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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Should Christians Be Afraid?

SAGLRROILYBYGTH have heard it all before. For the past century, conservative evangelicals have warned that their religious beliefs have made them the target of anti-Christian religious discrimination and persecution. Today we hear the same warning from radical young-earth creationist Ken Ham. So should Christians be afraid?

ken ham ny lawFirst, the history: In spite of today’s rosy nostalgia, evangelical Protestants have always felt themselves the targets of creeping secular attack. To pick just one example, when SCOTUS ruled against devotional Bible-reading in public schools in 1963, evangelicals responded with apocalyptic alarm.

In the pages of leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today, for example, the editors intoned that the decision reduced Christian America to only a tiny “believing remnant.”  No longer did the United States respect its traditional evangelical forms, they worried.  Rather, only a tiny fraction of Americans remained true to the faith, and they had better get used to being persecuted.

Similarly, fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire insisted that the 1963 school-prayer decision meant the death of Christian America.  In the pages of his popular magazine Christian Beacon, one writer warned that the Supreme Court decision meant a wave of “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

From the West Coast, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University agreed.  The 1963 decision, Sutherland wrote, proved that the United States had become an “atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

But! We might say that those conservatives were wrong, but today’s might be right. As Ken Ham warned his Twitter followers this morning, perhaps “It’s coming!” Maybe New York’s new gender law really will put conservative evangelical pastors in a legal bind.

After all, it is not only radical young-earthers who are concerned. Conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher have similarly warned of the creeping overreach of today’s secular gender ideology.

And in some ways, as higher-ed watchers like me have noticed, changes really are afoot. Institutions such as universities that rely on federal student-loan dollars to stay afloat might face intense pressure to comply with anti-discrimination guidelines.

But will a preacher ever be pulled out of his pulpit for “preach[ing] faithfully from God’s Word that there’s only two human genders God created”? No. That’s not how religious discrimination works in the USA. Just ask any historically persecuted minority.

For example, the federal government has long shelled out huge subsidies to farmers, including hog farmers. Does that mean that religious preachers who tell their audiences that eating pork is sinful are “arrested for hate speech”? No.

Similarly, the federal government has funded school textbooks that teach basic chemistry. They teach that the core of a substance is determined by its molecular makeup. Does that mean that Roman Catholic priests who tell parishes that wine has been transubstantiated into blood are “arrested for hate speech”? No.

Or, to take the most painful 20th-century example from the world of evangelical Protestantism, when the federal government passed legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, were white evangelical preachers ever stopped from including racist content in their Sunday sermons? No.

In spite of what alarmist preachers might say, the problem for conservatives won’t be about their pulpits. When they want to refuse service to same-sex couples or refuse admission to transgender students they might have to deal with a new legal reality.

But the idea that the amped-up gender police will storm into churches to arrest pastors is more Thief in the Night than Queer Nation.

The O Word Punctures this Dream of a Conservative University

Why can’t they have their own anti-progressive university? That’s the question Rick Hess and Brendan Bell of the conservative American Enterprise Institute asked recently. The problem runs deeper than they want to acknowledge. It’s not only about funding or hiring; it is rooted in the O word, a central but unexamined assumption of conservative higher-ed thinking over the past hundred years.

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It wasn’t ORTHODOXY that make Falwell successful…

In short, Hess and Bell propose a new $3-billion-dollar elite university, free from the oppressive “academic monoculture” of today’s top schools. They hope to reform American and global culture by creating an incubator for ideas that challenge progressive assumptions, an academic launching pad for scholars

inclined to critique feminist tropes, study the benefits of traditional marriage, or pursue other lines of inquiry that don’t comport with regnant mores.

As sharp-eyed critics such as Sarah Jones have pointed out, Hess and Bell don’t adequately acknowledge the fact that there is already plenty of conservative money flooding academia. And, as Jones notes, in the end

Hess and Bell sound markedly like the campus liberals they seek to escape – an ivory tower of their own is nothing if not a plea for a safe space.

