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.

Fundamentalism and the Modern University

Are evangelical colleges modern? Or, with their insistence that knowledge has its roots in God’s Holy Word, are they somehow trapped in medieval ideas about knowledge and the purposes of higher education? The answer is more complicated than it might seem at first.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of ILYBYGTH (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are sick of hearing, I’m hard at work on my book about evangelical higher ed. In the twentieth century, Protestant fundamentalists opened or transformed a network of colleges dedicated to protecting fundamentalist faith. If students are led astray at mainstream secular colleges, the thinking went, fundamentalists needed their own schools to teach each new generation of Christians how to be educated and evangelical.

As part of my reading list, I’m deep in Roger Geiger’s new book, The History of American Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2015). I’m writing a full review for Teachers College Record and I’ll be sure to post links to that review when it comes out.

Are fundamentalists colleges modern? Or are they trapped in the 1600s?

Are fundamentalist colleges modern? Or are they trapped in the 1600s?

In the meantime, though, Professor Geiger’s survey of the first colleges raises some tricky questions for fundamentalist higher education. As with so many early American institutions, colleges such as Harvard and Yale represented the tail end of medieval traditions, just as they were changing into recognizably modern ways of thinking.

Conservative evangelicals like to point out that America’s leading colleges were often founded as religious schools. It’s true. Harvard and Yale were both intended, first and foremost, to defend orthodox Puritanism. Not only were they ferociously religious, but they envisioned their role in a radically non-modern way. Instead of serving as an institution that encouraged new thinking, Harvard and Yale in the 1600s and early 1700s both saw their role as passing along established truth. As Prof. Geiger puts it, in the early decades, “The corpus of knowledge transmitted at Harvard College was considered fixed, and inquiry after new knowledge was beyond imagining.”

Orthodoxy at these early schools was defended with a rigor that would make twentieth-century fundamentalists proud. Harvard’s first president, for example, was ousted for theological reasons. President Henry Dunster came to believe that infant baptism was not a scriptural practice. As a result, the General Court summarily got rid of him. In their words, no one could lead a college if they “manifested themselves unsound in the faith.”

Both Harvard and Yale made explicit their goals. In early years, Yale explained its primary religious mission:

Every student shall consider the main end of his study to wit to know God in Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a Godly sober life.

It was not much different at Harvard:

the main end of [a student’s] life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, Joh. 17.3

In all these aspects, life at Harvard and Yale between the 1630s and 1720s seems remarkably similar to life at fundamentalist colleges in the early twentieth century. For schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones College, Bible Institute of Los Angeles, or Gordon College, these Puritan echoes resounded loudly. At all these fundamentalist schools, leaders insisted that the first goal was to help students understand themselves as Christians. The first intellectual challenge was to study seemingly distinct bodies of knowledge to see the hidden connections put in place by God.

In this way, then, it seems as if fundamentalist colleges—even those more liberal schools that eventually abandoned the “fundamentalist” label—hearken back to a pre-modern vision of higher education.

We have to be careful, though, before we assume too much. In other important ways, twentieth century dissenting religious colleges participated fully in the central intellectual tradition of modern higher education.

According to Professor Geiger, colonial higher education went through a revolutionary change in the 1720s-1740s. During that period, endowed professorships at Harvard gave some faculty members the independence to pursue new forms of knowledge. These professors began to incorporate the ideas of new thinkers such as Isaac Newton and John Locke.

The radical change came not only from the newness of the ideas, but from the notion that the college or university should be the place to explore such new ideas. As Professor Geiger puts it,

The significance and prestige of Newtonian science altered college teaching by introducing the experimental lecture employing apparatus, creating a demand for specialized professors and establishing the expectation that the curriculum should incorporate new knowledge.

A fundamental characteristic of the modern university emerged in the decades before the American Revolution. College, more than any other institution, came to be seen as the province of cutting-edge thinking. As Professor Geiger points out, even before Ben Franklin made his famous experiments with lightning, John Winthrop at Harvard used his endowed Hollis Chair funding to purchase equipment that would allow him to demonstrate the properties of electricity.

Just as the fundamentalist colleges of the twentieth century clung to the pre-modern notion that universities ought to pass along established truths, those same fundamentalist schools fully participated in the modern notion that universities ought to explore new truths.

