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Fundamentalist U & Me: Kurt Morris

Welcome to our latest edition of Fundamentalist U & Me, our occasional series of memory and reflection from people who attended evangelical colleges and universities. [Click here to see all the entries.] The history I recounted in Fundamentalist U only told one part of the complicated story of evangelical higher education. Depending on the person, the school, and the decade, going to an evangelical college has been very different for different people.

This time, we are talking with Kurt Morris, a mental health advocate, writer, storyteller, and speaker in Boston. Morris attended Taylor University from 1997 to 2001 and has a masters in Library Science from Indiana University, Bloomington, and a masters in American Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.Kurt Morris

ILYBYGTH: How did you decide on Taylor? What were your other options? Did your family pressure you to go to an evangelical college?

I never really wanted to go to college but didn’t know what else to do with my life and my parents pushed the idea of how important it is to get a college education. I went to Taylor because I was too scared to go anywhere else. I dealt with a lot of anxiety as a teen (and still do to some extent) and the idea of going to school where I wouldn’t know anyone was terrifying to me. Especially a big state school. My sister went to Taylor and so I knew that I would at least know her and her friends. Also, my parents agreed to pay for college if I went to a Christian college, but not if I went to a non-Christian college.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

I don’t think my college experience necessarily deepened my faith, nor did it make it weaker. It just kind of was. I can’t think of any powerfully religious part of my experience beyond evening floor prayers and chapels. I feel slightly connected to my alma mater, mainly because I’m part of a Facebook group of alumni who are quite liberal.

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college? If so, why, and if not, why not?

I don’t have kids and don’t know if I will, but I’d let them make their own decision on where to attend college. However, given that my partner and I aren’t Christians, it would be rather odd if our children did want to attend an evangelical college.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still support your alma mater, financially or otherwise? If so, how and why, and if not, why not?

I don’t support my alma mater in any way. I never have and never will. I haven’t kept them in the loop as far as my contact info so I haven’t received any solicitations in probably ten years or more. As I’m not a Christian and as I didn’t really enjoy my experience there I don’t see any reason to support them.

ILYBYGTH: If you’ve had experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions of higher education, what have you found to be the biggest differences? The biggest similarities?

I went to state schools for my graduate degrees and loved them. When I went to the first one I still considered myself a Christian (although I was slowly falling away from the evangelical movement in which I was raised) and when I went to the second grad program I wasn’t a Christian. It was great to be around diverse groups of people with open minds. Going to an evangelical college, especially one like Taylor that is in a rural setting, can place you in a bubble.

I’d say beyond the basic structure (both have buildings, classes, professors, homework, projects) there were few similarities. At Taylor we had rules about when men and women could be in one another’s rooms. You couldn’t live off campus until your senior year. You couldn’t drink, do drugs, or smoke. People often had issues if you cussed or didn’t go to church or chapel.

The classes at Taylor, while they provided a good foundation in history, were never intellectually challenging. I never felt like I had to really dig and question my beliefs like I did in my grad programs. Things definitely skewed conservative at Taylor while they skewed incredibly liberal for my grad programs.

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

I only took a couple general education requirements for my science classes. One was environmental science and one was geography, which had a lot to do with geology. I didn’t feel like they were particularly Christian. I imagine the classes at a non-evangelical college would be somewhat similar as far as subject matter but it’s not something I’ve thought about.

ILYBYGTH: Was your social life at your evangelical college similar to the college stereotype (partying, “hooking up,” drinking, etc.) we see in mainstream media? If not, how was it different? Do you think your social experience would have been much different if you went to a secular institution?

Ha ha ha! It was definitely not similar. I was a pretty straight-laced kid in college so I wasn’t really interested in partying anyway. I partied much more in my graduate programs although even that was slightly more reserved than what one sees in the media. At Taylor I spent a lot of time going to concerts in nearby college towns and being into music. Some people drank at those shows but I wasn’t interested in drinking anyway so it wasn’t a big deal to me. I’m not really sure if my situation would’ve been different at a secular institution. I might’ve just latched on to a church and spent most of my time with those folks. I find it hard to imagine I would’ve partied and hooked up with people when I was college-aged, even at a state school. I was a pretty insecure, depressed, anxious kid.

ILYBYGTH: In your experience, was the “Christian” part of your college experience a prominent part? In other words, would someone from a secular college notice differences right away if she or he visited your school?

