“Opportunity” Has Never Been Enough

There it is again! The sound of well-meaning reformers missing the point. This time, it came in a NYT article about college admissions at elite colleges. As I’m finding in my current research about America’s first nation-wide attempt at urban school reform, reformers tend to shoot for the wrong goal. It’s not enough only to provide an educational “opportunity” for a few extraordinary youths. By definition, that kind of thinking will only make a tiny, symbolic dent in deep-seated social inequalities.

SYSTEM Reading circle

Hmmm…why didn’t more low-income students seize the ‘opportunity’ to toe the line? From Joseph Lancaster’s notebook, c. 1803.

It wasn’t the main point of the NYT article, but Paul Tough reported that elite universities like Harvard and Stanford have recently begun aggressively recruiting students with top-notch academic credentials from non-white, non-affluent backgrounds. As Tough reported, a few years ago elite schools began doing more than dropping tuition costs for low-income students. They began sending out

semipersonalized information packets, including application-fee waivers, to thousands of high-achieving low-income students, and the packets seemed to be changing the application behaviors of the students who received them, making them more likely to apply to and attend selective colleges.

Good news, right? A good example of the ways reformers can make society more equal by improving access to educational resources, right? Well, no.

Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to recruit more students from low-income homes into fancy colleges—though according to Tough the plan didn’t really work—but these sorts of efforts repeat the same old mistake that reformers have been making about educational equality for centuries.

As I’m finding in my current research, the reformers of the early 1800s often had their hearts in the right place. They worked hard to improve the chances that more poor kids would get a chance at school. Following the ideas of Joseph Lancaster, they built schools that cities could afford. Too often, however, students didn’t thrive in the new schools’ harsh conditions.

What did students do? A few extraordinary students took advantage of the opportunity to learn to read, write, and cipher. But most students simply stayed away. As a group of Philadelphia school reformers complained in 1823,

many parents seem to be utterly regardless of the advantages which would be conferred upon their offspring, if they duly appreciated the importance, and embraced the opportunity for improving their minds by literary and religious instruction. The children of such, instead of being placed in the public schools, are wandering about the streets and wharves, becoming adepts in the arts of begging, skillful in petty thefts, and familiar with obscene and profane language.

In the minds of the reformers, creating an opportunity was enough. Never mind the fact that their schools felt like prisons to the students, or that the students felt like they weren’t really learning anything. To the reformers, simply offering poor kids a chance to endure a hostile education was enough. If the students didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, it was their own fault.

This blind spot about the nature of education reform was not limited to white reformers. African-American leaders, too, tended to think creating an opportunity was enough—even a slim and unattractive opportunity. For example, on June 2, 1823, Bishop Richard Allen from Philadelphia talked to a group of New York’s African-American students at one of the few public schools open for African Americans. Too many of them, the Bishop warned, were inexplicably unwilling to seize

the opportunity now afforded them of acquiring a sufficient education.

Why not? Because the children knew what the Bishop didn’t. They knew that the “African Free School” didn’t really provide what most of them needed. For a few of them—an extraordinary few—the limited schooling was sufficient for them to learn academic skills. For most, however, the “opportunity” was not a real opportunity at all, but rather a holding pen where they were mocked for not mastering basic academic skills on their own.

What does any of that tell us about admission to Harvard? Too often reformers think the main challenge of education reform lies in increasing opportunity for a few extraordinary individuals from low-income families. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it misses the real goal and it can in fact divert and distract attention from the real goal.

What is that real goal? Not making sure that a few low-income kids can go to Harvard, but rather making sure ALL low-income kids have the same chances at great educations as ALL high-income kids.

Access to high-quality schools should not be the result of a happy accident of birth or good fortune in a charter lottery. Low-income students deserve not just a chance at a good education, but the same chance as high-income kids.

