Are Christians Allowed in New York?

It makes conservatives furious, but is Dan Piepenbring right? Piepenbring recently blasted Chik-fil-A’s “creepy infiltration” of New York City in the pages of the New Yorker. The brouhaha shows how little most of us understand about New York’s real status in our continuing culture wars. It has never really been the Great Sodom that conservatives excoriate and progressives celebrate.

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The Christians that never sleep?

Piepenbring is mad that Chik-fil-A is sneaking into his city. He dislikes the conservative evangelical politics of the chain’s founder. More than that, though, he seems put out by the Midwestern aw-shucks-ism at play. Piepenbring seems offended by the way Chik-fil-A imported a family-values vibe into his grunge-chic citycape. The company’s trademark Cows exemplify the problem. As Piepenbring puts it,

The joke is that the Cows are out of place in New York—a winking acknowledgment that Chick-fil-A, too, does not quite belong here.

Conservatives reacted with predictable hauteur. For example, American Conservative’s Rod Dreher blasted Piepenbring’s “Yankee bigot[ry].” “In terms of parochial, un-self-aware narrow-mindedness,” Dreher opened,

it is hard to beat this piece from the New Yorker on how the a [sic] popular purveyor of delicious chicken and waffle fries is making Manhattan into an unsafe space.

It should be funny, Dreher notes, to read anything that soberly invokes phrases such as “suburban piety.” In actual fact, Dreher concludes, Piepenbring’s half-baked screed is more than a sad joke; it serves as yet more evidence of widespread “anti-Christian bigotry.”

I can’t agree with Dreher’s main point about anti-Christian bigotry, but I do think that Piepenbring’s brand of “keep New York weird” rhetoric misses some important truths. Full disclosure: I share the desire to sponsor local over chain. Up here in sunny Binghamton, I go to Laveggio instead of Starbucks; Consol’s instead of Olive Garden. But even though I share Piepenbring’s anti-corporate aesthetics, I can’t help but think he is willfully ignoring some fundamental truths about his city.

It’s beyond obvious, of course, that New York City is the headquarters of America’s financial and corporate culture. Less obvious, perhaps, is that New York has also served as a center of conservative evangelical intellectual culture and activism.

A century ago, progressive New Yorkers were similarly riled by the fiery fundamentalism of New York’s John Roach Straton, pastor of Calvary Baptist and one of the undisputed national leaders of the 1920s fundamentalist movement. I spent some time with Straton’s archived papers a few years back and they are chock-full of ardent correspondence with all the top conservative evangelicals of his generation.

Again and again, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists praised Straton and acknowledged his New-York-based leadership of the national fundamentalist movement. In 1922, for example, the president of fundamentalist Wheaton College in Illinois wrote to Straton

to thank you for the attack you are making on the infidel teaching of our time.

Beyond any dispute, Straton used his New York City headquarters to fight evolution and theological liberalism. He used the cultural clout of his big-city address to add oomph to his fundamentalist activism. Yet even his fundamentalist admirers tended to assume that fundamentalism was not a true product of the Big Apple. Straton himself sometimes agreed. In spite of the fact that he had built his fundamentalist empire from Manhattan, Straton told the New York Times in 1925 that fundamentalism was a Southern thing. As Straton put it, fundamentalism represented

a rising tide of spiritual earnestness preparing in the South and West which will sweep the country.

Even today, New York City is home to some of conservative evangelicalism’s most vital institutions. Most notably, The King’s College moved downtown in order to exert its presence in the heart of Gotham. As one enthusiast put it, by moving to New York, TKC could be

a counter cultural Christian college in New York City that leads with academic excellence and ‘convictional civility.’

Though both conservatives and progressives have tended to assume that conservative evangelicals don’t fit in New York’s hurly-burly cultural landscape, both sides have frequently missed the long, continuing tradition of New York’s role as a capital city of conservative evangelicalism.

They don’t agree on much, but both sides seem to ignore New York’s real role as an international headquarters of conservative evangelical religion. Why?

