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.

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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.

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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.

Thanks, CHE!

No, no, no, not THAT Che. I mean the Chronicle of Higher Education. Peter Monaghan recently featured my new book in their pages.

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urm…different CHE.

Monaghan put his finger squarely on several of the most important issues in the world of evangelical higher education.

For example, as Monaghan explains, the world of evangelical higher education is not somehow trapped in the past. As he puts it,

Many newcomers to the inner workings of fundamentalist Christian colleges are surprised to learn that the institutions consider themselves not just righteous but also thoroughly “modern.”

The differences between evangelical and non-evangelical higher education is therefore not as stark as some outsiders might think. As Monaghan concludes,

Like elite secular institutions . . . fundamentalist ones seek to thrive by “developing a niche that they can exploit,” selling themselves as “experiences” that transform young people. They describe themselves as hubs of academic endeavor, with prospectuses little different from those of their nonreligious peers. Leaders also promote their institutions’ distinguishing features, like size, location, and sports programs, aware that evangelical families want to provide their children with more than doctrinal guidance during their college years.

Almost makes you want to read the whole book, don’t it?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Welcome to your weekly round-up of ILYBYGTH-themed stories from around the interwebs. Thanks to everyone who sent in tips.

Nun in the huddle! Sister Jean and March Madness, at NYT. HT: DW.

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My kind of Calvinism…

White evangelicalism—the church of the “slave state,” at Forbes. [Editor’s note: The original Forbes article was taken down as “way out of bounds,” but the text is still available at this new link. Thanks to alert reader for pointing it out.]

Don’t have your copy of Fundamentalist U yet?

Campus cults and “passion plays:” “War on Cops” author Heather MacDonald talks with “What’s Happened to the University” author Frank Furedi at CJ.

What do college students think about free speech on campus? New poll numbers at KF.

What does Queen Betsy think? A tough interview at 60 Minutes.

Creationist Ken Ham praises the Oklahoma university that welcomed his lecture—see his op-ed at KHB.

The view from Greenville: An instructor at Bob Jones U explains why he voted Trump, at HNN.

Dripping Wax: Professor Amy Wax suspended from teaching mandatory class after latest disparaging racial remarks. At IHE.

Is the Museum of the Bible just an evangelical missionary outfit “masquerad[ing] as an educational institution”? That’s the charge at R&P.

Teacher pay and underpay: Check your state at Vox.

Students who walk out should be punished. So says Daniel Willingham. HT: XX

Too close for comfort? Ben Carson’s aide chummy with secretive religious charity, at the Guardian. HT: LC.

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?

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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.”

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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.

Billy Graham and Bob Jones

The news is in: Billy Graham has passed away at age 99. I’m not among his evangelical followers, but over the past several years I’ve gotten to know Billy Graham as I’ve worked on my new book about evangelical higher education.

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Graham preaching to the multitudes, London 1954.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Graham became the embodiment of a new spirit among American fundamentalists. He reached out to other Protestants to help lead big revival services all across the world. Some fundamentalists thought he went too far. (For details, check out my archival survey of fundamentalist fury about Graham’s revival successes.) As I note in my book, Bob Jones Sr. in particular had a long and tempestuous relationship with Graham.

Graham had started his college career at Bob Jones College. After a year, though, Graham left, ending up with an anthropology major from Wheaton. Jones and Graham kept in close contact and their correspondence is the best single source I’ve found to understand the rift between fundamentalists and new-evangelicals.

By the 1950s, Jones actively warned fundamentalists not to trust Graham or any institution that welcomed Graham. Jones’s letters show both the reasons and the personal anguish involved. Below I’ll quote from a five-page single-spaced letter Jones wrote to Graham in 1951.

                Here is the difference between your mistakes and mine: My mistakes grew out of the way I did things because I did not know how to do them.  After I got the right kind of advice, I quit making them.  Your mistakes have not grown out of your lack of information or your inability to get information.  Your mistakes have grown out of the fact that you are not building your evangelistic campaigns on the right foundation and the right principles.  Billy, if you build a house on the right foundation, the storms and wind may blow that house down, but you do not have to ever rebuild the foundation. . . .

