From the Archives: Football and Fundamentalist U

Professor Putz got me wondering: How often has football—not just sports in general, but specifically football—thrown evangelical colleges into a tizzy? Turns out, it’s more common than you might think. The allure of all the trappings of college life has always been a challenge for evangelicals, especially back in the early decades of the fundamentalist movement.

jesus_football

…to the ten…to the five…JESUS CHRIST with the TOUCHDOWN!!!!!

As Professor Putz pointed out, Liberty University has always slavered for the kind of prestige that comes with football victories. The Falwells have built their dreams around the successes of other religious schools such as Brigham Young University and Notre Dame.

And, as Prof. Putz notes, Liberty may be in for more than it bargained for. At BYU, for example, sports has been the lever that LGBTQ and anti-racist activists have used to apply pressure to the LDS church as a whole.

As I found out in the research for Fundamentalist U, it was ever thus. Back in the 1920s when the fundamentalist movement was born, some of its new flagship colleges found out how hard it was to have a football program.

At Des Moines University, for example, the hard-to-love fundamentalist leaders Edith Rebman and T.T. Shields found they could control a lot of things, but not the gridiron. First of all, when they played rival schools, the fans mocked DMU’s fundamentalist fervor by chanting “Darwin! Darwin! Darwin!” And even though the new administrators fired all the science faculty, they retained their football coach, even though the coach publicly expressed a cynical attitude toward evangelical religion. When reporters asked the coach if he had been converted, “born again,” the coach sneered, “Yeah, lots of times.” To critics, the lesson was obvious: A hypocritical fundamentalist administration could do without its science faculty, but it had to keep its football coach.

In Florida, too, the fledgling Bob Jones College struggled to figure out the football dilemma. In its first years, the fundamentalist school fielded a squad, the Swamp Angels. However, they wouldn’t allow the team to travel, worried about the moral influence other campuses might have on the players. In 1931, Bob Jones Sr. canceled the athletic program, purportedly after finding whiskey bottles on campus after a big game. Critics charged that Jones was more nervous about having to meet league rules than about the moral problems of football fans.

Up in Illinois, the first outside-fundamentalist president of Wheaton College also ran into trouble with the football program. J. Oliver Buswell became unpopular for sparring with football coach Fred Walker. Walker had apparently used foul language with the players, but Buswell resisted firing him. Eventually, Buswell agreed to fire the coach, but the trustees switched their position and decided Buswell had to go instead.

For almost a century, then, football has provided yet another challenge to evangelical college leaders. Without it, their schools might seem inauthentic. Students, parents, and alumni all want to have winning teams to cheer for. But including football has always meant including a wild card. It has meant giving some measure of administrative power away to a coach. It has meant going by league rules, instead of listening only to the dictates of authoritarian school leaders. Most of all, it has meant that fundamentalist schools had to breach their carefully constructed defensive wall against the outside world.

Is it worth it? Time and time again, evangelical college leaders have leaped into the football scrum, only to emerge bruised and battered. As Prof. Putz points out, Liberty U is only the latest of a long string of evangelical hopefuls. What will big-time football mean for Jerry Falwell Jr.?

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Sex Abuse and the Fundamentalist C-Word

The most depressing thing about the story might be its tragic predictability. The Fort-Worth Star-Telegram reported this week about the sexual assault and abuse of hundreds of victims by leaders of independent fundamental Baptist Churches. As I detailed in Fundamentalist U, these charges are not a sad quirk or an individual sin, but rather an inherent danger of fundamentalist institution-building.

sex abuse at fund indept

The dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions…

The charges are staggering. FWST reporters interviewed hundreds of victims and told their stories in detail. Time and time again, with no denominational authority to turn to, independent fundamental churches and schools relied on the utter authority of a single leader. In case after case, the obvious dangers of investing one human with so much power resulted in atrocious abuse. As one of the interviewees put it,

Those of us that have gotten out definitely know it as a cult.

Part of the cult-like structure of independent fundamental Baptist churches has always been its control of education, including independent colleges led by authoritarian leaders. As FWST reporters noticed,

The churches operate independently. But many pastors are linked by the church-affiliated colleges they attended: Bob Jones University, Hyles-Anderson College, Pensacola Christian College and Golden State Baptist College, to name a few.

