Why Jimmy Carter?

If you didn’t know much about Liberty University or conservative evangelical higher education, you might be surprised to hear that President Jimmy Carter will be giving the commencement address at Liberty this year.

Trump at liberty

Glories of past Liberty commencements…

For SAGLRROILYBYGTH, it makes perfect sense. I lay out my case this morning at The Conversation why Jerry Falwell Jr. would want President Carter to come to Lynchburg.

Why would he? Click on over and check it out. Let me know if you think I’m off base.

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Gone but Not Forgotten

Do I have a problem? For sure. Am I embarrassed about it? Not at all. But I do want to make my case for the importance of old grudges and festering scars in understanding the world of evangelical higher education.

griffith moral combat

Good company…

Here’s the context: I’m grateful to Professor John Compton and the LA Review of Books for a recent review of Fundamentalist U. I’m doubly honored to have my book partnered with R. Marie Griffith’s recent blockbuster Moral Combat.

Even better, Compton has nice things to say about my book. As he puts it, Fundamentalist U

offers an invaluable introduction to the esoteric world of Christian higher education. Few existing studies offer this level of insight into the inner workings of schools like BJU and Liberty.

Compton captures the central dilemmas I emphasized, such as the tension between keeping students safe and keeping up with changing academic trends. He notes the important divisions that emerge between new “evangelical” colleges and stalwart “fundamentalist” ones.

I can’t help but comment, though, on one of Compton’s points. He is doubtless absolutely correct when he states,

some readers may be turned off by Laats’s fascination with long-forgotten rivalries involving long-dead university administrators[.]

I am certainly fascinated by such things. And I don’t doubt that sensible people have better things to do with their time than ponder the administrative squabbles in Cleveland, Tennessee or Wheaton, Illinois in 1937. This is why I don’t get invited out very often. Most people are, in fact, turned off by my fascination with these questions.

For those of us who hope to understand American evangelicalism, though, there’s no way we can consider such rivalries “long-forgotten.” As in any family feud, time may have obscured the details, but it has not tempered the animosity. If anything, bitter feelings caused in 1937 may have earned angry compound emotional interest over the decades, giving original squabbles a power and fury they didn’t originally possess.

To give just one example from the book, I can certainly see how many readers might not immediately care about the firing of President J. Oliver Buswell from Wheaton College in the 1930s. President Buswell wanted Wheaton to pursue a more theologically pure separatist approach. He wanted Wheaton to encourage its faculty and students to withdraw from mainline Protestant denominations and focus instead on creating a consistently conservative evangelical institution.

Wheaton’s trustees disagreed. They insisted that Wheaton maintain its efforts to attract conservative students who remained within mainline denominations as well as those that joined breakaway fundamentalist churches.

As Professor Compton notes, all the players in this 1930s drama are long-dead. But their squabble is anything but long-forgotten. Throughout its history, Wheaton struggled to figure out how to handle the tension between conservative purity and (relatively) big-tent inclusiveness. Time after time, whenever faculty members challenged the vagaries of Wheaton’s assumptions about orthodoxy, they were given the boot.

If you think these patterns are no longer in effect, just ask Professor Hawkins. Perhaps no one in that recent Wheaton battle invoked the specter of President Buswell’s 1930s ouster, but the college as a whole still deals with the echoes of every long-ago conflict.

What They Missed about Liberty Online

Want to understand evangelical higher education these days? Then you need to read the recent exposé of Liberty University’s online program in the New York Times. But when you do, remember that they left out a central piece of the picture.

moody literature mission

Early distance-learning programs at MBI claimed to reach the world with cutting-edge technology, c. 1947. These “mountaineers” got free Gospels if they read them in school. And, yes, that is their school building.

The Liberty Online story is a big one. As the Times article describes, Liberty now claims $2.5 billion (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) in net assets, largely from its online department. Because Liberty is a non-profit, it is not subject to the same oversight as for-profit schools such as Corinthian and the University of Phoenix.

Some online students, the article describes, felt pressured to sign up and ripped off with the results. As one unhappy former Liberty student told the Times,

What’s killing me is that I went into this program to try to change my situation . . . and I’m worse off than I was at the beginning.

It’s an ugly story. There is no doubt that Liberty’s online program has been a cash cow. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, there’s also no doubt that Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. has plowed his online profits back into the brick-and-mortar campus. Sports, star faculty, and campus facilities all get plenty of funding. Recently, the Liberty football squad used that money to fulfill one of the school’s long-standing dreams by defeating top-ranked Baylor.

But the Times story leaves out a crucial part of the historical context. The way they put it, Liberty’s online program came about as part of an experiment, an “educational novelty.” As the article explains,

One educational novelty that Falwell dabbled in, starting in the mid-’70s, was an early form of distance learning. Liberty would mail lecture videotapes and course packets to paying customers around the country — at first just certificate courses in Bible studies, and by the mid-’80s, accredited courses in other subjects as well.

The inspiration, according to the NYT, was the work of John Sperling and the University of Phoenix. I don’t doubt that President Falwell Jr. admired Sperling’s business model. I don’t dismiss the importance of the notion that Falwell has treated his school, as he told NYT, “like a business.”