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Scotsmen, Falwell, and Why Historians Can’t Define ‘Evangelicalism’

How is this possible? Have you seen the poll numbers? As I write this, when Katelyn Beaty asked on Twitter if the abominable evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. was “an evangelical leader,” about three-quarters of respondents said no.KB twitter falwell

What? How could so many people think that the leader of a ‘UGE evangelical university doesn’t count as an evangelical leader? The obvious conclusion is that people are disgusted by Falwell’s alleged behavior as a shady alcohol-fueled real-estate scammer and Lynchburg bully. Anyone who behaves like that, people might be thinking, doesn’t count as a real evangelical.

As usual, historian Tim Gloege has offered a clear-sighted explanation of this evangelical conundrum. There has always been an evangelical tendency, Gloege explained, to explain away the parts of the evangelical tradition that people don’t like. “It’s not us,” evangelicals have always said about members of the evangelical family that they would rather not acknowledge. As Dr. Gloege put it,

Because being evangelical means never having to say you’re sorry.

Being evangelical means “it’s not us.”

In the case of Falwell, it seems like this tradition is alive and well. By behaving badly, many people seem to think, Falwell Jr. has defined himself out of the evangelical family. If being an evangelical means having a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ, the reasoning goes, then Falwell can’t be an evangelical. No one with a real evangelical religious commitment could behave the way Falwell does.

This disagreement about the definition of “real” evangelicalism has always been tricky for historians of evangelicalism. A while back, historian John Fea and I had a polite disagreement about the nature of “real” evangelicalism in colleges and universities. In the wake of Trump’s election, I argued that evangelical higher education had ALWAYS supported Trumpish values. As I wrote back then at History News Network:

White evangelicals are a religious group, true, but they have also always been energized by a vague yet powerful patriotic traditionalism.  Like other enthusiastic Trump supporters, white evangelicals have been fueled by a combative culture-war patriotism.  They have always defined themselves by their proprietary attitude about “our” America, the one they hope President Trump will make great again.

Historian John Fea took issue with my argument. As he responded,

For every Liberty University or Mid-America Nazarene there are dozens and dozens of evangelical colleges who reject this kind of Christian nationalism and Trumpism.

I would venture to guess that the overwhelming majority of the faculty and administrators at evangelical colleges and universities in the United States DID NOT vote for Donald Trump.

If students at evangelical colleges voted for Trump–and there were many who did–it was not because they were fed pro-Trump rhetoric from their faculty.  In fact, I know several faculty and graduates from the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University who strongly opposed the Trump presidency.

Just as with current disagreements about whether or not Falwell is “an evangelical leader,” Professor Fea and I were both right, in our ways. After all, the evangelical family is so broad and diverse that any statement anyone makes about “real” evangelicalism is subject to a million counter-examples.

When it comes to whether or not Falwell is “an evangelical leader,” I bet both the “yeses” and the “nos” can agree: There have always been prominent evangelical leaders, in charge of prominent institutions, who have embraced political positions that are immoral and untenable, racial segregation being the most prominent example. There have always been prominent evangelicals who have behaved in personally immoral ways; leaders who have engaged in sexual and financial crimes while publicly mouthing evangelical platitudes.

Where do we disagree? The “yeses” might think something like the following: But those have all been mistakes, wanderings from the evangelical path. No true evangelical—meaning someone who shares the profound personal love of Jesus Christ—should have embraced those values.

The “nos” might think: When there is a pattern of this kind of thing, that pattern must be considered part of the definition, not whisked away by the No True Scotsman fallacy. Consider the Catholic abuse story. Would a true follower of Christ abuse children? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that the second a Catholic priest does so, he is therefore no longer representative of the structural flaws within the Catholic hierarchy itself, a hierarchy that is both committed to preaching the saving love of Jesus Christ AND guilty of covering up abuse to protect its own interests.

So is Jerry Falwell Jr. an “evangelical leader?” Beaty’s question exposes a long tension at the heart of the evangelical experience in the USA. As a prominent leader of a prominent evangelical institution, of course he is. But as a scumbag, of course he isn’t.

The answer you choose depends on how you think about evangelicalism. If you think of it primarily as a way of being a true Christian, then you can define away anyone you don’t like. But if you think of “evangelical” as a box to check on a census, a way to explain your social background, then of course we have to include all the members of the group, even the ones we don’t like.

