aren’t immune to these general pressures, either.

In addition to these general problems, I think a whole generation of Christians (and people of other or no religion who were raised Christian) have soured greatly on evangelical institutions due to repeated scandals of sexual abuse and coverups, financial malfeasance, and other legal problems. We see “leaders” supporting a manifestly corrupt and immoral president like Donald Trump at the expense of Christian witness to people in the rest of the world, and the whole edifice of evangelicalism starts seems like a fig leaf for power worship and egotism. If evangelical schools are going to survive by attracting the children of this generation to attend, it will be because they are able to cultivate an atmosphere of intellectual honesty and academic freedom within a culture gone crazy. When they feel like just so much more tribalism and cult-like authoritarianism, what’s the point?

If there is any advantage to evangelical schools over other colleges, it directly correlates to their willingness to be open and honest. Even secular schools have their ideological shibboleths and inquisitions, so evangelical colleges that are confident enough in their faith to assume that it is not the school’s responsibility to force social and spiritual outcomes may be able to rejuvenate the whole enterprise of higher ed. This hope is on an ideal plane, though. Most evangelical schools are in no wise prepared to pursue that vision.

Thanks, Mr. Lonas!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

The DeVoses Have Always Been Wrong about College

You’ve probably seen the graph floating around the interwebs this week. The Economist reported that–despite jeremiads by Betsy DeVos–higher education in America does not seem to be turning students into left-wing drones. As SAGLRROILYLBYGTH know, conservatives have always fretted about it. And they’ve always been wrong. Their schemes to infiltrate left-wing colleges have never panned out and today’s college conservatives should pay attention.

economist college influence

Not a lot of change there…

In a speech a few years back, Queen Betsy warned students that college was trying to brainwash them. As she put it,

The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.

Were QB’s worries fair? The Economist dug through a study of political thinking among college graduates. Either college professors—who really do skew to the left—are not “ominously” trying to tell students “what to think,” or they’re bad at it. As The Economist summarized,

Between 2010 and 2014, survey respondents were asked every year which political party they identified with. The share identifying as Democrats did not shift significantly between freshman year and graduation. Similarly, when asked about their political viewpoints, the share of students identifying as conservative changed little during their time at university. The same pattern held for questions about climate change, health care and immigration.

Yet Queen Betsy’s vision of the college threat is anything but idiosyncratic. Throughout the twentieth century, the conservative educational activists I’ve studied uniformly agree that left-wing professors are a deadly threat to students’ faiths and America’s chances.

In 1909, for example, journalist Harold Bolce scored a major scoop when he interrogated college professors about their secularism and anti-Christian ideas. For example, Bolce quizzed Syracuse sociologist Edwin L. Earp and reported to America that the professor no longer valued traditional religion. As Bolce wrote in Cosmopolitan (yes, Cosmo),

‘Do you not believe, Professor,’ I asked, ‘that Moses got the ten commandments in the way the Scriptures tell?’

The professor smiled.  ‘I do not,’ said he.  ‘It is unscientific and absurd to imagine that God ever turned stone-mason and chiseled commandments on a rock.’

bolce page image

Left-wing professors, c. 1909.

Earp was not alone, Bolce warned. At all leading colleges, issues such as “marriage, divorce, the home, religion, and democracy,” were studied and propounded “as if these things were fossils, gastropods, vertebrates, equations, chemical elements, or chimeras.”

Conservative anxiety about college professors never went away. In the 1920s, for example, William Jennings Bryan often warned about the dangers of higher education. He liked to cite a study by psychologist James Leuba, which found that more than half of “prominent scientists” in the USA no longer believed in a “personal God and in personal immortality.” The upshot on college campuses where those scientists taught? Though only 15% of freshman had discarded Christianity, Leuba found, 30% of juniors had and 40-45% of graduates did.

