Trump-ing Academic Life

A Miss USA, a bachelor, a gun-toter, a filmmaker, and a MAGA youtuber, all clumped together on a college campus to promote “Judeo-Christian values.” What could go wrong? If it were a reality show, I’d watch it. But it’s not. Instead, this group of culture-war B-listers is the first cohort of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center Fellows. These Trumpish all-stars promise/threaten to upend a long tradition of alternative academic institution-building in conservative evangelical higher ed.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, we’ve been following developments at Liberty’s new Falkirk Center with a lot of interest. The founders—Jerry Falwell Jr. and Turning Point’s Charlie Kirk—warned us that they plan to put “Judeo-Christian values” back in the center of American political life via an “aggressive social media campaign.” Given the history of ambitious academic centers at conservative evangelical universities, there’s not much of a chance the Falkirkers will achieve their goals. Given the recently announced line-up of founding Falkirk Fellows, I’m starting to think that they might, in fact, have a totally different goal in mind. Namely, they might want to trash the entire evangelical academic tradition, or at least not mind if they do.

As I argued in Fundamentalist U, since the 1920s conservative evangelical colleges, institutes, and universities faced a formidable task. They had to create an entirely separate academic system of prestige, one that rewarded scholars outside of mainstream academic channels. As part of their effort to do so, many universities poured scarce resources into the painstaking effort to build their own independent network of academic prestige, one that did not rely on mainstream ideas. For example, institutions such as Wheaton College and Gordon College heaped honors on creationists such as Harry Rimmer. Authors such as Arthur Brown scrambled to compile impressive-sounding lists of academic “experts” who scorned mainstream science.

To be sure, these alternative academic “experts” often had extremely shallow credentials. When evangelical universities gave them honorary doctorates and other academic honors, however, they were signaling to the conservative evangelical community that their universities shared the religious and political values of their honored experts. The universities were creating, in essence, a world of academic prestige outside the entire system of mainstream academics.

The recent move by Liberty University seems as different from that kind of thinking as Trump is from Reagan. What does it take to earn a coveted spot as an inaugural fellow at the Falkirk Center? Let’s take a look:

Frantzve

Adding a little sparkle to academic life…

First, we have Erika Lane Frantzve, Miss USA 2012. Ms. Frantzve claims a “background” in political science and is dedicated to charity work. Next, there is Josh Allan Murray, best known from his appearance on The Bachelorette. These days, in spite of the quick break-ups of his TV nuptials, Mr. Murray is apparently “bouncing back better than ever.” Third comes Antonia Okafor Cover, who works to get more guns on college campuses. She claims to have been told she should not feel free to speak her mind, but as she puts it, “I didn’t listen.” Another fellow will be David J. Harris, Jr., a vlogger and Trump enthusiast who preaches the dangers of the “crazed left.” Last but not least is Jaco Booyens, filmmaker and opponent of sex trafficking.

I don’t mean to be a campus snob, but what kind of achievements can a group like this hope to achieve? To quote Charlie Kirk, how can this assemblage “‘play offense’ against efforts by liberals to water down Judeo-Christian values in the Bible and Constitution”?

The short and obvious answer is, they can’t. This is a group of second-rate conservative media presences, not a group of alternative academics. Unlike people like Harry Rimmer in an earlier generation, they have no coherent ideas to promote. They are not scientists frozen out of mainstream science, or theologians pushed out of mainstream institutions. Those kinds of non-mainstream intellectuals used to be the ones to win academic honors from the evangelical academy. This group looks decidedly different.

Even from within the alternative academic tradition of conservative evangelical schools, a tradition in which non-traditional intellectuals were often awarded traditional academic honors, this group of Falkirk Fellows looks remarkably intellectual weak. Instead of building an independent system of academic prestige as earlier evangelical colleges have done, the Falkirk Center seems to be merely leaping aboard the Trump Train to trash the entire idea of academic prestige.

