Penn Puzzles: Why No BGU?

I’m back in Philadelphia to get back into the archives for my new book. And the trip has reminded me of a great question that never got an answer: Why isn’t there a Billy Graham University?Billy graham university meme

Last time I was down here, I got to sit in on Jon Zimmerman’s history of higher-ed seminar. They had read Fundamentalist U and I was happy to talk with the students about it. One of the students raised the question and it has bothered me ever since.

After all, it did seem to be a pretty standard part of the revivalists’ resume. Moody had Moody Bible Institute. Billy Sunday had Winona Lake. William Bell Riley started Northwestern. Bob Jones had, well, Bob Jones. The list goes on and on. Falwell-Liberty; Oral Roberts-Oral Roberts; Robertson-Regent.

So why is there no Billy Graham University?

Billy Graham Center 1

Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center

One possibility is that Wheaton has functioned as the de facto BGU. The Billy Graham Center is there, and the connection is pretty tight.

Maybe we’ll see a repeat of the Bryan University story. Back in 1925, after the sudden death of William Jennings Bryan in the immediate aftermath of the Scopes trial, fundamentalists rallied to open a college in Bryan’s memory. Some wanted it in Chicago; some wanted it to be a junior college. In the end, Bryan’s widow won the day with her plea to open the new school in Dayton, Tennessee. The junior-college idea was rejected in favor of a traditional liberal-arts university.

Is it possible that we’ll see a similar push for a memorial BGU?

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Do They Know?

You’ve heard all about it by now. Vice President Pence traveled to Hillsdale College in Michigan over the weekend to cheer on the conservative college’s commencement. So here’s our question: Why don’t the locals mention Hillsdale’s peculiarities?

hillsdale pence

…no controversy here…

After all, neither Hillsdale nor Pence seemed reticent about the conservative particulars of the school. Pence called Hillsdale a “beacon of liberty and American ideals.” He praised the college’s aggressive leader, Larry Arnn, for grounding students “in the traditions and teachings that are our greatest inheritance in America.”

Hillsdale, too, regularly brags about its conservative stances on curriculum and funding. All students enroll in a great-books curriculum and no students receive any federal funding. In case anyone misses it, the campus includes statues of conservative icons such as Ronald Reagan.

hillsdale college reagan statue

Ronnie relaxin on campus…

So why don’t the locals seem to care? On the local news about Pence’s address, absolutely no mention was made of the conservative nature of the college. Pence’s speech was stripped of any ideological meaning. Graduates talked about their jobs and their hopes for the future, a future pointedly stripped of any mention of taking over Washington DC with a new, Hillsdale-inspired conservative vision.

Is this simply Midwestern politeness? Local-news inoffensiveness? Or do they just not care about the central mission of their local university?

Don’t Read This

It keeps showing up. Even the smartest, best-informed people still make a huge mistake when it comes to understanding the history of white American evangelicals.

reagan at BJU 1980

The Gipper greets BJU students, 1980.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, we’ve been obsessed these days about white evangelicals’ love affair with Trump. In talks and article after article after article, we’ve wondered why white evangelicals support a seemingly amoral leader.

We’re not the only ones. Evangelicals themselves such as John Fea and Michael Gerson have wondered about it. And recently John Ehrenreich took another stab at the question. Ehrenreich makes some great points, but he miscategorizes twentieth-century evangelical history.

I’m 100% on board with Ehrenreich’s central theme. As he puts it,

behind the apparent disparity, there exists a psychological kinship between Trumpism and evangelical thought—at least, for white evangelicals. . . . The similarities in their approaches to the world run so deep that I believe that white evangelicals would continue to support Trump even if Roe v. Wade weren’t in the picture.

Right.

It seems obvious: there is an intense and powerful tradition of Make-America-Great-Again thinking among white evangelicals, a tradition to which Trump makes an intense and powerful (if surprising) appeal. If we really want to understand white evangelicalism in America, it does not help to start and finish with theological notions, IMHO. We need to include the mish-mash of history, memory, nostalgia, and politics that leads many white Americans—including white evangelicals—to yearn for the good old days.

