The Conservative/Christian Coalition Gets Weird…

You scratch my back, I’ll…erm…pretend I didn’t just see that dinosaur on Noah’s Ark. It’s not news that more-secular conservatives have long paired up awkwardly with Christian conservatives. With T-Diddy in the White House, though, things seem to be reaching a crescendo of ultimate weirdness. A couple of recent news stories underline the contortions that both sides have to go through to make America great again.

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Fox n Friends strategist: Who’da Thunk We’d Be Hanging out with Dinosaurs for this…?

First of all, let’s clear the air of a few stubborn misconceptions. As we’ve pointed out over and overSAGLRROILYBYGTH are likely tired of hearing it—there’s absolutely nothing “new” about the idea of conservative evangelicals getting involved in politics. The so-called “New Christian Right” of the 1970s was not the first time that evangelicals decided to jump into the political fray. As historians such as Daniel K. Williams, Matthew Avery Sutton, and yours truly have argued for years, evangelical Protestants have always been politically hyperactive.

As any historian knows—and any savvy evangelical could tell you—the evangelical community has always included political conservatives, political progressives, and a bunch of people in the political middle. The emergence of the “New Christian Right” was not a question of evangelicals getting into politics for the first time, but rather an always-awkward alliance between politically conservative evangelicals and the conservatives within the Republican Party.

Having said that, let’s look at some of the recent unpleasantness. At evangelical Taylor University in Indiana, for example (see our further coverage here), Vice President Mike Pence has caused a furor over his invitation to deliver a commencement address. Politically progressive members of the Taylor community have protested.

Not surprisingly, non-evangelical conservatives have weighed in to support the university’s decision. Non-evangelical conservatives have highlighted the justice of the conservative evangelical side at Taylor. For example, Fox & Friends tracked down a politically conservative alumnus of Taylor, who told them,

The vice president has very orthodox Christian beliefs – very traditional beliefs – that a vast majority of Christians believe. His political views are shared by a large section of America, so it’s not a radical choice, and I think people should be able to engage and disagree with his views and do it in a mature fashion.

The conservative PJ Media concluded,

Sadly, this incident illustrates yet again the trend of liberals demonizing dissent from their ideas. Conservative speech is not violence, and Mike Pence is not “rooted in hate.”

It’s no surprise that secular conservatives would jump in to side with evangelical conservatives at Taylor. After all, secular progressives have done the same thing for the anti-Pence side. Things get a little weirder, though, on a different episode of Fox & Friends.

fox n friends at the ark encounter

just…wow!

One of the F&F hosts, Todd Piro, goes on a tour of Answers In Genesis’ Ark Encounter. With a straight face, so to speak, the F&F segment shows the creationist megalith in all its zombie-science glory. The camera pans over dinosaurs in cages. Piro interviews visitors who sincerely praise the displays. As one earnest youth explains,

Not only did it give you the Biblical side, but it gave you a lot of scientific facts.

In his introduction, Piro says the Ark is just… “Wow!”

Not, ‘Wow, do you really believe that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans?’

Not, ‘Wow, do you really believe that a flood could have actually covered the entire planet?’

But, ‘Wow, this is a neat museum, full of learnin n stuff.’

Now, I’m no conservative, but I can understand perfectly well why non-evangelical conservatives would fall all over themselves to support Taylor’s conservative evangelicals. After all, both evangelical and non-evangelical conservatives can agree on their opposition to LGBTQ rights.

But I’m truly flabbergasted when I see non-evangelical reporters describing the Ark Encounter as if it were just another neat museum. How is it possible for anyone who is not themselves a radical young-earth creationist to see the Flintstones-level scientific displays and not ask about them? How is it possible that any journalist can see dinosaurs in cages and not wonder how they count as “scientific facts”?

Watching Piro sugar-coat the radical science on display at the Ark Encounter, one can almost hear the political calculations going on in the offices of Fox & Friends. We can almost hear the implicit deal non-evangelicals want to cut with evangelical conservatives. “You give us a solid 81% vote for T-Diddy,” we can hear them thinking, “You give us university commencement speeches for Pence, and we’ll give you a cake-walk visit to your kooky Bible-science museum and a stirring defense of your stubborn resistance to LGBTQ rights.”

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Will the Real Evangelical Please Stand Up?

I sympathize. I’m no evangelical myself, but I truly sympathize with all the caring, thoughtful, engaged evangelicals out there who have a hard time seeing the ugly truth. But all the sympathy in the world doesn’t make the truth less true, or any less ugly.

pence

Love him or hate him, Pence really does represent American evangelical values.

We saw it again this week in the news from Indiana. Writing in the Washington Post, Amy Peterson lamented the choice of Vice President Mike Pence to give the commencement speech at evangelical Taylor University.

Peterson was absolutely right that the choice of Pence serves as a signal to evangelicals of the kind of institution Taylor wants to be. She was definitely correct in suggesting that Pence sides with Taylor’s underground conservatives, evangelicals who want their institution to enforce traditional sexual norms and starchy moral codes.

But Peterson makes a common mistake in her conclusion. She reports that many faculty members and students at Taylor shared her dismay at the choice of Pence. She ends on this hopeful note,

If the uproar at Taylor this week is any indication, white evangelicals may not be such a monolithic voting bloc the next time around.

But that’s just it. The uproar at Taylor is NOT a fair indication of the way white evangelicals think. Or vote.

