A Doomed Experiment in Christian Higher Ed

I’ll say it: It’s not gonna last. Everyone knows historians make terrible prognosticators, but in this case I’m feeling pretty confident. A two-year old experiment in a new kind of evangelical college experience has only one slim chance of survival.

created institute

Sounds great. Won’t last.

The experiment at issue is CreatEd Institute in North Carolina. The new school hopes to offer conservative evangelical Protestants a new way to experience higher education. Instead of traditional classes and majors, CI has an 18-month cohort approach. All students progress together through core ideas, relying on something like a Great Books approach. After that time, students can move into a professional apprenticeship program in a field of their choosing.

Will it work? Its boosters promise the world. As the website explains,

What is Truth? What is beauty? What is society? Who is God? What does it mean to be fully human? Who am I? These are the questions students wrestle with, and find answers to, in the CreatEd Core.

Our 16-month, discussion-based program inspires students through an engaging study of the Great Books built upon the biblical narrative. We pair history’s most creative, insightful thinkers with the Truth of God’s Story. Rather than offering dozens of unrelated courses, the intentional sequenced curriculum of the CreatEd Core brings meaning to learning, igniting a passion in our students as they make connections between themselves, God’s Word, and His world.

By including a “Guild” program, CI hopes to be more than just a dream factory. CI insists it will prepare students better than traditional colleges for an authentic, successful Christian life and career.

CI faces big hurdles. It has not earned any accreditation and says it won’t try to. Its model only allows it to welcome small batches of students. The cost per student is accordingly high: $39,820 for the first two years, and more if students want to proceed into the apprenticeship program.

There is only one way a school like this will survive and thrive and the founders of CI don’t show any signs of recognizing it.

Think about it: How many tuition-paying students can an experimental school like this attract? It apparently hopes to appeal to the homeschool and “classical” evangelical school crowd. For families with the wherewithal to afford the CI program, though, there is way too much competition.

Consider, for a moment, what a CI student would be giving up. Without accreditation, none of the credits from a CI transcript will transfer. And without offering a bachelor’s degree program, graduates will invest time and money without any recognized professional credential.

Why would students choose such a thing?

In the variegated world of American higher ed, there is a long-standing precedent and model. Deep Springs College in California has a long history of offering a very similar program from a non-evangelical perspective. Students at Deep Springs go on a two-year intellectual journey. At the end, however, they often transfer to elite universities to complete their degrees.

How has Deep Springs thrived for a century? For one thing, it is free. Second, it is able to brag that its students are being prepared to trounce all competition in professional success. As they state prominently,

Alumni have gone on to become leaders in a number of fields, some receiving MacArthur Grants, Pulitzer Prizes, and Truman and Rhodes Scholarships. Today, Deep Springs is often cited as an example of the transformative experience that higher education can offer.

Unless CreatEd can pull off an evangelical version of Deep Springs, it is doomed. Unless, that is, the school can promise that its students will not suffer professionally for their experience, CI will go the route of so many other experiments in higher education: Big dreams and a quick expiration.

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Fundamentalist U & Me: Alexis Waggoner and Biola

Welcome to our 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.

This time, we are talking with Rev. Alexis James Waggoner. The Rev. Waggoner is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and received her M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. She works in the field of religious scholarship — as a Minister of Christian Education, and as the Education Director for a non-profit dedicated to religious literacy. She also serves as a Chaplain in the Air Force Reserves. She graduated from Biola University in 2003.

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

“Pressure” is the wrong word – my parents presented it to me like a (conservative, Evangelical) Christian college was my only option. The other “options” were all similar (Westmont, Asuza, etc).

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Alexis Waggoner today

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

While I have SO many problems now with schools like Biola, I think it was actually a good fit for me at the time. I grew up insulated and very conservative so Biola was actually a rather “diverse” place for me to be, in that it wasn’t as monolithic as my upbringing had been. It did deepen my faith at the time. And in no small way, it set me on a path that led me where I am today. My family would probably say this is for the worse; I would say it’s for the better. So something about being exposed, in a small way, to differing ideas about Christianity made me want to keep digging and questioning, and find out what else was out there that I hadn’t been exposed to.

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

Absolutely, 100% not. For reasons that will likely become obvious below! I am completely removed from the evangelical environment of my upbringing and find the movement to be harmful at best, abusive at worst.

