College Really IS Bad for Jesus

A century ago, conservative evangelicals rallied around William Jennings Bryan and his warnings that college was bad for students’ evangelical faith. One of the results was the network of evangelical universities I studied in Fundamentalist U. A new poll suggests that Bryan was right all along.

pew college graduates belief in god

Was Bryan right?

In his anti-evolution stump speeches in the early 1920s, Bryan liked to cite the work of Bryn Mawr psychologist James Leuba. According to Leuba, 85% of college freshman believed in god, but only 70% of juniors did, and only 60-65% of graduates did. The evidence seemed clear, Bryan reported: College kills religion.

Bryan also liked to tell personal anecdotes about the deleterious spiritual effects of college attendance. As he put it in 1921,

There is a professor in Yale of whom it is said that no one leaves his class a believer in God. . . . A father (a Congressman) tells me that a daughter on her return from Wellesley told him that nobody believed in the Bible stories now.  Another father (a Congressman) tells me of a son whose faith was undermined by this doctrine in a Divinity School.

Was it true? Who knows. Bryan was famous for rhetorical excellence and factual carelessness. A new Pew survey, though, finds that college graduates, as a group, tend to be less literal about their religious beliefs than the rest of America.

As the Pewsters report, about two-thirds of respondents with a high-school diploma or less believe in the God of the Bible. Among college graduates, that number drops to 45%. College graduates are still plenty religious, with 84% of them saying they believe in God or some sort of higher spiritual power, compared to 94% of high-school grads.

Still, the difference is notable. And we have to ask: Were Bryan and the 1920s fundamentalists right all along? Is college—at least, in its mainstream and elite forms—bad for faith in Jesus?


The New Conservative Campus Strategy: Punch-bait!

You’ve heard it before: Conservatives have long felt bitterly estranged from mainstream higher education. I’m wondering if we’re on the cusp of a weird new conservative strategy, one in which young conservatives try their hardest to get punched in the face.

Here’s what we know: Hayden Williams has attracted a lot of attention recently as the victim of a conservative-bashing at Berkeley. President Trump brought Williams up on stage during Trump’s CPAC speech to help introduce Trump’s new hard line against universities. As Trump crowed,

Ladies and gentlemen — [Williams] took a punch for all of us. … Here’s the good news: He’s going to be a very wealthy young man. Go get ’em, Hayden.

Williams was on campus as part of Turning Point USA’s recruitment drive. In the past, Turning Point USA has provoked attention on campuses for recruiting students to its brand of millennial conservative campus activism. In Nebraska, for example, a Turning Point USA member garnered significant political support in her fight to be heard on campus.

Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk was quick to capitalize on the Berkeley bashing. As he told CNN,

Our amazing grassroots organizers courageously face threats of violence and discrimination as they fight for the right for conservative voices to be heard on college campuses.

So how about it? Maybe the most effective strategy for conservative pundits will be to get punched in the face. After all, nothing goes further to prove their claims of persecution and anti-conservative discrimination.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another big week. Rough weather outside and culture-war storms on the interwebs. Here are a few of the biggest stories that caught our ILYBYGTH attention:

Queen Betsy proposes federal support for tax-credit scholarships, at AP.

Trump announces plans to force universities to welcome conservative speakers, at IHE.

When it comes to the evangelical vote, geography matters, at RIP.Geography of GOP evangelicalism

What happened with the Methodists? Board meeting votes against allowing full LGBTQ recognition.

Friends, please hear me, we Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, questioning, or queer. We love them and we hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church universal.

And then please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to “grow up.”

Meanwhile, Trump also threatened to sue his colleges if they released his grades or SAT scores, at IHE.

What is going on in Florida? A new batch of bills hopes to restrict science teaching, at NCSE.

I’m takin the rest of the night off…

Friends, I’m tickled pink to report that Fundamentalist U has received some great new reviews in top journals by some of my academic heroes. I leaned on both their books as I was working on mine, so it is a real honor to have them say some nice things.

The first is in American Historical Review, by Professor Matthew Avery Sutton. SAGLRROILYBGTH will know Prof. Sutton as the author of American Apocalypse, among other books. Sutton is one of today’s leading experts on the history of American evangelicalism, so it was with some trepidation that I opened his review.