As Slacktivist Fred Clark calls it, “faculty lounge” evangelicalism is not a fair measure of evangelicalism as a whole. In other words, evangelical intellectuals are, by definition, not average. Their ideas about “real” evangelicalism do not match real American “evangelicalism.” As Clark put it,

the evangelicals of the faculty lounge cannot speak for most white evangelicals.

We’ve seen it over and over again. Not just in the twentieth century, as I examined in Fundamentalist U, but in the past five years. And not just at the more politically conservative schools such as Liberty—though it has been dominant there—but at “faculty-lounge” strongholds such as Wheaton. Just ask Larycia Hawkins.

This is not only a problem for evangelical academics, of course. I remember a hastily-assembled conference at my (very secular) home institution in November, 2016. A group of historians scrambled to put Trump’s election victory in context. We just couldn’t find any way to make good sense of it. Our vision of American values and American voting just didn’t match reality. But our confusion couldn’t change the fact that large numbers of Americans seemed to prefer Trump’s brand of toxic Americanism.

Evangelical academics are in the same boat. When they encourage their fellow white evangelicals not to put their nationalism before their religion, like Randy Beckum did, they are shocked to find such notions controversial.  Or, as Methodists found out recently, when they assume their ideas about sexuality are the world-wide norm, they get harshly disabused of such notions.

The Taylor/Pence story hits the same ugly notes. I sympathize entirely with Amy Peterson and her friends and allies at Taylor University. I wish evangelical institutions would embrace the best traditions of evangelical religion. I hope—though I don’t pray—that large numbers of white evangelicals reject Trump’s toxic Americanism at the polls in 2020.

In the end, however, we all need to face realities. The faculty and some students at Taylor might reel in dismay at the university’s decision to honor Mike Pence. But in the end, as Peterson recounts, lots of Taylor students and faculty loved it. And the school’s administrators, as always desperate to reassure students and families that they represent “real” evangelical values, decided that Pence embodied those values. When pollsters explore beyond the faculty lounge, they find that white evangelicals prefer Pence to Peterson.

The Creationist Harvard Is…

Quick: If you are a die-hard young-earth creationist, where would you want your kid to go to college? Bob Jones? Cedarville? They are both on Ken Ham’s list of “safe” schools. In fact, though, radical creationists are in a more complicated dilemma when it comes to elite higher education.CREATION COLLEGE MAP

Here’s what we know: In spite of their long-simmering resentment over the state of mainstream and liberal higher education—as I documented in Fundamentalist U—radical creationists are still trapped in a bitter one-way love affair with elite colleges. In the past, young-earth creationists pointed with pride to the credentials of people such as Kurt Wise.

Dr. Wise earned his PhD in the Harvard lab of the late Stephen Jay Gould. Yet Wise famously clung to his young-earths beliefs. As he wrote a few decades ago,

I am a young age creationist, because that is my understanding of the Scripture. . . . if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.

For years, Wise’s devotion to young-earth beliefs, coupled with his Harvard credentials, earned him the love and respect of the radical creationist community. And now radical creationists have another Crimson hero to celebrate. Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson recently explained his academic journey in the pages of WORLD Magazine. Dr. Jeanson also earned his PhD at Harvard without giving up his young-earth beliefs. As WORLD explained,

Jeanson entered Harvard with a burning desire to find a cure for cancer. He emerged with a determination to push back against evolution and help people struggling with science-religion tension find their way back to Biblical truth.

So what? This celebration of a real live creationist who studied in the world’s greatest university is still a source of enormous pride among radical creationists. As Ken Ham bragged on his blog, Dr. Jeanson’s career proves that their science is really science. As Ham put it,

Creation science is such an exciting field. Many people have this idea that creationists don’t do research, but that’s not true. Many creation scientists are actively involved in exciting discoveries regarding the world around us.

Ham’s celebration of creationist achievement highlights the century-old creationist dilemma. On the one hand, they need to explain to themselves why mainstream science no longer values their vision of proper science. Usually, that means dismissing bitterly those mainstream institutions as “deluded” or “biased.” On the other hand, though, radical creationists yearn endlessly for recognition from those same mainstream institutions.

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Who wants to go to Harvard? We all do…

Harvard has long symbolized the very best and worst of these trends in higher education. Henry Morris, the godfather of radical American creationism, called out Harvard by name in his book The Long War Against God. Harvard went wrong, Morris warned, back in 1869 when Charles Eliot took the helm. In Morris’s telling, Eliot appointed John Fiske, like Eliot a Unitarian, to “introduce and popularize evolutionism in the Harvard curriculum” (pp. 46-47).

Yet as the recent celebration of Dr. Jeanson makes clear, radical creationists still relish the thought of a Harvard diploma. In their view, Harvard may be a terrible and terrifying spiritual institution, but creationists still love it deep down in their hearts.

College Really IS Bad for Jesus

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

pew college graduates belief in god

Was Bryan right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Conservative Campus Strategy: Punch-bait!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progressive Methodists, Welcome to the World of Fundamentalism

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

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American Methodists: More conservative than you might have thought…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fundamentalist U Leads from Behind

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

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How “New”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fundamentalist U As Walmart U

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

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Leaders of the pack…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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They were online before online was online…

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

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

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

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

Blackface at Fundamentalist U

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

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

BJU VINTAGE 1954 blackface

From BJU’s 1954 yearbook.

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

BJU VINTAGE 1954 white robes

Another from 1954. ????

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

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

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

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

BJU VINTAGE 1965 201

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

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

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

For Evangelical Colleges: The Dangers of Keeping Up

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

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How Wheaton hoped to survive, c. 1980.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…plus football and dates.

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