Squaring the LGBTQ Circle

I thought I understood it, but this story has me stumped. I’ve wrestled with the complicated history of LGBTQ issues at evangelical universities, but I just don’t understand recent news out of evangelical flagship Fuller Seminary.

Fuller entranceHere’s what we know: The storied seminary is facing a lawsuit from a former student who was kicked out for being married to another woman. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I personally support greater LGBTQ rights at all institutions, civil and religious. But I also sympathize with the position of conservative religious schools for whom this issue poses an authentic moral conundrum.

In the twentieth century, evangelical universities had a shameful history of dealing with LGBTQ students, but so did non-evangelical ones. As historians Maggie Nash and Jennifer A.R. Silverman have argued, all sorts of universities conducted vicious purges of non-heterosexual students in the middle of the twentieth century.

In this century, many evangelical institutions have come to an uneasy and awkward position on LGBTQ rights. At many universities, for example, LGBTQ identity is welcomed, but LGBTQ “practice” is not. To my mind, this is not a very sustainable position. It feels like a temporary holding plan until institutions decide whether to support LGBTQ rights or to oppose them.

I don’t support that compromise, but at least I understand it. What I don’t understand is the position taken by Fuller Seminary. According to the LA Times,

Though the college does allow same-sex relationships, it does not allow “homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct” and has made clear that it believes sexual intimacy is reserved for a marriage between a man and a woman….

What is the distinction here? Did the reporter maybe just muddle the explanation of Fuller’s true position? Or maybe does Fuller allow students and faculty to be engaged in non-sexual same-sex relationships? That would explain the distinction between “same-sex relationships” and “homosexual sexual conduct.” In effect, that would be just another, more complicated way of stating the distinction between identity and practice made by several universities.

But even if that’s the explanation, it doesn’t seem to make sense in this case. How would Fuller know that the expelled student was engaged in “explicit sexual conduct” with her wife? According to the article, the student was expelled when her same-sex marriage was discovered by Fuller’s administrators. As everyone knows, however, there have been plenty of celibate marriages. That leads me to wonder if there is some other distinction being made in this case. Perhaps the problem comes from the student’s marriage. Maybe by Fuller’s definition, a “marriage” automatically implies “sexual conduct.” . . . ?

I’m honestly stumped. Can anyone explain it?

From the Archives: Why Chik-fil-A’s LGBTQ Decision Feels a Lot Like Evangelical Anti-Racism

It’s different. I get that. But this week’s furor over Chik-fil-A’s decision to defund anti-LGBTQ Christian groups feels a lot like the debates about race and racism among white evangelicals back in the late 20th century. This morning, I’d like to share one episode from 1970-71 that feels eerily familiar to this week’s Chik-fil-A story.chik fil a protest

Here’s what we know: The chicken chain is doing great, apparently. Chik-fil-A is now the world’s third biggest fast-food chain, after Starbucks and Micky D’s. But its anti-LGBTQ reputation has limited the chain’s growth. As a result, Chik-fil-A announced this week that it will no longer donate to the Salvation Army or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They will direct their philanthropy instead to groups with no anti-LGBTQ reputation.

Conservatives have reacted with predictable outrage. As crunchy conservative Rod Dreher put it,

I love Chick-fil-A, but it’s going to be a while before I go there again. This is nothing but gutless surrender.

Former Governor Mike Huckabee agreed, tweeting,

Today, @ChickfilA betrayed loyal customers for $$. I regret believing they would stay true to convictions of founder Truett Cathey. [sic] Sad.

huckabee chik fil a tweetConservative pundits are not wrong when they complain that moral orthodoxy about LGBTQ rights has changed rapidly. They can claim to agree with President Obama, c. 2008, when he still opposed same-sex marriage. They can insist, like Rod Dreher, that their recently moderate opinions have turned them suddenly into “pariahs.”

That’s all true enough, but from a historical perspective the current LGBTQ debates sound hauntingly familiar. Conservatives won’t relish the comparison, but today’s rapidly shifting mainstream attitudes toward LGBTQ rights feel very similar to shifting racial attitudes after World War II. As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, evangelical universities scrambled to keep up with those changes.

This morning I’d like to share more of a story that I didn’t have room to include in the book. One episode in particular seems relevant to today’s battle over the moral status of LGBTQ rights among conservative Christians.

