I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

More strikes and the looming s-word this week. Here are some of the news stories you might have missed from the past seven days:

Denver: Teachers out on strike today, at CBS4.

Trump’s 2020 Gamble: Does anyone still tremble at the threat of ‘socialism?’

From Righting America: If there was a real global flood, why did God need to kill all the babies? All the animals?

(How) can evangelical colleges survive? With online classes? Or by getting back to what they’ve always done best? At CHE.

Christian Persecution Update: Campus Christian group scores legal win in Iowa LGBTQ case, at IHE.

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For Evangelical Colleges: The Dangers of Keeping Up

These are dark times for smallish institutions of higher ed. When it comes to universities, the rich are getting richer—in terms of applications and endowments—while the poor are getting closed down. To evangelical college administrators, this might seem like a new and desperate challenge, but in fact it goes back a long way. I know history is a bad guide, but as I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, in this case, the past fifty years offer pretty clear guidance about what NOT to do.

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How Wheaton hoped to survive, c. 1980.

In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, we read about administrators at small and smallish Christian schools trying to figure out how to stay alive. Indiana Wesleyan (IWU), for example, is emphasizing its traditional focus on person-centered spiritual education while also trying to cash in on online education.

If the past is any guide, one of those is a good idea.

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One promise: academic rigor. Another: smart girls with modest hairstyles.

Consider the bumptious early 1960s. In many ways, they were boom years for institutions of higher education. The post-war GI Bill had set millions—MILLIONS—of new students scrambling to find someone to give their government money to.

For evangelical colleges, however, the new landscape of American higher education presented a new dilemma. At Wheaton College in Illinois, for example, the early 1960s meant a startling and dangerous drop in applications. As Charles Schoenherr reported to President V. Raymond Edman, the numbers spelled doom:

  • 1958: 2009 applications
  • 1961: 1666
  • 1962: 1467
  • 1963: 998

For good reason, Wheaton’s top administrators panicked. They struggled to find reasons to explain this sudden drop in interest among the college-going evangelical public. For one thing, they had instituted a new way to count applications and a new high-school graduation requirement, but those changes could not account for this drastic drop. Like today’s administrators, Wheaton in the early 1960s faced two unpleasant questions:

  • Why were the numbers of applications plunging? And
  • What should they do about it?

Back then, Wheaton’s administrators couldn’t answer the first question satisfactorily. But they had some suspicions. As Schoenherr asked the next President, Hudson Armerding,

Has the ‘image’ of the College changed?  Has this had a bearing on the number applying?  What has been the image?  Has it been an image of excitement, challenge, and leadership or one of apathy, status quo, and noninvolvement?  To what extent have rumors about Wheaton going ‘liberal’ hurt?

If Wheaton was dying due to perceived progressivism, then one course was clear. They could choose to swing back toward their conservative traditions, emphasizing their continuing adherence to fundamentalist norms.

That’s not what Wheaton did and it should serve as a lesson to today’s evangelical college administrators. Wheaton decided to double down on its existing strengths. It had always been known as the premier academic evangelical college, and instead of swerving hard to the right, Wheaton swerved hard toward its reputation as academically elite.

By 1980, for example, Wheaton’s promotional materials showed the school’s commitment to respecting its conservative roots while emphasizing its academic excellence. In a 1980 promotional brochure, the statement of Wheaton’s beliefs was shunted way to the back. “Yes, Wheaton is strict,” the statement concluded, “but we try not to be insensitive.”

The rest of the brochure showed pictures of students doing science-looking stuff, enjoying sports, and learning in the beautiful scenic campus. The message was clear. If you want an awesome, “real” college experience, come to Wheaton. Other evangelical colleges can’t match its traditions or academic excellence.

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…plus football and dates.

What’s the message for today’s strapped evangelical administrators? First, take heart. These are tough times, but you’ve been here before. Second, don’t chase after trends that don’t fit with the long-standing appeal of your school. If you think you can cash in quick on online education, watch out. You might find you’ve traded in your birthright for a mess of credits.

Fundamentalist U & Me: Drew Crawford

Welcome to the latest edition of Fundamentalist U & Me, our occasional series of memory and reflection from people who attended evangelical colleges and universities. [Click here to see all the entries.] The history I recounted in Fundamentalist U only told one part of the complicated story of evangelical higher education. Depending on the person, the school, and the decade, going to an evangelical college has been very different for different people.