In your heart, you love Jesus, and you are happy to see people saved; but your love for glamour and your ambition (which is the strongest ambition I have ever known any man in evangelistic work to have) and your desire to please everybody are so dominant in your life that you are staggering from one side of the road to the other. . . . You, in your effort to please, are putting yourself on the spot. . . .

Most of the material that goes out about you, you put out. . . .

I could tell you much more, Billy; but it does not do any good to talk to you.  You will agree with a fellow, but you go on just as you are, and that is the discouraging thing about it. . . .

You are popular like any showman is popular, but you have no real grasp upon the hearts of the people like Billy Sunday and other men had. . . .

[When you were young, you begged me] to call you one of my boys and told me that you got your slant on evangelism at Bob Jones  University.  My evangelistic heart was touched, and I put about you the arms of evangelistic affection.  I came back here to the school and told everybody that you were one of our boys.  I did not tell them what kind of a record you made here.  I took at face value what you said about going to Florida because of your health.  I asked all of our boys to pray for you.  I asked my friends to pray for you.  Remember, Billy, that was before you made the headlines. . . .

you began to think that probably the best thing for you was at least on certain occasions and in certain places not to let people know that you were here [as a student at Bob Jones College] and that, as you had said, you got your slant on evangelism here.  So you began to sort of soft pedal. . . .

Now that you are in the headlines, the fact that I ever said that you were one of our boys because you told me to, and people know about that, and you cover it up gives the idea that we are trying to hang on to your coat tail because you are in the headlines; but we are not, Billy. . . .

I still love you…

The Ugly Truth: Sex Abuse at Evangelical Colleges

I wish it were a shock or a surprise. Instead, the terrible stories coming out of the Larry Nassar case are all too familiar: young people threatened and abused, an abuser tolerated for the sake of victory, the whole story hushed up. Why did so many responsible adults look the other way? One phrase from gymnast and whistleblower Rachel Denhollander struck me: “not simple institutional protectionism.” Denhollander sees it as a theological problem, but in the research for my new book about evangelical colleges, I found a more complicated truth.

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Denholland testifies…

Of course, the demon of sexual abuse and institutional cover-up is not a problem for evangelical churches and colleges alone. The Catholic Church, big football schools like Penn State, and in the Nassar case, Michigan State all have an atrocious record of institutional protectionism.

However, I argue in my book that evangelical colleges faced a peculiar double-pronged problem. First, in the early years of the fundamentalist movement, leaders were keen to protect the reputation of their controversial movement. Second, without an outside arbiter—a denominational convention or presbytery or Vatican—fundamentalist institutions tended to turn into self-contained fiefdoms. The thoughts and plans of charismatic leaders tended to become authoritative, if not authoritarian.

A couple of examples will illustrate the trend. In the 1930s, Denver Bible Institute was wracked with a gruesome sex-abuse scandal. The accused leader and perpetrator, Clifton Fowler, turned to a blue-ribbon panel of Bible-institute worthies to clear his name. The panelists tried hard, in the words of the chair, to keep their investigation a “strictly private matter among Christian brethren.” They wanted to find out the truth about Fowler, but they didn’t want to publicize it. They were worried about the reputation of fundamentalism as a whole and Bible institutes in particular. It wasn’t a cover-up, exactly, but it was a form of discouraging complaint and public outcry.

This sort of “institutional protectionism” isn’t exactly theological, but it has been a tradition written deep into the bones of conservative evangelical and fundamentalist institutions since the 1920s. The movement has always had a sense of beleaguered outsider status, of being ripped off and usurped, kicked out of its rightful role as leaders of denominations and higher education. Certainly, this sense of hyper-defensive circle-the-wagons clubbishness is related to the theology of fundamentalism, but it is not itself a theological notion.