The institution was the Moody Bible Institute, the year was 1970, and the moral question was racial segregation. MBI had invited fundamentalist celebrity John R. Rice to be a featured speaker at its annual Founder’s Day celebration. Rice had attracted notoriety recently for supporting the racial segregation at Bob Jones University.

Members of the MBI community protested. As one anonymous letter put it,

Dr. John R. Rice is an acknowledged racist.  Earlier this year, he invited Lester Maddox, also a racist, to speak at the Sword of the Lord anniversary.  Also, he published in his magazine why Bob Jones University refuses to admit Negroes.  By other statements in the article, he showed clearly his racist position.  We Do Not Want HIM IN CHICAGO.  If you bring him here to speak, we will have one of the biggest demonstrations Chicago has ever seen.  We will have all the publicity we need, radio, television, press, plus public demonstration of course every day of the conference, especially when he is going to speak and on the Alumni Day No matter what reason you have for bringing him here, there will be a demonstration by radical groups Let him stay down South with his racist companions.  You can get all the police and protection, we are still coming.  We are not coming to cause trouble.  We are trying to ‘help’ you wipe out racism.  We ‘love’ John R Rice too much to allow him to dehumanize himself here.  IF you IMMEDIATELY drop his name from the list of speakers, and PUBLICLY declare this IMMEDIATELY, then there will be no demonstration.  BUT again if you don’t, we are coming, black and white included.

What did MBI do? After consideration, the administration of William Culbertson agreed. They canceled Rice’s invitation. The manuscript of Culberton’s public statement shows how fraught the decision was. He went over and over the wording, cutting out sections that he thought would be too provocative. The things he cut are telling. Why, for example, might he have cut the phrase “of any kind?” Here’s the next-to-final draft, with edits included:

The Moody Bible Institute has for eighty-five years welcomed young people of all races and nationalities to its tuition-free training in the Bible.  Through times of changing social mores the policy has always been to emphasize the salvation from God by which all men who believe are made one in Christ.  We have sought, and do seek, to apply the spiritual principles set forth in the Word of God to the practical problems of our culture.  We believe that there is nothing in the Bible that forbids interracial relationships of any kind.

                In the present period of surging change we are grateful that among our racially mixed student body there seems to be little or no dissent, though some former students recently involved in civil rights activities have felt that we might have taken a more leading role than we have.  We are absolutely opposed to injustice and exploitation of any kind.  We are dedicated to the proposition that we are debtors to all men.

Just as with Chik-fil-A’s recent decision, MBI’s decision to disinvite a fundamentalist segregationist did not end the matter. The archival files are full of passionate letters in support of Rice and in support of MBI’s decision to disinvite him.

As one alum protested,

In cancelling Dr. Rice from this Conference you have robbed the Founder’s Week guests from great blessings, insulted a great man of God, and lost an opportunity to re-affirm the posture of Moody Bible Institute…[sic ellipsis in original] which by the way is in some question already, and more so now. … Last March, while attending a Pastor’s Conference in Hammond, I had dinner in the sweetshop at Moody.  To my surprise the students for the most part were mop-headed and unkept and were hardly what one would think of as Ambassadors of Christ. . . . I know that your action has alienated me, my wife and my church.

Other members of the expansive MBI community celebrated. As one faculty member wrote,

I have never been prouder to be a member of the Moody Bible Institute faculty.

The files in Culbertson’s archives are full of similar pro- and anti- letters about the decision to ban John R. Rice. The controversy proved so heated that MBI ended up canceling its entire Founder’s Day celebration for 1971. There just was no way they could continue without an embarrassingly public dispute about their moral commitment to racial integration.

anti john rice demonstration warning letter

Evangelical anti-racism, c. 1970. Does this smell like today’s Chik-fil-A?

It’s impossible not to hear echoes of the 1970 debate at MBI in today’s debate at Chik-fil-A.

We need to be careful, of course. The history of racism and segregation cannot be simply equated to today’s LGBTQ debates. The process by which evangelical institutions make these decisions, however, seems remarkably similar.