An evangelical scientist, for example, such as Russell Mixter at Wheaton College in the 1950s, believed that no amount of human investigating could overturn the truths of Scripture. But Mixter (and others like him) also saw himself as an intellectual specialist, a scientist exploring the outer boundaries of biology to discover new things about God’s creation.

Are fundamentalist and evangelical colleges modern? In this sense, they certainly are. The faculty at twentieth- and twenty-first century conservative colleges are divided into academic disciplines. Each of them is expected to carry out research in his or her field. The definition of those fields may be different from the ones at secular institutions, but the fundamentally modern notion of research remains central.

At the same time, though, by envisioning themselves as the guardians of students’ faiths, fundamentalist colleges hearken back to the pre-modern roots of the Ivy League. As Professor Geiger argues about 17th century Puritan higher education, “the deeper purpose of the college course and the overriding preoccupation of the institutions were to demonstrate the truth of Christianity.”

Today’s evangelical colleges would agree.

Gay + Christian = Celibate: A Long Tradition

What is a gay conservative Christian to do? With plenty of justification, many Americans think that conservative Catholics and evangelicals are anti-gay. A recent article in the Washington Post suggests that homosexual Christians have found a new answer to this conundrum, though those in the know know that there’s nothing new about it.

Michelle Boorstein’s article discusses the spiritual path of bloggers such as Eve Tushnet, whom Boorstein describes as a leader of a

small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re celibate.

When Tushnet converted to Catholicism, Boorstein describes, she felt as if she were the first gay Christian to choose celibacy. To be fair, neither Boorstein nor Tushnet claims this is brand new.  It is “easier” to be openly gay, Boorstein writes.  But not easy.  As the article discusses, such a decision opens one up to attacks from both sides. Some conservatives hope that God can “heal” homosexuals. Such folks want homosexual Christians to abjure their homosexual identities. From the other side, some gay activists argue that choosing celibacy is a terrible option, a truckling to anti-gay animus among conservatives.

What the article doesn’t examine is the long history of this question among conservative evangelicals. As one might expect, issues of sexuality and sexual attraction have long played a central role at America’s network of conservative evangelical colleges. What should young people do if they feel sexually attracted to their own gender? What should loving Christians tell them in college classes and counseling sessions? In my current round of archival research into the history of these schools, I’m seeing a long tradition of the answer “discovered” by folks such as Tushnet: Gay conservatives can remain true to their religious beliefs and true to their sexual attractions by committing to lifelong celibacy.

Certainly, as Boorstein notes, the language has changed, as have public attitudes. In the past, conservatives did not claim their homosexuality as openly or as proudly. But this does not mean that the celibacy “solution” is at all a new one.

In the 1930s, for example, among the troubles at the Denver Bible Institute was the leader’s insistence that all relationships be “continent.” This leader, Clifton Fowler, was accused of homosexual attractions. Indeed, he was accused of active homosexual sexual relationships. His solution was to insist that all married relationships—apparently all potentially sexual relationships—remain celibate. In that case, the facts were obscured by conflicting accusations on all sides. It seems clear, however, that the celibate “solution” to the perceived dilemma of homosexual attraction among Protestant fundamentalists is nearly as old as American fundamentalism itself.

In a later generation, the language used to discuss homosexuality and celibacy grew slightly more frank, while remaining just as harshly anti-gay. In 1951, a student at Biola College (now Biola University) promised counselors that he would remain celibate. As I read the record, this promise was taken at the time as a satisfactory and traditional “solution” to the problem of gay fundamentalism. Take, for example, the following explanation he offered to his dean:

as to the matter [i.e., homosexuality] that has been at the root of all my grief, I am positive that I am cured. The perverted urge will probably come upon me many times in the future but now that I know giving in to it has cost me all that I held dear, I am certain that I will be enabled to grasp the strength of the Lord to withstand.

Back in 1951, it seems, as in the late 1930s, among these conservative Christians, celibacy seemed an appropriate and acceptable solution to homosexual attractions. The student here did not suggest that being “cured” of homosexuality meant becoming heterosexual. Rather, all he promised was the ability to “withstand” what he called his “perverted urge.”