It hasn’t only been religious conservatives like Bolce, Bryan, and DeVos that have worried. In 1939, the obstreperous leader of the American Legion’s Americanism Commission schemed with a business ally to disrupt the goings-on at Columbia University. Both men—Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion and Alfred Falk of the National Association of Manufacturers—assumed that colleges were ideologically dangerous places. Professors at Columbia had been spewing their left-wing propaganda into the ears of students for too long.

What could they do about it? Chaillaux told Falk that he had some spies “on the inside at Columbia University.” Chaillaux planned to have those “friends” conduct a campaign against leftist professors among students. As Chaillaux optimistically predicted,

possibly we can make the classes of such instructors as George S. Counts and Harold O. Rugg sufficiently unpopular to reduce their present drawing power.

It might sound nutsy to dream of sending secret right-wing agents onto college campuses to denounce and dethrone popular leftist professors, but Queen Betsy and the rest of the Trump regime are engaged in similar stuff these days.

Perhaps most famously, Charlie Kirk and Turning Point USA have made a career out of provoking leftist backlash from college students and professors. And now, Kirk has teamed up with Trump’s favorite evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. to open a new kind of campus center, one devoted to promoting Trumpist ideas in higher ed.

Will it work? No. It wasn’t necessary or effective in 1939 and it won’t happen today. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Queen Betsy (though I’m iffy these days about Kirk or Falwell). For a century and more, conservatives have fretted that colleges in general were left-wing indoctrination factories. They’re not. At least, they’re not very good ones.

The Politics of Evangelical Magazines

The kerfuffle over Christianity Today got us thinking: How often have evangelical magazines gone out on a political limb? And what happened when they did?

First, the basics: Outgoing editor Mark Galli got people’s attention yesterday when he called for the impeachment and removal of Trump. As Galli wrote,

the facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.

Some observers wondered if this statement by a leading evangelical publication signaled a “crack in the wall of Trump evangelical support.”

Trump’s evangelical supporters didn’t seem to think so. Conservative stalwarts such as Franklin Graham blasted CT‘s statement, saying his father, CT-founder Billy Graham, “would be embarrassed.”

trump et

Taking a bold stand against aliens…or Entertainment Tonight.

True to form, Trump himself blasted the decision in confusing and seemingly uninformed ways. He called CT a “far left magazine” and concluded that he “won’t be reading ET [sic] again.”

SAGLRROILYBYGTH already know all that. What they might not know is the history of political statements by leading evangelical magazines. From my Fundamentalist U research, I pulled up an example from the twentieth century.

Back in 1957, Billy Graham started a similar political firestorm among the white evangelical community by integrating his revival meetings. Based at Biola University in Los Angeles, the popular evangelical magazine King’s Business came out in favor of integration.

Editor Lloyd Hamill made clear in a scathing editorial in November, 1957, that King’s Business supported racial integration. As Hamill put it,

Graham was only proclaiming what the Bible plainly teaches. . . . No Spirit-controlled Christian can escape the solid fact that all men are equal in God’s sight.  Integration is not only the law of our nation, it is also the plain teaching of the Bible.

Another writer wrote in the same issue,

Now and then you hear some Christian say, ‘I don’t want any Negroes or Mexicans in my church.’  In whose church?  Christ paid for the Church with His precious blood and some saints seem to think because they put an offering in the plate on Sunday they have bought the Church back.

Bold words for the world of white evangelicalism in 1957. And predictably, the president’s office of Biola University was immediately flooded with mail. A few white evangelicals agreed with Hamill. But by a factor of about ten to one, the readers expressed their outrage.

earnestine ritterHamill did not back down. He pointed out that the offices of King’s Business did not only advocate racial integration, they practiced it. As Hamill noted in the following issue,

As a matter of record The King’s Business has had a Negro on the editorial staff for nearly a year.  She is Earnestine Ritter who has studied journalism at New York University and Los Angeles State College.

What happened? Hamill was fired. Biola President Samuel Sutherland apologized to Billy Graham for the “very foolish letters [Hamill] wrote and statements which he made.”