When mainstream moral values change, conservative evangelical institutions have difficult decisions to make. Do they go along with the changes? Do they re-examine their own moral assumptions in the light of changing social mores? Or do they stick to their guns, deciding that traditional ideas about issues such as racism and sexuality are in fact part of their compromise-proof religious commitment?

Why Do Scientists Defend Some LGBTQ Rights and Not Others?

Okay, all you science nerds—what do you make of this story? It raises a couple of big questions. First: among mainstream scientists, is anti-LGBTQ Christianity really more objectionable than anti-mainstream-science Christianity? And are some kinds of anti-LGBTQ religion more objectionable than others?GSA baylor adHere’s what we know: Two professional scientific organizations recently pulled job ads from Brigham Young University. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America yanked the ads because BYU discriminates against LGBTQ students and faculty.

I have my own strong opinions about this sort of move.* This morning, though, we’re not talking about me. Rather, we need to examine a couple of questions raised by this move. The first question is the most obvious, and it was raised by some faculty members at BYU. Namely, why is Brigham Young University being singled out for exclusion? The GSA, at least, still apparently welcomes ads from other universities that discriminate against LGBTQ students.baylor creationism

By accepting an ad from Baylor University—which has an explicit anti-LGBTQ “practice” policy—the GSA seems to be differentiating between types of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Why?

The decision to nix the BYU ads raises another troubling question: Would these science organizations take ads from institutions that dispute mainstream science itself? Though Baylor quickly reversed course, in the early part of this century it established a creationist science center on its campus. According to at least one report, President Robert Sloan tried to impose a religion litmus test on new faculty. As one participant later recalled,

Jim Patton, a professor of neuroscience, psychology, and biomedical studies and former chairman of his department, remembers sitting in on an interview with Sloan and a candidate for a psychology position. The young scholar was asked whether he went to church and read the Bible. When he answered yes, he was then asked the topic of that week’s Sunday school lesson and which theology texts he was currently reading. “If precise answers weren’t acceptable,” Patton told me, “folks weren’t allowed to work here.” Many professors came to feel that Sloan was filtering out everyone but the fundamentalists.

Baylor may have changed course in terms of creationism. But when the university was pushing a different kind of science, would the GSA or AGU have accepted ads from Baylor? Or would these professional organizations have made the same protest against alternative-science institutions that they make against (one) anti-LGTBQ one? And what about now?

These problems lead us to our questions of the day. What do you think:

  1. Should professional organizations discriminate against discriminating colleges?
  2. Should they be more consistent and ban Baylor, too? (And other anti-LGBTQ schools)?
  3. Should they defend mainstream science with the same vim that they use to defend LGBTQ rights?

____________________________________________________________________________________________

*In general, I support this sort of professional activism. I agree that anti-LGBTQ policies put institutions outside the realm of mainstream thinking. If religious institutions want to engage in anti-LGBTQ policies, that is their right, but such policies should not be supported by public money. And other institutions, such as these professional societies, are well within their rights to exclude discriminatory colleges. I personally would support such a move by my closest professional organization, the History of Education Society (US). But just to make sure everyone dislikes me, I also advocate more freedom for students to participate in discriminatory student groups.

Can Big-Time Sports Do It Again?

[Editor’s Note: Well, they went down in flames, but Liberty football gave it a good go yesterday against Brigham Young University. As commentators scrambled to explain the cultural significance of this gridiron contest, I thought it might be worth rerunning this piece from last year. As Liberty U climbs the peaks of college respectability, it will find itself paying a higher and higher price for its stubborn refusal to accept other parts mainstream higher-ed normalcy.  We’ve seen that Liberty faces some unique pressure in its quest to retain top faculty. Will its dream to become the “Notre Dame” of the evangelical world lead it to a different sort of conformist pressure?] liberty v byu

I never thought I’d see it, but here it is. Following Brigham Young University’s tentative opening to LGBTQ+ students and issues, could the same spark change things in evangelical higher ed? After all, schools like Liberty have long yearned to follow the BYU path in one crucial area.

BYU LGBTQ

Here’s what we know: Liberty University in particular has always jonesed for recognition as a leading university, and sports has always been one of its preferred qualifications. As President Pierre Guillermin put it awkwardly in 1982, Liberty wanted to be “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.”

