Fundamentalism’s Retreating American Horizon

It’s not about Darwin. It’s not even about Jesus. We see again this morning that radical young-earth creationism—at least Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis brand—is built on a vision of American history in which fundamentalists are always under more and more attack.ken ham on the moon

Here’s what we know: This morning Ham tweeted a nostalgic video about Apollo 8. On that mission, astronauts circled the moon for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1968. In a live broadcast, astronauts read the opening verses from Genesis.

We can ignore the obvious stuff, like the fact that Ken Ham misdescribed this 1968 moon circling as the 1969 moon landing. We’re more interested this morning in Ham’s take-away from the video itself. What lesson did Ham draw?

2: The culture has changed–NASA sadly would not allow this today

Of course, as historians and SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, back in the 1960s, Ham’s predecessors were articulating very similar laments about the dangerous trends in American culture. In early 1963, for example, Samuel Sutherland of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) warned of the dangerous effects of the recent SCOTUS ruling against Bible-reading and teacher-led prayer in public schools.

What would happen now? Sutherland warned the SCOTUS decision might

Make our country an atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself. . . . in prohibiting the name of God to be used in any form of prayer, [SCOTUS] are in effect advocating that the children be taught atheism.

Sutherland wasn’t alone in warning that 1960s America had gone to the atheist dogs. In 1965, for example, in the pages of Carl McIntire’s Christian Beacon magazine, one writer warned that the banishment of teacher-led Christian devotions from public schools

will mean the division even more sharply of this nation into communities of the secular and the Church, which will inevitably lead to more expression of the secular and more repression of the Christian. When this happens, repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution will be the natural course to follow in secular opposition to Christian witness.

In the glorious 1960s, then, Ken Ham’s predecessors were making the same kinds of warnings that Ham is making today: Things used to be better for conservative evangelical Protestants. Public schools and public policy used to speak in the tones of evangelicalism.

Over and over again, across the decades, fundamentalist Cassandras have articulated a similar historical vision. The past was always better. The present–no matter what year–is characterized by a bitter sense of loss, by a grief for a glorious Christian past stripped away by scheming secularists and soft-minded false Christians.

It doesn’t have much to do with actual creationism, of course, or with evolutionary science. But this relentless alarmist nostalgia does a lot to help us understand why some evangelicals yearn to Make America Great Again.

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Fundamentalist U & Me: Alexis Waggoner and Biola

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 Rev. Alexis James Waggoner. The Rev. Waggoner is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and received her M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. She works in the field of religious scholarship — as a Minister of Christian Education, and as the Education Director for a non-profit dedicated to religious literacy. She also serves as a Chaplain in the Air Force Reserves. She graduated from Biola University in 2003.

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

“Pressure” is the wrong word – my parents presented it to me like a (conservative, Evangelical) Christian college was my only option. The other “options” were all similar (Westmont, Asuza, etc).

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Alexis Waggoner today

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?

While I have SO many problems now with schools like Biola, I think it was actually a good fit for me at the time. I grew up insulated and very conservative so Biola was actually a rather “diverse” place for me to be, in that it wasn’t as monolithic as my upbringing had been. It did deepen my faith at the time. And in no small way, it set me on a path that led me where I am today. My family would probably say this is for the worse; I would say it’s for the better. So something about being exposed, in a small way, to differing ideas about Christianity made me want to keep digging and questioning, and find out what else was out there that I hadn’t been exposed to.

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

Absolutely, 100% not. For reasons that will likely become obvious below! I am completely removed from the evangelical environment of my upbringing and find the movement to be harmful at best, abusive at worst.

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Teach . . . the children well . . .

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

No. I did for a while but as my theology and ideology diverged more and more, I realized I no longer could, in good conscience, support a place that contributed to social conservatism, Christian supremacy, othering of the LGTQI community, less-than-full inclusion of women, etc.

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 Biola, and – ten years later – to Union Theological Seminary; two schools that are almost as opposite on the “Christian” school spectrum as you can get. I could write a dissertation on the differences; some are probably pretty obvious. The biggest similarity, though, is that both engage in religious fundamentalism. They both have lines you can’t cross, things you can’t admit to, stuff you can’t question – they just lie on completely opposite sides of the spectrum. As someone who now identifies as an extremely liberal, non-orthodox Christian, who is part of a progressive denomination, serving in a liberal church in NYC … I wish this was something we in the progressive movement did better. We fall into the same traps as our Evangelical counterparts, the same things that we critique them for. I am fascinated by the work that needs to be done that could lead to an actual conversation instead of both extremes yelling past each other.

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Fighting fundamentalism…

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 was a liberal arts major so I took the basic science classes, I don’t remember much but I do remember – and here’s where the relative “diversity” of thought I mentioned above comes into play – being taught evolution. At least as a theory. I can’t remember exactly how it was presented; but it was done so in enough of a way that it was one of the threads of my fundamentalist upbringing that began to unravel. I’d been taught that creationism IS fact, and there are a few fringe people out there who believe this crazy thing called evolution but it’s not really that big a deal. I came to see that it was actually the opposite, and the fact that that piece of my education had been so off made me wonder what else could be wrong with my beliefs and assumptions. You can begin to see why I have mixed feelings about Biola. 🙂

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?