Mark Galli won’t be intimidated. He already planned to retire soon. But the controversy unleashed by his anti-Trump editorial is far from the first time an evangelical editor has tried to push the needle among evangelical Americans.

LGBTQ and Evangelical Colleges: Can We Please Just Skip to the End?

It might sound good to some, but a recent “Fairness for All” bill will not solve evangelical colleges’ problems with LGBTQ issues. With respect to all the smart, loving, sincere supporters of these half-measures, the historical record is glaringly clear on this one. Evangelical universities cannot fudge the issue of LGBTQ rights and the issue will end up splitting evangelical institutions. Again. But evangelical tradition has plenty of room to accommodate changing times. Can we please just skip to that part of this story?

Here’s what we’re talking about: Utah Representative Chris Stewart introduced recently a “Fairness for All Act.” The bill has the ardent support of evangelical organizations such as the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. In short, the act would ban discrimination against LGBTQ persons, except at institutions that have a religious reason for discrimination or at small businesses.

Will it work? No. And not only for the usual political reasons. In short, this attempt to square the LGBTQ circle for evangelical institutions is another half-measure that will not satisfy anyone. It is similar to the ways many evangelical institutions these days make an impracticable distinction between LGBTQ “identity”—which is approved—and LGBTQ “practice”—which is not. Or the weird ruling recently at Fuller Seminary that same-sex “relationships” are okay, but same-sex “marriages” are not.

Based on the history I uncovered in the research for Fundamentalist U, these half-measures will end up being a curious footnote in the story of evolving LGBTQ rights in the evangelical world. Here’s my prediction—hold me to it—of what the end result will be.

First, though, let me be as clear as I can be on this point: I do not equate the evolving policies about LGBTQ rights with the 20th-century history of decreasing racism at evangelical colleges. The two cases are distinct. But what is similar is a central fact that many prominent historians have pointed out. Namely, evangelical Americans are still Americans, and their ideas about changing cultural norms are in line, more or less, with the rest of the country. As Daniel K. Williams put it, like many other white Americans, white evangelicals in the mid-20th century worked “to distance themselves from the overt racism that had characterized their churches.” And, as Molly Worthen argued similarly, “the moderate middle” of white evangelicalism “experienced a genuine change of heart about the meaning of skin color,” similar to what the moderate middle of white people in general experienced.

Again, racism is different from anti-LGBTQ ideas. Intelligent evangelicals will tell me that sexual morality is an inherent part of true Christianity, while racism was a deviation from true Christianity. I get that. Nevertheless, the point remains—evangelicals have shifted their ideas about LGTBQ identity along with the rest of the country. They will continue to do so.

So what will happen? If history is any guide here, we will end up with (yet another) split among evangelical institutions on this issue. Most universities will find a way to double-down on their traditional sexual morality while making room for LGBTQ rights. How? Not by today’s compromises, but rather by falling back on the heart of evangelical sexual morality, insisting that sexuality must be reserved only for monogamous marriage. The definition of “marriage,” though, will expand to include same-sex marriage. No more false distinctions between “identity” and “practice.” No more meaningless opining about the importance of sexless same-sex relationships. No, in the end, most evangelical institutions will basically embrace LGBTQ rights, but re-frame them in a traditional way, with an emphasis on marriage. Sex outside of marriage will still be forbidden. But marriage will come to include same-sex marriage.

At other schools, hard-liners will double-down on anti-LGBTQ tradition. They will not only ban same-sex relationships, but any element of LGBTQ inclusion. If necessary, they will fight against all comers, including the US government, to preserve their discriminatory anti-LGBTQ policies.

What do you think? Should we agree to meet back here in thirty years to find out if this prediction comes true?