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Mr. Crawford today…

Today, we’re talking with Drew Crawford. Mr. Crawford graduated in 2011 from LeTourneau University, the evangelical tech college in Longview, Texas, with a BS in Computer Science. Like a lot of evangelical-college alumni, Crawford’s college experience shaped him, but not necessarily in the directions the college hoped. In the end, he realized having a PhD didn’t mean his professors had all the answers, and that school enforcement–“God’s police force”–can sometimes “contain . . . a dirty cop.”

ILYBYGTH: How did you decide on LeTourneau? What were your other options? Did your family pressure you to go to an evangelical college?

My parents told me I was required to attend an evangelical college. I had expressed an interest in MIT and Stanford but was told I wouldn’t be allowed to attend. I was expected to decide where to attend from a pool of ideologically-acceptable candidates, which I recall included Wheaton and Liberty and some others. Ultimately I settled on LeTourneau because it seemed to have the strongest program in my field.

I believe my parents’ motivations for this rule were complex. Partly I think it was an attempt to advance my indoctrination into evangelicalism. Partly they had their own transformative experience at Wheaton College, where they were exposed to a more liberal (but still “correct”) strain of evangelicalism that helped them forge a religious identity distinct from their more conservative parents, and they wanted a future like that for me. Partly they felt (and still feel) pressure from their parents to toe an ideological line.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith?

It depends. In the evangelical world, faith is binary: the Bible is the word of God or it is not, you’re following it or you are not, you’re going to heaven or you’re going to hell, and so on. Measured by that standard of faith, I became disillusioned with the evangelical perspective on these questions although this didn’t really culminate until several years after I graduated.

On the other hand I was exposed – sometimes haphazardly, other times deliberately and subversively – to forms of Christianity that worked from very different assumptions than the ones in which I was raised. This allowed me to access my faith after leaving evangelicalism. So I do believe without that experience I wouldn’t still feel connected to faith today.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still feel connected to your alma mater?letourneau_university,_longview,_tx,_entrance_img_4004

No. I hesitate to condemn entire groups of people, some of whom are very nice and are doing a lot of good trying to quietly reform a system that can’t simply be dismantled. On the other hand I now think evangelical fundamentalism is one of the great threats facing our society, and I can’t in good conscience be moderate about it when the consequences seem so grave.

ILYBYGTH: What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

I’ll give two experiences, one that seemed significant at the time and the other one in retrospect. I was in an ethics class and there was a discussion about feminist perspectives on God – God as feminine instead of masculine. This puzzled me because clearly the Father was male, and Jesus was male, and I was a little fuzzy on the gender of the Holy Spirit but my bible at least used male pronouns. So this “god as a woman” business seemed like a clear-cut case of liberals ignoring the Bible.

Later the professor emailed me with a long list of bible verses with a feminine God, from parables of Jesus to creating Eve “in God’s image” to the entire throughline of John that Christians are born “of God” which is pretty weird thing to say about a male.

The more I waded into it the more I realized that the Bible was not clear at all on a very basic subject, and actually one could reasonably prooftext their way to any number of theological positions. This really got me thinking about how much of evangelical doctrine was really “the plain meaning of the Bible” and how much is selectively cobbling verses into what we believe already.

Later in my educational career I challenged evangelical orthodoxy more openly. I remember writing a paper that contained an argument that one of Paul’s statements against homosexuality is a lot less clear than the way it is commonly read in evangelical churches. I got some red ink in the margin that it is actually very clear, and that paper would up as the lowest grade I received in that class. The professor had a PhD in biblical studies and I didn’t, so I didn’t really know what to do besides take his word for it that I had missed something important.

Recently I bumped into a mainstream scholar who mentioned that the position I took was actually the dominant view in the field! That made me angry even many years later. Leaving aside the whole political dimension, which is not unimportant, passing off orthodoxy as fact really strikes at the heart of what an educational institution is supposed to do. That experience changed my relationship with faith, reinforcing that I needed to prioritize a personal and self-directed faith over reliance on institutional credentials.

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college? If so, why, and if not, why not?