However, if we really want to understand Liberty’s online success, we have to also understand its context as part of the history of evangelical higher education. It is difficult for some secular people (like me) to notice or acknowledge, but evangelical schools and missionary institutions have always led the way with finding new ways to use new technology to deliver distance education.

letterhead from BGC 3

Check out the 1950s-era “high-tech” logo! More evidence of the evangelical obsession with technology and distance learning, from Fuller Seminary, c. 1956.

Perhaps the best example might be the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. No matter the decade, no matter the technology, the Moody educational empire has found ways to expand its reach using new technological means. The drive is obvious: For MBI and other evangelical institutions, the primary goal is to deliver the Gospel to as many human eyes and ears as possible, as fast as possible. If new technology will help accomplish that mission, all the better.

To note just a few of the best-known programs, MBI was a pioneer in early radio, with its WMBI established in 1926 to bring the Word to the world. By 1940, WMBI’s Radio School of the Bible had over 10,000 registrants. In 1942, WMBI claimed to broadcast its programs through 187 radio stations across the USA, Canada, China, and Latin America.

In the 1940s, MBI set up its Moody Institute of Science, distributing missionary science films to a wide audience.

At the same time, MBI carried out less-well-known distance-learning programs as well. As I discovered in the MBI archives, from the 1920s through the 1960s the Moody Literature Mission delivered millions of books and tracts to readers throughout the country and throughout the world.

The point of these distance-learning programs was always the same. MBI, like all evangelical colleges and universities, had a mission of missions. It was dedicated to training young people to carry the Gospel around the world. And, unlike some people’s image of stuffy Luddite conservatives, evangelical institutions were always pioneers in every type of technology: print, radio, film, and internet.

So when the Jerry Falwells experimented with distance education, they weren’t innovating at all, really. Rather, they were merely continuing the long tradition of evangelical higher education—using all available means to deliver the Gospel around the world.

Biblical Peanut Butter at the Museum of the Bible

What is the Museum of the Bible for? Its conservative-evangelical founders insist it is supposed to be more like the Smithsonian than the Ark Encounter, but recent revelations have left me puzzled.motb-peanut-carver.jpeg

Here’s what we know: Thanks to the generosity and diligence of an ILYBYGTH correspondent who prefers to remain anonymous, your humble editor recently came into possession of some MOTB publications.

Most intriguing, MOTB publishes a glossy booklet, 99 Earth-Shattering Events Linked to the Bible. As the title promises, this publication offers biblical connections to 99 key events in human history, from the Magna Carta to Nelson Mandela.

Some of them have left this reader scratching his head. They certainly seem more Ark Encounter than Smithsonian. Am I missing something?

For example, the book credits the Bible for inspiring George Washington Carver to “Unlock . . . Peanut’s Potential.” We all know Carver’s remarkable story. In this telling, though, it was not grit or genius or perseverance that fueled Carter’s career, but rather the text of Genesis I. “To Carver,” the booklet explains,

This Bible passage revealed the potential of what he could do with the peanut to help others be lifted from poverty—particularly, the struggling African American farmers.

To this reader, the connection seems…strained, to say the least. Dr. Carver may have been an earnest Bible-believing Christian and he may have given his faith credit for his work. But so did the white-supremacist politicians and their violent allies who forced African American scientists into segregated institutions.

How can we credit the Bible for one, without also blaming it for the other? To me, this seems like Wallbuilders history–not a sincere attempt to understand the past, but rather a collection of awkward celebrations that distort the historical record.

Keeping the Faith in Evangelical Colleges

Thanks to Eric Miller and Religion & Politics for publishing an interview this afternoon about Fundamentalist U.Bob-Jones-GettyImages-50615822-780x508

Professor Miller asked questions that got right at the heart of the book: What does it mean to be a “real” college? How did students react to the strict rules at evangelical colleges? Do evangelical schools have academic freedom?

Click on over to read the entire thing.

At first, I thought Professor Miller was simply a peculiarly acute reader, but it turns out he himself spent some time in evangelical higher ed, so he really knew what he was talking about.

Cheapskate Corner!

Okay, SAGLRROILYBYGTH: No more excuses. You can’t afford NOT to buy your copy of Fundamentalist U now.

amazon saleApparently sales have been brisk. By the mysterious logarithms of our Amazon overlords, that means they lower the sticker price. I noticed this morning that Amazon has lowered the price to a measly fifteen bucks! So get yr copy today.

Dayton Dilemmas I: WBR and Christian Nationalism

How could they do it? How could earnest, intelligent, educated Christians ever mash together their faith with their patriotism? That’s the tough question people were asking yesterday at the University of Dayton. I don’t have an easy answer, but I do think the case of William Bell Riley helps shed some light on it.dayton flyers

First, the background: Thanks to the dynamic scholarly duo of Professors Bill and Susan Trollinger, authors (among other things) of Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’m down in sunny Dayton, Ohio these days. Yesterday I talked with members of the Flyer community about my recent book, Fundamentalist U. I focused on the long tradition in evangelical higher education of combining conservative evangelical Protestant faith with a certain sort of Make-America-Great-Again patriotism.