What did he think? He called Fundamentalist U

an engaging, well-researched study of an important, understudied, and underappreciated aspect of American culture and life. The schools that he analyzes have produced generation after generation of students who have had a major impact on American society and politics. . . . Fundamentalist U is an excellent book.

The next review came in the other big journal for US historians, the Journal of American History. The reviewer was none other than Prof. Andrew Jewett, whose book Science, Democracy, and the American University has been a leading guide for my work lately. What did Prof. Jewett have to say about the book?

Fundamentalist U is a superb book and a significant contribution to the histories of U.S. religion and politics as well as higher education.

Woo. Hard to top that, so I think I’ll call it a night. Maybe look up some more gifs.

Fire Sale!

Hurry, hurry, hurry…these prices can’t last. Because I’m pathetic, I was looking at the Amazon page for Fundamentalist U just now, and I noticed for some inscrutable logarithmic reason the price is down to just over ten bucks.FU cheap

If you ever wanted a copy, now’s a great time to get your hands on one!

How to Kill Public Schools

Well, we had a good run. For the past hundred-fifty years or so—depending on where you live—Americans have had public schools. I don’t mean to be Chicken Little here, but from an historical perspective, it looks like Queen Betsy has figured out a way to get rid of em.

simpsons school

Who will pay to educate Mr. Burns’s doctor?

In some senses, of course, the United States has always had schools FOR the public. Even before the Revolution, there were schools that students without tuition money could attend. I’m finding out way more than I want to about the funding of early American “public” schools in my current research. As I’m finding, these “charity” schools had a wild mix of financial backers. Churches, taxpayers, wealthy individuals, and even not-so-wealthy people gave a lot or a little to educate impecunious children.

At different times in different places, a funding revolution swept the world of American education in the 1800s. Basically, this revolution replaced schools that were FOR the public with schools that were BY and FOR the public. That is, instead of parents, charities, philanthropists, churches, and governments all kicking in here and there to fund worthy students and schools, local and state governments committed to provided tax-funded educations to children. Those governments took tax money from everyone—whether or not they sent kids to the public schools—and in return promised to run schools for the benefit of the entire community.

There were big problems with this funding revolution. Not all children were included. Most egregiously, African-American students were often segregated out of public schools, or shunted off to lower-quality schools. And not all states participated equally. New England and the Northeast jumped early to the new model, while other regions hesitated. Plus, people without children and people who chose not to send their children to the public schools ended up paying for schools they didn’t personally use.

The heart and soul of public education, however, was that the public schools would be administered as a public good, like fire departments and roads. Everyone paid for them, everyone could use them, and everyone could in theory claim a right to co-control them. Even if your house didn’t catch fire, in other words, you paid taxes to support the firefighters. And even if you didn’t drive a car, you paid to maintain the public roads. And those firefighters and road crews were under the supervision of publicly elected officials, answerable in the end to taxpayers. Public schools would be the same way.

This funding arrangement has always been the heart and soul of public education. And it is on the chopping block. Queen Betsy recently proposed a five-billion dollar federal tax-credit scholarship scheme. Like the tax-credit scholarship programs that already exist in eighteen states, this plan would allow taxpayers to claim a credit for donations to certain non-profit organizations that would then send the money to private schools.

In some cases, donors can claim up to 100% of their donations back. For every dollar they “donate,” that is, they get a full dollar rebated from their tax bills. Tax-credit scholarship schemes serve to divert tax money from public education—administered by the public—to private schools without any public oversight.

[Confused? Me, too. For more on the ins and outs of tax-credit scholarships, check out this episode of Have You Heard, featuring the explanations of Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.]

lancaster friend of the poor

Back to this future?

What’s the big deal? In essence, these schemes return us to the world before the public-education $$$ revolution. They return us to the world Joseph Lancaster knew so well in the first decades of the 1800s, where funding for schools was an impossibly tangled mess. Back then, parents who could afford it could send their kids to great schools. Parents who couldn’t had to hope their kids might get lucky and attract the attention of a wealthy philanthropist or a church-run charity program. They had to hope that a mix of government money, private tuition, church support, and philanthropist largesse could support their kids’ educations.