Those colleges, in turn, suffer from the same institutional problems that beset independent fundamental Baptist churches as a whole. In a word, without external checks on power and influence, colleges and churches risk descending into cults, with no guard against the rapacity of all-powerful leaders.

In Fundamentalist U, I argue that this structural problem is not an unfortunate exception, but rather the rule for interdenominational conservative-evangelical institutions. Certainly not all of them, but in many cases, institutions that embraced the fundamentalist side of the conservative-evangelical family tended to turn to authoritarian solutions to the inherent dilemma of authority in interdenominational evangelicalism. In the book, I use the twin cases of Bob Jones College and Denver Bible Institute in the 1930s to make my case.

Both schools turned to an authoritarian leader to settle the inherent dilemmas of early fundamentalism. What did it mean to be a “real” fundamentalist? No one could say for sure, so some colleges invested their leaders with ultimate power to define good and bad, real and fake.

At Bob Jones College, the dictatorial authority of the leader was not to be questioned. Due to the school’s success in attracting students and keeping faculty and alumni happy, the structure worked. It certainly had plenty of critics over the years—both internal and external—but BJU was able to retain its insularity and its authoritarian power structure.

At Clifton Fowler’s Denver Bible Institute, however, accusations of sexual abuse and theological malfeasance led to a hearing of sorts. The limits of that hearing help demonstrate the inherent structural problems of fundamentalist institution-building.

In short (check out chapter three of Fundamentalist U if you want the full story), Clifton Fowler was accused of a host of sins. He was charged with conducting sexual relationships with many of the young men under his charge. He was accused of prying into the sexual lives of many of his students and congregants and then using that intimate information to bully and blackmail his students. He was accused of innovating doctrines about sexual relationships, claiming that married men and women should not have sex with one another.

In 1936, Fowler attempted to clear his name. He appealed to national leaders of fundamentalist colleges, such as Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College. The response of that blue-ribbon fundamentalist commission tells us about the dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions.

Instead of charging Fowler with the allegations, committee members agreed to keep the accusations quiet, in order not to besmirch the name of fundamentalism. As Buswell put it, he hoped to keep the whole scandal

a strictly private matter among Christian brethren.

It is difficult not to read the testimony as a clear warning bell about the kind of abuse rampant among “cult-like” fundamentalist institutions. As one DBI insider told Buswell’s commission,

All who enter within the confines of the school as students or casual visitors come under a peculiar ‘hypnotic’ spell.

In spite of collecting damning testimony from multiple victims and witnesses, the commission concluded in the end that it could not really do anything to stop Fowler’s predatory behavior. As Buswell concluded in a private letter in 1936,

we cannot commend this man or this work to the confidence of the Christian public.  I do not suppose there is anything more we could do, since we have been given no power to take action, and Fowler practically has his trustees in his pocket, I believe.

In other words, fundamentalist leaders concluded, every fundamentalist could create his own authority. As President Buswell explained, if the trustees of his school remained loyal to Fowler, there were no external levers of control or influence others could exert.

The kind of abuse allegedly perpetrated by Dave Hyles and other independent fundamental Baptist leaders certainly seems to fall into this category. Is it a crime? Yes, indeed. Is it the result of personal sin? I believe so. But those categories of individual blame and transgression don’t adequately explain the ways that the very structures of fundamentalist institutions support and encourage these kinds of abuse and assault.

Serving More than One Master

It’s more than a quirk. And it’s more than a coincidence. The savage accreditor’s report about The Master’s University and Seminary (TMUS) reveals yet again one of the basic structural challenges written into the bones of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

John_F._MacArthur_1

Get thee behind me, accreditors.

If you haven’t seen the story yet, it is a sad reminder of the dangerous possibilities of evangelical higher ed. As Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently (now available to non-subscribers) the school’s charismatic leader John F. MacArthur has recreated all of the elements of authoritarian evangelical institutions.

  • One-man show

For example, the accreditors warned that TMUS had

a pervasive climate of fear, intimidation, bullying and uncertainty.