The Mess at Liberty U: Historians’ Perspectives

Even given everyone’s low expectations, the recent expose of Liberty University’s flim-flamming seems shocking. Alumnus Brandon Ambrosino accused Liberty of being a straight-up scam, not just a well-meaning Christian college with a few fundamentalist foibles. What have historians had to say about it?

LU sign on mountain

Go tell it on the mountain…

In case you’re the one person who hasn’t yet read Ambrosino’s piece, it includes “insider” rips like the following:

“We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,” said a senior university official with inside knowledge of Liberty’s finances. “We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”

What have historians of evangelicalism had to say?

Over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, John Fea of Messiah College warns that these scandals are nothing new in the world of fundamentalist empire-building. Nor do they tend to tarnish the power and influence of leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. As Dr. Fea concludes,

I imagine that many students and alumni at Liberty will see Falwell Jr. and Liberty as victims of the liberal media and other forces trying to undermine evangelical Christianity, religious freedom, and Christian nationalism in America. Liberty will remain a safe place for these parents and students.

At Righting America, William Trollinger of the University of Dayton compares the Falwell of today with the founder of American fundamentalism, William Bell Riley. Dr. Trollinger points out that Falwell’s institution is not all that unusual. As Dr. Trollinger puts it,

it is important to keep in mind that Falwell is not an anomaly. In fact, for the past century it has been a feature of fundamentalist institutions – colleges, churches (particularly megachurches), apologetics organizations, and the like – to be run by a male autocrat who holds almost total sway over his fiefdom.

For William Bell Riley in the 1930s, like Jerry Falwell Jr. today,

there were no checks on the Great Fundamentalist Leader. He said what he wanted, did what he wanted, and there was no one there who could stop him, no one who would dare challenge him. There was, for example, no one to suggest that his behind-the-scenes scheming to take control of the Minnesota Baptist Convention was unseemly and unethical.

My research into evangelical higher education has led me to similar conclusions. In Fundamentalist U, I argued that the tendency toward autocracy and eventual corruption was not a bug, but a feature of a theologically vague interdenominational fundamentalist movement. It didn’t happen at all schools, but in places like Bob Jones University and Liberty University, the answer to the dilemma of fundamentalist authority was to invest all power in a single domineering leader.

As I argued recently in these pages, back in the 1930s Bob Jones Sr. pioneered Falwell’s brand of autocratic fundamentalist leadership. At Bob Jones College,

All faculty members were required to agree with every jot and tittle of Jones’s beliefs. . . . It might never have been crystal clear what “fundamentalism” meant, but at Bob Jones College (later Bob Jones University), it always meant whatever the leader said it meant. Any disagreement, any “griping,” meant a fast ticket out the door, with a furious gossip campaign among the fundamentalist community to discredit the fired faculty member.

Are the recent revelations about Liberty sad? Yes. Dismaying? Yes. Surprising? Not to anyone who is familiar with Liberty U and the history of American fundamentalism.

We All Love College

Remember those freaked-out nerds? The ones who told us that conservatives had turned against higher education? It didn’t feel true at the time and new survey results seem to prove it really isn’t. So the next time someone tells you that conservatives don’t like college, you tell em to read these poll results.

pew college gone to the dogs

Have conservatives turned against higher ed?

A couple years ago, SAGLRROILYBYGTH probably remember, the folks at Pew came out with a survey that made people nervous. Since 2015, the Pewsters found, more and more Republicans thought that colleges and universities had a “negative effect on the way things are going in this country.”

At the time, I was skeptical. After all, in my research about conservatism and conservative evangelicals in the twentieth century, I didn’t hear many voices raised against higher ed as a whole. Sure, conservatives have long been anxious about the types of people who control higher ed, especially at the elite schools. But that’s not the same thing. Back then, I proposed a simple follow-up question:

Here’s what I wish I could do: Have the Pewsters add some follow-up questions. When people say they don’t trust colleges, ask them if they want their kids to go to college anyway. And then ask them what would restore their trust in higher education.

Here’s what I think people would say: Even if they don’t trust college, they want their children to attend.