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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.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Racist Simpsons and other stories that came across our desks this week…

The White House Bible study group, at BBC. HT: MC

  • A “high-protein diet” of conservative evangelical Christianity for the Cabinet.

Much Apu about Something: The Simpsons punts on its racial stereotypes, at EW. HT: MM

How much public school can you buy for $25 million? Not as much as this billionaire wanted, at PI. HT: MM.

The “free-speech crisis” is worst at evangelical colleges, says Sarah Jones at NR.

Peter Greene asks: Why are we still giving Big Standardized Tests?

“Teaching for homecoming:” Why Wendell Berry thinks education is dangerous, at Forma.

  • “I know you all are learning a lot of methods about how to teach, and I’ll tell you something: None of them will work.”

Pro-choice “callous and violent,” says Ross Douthat at NYT.

The progressive perfidy of “dialogue:” Rod Dreher at AC.

There Is No Free-Speech Crisis at Evangelical Colleges

Have you seen it yet? Sarah Jones recently excoriated evangelical higher education as the home of the real free-speech crisis. Students and faculty alike, Jones reported from experience at Cedarville University in Ohio, are continually deprived of any right to authentic self-expression. She’s right. But that doesn’t mean there’s a free-speech crisis at evangelical colleges. There can’t be.

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No one said it was for freedom of speech…

Why not? It’s not for the reasons Pietist Schoolman Chris Gehrz describes, though he makes an important point. As he argues, different evangelical schools have hugely different records and policies when it comes to free speech.

And it’s not because Jones misses the boat on the ways evangelical colleges restrict student and faculty speech. I agree with her entirely that the environments of many evangelical campuses can be restrictive, oppressive, and even dangerous. When students don’t feel free to report sexual assault or abuse, for example, they are put in a horrible position.

Yet even granting the truth of Jones’s alarming exposé, I don’t agree that evangelical colleges represent the real free-speech crisis in American higher education. They can’t. Evangelical colleges don’t have a free-speech crisis any more than my school faces a religious crisis for not adequately teaching students how to be good Christians. We don’t want to train good Christians. And evangelical colleges have never wanted to open their chapels, classrooms, and cafeterias to unrestricted speech.

Rather, as I argue in my recent book about evangelical higher education, restricting free speech is a central, defining element of the tradition. It sounds sinister when I say it like that, but it’s true. Professor Gehrz is absolutely correct that some schools today have stricter rules than others, but for almost a century now, the point of evangelical higher education is precisely to impose certain restrictions on faculty and students, restrictions abandoned by mainstream colleges.

To suggest that these restrictions are part of a “crisis” misses the point. Please don’t get me wrong: I sympathize whole-heartedly with Jones and the other students and faculty who dislike their alma maters’ heavy hand. I would dislike it, too. But that heavy hand is not a “crisis.” It can’t be. It is the entire raison d’etre of evangelical higher education.

Consider the promises of evangelical leaders throughout the twentieth century. Explaining the purpose of his new college in Florida, founder Bob Jones Sr. explained it this way in 1928:

Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teachers will steal the faith of their precious children.

At Bob Jones College, as at all the schools that joined the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s, restricting faculty speech was a primary purpose, not an unfortunate necessity. Unlike mainstream colleges, including mainline Protestant ones, fundamentalist colleges would willfully impose strict lists of mandatory beliefs for faculty members. They would impose long list of behavioral rules for students. And they insisted always that their goal was to shape students’ hearts in a certain religious direction.

Lest readers think the tradition was only in the 1920s, or only at fundamentalist Bob Jones University, consider this quotation from relatively liberal Wheaton College in 1963. President V. Raymond Edman told recalcitrant students about his vision for Wheaton. “This college,” Edman told students,

will be a place Christian parents can send their children to with the confidence that their faith will be established and not shaken.

In other words, the entire point of the network of dissenting evangelical colleges was to police faculty belief and student thought. Evangelical colleges that restrict speech these days don’t face a crisis. They fulfill a promise.