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Teach . . . the children well . . .

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

No. I did for a while but as my theology and ideology diverged more and more, I realized I no longer could, in good conscience, support a place that contributed to social conservatism, Christian supremacy, othering of the LGTQI community, less-than-full inclusion of women, etc.

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

I went to Biola, and – ten years later – to Union Theological Seminary; two schools that are almost as opposite on the “Christian” school spectrum as you can get. I could write a dissertation on the differences; some are probably pretty obvious. The biggest similarity, though, is that both engage in religious fundamentalism. They both have lines you can’t cross, things you can’t admit to, stuff you can’t question – they just lie on completely opposite sides of the spectrum. As someone who now identifies as an extremely liberal, non-orthodox Christian, who is part of a progressive denomination, serving in a liberal church in NYC … I wish this was something we in the progressive movement did better. We fall into the same traps as our Evangelical counterparts, the same things that we critique them for. I am fascinated by the work that needs to be done that could lead to an actual conversation instead of both extremes yelling past each other.

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Fighting fundamentalism…

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

I was a liberal arts major so I took the basic science classes, I don’t remember much but I do remember – and here’s where the relative “diversity” of thought I mentioned above comes into play – being taught evolution. At least as a theory. I can’t remember exactly how it was presented; but it was done so in enough of a way that it was one of the threads of my fundamentalist upbringing that began to unravel. I’d been taught that creationism IS fact, and there are a few fringe people out there who believe this crazy thing called evolution but it’s not really that big a deal. I came to see that it was actually the opposite, and the fact that that piece of my education had been so off made me wonder what else could be wrong with my beliefs and assumptions. You can begin to see why I have mixed feelings about Biola. 🙂

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 definitely was not the stereotypical experience, and I’m sure it would’ve been different had I been at a secular college. I had friends and roommates for whom partying and hook-up culture was more of the norm (well, a sub-culture norm). But there was also the pressure to keep purity pledges and that sort of thing. I think my experience was somewhere in between.

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?

Oh absolutely yes. We had mandatory chapels, and we had to take a mandatory 30 units of Bible classes so that everyone ended up with a minor in Biblical Studies.

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?

Here again was where I learned about relative diversity of thought within Christianity. The school absolutely skewed conservative, politically, but there were some student groups who pushed those boundaries. And I remember thinking something along the lines of, I didn’t know you could be anything but Republican and be a Christian! Here again, the small level of exposure I had at Biola to other ways of thinking, began to erode my fundamentalist foundations. Which is pretty ironic. My parents sent me to an Evangelical school to (I assume) further educate me in their belief system and cement my faith. At the time I suppose it did that, somewhat, but in the long run it was the questions I began asking at Biola that led to the whole thing (over many, many subsequent years) eventually all falling apart for me.

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?

As much as it pains me to say it, the advantage they have is, in a world that is becoming more and more polarized, they have dug in their heels and continue to offer an option to people who buy into the narrative that Christians are being assaulted and persecuted. Many people have this worldview and so for them, the “safety” that these schools offer is appealing. However, on the other side of the coin, I believe that the future of evangelical education is similar to the future of the evangelical church. While there is drastic entrenchment, and thus there will likely always be a market for fundamentalism, younger generations continue to be more diverse, more liberally minded, less willing to deal with the exclusivism preached by these churches and universities. So I guess as long as they can survive on the backs of those they’ve convinced to become more entrenched, they will. But I’m hoping the evangelical church as a whole (as we know it) soon will either reinvent itself or become relatively obsolete.

Thanks, Alexis!

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

But What Do Conservative Students Think?

The headline caught my eye, but the actual survey sidestepped the main question. From what I can tell, we still don’t know the most important data of all.

CHE conservative students

Conservative students doing their thing…

At Chronicle of Higher Education, Steve Kolowich followed up on the political poopstorm that enveloped the University of Nebraska recently. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might remember the story. A conservative student activist felt berated by a progressive grad student and faculty member. The story caught the imagination of both local conservative politicians and the national culture-war paparazzi. The university was called to political account. Did they mistreat and abuse conservative students?

Apparently, as part of the process, the university teamed up with Gallup to conduct a campus climate survey. They wanted to know if students, faculty, staff, and alumni valued free speech. They wanted to know if conservatives felt free to speak their minds on campus. From what I can tell, however, it seems like they avoided the main question.

gallup u nebraska

Conservative students SHOULD feel free to talk…but DO they?