Jones doesn’t mention it, but there is a bigger nuts-and-bolts problem with Hess and Bell’s plan, too. Founding a university might be easy, given enough money. But starting an elite institution from scratch is not, no matter how deep one’s pockets. Hess and Bell list examples of success, from Stanford and Johns Hopkins in the past to my alma mater Wash U recently. But they don’t note the many failures, such as Clark University a century ago. Nor do they seem aware of unsuccessful plans from the twentieth century, such as Hudson Armerding’s detailed scheme to establish an elite multi-campus evangelical university, as I describe in Fundamentalist U.

Even those challenges might be overcome, though, if Hess and Bell’s plan weren’t doomed by a deeper structural flaw. Like many conservative higher-ed dreamers before them, Hess and Bell do not adequately grapple with the O-word. That is, they do not understand the deeper implications of the concept of orthodoxy in the world of higher education.

As have other conservative intellectuals, Hess and Bell use the O-word a lot. They identify their primary bugbear, for instance, as

the progressive orthodoxy at today’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

They also explain that their new elite institute will be one that “challenges the prevailing orthodoxies of the campus monoculture.”

And there’s the rub. As I argue in Fundamentalist U, in spite of generations of talk about orthodoxy in conservative institutions, real orthodoxies are few and far between.

Why does it matter? If Hess and Bell, like their conservative forebears, truly hope to open a new school “oriented by a clear mission,” they need to define clearly their guiding ideas. It is not enough to target “progressive orthodoxy,” precisely because there is no such thing.

We might agree with Hess and Bell that elite American institutions are guided by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions” that conservatives don’t like. But there is a world of difference between mores, conventions, and real orthodoxies. An orthodoxy is precisely something that even Hess and Bell admit doesn’t exist in this case, “a concerted, organized effort” to define truth and falsehood.

An orthodoxy is relatively easy to both attack and defend. If there really were a progressive orthodoxy in American elite higher education, Hess and Bell’s plan might stand a chance of success. And because so many higher-ed pundits tend to throw around the O-word so loosely, it is not surprising that Hess and Bell don’t notice the problem.

Maybe the case of conservative evangelical higher education will help clarify the O-word dilemma. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, starting in the 1920s most conservative-evangelical colleges promised that they were founded on evangelical orthodoxy. The problem is, they weren’t. They were founded to be conservative safe spaces for religious students and faculty. They also had to remain broadly conservative and broadly evangelical in order to remain attractive to a wide range of fundamentalist families. As a result, they never were able to establish a true orthodoxy. That is, they never established a clear list of religious tenets by which every challenge and crisis could be decided.

There were exceptions of course. Especially at denominational schools, leaders were able to clear some of the fog of American conservatism by following the path of specific orthodoxies. In the 1920s, for example, Princeton’s J. Gresham Machen opened a rare school that actually adhered to Machen’s vision of Presbyterian orthodoxy. As a result, Machen earned the scorn of other evangelical school leaders by allowing his students to drink alcohol. Booze wasn’t forbidden by any actual theological rule, Machen reasoned, but rather only by the “regnant mores” of American evangelicals.

The results of the absence of true orthodoxy in conservative-evangelical higher education may seem odd to readers who don’t grasp the implications of the O-word. Historically, we saw cases such as that of Clifton Fowler in Denver in the 1930s, when a school leader charged with sexual and theological peccadillos was allowed to continue his depredations by a blue-ribbon panel of evangelical college leaders.

We see it today as well, with the befuddling statements of Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. If, as we might tend to think, Liberty were a school guided by evangelical orthodoxy, Falwell himself might be less inclined to make outlandish statements in support of Trump. As it is, Christine Emba argued recently, the best word for Falwell’s Trumpism is not “orthodoxy.” As Emba wrote in the Washington Post, Falwell’s

statements are in total contradiction to Christian truth. This isn’t just benign confusion: This is heresy.

Yet Falwell continues to attract adherents and funding for his conservative-evangelical institution. It is not because he is redefining evangelical orthodoxy. It is not because evangelical orthodoxy has room for Trumpism. He isn’t and it doesn’t. Rather, Falwell is able to veer so far from traditional evangelical doctrine because interdenominational American evangelicalism has not been guided by true orthodoxy. Rather, it has felt its way in the cultural dark guided only by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions.”

In the case of Hess and Bell’s dreams, making policy about those mores and conventions is far more difficult than challenging real orthodoxies. Mores and conventions are plastic, fluid, flexible, and nearly infinitely defensible. Orthodoxies are rigid, clearly defined, and easily subject to dispute.