Bibb-Graves hall bju til 2011

It didn’t start with Reagan. Bibb Graves was the Governor of Alabama and close political friend of Bob Jones College in the 1920s…

Trump appeals to something deep, something beyond tax policy or even abortion policy. Now, I don’t buy Prof. Ehrenreich’s explanation of this evangelical-Trump affinity. He wants to tie the Trump connection to white-evangelical psychology, which seems a little simplistic.

But that’s not my main beef. This morning I’m objecting to Prof. Ehrenreich’s quick sketch of twentieth-century evangelical history. He repeats the tired myth that white evangelicals only really became political and conservative in the 1970s. He argues that white evangelicals had been split, politically, between progressive and conservative wings. Only in the late 1970s, he thinks, did the bulk of white evangelicalism embrace political conservatism. As he puts it,

by the end of the ’70s, things began to change. The percent of the American population adhering to evangelical beliefs grew rapidly. Right-wing fundamentalist preachers took over organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. There was a rapid rise of separatist Baptist churches, proclaiming a fundamentalist theology, denouncing the moral ills of society and communism, and often promoting segregationist views. In 1979, Jerry Falwell joined hard-line conservative activists such as Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council co-founder Paul Weyrich to form the Moral Majority, a political action group focused on mobilizing Christians against “secular humanism” and moral decay. Evangelical pastors threw themselves into the political arena and worked for 1980s conservative electoral victories. Simultaneously, largely evangelical white voters in the South shifted rapidly from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, and American politics as a whole moved sharply to the right.

I thought we were beyond this. The facts of Ehrenreich’s historical sketch are basically correct, but taken together they don’t prove that conservative evangelicals got political only in the 1970s.

As our leading historians such Daniel K. Williams and Matthew Avery Sutton have demonstrated, white evangelicals ALWAYS were political. Yes, there were progressive and conservative wings, but there was never a “retreat” from politics. As Williams showed, something big really did happen in the 1970s, but it was not that white evangelicals got into politics. They had always been into politics. Instead, what happened was that white conservative evangelicals embraced the GOP as their single political vehicle.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s easy to think that white evangelicals retreated from mainstream politics in the 1930s, only to reemerge with a flourish in the Reagan years. After all, it is a story that white evangelicals have told themselves and the rest of us for many years. As I point out in my recent book about evangelical higher ed, fundamentalist college leaders often insisted that they and their schools were above politics.

Consider the example of Bob Jones Jr. and Bob Jones University in the era of the so-called “New Christian Right.” In 1969, Junior told a friend that he was “opposed to party politics . . . on principle.” In the very same 1969 letter, though, he gave a glimpse of what he meant by that. Was BJU above political activism? Not at all. As Junior explained, BJU was always “urging our students to remember how their senators voted when the next election comes up in their state.”

In other words, white conservative evangelical leaders such as Bob Jones Jr. SAID they were above politics, but what they meant was that they were not wedded to one major party or the other. By 1976, Jones had begun to change his tune. As he put it in 1976, evangelical leaders

should denounce what’s spiritually and morally wrong, and if that means getting into politics, so be it.

When Jones said he was “getting into politics,” what he meant was that he was embracing the GOP alone. He might have sincerely thought that he and his school were above politics before that, but it just wasn’t true. Way back to the 1950s and into the 1980s, Junior continued to talk about getting “into” or “out of” politics, but he never meant that he wouldn’t be throwing his political weight around.

And he certainly never meant that he was somehow split between progressive and conservative political ideas. For fundamentalists like Jones, going all the way back to the 1910s, Christian politics were always conservative politics.

When the Reagan administration angered Jones Jr., for example, Junior threatened in 1982 to take his followers “out” of politics. As he put it, he might just urge BJU voters to

stay away from the polls and let their ship sink.

Now, clearly, withholding votes from the GOP is just as political an act as giving votes is. When white evangelicals in the twentieth century talked about staying out of politics, they didn’t really mean it. They didn’t really mean they wouldn’t vote for conservative candidates or mobilize for conservative issues.

All they meant was that they weren’t married to one party or the other.

When will we stop reading the misleading myth that white evangelicals retreated from politics until Falwell and Reagan?

Evangelical Colleges Aren’t Teaching Christianity

What do students learn at evangelical colleges? For a hundred years now, the promise has been that these schools will teach reliably conservative, reliably orthodox religion. We see more evidence this morning that they tend to focus on something else instead.

