College Really IS Bad for Jesus

A century ago, conservative evangelicals rallied around William Jennings Bryan and his warnings that college was bad for students’ evangelical faith. One of the results was the network of evangelical universities I studied in Fundamentalist U. A new poll suggests that Bryan was right all along.

pew college graduates belief in god

Was Bryan right?

In his anti-evolution stump speeches in the early 1920s, Bryan liked to cite the work of Bryn Mawr psychologist James Leuba. According to Leuba, 85% of college freshman believed in god, but only 70% of juniors did, and only 60-65% of graduates did. The evidence seemed clear, Bryan reported: College kills religion.

Bryan also liked to tell personal anecdotes about the deleterious spiritual effects of college attendance. As he put it in 1921,

There is a professor in Yale of whom it is said that no one leaves his class a believer in God. . . . A father (a Congressman) tells me that a daughter on her return from Wellesley told him that nobody believed in the Bible stories now.  Another father (a Congressman) tells me of a son whose faith was undermined by this doctrine in a Divinity School.

Was it true? Who knows. Bryan was famous for rhetorical excellence and factual carelessness. A new Pew survey, though, finds that college graduates, as a group, tend to be less literal about their religious beliefs than the rest of America.

As the Pewsters report, about two-thirds of respondents with a high-school diploma or less believe in the God of the Bible. Among college graduates, that number drops to 45%. College graduates are still plenty religious, with 84% of them saying they believe in God or some sort of higher spiritual power, compared to 94% of high-school grads.

Still, the difference is notable. And we have to ask: Were Bryan and the 1920s fundamentalists right all along? Is college—at least, in its mainstream and elite forms—bad for faith in Jesus?

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The New Conservative Campus Strategy: Punch-bait!

You’ve heard it before: Conservatives have long felt bitterly estranged from mainstream higher education. I’m wondering if we’re on the cusp of a weird new conservative strategy, one in which young conservatives try their hardest to get punched in the face.

Here’s what we know: Hayden Williams has attracted a lot of attention recently as the victim of a conservative-bashing at Berkeley. President Trump brought Williams up on stage during Trump’s CPAC speech to help introduce Trump’s new hard line against universities. As Trump crowed,

Ladies and gentlemen — [Williams] took a punch for all of us. … Here’s the good news: He’s going to be a very wealthy young man. Go get ’em, Hayden.

Williams was on campus as part of Turning Point USA’s recruitment drive. In the past, Turning Point USA has provoked attention on campuses for recruiting students to its brand of millennial conservative campus activism. In Nebraska, for example, a Turning Point USA member garnered significant political support in her fight to be heard on campus.

Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk was quick to capitalize on the Berkeley bashing. As he told CNN,

Our amazing grassroots organizers courageously face threats of violence and discrimination as they fight for the right for conservative voices to be heard on college campuses.

So how about it? Maybe the most effective strategy for conservative pundits will be to get punched in the face. After all, nothing goes further to prove their claims of persecution and anti-conservative discrimination.

Progressive Methodists, Welcome to the World of Fundamentalism

Conservatives are celebrating. Progressives are lamenting. From a historical perspective, we can’t help but notice that today’s liberal Methodists are likely feeling the same sort of betrayal and dismay that fundamentalists felt in the 1920s and 1930s.

methodist poll

American Methodists: More conservative than you might have thought…

Here’s what we know: The United Methodist Church (UMC) has long faced a dilemma. Its large US contingent has tipped to the liberal side of the spectrum, with some congregations ordaining LGBTQ ministers, even bishops. At the church’s recent special conference, however, conservatives won the day, powered in part by the surprising strength of American conservatives, but even more so by international conservatism.

In a recent poll, for example, 44% of American respondents called themselves conservative-traditional. In African churches, an even stronger traditionalism dominates. As one African leader scolded the conference,

Friends, please hear me, we Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, questioning, or queer. We love them and we hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church universal.

And then please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to “grow up.”

As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic, progressive Methodists are stuck. Do they stay or do they go? As I read her report, I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of conservative Methodists in the 1920s. Back then, conservatives felt their church was being pulled away from them. Like today’s progressives, they often articulated a sense of both surprise and betrayal when they discovered the strength of their 1920s rivals.