In a speech to the student body about the accreditation report, MacArthur identified such nay-saying as part of the list of things that “God hates.”  His advice to students in this troubling time? “Keep your mouth shut.”

  • Gated community

The accreditors found, too, that TMUS had become an all-or-nothing proposition for its faculty. All institutional power rested firmly in MacArthur’s hands. If they didn’t like it, their only option was to leave, leaving their entire lives behind. As the accreditors put it,

Should they be dismissed or leave TMU over a substantial difference of opinion, they lose their entire support community.

  • Loyalty over experience

As has been the pattern for fundamentalist colleges since the early 20th century, MacArthur’s regime consistently promoted loyalty over every other concern, especially including experience or competence. The accreditors cited the worrisome case of MacArthur’s son-in-law Kory Welch, who was put in charge of many elements of TMUS operations despite having no professional experience or discernible credentials.

  • Internal hiring

As did some fundamentalist schools in the twentieth century, TMUS’s insularity came in part from a habit of hiring its own graduates. As CHE reported,

Of the 20 full-time faculty listed on the seminary’s website, not including MacArthur, 13 have received one or more of their degrees from Master’s; 11 have received two or more degrees from that institution; and eight have held positions within Grace Church. The dean of the seminary faculty, Nathan Busenitz, earned all of his degrees from Master’s, and has served in the past as MacArthur’s personal assistant.

  • My way or the highway—to hell

Predictably, MacArthur offered the TMUS community a stark decision: Either accept his one-person leadership model or succumb to the wiles of Satan. In his August speech, for example, MacArthur decried the report as an attack

orchestrated, if not by any humans, by Satan himself.

  • All about the benjamins

Finally, as was the case throughout the twentieth century, MacArthur has been able to retain his stranglehold on institutional power in part due to his prodigious fund-raising abilities. Without MacArthur at the helm, TMUS would not be likely to pull in donations by the millions.

For the accreditors, as for many in the higher-ed field, these astonishing institutional traits may seem a singular development at TMUS. In fact, as I argued in Fundamentalist U, they are part of the legacy of the inherent institutional set-up of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

In the 1920s and 1930s, evangelical institutions that had embraced the fundamentalist movement faced a difficult challenge. As interdenominational institutions, they had no presbyteries, synods, episcopates, or conventions to help guide their activities. Moreover, inherent in the fundamentalist movement was a wariness toward such authorities. After all, fundamentalist intellectuals had been burned when denominational controls had been seized by theological modernists and liberals.

What to do? Different institutions responded differently.

At many schools, leadership was split into a messy and imprecise network of presidents, alumni, trustees, and faculty. At Wheaton College in Illinois, for example, tough decisions were often made even tougher by the array of influential voices that weighed in.

In an institution like this, final authority is difficult to determine and decisions can often be messy. The legacy of this sort of solution to the authority dilemma can still be seen today. Just ask Larycia Hawkins or LGBTQ+ students at Asuza Pacific.

But Wheaton’s diffuse and confusing solution to the authority dilemma was not the only solution. TMUS follows in the mold of authoritarian schools like Bob Jones College.

At Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University in 1947), the answer to the dilemma of authority was solved early and ugly. Bob Jones Sr. established a firm grip on power at the institutions, followed by his son and grandson.

Reaching its fully developed form in the 1930s, Bob Jones Sr. crushed and expelled all dissent. As he put it,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us.  We can get ‘cussin’’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school.  We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard.  If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him!  We throw him overboard. . .  ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’  Gripers are not welcome here.  If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

And over the years, the Bob Joneses did just that. As with TMUS, the Bob Joneses quickly learned to rely only on their own graduates. In the 1933-34 school year, for example, three of the twenty-six faculty members were BJC alumni. By 1946-47, thirty-two of sixty-six were.

There was not likely to be much confusion about the way the Bob Joneses treated “Jonahs,” either. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the case of Ted Mercer. Mercer had been a loyal student, teacher, and administrator for years at Bob Jones College and University. By the early 1950s, however, he grew concerned about the dictatorial nature of the school. As with TMUS, the tipping point came from the question of accreditation.