It took me a while to catch on. As I conducted the research for my new book about evangelical higher education, I swam through reams of creeds, statements, and charters for new and renewed fundamentalist colleges. All of them promised orthodoxy—relentless and unyielding.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

Pure first.

It was only by reading and talking with Tim Gloege that I was able to grasp the big problem. And once he explained it to me enough times for me to understand, it clarified a whole lot.

Here’s the problem: The fundamentalist movement of the 1920s wasn’t really about orthodoxy. It couldn’t be. It was based, instead, on the creation of a new defense against a new threat. By the 1920s, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists hoped to form a coalition to oppose theological modernism in Protestant churches. They didn’t really have a single theology to be for, but rather a theological trend to be against. Instead of imposing a clear theological orthodoxy on its schools and churches, then, fundamentalism between 1920 and 1950 (ish) had to embrace a far vaguer vision of purity.

What did purity mean? It was never precisely spelled out, but it included a mish-mash of conservative theological principles, traditional social rules, and habits American evangelicals had picked up over the years. Most important, it was ruled by a vague and shifting consensus among evangelical leaders. As culture changed, so did notions of proper purity. In the 1920s, for example, cinema was banned as impure. The rule was maddeningly slippery: Purity was defined by what a consensus of the evangelical public seemed to think it was.

It’s confusing, so let me offer an example that helped me see the distinction. In 1929, Calvinist theologian and sometimes-fundamentalist J. Gresham Machen finally left Princeton Seminary. He opened his own school nearby, Westminster. Machen was dedicated to the notion of running a truly orthodox Calvinist seminary. The rules he set up for his students followed the demands of Calvinist orthodoxy.

From Wheaton College in 1936, President J. Oliver Buswell reached out to Machen with a concern. Was it true, Buswell asked, that Westminster students were allowed to drink alcohol? For Buswell, the notion that students would be allowed to do so was nearly inconceivable. It flouted every assumption he had as the leader of a fundamentalist college. For the theologically sophisticated Machen, however, there was no real problem. There was no theological reason to ban alcohol. Such rules were only cultural baggage from evangelicals’ prudish past, not creedal requirements from Calvinism’s rich orthodox legacy.

In other words, rules against alcohol were a result of the lowest-common-denominator evangelical quest for purity, not a requirement of Christian orthodoxy.

The tension between orthodoxy and purity at evangelical colleges continues. This morning we read a report from George Fox University in Oregon. Professor Abigail Favale writes in First Things that her GFU students don’t know about Christian orthodoxy and don’t really care. As she explains, it’s not that her students haven’t been thoroughly steeped in evangelical schools dedicated to “orthodoxy.” In her words,

Almost all students in the program are born-and-bred Christians of the nondenominational variety. A number of them have been both thoroughly churched and educated through Christian schools or homeschooling curricula.

favale

Purity first. And second.

But few of her students accept one key tenet of orthodox Christian thinking—the resurrection of the physical body. “Resistance to the idea of a physical resurrection struck them as perfectly logical,” she writes.

“It doesn’t feel right to say there’s a human body in heaven, when the body is tied so closely to sin,” said one student. In all, fewer than ten of my forty students affirmed the orthodox teaching that we will ultimately have a body in our glorified, heavenly form. None of them realizes that these beliefs are unorthodox; this is not willful doctrinal error. This is an absence of knowledge about the foundational tenets of historical, creedal Christianity.

If these evangelical students weren’t learning evangelical theology, what were they learning? It seems these days, just like in the twentieth century, the impossible goal of an interdenominational orthodoxy has been replaced with a vague but stern emphasis on purity. At least, that’s what Prof. Favale reports. “Without a guiding connection to orthodoxy,” she thinks,

young Evangelicals are developing heterodox sensibilities that are at odds with a Christian understanding of personhood. The body is associated with sin, the soul with holiness. Moreover, this sense of the body, especially under the alias flesh, tends to be hypersexualized. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Evangelical emphasis on purity, a word that has become synonymous with bodily virginity.

The goals of most fundamentalist colleges in the twentieth century included a lot of things. Students were supposed to become better Christians and better people. The details, however, were almost always left vague. Time and time again, theological orthodoxy had to take a back seat to a loosely defined devotion to purity.