Lucky for us, the pollsters at New America had the same idea. In their new survey of just over 2000 American adults, they asked people if they would recommend college for their “child or close family member.” Guess what? Not much of a surprise to find that most Americans would. Overall, 93% of respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed. And Republicans were in full agreement: 92% of them said the same thing.

new america higher ed survey

We ALL love college.

So next time you hear that old chestnut that conservatives don’t like higher ed, show em this graph. Nobody doesn’t like higher ed. Conservatives just don’t trust the “effete corps of impudent snobs” that they think are running elite schools these days.

Great Enrollment Crash—Evangelical Edition

There are a lot of jobs I’m glad I don’t have. Being admissions director at a small or medium-sized evangelical liberal-arts college is just one of them. As a recent commentary in Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription only, sorry) makes crystal clear, these are dark times for some mainstream colleges. I can’t help but think they’ll be even darker for evangelical ones.

wheaton-website-proofs-102817-1

How much will families pay for fancy buildings and philosophy degrees? …for Christian ones?

Bill Conley, enrollment guru at Bucknell University in Ohio, describes a “perfect storm” of declining enrollments at private liberal-arts colleges like his. Yes, there have been panics before, but this time it is serious. Especially in “soft” non-professional majors, enrollment since the financial crash of 2008 has plummeted. As Conley grimly describes,

with each demographic blip, and with every crossing of a new are-you-kidding-me? threshold for cost of attendance, colleges still reported record selectivity, robust enrollments, and financial-aid programs that, for some, effectively reduced sticker shock. Indeed, reports of a higher-education bubble about to burst appeared to be greatly exaggerated. American higher education seemingly had an elasticity that could withstand periodic, short-term fluctuations in demand and cost.

Then came 2008. The Great Recession devastated university endowments, shattered the majority of family wealth and income, and confounded the predictive modeling of enrollment managers. The near-term chaos was very real. Somehow, at varying rates, most colleges managed to survive, but in order to do so they established a “new normal” that would allow them to claim renewed stability for the long haul. That brings us to the summer of 2019, when the cracks in this new normal really started to show.

What does the future hold for private colleges like Bucknell? Conley is not optimistic. As he concludes,

Higher education has fully entered a new structural reality. You’d be naïve to believe that most colleges will be able to ride out this unexpected wave as we have previous swells.

Not all universities are in the same boat. Public universities with lower tuition sticker prices are booming. Technical and professional programs are doing fine. But parents and students are increasingly unlikely to shell out big bucks for liberal-arts degrees. What will this mean for the world of evangelical higher ed?

As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, when it came to admissions numbers, evangelical colleges and universities shared the historical patterns of mainstream institutions.

Before World War II, the few fundamentalist colleges that offered more than Bible-institute training had more students than they could manage. One survey in the late 1940s found that enrollment at a group of seventy evangelical colleges doubled between 1929 and 1940. In 1936 alone, the enrollment at Wheaton College in Illinois jumped by seventeen percent.

By the 1960s, however, due largely to an infusion of federal money from the GI Bill, the number of evangelical colleges had grown so rapidly that they struggled to fill their classrooms. Suddenly, liberal-arts colleges like Wheaton faced a new dilemma. Students just weren’t coming. In 1964, 8,528 high-school students requested information about Wheaton. By 1967 that number dropped to only 6,403, with only 1,101 actual applicants.

Clearly, Wheaton College survived that 1960s slump and one might be tempted to think Conley’s worries today are similarly exaggerated. I’m not so sure. What would convince parents and students to spend tens of thousands of extra tuition dollars to attend an evangelical college instead of an academically comparable (or superior) state college?

In the past, the answer has always been the uniquely evangelical environment of evangelical colleges. Where else can a family be sure that all the professors share their faith? That most of the students do? That the entire mission of the college is to teach students in a specifically evangelical manner?

The hard truth is that families will have to figure out how much those things are worth, in dollars and cents. Will they pay $100,000 extra? $50,000? $200,000? It doesn’t take much of a historical perspective to see that the magic number will likely shrink past the point colleges can stand. If they pay more to maintain their high-quality evangelical environment, can they compete with cheaper state schools?