Mercer wanted the school to pursue accreditation, which the Bob Joneses fiercely resisted. As with TMUS, there was no middle way. When Mercer fell afoul of the Bob Joneses, he was out. And the Bob Joneses spared no effort to vilify and smear Mercer. As the TMUS accreditors warn, when a school becomes too insular, dissidents risk losing their entire social networks if they question the will of the leader.

What is in store for TMUS? MacArthur fits the pattern of fundamentalist authoritarians so precisely it is difficult not to hazard a few predictions. If he is able to maintain fiscal solvency—as Bob Jones could but other would-be authoritarians such as Clifton Fowler at the Denver Bible Institute could not—TMUS is likely to maintain its authoritarian structure into the future.

Despite its moral, theological, and institutional drawbacks, the authoritarian model has proven a durable solution to the dilemma of authority at interdenominational evangelical universities.

How Historians of Religion Get It Wrong

More proof, if any more were needed. If we want to understand religious identity, we can’t limit ourselves to thinking only about religion itself. A new LifeWay poll finds that a lot of church-going Americans, and a majority of young ones, prefer to pray with people who share their politics. Too often, religious historians (I plead guilty) tend to ignore the obvious implications.

lifeway politics poll

It’s no coincidence: For most of us, our religion matches our politics and vice versa.

Most important, this poll reminds us that people define their religion in all sorts of ways. For a lot of us, other factors play at least as big a part in making up our religious identity. For many people in this poll, for example, politics were as much a part of their church identity as religious factors.

If course, the notion that “religion” means more than “religion” won’t be any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. There are a million factors that go into making up a person’s religious identity. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, for example, what makes a college “Christian” is much more than a fierce commitment to any particular theology. Where schools stand on political issues, sexual issues, and even humdrum pedagogical issues played at least as big a part in whether or not a university was considered reliably “fundamentalist” in the twentieth century.

What do the new numbers tell us? A small majority (51%) of church-going Americans of all sorts thinks they agree politically with other members of their church. A larger majority (61%) of 35-49-year-olds thinks so. Evangelicals (57%) are more likely to think so than, say, Lutherans (31%).

Almost half (46%) of respondents like it that way. And MORE than half (57%) of young (18-49-year-old) churchgoers do.

So what?

As we’ve harped on in these pages, understanding religious people means understanding more than just their religion. But when historians or journalists read the self-conscious writings of religious people themselves, especially religious intellectuals, we tend to get a skewed perspective. Religious people, for obvious reasons, tend to explain their own thinking in religious terms. They tend to explain why they support or oppose trends or ideas based on religious justifications.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, morally or otherwise. The problem comes when historians or other writers take those religious explanations too plainly at face value. We end up misunderstanding everything.

Let me offer one painful example. In Fundamentalist U, I tried to trace the history of race and racism at white-dominated evangelical colleges and universities. Some of those schools, most famously Bob Jones University, justified their racial segregationism in religious terms. Jones asked, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” His answer in 1960 was an insistent “yes.”

is segregation scriptural

There was more than theology at play then, and there is now…

For those of us trying to understand evangelical history, it would obviously be an egregious error if we only looked at Jones’s theological rationalization of his segregatory practices. Much more was at stake, including Jones’s Southern roots, the school’s Southern traditions, and the ferocious racial politics of 1960.

In short, as these poll numbers remind us, if we really want to understand religious life, we can’t limit ourselves to religion alone. If we want to understand American culture at all, we need to start with the knowledge that religious identity is only one slice of what makes a religious person. And we need to be willing to contextualize–though it feels disrespectful and impolite–the actual assertions of religious people themselves, when they talk as if religion and theology are the only things that matter to them.

What Does a Friendly Atheist Want to Know about Fundamentalist U?

I had a chance to talk with Hemant Mehta, the famous Friendly Atheist. He had great questions to ask about Fundamentalist U.

friendly atheist

FA on FU

For example, Mehta wondered what today’s evangelicals didn’t like to hear about their own collegiate history.