By allowing taxpayers to pick and choose whether or not to support public education, Queen Betsy’s proposal takes us back to those bad old days. Are we really ready to throw in the towel on public education? Ready to return to the old system, with “charity” schools run FOR the public by wealthy benefactors who wouldn’t send their own kids there?

Florida Bans More than Just Science

The science parts are bad enough. Since 2017, Florida has passed and proposed laws to restrict and confuse the teaching of science. The latest attempt came this week. These laws, though, hit a bigger target. By banning “pornography” they mark a signal conservative victory in long-simmering educational culture wars.

Here’s what we know: According to the National Center for Science Education and EdWeek, this batch of bills and laws takes the sting out of evolution education for religious conservatives. As Glenn Branch of NCSE explained,

The bill would revise a statute that presently requires instructional materials to be “accurate, objective, balanced, noninflammatory, current, [and] free of pornography” to require such materials to be “accurate and factual; provide objective, balanced, and noninflammatory viewpoints on controversial issues; [and] free of pornography.”

The target of these changes seems to be the teaching of evolution and global warming. As one affidavit submitted in 2017 complained,

I have witnessed students being taught evolution as fact … rather than theory … I have witnessed children being taught that Global Warming is a reality.

These laws and bills intend to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Or at least to make sure that conservatives and science skeptics could clamp down on it whenever they wanted. Moreover, the bills and laws would open up the curriculum to any interested parties, not just parents of school-age children. As one critic noted,

It essentially gives special interest groups . . .  immense power to bully school boards into submission.

To this reporter, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt of the tendency of these bills in the science classroom. But evolution and climate change are not the only targets. I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH noticed the odd language quoted above. Not only would these bills promote “balanced” teaching of mainstream science and dissenting religious/conservative “science,” they would also ban “pornography.”

Sound non-controversial? Sound like plain ol-fashioned common sense? Not so fast.

Throughout the twentieth century, as I noted in The Other School Reformers, conservatives accused progressives of cramming “pornography” down their kids’ throats. Some of it was in sex-ed classes, but even more of it came with the teaching of literature and history.

Consider, for example, the 1960s controversy over a California history textbook. Conservative critics blasted The Land of the Free for a host of reasons, as Prof. Elaine Lewinnek noted. The new textbook was supposed to tell a more inclusive history, one that included more than just the story of White Christian America.

land of the free

Full of porn…?

Not surprisingly, many conservatives objected. They thought the book denigrated American traditions, insulted American heroes, and that the book, in Prof. Lewinnek’s words,

included pornography that had somehow influenced the Free Speech demonstrations at Berkeley in 1964.

The California critics weren’t alone. In Kanahwa County, West Virginia, the 1974-75 textbook controversy was riddled with charges of pornography. Conservatives blasted a new series of literature textbooks as playgrounds for promoting drug abuse, reverse racism, and, you guessed it, pornography. As one leading conservative activist wrote at the time,

there is very little in the books that is inspiring or uplifting; they attack the social values that make up civilization.  Repeatedly they pit black against white accentuating their differences and, thereby, stirring up racial animosity.  They dwell at length on the sexual aspects of human relationships in such an explicit way as to encourage promiscuity.

The conservative charges of “pornography” were so ubiquitous, in fact, that one progressive parent group tried to rebut them with a starkly printed flyer. On one side, the flyer read,

These textbooks are NOT anti-religious !!! NOT unpatriotic !!! NOT pornographic !!!

In the 1980s, too, conservative parents accused schoolbooks in Hawkins County, Tennessee of choosing pornographic books for their children. One of their complaints was about Up in Seth’s Room, a novel that dealt frankly with issues of teen sex and dating.

up in seths room

Do YOU know it when you see it?

Was it “pornographic?” Was it good literature? These are famously difficult questions to unravel, but the current batch of Florida bills and laws wants to tip the scales heavily in favor of deeply conservative interpretations. They hope to discourage any school-district personnel from selecting literature that any parent might consider risqué. As a bill filed last month specifies,

any person who purchases a textbook, novel, or material that is pornographic or prohibited under s. 847.012 with the intent to expose students to such material commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084. Every textbook, novel, or material purchased shall constitute a separate offense and is punishable as such.