To give you a taste of those feelings among early fundamentalist Methodists, I dug back through my files on one of the most famous American fundamentalists, Bob Jones. The founder of Bob Jones University was raised in the Southern Methodist Church and he felt a strong attachment to it his entire life.

However, he chafed at the attempts of the church to limit or control his preaching and institution-building. Most of all, like other fundamentalists of his generation, Jones Sr. believed that liberals had unfairly seized control of denominational institutions and used their power to crush legitimate differences of opinion.

As Jones liked to tell the tale, back in the early days of his career he had donated $300 to a Methodist college—he said it was “all the money I had on earth.” In Jones’ telling, that institution took his money “under false pretenses. They stole it. They are dirty rotten thieves.”

Jones liked to say that his experiences with the Methodist hierarchy led him to found an interdenominational fundamentalist college, one that would “never sell out.” As he put it in 1950,

I couldn’t conceive of anything as mean and low-down as to go out and raise money to build a certain type of school and then build another one…. That’s getting money under false pretenses.  That’s playing with the spiritual life of people.  That’s making capital out of the humble faith of humble saints.

Despite his antagonism toward the denominational hierarchy, Jones Sr. remained in the Methodist church through the 1930s. When a Methodist magazine refused to carry advertisements for Bob Jones College, the Joneses finally threw in the towel. As Jones Sr. wrote to a former editor in 1939, he had long hoped

there might be some hope for Methodism.  Since receiving your letter, I give up.  I say this kindly, and I love you just as much as ever, but I feel sad around the heart.

Eighty years later, we might change the reasons, but the language could remain exactly the same. I can picture a liberal Methodist minister sending in their credentials, saying that they had long hoped there was some hope for a progressive Methodism. After this week’s vote at the special conference, however, they might “give up,” even if it makes them feel “sad around the heart.”

Fundamentalist U Leads from Behind

When universities these days re-impose in loco parentis rules to avoid lawsuits, they are joining a group of schools that never abandoned that role. Despite the headline in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, there’s nothing “new” about it. There’s not even anything new about secular schools copying evangelical ones. It’s been going on for a while. We might even say that evangelical colleges and universities have become the accidental trend-setters for mainstream higher ed.

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How “New”?

Here’s what we know: In CHE, Vimal Patel describes the trend: Some universities are claiming more institutional control over students’ lives. Historically, as Patel correctly notes, some mainstream schools abandoned such rules after student protests in the 1960s. Universities no longer agreed to act, in essence, as local parents.

With accusations of sexual assault, unsafe hazing, and other campus dangers, though, universities these days worry about legal liability. A lot. As a result, they are returning to their tradition of asserting control over students’ lives outside the classroom. As Patel writes,

This resurgent version, at traditional four-year colleges, is more attitudinal than legal, and motivated by 21st-century conditions. Past iterations were paternalistic, but the new version is driven by tuition-payers’ expectations, colleges’ concerns about legal liability, shifting cultural and social norms, and an evolving understanding of human development.

What Patel doesn’t mention is that plenty of institutions don’t have to return to in loco parentis, because they never really left. Consider as one example a talk given by President Hudson Armerding of Wheaton College at Parents’ Day Chapel, October 30, 1971. President Armerding told the assembled parents that most colleges had abandoned their in loco parentis responsibilities. He told them that mainstream colleges positively bragged about their lack of concern for students’ non-academic lives. What was the result? Quoth Armerding,

a shallow permissiveness conveys a distorted view of God who deals far differently with His children.

Wheaton College would be different, Armerding promised. He and his school embraced their in loco parentis responsibilities. As he concluded,

We believe that students should be disciplined and corrected and that this should be consistent with the teachings of the Word of God.

Patel’s not interested in the distinct and vital traditions I analyzed in Fundamentalist U. But this is not meant as a knock on Patel. (Though to be fair, I find it egregious that anyone writing about the history of in loco parentis rules wouldn’t mention Christopher Loss’s book Between Citizens and the State.)

Rather, I take Patel’s article as just another example of the ways evangelical colleges have served as reservoirs of academic tradition, reservoirs that mainstream colleges keep returning to.