Maybe one more example will help illustrate the tradition. At Bob Jones College during its Tennessee years (1933-1947), founder and president Bob Jones Sr. established the patterns that guided the school for decades. Unfortunately, those patterns also fostered and abetted sexual abuse. During the 1930s, Jones established his rule against “dirty gripers.” Anyone who complained—faculty and students alike—about conditions at the school, Jones insisted, was not welcome. As Jones put it in a chapel talk:

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. . . . Gripers are not welcome here. If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us.

It is not difficult to see how this rule discouraged student victims from coming forward. With no other authority to turn to, evangelical colleges like Bob Jones College sometimes deteriorated into authoritarian echo chambers. For years, students and faculty at institutions like this had no chance to condemn their abusers.1940circa-cl000198-bjcsign-4students

This sort of authoritarian structure isn’t strictly a theological thing, but it is also a central part of the fundamentalist tradition. As in the Denver case, Bob Jones College leaders had to create some sort of self-supporting authority. They couldn’t turn to denominational boards or conventions. Instead, they vested authority in other ways, including in overweening charismatic leaders like the Bob Joneses.

Again, these sorts of institutional protection are not at all unique to evangelical colleges. But there are historical patterns that are specific to the fundamentalist movement. Those patterns can make abuse worse. At times, they are linked to theology, as Denholland pointed out. Far more common, though, they are a result of the unique history of evangelical institutions as a self-consciously defensive group that had no higher bureaucracy to help figure out disputes.

The Prodigal College Returns

The trend seems clear: Michigan, Florida State, Texas State, Ohio State, and other big schools have banned fraternities. School administrators are scrambling to control dangerous drinking, deadly hazing, and horrifying sexual assault. I can’t help but ask: Have the fundamentalists been proven right?

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Do all paths lead back to Blanchard Hall?

A hundred years ago, after all, as I explore in my new book, fundamentalists founded their new network of evangelical colleges, institutes, and universities for two main reasons. First, they wanted an intellectual refuge. Mainstream colleges, fundamentalists universally agreed, had drunk the Kool-aid of evolutionism and materialism. At least as dangerous, however, were the behavioral norms that had come to prevail at mainstream schools.

In the 1920s, fundamentalist school leaders such as Charles Blanchard at Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones at Bob Jones College in Florida promised their schools would protect students from both loose ideas and loose behavior.

At Wheaton, for example, fraternities were banned, along with smoking, drinking, cinema, dancing, and card-playing. The school posted spies outside the downtown movie theater to make sure Wheaton students weren’t sneaking in. At Bob Jones, students were prohibited from “loitering,” talking freely with members of the opposite sex, and absolutely anything that hinted of “jazz.”

For a century now, evangelical schools have been mocked as small-minded anti-intellectual “church colleges,” hopelessly out of touch with modern higher ed. They have also been attacked—often by their own students—as ridiculously controlling.

Back when he was a Wheaton student in 1966, for example, historian Mark Noll led the drive to reexamine the “Pledge.” It was simply not possible, students felt, for them to receive a decent college education if they weren’t allowed to make their own decisions. They were embarrassed to tell their friends at other schools that they weren’t allowed to go to the movies.

But who is embarrassed now? As leaders of secular colleges struggle to find ways to impose restrictions on student behavior, are they reverting to fundamentalist arguments of the 1920s? As Frank Bruni argued recently in the New York Times,

On a range of fronts, fraternities — and sororities — contradict our stated values and undercut our supposed goals for higher education, putting our inconsistencies and hypocrisies under a magnifying glass.

To ban them, though, or even to take real moves to enforce rules against certain types of student behavior, wouldn’t be as simple as it seems. As the first generation of fundamentalist college leaders lamented, a central principle of mainstream higher education has been the notion that students themselves must be in charge of their decisions.

To make any real change in the deadly culture at many frats, mainstream college leaders would need to make big changes in the way they see their role. Like fundamentalist colleges and their evangelical heirs, mainstream schools would need to insist on their roles as moral guardians.

Are Evangelical Colleges Obsolete?

