Is “Gay” the New “Black” at Evangelical Colleges?

It’s not a simple question, but there is a simple answer. A recent story from NPR about LGBTQ+ issues at evangelical colleges has people asking: Are today’s official anti-gay policies at most evangelical colleges the 21st century equivalent of their 1950s racist policies? Short answer: No.

wheaton rainbow bench

It’s not easy. The rainbow bench at Wheaton was covered over…

As the article describes, many campuses such as Calvin and Multnomah send profoundly mixed messages about non-heterosexual identities among students. On one hand, students are carving out for themselves friendly spaces on evangelical campuses. They are finding emotional support among sympathetic faculty and fellow students.

This matches other reports, such as one from Liberty University a few years back. It is different at different schools, of course, but students have already introduced LGBTQ+ rights on most evangelical campuses.

On the other hand, most schools still have official rules banning non-married, non-heterosexual sexual expression. As the NPR article describes, people at evangelical colleges are often confused. The chaplain at Calvin, for example, put her position this way,

You’ve got those two values. . . . We love our LGBT people. We love our church of Jesus Christ. We love Scripture. So those of us who do this work are right in the middle of that space. We are living in the tension.

It’s hard not to ask: Is this just an updated version of the struggle over segregation and racism at evangelical colleges? As I argue in my recent book, evangelical and fundamentalist schools had a shameful racial legacy in the twentieth century. (For the record, so did non-evangelical schools.) Though many evangelical colleges had been founded as explicitly anti-racist or cross-racial missionary institutions, by the early twentieth century they had imposed rules and policies against interracial dating. They discouraged non-white applications.

Are today’s battles over sexual and gender identity just new versions of this old conflict? In at least one important way, the answer is a clear no. When evangelical activists fought against their schools’ racism in the twentieth century, they were able to pull from their own evangelical history to make their cases. At Wheaton College, for example, faculty activists such as James Murk and John Alexander were able to point to the incontrovertible fact that the school had been founded by Jonathan Blanchard, an ardent cross-racial Christian activist.

There is no similar history for LGBTQ+ activists to pull from. They can say—and they do—that loving all people is an essential part of their religion. But they are not able to pull from their own evangelical history to make their cases.

To be clear, I’m all for LGBTQ+ rights. I’m proud to work at a school where there can be no institutional discrimination based on sexual identity or gender identity. Speaking as an historian, though, I have to make the obvious point: It will be harder for LGBTQ+ Christians to stake their claims than it was for anti-racist white students.

HT: EC

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The Dilemma of the Fundamentalist Intellectual

It’s tough to be a conservative evangelical intellectual these days. As a recent exposé at Religion & Politics makes clear, they are still addicted to mainstream academic credentials, even when those credentials can be nearly impossible for them to achieve.

Why is it so difficult for conservative evangelicals to earn mainstream academic credentials? In part, it’s due to the stark and growing divide between mainstream institutions and evangelical intellectual assumptions. As I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, in the late nineteenth century conservative evangelicalism lost its place as the presumed intellectual backbone of America’s colleges and universities. I think historian Jon H. Roberts said it best. In the late 1800s,

Truth claims based on alternative epistemologies—tradition, divine inspiration, and subjective forms of religious experience—increasingly lost credibility within the academy.  In addition, the recognition that knowledge itself was fallible and progressive cast doubt on the legitimacy of venerable doctrines.  Claims that ongoing inquiry would eliminate error and establish truth fostered an iconoclasm toward orthodoxies.

In response, conservative evangelicals—calling themselves “fundamentalists”—built a dissenting network of higher-educational institutions. It wasn’t only brick-and-mortar schools. Fundamentalists created their own accrediting agencies, athletic leagues, alumni organizations, and more. These independent evangelical institutions allowed academics to rack up titles and honors without participating in mainstream thinking. As we’ve noted recently, the fetish for credentials has always included a frenzy of cross-institutional honorary doctorates.

sacred secular university

The empire really was in ruins.

But it’s still not enough. Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, conservative evangelicals have yearned for more than just their own credentials. They have oohed and aahed at their colleagues who have earned mainstream academic respectability.

One notable case occurred during the mid-century creationism wars. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, evangelical intellectuals squared off (again) over the question of a young earth. Did belief in the Bible require belief in a literal six-day recent creation? In a literal world-wide flood?