Today’s interest in in loco parentis rules is only one example. Consider, too, the ways mainstream institutions seek to establish “safe spaces” on campuses. As we’ve argued in these pages, ALL of evangelical higher education was meant as an intellectual “safe space.”

Or consider today’s wave of student protests at elite mainstream schools. In many ways, like in loco parentis rules, what we call the “impulse to orthodoxy” was shepherded and nurtured at evangelical colleges long after mainstream institutions tried to discard it. When student radicals at Yale, Middlebury, and Claremont McKenna push their administrators to enforce moral absolutes, they are not breaking new ground but merely returning to old ground—ground on which evangelical schools have always remained.

If there really is a trend to return to in loco parentis rules at mainstream colleges, it might just add fuel to a surprising conclusion: After a century, instead of lingering as institutional backwaters, evangelical colleges have become trend-setters for the mainstream.

Fundamentalist U As Walmart U

Like it or not, online education is a booming business. As Lee Gardner describes in the Chronicle of Higher Ed this week, a few savvy colleges have transformed themselves into lucrative “mega-universities.” We have to ask: why are two of the four Gardner describes evangelical universities? I think it’s more than mere coincidence.

college enrollment trends

Leaders of the pack…

Here’s what we know: in the past ten years, a few universities have managed to capture huge student markets by offering non-traditional online degree programs. Gardner describes the success of Liberty University, Grand Canyon University, Western Governors University, and Southern New Hampshire. All of them have managed to enroll tens of thousands of students, while sagging enrollments at other schools have deans and provosts salivating at the prospect of an online bonanza.

I don’t think it’s an accident that two of the most successful online schools come out of the evangelical tradition. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, Liberty and Grand Canyon have had a somewhat testy relationship with one another, and Grand Canyon has experienced a dizzying see-saw between a variety of desperate survival strategies. Nevertheless, both schools are undeniably part of the small circle of winners in the scramble for online tuition dollars.

Why? I have a few ideas and I invite other suggestions.

First, as I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, many of the more conservative evangelical institutions have always been friendly to capitalism, intellectually. Unlike some non-evangelical schools—and some evangelical ones, too—schools like Liberty and Grand Canyon never had to overcome any squeamishness or scruples about employing aggressive marketing and business campaigns in their schools.

As Gardner writes, this is common among the successful online mega-schools. As he put it,

They market widely and vigorously, and lean into, rather than recoil from, some other common corporate practices and philosophies.

Second, evangelical universities have always targeted non-traditional students aggressively. This has been especially true of schools that grew out of the Bible-institute tradition. This tradition of non-tradition has proven especially useful in today’s online world. As Gardner writes, universities that have succeeded have

pursued the more than 30 million Americans who have some college credit but who never graduated — a cohort half again as large as the more than 20 million Americans now enrolled.

Fuller letterhead

They were online before online was online…

Last but certainly not least, evangelical colleges have often been forced to accept their role as outsiders in the world of American higher ed. For institutions like Liberty, their non-admittance to the country-club world of elite higher ed has given them some unintended flexibility when it comes to chasing tuition dollars. As one school leader told Gardner,

Most of nonprofit higher ed really looked down their nose at online education, and it left a vacuum into which rushed the for-profits.

At Liberty, leaders have always yearned fruitlessly to be considered part of the higher-education elite club. In spite of their risky investments in things like their football program, though, they’ve never been considered part of the inner circle. In the end, however, their experiences on the outside may have given them the moxie it took to dive into a field that other institutions pooh-poohed.

Perhaps most striking of all, for the first time ever, schools like Liberty and Grand Canyon are being talked about solely in terms of their structural successes in higher ed. They are not being described as the best or biggest “Christian” colleges, but rather as the biggest online universities, period. Yet it was their evangelical roots, in some ways, that fueled their online triumphs.

Blackface at Fundamentalist U

So we’ve seen a lot of ugly racist yearbook photos lately. Sexist ones, too. I thought I’d take a look at Bob Jones University’s yearbooks to see how they stacked up. After all, BJU might just be the most famously racist university in the country. Yet the yearbooks don’t have much in the way of blackface and other minstrel-show racism. I think I have an idea why not.