I think someone from a secular college definitely would’ve noticed a difference. In fact, the few times my friends who went to the nearby state school came to visit they thought the place was weird. The vernacular used and the rules were so foreign to them. And these people were Christians, too!

ILYBYGTH: Did you feel political pressure at school? That is, did you feel like the school environment tipped in a politically conservative direction? Did you feel free to form your own opinions about the news? Were you encouraged or discouraged from doing so?

Taylor definitely skewed politically conservative. I felt I could form my own opinions about the news. I was pretty liberal as far as political interests go—I was reading Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn if that says anything. I picked them up on my own after hearing about them through interviews with punk bands I listened to. I’m sure the school would’ve loved to have us all have the same opinions on political issues, but I didn’t care. That said, I certainly skewed conservative on a number of social issues: gay marriage, abortion, etc. I still felt those were bad things but no longer feel that way.

ILYBYGTH: What do you think the future holds for evangelical higher education? What are the main problems looming for evangelical schools? What advantages do they have over other types of colleges?

I think as Church membership declines and more young people come out as non-believers (as statistics show is happening) some schools will have a difficult time staying open. I’m sure there will be some mergers and closings. Still, I don’t think we’re going to see the end of evangelical colleges in our lifetimes. One thing they certainly provide is a safe setting for believers. Evangelical colleges are bubbles where one can theoretically grow in one’s faith and not feel threatened. That’s a very comforting proposition (and somewhat the reason I attended Taylor) so I think as long as there are people who feel threatened by the secular world, there will be a place for evangelical schools.

Thanks, Kurt!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with Adam at the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Amidst the summer doldrums, the world kept on turning. Here are some stories that caught our eye this week:

SCOTUS and higher education:

In defense of segregation, at CJ.

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Seventy years and counting…

Should anti-Trumpists remain civil? A reminder of “the last time the Left got nasty,” at Politico.

God likes both poems and equations: Michael Shermer reviews Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine at NYT.

UFO history: A craze that keeps on crazing, at PM.

Law professors against Title IX “retaliation,” at Cornell Sun.

Wisconsin Supreme Court rules in favor of conservative faculty curmudgeon, at IHE.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

It’s finally feeling like summer here in the northeast USA. And as always, the culture-war news ticker didn’t cool down this week. Here are a few ILYBYGTH-themed stories we noted from the past seven days:

What’s wrong with Value-Added Measures? Peter Greene breaks it down at Forbes.

The department the GOP loves to hate: A short history of Republican attempts to close the Department of Ed, at CHE.

sarah-sanders-tweet-red-hen

Tweeting but not eating…

To serve or protest? The Red Hen flap:

What would Elon Musk want a school to look like? At Ars Technica.

Jim Stump of Biologos takes on the ten most common misconceptions about evolutionary theory.

What does the Janus decision mean for schools, students, and teachers? Pro and con at SCOTUSblog.

Colorado takes the “liberal” out of “liberal-arts education.” At CHE.

Can we be educated and aware if we don’t know squat about religion? Grayson Quay says no at AC.

Sorry, Joe

What do you do when you don’t like the person you’re spending your life with? As a historian, I’ve studied lots of people with whom I didn’t agree. Alice Moore, Bob Jones, Max Rafferty, and Don McLeroy come to mind. In each of those cases, though, I never doubted the sincerity of my subjects. I didn’t agree with their goals or moral visions, but it was always clear to me that they were trying to make the world a better place, as they saw it. With this new book, though, I’m finding Joseph Lancaster to be a truly despicable person: Pathetic at best, scheming and self-obsessed at worst.

I haven’t been in this situation before. What are we supposed to do when we can’t sympathize with our subjects? In the past, I’ve always admired the people I’ve studied. Even when we were from different ends of the culture-war spectrum.

alice moore again

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing…

Take Alice Moore, for example. I wrote a lot about Moore’s work in Kanawha County, West Virginia in my book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century. On nearly every issue, Moore and I are diametrically opposed. Yet she agreed to talk with me about her memories and commitments and she was delightfully kind, humble, and self-effacing. The better I came to know her, the better I understood that she was brave, intelligent, and public-spirited. We’ll never agree, but she’s a good person.

As I delve into the Lancasterian school craze of the early 1800s, though, I’m finding that Joseph Lancaster himself was not a good person. I’m finishing a productive month of research into his archived papers at the American Antiquarian Society. With this rich collection of letters and personal papers, I’ve been able to dig deep into Lancaster’s head.

It’s not a pretty sight.