It definitely was not the stereotypical experience, and I’m sure it would’ve been different had I been at a secular college. I had friends and roommates for whom partying and hook-up culture was more of the norm (well, a sub-culture norm). But there was also the pressure to keep purity pledges and that sort of thing. I think my experience was somewhere in between.

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?

Oh absolutely yes. We had mandatory chapels, and we had to take a mandatory 30 units of Bible classes so that everyone ended up with a minor in Biblical Studies.

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?

Here again was where I learned about relative diversity of thought within Christianity. The school absolutely skewed conservative, politically, but there were some student groups who pushed those boundaries. And I remember thinking something along the lines of, I didn’t know you could be anything but Republican and be a Christian! Here again, the small level of exposure I had at Biola to other ways of thinking, began to erode my fundamentalist foundations. Which is pretty ironic. My parents sent me to an Evangelical school to (I assume) further educate me in their belief system and cement my faith. At the time I suppose it did that, somewhat, but in the long run it was the questions I began asking at Biola that led to the whole thing (over many, many subsequent years) eventually all falling apart for me.

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?

As much as it pains me to say it, the advantage they have is, in a world that is becoming more and more polarized, they have dug in their heels and continue to offer an option to people who buy into the narrative that Christians are being assaulted and persecuted. Many people have this worldview and so for them, the “safety” that these schools offer is appealing. However, on the other side of the coin, I believe that the future of evangelical education is similar to the future of the evangelical church. While there is drastic entrenchment, and thus there will likely always be a market for fundamentalism, younger generations continue to be more diverse, more liberally minded, less willing to deal with the exclusivism preached by these churches and universities. So I guess as long as they can survive on the backs of those they’ve convinced to become more entrenched, they will. But I’m hoping the evangelical church as a whole (as we know it) soon will either reinvent itself or become relatively obsolete.

Thanks, Alexis!

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

Fundamentalists Forget their Furious Family Feud

Maybe there’s hope for every family feud. The death of Billy Graham last week inspired an outpouring of love and respect from people whose fundamentalist forefathers loathed Graham’s revivals. Creationist impresario Ken Ham, for example, never one to water down his fundamentalist faith, had nothing but praise for Graham’s ministry. The archives tell a much different story.

Some of today’s no-compromise conservatives seem to have forgotten the legacy of their fundamentalist forefathers. Ken Ham, for example, praised Graham’s evangelistic outreach. As a child he listened to a Graham rally in Australia. As Ham recalled,

I remember people going forward in this church after listening to him and committing their lives to Christ.

Of course, it’s never kosher to speak evil of the dead. Ken Ham, however, lauded the whole body of Graham’s evangelistic outreach, from the 1950s through today. Ham included no whisper of accusation about Graham’s work.

Does he not know the backstory? Or have fundamentalists given up their ferocious feelings about Graham’s revivals in the 1950s?

Cover art final

Yes, there is a place to read the full story…

To be sure, Graham’s passing has attracted some criticism from intellectuals. Historian Matthew Avery Sutton blasted Graham’s reactionary politics. D.G. Hart recalls the fact that many conservative Protestants were “not exactly wild about Graham’s ministry.”

The epochal anger and denunciations sparked by Graham’s outreach, however, seem to have been forgotten by some latter-day fundamentalists themselves.

I look into this history in my new book about evangelical higher education. In a nutshell, Graham’s revivals split the conservative evangelical community. The sticking point was follow-up. At Graham’s hugely popular services, audience members who felt Jesus’s call were put in touch with a sponsoring church. Those churches included more liberal Protestant churches as well as more conservative ones.

Fundamentalists worried that Graham’s preaching was leading souls directly into the pit of hell, by sending them to false churches to learn poisoned theology. These fears weren’t limited to a few right-wing wackos; they were a prominent part of conservative evangelical thinking in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

In 1963, for example, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University denounced Billy Graham. To a correspondent who accused Sutherland of cooperating with Billy Graham, Sutherland wrote,

I do appreciate the truth found in the Word of God which Billy Graham proclaims.  We appreciate also the souls that are saved and who find their way to Bible-believing churches and thus are nurtured in our most holy faith.  We deplore quite definitely, and have said so publicly, that there are so many doctrinally questionable individuals who are identified in prominent ways with the campaign and we are disappointed beyond words in the knowledge that so many of those who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ at the crusades will doubtless find their way into churches where the Word of God is not proclaimed and where they will not have a chance to know what the Gospel is all about or what it means, actually, to be born-again.  I am with you.

In 1971, one outraged fundamentalist wrote to Moody Bible Institute President William Culbertson to express his disgust at the Graham crusades. As he put it, the Graham crusades only sent people into false churches, such as “Luthern” [sic], “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, etc.”

anti culbertson anti graham letter 1

Fundamentalists didn’t like Billy Graham…

For a fundamentalist, that was a serious accusation.