I don’t plan to have kids, but I think the idea of trying to direct kids into a particular political or religious persuasion is wrong. What it means to be human is to decide what we believe for ourselves. I think even the evangelicals seem to adopt this perspective – they use vocabulary like “personal decision for Christ” – but then they try not to expose their kids to a lot of things that seem necessary to make an informed decision. To me this is backwards.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still support your alma mater, financially or otherwise? If so, how and why, and if not, why not?

I’ve never supported them, although the reasons have drifted a lot over time. When I graduated, I still identified as an evangelical but the university seemed weirdly obsessed with student life issues, like hiding a beer in your fridge or getting students to say things in a counseling session and then using against them in a disciplinary process, getting conservative politicians to lecture and so forth, none of which seemed particularly “biblically based” or even consistent with good ethics to me. So I didn’t support them because in my view they weren’t carrying the torch of what I understand to be evangelicalism.

Later I came to the view that evangelicalism itself is not especially biblically based, but is  more of a cultural conservatism dressed in biblical language. In this framework much of the institution’s behavior suddenly makes sense. Over time the distance between us has become much greater. Recently they revised their student handbook to ban “public advocacy” for LGBT issues for example, so the idea that I’m going to send them money to help them expel students for having the majoritarian political view is totally insane. But I guess there is a type of donor that appeals to.

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

The science education I got was pretty mainstream. We were taught about evolution and the lack of support for creation science and so on. One difference is we spent a lot of time and energy “reconciling” mainstream science with scripture. I recall reading papers about how Genesis 1 was more of a poem than history, and how a flood covering “the whole earth” was a mistranslation. I think it was pretty wise actually because many students were coming from a sheltered background where presenting the age of the earth unexplained would have created tension. On the other hand it did siphon some time from actual science.

I do think the stereotype of fundamentalist universities teaching “junk science” is a little unfair. On the other hand I think it persists less because of a secular stereotype and more because it reflects the attitudes of parents or donors, and correcting it might bring an uncomfortable spotlight to the tension between the different constituencies these universities serve.

ILYBYGTH: Was your social life at your evangelical college similar to the college stereotype (partying, “hooking up,” drinking, etc.) we see in mainstream media? If not, how was it different? Do you think your social experience would have been much different if you went to a secular institution?

It was very different. I mean LeTourneau is an engineering school, and the gender ratio is such that there wouldn’t be a lot of hooking up in any case. But I personally never saw much evidence of sex or drinking so on some level the policing of behavior was effective.

On another level it wasn’t, though. I remember one student who got married to another in their sophomore year. I should explain here that married students were allowed to have sex and live off campus (I think it was assumed you’d live off campus so you could have sex, which I think really discounts how annoying the student life policies were more broadly), which created maybe not the best incentives for a stable marriage. Shortly after they wed it came out that she was pregnant with another student’s child. I knew all of them quite well and had no idea this was going on until I was told. She had the baby (abortion is a sin), they divorced, some combination of those involved dropped out or transferred, and I don’t know what happened to them after that. But perhaps that’s the unique kind of “hookup story” that can only happen at fundamentalist universities.

ILYBYGTH: In your experience, was the “Christian” part of your college experience a prominent part? In other words, would someone from a secular college notice differences right away if she or he visited your school?

Definitely. I mean there were rules about not having the wrong gender in the lobby of your building at certain hours. Classes opened with a devotional. Chapel attendance was mandatory. It would be hard to miss.

ILYBYGTH: Did you feel political pressure at school? That is, did you feel like the school environment tipped in a politically conservative direction? Did you feel free to form your own opinions about the news? Were you encouraged or discouraged from doing so?

In practice I think the student body leaned so conservative that no pressure from the university was necessary. There was a significant homeschooled population and it’s located in rural east Texas, so it’s hard to separate what was the region, what was the student and what was the university. It also varied a lot by the type of issue – issues like  homosexuality and abortion were thought of as essential to evangelical life and were moralized in the same way one would moralize slavery in a history class. On the other hand, there was a lot of debate about things like the war in Iraq which dominated the news at the time – support was the dominant view but both committed pacifism and skepticism about executive power got a lot of play in the discourse in a manner very out of character for the region. In that sense it may have even been a liberalizing force.

This dual political climate may illuminate some modern liberal puzzles, such as evangelicals’ support for Trump who seems decidedly unevangelical. On questions of the Supreme Court, which they see as a vehicle for issues like homosexuality and abortion, they are committed. On issues like immigration, climate change, or whether more ought to be done on sexual harassment, they are divided. But this division, in spite of the  amount of play it gets in the discourse, is much weaker than the issues that hold them together.