These days, as schools like Bucknell see their traditional family loyalties dry up in the face of unmatchable price competition from state schools, evangelical colleges will face similar storms. For more and more families, college will be a chance to learn professional skills, not form Christian faith. If the price difference is steep enough, families will let their churches do the Christian part, and state schools do the higher-ed part.

The Myth About Evangelical Politics Just Won’t Die

Big-name pundits such as Newt Gingrich and Kevin Kruse are battling about one historical myth. Meanwhile, in a quieter corner, there’s another myth that just won’t go away. Among historians, there is no doubt that conservative evangelicals never really retreated from politics. As one evangelical writer just demonstrated, however, that historical fact hasn’t sunk very deep roots yet. What’s it gonna take for people to stop saying that evangelicals retreated from politics between the 1920s and the 1970s?

Gods own party

Evangelicals have ALWAYS been political…

First, the history. Let’s start with Daniel K. Williams’ work, God’s Own Party. In this terrific book, Prof. Williams demonstrates that conservative evangelicals did not retreat from politics in the 1920s only to re-emerge with the Moral Majority in the 1970s. That was a convenient story for evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Sr., who could claim to be a reluctant politico. It just wasn’t true. As Williams concludes,

evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing this for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party. It was an event more than fifty years in the making.

Similarly, Matthew Avery Sutton argued in American Apocalypse that the “rise-fall-rebirth” myth of evangelical politics doesn’t match reality. As Prof. Sutton wrote, the fundamentalists’

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

For what it’s worth, I made a similar case in Fundamentalist U. Ever since the 1920s, fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical intellectuals remained closely involved with politics, keenly interested in protecting their rights to radio airtime, leading anti-communism rallies and networks, and allying with secular conservatives to fight in the political arena against a variety of foes, including racial integration.

SuttonJust as the furor over the recent 1619 Project demonstrated that we can have vast discrepancies between well-established historical truths and widely held popular opinions about history, so this non-controversial historical truth about evangelical politics seems to be limited mainly to academic circles.

The latest case in point: In a recent article in Christianity Today about Classical Christian schools, Louis Markos repeated the old, false myth about evangelical politics without a blush. As Markos put it,

In the wake of the fundamentalist reaction against modernism and especially Darwinism, conservative evangelicals tended to withdraw from society. If they did engage society directly (e.g., the temperance movement), it was likely to be critical—asserting what they were against, rather than what they were for.

As the universities, the media, and politics absorbed more and more of the modernist world­view, evangelicals withdrew even further, circling the wagons as a means of protecting their children from a society cut off from its Christian roots. Rather than seeking to be salt and light, they embraced a more Old Testament ethos and sought to separate themselves from the unbelievers around them (Ezra 10:11).

This ethos manifested itself in a Bible-only approach to learning that cast suspicion on non-biblical sources of wisdom.

…really? Politics aside, a description of mid-century evangelical higher education as a “Bible-only approach to learning” would come as a nasty surprise to twentieth-century fundamentalist scholars such as J. Gresham Machen and Gordon Clark, not to mention hundreds of less-famous evangelical teachers of the period. Clark, in particular, was famous at Wheaton College in Illinois for teaching classical philosophy. With his Ivy-League doctorate, Clark helped launch the careers of many well-known evangelical scholars, including Edward Carnell, Carl Henry, Paul Jewett, and Harold Lindsell. And Prof. Clark did it by challenging the comfortable assumptions of his students, having them read and debate anti-Christian and pre-Christian philosophy. To be sure, Clark’s approach was controversial at the time, but it was anything but a “Bible-only approach to learning.”

Or consider the final exam from Harold Lindsell’s class at Fuller Seminary in 1961. Students who enrolled in Lindsell’s “Critique of Communism” course confronted the following final exam:

Select any FIVE of the following and write a short and concise statement of what each term means:

  1. Democratic centralism
  2. Socialism in one country
  3. Class struggle
  4. Surplus value
  5. Imperialism
  6. State socialism
  7. Utopian socialism

SELECT ANY THREE OF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS AND WRITE AN ESSAY ON EACH ONE OF THEM.