Dayton Dilemmas II: The Devil Made Them Do It

SAGLRROILYBYGTH: If you want small, unsatisfying, boring meals, don’t come to Dayton. As far as I can tell, thanks to hospitable hosts, life in Dayton is a steady stream of fantastic meals and challenging, thought-provoking conversation. At a talk yesterday at the University of Dayton about the connections between white evangelicals and “Make-America-Great-Again” patriotism, one grad student brought up an absolutely essential point. Namely, when it comes to understanding fundamentalist politics, we can’t leave out Satan.dayton flyers

We’ve talked about this topic recently when it comes to the specific topic of creationism. As I’m arguing in my upcoming book about creationism, secular folks like me have often misunderstood the nature of creationist thinking. We have assumed that creationists are making decisions based on secular reasonings. We forget that many creationists understand the world in supernatural terms, at least in some measure. When we do, we give up any chance of really understanding radical creationist thought.

The same is true for understanding the politics of conservative evangelical intellectuals.

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From the Bob Jones University archives…

In my talk yesterday, I tried to explain the long tradition of MAGA patriotism among white evangelical intellectuals and academics. Today’s leading evangelical intellectuals often don’t like the idea, but in the twentieth century evangelical higher education was firmly committed to the notion that their schools would teach a certain sort of defiant, nostalgic patriotism.IMG_1648

One graduate student—a self-identified “recovering fundamentalist”—brought up a key idea: If we really want to understand how conservative evangelicals could combine their faith so tightly with their nationalism, we need to remember the supernatural context. Especially in the twentieth century, this student pointed out, the cold war often took on the shape of an apocalyptic showdown between the Soviet Union and the United States.

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How to mix church and country, Bob Jones style…

For many fundamentalists at the time, the supernatural connections were too obvious to need explaining. The Soviet Union was the political incarnation of Satan. It was a nation and empire wholly guided by the devil’s machinations. Its goals were nothing less than both worldly and eternal domination.

It wasn’t much of a leap, then, to mix together a patriotic faith in the United States with a religious devotion to evangelical Christian values. Defending traditional Americanism was entirely equal to defending true evangelical religion, and vice versa. When the eternal mixed so profoundly with the national, it was not at all difficult or unusual for white fundamentalists to mash together their religious faiths with their patriotic fervor.

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.

We’ve All Got It All Wrong

Whether you call yourself a conservative, a progressive, or something else, if you’re like me you’ve probably got it all wrong. As I was reminded in a discussion last night, those of us who try to shape schools usually make a huge mistake—one we could recognize if we just thought about it for half a second.univ of hawaii

Here’s the background: I was happy last night to talk with some graduate students at the University of Hawaii. (No, I didn’t get to go there in real life. I wish. We used cutting-edge interwebs technology to talk.) They had read my book about the history of educational conservatism and they had some great questions, ideas, and experiences to share.

As I argue in the book, it’s difficult to generalize about conservative activists. Just like progressives, conservative thinkers and doers come from a dizzying array of backgrounds and they are motivated by a huge spectrum of ideas and beliefs. But one thing they do share—at least the ones I studied—is an unexamined faith that school shapes society. I hate to quote myself, but this is how I put it in the book:

Educational conservatives have insisted, in short, on two central ideas. First, schools matter. Conservatives, like their progressive foes, have rarely questioned the notion that the schools of today generate the society of tomorrow. Second, because schools matter, their content and structure must be guarded ferociously. Ideas that challenge inherited wisdom must not be crammed down the throats of young, trusting students. And teachers must not abdicate their roles as intellectual and moral authorities. Educational conservatism, in other words, has been the long and vibrant tradition of defending tradition itself in America’s schools. Without understanding this tradition, we will never truly understand either American conservatism or American education.

One idea on which everyone can agree, in other words, is that schools shape society. The reason so many of us spend so much energy on school reform is precisely because we think it matters. For some conservatives in the twentieth century, teaching kids evolution was dangerous because it threatened to take away their moral and religious compass. For others, teaching kids about sex was a bad idea because it tended to unhinge their self-control. And for yet others, teaching kids socialist ideas was obviously terrible because it would lead to the corruption of their morals and of the entire society.