The false assumption of orthodoxy has punctured the dreams of generations of conservative higher-ed thinkers. Hess and Bell shouldn’t be blamed for not recognizing the problem, because writers from both left and right tend to see orthodoxy when there isn’t any.

Fundamentalists in the early twentieth century falsely assumed an evangelical orthodoxy that couldn’t exist. Hess and Bell flail against a progressive orthodoxy that doesn’t.

From the Archives: Football and Fundamentalist U

Professor Putz got me wondering: How often has football—not just sports in general, but specifically football—thrown evangelical colleges into a tizzy? Turns out, it’s more common than you might think. The allure of all the trappings of college life has always been a challenge for evangelicals, especially back in the early decades of the fundamentalist movement.

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

As Professor Putz pointed out, Liberty University has always slavered for the kind of prestige that comes with football victories. The Falwells have built their dreams around the successes of other religious schools such as Brigham Young University and Notre Dame.

And, as Prof. Putz notes, Liberty may be in for more than it bargained for. At BYU, for example, sports has been the lever that LGBTQ and anti-racist activists have used to apply pressure to the LDS church as a whole.

As I found out in the research for Fundamentalist U, it was ever thus. Back in the 1920s when the fundamentalist movement was born, some of its new flagship colleges found out how hard it was to have a football program.

At Des Moines University, for example, the hard-to-love fundamentalist leaders Edith Rebman and T.T. Shields found they could control a lot of things, but not the gridiron. First of all, when they played rival schools, the fans mocked DMU’s fundamentalist fervor by chanting “Darwin! Darwin! Darwin!” And even though the new administrators fired all the science faculty, they retained their football coach, even though the coach publicly expressed a cynical attitude toward evangelical religion. When reporters asked the coach if he had been converted, “born again,” the coach sneered, “Yeah, lots of times.” To critics, the lesson was obvious: A hypocritical fundamentalist administration could do without its science faculty, but it had to keep its football coach.

In Florida, too, the fledgling Bob Jones College struggled to figure out the football dilemma. In its first years, the fundamentalist school fielded a squad, the Swamp Angels. However, they wouldn’t allow the team to travel, worried about the moral influence other campuses might have on the players. In 1931, Bob Jones Sr. canceled the athletic program, purportedly after finding whiskey bottles on campus after a big game. Critics charged that Jones was more nervous about having to meet league rules than about the moral problems of football fans.

Up in Illinois, the first outside-fundamentalist president of Wheaton College also ran into trouble with the football program. J. Oliver Buswell became unpopular for sparring with football coach Fred Walker. Walker had apparently used foul language with the players, but Buswell resisted firing him. Eventually, Buswell agreed to fire the coach, but the trustees switched their position and decided Buswell had to go instead.

For almost a century, then, football has provided yet another challenge to evangelical college leaders. Without it, their schools might seem inauthentic. Students, parents, and alumni all want to have winning teams to cheer for. But including football has always meant including a wild card. It has meant giving some measure of administrative power away to a coach. It has meant going by league rules, instead of listening only to the dictates of authoritarian school leaders. Most of all, it has meant that fundamentalist schools had to breach their carefully constructed defensive wall against the outside world.

Is it worth it? Time and time again, evangelical college leaders have leaped into the football scrum, only to emerge bruised and battered. As Prof. Putz points out, Liberty U is only the latest of a long string of evangelical hopefuls. What will big-time football mean for Jerry Falwell Jr.?

Sex Abuse and the Fundamentalist C-Word

The most depressing thing about the story might be its tragic predictability. The Fort-Worth Star-Telegram reported this week about the sexual assault and abuse of hundreds of victims by leaders of independent fundamental Baptist Churches. As I detailed in Fundamentalist U, these charges are not a sad quirk or an individual sin, but rather an inherent danger of fundamentalist institution-building.

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The dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions…

The charges are staggering. FWST reporters interviewed hundreds of victims and told their stories in detail. Time and time again, with no denominational authority to turn to, independent fundamental churches and schools relied on the utter authority of a single leader. In case after case, the obvious dangers of investing one human with so much power resulted in atrocious abuse. As one of the interviewees put it,

Those of us that have gotten out definitely know it as a cult.