It’s not that there aren’t any. In 1954, for example, there is a typically nasty blackface performing group featured. And some sort of hooded goings-on that I can’t figure out.

BJU VINTAGE 1954 blackface

From BJU’s 1954 yearbook.

And it’s not that BJU wasn’t frankly and unapologetically racist. Up through the 1970s, there were no actual black faces on campus, period. At least not as students. Change was slow, with the school refusing to renounce its ‘no-interracial-dating’ policy until the twenty-first century.

BJU VINTAGE 1954 white robes

Another from 1954. ????

Plus, the yearbooks are deeply racist in other ways. In its 1970 year book, for example, BJU brags of visits to campus by the likes of Ian Paisley and John R. Rice. At the time, Paisley was best known as the angry face of virulent, violent Irish anti-Catholicism. Rice’s pro-segregation theology had gotten him uninvited from other conservative schools such as Moody Bible institute. (I tell this full story in Fundamentalist U if you’re interested.)

But in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, I didn’t see any pictures of students in blackface or other racist garb. At least, not in the handful I looked at this afternoon. I might have missed it—take a look if you have the time and let us know what you find.

Why not? Why would America’s most famously racist college have yearbooks mostly free of ugly racist images?

Here’s my suggestion: Unlike Governor Northam, students at BJU were not given much wiggle room to express themselves in their yearbooks. Consider this senior-class page from 1965. The men all wear identical outfits and only list their names, hometowns, and lit-society memberships.

BJU VINTAGE 1965 201

Not a lot of room for individuality, even the racist kind…c. 1965.

In other words, unlike the wilder and woolier yearbooks of non-evangelical colleges, those at schools like BJU were tightly controlled from the top. When blackface faded out of polite culture, the editors of BJU’s yearbooks edited out of their yearbooks, too.

That’s my guess, anyway. What do you think?

For Evangelical Colleges: The Dangers of Keeping Up

These are dark times for smallish institutions of higher ed. When it comes to universities, the rich are getting richer—in terms of applications and endowments—while the poor are getting closed down. To evangelical college administrators, this might seem like a new and desperate challenge, but in fact it goes back a long way. I know history is a bad guide, but as I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, in this case, the past fifty years offer pretty clear guidance about what NOT to do.

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How Wheaton hoped to survive, c. 1980.

In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, we read about administrators at small and smallish Christian schools trying to figure out how to stay alive. Indiana Wesleyan (IWU), for example, is emphasizing its traditional focus on person-centered spiritual education while also trying to cash in on online education.

If the past is any guide, one of those is a good idea.

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One promise: academic rigor. Another: smart girls with modest hairstyles.

Consider the bumptious early 1960s. In many ways, they were boom years for institutions of higher education. The post-war GI Bill had set millions—MILLIONS—of new students scrambling to find someone to give their government money to.

For evangelical colleges, however, the new landscape of American higher education presented a new dilemma. At Wheaton College in Illinois, for example, the early 1960s meant a startling and dangerous drop in applications. As Charles Schoenherr reported to President V. Raymond Edman, the numbers spelled doom:

  • 1958: 2009 applications
  • 1961: 1666
  • 1962: 1467
  • 1963: 998

For good reason, Wheaton’s top administrators panicked. They struggled to find reasons to explain this sudden drop in interest among the college-going evangelical public. For one thing, they had instituted a new way to count applications and a new high-school graduation requirement, but those changes could not account for this drastic drop. Like today’s administrators, Wheaton in the early 1960s faced two unpleasant questions:

  • Why were the numbers of applications plunging? And
  • What should they do about it?

Back then, Wheaton’s administrators couldn’t answer the first question satisfactorily. But they had some suspicions. As Schoenherr asked the next President, Hudson Armerding,

Has the ‘image’ of the College changed?  Has this had a bearing on the number applying?  What has been the image?  Has it been an image of excitement, challenge, and leadership or one of apathy, status quo, and noninvolvement?  To what extent have rumors about Wheaton going ‘liberal’ hurt?

If Wheaton was dying due to perceived progressivism, then one course was clear. They could choose to swing back toward their conservative traditions, emphasizing their continuing adherence to fundamentalist norms.

