From the Archives: Give Us Money! Please! Now!

Do you get the same phone calls I do? As a nerd, I’ve attended several different colleges. And my phone sometimes rings with a call from an earnest undergrad working the alumni phones at Northwestern or Wash U or Madison, asking me to please consider a donation—”even a small one!” As a teacher and a historian, I always tell them I’ve got nuthin. As I worked on my new book about evangelical higher education, though, I couldn’t help but notice the connections between ALL schools when it comes to pleading for alumni cash.

One of the central themes of the new book is that evangelical colleges have sometimes bucked trends in secular/mainstream/pluralist higher ed. At other times these evangelical institutions have been subject to the same forces that shape all schools. Like all institutions, evangelical colleges have always needed money. Like all universities and colleges, evangelical schools have tried to tap their alumni for funds. In some cases, though, evangelical schools threw in a culture-war twist.

During the twentieth century, funding patterns changed for higher ed. Big research schools started getting more and more money from big research institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. However, as historian Roger Geiger pointed out, that sort of big-grant research money tended to go to the same schools over and over. For example, during the 1920s, new Rockefeller funds poured twelve million research dollars into universities. Back then, though, only six schools—Caltech, Princeton, Chicago, Cornell, Stanford, and Harvard—received more than three-quarters of that money.Gordon 1944 ad for donations in Watchman Examiner

Other colleges—evangelical or not—scrambled to find money elsewhere. For most small schools, tuition dollars continued to represent the biggest single source of revenue. Tuition funding is risky, though. In any given year, it can go down drastically and suddenly if enrollment lags. Just ask Sweet Briar.

In response, most colleges—including evangelical ones—scrambled to build donor networks to collect reliable donations. Over the course of the twentieth century, these administrative departments grew larger, more professional, and far more influential.

Most evangelical colleges participated in this trend enthusiastically. Sometimes, though, evangelical schools did it in a unique way: They harped on the unique culture-war features of their institutions. Gordon College, for example, tried to appeal to evangelicals in general to support their work. In the 1940s, for instance, they advertised their school as a vital evangelical institution. “Consecrated young men and women,” they pleaded, “called of God to Christian leadership” needed Gordon, and Gordon needed money.

At the same time, Gordon experimented clumsily and amateurishly with directed appeals to alumni. One plea for library funds didn’t make any mention of evangelical values. It simply begged alumni to donate. (It’s not clear exactly what year this appeal went out, but it is located in a box of materials from before 1944.)plea to alumnus funds for library cartoon

As the century progressed, many evangelical schools continued both strains of fund-raising appeal. They asked alumni for money, like all schools. But they also asked evangelical culture-warriors to support their work. At Biola, for example, the alumni office sent out a personal appeal in 1970. Here’s what they told alums:

Headlines in the 60’s were frightening.  Hippies and Heart-transplants; Racism and Demonstrations; Assassins and Murderers; Mini-skirts and moon landings.  We read much about power, most of it explosive: flower-power, black-power, atomic power, student power.  The decade was full of change, violence, war, noise and new things.

Power—‘all power’—the explosive power of the Word of God created headlines at BIOLA in the 60’s. Student Population Explodes; Classrooms Crowded Out; Thousands Accept Christ in Orient; 1708 Grads Take Message to Frustrated World.

God used investments like yours to make things happen at BIOLA in the 60’s.

Biola, like a lot of evangelical colleges, sold itself in the 1970s as the healthy conservative anti-college, the stalwart Christian school that not only resisted pernicious trends in mainstream higher ed, but also created a powerful form of counter-counter-cultural higher education.

By the end of the century, evangelical colleges and universities—just like almost all institutions of higher education—had organized bureaucracies to solicit donations from alumni. My guess is that they have continued to emphasize both the distinctive elements of their evangelical promise as well as the mundane institutional needs they face.

I’ll go out on a limb this morning: I bet those of you who attended evangelical colleges get the same kinds of alumni appeals I get from my secular alma maters. But I also bet that your letters sometimes talk about particular evangelical values. They probably sometimes talk about boring financial needs such as a new library, and they probably sometimes emphasize the dire need for Christian values and leadership in these dark times. But they ALWAYS ask for money.