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You can fix schools all you want, but you can’t fix the outcomes…

Last night, the Hawaii students shared stories that helped puncture those school-reform assumptions. One student, for example, reported that he came to the realization that he was conservative in high school. He was guided to that realization by his favorite teacher. At first, I assumed that the teacher was a conservative, too, and inspired the student by reading Hayek and Burke and smoking a pipe. In fact, the student told us, his favorite teacher was a heart-on-her-sleeve liberal. She taught social studies in a progressive way, one that hoped to help students examine their own ideas and decide questions for themselves. In the student’s case, that meant he came to the realization that his ideas were apparently “conservative.” The left-y teacher, in other words, didn’t indoctrinate this student into leftism, but precisely the opposite.

Another Hawaii student told a very different story. She only realized that she was a liberal when she was teaching Sunday school at her church. The goal was to help young people deepen their religious faith, but it had the opposite effect on her. Instead of becoming more religious, teaching Sunday school convinced this student that her church was full of hooey.

What’s the takeaway? Once we hear the stories, it seems pretty obvious. School doesn’t really work the way we sometimes think it will. No matter what our politics, we can’t control the future of our students by teaching them X or Y or by keeping them away from Z or A. Students are not predictable, programmable outputs. They have their own ideas and backgrounds and sometimes our best-laid plans at shaping America’s future will come out in ways we didn’t predict.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Spring still feels pretty far away up here in the woods. Here are some stories that kept us occupied this past week:

Trumpism and the authoritarian personality, at NYT. HT: HD.

Speak no revival: Liberty bans talk of RedLetterRevival, at RNS.

FBI, MLK, and the first televangelist, at R&P.

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Teachers march in OK.

  • “History does not repeat itself, but often, it does rhyme. Today, the White House has an evangelical advisory board and a coterie of televangelists to march alongside the executive branch. Are the African American members of President Trump’s evangelical advisory council the modern day Michauxs?”

How do radical creationists change their mind? Not by argument, at RD.

  • “However well-intentioned you are, bludgeoning people with fact after argument after fact will only entrench them in their position and reinforce a perception of being persecuted by the world.”
  • How can creationists refuse to acknowledge scientific evidence? Easy, at ILYBYGTH.

Arizona’s up-and-coming Betsy Devos clone, at NR.

Why don’t Americans care more about World War I? At The Guardian.

Shocking: Mother uses stun gun to wake her teenager for Easter services. At RNS.

LGBTQ at evangelical colleges: Author interview at IHE.

Hullabaloo at Taylor, too.

Oh my: New flat-earth poll finds only 2/3 of young people “confident” that the earth is a sphere, at LS.

Too far for the Atlantic: Kevin Williamson fired for advocating hanging women who had abortions.

Sweepin Down the Plains: Oklahoma teachers march 110 miles, at NBC.

Are college history classes teaching students to be critical thinkers? Erm…not really, says Stanford’s Sam Wineburg at IHE.

Censorship at Christian Colleges

Want to get fired? Try this: Run a controversial story in a newspaper at an evangelical college. This week, Liberty University’s Erin Covey complains that her reporting is being blocked. She’s not the first student reporter to have this experience. On the contrary, student editors have always worked under constant threat.

At issue today is an anti-Trump/anti-Falwell revival going on near Liberty University. Shane Claiborne and his progressive evangelical allies are hosting a Red Letter Revival service, challenging Liberty’s president to join them or change his “toxic” Trump-loving ways.

When student reporter Erin Covey shared her coverage of the revival with Liberty’s leaders, she was told to squelch the story. As she tells it, Liberty’s administration told her,

No let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.

Covey plaintively wondered,

We often wonder: Do other private schools deal with this? What are the levels of freedom that other school papers have? Do we have the same freedoms — is this common?

When it comes to school newspapers—including student newspapers–censorship and content control have been universal practices in the history of evangelical higher education. As I describe in my recent book, this has been true at all evangelical schools, no matter how liberal or how conservative.

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How to get fired at Biola, c. 1957.