  • Analyze the concept of DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM, showing what its ideas and components consist in and how it is related to the Weltanschauung of Communism.
  • Describe the unique contribution made to Communism by Lenin.
  • Discuss in detail the Communist system of ethics and indicate how this ethical system operates in actual practice at home and abroad.
  • Construct your own plan of action as an answer to Communism and show what specific steops you would take in order to meet this danger.
  • Analyze the ways in which the views of Marx and Engels have proved to be wrong and state what changes have been made since then to modify their original theories.

Does this sound like a course at a school that had withdrawn from politics? That taught students only the Bible? That was “withdraw[n] from society”? Quite the contrary, and Lindsell’s course was only unusual in that he retained all the papers—including the final exams—in his voluminous files for later historians like me to uncover.

Yet intelligent, informed writers like Markos still default to the old “retreat” story without hesitation. Why? We know—or we have a good guess—why some political conservatives resist the lessons of the 1619 Project so vociferously. But why do smart evangelicals these days embrace this myth of evangelical politics so consistently? And why cling to it when it has been rejected so completely by historians?

Why Don’t Christian Colleges Brag about This?

If you’re interested in evangelical higher education, you’ve probably read Daniel Silliman’s piece in Christianity Today by now. And you may have asked why more Christian colleges don’t advertise their sensible approach to deepening students’ faiths. Today the other shoe drops over at the fundamentalist creationist ministry Answers In Genesis.ham on evang colleges

Silliman was following up on new survey data that show students in evangelical colleges are

more likely to feel unsettled about spiritual matters, unsure of their beliefs, disillusioned with their religious upbringing, distant from God, or angry with God than their peers at secular schools as well as those at mainline Protestant and Catholic institutions.

As Silliman found, in many cases, evangelical colleges actively promote religious crises in their students. Why? Because true faith requires it. As one college president told Silliman,

It’s part of the design of college and part of the design of being a young adult. Struggle is built in. What we try to provide are professional staff and faculty who are rooted in their own faith and able to journey alongside, in ways that honor the journey of the student.

Sounds smart, right? Especially for secular people like me, this kind of approach to Christian education makes admirable sense. So why don’t more evangelical institutions brag about it?

As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, evangelical higher ed has always been ferociously divided about this approach to faith formation. Lots of administrators, families, and faculty members have always shared this vision. They have agreed that young Christians need to be open about their doubt, just as they are about their faith. The goal of evangelical higher education—in this vision—has been to be there for students when they doubt, guiding them lovingly and Christian-ly through this predictable crisis.

But not everyone has agreed. As fundamentalist creationist Ken Ham recently charged, Christian colleges who don’t protect their students from doubt don’t deserve to call themselves Christian at all. As Ham accused, colleges that help their students struggle with doubt

compromise God’s Word beginning in Genesis & aren’t teaching creation apologetics & a truly Christian worldview.

The right way to protect faith, Ham argues, is not by challenging it. Instead, evangelical students should be taught how to “stand against the secular attacks of the day,” not how to doubt and question. For parents who agree, Ham offers his list of “Creation Colleges,” staunch conservative schools that promise not to challenge faith.

So why don’t more evangelical colleges brag about their approach to faith formation? Because the world of conservative evangelical higher education has always been divided about it. Not just between more conservative schools and less, but even within many schools themselves.

At less-conservative schools like the ones Silliman talked about, I’ll bet dollars to donuts some faculty members and some trustees hope for a less-wishy-washy approach to student doubt. And at more-conservative schools like the ones Ken Ham praises, I bet there are faculty members and students who yearn to be in an environment in which they can talk more openly about their doubt and struggle.

Christian College Apocalypse: October 8, 2019

The leaders of America’s conservative evangelical colleges are freaking out, and I don’t blame them.  An upcoming SCOTUS case threatens to upend the entire premise of evangelical higher ed.