Such accusations flew fast and furious around the world of fundamentalist higher education. The magazine of Biola University ran one typical reader letter in 1958. Reader Dorothy Rose condemned Graham as a false Christian and a servant of world communism. Rose warned (falsely) that Graham had been expelled from two “outstanding, sound Bible colleges.” As Rose wrote direly,

It is easy to be popular with the high-ups and with the press if we are willing to compromise.  But what is the cost spiritually?

No one denounced Graham more fiercely than Graham’s former mentor Bob Jones Sr. In 1958, for example, Jones wrote to a fundamentalist ally,

No real, true, loyal, Bible friend of Bob Jones University can be for the Billy Graham sponsorship . . . . [Billy Graham is] doing more spiritual harm than any living man.

Fundamentalists have come a long way. When it comes to the legacy of Billy Graham at least, no-compromise conservatives seem to have forgiven, or more likely, forgotten the divisive nature of Graham’s ministry.

Poison Pens at Evangelical Colleges

What’s going on at Taylor University in Indiana? According to a recent anonymous newsletter, the evangelical campus is seething with

gossip, slander, backbiting, profanity, vulgarity, crude language, sexual immorality (including adultery, homosexual behavior, premarital sex and involvement with pornography in any form), drunkenness, immodesty of dress and occult practice.

Zoiks!

Taylor’s administration struggles to respond to this conservative carping. For those in the know about the history of evangelical higher education, this sort of anonymous poison-pen assault has always been part of life at Christian colleges.

As I found in the research for my new book, critics from both the evangelical left and the fundamentalist right have often resorted to anonymous open letters in their attempts to influence policy at their schools. The archival files bulge with letters and newsletters of this type.

At Biola University, for example, a self-identified group of disgruntled fundamentalists buttonholed President Samuel Sutherland with a list of concerns in 1969. As they wrote anxiously,

we are deeply concerned about danger signs showing themselves among some of our conference speakers and members of the student body! Indications now present seem to point to a trend that the school is moving from its Biblical foundation.  May God prevent such a tragedy!

The students were concerned with the slackening of the student dress code, particularly for women. The rules stated that skirts and dresses must not be shorter than one and a half inches above the knee. As the conservative students complained, though,

the failure of a number of Biola girls to adhere to the dress rule is altogether too evident.  Excessive bodily exposure of Biola girls has even been seen in the seminary section of the library and has proven a hindrance to study. . . . We urge the administration to be rigorous in enforcing the rules and regulations of Biola Schools.  IN particular, the dress length rule should be observed because of its obvious Biblical basis.

Rock and roll, too, had snuck onto campus. As the protesters warned,

Unfortunately, many students here are experiencing a diet of music consisting primarily of the popular beat of the day.  Our group does not advocate avoidance of popular tunes!  However we do oppose the trend toward an exclusive diet of rock and roll even to the extent that our religious music is to be constructed around the beat.

All in all, the fundamentalist protesters in 1969 worried about the very continuation of Biola as a safe evangelical school. As they concluded,

Many great schools of the past today are under the sway of heresy.  We do not believe that loss happened within a few months.  We believe the erosion was gradual.  May God help all of the administration and faculty at Biola Schools to become more alert in detecting danger signs and in taking action to prevent the deterioration that has begun here.

These sorts of anonymous pleas for reform and renewal haven’t only come from nose-out-of-joint fundamentalists. Liberal students, too, have penned their share of open letters. The archives are full of em, but my personal favorite comes from Moody Bible Institute.

anti john rice demonstration warning letter

From the MBI Archives: BEWARE!

In 1971, MBI invited John R. Rice to speak at its annual Founder’s Day event. Before he could make the trip to Chicago, Rice came out in favor of the racial segregation at Bob Jones University. What was MBI to do? The leadership didn’t want to endorse Rice’s brand of Southern-fried racism. But they also didn’t want to anger his considerable fundamentalist following. As they dithered, they received an anonymous letter warning them to cancel Rice’s appearance.

The letter claimed to be written by non-students. To this reporter, however, the tone sounds awfully similar to the phrasing used by evangelical students everywhere and the letter-writers seem to know a lot more about Rice and MBI than any outsider would. For example, they had read Rice’s publication, Sword of the Lord. They knew about Rice’s recent support for racial segregation at Bob Jones U.

What should MBI do? The letter writers made threats:

We Do Not Want HIM [Rice] IN CHICAGO. If you bring him here to speak, we will have one of the biggest demonstrations Chicago has ever seen.

It would get ugly. As the letter concluded,

BEWARE . . . . the hour is later than you think. . . . Obey our orders or REEEEEEAAAAAP what you sow.

In the end, MBI canceled Rice’s speech. Perhaps the administration shared the letter-writers’ concern that their “ ‘image’ will . . . be destroyed.”

What will happen at Taylor? The conservative newsletter complains that the current campus is going to the dogs, according to Inside Higher Education. In classes, the newsletter exclaims, students learn

permissive views of human sexuality, hostility toward creationist perspectives, rejection of the rule of law (especially on the immigration issue) and uncritical endorsement of liberal-progressive ideas[.]

Such poison-pen missives have had a big impact in the past. Perhaps Taylor’s administration will take the path of least resistance and make some move to mollify the “conservative underground.”

