[UPDATE: Good news! As of July, 2016, I’ve signed a publishing contract with Oxford University Press for this book. I’m very grateful to the folks there for their interest and enthusiasm. Plus, the anonymous readers that offered reviews have given me a lot to think about. Their suggestions will help me improve and revise the existing chapters. When will the book finally come out? It’s still a long way from actual bookshelves, but I’ve promised the editor that I will deliver a complete manuscript by May, 2017. So…I better get back to work!]
If you want to run for President as a Republican these days, there seems to be a new requirement. In addition to shaking hands, kissing babies, and eating barbecue, every GOP hopeful since Reagan has added a stop at a conservative evangelical college. Why? What do these schools mean in the fractious politics of culture-war America?
In my new book, tentatively titled Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, I’m exploring the complex history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education. In many ways, these schools have functioned as institutional hubs in the kaleidoscopic world of conservative evangelicalism. From Reagan to Romney, from Cruz to (Jeb) Bush, politicians hoping to woo the conservative religious vote have visited conservative schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty University.
When the GOP contest kicked off for 2016, too, the tradition continued. Texas Senator Ted Cruz jump-started the race in March, 2015. Guess where he headed to make the announcement? And when it came time for Liberty’s 2015 commencement address, was it any surprise that Liberty welcomed Governor Jeb Bush as a speaker?
It makes sense. Schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty, as well as Wheaton College, Biola, The King’s College, and a host of other institutions, have educated generations of evangelicals in the distinctive intellectual and cultural traditions of their faith. Students at these schools agree to more rigid lifestyle rules than they would on secular campuses. And they agree to have their educations shepherded by faculties who have signed on to detailed statements of faith. Just as alumni of the Ivy League might brag about their alma maters, so alumni of these schools feel a distinct connection to their colleges. Politicians hoping to prove their conservative credentials want to jump on that bandwagon.
But that does not mean that these colleges are somehow monolithic. The differences between these schools often loom larger than their similarities, at least in the world of evangelical Protestantism. What does it mean to be “creationist?” What changes are healthy, and what are dangerously heterodox? And what is the proper, Godly relationship between men and women? There is no single “evangelical” answer to these questions. Just as at pluralist campuses, evangelical campuses have been rocked by controversy on all these issues.
But there is a palpable sense of connection. There is something that unites the fractious world of evangelical higher education. And in this book, I’m asking questions about it: What did such schools hope to teach each new generation of evangelical student? How did they hope to raise up new generations of faithful young people in a country that was slipping farther and farther into secularism? And, importantly, how did students respond to these efforts?
If we hope to understand America’s continuing culture wars, we must make sense of the many meanings of these institutions. After all, our culture wars aren’t between one group of educated people and another group that has not been educated. Rather, the fight is usually between two groups who have been educated in very different ways.
I’ve got the bulk of the archival research done, thanks to a generous grant from the Spencer Foundation. I spent the academic year 2014-2015 traveling to various schools, plumbing their archives and straining my brain in their libraries.
This year, I’m drafting chapters. I’m benefiting from the feedback and friendly criticism of historians of higher ed and of evangelical Protestantism. With any luck, I will have a manuscript finished in the not-too-distant future.