Continuing into the 1970s, leaders at evangelical schools seemed open to the idea that celibacy could be an acceptable evangelical answer for homosexuals. For instance, in a 1977 interview with Wheaton College’s student newspaper, Wheaton President Hudson Armerding offered this response:

The church should respond in love toward those with homosexuality [sic] tendencies and in humility seek to assist such persons to maintain and develop a life-style that is in obedience to the Word of God.

Armerding did not insist that evangelical homosexuals be “cured” of their sexual identity. Rather, he simply demanded that they find a “life-style”—presumably including celibacy—that went with Armerding’s understanding of God’s Word.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, then, evangelical homosexuals could remain both evangelical and homosexual by living celibate lives. Nor does the notion of celibate homosexuality seem particularly revelatory to evangelical collegians today. Julie Rodgers currently works at Wheaton College as an openly gay celibate Christian. She helps counsel students about sexual issues, among other things.

Certainly, the language these days has changed. Rodgers, for example, openly describes herself as gay. The gay celibate student at Biola College in 1951, in stark contrast, was driven to extremes in his attempt to hide his gay identity. Back in the 1930s, Clifton Fowler never admitted to any homosexual attractions, though there seems ample evidence of it.

Nevertheless, for those in the know, there is nothing new among conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists about the celibate “solution” to homosexual attractions.

From the Archives: The Creationist Dream

What do creationists want? I know, I know, there are lots of different sorts of creationists out there. As a group, though, I think I found a story that might just articulate some of the fondest hopes and dreams of American creationists. There’s a terrible flaw in the story, and I challenge you to find what it is.

For those of you who are just joining us, I’m working on a history of conservative evangelical and “fundamentalist” colleges and universities. This year, thanks to the munificence of the Spencer Foundation, I’m traveling around to different schools to dig into the history of this network. This week, I’m visiting sunny Biola University in Los Angeles.

Biola University (originally the Bible Institute Of Los Angeles, get it?), in addition to its main job of cranking out missionaries and teachers, also published an influential evangelical magazine, The King’s Business. It was in the November 1967 edition that I found this little gem.

The King's Business, November, 1967

The King’s Business, November, 1967

I’ll give you the gist of the article. Then I challenge readers to pick out where this creationist fantasy veers most sharply from reality.

We read the story of Hope, the daughter of a fundamentalist minister. Gathered around the dinner table one night, Hope collapsed into tears. At (public) school that day, she finally confronted her aggressive evolutionist biology teacher, Miss Landon. Hope told her teacher that she didn’t believe in evolution. As she told her parents, “I felt I couldn’t sit there and take it any longer.”

The teacher ridiculed her. “I didn’t suppose,” Miss Landon said in front of the whole class,

anyone living in our enlightened age had such old-fashioned ideas. It surprises me that a person who has had the advantages of a modern educational system can be so narrow-minded. Surely there are not many who believe as you do.

Hope felt humiliated and ashamed. But she stood her ground. At the dinner table, as she sobbed, her father put his hand on her shoulder and said,

huskily, ‘Daughter, it gives us great joy to hear you tell this. Who would have thought that so soon after being saved [two weeks before] you would have an opportunity to witness so boldly to your teacher and classmates?’

Hope felt revived. She prayed hard before going to bed, and felt her dad was right. As a result,

Hope returned to school the next day with a song on her lips as well as in her heart. The Lord Jesus seemed to be walking at her very side and a great peace filled her soul. She felt no fear now of encountering Miss Landon again, even though she might be asked to give further ‘reason for the hope within her.’

Sure enough, the next day her evolution-loving teacher challenged Hope to prove that other students felt the same way. To Miss Landon’s surprise,

Before she had finished speaking, nearly half of the girls were standing. What followed can best be described as an old-fashioned ‘popcorn meeting.’ It seemed that everyone wanted to talk at once. Some were wet-eyed; others, with their arms around Hope, were asking her forgiveness for letting her stand alone. Miss Landon was at a loss to know how to handle the situation. She couldn’t be expected to know, since she had never attended a revival service or been asked to pray for souls under conviction. So she just stood there, helplessly looking on.

Finally it occurred to her that perhaps Hope could handle the group. Hope caught her distressed, appealing look, and in a calm voice said, ‘Let us all kneel in prayer.’

The praying and confessing continued throughout the 40-minute class period and Miss Landon made no effort to stop it. The girls may not have learned any biology that day, but many of them learned to know God in a new and real way.