From the Archives: Give Us Money! Please! Now!

Do you get the same phone calls I do? As a nerd, I’ve attended several different colleges. And my phone sometimes rings with a call from an earnest undergrad working the alumni phones at Northwestern or Wash U or Madison, asking me to please consider a donation—”even a small one!” As a teacher and a historian, I always tell them I’ve got nuthin. As I worked on my new book about evangelical higher education, though, I couldn’t help but notice the connections between ALL schools when it comes to pleading for alumni cash.

One of the central themes of the new book is that evangelical colleges have sometimes bucked trends in secular/mainstream/pluralist higher ed. At other times these evangelical institutions have been subject to the same forces that shape all schools. Like all institutions, evangelical colleges have always needed money. Like all universities and colleges, evangelical schools have tried to tap their alumni for funds. In some cases, though, evangelical schools threw in a culture-war twist.

During the twentieth century, funding patterns changed for higher ed. Big research schools started getting more and more money from big research institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. However, as historian Roger Geiger pointed out, that sort of big-grant research money tended to go to the same schools over and over. For example, during the 1920s, new Rockefeller funds poured twelve million research dollars into universities. Back then, though, only six schools—Caltech, Princeton, Chicago, Cornell, Stanford, and Harvard—received more than three-quarters of that money.Gordon 1944 ad for donations in Watchman Examiner

Other colleges—evangelical or not—scrambled to find money elsewhere. For most small schools, tuition dollars continued to represent the biggest single source of revenue. Tuition funding is risky, though. In any given year, it can go down drastically and suddenly if enrollment lags. Just ask Sweet Briar.

In response, most colleges—including evangelical ones—scrambled to build donor networks to collect reliable donations. Over the course of the twentieth century, these administrative departments grew larger, more professional, and far more influential.

Most evangelical colleges participated in this trend enthusiastically. Sometimes, though, evangelical schools did it in a unique way: They harped on the unique culture-war features of their institutions. Gordon College, for example, tried to appeal to evangelicals in general to support their work. In the 1940s, for instance, they advertised their school as a vital evangelical institution. “Consecrated young men and women,” they pleaded, “called of God to Christian leadership” needed Gordon, and Gordon needed money.

At the same time, Gordon experimented clumsily and amateurishly with directed appeals to alumni. One plea for library funds didn’t make any mention of evangelical values. It simply begged alumni to donate. (It’s not clear exactly what year this appeal went out, but it is located in a box of materials from before 1944.)plea to alumnus funds for library cartoon

As the century progressed, many evangelical schools continued both strains of fund-raising appeal. They asked alumni for money, like all schools. But they also asked evangelical culture-warriors to support their work. At Biola, for example, the alumni office sent out a personal appeal in 1970. Here’s what they told alums:

Headlines in the 60’s were frightening.  Hippies and Heart-transplants; Racism and Demonstrations; Assassins and Murderers; Mini-skirts and moon landings.  We read much about power, most of it explosive: flower-power, black-power, atomic power, student power.  The decade was full of change, violence, war, noise and new things.

Power—‘all power’—the explosive power of the Word of God created headlines at BIOLA in the 60’s. Student Population Explodes; Classrooms Crowded Out; Thousands Accept Christ in Orient; 1708 Grads Take Message to Frustrated World.

God used investments like yours to make things happen at BIOLA in the 60’s.

Biola, like a lot of evangelical colleges, sold itself in the 1970s as the healthy conservative anti-college, the stalwart Christian school that not only resisted pernicious trends in mainstream higher ed, but also created a powerful form of counter-counter-cultural higher education.

By the end of the century, evangelical colleges and universities—just like almost all institutions of higher education—had organized bureaucracies to solicit donations from alumni. My guess is that they have continued to emphasize both the distinctive elements of their evangelical promise as well as the mundane institutional needs they face.

I’ll go out on a limb this morning: I bet those of you who attended evangelical colleges get the same kinds of alumni appeals I get from my secular alma maters. But I also bet that your letters sometimes talk about particular evangelical values. They probably sometimes talk about boring financial needs such as a new library, and they probably sometimes emphasize the dire need for Christian values and leadership in these dark times. But they ALWAYS ask for money.

I Owe, I Owe

It was a squeaker, but it worked. I promised my editor I’d deliver the manuscript for Fundamentalist U by Monday, and I just mailed it in today. Coupla days to spare. Whew!

If I were cooler, I would copy Brendan Pietsch’s world’s-coolest acknowledgements page. But I’m not. I’ve accumulated a bunch of debts—financial, intellectual, and otherwise—and I feel a need to express my gratitude the ol-fashioned way.

pietsch acknowledgements

How the cool kids do it these days…

First, the Spencer Foundation footed the bill. Their program for small research grants allowed me to spend the academic year 2014-2015 working full time on this book. I was able to travel to six of the schools I’ve been studying. Without this grant, I would never have been able to put this book together. Thank you Lyle!

There are plenty of other people that also made the book possible. Most important, the archivists at the schools I visited often bent over backward to help me find materials. At Biola, for example, Stacie Schmidt and Sue Whitehead allowed me to work right in their office. They also helped me get permission to use some of the cartoons from Biola’s periodicals that will appear in the book.