Most respondents thought that liberals were definitely able to “freely and openly express their views.” A large majority—though not quite so large as for liberals—thought that conservatives were too.

Maybe I’m reading the results wrong, but from what I can tell the survey avoided the main point. It asked respondents to identify as students, staff, faculty, or alumni. It asked respondents to identify by race, gender, and sexuality. But it didn’t ask students to identify by ideology. In other words, we might know how 4,403 student respondents felt, but we have no idea how conservative students felt, compared to liberal students.

To my mind, the survey missed the main point. We don’t only want to know how ALL students thought conservative students should feel. We really want to know how the conservative students themselves felt, and, importantly, if there was a meaningful distinction between how conservative students felt and how other students thought conservative students felt.

In other words, I’m not interested in what the campus as a whole thinks about conservative students. I want to find out what conservative students themselves think.

Gay Students and the New Fundamentalism

The distinction between “new evangelicalism” and “fundamentalism” was never all that clear. As a story from my neighborhood this week shows, though, it is getting easier to see the difference on the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities. We seem to have a new fundamentalist checklist, not of policies necessarily, but of institutional attitudes on certain key issues.

campbell csu

Out and out.

As I described in Fundamentalist U, the split between fundamentalists and new evangelicals was not a clean break on evangelical campuses. Between the late 1940s and, say, the late 1980s, there were a lot of continuing close connections between evangelical schools that remained with the “fundamentalist” branch of the family and those that had moved to the “new evangelical” side.

These days, generally, the “fundamentalist” label is out of fashion, even among fundamentalist stalwarts such as Bob Jones University. But the meaning remains, and these days we are seeing a clearer and clearer dividing line between evangelical colleges and no-longer-fundamentalist-in-name-but-fundamentalist-in-spirit institutions.

How do you know these days if a school is fundamentalist? It’s not necessarily a question of policies, but rather a spirit in which certain hard-line positions are maintained and a zeal with which they are publicized. ALL evangelical colleges and universities will be creationist, for example. And all will—from a mainstream perspective—have discriminatory policies against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. All conservative-evangelical schools will also tip toward conservative politics and cultural traditionalism.

The fundamentalist branch of the family, though, will insist on the hard edge of these positions in a consistently aggressive way and they will go out of their way to publicize their hard stand on these issues. Fundamentalist schools will trumpet their insistence on the following:

  • Young-earth creationism ONLY;
  • Political and cultural traditionalism;
  • And, most relevant for our purposes today, a loud, publicized hard line against any whiff of homosexuality on campus.

Consider the news from Clarks Summit. A former student has tried to re-enroll. Gary Campbell dropped out in 2005, only six credits shy of his degree. After a rough stint in the Navy, Campbell now wants to return. The school says no.

According to Campbell, the Dean of Students contacted him to let him know Campbell won’t be allowed to return, because Campbell is homosexual.

To be clear, from a mainstream perspective, all evangelical colleges discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. Even firmly non-fundamentalist evangelical institutions such as Gordon College and Wheaton College have issued reminders recently that gay is not okay.

But Clarks Summit University’s stance has a hard edge to it that helps define the new fundamentalism. Campbell’s sexual identity was apparently revealed to administrators by a fellow student, at least according to Campbell. The school could easily have re-admitted Campbell quietly.

Instead, the school’s administration chose to use this case as a chance to publicize its hard line. When journalists called about Campbell’s story, the university issued the following statement:

As a Christian college, we expect all students to act in a way that is consistent with our biblical belief system. We have always clearly stated those beliefs and have exercised the freedom to uphold our faith. . . . To prepare students for worldwide service opportunities, CSU clearly affirms biblical sexuality. We clearly communicate to all prospective students that we adhere to biblical truths, and expect them to do the same. That is part of what has made CSU a successful educator for more than 80 years. We would be happy to assist any former or prospective student who does not choose to agree with those faith standards to find another school in order to finish a degree.

These days, to be a fundamentalist institution means flying and flaunting the fundamentalist flag. It means taking every opportunity to enforce hard lines on sexual identity.