Advertisements

History, not Faith

Why do so many white evangelicals support President Trump? Not just in a passive, least-worst, anyone-but-Hillary sort of way, but actively and even enthusiastically? Why have some white evangelical leaders become what historian John Fea calls “court evangelicals?” After all, President Trump is no one’s idea of a Christian. One recent argument ties evangelical Trumpism to faith, but not surprisingly, I think it has a lot more to do with historical imagination. For people who fantasize about a lost American “Shining City upon a Hill,” Trump’s “take-back-America” rhetoric punches important buttons.

Trump make america great again

It’s the hat, stupid.

Over at Religion Dispatches, Eric C. Miller interviews Kurt Andersen about Andersen’s new book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve got it ordered. It sounds fantastic and I’m looking forward to reading the whole thing.

I can’t help but spout off a little, though, about some of Andersen’s arguments in this interview. Andersen describes his explanation of the odd relationship between the starchy moralists of America’s evangelical subculture and the wildly careening leadership of President Trump. Andersen makes connections between charismatic belief and Trumpism, but I think there’s a much more obvious and important explanation. Trump appeals powerfully not to anyone’s ideas about God and worship, but rather to white evangelicals’ implicit vision of American history.

On a side note, I couldn’t help but shudder at one of Andersen’s other statements. Like a lot of pundits, he makes some major goofs about the nature of creationism these days. As Andersen puts it,

Just in the last 15 years, it has become Republican orthodoxy to disbelieve in evolution and to challenge evolution instruction in the public schools. This is a uniquely American phenomenon, and it is a product of a religious tradition that, starting about a half a century ago, decided to make that stand in favor of creationism.

I added the emphasis to point out the problem. Andersen’s not alone on this point, but he is deeply wrong. Radical creationism’s political oomph is not at all uniquely American. To cite just one example, Turkey’s government has made even more aggressive moves in favor of creationism. This is not a minor error, but a major misreading of the nature of modern creationism. As I’m arguing in my current book, following in the footsteps of the great historian of creationism Ron Numbers, radical young-earth creationism is not “uniquely American,” but rather a popular and politically potent response to the dilemma of post-modern life, worldwide and across many religions.fantasyland

That’s a big intellectual problem, but it is not my major beef with Andersen’s argument this morning. No, the real question today is about the relationship between America’s politically active white evangelical Protestant community and the shoot-from-the-hip political style of President Trump. How could it happen?

For Andersen, the connection can be tied in part to one wing of evangelical belief. For charismatic Christians, Andersen explains, belief in the unbelievable is part and parcel of their culture of dissent. Here’s how Andersen made his point, with emphasis added:

[Miller]: Then I have to ask you about Donald Trump. He is now America’s Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief, a position that he attained with support from 81 percent of white evangelicals. Does this research help account for that?

[Andersen]: It’s bizarre. It’s interesting, because he is not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian. So why is it that our most fervently Christian fellow citizens support him so strongly? Well, as you say, our most fervently Christian white citizens. I think there is something there—it suggests that there are other reasons, cultural and economic reasons, together with the religious motivations that are driving that support.

But for my purposes, within this Fantasyland template, I think that they have some things in common beyond resentment of the elites and some of these other traits that are not necessarily connected to belief in the untrue—a lack of respect and all that. But Trump has shown a unique willingness to embrace claims that are demonstrably untrue—that Barack Obama wasn’t born here and a conspiracy covered that up; that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination; that five million illegal immigrants voted against him in the 2016 election; and on and on and on. The fact that he is so indifferent to empirical reality and so willing to stand up and embrace explanations that simply confirm his pre-existing ideas or are convenient for him because they make him seem better or his enemies worse—it’s somewhat unkind, I understand, to say that he shares that tendency with religious people, but I think that is shared.

There is no evidence that people who speak in tongues are speaking a holy language. There is no empirical evidence that faith healing works. There is no real evidence that Jesus was resurrected. I could go on. So, if believing these sorts of things as a matter of faith is central to your identity, then you might identify with a guy who is willing to take strong stands on unprovable claims. If he also shares—or pretends to share—your cultural biases and resentments, then you’re going to like him! That’s about as close as I can come to explaining this strange embrace. Certainly in terms of his lifestyle, his brutal disdain for the least among us, he is so, so unchristian. I haven’t entirely figured that out—it’s another book.