Before You Blame Fundamentalism, Read This

I can understand why some conservative evangelical intellectuals wouldn’t like my book. In chapter after chapter, I look at some of the most uncomfortable tensions in the world of evangelical higher education, the often-poisonous legacy of decades of fundamentalist anger and vitriol. But why should we single out religious schools for this sort of criticism? Public schools, after all, have their own legacies of racism and pandering, as the news from Colorado attests.

ColoradoState

It’s not only fundamentalist colleges that have to deal with their ugly racist legacies…

At Colorado State, as IHE reports, two high school students were singled out for their appearance, racial and fashion-wise. The students were of Native American background and had driven seven hours to take the campus tour. They joined the tour late, apparently, and didn’t answer the tour guide’s questions adequately.

So another tour member called 911. The two kids, she reported, “really stand out.” Their t-shirts, she complained, featured “weird symbolism.” (They look to this headbanger like pretty standard heavy-metal logos.)

Campus cops came and talked with the teenagers. The two were polite and the cops agreed the high-schoolers had done nothing wrong. The teens told the cops they were shy and didn’t know how to respond to the tour guide’s question. They were invited to rejoin the tour, but unsurprisingly they didn’t feel like it and drove home.

What does any of this have to do with fundamentalism and evangelical colleges? It proves that ALL colleges are in a similar bind. ALL colleges need to pander to the lowest common denominator in the families they are trying to attract. If an ignorant and apparently racist mom decides two other teenagers “really stand out,” the college administration needs to address those concerns, even if the mom in question goes far beyond daffy.

The View from Wall Street

Why would Liberty University love President Trump so much? In the Wall Street Journal, Naomi Schaefer Riley pulls her answer from the pages of Fundamentalist U. As she puts it,

nondenominational Christian schools like Liberty have often defined themselves less by their religious doctrines than by their position as outsiders.

I wouldn’t say “less,” but as I’ve been arguing recently, I do believe the MAGA sensibilities of many white evangelicals have long roots in the history of evangelical higher education. Back in the 1920s, fundamentalist college leaders looked angrily and resentfully at the changes that had occurred at many mainstream schools.

Riley WSJ review

Subscription only, I’m afraid.

Riley puts her finger on this enduring tension at the heart of evangelical higher education. As she concludes her review,

Caught between the vast changes in American higher education and the religious families they are supposed to serve, fundamentalist colleges have had to be especially attuned to which way the cultural winds are blowing. Which may occasionally get them some incongruous commencement speakers.

According to Riley, Fundamentalist U

takes a topic that could easily be treated with condescension and turns it into the occasion for a fascinating and careful history.

Thanks to Riley and WSJ for the thoughtful review.

When to Ban Free Speech

Christ spoke to the University of California this week. Chancellor Carol Christ, that is. And according to Politico she gave her support to a new internal study of the terrible speech riots that plagued Berkeley in 2017. The report’s conclusions make sense to me, but not to Milo.free speech berkeley 2

I know SAGLRROILYBYGTH are divided on questions of campus free speech. We all should be; it’s a complicated issue that deserves more than sound-bite attention and one-size-fits-all solutions.

What if young-earth creationists intentionally manipulate our fondness for free-speech rights in order to water down science instruction? What if political radicals cynically take advantage of their speech rights in order to further their careers at the cost of other people’s feelings?

IMHO, a recent report from Berkeley hit the nail on the head. To wit: Speech must be protected, especially on university campuses—double-especially on public university campuses. But intentional provocateurs forfeit their access to some free-speech protections with their cynical manipulation of our fondness for free speech.

At Berkeley, you may recall, planned speeches by right-wing pundits Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter provoked violent, riotous protests. A committee of faculty, students, and staff concluded recently that their campus is still a tolerant place. Most students support free-speech rights on campus even for people with whom they disagree strongly.

trump tweet on berkeley

Provocateurs provoking…

But the committee defended the notion that some speech and some speakers deserved to be banned. Yiannopoulos and Coulter were singled out by name. How could the committee say so? In their words,

Although those speakers had every right to speak and were entitled to protection, they did not need to be on campus to exercise the right of free speech. . . . Indeed, at least some of the 2017 events at Berkeley can now be seen to be part of a coordinated campaign to organize appearances on American campuses likely to incite a violent reaction, in order to advance a facile narrative that universities are not tolerant of conservative speech.