As I read through his personal notebooks, for example, I’m struck by the fact that he was always more interested in fame and fortune than educational reform. From his earliest days, he was making notes to himself about how much money one could earn as a grasping school-master.

Folio page sample

Notebook of a horrible man…

In his interactions with his friends, family, and colleagues, too, Lancaster was relentlessly self-centered, vindictive, and paranoid. His first backers, the Royal Lancasterian Society, got tired of bankrolling his extravagant spending habits. They cut him off, financially, and offered him a good job as a school superintendent with a good salary.

How did he respond? Viciously and aggressively. When a long-time friend advised Lancaster to take the offered job, Lancaster exploded. As Lancaster put it, he refused to be the “hireling or parlour dog” of his former associates.

It got worse. Lancaster’s first wife was subject to some sort of unspecified mental illness. She seemed delusional, hiding things all around the house and unable to maintain a polite façade. How did Lancaster respond to her malady? Here’s what he told his fourteen-year-old daughter in a letter from 1819:

As to poor Mother—this one thing I am determined on, I will never allow her to be an annoyance, and interrupt our comfort or our business—if she does, she must go—if not, it will be all well but I will not ruin thy temper, and my own—destroy our peace and impede her interests as well as our business—because of her wild nonsense which she can restrain.

The more I find out, the deeper I dislike. For me, this is new. How do historians handle it when they don’t like their subjects?

Papal Fundamentalism

It’s not what they meant to happen, but it seems to be happening a lot these days. As we heard from recent King’s College graduate Christian McGuire, some smart young evangelicals are turning to the Catholic Church. Evangelical-watchers have been seeing it lately everywhere we look. Thanks a tip from a SAGLRROILYBYGTH, for example, I ran across these charismatic folks who are enamored with Catholic tradition. It might feel like a new trend, but this “papal fundamentalism” has been predicted since the 1920s.

RollinLyndeHartt

Called it.

Rollin Lynde Hartt called it in 1925. Hartt may not be a household name today, but during the 1920s he was considered a leading expert on fundamentalism in the popular press. The Rev. Hartt was a liberal Congregational minister, dedicated to puncturing what he saw as the profoundly negative implications of the surging fundamentalist movement among his fellow Protestants. He hoped fundamentalism would wither and die away, but he feared (correctly) that fundamentalism wasn’t going anywhere.

When Hartt predicted the coming-together of the fundamentalist movement and the Catholic Church—what he derided as “Papal Fundamentalism”—he meant it as an insult. Hartt thought fundamentalism shared Catholicism’s un-Christian fetish for merely human authority. As Hartt put it in a 1925 magazine article,[1]

there is something essentially Catholic about the Fundamentalists’ demand for reliance upon authority; and in temperament every good Fundamentalist is a good Catholic.

HT: DW

[1] Rollin Lynde Hartt, “The Disruption of Protestantism,” Forum 74 (November 1925): 680-683.

Red Hen Creationism

I’ll bet we don’t agree about this one. As you’re sick of hearing by now, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was politely kicked out of a DC-area restaurant. Sanders complained about the fundamental incivility of her political foes. Whatever we think about defenestrating Sanders, we need to consider the implications of this dust-up for our creation/evolution discussions.

sarah-sanders-tweet-red-hen

Kicked out for Trumpism…

You’ve likely read them all by now: Progressive types have argued that it was okay to be rude to Sanders, because Sanders was personally responsible for defending a horrific, hateful public policy. Conservative pundits call this episode an “appalling” example of the totalitarian mindset of the left. My favorite analysis came from someone I don’t usually agree with who laments the dangerous situation we are all in.

What does any of this have to do with creationism?

Like Sanders, a lot of creationists feel “kicked out” of public schools. They insist that schools teaching mainstream evolutionary science without any creationist science are not welcome places for their creationist kids.

So here’s the question: Do creationists have a right to feel welcome in public schools?

The ILYBYBTH answer: Yes, absolutely. But there’s a ‘but.’ As savvy creationists should want just as much as the rest of us, public schools need to avoid teaching any religious ideas in a devotional way. That is, public schools need to teach kids about religion, but they should never preach any particular religion.

Creationists have never been ejected from public schools. What WAS ejected—and very properly—was the idea that any religiously inspired science should have an equal voice in science classes.

As I’m arguing in my new book, the biggest disagreement in our continuing creation/evolution battles is not actually about creation or evolution. Rather, the problem is a breakdown of trust. If we hope to teach mainstream science in a way that welcomes all people to our public schools, we need to be much clearer about the things that we do and don’t disagree about.