Trump-ing Academic Life

A Miss USA, a bachelor, a gun-toter, a filmmaker, and a MAGA youtuber, all clumped together on a college campus to promote “Judeo-Christian values.” What could go wrong? If it were a reality show, I’d watch it. But it’s not. Instead, this group of culture-war B-listers is the first cohort of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center Fellows. These Trumpish all-stars promise/threaten to upend a long tradition of alternative academic institution-building in conservative evangelical higher ed.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, we’ve been following developments at Liberty’s new Falkirk Center with a lot of interest. The founders—Jerry Falwell Jr. and Turning Point’s Charlie Kirk—warned us that they plan to put “Judeo-Christian values” back in the center of American political life via an “aggressive social media campaign.” Given the history of ambitious academic centers at conservative evangelical universities, there’s not much of a chance the Falkirkers will achieve their goals. Given the recently announced line-up of founding Falkirk Fellows, I’m starting to think that they might, in fact, have a totally different goal in mind. Namely, they might want to trash the entire evangelical academic tradition, or at least not mind if they do.

As I argued in Fundamentalist U, since the 1920s conservative evangelical colleges, institutes, and universities faced a formidable task. They had to create an entirely separate academic system of prestige, one that rewarded scholars outside of mainstream academic channels. As part of their effort to do so, many universities poured scarce resources into the painstaking effort to build their own independent network of academic prestige, one that did not rely on mainstream ideas. For example, institutions such as Wheaton College and Gordon College heaped honors on creationists such as Harry Rimmer. Authors such as Arthur Brown scrambled to compile impressive-sounding lists of academic “experts” who scorned mainstream science.

To be sure, these alternative academic “experts” often had extremely shallow credentials. When evangelical universities gave them honorary doctorates and other academic honors, however, they were signaling to the conservative evangelical community that their universities shared the religious and political values of their honored experts. The universities were creating, in essence, a world of academic prestige outside the entire system of mainstream academics.

The recent move by Liberty University seems as different from that kind of thinking as Trump is from Reagan. What does it take to earn a coveted spot as an inaugural fellow at the Falkirk Center? Let’s take a look:

Frantzve

Adding a little sparkle to academic life…

First, we have Erika Lane Frantzve, Miss USA 2012. Ms. Frantzve claims a “background” in political science and is dedicated to charity work. Next, there is Josh Allan Murray, best known from his appearance on The Bachelorette. These days, in spite of the quick break-ups of his TV nuptials, Mr. Murray is apparently “bouncing back better than ever.” Third comes Antonia Okafor Cover, who works to get more guns on college campuses. She claims to have been told she should not feel free to speak her mind, but as she puts it, “I didn’t listen.” Another fellow will be David J. Harris, Jr., a vlogger and Trump enthusiast who preaches the dangers of the “crazed left.” Last but not least is Jaco Booyens, filmmaker and opponent of sex trafficking.

I don’t mean to be a campus snob, but what kind of achievements can a group like this hope to achieve? To quote Charlie Kirk, how can this assemblage “‘play offense’ against efforts by liberals to water down Judeo-Christian values in the Bible and Constitution”?

The short and obvious answer is, they can’t. This is a group of second-rate conservative media presences, not a group of alternative academics. Unlike people like Harry Rimmer in an earlier generation, they have no coherent ideas to promote. They are not scientists frozen out of mainstream science, or theologians pushed out of mainstream institutions. Those kinds of non-mainstream intellectuals used to be the ones to win academic honors from the evangelical academy. This group looks decidedly different.

Even from within the alternative academic tradition of conservative evangelical schools, a tradition in which non-traditional intellectuals were often awarded traditional academic honors, this group of Falkirk Fellows looks remarkably intellectual weak. Instead of building an independent system of academic prestige as earlier evangelical colleges have done, the Falkirk Center seems to be merely leaping aboard the Trump Train to trash the entire idea of academic prestige.

Fizzle Alert: New Campus Center Will Try to Prove that Jesus Was Not a Socialist

The history is not particularly encouraging. Nevertheless, Liberty University plans to open a new academic center, one devoted to promoting Judeo-Christian values in American society. How do we know it won’t work? Three reasons, plus one counter-point.