Now, I agree with a lot of what Andersen has to say. I agree that “cultural biases and resentments” are the key to understanding white evangelical Trumpism. But I disagree that we can best explain Christian Trumpism by invoking “religious motivations.”

Not that there aren’t plenty of white evangelicals who justify their Trumpism in religious language. Some leaders like to say that Trump is their modern David or Cyrus. But they wouldn’t say or even allow themselves to think that they can support Trump because they already believe in unbelievable things. I get what Andersen’s saying: If you are accustomed from your religious background to a conspiratorial or fantastic mindset you are more likely to choose and support a conspiracy-theorist president. However, it’s misleading to suggest that such religiously driven beliefs are a leading explanation for Christian Trumpism.

If it’s not mainly due to their religious beliefs, why DO so many white evangelicals actively support Trump? I think Andersen is on the right track when he talks about “cultural and economic reasons,” and “cultural biases and resentments.” As I’m arguing in my new book [have you pre-ordered your copy yet?] about evangelical higher education, a leading theme in evangelical intellectual life has been the story of evangelical exile, of being kicked out of the centers of political power. Among white American evangelicals, a unique historical vision of themselves as the true Americans has fueled a century of culture-war vitriol.

From the 1920s through today, white evangelicals have been goaded and guided by this unique sense of usurpation. Unlike other powerful religious minorities, such as American Catholics, white evangelicals tell themselves over and over again that the United States used to be solidly theirs. Unlike other religious groups—even groups that are closely connected to them by theology such as African-American evangelical Protestants—white evangelicals have been sure that they deserve to claim or reclaim their role as America’s religious voice.

In short, we can’t look to theology or faith to understand evangelical Trumpism. It’s tricky, because evangelical Trumpists will explain their decisions in the language of faith. But if we listen only to such biblical justifications, we’ll miss the far-more-important real reasons for evangelical Trumpism.

For almost a century now, white evangelicals have wanted to “take back America.” Their college campuses have been seen as both citadels and havens for an imagined real America, the kind of America from which the rest of America seemed to have strayed. When a political candidate comes along and declares his wish to “make America great again,” it resonates powerfully. Just ask Reagan.

It is this history of resentment, of a sense of historical exile, of usurpation, that best explains white evangelical Trumpism.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Blink and you’ll miss it. Another week has come and gone. Here are some ILYBYGTH stories that might have flown under your radar:

What do college students really think? Two different surveys give us different numbers. HT: DW

“Is history objective?” Academic historians get a weird email. Is it a right-wing set up?

What’s going on on campus? Michigan and other schools flooded with violent and racist propaganda.Bart reading bible

Harvard likely under investigation for racist admissions policies.

Have evangelicals evolved from “public moralists to leaders of tribal identity”? That’s Jennifer Rubin’s charge this week at WaPo.

Free speech for some! That seems to be the majority opinion, according to a new survey reviewed by Conor Friedensdorf in The Atlantic.

California looks at new LGBTQ-friendly textbooks.

When do religious kids abandon their faith? It’s not during college, according to new research from PRRI.

Are conservatives deserting the charter-school movement?

Life at the “Christian Hogwarts:” Healing and prophecy at Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, Redding, CA.

Thanks to all the SAGLRROILYBYGTH who sent in tips and stories.

The Art Is In!

Thanks to the folks at Oxford, we have a terrific cover for my new book about the history of evangelical higher education. We had batted around a few other ideas about cover art, including artsy-fied excerpts from some of the student rulebooks. In the end, my editor thought those looked too busy and hard to read and I think she was right. Especially when I see this snazzy cover.Cover art final

When can you get your hands on a copy? Soon. Pre-orders are available now, and OUP promises to ship on February 1st.

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.”

Ready for Pre-Order!

I know, I know, a lot of eager readers were planning to dress up as their favorite evangelical university president and camp out at their local bookstore when the new book was released.

harry potter camp out

I’m pretty sure she’s dressed as Wheaton’s Hudson Armerding…

I’m happy to say that’s not necessary. You can put in pre-orders now for Fundamentalist U. Oxford is saying the books will ship February 1, 2018.

Blurbed!

I was never much of a baseball player, but there was a brief time in the late 1970s when I would have totally plotzed if Carl Yastrzemski told me I had a good swing.