Not surprisingly, Milo took affront. As he retorted, the committee was made up of

Marxist thugs … criticizing people they don’t listen to, books they haven’t read and arguments they don’t understand.

I’m no Marxist thug, but I think the Berkeley committee has the better end of this argument. The tricky part, IMHO, is that the committee’s conclusion rests on the shaky foundation of their interpretation of Milo’s intent. If he intended to talk politics, they imply, he should have been welcomed. But he didn’t. As they put it,

Many Commission members are skeptical of these speakers’ commitment to anything other than the pursuit of wealth and fame through the instigation of anger, fear, and vengefulness in their hard-right constituency.

In most cases, I’d be nervous about relying on the gut feelings of a few committee members. In this case, though, even thoughtful conservatives fret about Milo’s brainless bluster. In the end, free-speech decisions can and must rely on an informed decision about a speaker’s intent. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

Consider a different but related example. Many creationist-friendly school laws these days rely on claims to free-speech protection. These bills claim to promote critical inquiry and reasoned free discussion. For example, as Missouri’s 2015 bill worded this mission, schools must

create an environment . . . that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution.

Sounds good, right?

You don’t have to be a Marxist thug to conclude, however, that the intention of this bill is to water down evolution education. The intention is to promote a certain creationism-friendly environment in public-school science classes.

The way I see it, speech acts that deliberately hope to manipulate free-speech protections for other purposes create a new category of speech. Do people have a right to speak such ideas? Sure! But universities do not need to fork over huge sums of money to provide a home for those speeches. K-12 schools do not need to accommodate speech that intentionally weakens science education for religious purposes.

What do you think?

All in the Family

More ugly accusations from the world of evangelical higher education. They raise a perennial question: Why do fundamentalist college leaders create dysfunctional family dynasties?

junior-on-curtain-calls

What Junior wants, Junior gets…

The news from Ohio Christian University is grim. According to Inside Higher Education, the president’s son is alleged to have compiled a long record of shocking behavior, including the following:

  • Told a co-worker that “I hate black people” and that “all black people act like they are entitled to everything.”

  • Told a co-worker he hated Mexican people and viewed them as freeloaders.

  • Told a co-worker he hated gay people.

  • Made jokes about Jewish people, including pretending to speak Hebrew in a mocking tone. Further, he is said to have told a co-worker who dropped a ladder to “stop being such a Jew.”

  • Told a co-worker that another co-worker had been hired for being sexually promiscuous. Then he is alleged to have tried to put his finger in the mouth of another female co-worker. When she stopped him from doing so, he reportedly said, “That was a slut test. If they close their mouth, they are a slut.”

  • Attempted several times to take photographs of a female co-worker’s behind, and after obtaining such a photo, posted it to social media with the caption, “This is why we hire women.” (The lawsuit says that some time later Doug Smith deleted his social media accounts.)

We don’t know if these charges are true. But we do know that conservative evangelical college leaders have a long history of building family dynasties that seem unhealthy for their schools. These days, the most obvious example is Liberty University, now under second-generation Jerry Falwell. In the twentieth century, the most blatant example was Bob Jones U.

As I describe in my book, the Bob Jones dynasty grew out of a fundamental structural dilemma in evangelical higher education. In interdenominational fundamentalist institutions, the structure of authority was very unclear. By the 1930s, institutions such as Wheaton College and Bob Jones College struggled to figure out how to handle basic disagreements about the nature of fundamentalism and the goals of their colleges.

At Wheaton, an awkward house of cards was built to figure out such problems. The leadership weighed opinions from powerful fundamentalist celebrities, conservative trustees, faculty members, students, alumni, and loud-mouthed fundamentalist bystanders. The process took a long time and created a lot of bad feelings, but it had the benefit of spreading authority over a fairly broad group of people.

At Bob Jones College, on the other hand, founder Bob Jones Sr. took all authority into his own hands. Dissenters were dismissed as “gripers” and Bob Jones elevated his own opinions into something approaching dogma.