Here’s what we know: Liberty University recently announced its new Falkirk Center. The name comes from a combo of Jerry Falwell Jr—Liberty’s president—and Charlie Kirk, leader of Turning Point USA. The goal of the center will be to blitz social media with traditional Christian messages. As Falwell and Kirk described,

Said Kirk, “We’re in a culture battle right now where you have to fight and play offense, and part of this effort is to try and play offense against the secular Left.”

Falwell added, “As attacks on traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs grow in frequency and intensity, the need has never been greater for a national revival of our foundational principles throughout our society and institutions in America.”

The center will use an aggressive social media campaign to push back against what Kirk described as the Left’s effort to “try to convert young Christians into socialism and to intentionally misrepresent the gospel and the teachings of the Bible to try to convert young people to be further on the left.”

Will it work? No.

First of all, there are a few big established conservative think-tanks that don’t leave much room for a new one. Why would anyone go to work at the Falkirk Center when they could go the Heritage Foundation instead?

Second, the name itself spells doom. Generally, any academic center or think-tank needs a clear and unified purpose. Often, that takes the form of a charismatic leader. In this case, trying to balance the big egos of both Falwell and Kirk will mean that neither of them gives the center his full attention and support.

Third, as I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, when conservative evangelicals have tried to establish alternative academic centers in the past they haven’t had a lot of success. Consider the ill-starred National Freedom Education Center (NFEC). It was an organization based at The King’s College in New York (now in New York City).

national freedom education center letterhead

They had enough money for letterhead, but that’s about it…

One of the NFEC’s goals was to spread “American Studies” programs on evangelical campuses. As their promo materials put it,

What philosophy shall give direction to the material world we are developing?  Shall the long-felt influence of the Christian ethic be brought to bear on current history?  Dare we succumb to the seemingly plausible suggestions that in our time government-over-man is preferable to America’s long proven concept of man-over government?

Can we survive as a people, even with our unparalleled abundance of things, if our thinking excludes our traditionally motivating intangibles . . . . reverence for God, total human concern for the individual, an abiding dedication to preservation of our Constitution and a cherishing regard for personal Freedom? [sic]

Did it work? Nuh-uh. A few institutions, such as Azusa Pacific, signed up. They received a few hundred dollars and some books for their libraries. Other schools blanched. Gordon College in Massachusetts, for example, rejected the overtures of the NFEC. The faculty at Gordon did not want to turn their conservative religious school into merely a conservative political school.

There’s no doubt, however, that the NFEC would have had more luck if it had had deeper pockets. And that’s where the Falkirk Center might get its glimmer of hope. Liberty University has bajillions of dollars to spend from its online empire. Could that $$$ make a difference? Maybe.

After all, the Falkirk Center is NOT trying to build academic prestige. That takes time, vision, and patience. It is only trying to mount an “aggressive social media campaign,” which is quick, dirty, and easy. It seems at least possible that the Falkirk Center might splash out money on a blitz of popular media, and that the blitz might reinforce already-existing stereotypes. It COULD become, even, a new sort of academic center, one that doesn’t care much about traditional academics but has a big social-media footprint.

I don’t think it will happen, because President Falwell has always been more invested in football than academics, but it seems at least possible that the Falkirk Center might take advantage of a fat wallet to do more than talk about making a difference. I’m not going to worry too much about it, yet.

Squaring the LGBTQ Circle

I thought I understood it, but this story has me stumped. I’ve wrestled with the complicated history of LGBTQ issues at evangelical universities, but I just don’t understand recent news out of evangelical flagship Fuller Seminary.

Fuller entranceHere’s what we know: The storied seminary is facing a lawsuit from a former student who was kicked out for being married to another woman. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I personally support greater LGBTQ rights at all institutions, civil and religious. But I also sympathize with the position of conservative religious schools for whom this issue poses an authentic moral conundrum.

In the twentieth century, evangelical universities had a shameful history of dealing with LGBTQ students, but so did non-evangelical ones. As historians Maggie Nash and Jennifer A.R. Silverman have argued, all sorts of universities conducted vicious purges of non-heterosexual students in the middle of the twentieth century.