That’s not what Wheaton did and it should serve as a lesson to today’s evangelical college administrators. Wheaton decided to double down on its existing strengths. It had always been known as the premier academic evangelical college, and instead of swerving hard to the right, Wheaton swerved hard toward its reputation as academically elite.

By 1980, for example, Wheaton’s promotional materials showed the school’s commitment to respecting its conservative roots while emphasizing its academic excellence. In a 1980 promotional brochure, the statement of Wheaton’s beliefs was shunted way to the back. “Yes, Wheaton is strict,” the statement concluded, “but we try not to be insensitive.”

The rest of the brochure showed pictures of students doing science-looking stuff, enjoying sports, and learning in the beautiful scenic campus. The message was clear. If you want an awesome, “real” college experience, come to Wheaton. Other evangelical colleges can’t match its traditions or academic excellence.

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…plus football and dates.

What’s the message for today’s strapped evangelical administrators? First, take heart. These are tough times, but you’ve been here before. Second, don’t chase after trends that don’t fit with the long-standing appeal of your school. If you think you can cash in quick on online education, watch out. You might find you’ve traded in your birthright for a mess of credits.

Swirling Round the Superbowl

Okay, nerds, here are some greatest Superbowl hits from the ILYBYGTH archives so you can feel involved in today’s festivities.

1.) What’s the deal with football and fundamentalism? Liberty University’s recent coaching hire has us all wondering once again what really matters at evangelical universities.

jesus_football

…to the ten…to the five…JESUS CHRIST with the TOUCHDOWN!!!!!

2.) The teams aren’t the same, but this culture-war drinking game idea from 2015 should still work.

3.) Why is school reform pricier than two entire Superbowls? The question came up back in August, 2017, but it is still sort of depressing.

4.) Tommy Brady and Bill Belichick help explain why school reform is so difficult.

Fundamentalist U & Me: Drew Crawford

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.

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Mr. Crawford today…

Today, we’re talking with Drew Crawford. Mr. Crawford graduated in 2011 from LeTourneau University, the evangelical tech college in Longview, Texas, with a BS in Computer Science. Like a lot of evangelical-college alumni, Crawford’s college experience shaped him, but not necessarily in the directions the college hoped. In the end, he realized having a PhD didn’t mean his professors had all the answers, and that school enforcement–“God’s police force”–can sometimes “contain . . . a dirty cop.”

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

My parents told me I was required to attend an evangelical college. I had expressed an interest in MIT and Stanford but was told I wouldn’t be allowed to attend. I was expected to decide where to attend from a pool of ideologically-acceptable candidates, which I recall included Wheaton and Liberty and some others. Ultimately I settled on LeTourneau because it seemed to have the strongest program in my field.

I believe my parents’ motivations for this rule were complex. Partly I think it was an attempt to advance my indoctrination into evangelicalism. Partly they had their own transformative experience at Wheaton College, where they were exposed to a more liberal (but still “correct”) strain of evangelicalism that helped them forge a religious identity distinct from their more conservative parents, and they wanted a future like that for me. Partly they felt (and still feel) pressure from their parents to toe an ideological line.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith?

It depends. In the evangelical world, faith is binary: the Bible is the word of God or it is not, you’re following it or you are not, you’re going to heaven or you’re going to hell, and so on. Measured by that standard of faith, I became disillusioned with the evangelical perspective on these questions although this didn’t really culminate until several years after I graduated.

On the other hand I was exposed – sometimes haphazardly, other times deliberately and subversively – to forms of Christianity that worked from very different assumptions than the ones in which I was raised. This allowed me to access my faith after leaving evangelicalism. So I do believe without that experience I wouldn’t still feel connected to faith today.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still feel connected to your alma mater?letourneau_university,_longview,_tx,_entrance_img_4004

No. I hesitate to condemn entire groups of people, some of whom are very nice and are doing a lot of good trying to quietly reform a system that can’t simply be dismantled. On the other hand I now think evangelical fundamentalism is one of the great threats facing our society, and I can’t in good conscience be moderate about it when the consequences seem so grave.