At Wheaton, Keith Call helped me find a ton of stuff. He also spent time sharing with me his one-of-a-kind experience with and knowledge of the world of evangelical higher ed. Since my visit, too, he has kept me in the loop about some of the goings-on at Wheaton and elsewhere.

Robert Shuster at the Billy Graham Center kept the room open late for me and helped me dig through the vast resources of their oral history collections. I depended on those oral histories to find out what life was like at fundamentalist colleges for students.

Down South at Bob Jones University, Patrick Robbins over-extended himself to help me locate materials. He has been doing so for years and I’m extremely grateful.

In Chicago, Corie Zylstra and Nikki Tochalauski allowed me to linger late in the Moody Bible Institute archives. They also shared their experiences as students and workers at the most famous Bible Institute in the world.

Even at schools I couldn’t visit in person, friendly archivists were willing to spend time and energy talking to me about my research. At the late Tennessee Temple University, for example, Keith Woodruff took time and risked carpal tunnel syndrome emailing back and forth with me.

One of my local schools, Summit University (the former Baptist Bible of PA) let me use their terrific collections of fundamentalist and evangelical periodicals.

It didn’t work, but I appreciate the efforts of two of my academic heroes, Jon Zimmerman and Ron Numbers, to try to help me get an additional fellowship to fund my work on this book.

And when it came to the book itself, my fellow nerds helped me out enormously. Most especially, Tim Gloege and Dan Williams read several parts of the book and helped me with their enormous expertise. I also conned a group of A-list experts to help me improve the book. The book covers a lot of territory, so I shamelessly braced friends, acquaintances, and even people I only knew by reputation.

First, I reached out to higher-ed historians such as Roger Geiger, Christopher Loss, and Ethan Schrum. The book also wrestles with questions of the nature of conservative evangelical Protestantism, so I asked Molly Worthen, John Fea, Bill Trollinger, and Brendan Pietsch for expert help. There’s a lot about creationism in there, too, and Ron Numbers and Michael Lienesch agreed to read sections and point out my blunders. Then, of course, there are the group of experts specifically in the history of evangelical higher education and I asked them all for their time: Jared Burkholder, Michael Hamilton, and Chris Gehrz. To top it all off, I also pestered other smart people I knew to give me their opinions, including L. Herbert Siewert, Tim Lacy, and David Bernstein.

Thanks to all…but that’s not all. I’m also grateful to all the SAGLRROILYBYGTH for taking part in our conversations about evangelicalism, college, fundamentalism, conservatism, and etc. etc. etc. over the past few years.

What happens next?

It will still be a while before the book hits shelves. The folks at Oxford will give my manuscript some copy-editing. Then they’ll put together a set of proofs, set as the actual pages will look. Once we get to that stage, I’ll pore over the proofs to write my index.

It all takes time and patience. When will the book finally be published? Hard to say exactly, but it’s usually about twelve to eighteen months. I’ll keep you posted.

Can a College Be Christian?

After Ben Carson’s stupid and hateful comment that the USA should not have a Muslim president, Baylor theologian Roger Olson noted that we really could not have a Christian president, either. In my current work about evangelical colleges, I’m struggling to define what it meant to be Christian at school, too. It raises an ancient question: Can an other-worldly religion (successfully) run worldly institutions?

Olson noted that the only sincere evangelical to sit in the Oval Office in recent decades has been Jimmy Carter. And Carter, Olson argued, was a terrible president. Not by accident, either, but because he was an honest-to-goodness Christian. As Olson put it,

I am not cynical, but neither am I naïve. America is no longer a true democracy; it is run by corporations and the super-rich elite. Occasionally they don’t get their way, but, for the most part, they do. One reason they do not seem to is that they do not agree among themselves about everything. So, sometimes, a president, a senator, a congressman, has to choose between them in decision-making. But, in the end, the policy remains that “What’s good for business is good for America” even when what’s good for business is bad for the working poor (to say nothing of the destitute).

No, given how modern nation states work, I do not think a real Christian, a true disciple of Jesus Christ who seeks to put first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, can be president of the United States or any modern nation state.

The deeper question of belief and institutional necessity is one I’m wrestling with these days. As I write my new book about the history of evangelical higher education, I find myself struggling to offer a satisfactory definition of what it has meant to be a fundamentalist. It’s a question that has bedeviled historians (and fundamentalists) for a good long while, so I feel I’m in good company.

For good reasons, historians have insisted that we need a fairly narrow definition of fundamentalism. In his great book Revive Us Again, Joel Carpenter argued, “more generic usage obscures more than it illumines” (page 4). Carpenter was leery of commentators who slapped a “fundamentalist” label on any and all conservatives or conservative Protestants. As he argued,

Labelling movements, sects, and traditions such as the Pentecostals, Mennonites, Seventh-day Adventists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Churches of Christ, black Baptists, Mormons, Southern Baptists, and holiness Wesleyans as fundamentalists belittles their great diversity and violates their unique identities (4).