In this century, many evangelical institutions have come to an uneasy and awkward position on LGBTQ rights. At many universities, for example, LGBTQ identity is welcomed, but LGBTQ “practice” is not. To my mind, this is not a very sustainable position. It feels like a temporary holding plan until institutions decide whether to support LGBTQ rights or to oppose them.

I don’t support that compromise, but at least I understand it. What I don’t understand is the position taken by Fuller Seminary. According to the LA Times,

Though the college does allow same-sex relationships, it does not allow “homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct” and has made clear that it believes sexual intimacy is reserved for a marriage between a man and a woman….

What is the distinction here? Did the reporter maybe just muddle the explanation of Fuller’s true position? Or maybe does Fuller allow students and faculty to be engaged in non-sexual same-sex relationships? That would explain the distinction between “same-sex relationships” and “homosexual sexual conduct.” In effect, that would be just another, more complicated way of stating the distinction between identity and practice made by several universities.

But even if that’s the explanation, it doesn’t seem to make sense in this case. How would Fuller know that the expelled student was engaged in “explicit sexual conduct” with her wife? According to the article, the student was expelled when her same-sex marriage was discovered by Fuller’s administrators. As everyone knows, however, there have been plenty of celibate marriages. That leads me to wonder if there is some other distinction being made in this case. Perhaps the problem comes from the student’s marriage. Maybe by Fuller’s definition, a “marriage” automatically implies “sexual conduct.” . . . ?

I’m honestly stumped. Can anyone explain it?

From the Archives: Why Chik-fil-A’s LGBTQ Decision Feels a Lot Like Evangelical Anti-Racism

It’s different. I get that. But this week’s furor over Chik-fil-A’s decision to defund anti-LGBTQ Christian groups feels a lot like the debates about race and racism among white evangelicals back in the late 20th century. This morning, I’d like to share one episode from 1970-71 that feels eerily familiar to this week’s Chik-fil-A story.chik fil a protest

Here’s what we know: The chicken chain is doing great, apparently. Chik-fil-A is now the world’s third biggest fast-food chain, after Starbucks and Micky D’s. But its anti-LGBTQ reputation has limited the chain’s growth. As a result, Chik-fil-A announced this week that it will no longer donate to the Salvation Army or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They will direct their philanthropy instead to groups with no anti-LGBTQ reputation.

Conservatives have reacted with predictable outrage. As crunchy conservative Rod Dreher put it,

I love Chick-fil-A, but it’s going to be a while before I go there again. This is nothing but gutless surrender.

Former Governor Mike Huckabee agreed, tweeting,

Today, @ChickfilA betrayed loyal customers for $$. I regret believing they would stay true to convictions of founder Truett Cathey. [sic] Sad.

huckabee chik fil a tweetConservative pundits are not wrong when they complain that moral orthodoxy about LGBTQ rights has changed rapidly. They can claim to agree with President Obama, c. 2008, when he still opposed same-sex marriage. They can insist, like Rod Dreher, that their recently moderate opinions have turned them suddenly into “pariahs.”

That’s all true enough, but from a historical perspective the current LGBTQ debates sound hauntingly familiar. Conservatives won’t relish the comparison, but today’s rapidly shifting mainstream attitudes toward LGBTQ rights feel very similar to shifting racial attitudes after World War II. As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, evangelical universities scrambled to keep up with those changes.

This morning I’d like to share more of a story that I didn’t have room to include in the book. One episode in particular seems relevant to today’s battle over the moral status of LGBTQ rights among conservative Christians.

The institution was the Moody Bible Institute, the year was 1970, and the moral question was racial segregation. MBI had invited fundamentalist celebrity John R. Rice to be a featured speaker at its annual Founder’s Day celebration. Rice had attracted notoriety recently for supporting the racial segregation at Bob Jones University.