We see the same phenomenon in other issues such as creationism or political conservatism. In order to remain attractive to fundamentalist students and parents, school administrators take drastic steps to ratchet up their commitment to young-earth creationism or knee-jerk political conservatism.

What does it mean to be “fundamentalist” these days in evangelical higher education? As has Clarks Summit University, it means taking and, importantly, publicizing a hard line on issues of sexuality, creation, and political conservatism.

Fundamentalist colleges want their level of commitment to be known. They hope students, alumni, parents, and donors will recognize their positions and reward them with continued enrollments, donations, and support.

Who Owns 9/11 on Campus?

Memory is a slippery thing. On college campuses, left-wing protesters pull down memorial statues and right-wingers put up memorial shrines. Should a college allow conservative students to “remember” 9/11 the way they want to? Or do colleges have an obligation to a higher kind of memorial?

Here’s what we know: Ripon College in Wisconsin attracted a lot of negative attention from conservative commentators. The school’s administration was accused of banning its local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom from putting up memorial posters for 9/11. The school replied that it had not banned anything; in fact the school had celebrated earlier YAF 9/11 memorials.

In this case, the memorial at issue was not the standard display of 2,997 American flags to memorialize the people murdered on 9/11. Instead, YAF wanted to put up a graphic “Never Forget” poster. The school charged that the posters targeted Islam unfairly and would make Muslim students feel unwelcome and attacked.

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Too much? Ripon thinks so…

The parent Young America’s Foundation complained that the posters “merely depict history.” The school’s attitude against the posters, YAF’s Spencer Brown wrote, clearly shows “anti-conservative bias” at the school.

One Ripon College professor objected that history is never merely depicted. As Professor Steven A. Miller put it,

Most campuses don’t hold special ceremonies for Pearl Harbor Day, Emmett Till’s lynching, the Oklahoma City bombing, or Benedict Arnold’s switching teams.

What do you think? Should a college ban violent posters as memorials? Or do students have every right to free speech as long as they are not making threats?

My heart’s with Prof. Miller. As he concludes,

When we say we want students to remember 9/11, or the Civil War, or any of the many other tragedies that dot American history, we must accept that worthwhile remembering takes work. Colleges are one place where that work takes place, in the form of historical research, critical writing, and, above all, teaching new generations to think carefully through history in its full context. Students engage with difficult questions that challenge conventional wisdom and undermine the kinds of easy answers that lead amateur critics of academia to tweet about rip-offs. It may sometimes be uncomfortable, but that’s a necessary element of confronting, considering, rethinking, and growing.

Every day in class, I see my students struggle with the past, with all its uncertainty and all its consequences. This does not happen only once a year, and it is not easy, but that’s what it means to never forget 9/11.

Will Liberty Get on the Ozark Train?

For those people who still think evangelicalism should primarily be defined by theological distinctions, consider the news: Yet another conservative evangelical college is considering dropping its Nike contract over the anthem-protest issue. How does theology explain that one?

falwell on nike

Football, America, and God too.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH will remember that the College of the Ozarks already announced its anti-Nike stance in the wake of Nike’s Colin-Kaepernick ad. They may also recall our point here at ILYBYGTH that such staunch knee-jerk conservative patriotism was not the exception, but the rule for evangelical universities in the twentieth century.

Some might say that COE’s uber-patriotism is just an odd outlier in the world of evangelical higher education. Today it looks like COE might have more company. According to President Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty University in Virginia is considering scrapping its sponsorship deal with Nike. Unlike College of the Ozarks, Liberty is a cash-rich up-and-comer in the world of NCAA athletics.

As Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. told USA Today:

We’re exploring the situation. . . . If Nike really does believe that law enforcement in this country is unfair and biased, I think we will look around. If we have a contract, we’ll honor it, but we strongly support law enforcement and strongly support our military and veterans who died to protect our freedoms and if the company really believes what Colin Kaepernick believes, it’s going to be hard for us to keep doing business with them.

But if it’s just a publicity stunt to bring attention to Nike or whatever, that’s different. We understand that. We understand how marketing works. But they’re going to have to convince us that they’re not proactively attacking law enforcement officers and our military. If that’s the reason behind using this ad, we’re going to have a hard time staying.

For many Americans, Falwell’s defiant conservative patriotism makes sense. For a lot of people, it’s probably even admirable. But how is it part of evangelical religion?

