Notre Dame and the Fundamentalist Dream

Is it practical? I have no idea. But the proposal last week from students at the University of Notre Dame to block porn from campus pushes all the buttons that animated fundamentalist college reformers a century ago. It goes against the very openness—as Gene Zubovich wrote recently—that has led Catholic higher education to be so much more intellectually vibrant than the conservative evangelical versions.

notre dame

Can they keep the baby if they block the bathwater?

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for student activism against pornography. I admire the zeal and vision of the Notre Dame students. I’m especially happy to see my fellow men stand up against the exploitation of women and children. As the Notre Dame signatories argued,

We are calling for this action in order to stand up for the dignity of all people, especially women. . . . Pornography is the new sex education, providing a disturbing script about what men find sexually appealing and what women should do to please them. Notre Dame’s sincere efforts to educate students about consent and other aspects of healthy sexuality are pitifully weak in light of the fact that by the time students arrive on campus, many have been addictively watching pornography for years. . . . ​Porn is not acting. The overwhelming majority of contemporary pornography is literally filmed violence against women — violence somehow rendered invisible by the context.

I don’t dispute any of that. Historically, however, the goal of blocking and shielding students as part of a righteous college education has had some unintended consequences. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, the heart and soul of the fundamentalist college dream was to block, ban, prohibit, limit, encircle, and deny. In short, what fundamentalist school founders wanted was to create an alternative system of higher education in which young people could learn without being exposed to the behaviors and attitudes that had taken over mainstream higher education.

As Gene Zubovich argued recently, Catholic higher education has had a different tradition. Of course the Catholic Church has its own long, lamentable tradition of prohibition. Nevertheless, Catholic intellectuals became the big brains of America’s conservative movement in the twentieth century, Zubovich wrote, because

Unlike evangelicals, conservative Catholics could draw on research universities, law schools, medical schools, business schools and other intellectual-producing institutions in the fight against secularism.

Now, I disagree with Zubovich’s across-the-board dismissal of academic and intellectual life at evangelical universities. It was not only Carl Henry (whom Zubovich mentions) who dreamed of creating an academic intellectual powerhouse. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, the roots of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities were in another ambitious and practical plan to improve the tenor of intellectual life in evangelical schools.

However, that quibble is beside the point this morning. Zubovich is absolutely correct in marking a big difference between the attitudes of leaders at Catholic universities, compared to evangelical ones. Faculty at Catholic universities do not have to sign detailed statements of faith. Hiring for academic positions is done by credentials, not by faith backgrounds. Most important, the expectations of students at Catholic universities has never matched the sometimes-extravagant lifestyle controls imposed by evangelical schools.

What does this all have to do with Notre Dame’s proposed porn filter? Just this: imposing a block or a filter might seem like a laudable purpose, but the long-term impact on any academic institution will be serious, even severe. Do Notre Dame’s signatories want to take their institution down the long path to wall-building?

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Could This Happen at an Evangelical College?

As John Leo reports at Minding the Campus, Professor Anthony Esolen is under pressure. He’s accused of being “racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, and religiously chauvinistic.” He says he’s just being truly Catholic and accuses his Catholic college of straying. As I finish up my book on the history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education, the story brings a question to mind: Would this—could this—DOES this happen at evangelical colleges?

For those who are outside the orbit of Catholic higher education, let’s start with an inadequate primer: The Catholic Church and its schools include several different orders. Many Catholic colleges, including famous ones such as Georgetown, Boston College, and Marquette, are run by the Jesuits. Other big names, such as Catholic University and Notre Dame, are run directly by the Church. Esolen’s Providence College is Dominican. All of them are Catholic, but they have different bureaucracies and different ways of doing things.

Anthony-Esolen

Plus Catholique que L’Administration?

Why does it matter? Each order has its own history and its own theological, cultural, and educational traditions. Some tend to be more conservative; some more liberal. As a very loose and general rule, American Jesuits and Franciscans tend to be more liberal when it comes to some things. Dominicans, in my very limited experience, tend to be more conservative. But it varies enormously.

At his Dominican school, Anthony Esolen thinks that the Dominicans are not being nearly conservative enough. As he has complained,

The dirty not-so-secret is that the same people who for many years have loathed our Development of Western Civilization program — the focus of curricular hostility — also despise the Catholic Church and wish to render the Catholic identity of the college merely nominal.

In a lot of ways, it sounds like the perennial tensions at evangelical colleges. Since the early 1960s, market pressure among evangelical and fundamentalist colleges has been so great that any rumor of faculty heterodoxy at evangelical schools has been ferociously squelched by school administrators. In other words, in their life-or-death struggle to attract as many students as possible, administrators at evangelical colleges have worked hard to shut down any whiff of liberalism among their faculty. They have been terrified of alienating conservative parents and losing their tuition dollars.

And school-watchers know it. Conservative and fundamentalist critics—including trustees and celebrities—have scrutinized the goings-on at evangelical schools with a gimlet eye. In many cases, they have threatened to publicize the liberalism of evangelical schools, hoping to cow administrators into cracking down. Time and time again, evangelical administrators have taken drastic action to head off any accusation that they are no longer trustworthy.

It sounds as if Professor Esolen is working from a similar playbook. As he said on Facebook recently, “It is no longer clear to me that Providence College would qualify as ‘worth attending’.”

In the world of fundamentalist and evangelical higher education, these sorts of enrollment threats carry a great deal of weight. Young-earth creationist Ken Ham, for example, has been able to push schools to shore up their creationist credentials by wondering, in effect, if some evangelical schools are still worth attending.

But here’s where I’m puzzled. Have evangelical schools had to wrestle with professors who are too conservative? Too creationist? Too fundamentalist?

I can think of a few cases, but nothing seems perfectly analogous.

For example, take the story of Gordon Clark at Wheaton. Back in the 1930s, Clark had a sterling resume, with an Ivy League PhD. Wheaton College was happy to have him, for a while. Clark’s ferocious Calvinism, however, sat roughly with Wheaton’s interdenominational, big-tent-evangelical tradition. Clark pooh-poohed the emotional revivalism so popular among Wheaton’s students. In 1943, for instance, he dismissed a campus revival as mere “mass psychology,” not true salvation. And he disdained a popular evangelical method of Bible reading, the dispensational approach. So Clark didn’t last at Wheaton.

It’s sort of similar to Esolen’s case, but not exactly. Professor Clark never accused Wheaton of abandoning its evangelical tradition. Rather, Clark wanted evangelical students to be more rigorously conservative, more systematically Calvinist. But Clark never thought Wheaton had abandoned its Calvinist roots, because it hadn’t. Professor Clark understood that Wheaton shared the perennial problem of interdenominational evangelical schools everywhere: They wanted an impossibly generic orthodoxy.

On the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities, we mostly hear about professors who get in hot water for being too liberal, not too conservative. Most recently, for example, the case of Larycia Hawkins comes to mind. She was booted (yes, she was booted, no matter that she officially agreed to depart on her own) for wearing a hijab, bragging about it, and proclaiming that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worshipped the same God.

For all you SAGLRROILYBYGTH out there who know the world of evangelical higher education better than I do….am I missing something? Are there other conservative professors who get in trouble for being more fundamentalist than their evangelical schools? Could Professor Esolen’s dilemma be repeated on an evangelical campus? HAS it been?