That’s the story.

Now here’s the challenge: Where is the biggest, most obvious goof in this tale? Where does this creationist dream depart most obviously from the realities of evolution and creationism in American public schools?

Now, before people complain, let me offer a few caveats. First, we all understand that not every creationist hopes to have public schools turn into a “popcorn meeting,” whatever that is. And we know that the hokey tone of this story is more a result of its age than of its creationism. The aw-shucks brand of parenting displayed here would fit in just as well with Ward and June Cleaver as it would with Charles and Grace Fuller.

Given all that, I still assert that this story fails the sniff test. There is one element here that simply screams out “fantasy.”

Is it:

  1. No teacher really feels that gung-ho about teaching evolution.
  2. No student really cares that much about creationism.
  3. No parents would encourage their kid to publicly preach that way in a public school.
  4. There would never be that sort of religious revival in a public school.
  5. A teacher would not likely be that clueless about the religious beliefs of her students.

I’ve got to get back to work now, but I’ll offer my answer soon.

From the Archives: A Swizzle Mystery

Hello from sunny Biola University! In my continuing quest to dig into the history of conservative evangelical colleges, I’ll be working in the archives here all week. And I found a stumper in the archives this afternoon.

My oeil has been tromped...

My oeil has been tromped…

As I strolled across campus this morning, I was thinking that everything looked pretty similar to things at my own beloved State University of New York. The students looked the same, the vibe was the same…there was nothing particularly different about the goings-on at this Christian campus compared to my own secular campus. Except, of course, for the fact that the sun was shining and flowers were blooming and the air didn’t hurt when it hit your skin.

But then, I noticed something I wouldn’t be likely to see on my home campus. As far as I know, we don’t have any humongous Jesus paintings on our buildings.

But let’s get to our archive challenge. Among the wonderful holdings here, the Biola library includes issues of the Biola student newspaper going back to 1938. And in the May 1938 edition, I saw this ad. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what it means. I looked up “swizzle,” of course, but besides a “rum swizzle” and a “swizzle stick” I couldn’t find a clue.

??????????????????

??????????????????

Any suggestions?  For full information, I can tell you that the Coffee-An was a lunch counter next to campus.  They advertised regularly in Biola publications.

MOOCing Jesus

Does online education work? A new survey of college faculty by Gallup for Inside Higher Education offers an unstartling new answer: It depends. Here at ILYBYGTH, we have a different question: Does online education work for conservative religious colleges?

After all, as I’m exploring in my new book, conservative religious colleges have always had a different goal from secular schools. Instead of just hoping to prepare students for careers and intelligent life, conservative schools have also intended to bolster the faith of their students. They have worried that any change might lead them into a slow slide into secularism. As a corollary, most conservative schools have maintained stricter lifestyle rules over students than secular colleges have. Conservative schools have insisted that classes be led faithfully, not just competently. But can they do this in online classes?

The survey of faculty for Inside Higher Ed includes some interesting points. [You can click to get the entire report, but you have to register.] In brief, faculty remain unconvinced that online education can deliver equal results to old-fashioned in-person classes. Online classes might do a good job—in some cases—at delivering content. But most faculty agree: there is something important lost when face-to-face interaction isn’t a leading part of university classes.

IHE CHART

Source: Carl Straumsheim, “Online Ed Skepticism and Self-Sufficiency: Survey of Faculty Views on Technology,” Inside Higher Education, October 29, 2014.

The survey specifically excluded some of the schools we’re interested in, what it calls “Bible colleges and seminaries.” And none of the questions included anything about student faith.

But no one interested in online higher education these days can ignore the fundamentalist elephant in the room. Liberty University, a school founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, now claims almost 100,000 online students. In addition to standard online coursework, Liberty offers online spiritual help, too. Students can join online prayer groups and Bible blogs.

But this menu of religious fare does not seem to match the traditional goals of conservative religious colleges. At most schools, the faith of students has been the primary concern, not merely an additional click on a webpage. And most college administrators have been keenly worried about sliding into heterodoxy and secularism. In his brilliant 1994 dissertation about Wheaton College, historian Michael Hamilton explained this sentiment like this:

The paradigm that has dominated Wheaton through the [twentieth] century holds that colleges, more than any other type of institution, are highly susceptible to change, and that change can only move in one direction—from orthodoxy toward apostasy. . . . The very process of change, no matter how slow and benign it may seem at first, will always move the college in a secular direction, inevitably gathering momentum and becoming unstoppable, ending only when secularization is complete.