What does that mean? First of all, the language makes clear that this bill is targeting more than just science education. It is meant to strike terror into any superintendent’s heart. If a superintendent buys a district any novel or literature textbook that conservatives consider pornographic—and remember, conservatives consider a lot of mainstream selections pornographic—he or she can be charged with a felony FOR EVERY SEPARATE COPY PURCHASED.

A classroom set of twenty-five copies of Up in Seth’s Room? Twenty-five counts of a third-degree felony.

Make no mistake: This certainly is a fight about science education. But it is also about much more than that. Florida’s bills and laws hope to give conservative activist groups the right to dictate the books and textbooks in ALL of Florida’s classes, weeding out anything that conservatives consider questionable.

Methodists, LGBTQ, and the Triumph of Fundamentalist U

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware by now, conservatives in the United Methodist Church recently scored a big victory. Did this victory count as a hundred-year-long triumph for conservative evangelical higher ed?

missionary cartoon ad

From the Moody Student, 1969.

Let’s start with a few ifs, ands, or buts. I haven’t been following the story too closely so I invite people more in the know to correct any of these basic facts. But

IF: The special conference on Methodist policy toward recognizing LGBTQ status as ministers, bishops and officiants at same-sex weddings voted to choose a more conservative policy, and

IF: That conservative victory was fueled by support from non-USA bishops, especially from Africa, and

IF: Non-US Methodists have roots in US-based missionary efforts, including the establishment of conservative Methodist schools and colleges….

THEN: Conservative evangelicals have scored an enormous victory with a century-long strategy.

Here’s what we mean: As I argued in Fundamentalist U, one of the biggest things that differentiated conservative evangelical higher ed from other types has always been its emphasis on training missionaries. This hasn’t only been true at Bible institutes and Bible colleges, but also at traditional four-year colleges and universities.

missions flier

From Liberty U., c. 1982

Across the board, from staunch fundamentalist to (more) liberal new-evangelical, evangelical colleges always made missionary training a central element of their vision of proper higher education. Consider just a few examples to show the trend:

  1. One student at Moody Bible Institute in the 1920s remembered that he hadn’t originally planned a career as a missionary. It didn’t take him long to feel the call. As he remembered later, “You can’t be in the Moody Bible Institute very long before you’ll have to face that.”
  2. At Biola, of the forty-five graduates in 1938, forty-three went directly into full-time missionary work.
  3. Wheaton College sent approximately a quarter of its 1950 graduating class into full- time missionary work.
  4. Bob Jones University opened in 1957 a new “Institute of Christian Service,” basically adopting the traditional Bible-institute goals of training missionaries without bothering about academic degrees or credentials.
  5. Even late-comer Liberty University pushed hard for missionary careers among its students, employing a full-time missions director even back in the early 1980s when they had trouble paying faculty salaries.

The trend was clear. Unlike many liberal or secularized schools, conservative evangelical universities and colleges ALWAYS put a primary emphasis on training and sending missionaries.

Mission centered

From Biola’s student paper, c. 1939

I’m not the only nerd who noticed. As the late Virginia Brereton pointed out, by 1962 a full half of all American Protestant missionaries were graduates of conservative-evangelical Bible schools.

And, as William Ringenberg noted in his study of evangelical colleges, “It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the early Bible schools emphasized foreign missionary activity.”

So what? What does all this have to do with the recent vote at the UMC? Well—and again I’m not paying super-close attention to all the details, so please correct me if I’m missing some huge facts in the case—if the recent conservative victory came with African support, I have to imagine that a lot of those African bishops, deans, and Methodist eminences had at some point taken part in the programs and institutions originally started by American missionaries, among others. The recent vote capitalized on this century-long strategy of focusing on foreign missions and building educational institutions around the world.

By sending out its students to preach the Gospel to all the world, in other words, American conservatives were planting conservative seeds. Today, those hundred-year-old seeds have borne fruit.

Progressive Methodists, Welcome to the World of Fundamentalism

Conservatives are celebrating. Progressives are lamenting. From a historical perspective, we can’t help but notice that today’s liberal Methodists are likely feeling the same sort of betrayal and dismay that fundamentalists felt in the 1920s and 1930s.

methodist poll

American Methodists: More conservative than you might have thought…

Here’s what we know: The United Methodist Church (UMC) has long faced a dilemma. Its large US contingent has tipped to the liberal side of the spectrum, with some congregations ordaining LGBTQ ministers, even bishops. At the church’s recent special conference, however, conservatives won the day, powered in part by the surprising strength of American conservatives, but even more so by international conservatism.