Part of the cult-like structure of independent fundamental Baptist churches has always been its control of education, including independent colleges led by authoritarian leaders. As FWST reporters noticed,

The churches operate independently. But many pastors are linked by the church-affiliated colleges they attended: Bob Jones University, Hyles-Anderson College, Pensacola Christian College and Golden State Baptist College, to name a few.

Those colleges, in turn, suffer from the same institutional problems that beset independent fundamental Baptist churches as a whole. In a word, without external checks on power and influence, colleges and churches risk descending into cults, with no guard against the rapacity of all-powerful leaders.

In Fundamentalist U, I argue that this structural problem is not an unfortunate exception, but rather the rule for interdenominational conservative-evangelical institutions. Certainly not all of them, but in many cases, institutions that embraced the fundamentalist side of the conservative-evangelical family tended to turn to authoritarian solutions to the inherent dilemma of authority in interdenominational evangelicalism. In the book, I use the twin cases of Bob Jones College and Denver Bible Institute in the 1930s to make my case.

Both schools turned to an authoritarian leader to settle the inherent dilemmas of early fundamentalism. What did it mean to be a “real” fundamentalist? No one could say for sure, so some colleges invested their leaders with ultimate power to define good and bad, real and fake.

At Bob Jones College, the dictatorial authority of the leader was not to be questioned. Due to the school’s success in attracting students and keeping faculty and alumni happy, the structure worked. It certainly had plenty of critics over the years—both internal and external—but BJU was able to retain its insularity and its authoritarian power structure.

At Clifton Fowler’s Denver Bible Institute, however, accusations of sexual abuse and theological malfeasance led to a hearing of sorts. The limits of that hearing help demonstrate the inherent structural problems of fundamentalist institution-building.

In short (check out chapter three of Fundamentalist U if you want the full story), Clifton Fowler was accused of a host of sins. He was charged with conducting sexual relationships with many of the young men under his charge. He was accused of prying into the sexual lives of many of his students and congregants and then using that intimate information to bully and blackmail his students. He was accused of innovating doctrines about sexual relationships, claiming that married men and women should not have sex with one another.

In 1936, Fowler attempted to clear his name. He appealed to national leaders of fundamentalist colleges, such as Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College. The response of that blue-ribbon fundamentalist commission tells us about the dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions.

Instead of charging Fowler with the allegations, committee members agreed to keep the accusations quiet, in order not to besmirch the name of fundamentalism. As Buswell put it, he hoped to keep the whole scandal

a strictly private matter among Christian brethren.

It is difficult not to read the testimony as a clear warning bell about the kind of abuse rampant among “cult-like” fundamentalist institutions. As one DBI insider told Buswell’s commission,

All who enter within the confines of the school as students or casual visitors come under a peculiar ‘hypnotic’ spell.

In spite of collecting damning testimony from multiple victims and witnesses, the commission concluded in the end that it could not really do anything to stop Fowler’s predatory behavior. As Buswell concluded in a private letter in 1936,

we cannot commend this man or this work to the confidence of the Christian public.  I do not suppose there is anything more we could do, since we have been given no power to take action, and Fowler practically has his trustees in his pocket, I believe.

In other words, fundamentalist leaders concluded, every fundamentalist could create his own authority. As President Buswell explained, if the trustees of his school remained loyal to Fowler, there were no external levers of control or influence others could exert.

The kind of abuse allegedly perpetrated by Dave Hyles and other independent fundamental Baptist leaders certainly seems to fall into this category. Is it a crime? Yes, indeed. Is it the result of personal sin? I believe so. But those categories of individual blame and transgression don’t adequately explain the ways that the very structures of fundamentalist institutions support and encourage these kinds of abuse and assault.

Does THIS Explain the Football Fornicator?

It has stymied nerds for years now. How could so many white conservative-evangelical Protestants support Trump? He is hardly a moral model. Could a new term help explain Christian Trumpism, and other evangelical oddities such as Liberty University’s recent hire?

Freeze at Liberty

Victory at any cost?

Coming off a year of glorious victory, Liberty doubled down on its football team. Still pursuing its grand dream of becoming “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically,” Liberty brought on one of the best big-time coaches in today’s football scene.