For example, we should all agree on this: All creationists are always welcome in public schools. If they feel otherwise, we need to fix that. But creationism itself is not welcome, at least not as part of the official curriculum. If anyone feels otherwise, we need to fix that, too.

Fundamentalist U & Me: Christian McGuire, Patrick Henry College

Welcome to our latest edition of Fundamentalist U & Me, our occasional series of memory and reflection from people who attended evangelical colleges and universities. [Click here to see all the entries.] The history I recounted in Fundamentalist U only told one part of the complicated story of evangelical higher education. Depending on the person, the school, and the decade, going to an evangelical college has been very different for different people.

This time, we are talking with Christian McGuire, a recent graduate from Patrick Henry College (PHC). Mr. McGuire graduated last month and now works in communications at a think-tank in Arlington, Virginia.

I first met Christian through an article in National Review about odd intellectual fads at conservative evangelical colleges. Christian told me about a more popular attraction at Patrick Henry. Read on to hear more about his experiences:

ILYBYGTH: When and where did you attend your evangelical institutions?

I attended PHC from 2014 to this May.

ILYBYGTH: How did you decide on that school? What were your other options? Did your family pressure you to go to an evangelical college?phc logo

I applied to a variety of other colleges. PHC was the only evangelical school I considered. The others—Georgetown, UChicago, Berkeley, etc.—were all secular. At first, I was fairly unconvinced that I would want to attend PHC, a relative no-name compared to the other schools on my list. After attending, however, I was definitely drawn in by how welcoming all of the students were. I was also impressed by PHC’s law school track record, which fit nicely with my post-graduate plan at the time. PHC students have very high average LSAT scores and punch far above their weight in admission to top law schools, as well as important judicial clerkships. I think it probably helped that my father was also very impressed by PHC; his approval was probably more emotionally significant than I understood at the time. But I was definitely not pressured to make any particular choice.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

I think my college experience was important to my faith, but definitely not in the way that I (or PHC administrators) expected. I converted to Catholicism in the second semester of my freshman year, after five years of theological study and discussion. That definitely defined the rest of my college experience. Some people—students, professors, administrators—were downright hostile to Catholicism, and I am not the type of personality that can keep a low profile. So I think some of my spiritual development came from adversity. On the other hand, PHC’s best classes generally contained spiritual wisdom that was certainly, and perhaps even especially, applicable to me as a Catholic. Some classes even strengthened my convictions, although I am sure that result was inadvertent.

In one sense, I think I will always be connected to my alma mater. I was lucky to exit college with many strong friendships, and those relationships will always be an indirect link to PHC. On the other hand, I think that after a couple of years of trying to reform what I saw as the faults of PHC, I eventually grew disheartened and gave up. So I am not as emotionally invested in the college as I was a couple of years ago.

The most powerful religious experience did not really occur within the context of my college career—my confirmation into the Church. However, it was attended by many PHC students, and I think it helped jump start a movement towards the Church at PHC.

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college? If so, why, and if not, why not?

I don’t see college selection as the job of the parent, so if I had a child that wanted to go to an evangelical school, I would let them. On the other hand, since I am no longer evangelical and would not raise my children as such, I would be a little surprised at such a decision.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still support your alma mater, financially or otherwise? If so, how and why, and if not, why not?

No, not yet. I might donate in the future, although I would probably focus on donating to specific departments or goals within PHC, rather than the institution as a whole.

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

A preface: I reject the notion that fundamentalist “science” is “Christian” in any meaningful sense of the word. Usually evangelical institutions such as PHC differentiate themselves from mainstream science by rejecting the theory of evolution, but strictly historical interpretations of the first chapters of Genesis don’t represent the only or best approach to the biblical text. St. Augustine, for example, famously dissented from a strongly literal exegesis of these chapters despite predating Darwin by more than a millennia. So I slightly object to the wording of this question.

PHC taught a fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis, which was only really an issue in their biology and “earth science” classes. Humorously, the college was forced to offer earth science instead of biology the year I took the class, because their accreditors discovered that the professor who taught biology was not sufficiently credentialed to teach the subject.

During that class, I occasionally was bothered by the bias present in our discussion of Earth’s origins. I remember one test question asking me to outline the “evolutionist” view on something and contrast it with the “biblical” view of something. However, I think the professor made a real effort to educate us on what we would be taught at a secular institution overall.