ILYBYGTH: What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

I’ll give two experiences, one that seemed significant at the time and the other one in retrospect. I was in an ethics class and there was a discussion about feminist perspectives on God – God as feminine instead of masculine. This puzzled me because clearly the Father was male, and Jesus was male, and I was a little fuzzy on the gender of the Holy Spirit but my bible at least used male pronouns. So this “god as a woman” business seemed like a clear-cut case of liberals ignoring the Bible.

Later the professor emailed me with a long list of bible verses with a feminine God, from parables of Jesus to creating Eve “in God’s image” to the entire throughline of John that Christians are born “of God” which is pretty weird thing to say about a male.

The more I waded into it the more I realized that the Bible was not clear at all on a very basic subject, and actually one could reasonably prooftext their way to any number of theological positions. This really got me thinking about how much of evangelical doctrine was really “the plain meaning of the Bible” and how much is selectively cobbling verses into what we believe already.

Later in my educational career I challenged evangelical orthodoxy more openly. I remember writing a paper that contained an argument that one of Paul’s statements against homosexuality is a lot less clear than the way it is commonly read in evangelical churches. I got some red ink in the margin that it is actually very clear, and that paper would up as the lowest grade I received in that class. The professor had a PhD in biblical studies and I didn’t, so I didn’t really know what to do besides take his word for it that I had missed something important.

Recently I bumped into a mainstream scholar who mentioned that the position I took was actually the dominant view in the field! That made me angry even many years later. Leaving aside the whole political dimension, which is not unimportant, passing off orthodoxy as fact really strikes at the heart of what an educational institution is supposed to do. That experience changed my relationship with faith, reinforcing that I needed to prioritize a personal and self-directed faith over reliance on institutional credentials.

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

I don’t plan to have kids, but I think the idea of trying to direct kids into a particular political or religious persuasion is wrong. What it means to be human is to decide what we believe for ourselves. I think even the evangelicals seem to adopt this perspective – they use vocabulary like “personal decision for Christ” – but then they try not to expose their kids to a lot of things that seem necessary to make an informed decision. To me this is backwards.

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

I’ve never supported them, although the reasons have drifted a lot over time. When I graduated, I still identified as an evangelical but the university seemed weirdly obsessed with student life issues, like hiding a beer in your fridge or getting students to say things in a counseling session and then using against them in a disciplinary process, getting conservative politicians to lecture and so forth, none of which seemed particularly “biblically based” or even consistent with good ethics to me. So I didn’t support them because in my view they weren’t carrying the torch of what I understand to be evangelicalism.

Later I came to the view that evangelicalism itself is not especially biblically based, but is  more of a cultural conservatism dressed in biblical language. In this framework much of the institution’s behavior suddenly makes sense. Over time the distance between us has become much greater. Recently they revised their student handbook to ban “public advocacy” for LGBT issues for example, so the idea that I’m going to send them money to help them expel students for having the majoritarian political view is totally insane. But I guess there is a type of donor that appeals to.

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?

The science education I got was pretty mainstream. We were taught about evolution and the lack of support for creation science and so on. One difference is we spent a lot of time and energy “reconciling” mainstream science with scripture. I recall reading papers about how Genesis 1 was more of a poem than history, and how a flood covering “the whole earth” was a mistranslation. I think it was pretty wise actually because many students were coming from a sheltered background where presenting the age of the earth unexplained would have created tension. On the other hand it did siphon some time from actual science.

I do think the stereotype of fundamentalist universities teaching “junk science” is a little unfair. On the other hand I think it persists less because of a secular stereotype and more because it reflects the attitudes of parents or donors, and correcting it might bring an uncomfortable spotlight to the tension between the different constituencies these universities serve.

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?

It was very different. I mean LeTourneau is an engineering school, and the gender ratio is such that there wouldn’t be a lot of hooking up in any case. But I personally never saw much evidence of sex or drinking so on some level the policing of behavior was effective.

On another level it wasn’t, though. I remember one student who got married to another in their sophomore year. I should explain here that married students were allowed to have sex and live off campus (I think it was assumed you’d live off campus so you could have sex, which I think really discounts how annoying the student life policies were more broadly), which created maybe not the best incentives for a stable marriage. Shortly after they wed it came out that she was pregnant with another student’s child. I knew all of them quite well and had no idea this was going on until I was told. She had the baby (abortion is a sin), they divorced, some combination of those involved dropped out or transferred, and I don’t know what happened to them after that. But perhaps that’s the unique kind of “hookup story” that can only happen at fundamentalist universities.