There was only one problem. Coach Hugh Freeze was only available for a non-elite team like Liberty because he had been fired from Ole Miss for a “pattern of personal misconduct,” including using university resources to hire prostitutes.

Why would an evangelical university—supposedly devoted to conservative morals and buttoned-up lifestyle rules—shell out big bucks to hire a fornicator?

On one hand, the answer’s easy. Coach Freeze built up an impressive winning record at Ole Miss, including defeating Alabama two seasons in a row.

On the other, however, it’s a puzzle. As I described in Fundamentalist U, the selling point of conservative evangelical colleges has always been a safe moral environment, one in which students wouldn’t learn to smoke, drink, and have sex, much less believe mainstream science or liberal religion.

How are we to make sense of this phenomenon? …of supposedly values-driven evangelicals supporting anti-values driven celebrities?

Would it help if we called universities like Liberty something besides “evangelical?” Something that captured more clearly the real values of the school, including Trumpism, guns, and big-time sports?sutton tweet

Recently, some historians have been debating the value of another term. Matthew Avery Sutton proposed “Christian Nationalism” for white conservative evangelicals who put their culture-war positions ahead of their evangelical theology. Professor Sutton asked,

should we make a distinction, using “evangelical” for those who are part of a historic, traceable, bounded (para)church network and use “Christian nationalist” for the right-wing political expression of many of these folks and the many more outside the network?

Calling schools like Liberty “Christian Nationalist” colleges instead of “evangelical” schools would go a long way toward clearing up any confusion about stories like that of Coach Freeze. It could fill in for the old “fundamentalist” label, now out of favor even among the most devoted fundamentalists. It could also help make sense of trends at conservative schools such as Hillsdale, which are now attracting a healthy enrollment from Catholic students. And it could explain where the financial support comes from for conservative flag-waving institutions such as the College of the Ozarks.

In short, using a term like “evangelical” to describe an institution like Liberty University seems inherently confusing. Under the leadership of Jerry Falwell Jr., the school has embraced a Trumpist worldview, in distinct contrast to the traditional moral values of conservative evangelicals, at least in the late twentieth century.

Calling it “Christian Nationalist U,” on the other hand, seems to fit. It doesn’t seem outrageous to hear that a “Christian Nationalist” school has hired a football fornicator. A “Christian Nationalist” school would obviously support Trump, whereas an “evangelical” school wouldn’t. A “Christian Nationalist” school would value football victory at any cost, while an “evangelical” school wouldn’t.

Serving More than One Master

It’s more than a quirk. And it’s more than a coincidence. The savage accreditor’s report about The Master’s University and Seminary (TMUS) reveals yet again one of the basic structural challenges written into the bones of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

John_F._MacArthur_1

Get thee behind me, accreditors.

If you haven’t seen the story yet, it is a sad reminder of the dangerous possibilities of evangelical higher ed. As Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently (now available to non-subscribers) the school’s charismatic leader John F. MacArthur has recreated all of the elements of authoritarian evangelical institutions.

  • One-man show

For example, the accreditors warned that TMUS had

a pervasive climate of fear, intimidation, bullying and uncertainty.

In a speech to the student body about the accreditation report, MacArthur identified such nay-saying as part of the list of things that “God hates.”  His advice to students in this troubling time? “Keep your mouth shut.”

  • Gated community

The accreditors found, too, that TMUS had become an all-or-nothing proposition for its faculty. All institutional power rested firmly in MacArthur’s hands. If they didn’t like it, their only option was to leave, leaving their entire lives behind. As the accreditors put it,

Should they be dismissed or leave TMU over a substantial difference of opinion, they lose their entire support community.

  • Loyalty over experience

As has been the pattern for fundamentalist colleges since the early 20th century, MacArthur’s regime consistently promoted loyalty over every other concern, especially including experience or competence. The accreditors cited the worrisome case of MacArthur’s son-in-law Kory Welch, who was put in charge of many elements of TMUS operations despite having no professional experience or discernible credentials.

  • Internal hiring

As did some fundamentalist schools in the twentieth century, TMUS’s insularity came in part from a habit of hiring its own graduates. As CHE reported,

Of the 20 full-time faculty listed on the seminary’s website, not including MacArthur, 13 have received one or more of their degrees from Master’s; 11 have received two or more degrees from that institution; and eight have held positions within Grace Church. The dean of the seminary faculty, Nathan Busenitz, earned all of his degrees from Master’s, and has served in the past as MacArthur’s personal assistant.