At the 1948 meeting of the creationist American Scientific Affiliation at Calvin College, for example, geochemist J. Laurence Kulp battled with Calvin botanist Edwin Y. Monsma. Monsma defended the young-earth position. Kulp trashed it as mere “foolishness.” With his PhD from Princeton and his faculty berth at Columbia, Kulp’s mainstream credentials helped carry the day. As historian Ronald L. Numbers described, many ASA members were “ready to follow Kulp in boldly shedding the trite fundamentalist apologetics of the past.” Creationism, yes. Young earth, no.

At least in part, Kulp’s bona fides from outside the charmed circle of fundamentalist institutions helped convince many conservative evangelical intellectuals that Kulp’s ideas had oomph.

The_Creationists_by_Ronald_Numbers

Creationists love credentials…

Today, we see a sad case of inflated credentials from another evangelical intellectual. As Professor Jill Hicks-Keeton of the University of Oklahoma points out, a recent publicity appearance to promote the new Museum of the Bible highlighted conservatives’ desperate drive for mainstream academic credentials.

Professor Hicks-Keeton describes the spiel of Jeremiah Johnston of Houston Baptist University. Professor Johnston hopes, in his organization’s words, to “teach Christians to be Thinkers and Thinkers to be Christians.”

But in his quest to wow evangelical audiences, according to Hicks-Keeton, Dr. Johnston played fast and loose with his resume. Hicks-Keeton sleuthed a little deeper. As she puts it,

Johnston’s academic credentials sound impressive: “He has studied at Oxford,” the pastor said. The CTS [Christian Thinkers Society] website’s bio for Johnston includes a list of presses with whom he has published, led by one of the most prestigious in the guild: Oxford University Press. During his talk to the congregation, Johnston repeatedly performed such credentials for church members by dropping academic words the average churchgoer would not have encountered (shema, protois, verisimilitude) and by flagging his own academic work. . . . A closer look at his curriculum vitae reveals that his educational pedigree is unrelated to Oxford University, a premiere institution of scholarship. The “Oxford” mentioned by Pastor Daniel is actually the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies—identified by its website as “an independent Christian charity.” Johnston’s publications with OUP amount to four brief, co-authored contributions to encyclopedias and edited volumes, which are not subjected to the rigors of peer review.

Ouch. For any academic—evangelical or not–these charges sting.

Why would Professor Johnston puff up his credentials, when they are so easy to deflate? I don’t know Johnston, but my hunch is that he shares the century-old dilemma of all fundamentalist intellectuals. In spite of their long efforts to free their minds from the shackles of mainstream academic thinking, they are still wed to the same hierarchy of prestige as everyone else.

Is “Kingdom of God” the New “Heritage”?

You’ve heard it before: Defenders of Confederate monuments insist their intentions are not to foster racism, but only to celebrate their heritage. The other side (including me) argues that the historical baggage of these statues is simply too heavy. Even if Confederate heritage-lovers don’t mean to be racist, that’s what the statues and flags have come to mean. Today, I wonder if we have a new, evangelical version of this dilemma. A key phrase in evangelical culture seems utterly benign to many smart, well-meaning evangelicals. But it terrifies the rest of us.

So here’s the tough question of the day: Is the “Kingdom of God” the evangelical version of “heritage?”

A couple of days ago, Wheaton College’s Ed Stetzer defended the phrase at Christianity Today. When a federal judge appointee declared that she wanted to work for the “Kingdom of God,” a few senators blanched. Would she use her taxpayer-funded position of power to impose theocratic rule?

Stetzer protested. The senators, he claimed, were imposing an anti-Constitutional religious test for office. Plus, the senators seemed remarkably ignorant about evangelical culture. As Stetzer explained,

The “Kingdom of God” (something that I too am deeply committed to) does not conflict with our ability to work faithfully in the public square with integrity and honor. In fact, our “dogma” may actually benefit society, for it brings certain values which work towards the good of people and society. People do say that they are motivated for public service in part because of their faith. Religion is not a hindrance to a proper functioning marketplace and governmental system; rather, it brings with it inherent moral and ethical codes which seek a better tomorrow for all of us today.

We’ve seen this before. Many secular progressive types (like me) recoiled in horror when Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos revealed her scheme to use her job to further the “Kingdom of God.” Her plan, some assumed, is to impose a Handmaid’s-Tale horror show of theocratic rule on school and society. Activist groups protested that Queen Betsy’s vision was to overturn constitutional separation of church and state and impose religious beliefs as public policy.