This mindset, I believe, is common among conservative evangelical schools. From Wheaton, to Biola, to Gordon, to more conservative schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty…all have worried that change will equal declension. All have been concerned, first and foremost, that novelty will lead faculty and students to abandon their faiths.

So here’s the question we wished Inside Higher Ed had asked professors at conservative schools: How can online education remain orthodox? How can the faith of students be preserved if student/teacher interaction is weakened?

And perhaps this is the toughest question for the folks at Liberty University: Has their wildly successful pursuit of online education changed their goal? Has Liberty abandoned its religious mission? Or, rather, could this massive online presence be compared to the televangelism of an earlier generation? Could the thousands of online students be seen as an enormous “mission field” for Liberty’s evangelical message?

College Christians Strike Back

Do evangelical Protestants need to boycott pluralist universities? That’s the plan this morning from Joe Carter at the Acton Institute.  To those aware of the longer history of conservative Christianity and higher education, this sounds like déjà vu all over again.

Carter is reacting to the latest round of de-recognition of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. This time, the campuses of the California State University system will no longer accept IVCF as a full member of their communities.  At issue is the system’s newly enforced policy of non-discrimination.  No student organization will be allowed if it does not open its leadership ranks to all comers.  For IVCF, that’s a no go.  The organization insists that leaders must agree with its evangelical statement of faith.

This higher-education controversy has been going on for a while. Most prominently, as we noted in these pages, Tufts University de-recognized its campus IVCF chapter.  Other schools have followed suit.

De-recognition has consequences, but it doesn’t mean the organization is banned. Rather, a de-recognized group is not allowed free use of campus facilities for its meetings.  It is not allowed to take part in campus-wide recruitment fairs.  Perhaps most significantly, de-recognition sends a symbolic message that an organization is no longer part of a campus community.

How should evangelicals react? Joe Carter says they should go their own way.  As Carter puts it,

Colleges and universities are businesses that exist in a competitive educational market. A free market solution is to refuse to support the business’ “product.” In other words, Christians should refuse to attend schools in which their beliefs are “derecognized.” Similarly, alumni should refuse to provide donations to support a college or university that considers our faith not welcome on the campus.

We’ve seen this argument before. As I argued in my 1920s book, the first generation of fundamentalist leaders worried about the state of higher education.  At both pluralist and religious schools, fundamentalists charged, anti-Christian teaching and attitudes threatened the faith of young Christians.

Some leaders insisted that the only answer lay in the boycott. Evangelist Bob Jones Sr., for instance, opened his own college in order to offer fundamentalist parents an alternative.  As Jones remembered decades later in a private letter,

Going about over America in my evangelistic work, I ran into so many people who had lost their faith in schools, some of which were supposed to be Christian schools and that had at least been built with Christian money but that had compromised and brought religious liberals into the school; and young people had lost their faith. I kept one fellow from committing suicide because of what happened to him in a certain school that had been built with sacrificial gifts of Christian people but an institution that had gone modernistic.  I made up my mind there ought to be a certain type school somewhere in America, but I did not want to build it.  I was at the height of my evangelistic career and had open doors all over the world. . . . I went on to tell [his wife] that there is an idea going around that if you have old-time religion you have to have a greasy nose, dirty fingernails, baggy pants, and you must not shine your shoes.  And I told her that religious liberals were putting that over.  I said, ‘I want to build a school that will have high cultural and academic standards and at the same time a school that will keep in use an old-time, country, mourner’s bench where folks can get right with God.’

As a result, conservatives who agree with Joe Carter have a place to go. A network of evangelical colleges and universities offer alternatives to schools that might de-recognize Christian student groups.  Whatever one’s theology and preferences, from fundamentalist Bob Jones University deep in the heart of Dixie to evangelical Wheaton College just outside of Chicago; from Manhattan’s aggressive The King’s College to LA’s laid back academic Biola vibe.

If evangelicals really feel a need to boycott pluralist campuses, they have no shortage of Christian options.