  • My way or the highway—to hell

Predictably, MacArthur offered the TMUS community a stark decision: Either accept his one-person leadership model or succumb to the wiles of Satan. In his August speech, for example, MacArthur decried the report as an attack

orchestrated, if not by any humans, by Satan himself.

  • All about the benjamins

Finally, as was the case throughout the twentieth century, MacArthur has been able to retain his stranglehold on institutional power in part due to his prodigious fund-raising abilities. Without MacArthur at the helm, TMUS would not be likely to pull in donations by the millions.

For the accreditors, as for many in the higher-ed field, these astonishing institutional traits may seem a singular development at TMUS. In fact, as I argued in Fundamentalist U, they are part of the legacy of the inherent institutional set-up of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

In the 1920s and 1930s, evangelical institutions that had embraced the fundamentalist movement faced a difficult challenge. As interdenominational institutions, they had no presbyteries, synods, episcopates, or conventions to help guide their activities. Moreover, inherent in the fundamentalist movement was a wariness toward such authorities. After all, fundamentalist intellectuals had been burned when denominational controls had been seized by theological modernists and liberals.

What to do? Different institutions responded differently.

At many schools, leadership was split into a messy and imprecise network of presidents, alumni, trustees, and faculty. At Wheaton College in Illinois, for example, tough decisions were often made even tougher by the array of influential voices that weighed in.

In an institution like this, final authority is difficult to determine and decisions can often be messy. The legacy of this sort of solution to the authority dilemma can still be seen today. Just ask Larycia Hawkins or LGBTQ+ students at Asuza Pacific.

But Wheaton’s diffuse and confusing solution to the authority dilemma was not the only solution. TMUS follows in the mold of authoritarian schools like Bob Jones College.

At Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University in 1947), the answer to the dilemma of authority was solved early and ugly. Bob Jones Sr. established a firm grip on power at the institutions, followed by his son and grandson.

Reaching its fully developed form in the 1930s, Bob Jones Sr. crushed and expelled all dissent. As he put it,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us.  We can get ‘cussin’’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school.  We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard.  If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him!  We throw him overboard. . .  ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’  Gripers are not welcome here.  If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

And over the years, the Bob Joneses did just that. As with TMUS, the Bob Joneses quickly learned to rely only on their own graduates. In the 1933-34 school year, for example, three of the twenty-six faculty members were BJC alumni. By 1946-47, thirty-two of sixty-six were.

There was not likely to be much confusion about the way the Bob Joneses treated “Jonahs,” either. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the case of Ted Mercer. Mercer had been a loyal student, teacher, and administrator for years at Bob Jones College and University. By the early 1950s, however, he grew concerned about the dictatorial nature of the school. As with TMUS, the tipping point came from the question of accreditation.

Mercer wanted the school to pursue accreditation, which the Bob Joneses fiercely resisted. As with TMUS, there was no middle way. When Mercer fell afoul of the Bob Joneses, he was out. And the Bob Joneses spared no effort to vilify and smear Mercer. As the TMUS accreditors warn, when a school becomes too insular, dissidents risk losing their entire social networks if they question the will of the leader.

What is in store for TMUS? MacArthur fits the pattern of fundamentalist authoritarians so precisely it is difficult not to hazard a few predictions. If he is able to maintain fiscal solvency—as Bob Jones could but other would-be authoritarians such as Clifton Fowler at the Denver Bible Institute could not—TMUS is likely to maintain its authoritarian structure into the future.

Despite its moral, theological, and institutional drawbacks, the authoritarian model has proven a durable solution to the dilemma of authority at interdenominational evangelical universities.

I Don’t Need to Beat the Bear…

Did you see the recent article in Forbes? The one in which the number-crunchers drool over the financial successes of hard-right evangelical College of the Ozarks? I can’t help but wonder: In these days of college closings and higher-ed austerity, how is such an extreme school thriving? As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, it’s not new. As far back as the 1920s, evangelical institutions have succeeded by planting a flag for fundamentalism.

bear chasing man

“I swear none of our professors teach evolution!”