In a recent poll, for example, 44% of American respondents called themselves conservative-traditional. In African churches, an even stronger traditionalism dominates. As one African leader scolded the conference,

Friends, please hear me, we Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, questioning, or queer. We love them and we hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church universal.

And then please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to “grow up.”

As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic, progressive Methodists are stuck. Do they stay or do they go? As I read her report, I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of conservative Methodists in the 1920s. Back then, conservatives felt their church was being pulled away from them. Like today’s progressives, they often articulated a sense of both surprise and betrayal when they discovered the strength of their 1920s rivals.

To give you a taste of those feelings among early fundamentalist Methodists, I dug back through my files on one of the most famous American fundamentalists, Bob Jones. The founder of Bob Jones University was raised in the Southern Methodist Church and he felt a strong attachment to it his entire life.

However, he chafed at the attempts of the church to limit or control his preaching and institution-building. Most of all, like other fundamentalists of his generation, Jones Sr. believed that liberals had unfairly seized control of denominational institutions and used their power to crush legitimate differences of opinion.

As Jones liked to tell the tale, back in the early days of his career he had donated $300 to a Methodist college—he said it was “all the money I had on earth.” In Jones’ telling, that institution took his money “under false pretenses. They stole it. They are dirty rotten thieves.”

Jones liked to say that his experiences with the Methodist hierarchy led him to found an interdenominational fundamentalist college, one that would “never sell out.” As he put it in 1950,

I couldn’t conceive of anything as mean and low-down as to go out and raise money to build a certain type of school and then build another one…. That’s getting money under false pretenses.  That’s playing with the spiritual life of people.  That’s making capital out of the humble faith of humble saints.

Despite his antagonism toward the denominational hierarchy, Jones Sr. remained in the Methodist church through the 1930s. When a Methodist magazine refused to carry advertisements for Bob Jones College, the Joneses finally threw in the towel. As Jones Sr. wrote to a former editor in 1939, he had long hoped

there might be some hope for Methodism.  Since receiving your letter, I give up.  I say this kindly, and I love you just as much as ever, but I feel sad around the heart.

Eighty years later, we might change the reasons, but the language could remain exactly the same. I can picture a liberal Methodist minister sending in their credentials, saying that they had long hoped there was some hope for a progressive Methodism. After this week’s vote at the special conference, however, they might “give up,” even if it makes them feel “sad around the heart.”

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Are colleges addicted to the internet? Are charter schools “public?” Do Satanists pick up litter? We read with interest the answers to all these questions and more, in our weekly round-up of news ‘n’ views:

Fancy college finds out it can’t live without technology, at IHE.

Walmartification of college, at CHE.

  • Why are evangelical universities over-represented in the mega-online world? Here at ILYBYGTH.

    college enrollment trends

    The sawdust trail moves online…

NJ passes mandatory LGBTQ curriculum, at WNYC.

Why white evangelical women still love Trump, at TC.

White evangelical women . . . rally behind Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump and equate their conservative version of traditional femininity with grace and elegance. . . . The seeming paradox of white evangelical women backing Trump really isn’t a paradox at all. In fact, their support says more about the state of white evangelical Christianity in the US than it does about anything else.

Not just polarized, but…Emma Green on “the bubble:”

a significant minority of Americans seldom or never meet people of another race. They dislike interacting with people who don’t share their political beliefs. And when they imagine the life they want for their children, they prize sameness, not difference. . . . When asked how they would feel about their child marrying someone from the opposite political party, 45 percent of Democrats said they would be unhappy, compared with 35 percent of Republicans.

More strikes and rumors of strikes: Oakland ‘n’ West Virginia, at NPR.

Fundamentalist U leading from behind: More universities assert in loco parentis authority, at CHE.

Are charter schools “public?” Peter Greene says no, at Curmudgucation.

More evidence: 1970s’ hijinx have become 2019 felonies.

On the highway to hell: Satanists adopt a mile in Arkansas, at FA.

Highway to hell