What is the point of sending your kid to a conservative religious college? For almost a century now, many conservative evangelical families have worried that if they didn’t, liberal or secular colleges would steal the faith of their Christian children. New research data suggest that those fears might no longer be realistic. But the new study won’t reassure evangelical parents or college administrators.

As I’m arguing in my new book about the history of evangelical higher education [shameless plug: Pre-orders available now!], a leading reason evangelicals established their own network of dissenting colleges and universities in the 1920s was the fear that mainstream college robbed children of their faith.

As he appealed to fundamentalist parents to send their kids to his new Bob Jones College, for example, evangelist Bob Jones Sr. liked to tell a scary story: A good Christian family scrimped and saved to send their precious daughter to a fancy mainstream college. “At the end of nine months,” Jones reported,

she came home with her faith shattered. She laughed at God and the old time religion. She broke the hearts of her father and mother. They wept over her. They prayed over her. It availed nothing. At last they chided her. She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Never fear, Jones said. Though mainstream colleges had gone to the dogs, new fundamentalist schools like his could be trusted to protect children’s faith in the crucial college years.

Those fundamentalist fears were not left back in the early twentieth century. Today’s conservative leaders, too, warn of the deadly spiritual threat of liberal colleges. A few years back, young-earth creationist pundit Ken Ham defended his insistence on pure creationist colleges. As he put it, too many schools—even nominally evangelical Christian ones—end up putting intellectual

stumbling blocks in . . . children’s way that could lead them to doubt and ultimately disbelieve the Scriptures.

In every century the evangelical assumption has been the same: The college years are a uniquely important and a uniquely dangerous time for young people. If children are raised in conservative evangelical homes, skeptical college professors might turn them away from their family faith.

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Could be worse; could be Notre Dame…

New data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) suggest that colleges aren’t really to blame when young people ditch their religion. At least, not anymore. PRRI’s Daniel Cox explains that more young people these days are leaving their religions before they enter college. As he writes at FiveThirtyEight,

Seventy-nine percent of young adults age 18 to 29 who have become religiously unaffiliated report having made this decision during their adolescent and teen years. But this was not always the case. Those age 65 or older who left their childhood religion reported doing so much later: Only 38 percent who reported leaving their religion did so during their childhood years. The majority (63 percent) of unaffiliated senior citizens left during their college and post-college years.

In other words, the college years USED TO be a vital time, a time of choosing to leave or stay with one’s childhood religion. It seems like that’s not really true today.

Does this mean that conservative evangelical colleges have become obsolete? If one main purpose of those schools is to nurture and protect evangelical faith, it seems as if they are not useful. Rather, if we accept this data, it would seem that evangelicals should focus on K-12 schools instead.

And we should note that evangelical college leaders might look at this data in a more optimistic way. According to the PRRI study, evangelical Protestants are losing adherents at a much lower rate than other American Christian groups. Evangelicalism is still losing young people, that is, but much slower than Catholicism or “mainline” Protestantism. It could be argued that evangelical colleges have helped stem the anti-religious tide among evangelical young people.

Still and all, I’m glad I’m not president of an evangelical college. If I were, I would wonder what to tell parents of potential students. If I couldn’t promise to help protect students’ faith, I wouldn’t have much else to talk about.

How Do You Know?

It might seem sloppy or even a little slapdash. Historians claim to know things about the past, but most of us don’t have hard-and-fast proof for the arguments we make. This morning I’d like to share one small example of the way the process works, at least in the case of my upcoming book.

I just finished reading John Lewis Gaddis’s Landscape of History with my graduate class. Gaddis is a leading historian of the Cold War. In Landscape of History, he argues that academic historians don’t try to make the same claims as social scientists. And that’s okay.Gaddis landscape

Gaddis uses a painting of a wanderer looking down on a fog-cloaked valley to illustrate his point. Historians can never be absolutely sure of their data; they are like the wanderer—looking into a distance that is cloaked and ultimately mysterious. Some social-scientists might object that the process makes claims it can’t back up with real data. Gaddis describes one such encounter:

Some years ago I asked the great global historian William H. McNeill to explain his method of writing history to a group of social, physical, and biological scientists attending a conference I’d organized. He at first resisted this, claiming that he had no particular method. When pressed, though, he described it as follows:

“I get curious about a problem and start reading up on it. What I read causes me to redefine the problem. Redefining the problem causes me to shift the direction of what I’m reading. That in turn further reshapes the problem, which further redirects the reading. I go back and forth like this until it feels right, then I write it up and ship it off to the publisher.”