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?

Definitely. I mean there were rules about not having the wrong gender in the lobby of your building at certain hours. Classes opened with a devotional. Chapel attendance was mandatory. It would be hard to miss.

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?

In practice I think the student body leaned so conservative that no pressure from the university was necessary. There was a significant homeschooled population and it’s located in rural east Texas, so it’s hard to separate what was the region, what was the student and what was the university. It also varied a lot by the type of issue – issues like  homosexuality and abortion were thought of as essential to evangelical life and were moralized in the same way one would moralize slavery in a history class. On the other hand, there was a lot of debate about things like the war in Iraq which dominated the news at the time – support was the dominant view but both committed pacifism and skepticism about executive power got a lot of play in the discourse in a manner very out of character for the region. In that sense it may have even been a liberalizing force.

This dual political climate may illuminate some modern liberal puzzles, such as evangelicals’ support for Trump who seems decidedly unevangelical. On questions of the Supreme Court, which they see as a vehicle for issues like homosexuality and abortion, they are committed. On issues like immigration, climate change, or whether more ought to be done on sexual harassment, they are divided. But this division, in spite of the  amount of play it gets in the discourse, is much weaker than the issues that hold them together.

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?

If the “public advocacy” policy is any indication, they seem increasingly paranoid about threats to their worldview. There also seems to be a widening chasm between those on campus (the students and faculty) who lean moderate and occasionally even behave subversively, against the administrators, who push a hardline policy agenda that nobody seems to be asking for. In retrospect there must be somebody asking for it, perhaps an aging donor base or a parent population increasingly concerned about losing close control of their children in a more liberalized society.

I think the main problem these institutions face is how to hold these increasingly contradictory forces together. A strong academic environment relies not insignificantly on the freedom to explore, but orthodoxy relies on the opposite. These institutions are in the tricky situation of trying to serve both, when they can really only serve one at the expense of the other. Or, I suppose, through their indecision annoy both.

ILYBYGTH: If you have additional reflections and opinions you’d like to share, please do!

I have at least one story that doesn’t fit neatly into your questions that deserves to be told. Each student was assigned an academic advisor that we were required to meet with before registering for classes each semester. Mine was particularly unhelpful as he mostly taught introductory courses, which I had skipped. Our meetings seemed odd in a way I’m still unable to really identify. I recall he invited me repeatedly to participate in off-campus activities he organized through his church. This was not that unusual as developing a close relationship with faculty was one of the selling points of the school, and I would occasionally meet faculty in their homes in a way that blended office hours and a more social relationship. On a few occasions classes would even meet in someone’s home. However in the context of a person I had no classes with and I met twice a year, the way he seemed interested in pursuing a social relationship seemed unusual to me.

Something about it puzzled me enough that I talked to some other students who had classes with him and knew him better. They mentioned to me that he “seemed to have favorite students” and “was a bit socially awkward.” At the time, I interpreted this to mean that engineering attracts people who are a bit odd socially – certainly I was, and so I chalked it up to what happens when two socially stunted people try to interact.  Rereading my emails from that time suggests we had sporadic and mostly unsuccessful communication about a handful of department initiatives.

One semester I tried to go to my mandatory meeting to learn he was no longer a professor at the school. The system to get approval to register for classes without him was complicated and seemed to puzzle even the department chair, who became my advisor after that. I ultimately learned that he had departed the university to teach high school, which seemed like a very odd career move to me. At that time I was beginning to detect the divisions between the faculty and the administration and I remember wondering if perhaps he had actually been fired. I remember thinking it was probably over policy or some doctrinal thing (I seem to recall his church was more liberal than the school, which would have been a potential source of friction).

A few days after I graduated he was arrested (and later convicted) for sexually assaulting a minor. The news reported that the incident took place on campus. Now. Am I saying the university suspected something inappropriate was going on, terminated him quietly, and were relieved when he became a high school teacher because that headline would draw attention away from themselves? No, I have no evidence of that whatsoever. What I am saying is that I was hauled before administrators many times for “investigations” into who pranked campus security or how a beer bottle ended up in someone’s fridge. But never once did anyone ask me about my academic advisor.