ILYBYGTH: What do you think the future holds for evangelical higher education? What are the main problems looming for evangelical schools? What advantages do they have over other types of colleges?

If the “public advocacy” policy is any indication, they seem increasingly paranoid about threats to their worldview. There also seems to be a widening chasm between those on campus (the students and faculty) who lean moderate and occasionally even behave subversively, against the administrators, who push a hardline policy agenda that nobody seems to be asking for. In retrospect there must be somebody asking for it, perhaps an aging donor base or a parent population increasingly concerned about losing close control of their children in a more liberalized society.

I think the main problem these institutions face is how to hold these increasingly contradictory forces together. A strong academic environment relies not insignificantly on the freedom to explore, but orthodoxy relies on the opposite. These institutions are in the tricky situation of trying to serve both, when they can really only serve one at the expense of the other. Or, I suppose, through their indecision annoy both.

ILYBYGTH: If you have additional reflections and opinions you’d like to share, please do!

I have at least one story that doesn’t fit neatly into your questions that deserves to be told. Each student was assigned an academic advisor that we were required to meet with before registering for classes each semester. Mine was particularly unhelpful as he mostly taught introductory courses, which I had skipped. Our meetings seemed odd in a way I’m still unable to really identify. I recall he invited me repeatedly to participate in off-campus activities he organized through his church. This was not that unusual as developing a close relationship with faculty was one of the selling points of the school, and I would occasionally meet faculty in their homes in a way that blended office hours and a more social relationship. On a few occasions classes would even meet in someone’s home. However in the context of a person I had no classes with and I met twice a year, the way he seemed interested in pursuing a social relationship seemed unusual to me.

Something about it puzzled me enough that I talked to some other students who had classes with him and knew him better. They mentioned to me that he “seemed to have favorite students” and “was a bit socially awkward.” At the time, I interpreted this to mean that engineering attracts people who are a bit odd socially – certainly I was, and so I chalked it up to what happens when two socially stunted people try to interact.  Rereading my emails from that time suggests we had sporadic and mostly unsuccessful communication about a handful of department initiatives.

One semester I tried to go to my mandatory meeting to learn he was no longer a professor at the school. The system to get approval to register for classes without him was complicated and seemed to puzzle even the department chair, who became my advisor after that. I ultimately learned that he had departed the university to teach high school, which seemed like a very odd career move to me. At that time I was beginning to detect the divisions between the faculty and the administration and I remember wondering if perhaps he had actually been fired. I remember thinking it was probably over policy or some doctrinal thing (I seem to recall his church was more liberal than the school, which would have been a potential source of friction).

A few days after I graduated he was arrested (and later convicted) for sexually assaulting a minor. The news reported that the incident took place on campus. Now. Am I saying the university suspected something inappropriate was going on, terminated him quietly, and were relieved when he became a high school teacher because that headline would draw attention away from themselves? No, I have no evidence of that whatsoever. What I am saying is that I was hauled before administrators many times for “investigations” into who pranked campus security or how a beer bottle ended up in someone’s fridge. But never once did anyone ask me about my academic advisor.

This illuminates a principle of fundamentalism that is difficult to see from the outside. By aggressively reacting to small issues they present themselves as this unique instrument of God’s justice. But when it turns out God’s police force contains a dirty cop, it threatens the whole power structure and so they have to avoid drawing any attention to it lest it threaten the faith in the institution.

The Year in ILYBYGTH

I wasn’t going to do it. I was going to try awkwardly to maintain my dignity and refrain from any sort of year-end top-ten list. But then a couple of enforcers from the WordPress goon squad showed up and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

So here it is: The eleven most popular posts of 2018:

  1. What is Life Like at Evangelical Colleges? Reflections from alumni of “Fundamentalist U.” What was it like to attend different schools in different decades? How did evangelical higher ed shape these students’ lives?
  2. Billy Graham and Bob Jones From the archives, a look at the tempestuous and angry relationship between teacher and former student.

    Billy Graham

    RIP Billy Graham, here preaching to the multitudes in London, 1954.