ILYBYGTH: Was your social life at your evangelical college similar to the college stereotype (partying, “hooking up,” drinking, etc.) we see in mainstream media? If not, how was it different? Do you think your social experience would have been much different if you went to a secular institution?

PHC social life was very different from that stereotype. The college enforces fairly strict standards of conduct that ban alcohol consumption, enforce curfews for Freshmen and Sophomores, and prohibit sex outside of marriage. Of course, not everyone follows those rules. But overall, social life is still much tamer at PHC than elsewhere, even at other Christian colleges that I know of. I think part of the reason is that homeschooled backgrounds (PHC is overwhelmingly composed of former homeschoolers) tend to encourage a deference to authority.

ILYBYGTH: In your experience, was the “Christian” part of your college experience a prominent part? In other words, would someone from a secular college notice differences right away if she or he visited your school?

Incredibly so. Everything that PHC does is very consciously evangelical: mandatory chapels are held every single week day, professors are evaluated at the end of every semester on how well they integrated a biblical worldview into their class, prayer often opens classes. And this isn’t just a focus that comes from the administration—students are very invested in their faith as well, on average. Debates about theology are common in the dining hall, and social interactions on campus often include prayer, spiritual encouragement, or some other form of religious flavoring. PHC, I think, was always afraid of going the way of more prominent Christian institutions—starting out staunchly Christian, but ending up only nominally religious. A lot of safeguards were built into the school’s founding documents. For example, the school cannot change its Statement of Faith without losing its land deeds.

ILYBYGTH: Did you feel political pressure at school? That is, did you feel like the school environment tipped in a politically conservative direction? Did you feel free to form your own opinions about the news? Were you encouraged or discouraged from doing so?

The school’s environment was unquestionably conservative. The school’s founder and first president, Michael Farris, was a conservative legal activist who currently heads the Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the most prominent conservative legal groups in the nation.

At the same time, PHC was unblinkingly devoted to exploring all sides of most debates. While the majority of students were conservative, it was completely socially acceptable to make arguments that went against normal conservative positions on economics or foreign policy. I would say that there was only a real taboo on dissenting from pro-life political positions, and maybe a half-taboo on dissenting from the conservative consensus against gay marriage.

ILYBYGTH: What do you think the future holds for evangelical higher education? What are the main problems looming for evangelical schools? What advantages do they have over other types of colleges?

I think that evangelical schools, and PHC in particular, are up against more cultural headwinds than ever before. If you read conservative Christian commentators, you will discover that a lot of them are still trying to forge a post-Trump consensus on what the future of political Christianity is. Some want to continue the political alliance they have made with the Republican party, but many Christian intellectuals and young evangelicals are disgusted by that prospect. As a result, colleges like PHC that focus on “leading the nation and shaping the culture” (one of PHC’s slogans) are at a crossroads. Less political evangelical colleges won’t have quite the same burden, but they still have to deal with increasing secularization among young people.

However, I think that as conservative Christianity becomes more and more at odds with the culture writ large, there will be an additional emphasis on forming explicitly Christian bonds. Those who remain devout in their faith are probably more likely to want to attend Christian schools where they can deepen their intellectual understanding of the faith. A lot of Christians are wondering in the Trump era, “where do we go from here?” Maybe evangelical colleges can be part of that answer.

Thanks, Christian!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week in the archives–1818 feels closer than 2018 these days. But 2018 went on without me. Here are some of the stories that came across our desk this week:

Fear and the evangelical Trumpists: John Fea in The Atlantic.

No AP for these fancy prep schools, at WaPo.

Would the real campus conservative please stand up? Turning Point USA rebuts criticism from Young America’s Foundation, at CHE.

turning point USA

Turning Point USA appeals to campus conservatives…

The high cost of campus free-speech protests:

Christian in America: Eric Miller interviews Matthew Bowman at R&P.

Pokin’ the academic bear: National Association of Scholars republishes pro-colonialism article, at IHE.christian politics of a word

Trump’s latest: Merging the Ed and Labor departments into DEW.

George Will: Vote Democratic to end GOP “misrule,” at WaPo.

Three Reasons to Read Fundamentalist U

Thanks to Justin Taylor for finding three reasons to recommend Fundamentalist U.

Cover art final

Three reasons to put this on your summer reading list…

Taylor is senior vice president at Crossway books and a scholar of evangelical history. I appreciate his description of the book as a “unique and important project.”

What are Taylor’s three reasons for reading? You’ll have to click over to find out.