McNeill’s presentation elicited expressions of disappointment, even derision, from the economists, sociologists, and political scientists present. “That’s not a method,” several of them exclaimed. “It’s not parsimonious, it doesn’t distinguish between independent and dependent variables, it hopelessly confuses induction and deduction.”

Gaddis liked the method anyway, and so do I. As I’m reviewing my research files for my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education (available for preorder now!) I came across a few items that didn’t make the final cut, but they do help illustrate the way I came to make the arguments I’m making.

One of the central arguments of the book is that evangelical and fundamentalist colleges have always been subjected to furious scrutiny from the national network of fundamentalists. There has always been a strong sense among the evangelical public that evangelical colleges must be held to a high standard of religious purity. Naturally, parents and alumni of every sort of college watch their schools closely. After all, they might be spending big bucks to send their kids there. In the case of evangelical higher education, even unaffiliated busybodies feel entirely justified—even compelled—to intrude.stenholm notes in controversial Kodon

Another key argument of the book concerns the feud between the fundamentalist and evangelical branches of the conservative-evangelical family. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, the fundamentalist network split into fundamentalist and new-evangelical camps. Some historians have called this a “decisive break” or an “irreparable breach,” but at institutions of higher education, it always felt more like a continuing family feud. At least, that’s the argument I make in the book.

How do I know?

As Professors McNeill and Gaddis insist, it is mostly a question of time. I spent long hours and days in the archives of various schools. I read everything. As I did so, ideas about these themes developed. As they did, I went back and reread everything. Did the idea seem to match the historic record? Over and over again, I noticed that school administrators fretted about the eternal and invasive fundamentalist scrutiny to which they were subjected. Over and over again, I noticed the tones of betrayal, hurt, and intimate outrage that characterized the disagreements between “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” schools.

Not all the evidence made it into the book. One episode I do discuss is a controversial student publication from Wheaton College in Illinois. Back when he was an earnest evangelical student in the early 1960s, Wes Craven—yes, the Nightmare on Elm Street guy—was the student editor of Wheaton’s literary magazine. As part of his intellectual revolt against fundamentalism, Craven published two stories that he knew would ruffle fundamentalist feathers. In one, an unmarried woman wonders what to do about her pregnancy. In another, a white woman is sexually attracted to an African American man.

A quirk of the archives helped me see the ways the controversy unfolded. At the time Craven’s magazine came out, Gilbert Stenholm had been working at fundamentalist Bob Jones University for quite some time. He kept everything. His archive files are full of unique documents that helped me see how fundamentalist higher education worked in practice.

For example, he saved his copy of Craven’s controversial student magazine. His notes in the margins helped me understand the ways fundamentalists were outraged by their new-evangelical cousins. Along the edges of one story, an outraged Stenholm penned in one shocked word: “Profanity!” Elsewhere, Stenholm filled the margins with exclamation points.

What did this one-of-a-kind archival find tell me? It helped me see that fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones University had never really washed their hands of evangelical schools like Wheaton. For Stenholm, at least, the goings-on at Wheaton were always of intense interest. And it helped clarify to me the ways members of the far-flung fundamentalist community watched one another. They were always nervous about slippage—always anxious that trustworthy schools could slide into the liberal camp.

Stenholm’s outrage in the case of Craven’s student magazine didn’t make the book’s final cut, but this copy of Wheaton’s student magazine in Stenholm’s collection told me a lot. It doesn’t serve as the kind of “parsimonious,” independent-variable method that Gaddis’s social scientists would prefer. But taken all together, bits and pieces of archival gold like this one guided me to the argument I finally “ship[ped] . . . off to the publisher.”