He asked how schools that were dedicated to passing along eternal truths somehow rationalized changing their beliefs. In Mehta’s words, schools essentially had to tell students. “We’re correct NOW, but in the past when we said we were correct we were wrong.” Why would anyone believe such things?

Mehta also wondered how schools can change ONE rule, like racial segregation, without admitting that they might be wrong on everything?

That’s not all. Here are a few other topics Mehta pressed me about:

  • How did Bryan College get away with changing their faculty statement of faith in 2014?
  • Do schools like this “exist in a bubble?” Or do they want to be influential in mainstream culture and politics? How does the history of the CCCU help answer these questions?
  • How have evangelical colleges handled sexual assault and abuse?

It was a real pleasure for me to talk with him. I’ve long been a follower and fan of his blog. Click on over and listen to the whole interview if you’ve got some time to kill.

Don’t Read This

It keeps showing up. Even the smartest, best-informed people still make a huge mistake when it comes to understanding the history of white American evangelicals.

reagan at BJU 1980

The Gipper greets BJU students, 1980.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, we’ve been obsessed these days about white evangelicals’ love affair with Trump. In talks and article after article after article, we’ve wondered why white evangelicals support a seemingly amoral leader.

We’re not the only ones. Evangelicals themselves such as John Fea and Michael Gerson have wondered about it. And recently John Ehrenreich took another stab at the question. Ehrenreich makes some great points, but he miscategorizes twentieth-century evangelical history.

I’m 100% on board with Ehrenreich’s central theme. As he puts it,

behind the apparent disparity, there exists a psychological kinship between Trumpism and evangelical thought—at least, for white evangelicals. . . . The similarities in their approaches to the world run so deep that I believe that white evangelicals would continue to support Trump even if Roe v. Wade weren’t in the picture.

Right.

It seems obvious: there is an intense and powerful tradition of Make-America-Great-Again thinking among white evangelicals, a tradition to which Trump makes an intense and powerful (if surprising) appeal. If we really want to understand white evangelicalism in America, it does not help to start and finish with theological notions, IMHO. We need to include the mish-mash of history, memory, nostalgia, and politics that leads many white Americans—including white evangelicals—to yearn for the good old days.

Bibb-Graves hall bju til 2011

It didn’t start with Reagan. Bibb Graves was the Governor of Alabama and close political friend of Bob Jones College in the 1920s…

Trump appeals to something deep, something beyond tax policy or even abortion policy. Now, I don’t buy Prof. Ehrenreich’s explanation of this evangelical-Trump affinity. He wants to tie the Trump connection to white-evangelical psychology, which seems a little simplistic.

But that’s not my main beef. This morning I’m objecting to Prof. Ehrenreich’s quick sketch of twentieth-century evangelical history. He repeats the tired myth that white evangelicals only really became political and conservative in the 1970s. He argues that white evangelicals had been split, politically, between progressive and conservative wings. Only in the late 1970s, he thinks, did the bulk of white evangelicalism embrace political conservatism. As he puts it,

by the end of the ’70s, things began to change. The percent of the American population adhering to evangelical beliefs grew rapidly. Right-wing fundamentalist preachers took over organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. There was a rapid rise of separatist Baptist churches, proclaiming a fundamentalist theology, denouncing the moral ills of society and communism, and often promoting segregationist views. In 1979, Jerry Falwell joined hard-line conservative activists such as Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council co-founder Paul Weyrich to form the Moral Majority, a political action group focused on mobilizing Christians against “secular humanism” and moral decay. Evangelical pastors threw themselves into the political arena and worked for 1980s conservative electoral victories. Simultaneously, largely evangelical white voters in the South shifted rapidly from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, and American politics as a whole moved sharply to the right.

I thought we were beyond this. The facts of Ehrenreich’s historical sketch are basically correct, but taken together they don’t prove that conservative evangelicals got political only in the 1970s.