A little background: In October, SCOTUS is slated to hear a trio of cases about LGBTQ rights. At issue is whether or not LGBTQ sexual and gender identity deserve the same legal protections as other factors such as male/female gender, race, and religion. Not surprisingly, conservative evangelical colleges are alarmed.  An anti-discrimination ruling could have a serious impact on the way they house students, hire faculty, and earn accreditation. (To be clear here, I don’t agree with most evangelical colleges on LGBTQ issues. I would love to see LGBTQ protections deepened and extended. I DO agree with evangelical leaders that this SCOTUS decision is a big deal.)

If SCOTUS decides that LGBTQ people are covered under Title VII and Title IX, for example, universities that don’t recognize transgender identities could be forced to do so, or give up their federal student funds. That would hurt, but it wouldn’t necessary be deadly. As I examined in Fundamentalist U, conservative evangelical institutions have withstood similar shocks in the past. Bob Jones University famously gave up its tax-exempt status back in the 1980s over racial segregation. BJU took a big financial hit, but it didn’t wither and die. BJU might even have benefited in the long run.

In this case, however, the core premise and promise of conservative-evangelical higher education might be disrupted. Since their foundings in the 1920s, colleges in the fundamentalist (and later conservative-evangelical) movement have promised students something other colleges couldn’t. Namely, institutions such as Wheaton College and Bob Jones University promised that all of their faculty members would reliably agree to a “pure” evangelical statement of faith.

This promise about “safe” and “pure” teachers has always been at the core of the conservative-evangelical college appeal. Back in the 1920s, for instance, Bob Jones Sr. could promise,

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

And even in the twenty-first century, as the case of Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton shows, evangelical colleges insist that their faculty members endorse a “safe,” “pure” sort of evangelical faith. At least when anyone is listening.

What does any of this have to do with the SCOTUS LGBTQ case? As evangelical colleges and their allies have accurately protested to SCOTUS in an amicus brief, if they lose their ability to be very selective about their faculty, they lose their entire raison d’etre. As they write in their brief,

A religious university identifies itself and its community by religious teachings that ‘cover the gamut from moral conduct to metaphysical truth.’ Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 201 (Alito, J., concurring). Because ‘the content and credibility of a religion’s message depend vitally on the character and conduct of its teachers,’ a religious university’s ‘right to self-governance must include the ability to select, and to be selective about’ its employees. Id. For  many religious universities, ‘the messenger matters,’ id.—as do tenets of faith and standards of conduct, see Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 2625 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

In plain English, evangelical colleges complain that they must be able to discriminate when they hire their faculty. If they can no longer promise that their teachers will embody parents’ vision of proper evangelical faith—which for a lot of parents has no room for LGTBQ Christians—they will no longer have any unique appeal for the conservative evangelical public. They will no longer be able to fill the unique role they laid out in the 1920s: An entire college filled only with professors who agree on key matters of evangelical faith.

The worst case scenario is troubling indeed, from the perspective of evangelical higher ed. If they lose their ability to insist on the beliefs of their faculty, they lose everything. If they can no longer force faculty to sign their annual statements of faith, they can no longer promise students and parents a “pure” or “safe” evangelical college experience.

Which of These Professors Would You Fire?

We keep getting new ones every week. University professors—supposedly enjoying academic freedom—keep getting into trouble for offensive political speech. Sometimes they get fired or punished and sometimes they don’t. How do administrators decide? It doesn’t seem like it’s about the politics.

eots_lawton1

The professor as activist: What will get you fired?

So today it’s time for the latest bitter ILYBYGTH play-along: Can YOU match these professors with their punishments? [Only click on the links if you want to cheat.] [And be warned: These rants sometimes include offensive language.]

Case 1: Law-school professor with a history of racist-y statements declares (incorrectly) that very few black students are top in their class. The line that got her in the most trouble? “[O]ur country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.”

Case 2: University professor rants on facebook about how much he hates white people. (He’s white, by the way.) The troublesome lines: “I now hate white people. . . . I hereby resign from my race. Fuck these people. . . . Fuck you, too.”

Case 3: Grad student instructor confronts a conservative undergrad. Stood in front of the undergrad’s Turning Point USA table and shouted, “”Becky the neo-fascist, right here. Wants to destroy public schools, public universities. Hates DACA kids. . . . Fight white nationalism! Fight white supremacy!”