As evangelical intellectuals have pointed out, such assumptions are a misreading of evangelical culture. In the Reformed heartland of Michigan, working for the Kingdom of God can have a lot of different meanings. At Calvin College, for example, as Abram Van Engen explained, the phrase is not about imposing theocracy. As Van Engen put it,

Calvin does indeed call its students to be “Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” We are told to “advance God’s kingdom.” Without being inside of that tradition, it can sound, perhaps, like theocracy. What do these phrases actually mean? Most broadly, they mean a service-oriented vision of vocation. Students are called to serve, and they can serve in many ways. For example, Calvin students are regularly called upon to work in the world for racial reconciliation.

Sounds wonderful. But the dilemma remains. If a federal judge or an education secretary announce they are working to establish “God’s Kingdom,” it doesn’t sound as if they are dedicated to such things. It sounds—to the rest of us—like an explanation why so many white evangelicals voted for Trump. It sounds like a declaration of war on the secularization that has made such strides over the past fifty years. It sounds like an effort to wind the clock back to an imagined past in which evangelical values were imposed on everyone as simply “American” values.

I know this is hard for evangelical intellectuals to hear. They don’t like to think of their religious beliefs as dictatorial, chauvinistic, or theocratic. And, to be fair, I sincerely believe that for many evangelicals, their desire to further the Kingdom of God really is none of those things. Historically, however, as I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, evangelicalism in America has always been tangled inextricably with such unsavory themes, with a deep-seated assumption that the real America is Christian America.

As our ugly battles over “heritage” have made clear, the baggage of history isn’t something we can simply ignore. Just as evangelicals need to understand that telling someone you love them but they’re going to hell is not usually taken as anything but a hateful attack, so evangelicals need to realize that their traditional jargon sounds scary to the rest of us.

Was I Fair to Ken Ham?

Ken Ham complains that I was not precise enough.  I think I was.

Here’s the issue: On his blog today, leading young-earth creationist Ken Ham chided yours truly for saying “Ken Ham” when I really meant something like “conservative Christians.”  Ham was reacting to a recent post of mine in which I asked about Ham’s inordinate influence over some conservative Protestant colleges.  In that post, I noted Ham’s recent pronouncements about leading evangelical schools such as Calvin College and Bryan College.  I wondered if conservative schools had to bend over backwards to satisfy Christian critics like Ham.  Did schools like Bryan College have to toe the Ham line in order to maintain their support base among conservative evangelical Protestants?

Be More Precise, Please

Be More Precise, Please

Ham said I needed to be “more precise.”  Ham made the fair point that Science Guy Bill Nye often used the unfair rhetorical strategy of reducing all creationism to simply Ken Ham.  Of talking about creationism as if it were just a one-man crusade to bilk taxpayers and fool schoolchildren.

When it comes to Bill Nye’s language, I agree with Ham.  Bill Nye–with whom I generally agree–does not always seem to understand creationism.  In a recent post, for instance, I agreed with Mr. Ham that Bill Nye “Misse[d] the Boat on Creationism.”  I have also agreed with Mr. Ham that Mr. Nye’s use of phrases such as “Ham’s followers” is sneaky and unfair.

But in this case, I was not doing any such thing.  In my essay about Mr. Ham’s influence on conservative Christian colleges, I was talking precisely about the work of Mr. Ham and Answers In Genesis.  If I was incorrect about the influence of Ham in the recent controversy at Bryan College, I’ll apologize.  But I won’t apologize for mistakes I didn’t make.

Ham also notes that I expand my questions to include the state of conservative evangelical colleges and sexual assault.  As ILYBYGTH readers know, this is a question that has been bandied about here recently.  Those who are new to the blog will not be aware that we do not simply attack “fundamentalist” schools as rape havens.  Indeed, our recent string of commentary began with questions about a journalist’s unschooled presumptions about the nature of fundamentalism.  We do not assume that sexual assault is somehow unique to conservative religious colleges, but it does seem that there is a connection between the opaque authoritarian cultures of many conservative colleges and a culture that blames the victims of sexual assault.

The central point of interest to me, though, then and now, is whether and how Mr. Ham has come to wield such authority over conservative evangelical colleges.  In the case of Bryan College, at least, Ham’s worries led to changes at the school.  I can’t help but wonder if Ham’s say-so is of enormous influence at similar colleges and universities.  This is not a question about conservatism in general.  This is not a question about creationism in general.  This is a specific question about the influence of Mr. Ham’s Answers In Genesis ministry.