As Bob Jones Jr. grew up, the family elevated his peculiarities into institutional mandates. Most obviously, Junior’s love of thespianism and classy art became part of the Bob Jones brand. Other fundamentalist leaders at the time pointed out the obvious problems. In 1949, J. Oliver Buswell, who had moved to New York after being booted from Wheaton, publicly called Bob Jones Sr. to account for the college’s embrace of drama. No other fundamentalist college allowed students to put on plays, but at Bob Jones it was mandatory. And, as Buswell put it,

Your own educational program is reeking with theatricals and grand opera, which lead young people, as I know, and as you ought to know, into a worldly life of sin.

As Junior aged and took over a bigger leadership role at Bob Jones University, the dynastic clash created more and more problems. Some of them came to light in the biggest shake-up in BJU history. When long-time administrator Ted Mercer was suddenly fired with prejudice in 1953, he publicly accused the Bob Joneses of creating a hugely dysfunctional family vibe that threatened the very existence of the school.

mercer statement

No tittering.

As Mercer told his tale, the tension between the father and the son led to terrible effects. When Junior told a group of administrators that Junior was in charge, the group “tittered,” and Junior reacted furiously. All in all, Mercer reported, the high tension created by the father/son dynamic promised to destroy the school.

So why do conservative-evangelical college leaders do such things? Why do they create institutions that elevate their children to heights of authority and leadership when the second-generation leaders aren’t ready for it? The future of the legal case at Ohio Christian is unclear, but the pattern of dysfunctional family dynasties isn’t.

College Professors: The Enemy Within

Want to understand the campus free-speech wars? Chronicle of Higher Education has published a fantastic description of the way one scuffle in Nebraska escalated into a national cause. As with other reporting, however, this article misrepresents the history of conservative ire over liberal colleges.

CHE conservative students

Conservative students under attack in Nebraska…

It’s really a spellbinding story for nerds interested in these sorts of things. Journalist Steve Kolowich tells the tale of one conservative Nebraska student confronted by a progressive student and a faculty member. Kolowich explains how Nebraska politicians and national activists seized upon the conflict as a symbol of their dislike for academic trends.

When it comes to historical context, though, Kolowich misses some important elements. As he writes, after the “culture-war” battles of the 1980s and 1990s, “Conservatives began seeing themselves as minorities in need of protection.” For conservatives, Kolowich explains, in recent years “the public university was transforming into an enemy within[.]”

True enough, as far as it goes. But as I argue in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservative anger and dismay at the goings-on in higher education have a much longer history.

In the early 1920s, for example, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan railed against trends in American higher education. In one public dispute with University of Wisconsin President Edward Birge, for example, Bryan offered the following memorable proposal. If universities continued to promote amoral ideas such as human evolution, Bryan suggested, they needed to post the following notice:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

Elite schools, Bryan warned, had begun actively to teach “moral laxity and corrosiveness.” Universities needed to warn parents that they no longer taught students right from wrong. This sense of conservative outrage at higher-educational trends was a driving force behind the culture wars of the 1920s.

It wasn’t only Bryan and it wasn’t only evolution. Since the 1920s, conservative intellectuals have voiced “with particular intensity” their sense that elite universities had gone off the moral rails. Consider the case made by some patriotic conservatives in the 1930s and 1940s against the anti-American direction of the elite higher-educational establishment.

In 1938, for instance, Daniel Doherty of the American Legion denounced elite institutions as mere “propagandists.” Universities such as Columbia had taken to “attacking the existing order and [to] disparagement of old and substantial values.”

These intense antagonistic feelings toward elite universities were widely shared among conservative thinkers in the 1930s. Bertie Forbes, for example, syndicated columnist and founder of Forbes magazine, warned that elite schools were “generally regarded as infested” with subversive and anti-moral professors.

When it comes to conservative skepticism about the goings-on in higher education, we need to remember the longer context. Recent polls have led some pundits to make a variety of short-term claims about why conservatives don’t like higher education.

If we really want to understand the relationship between conservatism and higher education in America, IMHO, we need to take a different approach. First of all, as I’ve argued before, conservative activists and intellectuals don’t really dislike higher education as an institution. They love it. What they dislike, in general, is the perceived takeover of higher education by progressives.

Second, we need to keep the long view. If we want to understand the Nebraska stand off that Kolowich describes so movingly, we need to keep in mind the full historical context. Conservatives have been griping about the progressive takeover of higher education for a long time. When Nebraska’s pundits and state senators get on board, they are able to dip into a much longer, much more robust political tradition.