As our leading historians such Daniel K. Williams and Matthew Avery Sutton have demonstrated, white evangelicals ALWAYS were political. Yes, there were progressive and conservative wings, but there was never a “retreat” from politics. As Williams showed, something big really did happen in the 1970s, but it was not that white evangelicals got into politics. They had always been into politics. Instead, what happened was that white conservative evangelicals embraced the GOP as their single political vehicle.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s easy to think that white evangelicals retreated from mainstream politics in the 1930s, only to reemerge with a flourish in the Reagan years. After all, it is a story that white evangelicals have told themselves and the rest of us for many years. As I point out in my recent book about evangelical higher ed, fundamentalist college leaders often insisted that they and their schools were above politics.

Consider the example of Bob Jones Jr. and Bob Jones University in the era of the so-called “New Christian Right.” In 1969, Junior told a friend that he was “opposed to party politics . . . on principle.” In the very same 1969 letter, though, he gave a glimpse of what he meant by that. Was BJU above political activism? Not at all. As Junior explained, BJU was always “urging our students to remember how their senators voted when the next election comes up in their state.”

In other words, white conservative evangelical leaders such as Bob Jones Jr. SAID they were above politics, but what they meant was that they were not wedded to one major party or the other. By 1976, Jones had begun to change his tune. As he put it in 1976, evangelical leaders

should denounce what’s spiritually and morally wrong, and if that means getting into politics, so be it.

When Jones said he was “getting into politics,” what he meant was that he was embracing the GOP alone. He might have sincerely thought that he and his school were above politics before that, but it just wasn’t true. Way back to the 1950s and into the 1980s, Junior continued to talk about getting “into” or “out of” politics, but he never meant that he wouldn’t be throwing his political weight around.

And he certainly never meant that he was somehow split between progressive and conservative political ideas. For fundamentalists like Jones, going all the way back to the 1910s, Christian politics were always conservative politics.

When the Reagan administration angered Jones Jr., for example, Junior threatened in 1982 to take his followers “out” of politics. As he put it, he might just urge BJU voters to

stay away from the polls and let their ship sink.

Now, clearly, withholding votes from the GOP is just as political an act as giving votes is. When white evangelicals in the twentieth century talked about staying out of politics, they didn’t really mean it. They didn’t really mean they wouldn’t vote for conservative candidates or mobilize for conservative issues.

All they meant was that they weren’t married to one party or the other.

When will we stop reading the misleading myth that white evangelicals retreated from politics until Falwell and Reagan?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week, another whirlwind. Here’s the latest batch of ILYBYGTH-themed stories. Thanks to all who sent in stories and tips.

Conservatives welcome at Brown University, sort of. At IHE.

grand-canyon-university_2015-03-23_14-34-58.004

Who’s got the biggest…?

Is Liberty University still America’s largest Christian university? At RNS.

Is media coverage of school choice biased? Nope. Well, sorta, according to Rick Hess at RCE.

“Marxist Thugs” by the bay: Milo Yiannopoulos criticizes a free-speech report from Berkeley, at Politico.

free speech berkeley 2

Thugs not welcome.

Teacher strike updates:

Blue campus, red state: CHE looks at campus politics in one Nebraska battle.

junior-on-curtain-calls

What Junior wants, Junior gets…

“Explosive” accusations against family leaders of Ohio Christian University, at IHE.

All in the Family

More ugly accusations from the world of evangelical higher education. They raise a perennial question: Why do fundamentalist college leaders create dysfunctional family dynasties?

junior-on-curtain-calls

What Junior wants, Junior gets…

The news from Ohio Christian University is grim. According to Inside Higher Education, the president’s son is alleged to have compiled a long record of shocking behavior, including the following:

  • Told a co-worker that “I hate black people” and that “all black people act like they are entitled to everything.”

  • Told a co-worker he hated Mexican people and viewed them as freeloaders.

  • Told a co-worker he hated gay people.

  • Made jokes about Jewish people, including pretending to speak Hebrew in a mocking tone. Further, he is said to have told a co-worker who dropped a ladder to “stop being such a Jew.”

  • Told a co-worker that another co-worker had been hired for being sexually promiscuous. Then he is alleged to have tried to put his finger in the mouth of another female co-worker. When she stopped him from doing so, he reportedly said, “That was a slut test. If they close their mouth, they are a slut.”