Why? Let me share one example from Biola that exemplifies this tradition. In 1957, editor Lloyd Hamill took a strong anti-segregation position. He excoriated white evangelicals who opposed racial integration. As he put it,

No Spirit-controlled Christian can escape the solid fact that all men are equal in God’s sight.  Integration is not only the law of our nation, it is also the plain teaching of the Bible.

Biola, Hamill wrote, didn’t only endorse integration. It practiced it, employing an African American journalist on staff. A deluge of letters flooded Biola. More than 90% of them attacked Hamill’s position, though a few supported him. What did Biola’s administration do? As Biola’s president explained privately to Billy Graham. Hamill was sacked immediately. Biola did not want to endorse

the very foolish letters he wrote and statements which he made.

Granted, the situation is somewhat different. Hamill worked at the college’s magazine, not a student publication. But I think the rule still holds.

Why do evangelical colleges censor their publications so rigorously? Why can’t Erin Covey cover an anti-Falwell revival?

It’s not an accident and it’s not only Liberty. All evangelical colleges live under constant scrutiny. The evangelical public is always wondering if school X or Y has gone soft. The publications coming out of schools—including student newspapers—have always received endless scrutiny from interested members of the evangelical public.

Whatever appears in a student newspaper is often taken to represent more than one student’s opinion. It is taken, at heart, to represent the current moral climate of the school. For students like Erin Covey and editors like Lloyd Hamill, the result is clear: Don’t rock the boat.

The Most Important Part of Radical Creationism

What is the most important thing secular people need to know in order to make sense of young-earth creationism? It’s nothing specifically scientific. It’s not even anything directly theological. The vital key to understanding radical creationism is something different. As a recent commentary reminds us, creationism thrives because it has a powerful intellectual defense mechanism.

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From Answers In Genesis: Creationist defense mechanisms.

As I finish up my new book about American creationism, I’m struggling with a lot of difficult questions. Perhaps the hardest of all is the durability of radical ideas about science and nature. For those of us who aren’t creationists, it can be difficult to understand how anyone can be educated, aware, and intelligent while still thinking the earth is only about 6,000 years old.

Why don’t they abandon those ideas as soon as they hear how scientifically impossible they are?

As Nelle Smith pointed out recently, radical creationism has a powerful defense mechanism: Satan. Creationists don’t only believe in dissident science. They also are told—over and over again—that their scientific ideas are under attack. The attack has many sources—Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins, local science teachers, etc.—but the true source of the attack is always more nefarious.

As Smith puts it,

growing up in many evangelical churches means to be told, repeatedly, that the devil will always seek a foothold, and once you give him one you’re well on the road to hell, to losing your faith, to destroying your witness. That’s scary stuff. To begin to doubt evangelicalism is not simply a mental exercise. For many like me, it’s to feel a void opening, the earth dropping out from beneath you. It’s to face the prospect of invalidating your entire existence.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, naïve anti-creationists have often failed to understand this key part of radical creationism. Like the affable Bill Nye, anti-creationists have assumed that they can convince and convert creationists simply by explaining the outlines of mainstream evolutionary theory. Anti-creationists have assumed that the evidence will be enough to change people’s minds.

What we non-creationists have failed to understand is that creationists are expecting to hear arguments that seem to make sense. They are ready to see evidence that looks convincing. They know what to do when they are presented with so-called facts that purport to poke holes in their worldview.

The central story of radical young-earth creationism isn’t one of science and religion. Rather, it’s a story of faith and doubt, of steadfastness and wavering, of obedience and sin. When arguments for evolution seem convincing, creationists can dismiss them as yet another alluring trick of Satan to fool the unwary.

To be sure, every once in a while, creationists raised to watch for the devil’s scientific snares change their minds. They embrace evolutionary science and abandon their old creationist mindset. But as Nelle Smith writes, to do so requires a wholesale revolution in their ways of thinking about good and evil, right and wrong. It’s not a simple matter of accepting evidence or mulling competing arguments.

For many creationists, the arguments of mainstream evolutionary scientists aren’t attractively modern. They are as ancient and as seductive as the serpent’s whisper to Eve.