In short, it’s not, if we try to define evangelicalism only by theological notions such as a reverence for Scripture and an emphasis on soul-winning.

But! If we understand American evangelicalism—the Falwell/Liberty kind, at least—as a conservative cultural mish-mash, including conservative ideas about religion, but also about race, the South, gender rules, sexuality, and so on, then Falwell’s aggressive militarism fits perfectly.

An Exception? Or a Rule?

Conservatives are cutting up their socks in protest. And at least one evangelical college has dumped Nike over its defense of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests. Some in-the-know commentators think this is way out of bounds for evangelical schools. Historically, though…not so much. Is knee-jerk patriotism the rule or the exception at conservative evangelical colleges?

nike sock protest

Take that, anti-anthem mega-corp!

As I argued in Fundamentalist U, during the twentieth century aggressive conservative patriotism played a large role at all the evangelical colleges I studied. At some, such as The King’s College and John Brown University, it became a central focus. In the mid-1960s, at least, notions of fusing traditional patriotic conservatism with evangelical conservatism held a lot of appeal for many evangelical academic types.

A “Freedom Forum” planned at Gordon College in 1965, for instance, offered the following rationale:

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

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

The Christian educator occupies a unique position of leadership from which emanate those spiritual emphases which give salutary meaning and purpose to life, not only individual but national.  Waiting for that leadership are millions of earnest Americans who need help in their endeavor to ‘prove all things and hold fast that which is good.’ . . .

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

In the end, under pressure from Gordon faculty to avoid too close collusion with the political “extreme right,” the vaunted Freedom Forum didn’t happen. But there was always—and I think still is—a very strong push among many evangelicals to tie their conservative patriotic impulses to their religious beliefs.

american studies conference 1966 program

For God and Country…or Country and God…?

This is true not only for uber-patriotic schools such as Harding, John Brown, and the College of the Ozarks. Giants like Liberty University and smaller schools such as Mid-America Nazarene still have a hard time figuring out the relationship between religion and patriotism, with patriotism often coming out on top.

In this case, College of the Ozarks certainly seems like a Nike-hating outlier. But is the impulse to in-your-face conservative patriotism really so out of bounds for other conservative evangelical colleges? I don’t think so.

The Even-Less-Sexy Truth about this Sexy Scandal

Sometimes the devil doesn’t wear Prada. Sometimes she wears clunky oversized glasses and ostentatiously kitschy t-shirts. At least, that’s the lesson I’m getting from the sad stories oozing out of New York University’s latest scandal. What I don’t understand is why so many academic commentators think the situation is somehow unique to elite academic life. To this reporter, it seems that condemnations of grad studies as “cultish subjection” seem to sidestep the most important point.

Here are the basics: NYU’s comparative literature department is roiled by accusations and counter-accusations in the case of Professor Avital Ronell. Ronell is accused by former graduate student Nimrod Reitman of harassment and abuse. The accusation is littered with kooky emails [here are some examples] and trainwreck-level details about their relationship.

Adding even more complication, several top scholars have come to Prof. Ronell’s defense, claiming special status as feminists.

avital ronell

…you are under my commaaaand…

Former students of Ronell’s have gone public with their additional accusations. According to former student Andrea Long Chu, Ronell really was a mercurial, dictatorial, needy oddball. She insisted her grad students relish their status of “cultish subjection.”

Is this a story a condemnation of elite academic culture? As Corey Robin has argued, is this about more than sex, more than feminism? Professor Robin has argued the case was really about

the question of power. This is a grad student trying to make his way in an institution where everything depends on the good (or bad) word of his adviser.

To my mind, that sounds true enough, but I don’t see how this problematic relationship is unique to academic life. It seems to me that anytime employees are dependent on their boss’s good opinion, exceptions like this will pop up.

I don’t see how this sad scandal tells us anything that we didn’t already know. Namely, in any job in which the employee is willing to do anything to get ahead, some exceptional bosses will take cruel advantage.

How Historians of Religion Get It Wrong

More proof, if any more were needed. If we want to understand religious identity, we can’t limit ourselves to thinking only about religion itself. A new LifeWay poll finds that a lot of church-going Americans, and a majority of young ones, prefer to pray with people who share their politics. Too often, religious historians (I plead guilty) tend to ignore the obvious implications.

lifeway politics poll

It’s no coincidence: For most of us, our religion matches our politics and vice versa.