Why Didn’t Jerry Falwell Jr. Say THIS Instead?

In this era of playground taunts and adolescent boasting, Jerry Falwell Jr. seems to feel right at home. Falwell complained recently that his Liberty University should still be considered the largest Christian university in America, despite the fact that Grand Canyon University was larger. Falwell claimed that real Christian universities do something GCU doesn’t do. It seems to this reporter he could have made a much more powerful argument against GCU. I have a hunch why he didn’t.

grand-canyon-university_2015-03-23_14-34-58.004

Cactus, cross…and ka-ching?

Here’s what we know: Religion News Service recently published an acknowledgement from Liberty that GCU had “supplanted” them as America’s largest evangelical university. President Falwell wrote to RNS to complain. GCU, Falwell wrote, isn’t really “Christian,” since it doesn’t require faculty to sign an annual statement of evangelical faith.

As historian John Fea commented, Falwell’s use of “Christian” to mean only those few conservative-evangelical universities that grew out of the fundamentalist movement seems stunted.

I certainly agree. When former Liberty President Pierre Guillermin bragged in 1982 that his evangelical school planned to become “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically,” it’s difficult not to wonder what all those Notre Dame Christians might have thought. For Guillermin, Falwell, and many other conservative-evangelical leaders, the use of “Christian” to denote only their own conservative-evangelical faith seems presumptuous indeed.

However, if we accept for the sake of argument Falwell’s definition of “Christian” universities as limited only to conservative-evangelical schools, his complaint makes a little more sense. As I noted in my recent book about the history of evangelical higher education, requiring faculty annually to sign a statement of faith really HAS been a hallmark of these schools, and GCU really has abandoned that requirement in its effort to attract more students and retain more faculty.

As GCU pointed out, they require faculty to sign a statement saying they “understand” the school’s mission, but that is a far cry from the “ironclad” attempts of fundamentalist schools to ensure all faculty members agreed with their schools’ religious beliefs without any mental reservation. In contrast to that strong fundamentalist tradition, GCU claims to be a “missional community” that welcomes “students, faculty and staff from all walks of life, some of whom may experience Christianity for the first time at the university.” Unlike the conservative-evangelical schools that grew out of the fundamentalist movement—and the many denominational schools that generally consider themselves part of the conservative-evangelical network—GCU does not require faculty to “commit to affirming and practicing the same faith.”

moreton

How did capitalism, Christianity, and college combine?

So when Falwell complains that GCU isn’t really following the same playbook, he’s not wrong.

But ditching the required faculty statement of faith is not the most shocking innovation GCU attempted. When its enrollment numbers plummeted at the start of this century, GCU adopted a for-profit business model. It became Grand Canyon Education, Incorporated and focused on in-demand majors such as nursing and education. These days, with for-profit schools under scrutiny, GCU has attempted to move back to non-profit status.

So here’s my question: If Falwell wanted to prove that his “Christian” school was the biggest, why didn’t he say that GCU shouldn’t be considered “Christian” because it was a for-profit business?

And here’s my hunch: Since at least the late 1800s, American cultural conservatives have assumed that capitalism is the best sort of social system. Many conservative Christians have argued that free-enterprise systems are somehow God’s preferred way of organizing an economy. In the twentieth century, a lot of the connections between capitalism and Christianity came from the shared opposition to communism.

9780393339048_FromBibleBelttoSunbelt_PB.indd

God = Capital

The tight connections between free-market principles and evangelical ones were usually simply taken for granted. To cite just one example, the president of Gordon College promised in 1967 that his school was a place in which

youth is encouraged to have faith in the historical validity and continuity of the principles of competitive free enterprise.

As historians Darren Dochuk and Bethany Moreton have explored, some schools such as Harding College and John Brown University raised the principle of “Christian free enterprise” to an all-encompassing mission.

So it doesn’t seem crazy that President Falwell wouldn’t even wonder if adopting a for-profit status might push his rival GCU out of consideration as a real “Christian” school. At least, that’s how it looks to this reporter.

Am I missing something? Is there any other reason why Falwell would ignore the huge, obvious fact that GCU wasn’t really “Christian” if it peddled its mission for mere lucre?