If we need a straightforward definition for those reasons, Matthew Sutton’s recent definition of fundamentalism as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism” will do the trick. Certainly, fundamentalist theology was defined by its vision of end-times as well as by the centrality of those apocalyptic visions to the movement.

But such definitions don’t seem to match the ways fundamentalism has been defined in its leading institutions. At the colleges I’m studying—schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, Bryan College, Biola University, The King’s College, and similar schools—there’s more to the school than just theology.

When these schools called themselves “fundamentalist” (and they DID, even relatively liberal schools such as Wheaton), they meant more than theology. They meant more than just “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” They meant more than just “not-Mennonite-or-Pentecostal.”

Defining fundamentalism as it was used in fundamentalist institutions is a trickier issue than simply defining fundamentalist theology. By and large, when schools talked about themselves as “fundamentalist,” they meant that the professors and administration all signed on to fundamentalist theology. But they also meant that the students would have a vaguely conservative atmosphere in which to study. No smoking, no dancing, no etc. They also meant that students would be controlled and guided in their life choices. And they also meant that students would be more likely to socialize with similarly fundamentalist friends and future spouses.

I’m not sure how to define that kind of fundamentalism. I like the way historian Timothy Gloege has done it in his new book about the Moody Bible Institute. Gloege focuses on what he calls the “corporate evangelical framework” that guided MBI since its founding in the 19th century.

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

As Gloege argues, at a school like MBI, fundamentalism was more than a set of “manifestos and theological propositions.” Rather, it worked as a set of “unexamined first principles—as common sense.” Fundamentalism, Gloege writes, is better understood as a certain “grammar” than as a list of religious beliefs.

That kind of definition seems closer to the ways it was used in the schools I’m studying.

Roger E. Olson argues that it will be impossible for any sincere evangelical Christian to be president. There are simply too many worldly factors that violate the otherworldly morality of Christianity. Similarly, evangelical colleges have not defined themselves merely along theological lines. They couldn’t. Instead, they have defined what it has meant to be a “fundamentalist” based on a range of factors. Of course, they care about student religious belief. But they also care about student fashions, patriotism, diets, and social lives. And such things were usually considered a central part of making a school authentically “fundamentalist.”

Can a college be Christian? In the sense that Roger E. Olson is asking, I guess not. Just as every president has to violate evangelical morality, so every institution of higher education has to consider a range of non-religious factors in order to survive.

From the Archives: A Satanic Cult Leader for the GOP

US News & World Report calls him the “evangelical darling.” By some counts, he is the second-most-popular candidate in the GOP scrum. But for anyone familiar with the history of evangelical Protestants in the USA, it can be shocking that a Seventh-day Adventist such as Ben Carson can be so popular among conservative voters. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that conservative evangelicals considered Seventh-day Adventism to be trick of Satan, a cult to lure unwary believers.

Kings Business anti SDA 1For those unfamiliar with the denomination, SDA had its origins in the “Great Disappointment.” In the mid-1800s, William Miller predicted the imminent return of Christ. Some true believers sold everything to prepare for the end of the world. When October 22, 1844 came and went, some folks reasonably concluded that Miller had been wrong.

But not everybody. One splinter group, guided by Prophet Ellen G. White, explained that Christ had come and gone, but it had been a spiritual event, invisible to the mundane eye. White experienced visions of God and angels, creation and the end of time.

Her followers coalesced into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Unlike other Christian groups, SDA members had reason to believe that creation had been a literal six-day event. They had reason to believe that it had taken place within the past 10,000 years. After all, White had been shown it all.

This is the church from which Dr. Carson comes. Unlike some presidential contenders in the past, he has made no noise about separating himself from the teachings of his church. Quite the contrary. He has publicly and repeatedly embraced them.

So far, so good.

What remains shocking for those who know their SDA history is that Dr. Carson has been publicly and repeatedly embraced by evangelical Protestants. It was not so very long ago, after all, that evangelical intellectuals blasted SDA beliefs in the harshest terms.Kings Business anti SDA 2

Writing in the 1919 publication of the founding conference of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, George Guille described SDA this way:

It is Satan’s stroke against the throne and the heart of God.

Hrm.

And a few years later, in 1921, in the pages of The King’s Business, the magazine of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (today’s Biola University) one writer described SDA in similar no-holds-barred language. Jessie Sage Robertson warned Biola’s cult expert Keith L. Brooks that SDA was a dangerous cult. As she put it,

Strange, isn’t it, that a whole body of religionists should decry Spiritism as of the devil, and yet accept a whole system of Biblical interpretation received by one [Ellen G. White] in a state of non-self control?

Too many evangelical pastors, Robertson believed, were not aware of these “false religious systems” with “their soul-destroying dangers.”

If I were an SDA neurosurgeon, I might feel a little trepidation at accepting the friendship of such recent enemies. I might not feel excited to be welcomed by people who had so recently accused my religion of such terrible crimes.

Now, I’m not as dumb as I look. I am aware that these warnings are all from a long time ago. I am aware that our last round of elections brought a leader of the Latter-day Saints Church (the Mormons) to staunchly fundamentalist Liberty University to speak.

But I am also aware that schools such as the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago STILL sell charts warning true believers of the dangers of “cults” such as Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism.