It’s like the old joke about the two hunters and the bear. They’re getting chased by a bear, and one hunter pauses to tie his running shoes. The other guy says, Why bother with those shoes? You can’t outrun the bear. And the first hunter says, I don’t need to beat the bear. I only need to beat you.

The folks at Forbes aren’t wrong. The rude financial health of the College of the Ozarks really is surprising. As they recount, the endowment-per-student ratio puts CofO at 59 of the 650 schools it surveys, higher than many fancy-pants universities. Its acceptance rate is a mere 11%. Its admission yield—meaning the number of admitted students who end up enrolling—is higher than Harvard’s.

College of Ozark Endowment

Lovin ‘Merica all the way to the bank…

Why? As our friends at Righting America point out, it is not because CofO is winning the higher-ed race. Where many schools are improving student amenities and hiring diversity officers, CofO brags about its un-diversity. For example, it claims pride of place as the most LGBTQ-unfriendly campus in America. It mandates patriotic education for its students. It grabs headlines for refusing to compete against teams that kneel for the anthem.

As the head fund-raiser Jerry C. Davis told Forbes,

People don’t give us money because we’re like everybody else. . . . They give it to us because we’re different.

In other words, CofO isn’t trying to outrun the bear. It is not trying to be the best university in the United States. It is only trying to be more radically conservative than the other conservative schools with which it is competing.

Such “don’t-have-to-beat-the-bear” success has always been the case for conservative evangelical institutions. When dispensational scholars in the 1920s wanted to found a more consistently premillennial seminary in Dallas, for example—the school that eventually became Dallas Theological Seminary—their single-minded focus on dispensational premillennial theology caused their enrollments to triple in their first six years.

Between 1926 and 1947, the fundamentalist Bob Jones College grew from 88 students to over a thousand.

And when Wheaton College in Illinois joined the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s its enrollment leaped by over four hundred percent. In 1917, when it was just another small Christian college, sixty percent of its students came from Illinois. By 1938, it welcomed 75% of its students from other states and outside the USA. By declaring itself on the side of the Fundamentals, Wheaton appealed to a much larger national and international constituency. It no longer had to compete against all the other small colleges in Illinois.

None of these institutions promised to be the best colleges in the land. They didn’t need to. All they needed to do to bring in tuition and donation dollars was to satisfy a niche desire for safely conservative evangelical schools.

If Dunking is Dangerous…Then What?

It’s not flashy. It won’t make a lot of headlines or get a bazillion retweets. But the students at Cal-Berkeley have been answering a question we’ve been asking here lately. Namely, if it is dangerous to “dunk” on our culture-war opponents, what are we supposed to do?

berkeley antifa

Okay, be honest: Which picture would you click on first? This one…?

Here’s what we know: Since the riots in 2017, students and administrators in Berkeley have taken steps to improve the climate of free speech and civil discourse on campus. According to Inside Higher Ed, it has been more than just empty talk.

Crucially, progress toward real free debate and civil discussion did not come from one side alone. Berkeley’s College Republicans booted their former leader for his destructive, provocative tactics. The club committed to hosting conservative speakers who wanted to do more than simply start fights.

The university, too, opened up more physical space for un-approved demonstrations. They continued to invite conservative speakers to campus and to host civil debates between pundits of various culture-war persuasions.

What does any of this have to do with dunking on D’Souza? Tons.

berkeley christ

…or this one?

First, a recap: I took some lessons from the history of creationism to worry about the after-effects of the Twitter-shaming of conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. D’Souza has been fond of making historically inaccurate claims about the racial histories of the Republican and Democratic Party. With great success, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse has used Twitter to lay out the evidence against D’Souza’s claims.

So far, so good. But if we have learned anything from our continuing culture wars about creationism, it is this: Mere evidence alone will not win culture-war battles. Indeed, it will tend to prolong and embitter them.

Some smart readers asked the obvious follow-up question: If it is dangerous to simply shame and humiliate our culture-war opponents, what then? Do we simply watch quietly (and politely) from the sidelines as pundits spew falsehoods and bad ideas? That doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Maybe the students at Berkeley have given us a better answer. It’s not something that can be done unilaterally, but perhaps if both sides make real efforts to shun vapid, venal provocateurs we can move forward.