Carl_Yastrzemski_at_Fenway_Park_2

He’s no Roger Geiger or Joel Carpenter, but Yaz was my hero for a while…

That’s about what I’m feeling like today, reading the blurbs for my upcoming book.

I don’t know how they did it, but the folks at Oxford Press have cajoled some heavy hitters in the fields of higher-educational and evangelical history into writing a few words for the book jacket.

Roger Geiger is the undisputed Grand Pooh-Bah of higher-ed history. His recent book The History of American Higher Education has become the new go-to source on the topic. Joel Carpenter packs a double punch as author and academic organizational wizard. He now works at Calvin College as director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. He’s also a prolific author, and his book Revive Us Again defined the parameters of the study of twentieth-century evangelical history in the USA.  Daniel K. Williams is a younger historian, but he has already distinguished himself as a leading scholar of our generation. His two best-known books are God’s Own Party and Defenders of the Unborn. I lean heavily on God’s Own Party in Fundamentalist U and Dan helped me a great deal as I was writing and revising my book.

Here’s what these three larger-than-life nerd heroes had to say about my book:

“Adam Laats’s history of the development of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education reveals a complex interaction between religious and academic values. The colleges, universities, and Bible Institutes that he examines contained deep differences regarding both spheres. As a sympathetic observer and an objective reporter, Laats captures the conflicts and the abiding strengths of faith-based institutions as they wrestle with the challenges of modernity and their own internecine quarrels.” –Roger L. Geiger, author of The History of American Higher Education: Culture and Learning from the Founding to World War II

“Fundamentalist and conservative evangelical colleges face unique tensions. They represent volatile movements plagued by internal struggles and ever-shifting boundaries. They pursue higher learning on behalf of a movement that accused America’s universities of betraying God’s truth and righteousness. And they function as halfway houses for evangelical students who are called to be in the world, but not of it. Adam Laats went deep into the archives of Bob Jones University, Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Biola University, Liberty University and Gordon College, and he tells their stories with great integrity. The result is a major contribution to the history of Christian higher education and to the understanding of fundamentalism and evangelicalism in America.” –Joel Carpenter, Director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity, Calvin College

“Adam Laats’s nuanced, detailed, and exceptionally well researched history of twentieth-century conservative Protestant higher education offers a plethora of fascinating information and perceptive insights. It is essential reading even for those well versed in American evangelical history, because it offers a fresh analysis of the complex ways in which fundamentalist colleges reflected (and shaped) their religious movement’s tenuous balance between the demands of the world and the tenets of faith.” –Daniel K. Williams, author of God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right

Almost makes me want to read it myself!

Whew…

It wasn’t pretty, but it got done. I just sent in my proofs and index for Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education. It’s a huge relief—that’s the last step for me before the book comes out.

index mash up FUndy U

How the sausage gets made…

Making an index is a weird job. There are professional indexers you can hire, but to me it seems like an intrinsic part of an author’s job. Nobody knows the book as well as the author; no one can tell what sections need to be emphasized in the index and which ones can be cut out.

Making this index wasn’t particularly fun, but it was a good chance for me to pore over the proofs one last time. It allowed me to think about the book’s argument from a new perspective and get a new take on writing I did quite a while ago.

So what’s next? I just sent it all in to the Oxford folks and they will put it all together. We’re hoping the book will come out in early 2018. I’ll keep you posted!

Creationist College History, Part II: Parting the Waters

I know, I know, it has been hard to sleep for the last couple days. With the cliff-hanger ending of my last guest post about evangelical colleges at Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’m sure it has been difficult to wait for the sequel.genesis flood 1961 ed

Well, wait no longer: Today at RACM you can read the second half of my argument about the way evangelical higher education influenced the career of American creationism.

What Goes on at Creationist Colleges?

Thanks to Bill and Sue Trollinger, the wizards behind Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’ve had a chance to share a few of my ideas about the vital role played by higher education in the evolution of American creationism.

Gustafson chimes cartoon bible a myth at many colleges

Evolution has always been forbidden fruit, but not always in the same ways. This cartoon came from Biola University’s student paper, c. 1939.

This morning RACM has kindly published the first half of my argument about the tangled and troubled history of creationism at America’s evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and institutes. As you might suspect, even though fundamentalists all agreed that evolution was bad, they didn’t agree on much more than that.

Check out the full two-part argument at Righting America at the Creation Museum.