  • Attempted several times to take photographs of a female co-worker’s behind, and after obtaining such a photo, posted it to social media with the caption, “This is why we hire women.” (The lawsuit says that some time later Doug Smith deleted his social media accounts.)

We don’t know if these charges are true. But we do know that conservative evangelical college leaders have a long history of building family dynasties that seem unhealthy for their schools. These days, the most obvious example is Liberty University, now under second-generation Jerry Falwell. In the twentieth century, the most blatant example was Bob Jones U.

As I describe in my book, the Bob Jones dynasty grew out of a fundamental structural dilemma in evangelical higher education. In interdenominational fundamentalist institutions, the structure of authority was very unclear. By the 1930s, institutions such as Wheaton College and Bob Jones College struggled to figure out how to handle basic disagreements about the nature of fundamentalism and the goals of their colleges.

At Wheaton, an awkward house of cards was built to figure out such problems. The leadership weighed opinions from powerful fundamentalist celebrities, conservative trustees, faculty members, students, alumni, and loud-mouthed fundamentalist bystanders. The process took a long time and created a lot of bad feelings, but it had the benefit of spreading authority over a fairly broad group of people.

At Bob Jones College, on the other hand, founder Bob Jones Sr. took all authority into his own hands. Dissenters were dismissed as “gripers” and Bob Jones elevated his own opinions into something approaching dogma.

As Bob Jones Jr. grew up, the family elevated his peculiarities into institutional mandates. Most obviously, Junior’s love of thespianism and classy art became part of the Bob Jones brand. Other fundamentalist leaders at the time pointed out the obvious problems. In 1949, J. Oliver Buswell, who had moved to New York after being booted from Wheaton, publicly called Bob Jones Sr. to account for the college’s embrace of drama. No other fundamentalist college allowed students to put on plays, but at Bob Jones it was mandatory. And, as Buswell put it,

Your own educational program is reeking with theatricals and grand opera, which lead young people, as I know, and as you ought to know, into a worldly life of sin.

As Junior aged and took over a bigger leadership role at Bob Jones University, the dynastic clash created more and more problems. Some of them came to light in the biggest shake-up in BJU history. When long-time administrator Ted Mercer was suddenly fired with prejudice in 1953, he publicly accused the Bob Joneses of creating a hugely dysfunctional family vibe that threatened the very existence of the school.

mercer statement

No tittering.

As Mercer told his tale, the tension between the father and the son led to terrible effects. When Junior told a group of administrators that Junior was in charge, the group “tittered,” and Junior reacted furiously. All in all, Mercer reported, the high tension created by the father/son dynamic promised to destroy the school.

So why do conservative-evangelical college leaders do such things? Why do they create institutions that elevate their children to heights of authority and leadership when the second-generation leaders aren’t ready for it? The future of the legal case at Ohio Christian is unclear, but the pattern of dysfunctional family dynasties isn’t.

There Is No Free-Speech Crisis at Evangelical Colleges

Have you seen it yet? Sarah Jones recently excoriated evangelical higher education as the home of the real free-speech crisis. Students and faculty alike, Jones reported from experience at Cedarville University in Ohio, are continually deprived of any right to authentic self-expression. She’s right. But that doesn’t mean there’s a free-speech crisis at evangelical colleges. There can’t be.

cedarville-logo-social-media-default

No one said it was for freedom of speech…

Why not? It’s not for the reasons Pietist Schoolman Chris Gehrz describes, though he makes an important point. As he argues, different evangelical schools have hugely different records and policies when it comes to free speech.

And it’s not because Jones misses the boat on the ways evangelical colleges restrict student and faculty speech. I agree with her entirely that the environments of many evangelical campuses can be restrictive, oppressive, and even dangerous. When students don’t feel free to report sexual assault or abuse, for example, they are put in a horrible position.

Yet even granting the truth of Jones’s alarming exposé, I don’t agree that evangelical colleges represent the real free-speech crisis in American higher education. They can’t. Evangelical colleges don’t have a free-speech crisis any more than my school faces a religious crisis for not adequately teaching students how to be good Christians. We don’t want to train good Christians. And evangelical colleges have never wanted to open their chapels, classrooms, and cafeterias to unrestricted speech.