Creationist Credentials and the Toilet-Paper Doctorate

What does it take for a creationist to earn a PhD?  As arch-anti-creationist Jerry Coyne pointed out yesterday, not a whole lot.  Coyne looked at the embarrassingly weak doctoral work of young-earth creationist Kent Hovind.  This sham dissertation leads us to ask again about the paradoxical relationship between creationism and credentials.

patriot bible university

Hovind’s Alma Mater

It does not take a creationist-hater like Professor Coyne to find big problems with Hovind’s doctoral work.  Hovind cranked out a hundred awkward pages of claptrap about creationism under the auspices of Patriot Bible University of Del Norte, Colorado.

Intelligent creationists might cringe at this sort of hucksterism, with good reason.  It allows even the most accomplished creationists, such as Harvard-educated Kurt Wise, to be lumped together with this sort of snake-oil academic flim-flam.

Throughout the history of the creation/evolution debates, creationists have struggled to prove their intellectual bona fides.  It hasn’t been easy.  For the first generation of modern anti-evolutionists, it came as a surprise to find that their ideas no longer held sway at leading research universities and intellectual institutions.

As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education demonstrated recently, this 1920s revelation led anti-evolutionists to scramble for certifiable creationist experts.  The most famous anti-evolutionist of the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, groped awkwardly among scientists to find some who opposed “Darwinism.”

Bryan wasn’t alone.  As I note in my 1920s book, all the anti-evolution activists of the 1920s were obsessed with demonstrating that creationism[*] had expert support.  T.T. Martin, for example, who attracted attention with his eye-catching booth at the 1920s Scopes monkey trial, listed his expert supporters relentlessly.  In his book Hell and the High School, 67 out of 175 pages consisted of nothing more than lists of anti-evolution experts and their backgrounds.

Experts! Experts! Get Yr Experts Here!

Experts! Experts! Get Yr Experts Here!

Another anti-evolution activist from the 1920s showed similar determination.  On a typical page of Alfred Fairhurst’s Atheism in Our Universities, Fairhurst included only 23 original words.  The remaining 107 consisted of quotes from “leading writers on evolution.”

Writing in 1922, Arthur Brown used the same tactic.  He piled up impressive-sounding lists of experts and scientists who disputed evolution.  Why should readers accept evolution, Brown asked, when it had been discarded by the likes of

world-renowned men like Virchow of Berlin, Dawson of Montreal, Etheridge of the British Museum, Groette of Strassburg University, Paulson of Berlin, Clerk Maxwell, Dana, Naegeli, Holliker, Wagner, Snell, Tovel, Bunge the physiological chemist, Brown, Hofman, and Askernazy, botanists, Oswald Heer, the geologist, Carl Ernst von Baer, the eminent zoologist and anthropologist, Du Bois Reymond, Stuckenburg and Zockler, and a host of others. . . .  It seems to be a fact that NO opinion from whatever source, no matter how weighty or learned, is of any account with those who are consumed with the determination to reject the Bible at any cost, and shut God out of His universe.

As I traced in my 1920s book, following the work of historian Ron Numbers, this impressive-sounding list did not really make the point Brown hoped it would.  The names he listed came from earlier generations or from scientists who agreed with evolution’s broad outlines but disagreed on details.  But Brown, like Bryan, Martin, Fairhurst, and virtually all other creationist activists felt compelled to establish the academic credentials of anti-evolutionists.

Hovind’s case reminds us of this peculiar conundrum of credentials among creationists.  One does not have to be an evolutionary bulldog like Professor Coyne to find Hovind’s academic pretensions silly and reprehensible.  Hovind’s work certainly gives skeptics such as Professor Coyne an easy route of attack.

For those of us who don’t care to attack or defend creationism, though, Hovind’s doctoral ouvre offers different lessons.  Once a dissenting group has been turned away from mainstream institutions, credentials become both more precious and easier to attain.  At least since the 1920s, that is, anti-evolutionists have scrambled to find expert backing for their beliefs.  But once creationism had been kicked out of elite research universities, it became far easier for creationists to claim credit for academic work at bogus universities.  If universities themselves are suspect, in other words, the ridiculousness of diploma mills like the Patriot Bible University becomes less damning.

[*] The term “creationism” is an anachronism here.  Anti-evolutionists in the 1920s did not call their beliefs “creationism” yet.  But I’ll use it just to keep things readable.