This illuminates a principle of fundamentalism that is difficult to see from the outside. By aggressively reacting to small issues they present themselves as this unique instrument of God’s justice. But when it turns out God’s police force contains a dirty cop, it threatens the whole power structure and so they have to avoid drawing any attention to it lest it threaten the faith in the institution.

Have Students EVER Been Able to Change Evangelical Colleges?

The news might be glum for conservative folks in the world of evangelical higher education. A new survey finds that many students at evangelical schools expect their campuses to be more welcoming of LGBTQ people. Does the history of evangelical higher ed offer any hope that student activism might actually change things?

Here’s what we know: According to data from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study (IDEALS),

a whopping 85% of incoming students to evangelical colleges and universities find it at least moderately important that their campuses are welcoming toward LGBT people, with 44% finding it very important.

Now, there are a lot of ifs, ands, or buts here. The evangelical college students included in this survey can’t simply taken to be representative of all evangelical students at every school. Of the 122 institutions included, only a small minority could be considered “evangelical,” even by the broadest of definitions. And though the evangelical participants do seem to include a breadth of types of schools, like the more-liberal Wheaton in Illinois and the more-conservative God’s Bible School and College in Cincinnati, we can’t think they represent the vast diversity of evangelical higher ed.

rip poll lgbtq

Welcoming campuses…?

Plus, unless I’m missing it, these results aren’t broken down by school. So, for example, we can’t tell if huge majorities of pro-LGBTQ students at Wheaton balance out larger percentages of anti-LBGTQ students at God’s Bible School and College. All we get are a lump of “evangelical student” opinion.

Noting all the limitations, though, it seems remarkable that so many students at evangelical colleges seem to want their schools to be more welcoming to LGBTQ students and it raises a question: Have students ever been able to make big changes at their evangelical schools? As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, in the twentieth century student activism had mixed results.

For example, in the 1930s, students at Moody Bible Institute begged their administrators to offer a degree program. On July 27, 1931, a group of students sent the following signed letter to then-President James M. Gray:

We desire the degree, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end, that we might stand anywhere and everywhere, and preach or teach God’s living Word, full of the Holy Spirit, and at the same time make men know we can ‘give a reason for the hope that is within us’: not only from a scriptural standpoint, but also as to their own high standards of education and be used of God to win the well-educated as well as the less-educated man to Christ.

Did it work? Not really. MBI didn’t introduce its first degree program until October, 1965, and even MBI required degree students to get two years of coursework at a different liberal-arts school.

1940s postcard library

Studying hard for no degree…c. 1940s.

In the turbulent 1960s, evangelical campuses saw their share of student activism. The most successful tended to be anti-racism protests. At Wheaton, for example, in late 1968 a group calling itself the “Black and Puerto Rican Students of Wheaton College” issued a demand for more non-white professors and students, more African-studies classes (called “Black Studies” at the time), and, in general, “a Christian education relevant to our cultural heritage.”

It worked, sort of. By 1971 Wheaton’s administration had put resources into hiring more non-white faculty and offering new courses such as “Black Americans in  American Society,” “Urban Sociology,” and “People of Africa.”

Student pressure didn’t always come from the Left. Conservative students, too, have been able to push their schools in more conservative directions. At Biola, for example, students successfully petitioned in 1969 for a stricter enforcement of women’s dress codes and for a more conservative lean in invited speakers. As the conservative protesters wrote to President Samuel Sutherland,

we are deeply concerned about danger signs showing themselves among some of our conference speakers and members of the student body!  . . . Indications now present seem to point to a trend that the school is moving from its Biblical foundation.  May God prevent such a tragedy! [Emphasis in original.]

For today’s students, the lesson is not crystal clear. In some cases, even the most polite, Bible-passage-stuffed petitions do not bear fruit. In others, though, student pressure has had a decisive impact. In general, as with Wheaton’s move toward more racial diversity or Biola’s tightening of dress codes, student protests worked when they pushed administrators in a direction they wanted to go in already.