Case 4: Adjunct instructor declares his support for antifa and hints that he’d like to hit Trump with a baseball bat. Gets heat for declaring on facebook: “It’s not pretty, and I’m not proud, but seeing what Evangelical Christians are doing to this country and its people fills me with rage, and a desire to exact revenge.”

So how were these professors punished? Are left-wing professors protected? Are conservatives attacked? Not so much. It seems like the differences are more about whether or not the professor had tenure.

Can you match the cases above with the punishments below?

Punishment #1: Instructor is fired.

Punishment #2: Instructor is removed from teaching, but keeps her job. The university president calls her ideas “repugnant.”

Punishment #3: Instructor is removed from teaching but keeps her job. University president privately apologizes to her for having to punish her.

Punishment #4: Instructor is fired, then un-fired. University calls his comments “offensive” and says they “violated university policy.” However, on a re-think, the university decided that “No student or university employee has come forward to assert that [the instructor] has in some way penalized them for their race. . . . There is no evidence that he administered grades and conducted himself in class in a manner that reveals any racial bias on his part.”

…so what do you think? Can you match the punishments with the cases? And, most intriguingly, do these cases reveal that conservative professors are punished more harshly than liberal ones? That mocking and belittling African Americans is a bigger crime on campus than threatening and insulting white people or evangelicals?

Will Fundamentalist U Crush Trumpism?

Don’t be fooled by the noises coming out of Lynchburg. Though Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University might be shameless (and just kind of weird) in his white-evangelical support for Trump, the overall landscape of evangelical higher education might be driving younger white evangelicals off the Trump train. We have to ask: Did the efforts of evangelical school administrators in the twentieth century lay the foundation for Trump’s political demise?

white evangelical youth immigration

Did ‘Fundamentalist U’ teach young evangelicals to value immigration?

Here’s what we know: Recent surveys show that younger white evangelicals don’t share their elders’ anxieties about immigration. As Daniel Cox wrote recently at 538:

Two-thirds (66 percent) of young white evangelical Christians (age 18 to 34) say that immigrants coming to the U.S. strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, a view shared by only 32 percent of white evangelical seniors (age 65+). A majority (54 percent) of older white evangelical Christians believe that immigrants are a burden on American society.

That’s bad news for Trumpism. If younger white evangelicals don’t dislike immigration, they might waver in their support Trump. It might just crack his electoral base.

How does any of this relate to evangelical higher education?

As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, many evangelical universities had a long and shameful racist history, just like most of the rest of American higher education. Starting in the 1950s, though, white evangelicals participated—and often took the lead—in promoting anti-racist attitudes among white Americans.

Institutions such as Wheaton College often floundered, but in the end they added new curriculum about African and African-American history and culture. They recruited more non-white faculty and students. They did not succeed as well as we might hope, but evangelical faculty members and administrators at many colleges worked hard to fight against white racism at their institutions.

What’s the upshot? In some cases, such as at storied Nyack College, the racial climate on campus has been utterly transformed. Nyack might be drowning in debt, but it has succeeded in attracting and retaining non-white evangelical students. When a white evangelical student attends a school like Nyack these days, she gets a very different sense of what it means to be a “good Christian” than her grandmother would have.

It’s not only Nyack or Wheaton. These days, evangelical colleges are far more racially diverse than they were in the past. As Cox notes,

On Christian college campuses, which have seen enrollment gains in recent years, young white evangelical Christians are part of an increasingly diverse student body. White students account for 62 percent of the student body on the roughly 140 campuses affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, down from 82 percent in 1999.

Younger white evangelicals, in other words, are experiencing life as part of a new kind of America, one in which white evangelicals no longer assume that they have a special role to play as the ‘real’ Americans, one in which Making America Great Again is not such a compelling battle cry. In large part, evangelical colleges and universities helped teach each new generation that diversity and immigration are not dangers, but strengths.

And because white evangelicals play such a large role in supporting Trump, today’s evangelical colleges could be spreading a message that will spell the end of Trumpism.