Most important, this poll reminds us that people define their religion in all sorts of ways. For a lot of us, other factors play at least as big a part in making up our religious identity. For many people in this poll, for example, politics were as much a part of their church identity as religious factors.

If course, the notion that “religion” means more than “religion” won’t be any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. There are a million factors that go into making up a person’s religious identity. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, for example, what makes a college “Christian” is much more than a fierce commitment to any particular theology. Where schools stand on political issues, sexual issues, and even humdrum pedagogical issues played at least as big a part in whether or not a university was considered reliably “fundamentalist” in the twentieth century.

What do the new numbers tell us? A small majority (51%) of church-going Americans of all sorts thinks they agree politically with other members of their church. A larger majority (61%) of 35-49-year-olds thinks so. Evangelicals (57%) are more likely to think so than, say, Lutherans (31%).

Almost half (46%) of respondents like it that way. And MORE than half (57%) of young (18-49-year-old) churchgoers do.

So what?

As we’ve harped on in these pages, understanding religious people means understanding more than just their religion. But when historians or journalists read the self-conscious writings of religious people themselves, especially religious intellectuals, we tend to get a skewed perspective. Religious people, for obvious reasons, tend to explain their own thinking in religious terms. They tend to explain why they support or oppose trends or ideas based on religious justifications.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, morally or otherwise. The problem comes when historians or other writers take those religious explanations too plainly at face value. We end up misunderstanding everything.

Let me offer one painful example. In Fundamentalist U, I tried to trace the history of race and racism at white-dominated evangelical colleges and universities. Some of those schools, most famously Bob Jones University, justified their racial segregationism in religious terms. Jones asked, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” His answer in 1960 was an insistent “yes.”

is segregation scriptural

There was more than theology at play then, and there is now…

For those of us trying to understand evangelical history, it would obviously be an egregious error if we only looked at Jones’s theological rationalization of his segregatory practices. Much more was at stake, including Jones’s Southern roots, the school’s Southern traditions, and the ferocious racial politics of 1960.

In short, as these poll numbers remind us, if we really want to understand religious life, we can’t limit ourselves to religion alone. If we want to understand American culture at all, we need to start with the knowledge that religious identity is only one slice of what makes a religious person. And we need to be willing to contextualize–though it feels disrespectful and impolite–the actual assertions of religious people themselves, when they talk as if religion and theology are the only things that matter to them.

Wheaton Wonders

How did the long history of white evangelical anti-racism evolve? What were interactions like in the twentieth century between evangelical and non-evangelical academics? I recently got a chance to talk with a group of Wheaton College faculty and administrators about Fundamentalist U. I don’t think I helped them any, but they helped me think in new and better ways about important questions in the history of evangelical higher ed. They also asked me some questions I just couldn’t answer.

wheaton tower

If you go to Wheaton, be sure to do your homework…

I was very excited to be able to talk with this group of Wheatonites. The school played a leading role in my research, but most of my knowledge of Wheaton comes from long ago. In my research trips to Wheaton and the Billy Graham Center, I always walked away with much-improved understanding of evangelical history.

I should have known this conversation would be no exception. This group brought up vital issues that I had not spent enough time with in the book. As one astute historian noticed, in my chapter on race and racism at these white-dominated schools, I only briefly noted the longer history of white evangelical anti-racism. As she noted, it would be great to get a fuller history of the ways white evangelical anti-racism evolved—in and out of institutions of higher education.

Also, another penetrating question: during the twentieth century, what kinds of interactions were there between evangelical academics and non-evangelical academics? I hadn’t given that question NEARLY enough attention in the book. I noted the frequent and intense study of trends in mainstream higher education among evangelical administrators, but I barely scratched the surface of academic interactions between the different types of intellectual world.

Either of those topics would make for great new lines of research.

The group also asked questions that just left me stumped. For example, one professor asked what I hoped evangelical academics would learn from my book. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I hadn’t really thought about it. Mostly, during my research and writing I was interested in discovering and explaining the world of evangelical higher ed to non-evangelical readers like myself. How would the take-aways be different for intellectuals who came from the world of evangelical higher ed? I hadn’t considered it.

In any case, I’m grateful to this group for reading my book during their summer session, and double grateful that they included me in their conversation.