Rather, as I argue in my recent book about evangelical higher education, restricting free speech is a central, defining element of the tradition. It sounds sinister when I say it like that, but it’s true. Professor Gehrz is absolutely correct that some schools today have stricter rules than others, but for almost a century now, the point of evangelical higher education is precisely to impose certain restrictions on faculty and students, restrictions abandoned by mainstream colleges.

To suggest that these restrictions are part of a “crisis” misses the point. Please don’t get me wrong: I sympathize whole-heartedly with Jones and the other students and faculty who dislike their alma maters’ heavy hand. I would dislike it, too. But that heavy hand is not a “crisis.” It can’t be. It is the entire raison d’etre of evangelical higher education.

Consider the promises of evangelical leaders throughout the twentieth century. Explaining the purpose of his new college in Florida, founder Bob Jones Sr. explained it this way in 1928:

Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teachers will steal the faith of their precious children.

At Bob Jones College, as at all the schools that joined the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s, restricting faculty speech was a primary purpose, not an unfortunate necessity. Unlike mainstream colleges, including mainline Protestant ones, fundamentalist colleges would willfully impose strict lists of mandatory beliefs for faculty members. They would impose long list of behavioral rules for students. And they insisted always that their goal was to shape students’ hearts in a certain religious direction.

Lest readers think the tradition was only in the 1920s, or only at fundamentalist Bob Jones University, consider this quotation from relatively liberal Wheaton College in 1963. President V. Raymond Edman told recalcitrant students about his vision for Wheaton. “This college,” Edman told students,

will be a place Christian parents can send their children to with the confidence that their faith will be established and not shaken.

In other words, the entire point of the network of dissenting evangelical colleges was to police faculty belief and student thought. Evangelical colleges that restrict speech these days don’t face a crisis. They fulfill a promise.

Dayton Dilemmas II: The Devil Made Them Do It

SAGLRROILYBYGTH: If you want small, unsatisfying, boring meals, don’t come to Dayton. As far as I can tell, thanks to hospitable hosts, life in Dayton is a steady stream of fantastic meals and challenging, thought-provoking conversation. At a talk yesterday at the University of Dayton about the connections between white evangelicals and “Make-America-Great-Again” patriotism, one grad student brought up an absolutely essential point. Namely, when it comes to understanding fundamentalist politics, we can’t leave out Satan.dayton flyers

We’ve talked about this topic recently when it comes to the specific topic of creationism. As I’m arguing in my upcoming book about creationism, secular folks like me have often misunderstood the nature of creationist thinking. We have assumed that creationists are making decisions based on secular reasonings. We forget that many creationists understand the world in supernatural terms, at least in some measure. When we do, we give up any chance of really understanding radical creationist thought.

The same is true for understanding the politics of conservative evangelical intellectuals.

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From the Bob Jones University archives…

In my talk yesterday, I tried to explain the long tradition of MAGA patriotism among white evangelical intellectuals and academics. Today’s leading evangelical intellectuals often don’t like the idea, but in the twentieth century evangelical higher education was firmly committed to the notion that their schools would teach a certain sort of defiant, nostalgic patriotism.IMG_1648

One graduate student—a self-identified “recovering fundamentalist”—brought up a key idea: If we really want to understand how conservative evangelicals could combine their faith so tightly with their nationalism, we need to remember the supernatural context. Especially in the twentieth century, this student pointed out, the cold war often took on the shape of an apocalyptic showdown between the Soviet Union and the United States.

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How to mix church and country, Bob Jones style…

For many fundamentalists at the time, the supernatural connections were too obvious to need explaining. The Soviet Union was the political incarnation of Satan. It was a nation and empire wholly guided by the devil’s machinations. Its goals were nothing less than both worldly and eternal domination.

It wasn’t much of a leap, then, to mix together a patriotic faith in the United States with a religious devotion to evangelical Christian values. Defending traditional Americanism was entirely equal to defending true evangelical religion, and vice versa. When the eternal mixed so profoundly with the national, it was not at all difficult or unusual for white fundamentalists to mash together their religious faiths with their patriotic fervor.