The point, however, is not that evangelicals should or should not embrace Dr. Carson. Rather, the point for all of us is that evangelical belief is always changing.

For progressive secular folks (like me), we need always to remember that evangelicalism is not somehow a product of a past America. Evangelical Protestants are not trapped in time, either from the Victorian 1870s or the Leave-It-to-Beaver 1950s.

And conservative evangelicals need always to remember that their religion is changing, no matter what they might hear. It can be tricky in evangelical circles to talk about religious change, since so much of evangelicalism is based on remaining true to God’s Unchanging Word. Smart evangelicals, however, will be the first to tell you that human interpretation of God’s Word is always changing, and always riddled with errors.

Will evangelical voters vote for a member of a Satanic Cult? Time will tell, but it seems most evangelicals have put that past behind them.

Christians and the Gay Bandwagon

There’s no question that American attitudes toward homosexuality are changing at a dizzying pace. Conservative evangelical Americans are changing, too. A recent article in the New York Times described a high-level meeting between concerned evangelicals. As I found in the archival research for my new book, evangelicals used to feel an almost murderous fear and hatred of homosexuality. That is no longer the case. But conservative evangelicals still have a hard time justifying their growing acceptance of homosexuality.

The NYT article describes a meeting at Biola University in California between Matthew Vines and a collection of influential evangelicals. The young Mr. Vines came to public attention recently with his Christian plea for acceptance, God and the Gay Christian. What is the proper evangelical attitude, the discussants asked—the Biblical attitude—toward homosexuality?

A lonely worker in the Vines-yard?  Or the wave of the evangelical future?

A lonely worker in the Vines-yard? Or the wave of the evangelical future?

The fact that this discussion took place at all shows the enormous changes in evangelical America on the subject. But the article raises a perennial question: Why are evangelicals changing? Is it just to keep up with changes in mainstream culture? Do evangelicals simply shift their interpretation of Bible passages when it becomes culturally convenient?

At the outset, I should clarify my position. I’m no evangelical and I have always had trouble understanding how anyone could think other people’s sexuality was their business. For me, the issue of gay rights has always gone beyond big questions of marriage rights to more basic claims to equality. In short, I believe, no one should have to apologize or explain their sexuality. I do think this is the moral high ground, but I recognize that it didn’t take any moral courage for me to get here. The way I grew up, it would be weird for me not to feel this way. I’m sure that if I grew up in different circumstances I would feel very different about it. Nuf sed.

At Biola, organizers invited Mr. Vines to talk about homosexuality and evangelical belief along with a panel of influential figures, including Biola professor and public intellectual Sean McDowell, local pastors Rev. Caleb Kaltenbach and Rev. Ian DiOrio, and Christian radio host Frank Sontag. For hours, the men talked about homosexuality and Biblical belief. Is it possible for evangelicals to understand Romans 1 in any other sense? In that oft-quoted passage, Paul explicitly condemned homosexual practice.

A majority in the room seemed disposed to embrace a change in evangelical attitudes. Vines himself is gay. Kaltenbach has a gay father and two gay mothers. DiOrio has a gay brother and worked in a gay nightclub. But those are not theological reasons.

Evangelicals are in a different position from secular folks. They can’t simply change their beliefs because it seems polite. Rather, they base their ideas on their readings of Scripture. Of course, intelligent evangelicals understand that our interpretation of Scripture can be wrong, even if Scripture itself can’t be. So while secular conservatives such as Dick Cheney can change their minds without much soul-searching, conservative evangelicals need to justify their change in terms of Biblical interpretation.

The Rev. Kaltenbach explained this evangelical dilemma. “In Romans 1,” Kaltenbach told the NYT,

I cannot get past where Paul says that the actual act of having sex with someone of the same gender is a sin. I can’t get past that. And believe me, with two parents who are gay, you’ve got to know I tried, even exegetically through the Greek.

Evangelicals don’t only have to change their minds. They have to justify that change by changing their interpretation of Scripture. And they have to do it fast. There can be no doubt, after all, that evangelical minds are changing. Even to host a respectful meeting between an openly gay evangelical and relatively sympathetic listeners marks the vast break from the past.

Buried in the Biola archives is evidence of a shockingly different attitude toward homosexuality. In the early 1950s, a former Biola student faked his own death in order to avoid exposure as a homosexual. Once the story was out, the student wrote an apology to Biola. He apologized for being a “filthy so-and-so,” and promised that prayer had cured him of his “perverted urge.”

Biola’s administration offered a public explanation of this student’s scandalous behavior:

He has for a number of years been a victim of a vicious condition of inherent baseness and depravity. The Bible clearly describes the condition in Romans One. We give it a more common name of ‘homosexuality.’ Socially it is condemned. Spiritually it is sin. It is impossible to have part in this sordid thing without paying the penalty of mental distress and mental illness that may even lead to more vicious acts, including murder. . . . Surely the devil has taken some measure of control of this man and we need to pray for him.

Of course, in the 1950s evangelical Americans weren’t the only ones with vicious and shockingly angry attitudes toward homosexuality. The US State Department purged homosexuals, since homosexuality was seen at the time as a national security risk.

