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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Safety Schools: The Exciting Conclusion

Apologies to all the SAGLRROILYBYGTH who haven’t been able to sleep for the last few nights. I know, I know, we’ve all been on the edge of our seats. Well, rest easy: The second part of my argument about Cedarville University is now live over at Righting America at the Creation Museum.

How does Cedarville’s recent purity campaign fit in to the history of evangelical higher education? Check out the exciting conclusion.

Purity Policy at Cedarville U

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that evangelical colleges tend to insist on stricter rules for student behavior than do secular or liberal schools. Faculty members, too, are held to high expectations for orthodox thinking and behavior. Those tensions are a big part of my new history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher ed.

The goings-on at Cedarville University in Ohio, though, seem to be more extreme than the norm. By insisting on a new definition of “purity” in its curriculum, based on Philippians 4:8, the administration at Cedarville has some evangelical intellectuals scratching their heads in confusion.

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Keeping an eye on Cedarville…

The folks at Righting America at the Creation Museum have been watching Cedarville closely. Recently, they asked your humble editor to offer some historical perspective. Are Cedarville’s new purity rules an odd exception to the usual functioning of evangelical schools?

Today, they kindly published my two cents. (Well, technically one cent. They’ll publish the second half soon.) Check out my argument over at Righting America at the Creation Museum.

Are Cedarville’s purity police something dramatically new? Or just par for the course at evangelical institutions? What do you think? Please head over to RACM to add your insights and comments.

The Handwriting on the Wall for Christian Colleges

It doesn’t look good.

For small colleges of any sort, the future looks grim. A new report from Moody’s (the investor service, not the Bible institute) offers some scary predictions about the iffy future of small schools. For conservative evangelical colleges, however, this looming financial crisis also represents a uniquely religious crisis. Will small evangelical colleges be able to resist the growing pressure to become more radical in their orthodoxy?

Look out, Daniel!

Look out, Danny!

Inside Higher Education describes the sobering financial outlook. In the next few years, college closings will likely triple. Why? Fewer students means fewer tuition dollars, which means fewer scholarship dollars, which means fewer students. Rinse and repeat.

Among conservative evangelical schools, we’ve already seen the trend. Former evangelical schools such as Northland University, Tennessee Temple, and Clearwater Christian have all closed their doors. In some cases, the “Wal-Marts” of Christian colleges have emerged even stronger. Cedarville University, for example, has offered to accept all students from Clearwater Christian. As with non-evangelical schools, the big will likely get bigger and the small will get gone.

For small evangelical colleges, this presents a double pickle. In desperate need of more students, schools will likely become extra-timid about offending conservative parents and pundits. As I’ve argued before, young-earth impresarios such as Ken Ham already exert outsize influence on college curricula. If Ham publicly denounces a college—which he likes to do—you can bet young-earth creationist parents might listen.

We’ve seen it happen at Bryan College. Rumors of evolution-friendly professors caused administrators to crack down. Any whiff of evolutionary heterodoxy, and schools might scare away potential creationist students.

At other evangelical colleges, too, as we’ve already seen in schools such as Mid-America Nazarene or Northwest Nazarene, administrators desperate for tuition dollars will be tempted to insist on a more rigidly orthodox reputation.

Things aren’t looking good for small colleges in general. But conservative evangelical schools face this special burden. In order to attract the largest possible number of students in their niche, they might have to emphasize more firmly the things that make them stand out from public schools. In the case of conservative evangelical schools, that distinctive element has always been orthodoxy.

In the past, well-known schools such as Bryan College might have relied on their long history as staunchly conservative institutions. They might have assumed that conservative evangelical parents would trust their orthodoxy, based on their long-held reputation as a bastion of conservative evangelical education. These days, no-holds-barred competition for students will mean that every school must guard its image far more aggressively.

Can a Woman Teach a Man?

Does it count as un-biblical if a woman teaches a man in seminary classes?  That’s the question debated recently in the pages of Christianity Today.

The issue was sparked by a change in policy at Cedarville University.  The relatively new president, Thomas White, recently announced that only women may enroll in a Bible class taught by a female faculty member.  This has been part of a continuing shift toward greater conservatism by the new administration, which one journalist described as being “taken over by Southern Baptists.”

The question is one of a “complementarian” view of gender relations.  I’m out of my theological depth here, so I invite correction if I get this wrong, but as I understand it, a complementarian view in evangelical Protestantism suggests that men and women have different roles to fulfill in family and church.  Males are meant by God to be the head and women are meant to be helpmates.  Complementarians, I understand, insist that this is not a question of chauvinism or male supremacy.  Rather, both men and women are understood to be equal but different.  In church affairs, following a complementarian interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:3 (“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”) only men should teach men about church doctrine.

For secular folks like me, this is a difficult cultural pill to swallow.  The core of my social morality is that people are equal.  Talk about “different roles” for men and women, or for different social groups, makes me extremely uneasy.  To folks like me, this sounds like just window dressing for traditional hierarchical domination.

Smart complementarians get this.  Evangelical writers have explained the subtleties of complementarianism and what one woman called the “holy beauty of submission.”

In conservative Christian colleges, the question is whether women can teach men theology.  At Cedarville, the new answer is no.  In the pages of Christianity Today, evangelicals debated the issue. Mind you, this debate seems to have been within the ranks of complementarian theologians.  Respondents did not argue that men and women should be seen as equal.  Rather, those who thought women should be allowed to teach men argued that colleges were different than church.  In church, they granted, women must not lead men.  But college was different.

Those who agreed with the Cedarville policy argued that schools should be logically consistent.  If women should not be leaders of men, then women should not be teachers of men.

To outsiders like me, this debate illustrates the deep cultural divide between conservative evangelical Christian colleges and pluralist ones.  Even the terms of this discussion are foreign to folks like me.  For many secular folks, even the idea of such a discussion seems horrifying.  Even to ask if women should be allowed to take on leadership roles seems like a terrible revival of traditionalist hierarchy.

Yet if we outsiders want to understand conservative thinking, we need to try to understand debates like this one, precisely because the terms of the debate are so far beyond the pale of our thinking.  For example, as Dorothy Patterson, the “first lady” of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary responded, when in doubt, go with God.  Though teaching in the university may be a complementarian “gray area,” Patterson conceded, it was better to stay on the theological safe side.  God, Patterson concluded,

is going to have far greater pleasure in seeing a male theologian in the classroom than in our seeing if we couldn’t put a woman in simply because she’s gifted.

Unless and until secular folks like me make an effort to understand the worldview behind statements like that, we’ll never understand conservatism.