Members of the MBI community protested. As one anonymous letter put it,

Dr. John R. Rice is an acknowledged racist.  Earlier this year, he invited Lester Maddox, also a racist, to speak at the Sword of the Lord anniversary.  Also, he published in his magazine why Bob Jones University refuses to admit Negroes.  By other statements in the article, he showed clearly his racist position.  We Do Not Want HIM IN CHICAGO.  If you bring him here to speak, we will have one of the biggest demonstrations Chicago has ever seen.  We will have all the publicity we need, radio, television, press, plus public demonstration of course every day of the conference, especially when he is going to speak and on the Alumni Day No matter what reason you have for bringing him here, there will be a demonstration by radical groups Let him stay down South with his racist companions.  You can get all the police and protection, we are still coming.  We are not coming to cause trouble.  We are trying to ‘help’ you wipe out racism.  We ‘love’ John R Rice too much to allow him to dehumanize himself here.  IF you IMMEDIATELY drop his name from the list of speakers, and PUBLICLY declare this IMMEDIATELY, then there will be no demonstration.  BUT again if you don’t, we are coming, black and white included.

What did MBI do? After consideration, the administration of William Culbertson agreed. They canceled Rice’s invitation. The manuscript of Culberton’s public statement shows how fraught the decision was. He went over and over the wording, cutting out sections that he thought would be too provocative. The things he cut are telling. Why, for example, might he have cut the phrase “of any kind?” Here’s the next-to-final draft, with edits included:

The Moody Bible Institute has for eighty-five years welcomed young people of all races and nationalities to its tuition-free training in the Bible.  Through times of changing social mores the policy has always been to emphasize the salvation from God by which all men who believe are made one in Christ.  We have sought, and do seek, to apply the spiritual principles set forth in the Word of God to the practical problems of our culture.  We believe that there is nothing in the Bible that forbids interracial relationships of any kind.

                In the present period of surging change we are grateful that among our racially mixed student body there seems to be little or no dissent, though some former students recently involved in civil rights activities have felt that we might have taken a more leading role than we have.  We are absolutely opposed to injustice and exploitation of any kind.  We are dedicated to the proposition that we are debtors to all men.

Just as with Chik-fil-A’s recent decision, MBI’s decision to disinvite a fundamentalist segregationist did not end the matter. The archival files are full of passionate letters in support of Rice and in support of MBI’s decision to disinvite him.

As one alum protested,

In cancelling Dr. Rice from this Conference you have robbed the Founder’s Week guests from great blessings, insulted a great man of God, and lost an opportunity to re-affirm the posture of Moody Bible Institute…[sic ellipsis in original] which by the way is in some question already, and more so now. … Last March, while attending a Pastor’s Conference in Hammond, I had dinner in the sweetshop at Moody.  To my surprise the students for the most part were mop-headed and unkept and were hardly what one would think of as Ambassadors of Christ. . . . I know that your action has alienated me, my wife and my church.

Other members of the expansive MBI community celebrated. As one faculty member wrote,

I have never been prouder to be a member of the Moody Bible Institute faculty.

The files in Culbertson’s archives are full of similar pro- and anti- letters about the decision to ban John R. Rice. The controversy proved so heated that MBI ended up canceling its entire Founder’s Day celebration for 1971. There just was no way they could continue without an embarrassingly public dispute about their moral commitment to racial integration.

anti john rice demonstration warning letter

Evangelical anti-racism, c. 1970. Does this smell like today’s Chik-fil-A?

It’s impossible not to hear echoes of the 1970 debate at MBI in today’s debate at Chik-fil-A.

We need to be careful, of course. The history of racism and segregation cannot be simply equated to today’s LGBTQ debates. The process by which evangelical institutions make these decisions, however, seems remarkably similar.

When mainstream moral values change, conservative evangelical institutions have difficult decisions to make. Do they go along with the changes? Do they re-examine their own moral assumptions in the light of changing social mores? Or do they stick to their guns, deciding that traditional ideas about issues such as racism and sexuality are in fact part of their compromise-proof religious commitment?