For conservative evangelicals, however, changing norms carry a different moral weight. It is not acceptable to simply change one’s mind. Rather, conservative evangelicals need to remain true to the primacy of Scripture. If the Bible teaches X or Y, conservative evangelicals need to respect that.

The question facing Mr. Vines and other evangelical gay-rights activists is clear: Will evangelicals find a way to change their minds?

MBI Kind of Town…

What did you do after high school? Did you go to a “college?” Or was it a “university,” “institute,” a “normal school,” or maybe a “professional school?” For generations of ambitious Protestant missionaries, the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago has been the best-known institution of evangelical higher ed. So much so that MBI has clung to the “BI” name much longer than many other evangelical colleges.

DOWNtown funk...

DOWNtown funk…

I just rolled into Chi-town on the last of my research trips this year. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m working on a book about the history of evangelical higher ed. This year, I’ve traveled to Bob Jones University, Wheaton College, Biola University, Gordon College, and Liberty University.

MBI is last, but certainly not least. I’ve logged my share of time in these archives over the years, especially while working on my PhD dissertation and first book. MBI is not the oldest Bible Institute, but it has remained far and away the most influential.

For those outside of the orbit of evangelical culture, the primary goal of Bible institutes has been to provide quick and affordable education for missionaries. In order to serve effectively on the mission field, many evangelicals have believed, missionaries need a thorough knowledge of the Bible. In order to bring people to true salvation, missionaries need a proper knowledge, too.

Beginning in the late 1800s, Bible institutes popped up in American cities nationwide. Many of them attracted students without a lot of academic preparation. These students, after all, were not heading into the traditional professions, but rather heading out to spread the Gospel in every land. They did not need to know Latin and trigonometry, but rather only the Bible and maybe some basic medicine and language skills.

Over the decades, many of these Bible institutes turned into colleges or universities of one kind or another. This was part of the triple revolution in higher education that Roger Geiger describes in his new book, The History of American Higher Education. By 1940, Professor Geiger argues, the wild diversity of early institutions of higher education had become standardized, a recognizable modern system of American higher education.

In this system, no one went to college without first completing a high-school education. They looked forward to an education that would prepare them for specific professions. Colleges themselves closed their preparatory departments or split them off into stand-along high schools. Universities had shaken out into a relatively stable hierarchy of prestige and social influence. At the top were wealthy old schools such as Harvard and the University of Michigan. At these universities, undergraduate education rollicked along in a cloud of sports, fraternities, and social climbing, while the schools themselves fought viciously to increase their research footprint.

As this modern system regularized itself in the years after World War I, several types of institutions phased out. These evolutionary also-rans included many institutes of technology, proprietary medical or legal schools, “female institutes,” normal schools, and—though Professor Geiger doesn’t mention them—most of the Bible institutes.

These old-fashioned types of higher education did not disappear. Rather, most of them changed to offer the new standard bachelor’s degrees. Many of them built new dormitories and fielded sports teams. And most of them took their place in the competitive hierarchy that arched from Harvard down to Podunk State College & Grill.

A very few exceptions stood out from this winnowing process, at least symbolically. Some of the old-fashioned institutions of higher education had been so successful in the 1800s that they felt no need to change their names, even as they usually adopted some of the features of modern higher education. Most notably, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology never changed its name to call itself a “college” or a “university.” MIT began as one of a scramble of “institutes of technology” in the years surrounding the Civil War. Unlike today’s MIT, the early institutes did not focus on recognizably pure modern research. Instead, they mostly provided students with a more practical mechanical education meant for workers in industrial workshops.

As more and more students wanted to spend their tuition dollars at a “college” or “university” that took its place in the ever-more-rigid hierarchy after World War I, most of these “institutes of technology” turned themselves into “colleges” or “universities.”

Following a somewhat similar pattern, since 1940 most of the crop of Bible institutes that sprang up around the turn of the twentieth century turned themselves into “colleges” or “universities.” Biola University, for example, began its life as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles—BIOLA, get it? Gordon College, too, had its roots as the Boston Missionary Training School. As early Gordon President Nathan Wood remembered, the first name change—to Gordon College of Theology and Missions—resulted from student pressure.   Three class presidents, Wood recalled, requested

a change of name to one which would express the collegiate and theological work of the school. . . . It meant much to them as future Alumni.

To put it in terms Wood never used, the Gordon students recognized early the congealing patterns of modern American higher education. A “training school” did not convey the same prestige and professional opportunities as did a “college.”

For some stand-out schools, however, these rules did not apply. Moody Bible Institute was so well known among evangelicals its name sufficed to keep students coming. There was no need for it to change its name to acknowledge the changing environment of American higher education. Like MIT, MBI had created such a unique niche in higher education that it kept its old fashioned name and much of its old-fashioned structure. Also like MIT, MBI took on many of the features of modern higher education. Unlike in its early days, MBI now offers college degrees, not just Bible training.

Doubtless, I’ll find some evidence here in the archives about efforts over the years to change MBI’s name. Unlike smaller schools, however, MBI had the size needed to stand out as an island in the new seas of modern higher education.