Of course, the Catholic leaders of Notre Dame might say that they already ARE the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically, but let’s move on. The central point is that leaders of evangelical higher education have always wanted recognition as more than just niche colleges; they have always wanted to reclaim their role as the leaders of American higher education overall.

When Liberty brilliantly and ruthlessly capitalized on the possibilities of online education, current president Jerry Falwell Jr. did not invest the money back into Liberty’s online program. No, Falwell tried to make the old Liberty dream come true. He poured money into traditional campus amenities, especially including Liberty’s athletic program.

This year, the investment paid off. Liberty beat top-ranked Baylor in football, triggering a joyous campus-wide freak-out. Which leads us to our question: Will the dream of big-time sports force Liberty to open itself to friendlier LGBTQ+ policies?

After all, that’s what seems to be happening at Brigham Young. As Chronicle of Higher Ed reports this morning, BYU’s recent tentative opening to LGBTQ+ students was sparked by BYU’s lust for athletic recognition.

As CHE recounts,

In 2016, the Big 12 Conference announced it was officially considering expansion. BYU’s administrators and athletic director jumped at the chance to join. But publicly vying to join the conference brought on national criticism of the university, which observers said did not uphold the NCAA’s stated support of inclusivity because of its treatment of LGBTQ students.

After the university’s effort to join the Big 12 failed, Tom Holmoe, the athletic director, suggested that pushback from LGBTQ advocate groups stood in its way. In response, BYU requested an invitation to the NCAA’s annual Common Ground conference, an effort begun in 2014 to provide a place where leaders and students at religious institutions can talk about LGBTQ issues and “begin exploring how to bridge these gaps and find common ground.”

Might Liberty follow a similar path?

Generations of Christian pleading for equality and recognition have scored only minor victories. As I noted in my recent book and in these pages, administrators at evangelical colleges—even the more liberal schools—are under intense pressure not to change their rules about same-sex issues.

Perhaps it will take a different sort of pressure from a different direction to really change things in evangelical higher education.

Gov’t Fights Anti-Christian Bias: Will Conservatives Celebrate?

Maybe you didn’t see this one, because no one seems to be talking about it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed suit against a Pennsylvania company for bias against three Christian employees. On first blush, it seems like a story that culture-war conservatives would want to celebrate.

EEOC

Big Government fighting for persecuted Christians…

After all, this seems to be good news for conservative Christians. In this case, the EEOC alleges that three workers were insulted and treated badly. Their Pentecostal religion was demeaned as a “disgusting cult.” The suit points out that creation of a “hostile work environment and disparate treatment” due to the workers’ national origin and religion constitutes “unlawful practices.”

On its face, this diligent protection of conservative Christians might seem like good news for anxious religious conservatives. Very different types of conservative Christians have lamented the fact that mainstream society and government persecute traditional Christians.

From the crunchy side, for example, Rod Dreher warns,

the cultural left—which is to say, the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.

And from the Kentucky creationism side, Ken Ham has insisted,

It’s not enough to just tell students, ‘Believe in Jesus!’ Faith that is not founded on fact will ultimately falter in the storm of secularism that our students face every day. . . . Our country has forsaken its Christian soul. We need to see that for what it is.

Rod Dreher and Ken Ham probably wouldn’t agree on much, but as Christian conservatives they agree that mainstream society has turned hopelessly anti-Christian. Yet I’m guessing they won’t take this story as good news. Why not?

First, it is simply bad strategy for them to notice. Like a lot of conservative cassandras, Dreher and Ham have both put all their chips on a persecution story. A more complicated version of that story won’t help them much.

If more thoughtful folks like Dreher DO comment on this story, they could explain it a couple of ways. First, they might claim that conservative religion was more of a free-rider in this case. The government was really interested in protecting these particular Christians because they were also insulted for their Puerto Rican heritage. Plus, intellectuals like Mr. Dreher might point out that this sort of legal protection is beside the point. Sure, the EEOC might fight against insults and harassment, but the EEOC will then turn around and persecute Christians who do not recognize LGBTQ rights. The actual beliefs of conservative Christians, Dreher might say, are nowhere protected.

So although these three plaintiffs might have the government on their side when they are mocked for being Puerto Rican Pentecostals, Mr. Dreher might retort, when they actually try to live their lives as demanded by their Christian faith, they become instead the target of the EEOC.