Campus Radicals De-Platform Trump…but It’s Not What You Think

Didja see this one? Conservative campus pundits may have thought they had figured out the provocation playbook. But the treatment of Donald Trump Jr. at UCLA confounded their expectations.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know the usual story: Conservative provocateurs have had easy pickings so far. Organizations such as Turning Point USA have been able to dictate the terms of many campus confrontations, turning their activists into willing “punchbait.” Attention-seekers like Ben Shapiro have had a field day poking the intellectual soft spots of leftwing campus activists.

shapiro-by_katie_cooney_720

Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro speaks freely at the University of Wisconsin.

This time, however, the usual script just didn’t work. Speaking at UCLA, Donald Trump Jr. trotted out the usual accusations. “Name a time,” Junior accused,

When conservatives have disrupted even the furthest leftist on a college campus. It doesn’t happen that way. We’re willing to listen . . .

Junior probably expected cheers from his conservative crowd, but instead he got shouted down. The even-more-conservative activists in the crowd demanded a question-and-answer session with Junior. He would not oblige, and the angry conservatives wouldn’t let him finish.

Watch the clip. Then ask yourself: Has the short-sighted strategy of conservative groups such as Turning Point USA finally come back to bite them on the behind?

Why Do Scientists Defend Some LGBTQ Rights and Not Others?

Okay, all you science nerds—what do you make of this story? It raises a couple of big questions. First: among mainstream scientists, is anti-LGBTQ Christianity really more objectionable than anti-mainstream-science Christianity? And are some kinds of anti-LGBTQ religion more objectionable than others?GSA baylor adHere’s what we know: Two professional scientific organizations recently pulled job ads from Brigham Young University. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America yanked the ads because BYU discriminates against LGBTQ students and faculty.

I have my own strong opinions about this sort of move.* This morning, though, we’re not talking about me. Rather, we need to examine a couple of questions raised by this move. The first question is the most obvious, and it was raised by some faculty members at BYU. Namely, why is Brigham Young University being singled out for exclusion? The GSA, at least, still apparently welcomes ads from other universities that discriminate against LGBTQ students.baylor creationism

By accepting an ad from Baylor University—which has an explicit anti-LGBTQ “practice” policy—the GSA seems to be differentiating between types of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Why?

The decision to nix the BYU ads raises another troubling question: Would these science organizations take ads from institutions that dispute mainstream science itself? Though Baylor quickly reversed course, in the early part of this century it established a creationist science center on its campus. According to at least one report, President Robert Sloan tried to impose a religion litmus test on new faculty. As one participant later recalled,

Jim Patton, a professor of neuroscience, psychology, and biomedical studies and former chairman of his department, remembers sitting in on an interview with Sloan and a candidate for a psychology position. The young scholar was asked whether he went to church and read the Bible. When he answered yes, he was then asked the topic of that week’s Sunday school lesson and which theology texts he was currently reading. “If precise answers weren’t acceptable,” Patton told me, “folks weren’t allowed to work here.” Many professors came to feel that Sloan was filtering out everyone but the fundamentalists.

Baylor may have changed course in terms of creationism. But when the university was pushing a different kind of science, would the GSA or AGU have accepted ads from Baylor? Or would these professional organizations have made the same protest against alternative-science institutions that they make against (one) anti-LGTBQ one? And what about now?

These problems lead us to our questions of the day. What do you think:

  1. Should professional organizations discriminate against discriminating colleges?
  2. Should they be more consistent and ban Baylor, too? (And other anti-LGBTQ schools)?
  3. Should they defend mainstream science with the same vim that they use to defend LGBTQ rights?

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*In general, I support this sort of professional activism. I agree that anti-LGBTQ policies put institutions outside the realm of mainstream thinking. If religious institutions want to engage in anti-LGBTQ policies, that is their right, but such policies should not be supported by public money. And other institutions, such as these professional societies, are well within their rights to exclude discriminatory colleges. I personally would support such a move by my closest professional organization, the History of Education Society (US). But just to make sure everyone dislikes me, I also advocate more freedom for students to participate in discriminatory student groups.