The argument I tried to make is that white fundamentalists have always felt a deep sense of proprietary interest in the United States. For white fundamentalists, America has always been “our” country. Over the course of the twentieth century, in schools and society, fundamentalists have felt kicked out by trends toward secularism and political liberalism. They have repeatedly rallied to politicians who have promised to Make America Great Again.

righting america at the creation museumTrump’s not the first. As audience members pointed out, we can go back to Reagan and Nixon to find coded and not-so-coded appeals to “law-and-order,” the “silent majority,” and “shining cities on a hill.” For white evangelical voters, particularly the more politically conservative among them, those campaign promises have always been enormously appealing.

Some of the intellectuals in the audience—steeped in a very different tradition, the Catholic intellectual tradition—asked the tough question: How could any Christian of any denominational background ever mix up their priorities so badly? How could any Christian confuse his (primary) devotion to his religion with his (secondary) devotion to his country?

I had the chance to talk with Professor Bill Trollinger about the question. Bill is the universe’s greatest expert in the life and career of 1920s fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley. Riley, like many early fundamentalists, was a devoted Baptist. For Riley, in the early 1920s fundamentalism was a campaign to take back his denomination from the worrisome liberal trends that had begun to creep in.

American Baptists, ever since the days of Roger Williams, have placed an enormous emphasis on the freedom of the church from the government, and on the inviolate primacy of religious devotion over any political loyalty. By the twentieth century, however, Baptist fundamentalists like William Bell Riley seemed to have lost their yen for avoiding entanglement with government. Riley and other Baptist fundamentalists pushed hard to establish (or, as they would put it, re-establish) their evangelical religion in a more prominent place in public life. They wanted greater influence on public affairs. They hoped for increased influence on government decisions, such as banning alcohol, gambling, and other immoral activities.gods empire

How did that happen? How did ardent Baptists become so enthusiastic about “taking back America”?

Professor Trollinger and I came up with a short list, and I hope SAGLRROILYBYGTH will add their two cents.

How did fundamentalists like Riley combine their devotion to their religions with their devotion to the USA?

1.) Riley would always agree that church and state should be separate, but that the church must always represent the conscience of the society.

So although there must never be church control of government, government leaders should always be guided by religious leaders. Riley’s career could be characterized, in fact, by his increasing bitterness and resentment at his perceived lack of Main-Street influence. By the end of his life, Riley had become a vengeful, anti-semitic extremist, dedicated to sour conspiracy theories to explain his failure to establish himself in the level of public leadership to which he felt entitled.

2.) Riley wanted influence and was in part blinded by patriotic tradition.

Like many fundamentalists since, Riley failed in some measure to maintain his own Baptist tradition, even though he would never admit that. For Riley, as for many fundamentalists of later generations, America became representative of a Christian community. The division between church and society—if not church and state—became blurred in Riley’s mind and in his activism.

3.) The devil made them do it.

For many fundamentalists, political activism was intimately, necessarily connected and equated with religious activism. Patriotism was inseparable from faith. Why? Because of their belief in literal, incarnate supernatural entities acting through political entities. But we’ll save that for our next post.

Who Cares about Fundamentalist U?

It’s not just a topic for evangelical intellectuals. Recently, journalist Lauren Gilger asked me some great questions about my new book. Among the most pressing is this one: Why should the rest of us care about evangelical higher ed?

KJZZ_Gen_BlackBlue

Why care about evangelical colleges?

You can listen to the whole interview at Phoenix’s KJZZ: The Show.

Thanks, CHE!

No, no, no, not THAT Che. I mean the Chronicle of Higher Education. Peter Monaghan recently featured my new book in their pages.

CheHigh

urm…different CHE.

Monaghan put his finger squarely on several of the most important issues in the world of evangelical higher education.

For example, as Monaghan explains, the world of evangelical higher education is not somehow trapped in the past. As he puts it,

Many newcomers to the inner workings of fundamentalist Christian colleges are surprised to learn that the institutions consider themselves not just righteous but also thoroughly “modern.”

The differences between evangelical and non-evangelical higher education is therefore not as stark as some outsiders might think. As Monaghan concludes,

Like elite secular institutions . . . fundamentalist ones seek to thrive by “developing a niche that they can exploit,” selling themselves as “experiences” that transform young people. They describe themselves as hubs of academic endeavor, with prospectuses little different from those of their nonreligious peers. Leaders also promote their institutions’ distinguishing features, like size, location, and sports programs, aware that evangelical families want to provide their children with more than doctrinal guidance during their college years.

Almost makes you want to read the whole book, don’t it?

Word Up.

Woo–here’s another doozy. I’m doing background reading for my new research project and I came across this phrase from the mid-1800s.Gilfoyle word up

“Noctivagous strumpetocracy”?!??!??

I think I get it, but it’s hard to be sure. Props to historian Timothy Gilfoyle, City of Eros (1992). Great book, great glossary.