Or maybe conservative pundits just won’t say anything at all.

Is Trump the Real Menace to Evangelical Higher Ed?

We’ve had a lot to talk about this week. When Beto O’Rourke told CNN he would try to revoke the tax-exempt status of any religious institution that didn’t recognize same-sex marriage, he set off a firestorm among the evangelical-higher-ed community. As two Democratic congresspeople pointed out this week, though, the bigger threat to evangelical higher ed might actually be coming from a very different direction.

As SAGLRROILYYBYGTH are aware, the discussions at evangelical universities and colleges about LGBTQ rights have been intense. By stating that he would revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that did not recognize same-sex marriage, O’Rourke raised the specter of Bob Jones University v. USA. Back in the 1980s, that SCOTUS case proved that the government really could deny tax-exempt status to schools that insisted on maintaining racial segregation. Might the government make a similar move about LGBTQ rights?

Evangelical intellectuals reacted furiously. As John Fea commented,

Beto has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination. His campaign has been on life support for a long time and last night he probably killed it.  You better believe that his comment will rally the Trump base and legitimate the fears of millions of evangelical Christians.

In my opinion, too, Beto’s comment was a poorly considered response to a badly worded question. I’m no evangelical, but like Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta, I disagree with Beto on two counts. First of all, the government should not be in the business of policing religious belief. (When we want to talk about federal funds for student loans, we will need to have a different conversation.) Second, though, simply strategically, Beto goofed. In short, when the clown car of Trumpism is on fire, opponents should do everything they can to help people escape. It makes no strategic sense to lock people in.

Unnoticed in all the hubbubery about Beto’s comments, though, two Democratic congresspeople this week sent a letter to Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos. Representatives Andy Levin of Michigan and Jamie Raskin of Maryland complained that the Trump administration was selectively enforcing its rules about campus free speech.

As they noted, President Trump signed an executive order threatening to withhold grants from universities that do not welcome free speech. The idea was to punish public universities such as the University of California that de-platformed conservative speakers. As the congresspeople noted, however, the worst offenders against campus free speech are conservative evangelical colleges like Liberty University.

As the Congresspeople complained,

Despite Executive Order 13864, which directs the Department to ensure institutions promote free inquiry, you have failed to act in cases of suppression of ideas that involve the administration’s political allies, such as Liberty University.

It’s not just Liberty U., which by any standards is an outlier in the field of evangelical higher ed. As I’ve argued in these pages and in Fundamentalist U, free speech presents a unique challenge to conservative evangelical higher education as a whole. Restrictions on speech and belief are the defining feature of evangelical universities. Unlike mainstream colleges, evangelical colleges do not claim to represent forums for all sorts of controversial ideas.

liberty letter devos

Dear Queen Betsy:

Threatening to revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that don’t believe in same-sex marriage might sound scary to conservative evangelicals. But Trump’s warning to revoke student grants from institutions that don’t recognize free-speech rights should be of more immediate concern. To be fair, Trump’s executive order specified that private institutions should only be pushed into

compliance with stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech.

Presumably, that wouldn’t help Liberty much, but it would give cover to conservative evangelical colleges that respect their own official rules restricting student and faculty speech. However, in the big picture, by threatening to take federal action against schools that restrict free speech, Trump might be planting the seeds of a longer-term problem for evangelical institutions.

After all, the language of LGBTQ rights has some wiggle room. Plenty of evangelical institutions could plausibly claim to recognize the rights of LGBTQ students and faculty while still embracing their religious skepticism about LGBTQ “practice.”

When it comes to free speech, however, evangelical universities have been built on a promise of restriction. If they were forced to abandon those rules, it would force them to give up the biggest single feature that distinguishes them from mainstream higher ed. It is free speech, not LGBTQ rights, that is the most important thing separating evangelical colleges from others.

Beto is talking a lot, but the real danger to evangelical higher ed might come from the other side. It might be Trump, in the end, who blunders into undermining the very foundation of evangelical higher ed.

Christian College? Or Hetero U?

What’s the problem? That’s the question I’ve heard from interested evangelical-higher-ed watchers the last couple days. Since I warned that Gordon College’s ‘uge new donation could put them in a difficult position, people have asked me to explain my concern. What is so bad about a gigantic donation? In short, I worry that huge donations—and even the promise of huge donations—has always threatened the religious mission of evangelical universities and colleges.

american studies conference 1966 program

…the plans for the canceled NFEC conference at Gordon:

First, a quick reminder: Gordon College announced last year that it was in financial straits. To survive, Gordon restructured its academic offerings and reduced its faculty. This week, Gordon announced a $75.5 million donation from an anonymous source.

Second, a disclaimer: I have absolutely no inside information about the goings-on at Gordon. I do not know anything about the goals of the anonymous donor. I don’t know if there were any formal strings attached to the donation. Plus, I have no skin in this game. I am not an alumnus or financial supporter of any evangelical colleges. I’m just a mild-mannered secular historian with a lot of respect for evangelical academic life.

Third, the history: Back in the 1960s, Gordon faced a similar dilemma, as did many conservative evangelical colleges. As I described in Fundamentalist U, Gordon’s president in the 1960s was excited about a new funding source. The National Freedom Education Center offered evangelical colleges financial support if presidents signed their schools up. Participating schools would agree to align their teaching with free-market/free-enterprise conservatism. As the NFEC leaders put it,

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

President Forrester was on board. Faculty members on campus pushed back. When President Forrester announced his plans for a big free-enterprise conference on Gordon’s campus, faculty rejected the plan. One influential faculty leader said Gordon was against a merely political program. He insisted Gordon would not ever indoctrinate students with “a program of education in conservative thinking”. His vision, and the vision of most faculty members at the time, was that their conservative religion was far broader than mere political conservatism. Even if many of them personally supported free-market ideas.

national freedom education center letterhead

There are ALWAYS strings attached…

Fourth, the problem: Back in the 1960s, evangelical intellectuals at Gordon and elsewhere rejected the pressure to adapt their teaching to only one secular conservative goal. They also rejected the funding that went along with it.

Today, institutions such as Gordon College are taking a lonely stand in favor of conservative evangelical thinking about gender identity and sexual morality. As today’s President [and, full disclosure, a former postdoc colleague of mine] D. Michael Lindsay told evangelical journalists, his school has become a “city on a hill” in secular New England.

In my view, this presents a 2019 version of Gordon’s 1965 dilemma. If they take money from people who want them to over-emphasize only one part of their evangelical mission, it is a dangerous move. It threatens to narrow their traditionally broad evangelical emphasis to only one issue. Yes, many conservative evangelicals today hope to emphasize traditional sexual morality and marriage rules, but that has never been the sole defining issue of their religion. It has certainly never been the sole defining issue of a Gordon College education.

Back in the 1960s, faculty leaders had the power to reject the free-marketeering imposition of the National Freedom Education Center. They rejected the pressure and temptation to turn their Christian college into a single-issue education center.

Today’s faculty members at Gordon and other schools might not have the same power. They are very aware of the effects of financial hard times, with programs slashed and faculty positions eliminated. But the danger seems the same. To survive, will Gordon and other evangelicals schools take money that pushes them to emphasize only one aspect of their complex Christian goals? Will they give up their goal of being an evangelical Christian college to focus on being primarily a Traditional-Marriage University?

Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

A Dangerous Payday for Evangelical Colleges?

Is it worth it? Evangelical college-watchers are agog about a huge new donation to Gordon College in Massachusetts. I have to wonder if this is part of a new culture-war playbook for evangelical higher ed. Will the hidden costs of this largesse end up being too steep? After all, back in the 1960s, Gordon’s faculty turned down this kind of financial support.

Here’s what we know, and it’s not much: Christianity Today reports an anonymous donation of $75.5 million to Gordon. As CT describes, this is a very unusual event in the world of evangelical higher education. Only a handful of evangelical universities have ever received gifts this large.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH will recall, this comes on the heels of Gordon’s recent belt-tightening announcement. Last May, Gordon restructured its academic offerings. Faculty were let go, budgets were cut. It wasn’t a stretch to wonder how long Gordon would survive.

Now, for a little while at least, the financial wolf seems to have been chased from Gordon’s door. We don’t know why, but it seems fair to assume that the anonymous donor wanted to see Gordon continue its evangelical mission.

We’re only guessing, but it seems reasonable to assume that the donor might have shared the belief that Gordon played a unique role in its region. As CT described,

[Gordon]’s both a well-known liberal arts college among Christians and an evangelical bastion in increasingly secular New England, surrounded by some of the most competitive, prestigious universities on the planet.

“We’re, respectfully, a city on a hill in this part of the world,” [President D. Michael] Lindsay said. “When our chapel services meet, it’s one of the largest gatherings of evangelical Christians in the Northeast. We’re the largest evangelical employer in six states.”

I agree with President Lindsay. His school really does represent a lonely conservative evangelical voice in the Boston metro area. Under his leadership, Gordon has tacked in more conservative culture-war directions. Five years ago, President Lindsay affirmed Gordon’s established policy against sex outside of heterosexual marriage. And at the time, some conservative evangelicals offered Lindsay some advice that turned out to be prophetic. As one conservative writer wrote in 2014,

To Michael Lindsay, the gifted president of Gordon, and to the board of trustees, I remind you: Many eyes are watching you, knowing that the decisions you make could either strengthen or dishearten many other schools that will soon be put under similar pressure.

I have no idea who Gordon’s anonymous benefactor might be, but I can’t help but wonder: Is this huge gift meant to keep President Lindsay’s evangelical “city on the hill” alive and kicking? …to maintain a conservative evangelical citadel in New England? Was the donor one of the many people watching Lindsay back in 2014, and is this donation a result of Lindsay’s conservative stances?

If so, it presents a difficult dilemma for evangelical college leaders worldwide. Yes, taking a firm political stand might earn you huge donations like this one. But they also change inexorably the mission of your school. Instead of focusing primarily on educating young people in evangelical ways, Gordon might now be tempted to organize itself in ways that satisfy big culture-war supporters.

Again, all this is pure speculation at this point. However, none of it seems outlandish. And the danger is clear: If evangelical colleges tack to the political right to attract big donors, will they be able to continue their traditional mission of providing excellent liberal-arts educations to new generations of evangelical students?

In the twentieth century, the faculty at Gordon College rejected attempts to transform their school into a merely politically conservative institution. Today, the power on Gordon’s campus has clearly shifted. Will Gordon and other evangelical colleges resist the allure of a big payday, if it means watering down their traditional liberal-arts focus?

Hope for Campus Christians?

If the decision at Duke left evangelical Christians bummed, this one from Iowa might lift their culture-war spirits. Not only did the Obama-appointed federal judge rule on the side of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, but she threatened to hit the offending college administrators where it hurts. And she included the Hawkapellas.

hawkapellas Iowa

I’m guessing the Hawkapellas didn’t think they’d be part of this culture-war battle…

Here’s what we know: According to Inside Higher Ed, federal judge Stephanie Rose issued her second ruling against the University of Iowa. Back in January, she ruled that the university could not fairly de-recognize Business Leaders in Christ. Now, she ruled not only that the university unfairly de-recognized Intervarsity, but that the university leaders should have known better. She intimated that specific administrators might be personally financially liable.

This ruling might change the climate of these campus de-recognition battles in two big ways. First of all, Judge Rose explicitly agreed that Christian groups can’t be singled out for their discriminatory policies. In Iowa, at least, plenty of other groups discriminate yet were allowed to remain on campus.

She lists several student organizations. The all-female Hawkapella singing club, for example, restricts its membership to women. The Tau Sigma Military Dental Club is only open to military-sponsored students. The Iowa National Lawyer’s Guild “excludes individuals because of their political views, even though such an exclusion constitutes discrimination on the basis of creed.”

As the judge ruled,

The University purports to apply the Human Rights Policy to RSOs [Registered Student Organizations] such that they may not speak about religion, gender, homosexuality, creed, and numerous other protected characteristics through their membership and leadership criteria. But whereas InterVarsity may not require or even encourage its leaders to subscribe to its faith, other RSOs are free to limit membership and leadership based on the Human Rights Policy’s protected characteristics.

How can a university allow the Hawkapellas without including the Intervarsities? How can it recognize some groups that discriminate in their membership and leadership policies and not others? Judge Rose thinks they can’t. At least, not legally.

Perhaps most important, Judge Rose ruled that specific university administrators could be subject to financial damages. I can’t help but think that that provision will make cautious administrators at other schools sit up and take notice.