  3. Crisis at Moody Bible Institute From way back in January 2018, a look at the ways the history of fundamentalist higher ed in the early 1900s set the pattern for the recent leadership shake-up at Chicago’s storied Bible school.
  4. The Dilemma of the Fundamentalist Intellectual An ugly story of resume inflation is par for the course in the world of fundamentalist academic life. Why?
  5. The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die: It doesn’t seem to matter that historians have punctured this story completely. Journalists still love it, probably because a lot of evangelicals love it.
  6. Christians Don’t Know Christianity: Are Christians supposed to actually believe Christian doctrine? Or only hold it as a personal preference? religion as personal belief
  7. Where Were You Radicalized? A simple question on Tweeter gets people thinking, but there’s one place no one seemed to be talking about.
  8. Evangelical Colleges Aren’t Teaching Christianity A professor complains that her students don’t know Christian orthodoxy. I lay out the historical case that this is nothing new in evangelical higher education.
  9. Bad News for Creationists Science just makes young-earth creationism harder and harder to believe. What will YECs do? I have a guess…

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    Because…Darwin?

  10. How Did Christian Colleges Become Racist? I made the case for an under-suspected culprit behind the racism of white evangelicals: mainstream higher education.
  11. Is Creationism Hate Speech? Can–SHOULD–mainstream universities ban radical young-earth creationism because it is hateful to non-heterosexuals?

Sex Abuse and the Fundamentalist C-Word

The most depressing thing about the story might be its tragic predictability. The Fort-Worth Star-Telegram reported this week about the sexual assault and abuse of hundreds of victims by leaders of independent fundamental Baptist Churches. As I detailed in Fundamentalist U, these charges are not a sad quirk or an individual sin, but rather an inherent danger of fundamentalist institution-building.

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The dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions…

The charges are staggering. FWST reporters interviewed hundreds of victims and told their stories in detail. Time and time again, with no denominational authority to turn to, independent fundamental churches and schools relied on the utter authority of a single leader. In case after case, the obvious dangers of investing one human with so much power resulted in atrocious abuse. As one of the interviewees put it,

Those of us that have gotten out definitely know it as a cult.

Part of the cult-like structure of independent fundamental Baptist churches has always been its control of education, including independent colleges led by authoritarian leaders. As FWST reporters noticed,

The churches operate independently. But many pastors are linked by the church-affiliated colleges they attended: Bob Jones University, Hyles-Anderson College, Pensacola Christian College and Golden State Baptist College, to name a few.

Those colleges, in turn, suffer from the same institutional problems that beset independent fundamental Baptist churches as a whole. In a word, without external checks on power and influence, colleges and churches risk descending into cults, with no guard against the rapacity of all-powerful leaders.

In Fundamentalist U, I argue that this structural problem is not an unfortunate exception, but rather the rule for interdenominational conservative-evangelical institutions. Certainly not all of them, but in many cases, institutions that embraced the fundamentalist side of the conservative-evangelical family tended to turn to authoritarian solutions to the inherent dilemma of authority in interdenominational evangelicalism. In the book, I use the twin cases of Bob Jones College and Denver Bible Institute in the 1930s to make my case.

Both schools turned to an authoritarian leader to settle the inherent dilemmas of early fundamentalism. What did it mean to be a “real” fundamentalist? No one could say for sure, so some colleges invested their leaders with ultimate power to define good and bad, real and fake.

At Bob Jones College, the dictatorial authority of the leader was not to be questioned. Due to the school’s success in attracting students and keeping faculty and alumni happy, the structure worked. It certainly had plenty of critics over the years—both internal and external—but BJU was able to retain its insularity and its authoritarian power structure.

At Clifton Fowler’s Denver Bible Institute, however, accusations of sexual abuse and theological malfeasance led to a hearing of sorts. The limits of that hearing help demonstrate the inherent structural problems of fundamentalist institution-building.

In short (check out chapter three of Fundamentalist U if you want the full story), Clifton Fowler was accused of a host of sins. He was charged with conducting sexual relationships with many of the young men under his charge. He was accused of prying into the sexual lives of many of his students and congregants and then using that intimate information to bully and blackmail his students. He was accused of innovating doctrines about sexual relationships, claiming that married men and women should not have sex with one another.

In 1936, Fowler attempted to clear his name. He appealed to national leaders of fundamentalist colleges, such as Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College. The response of that blue-ribbon fundamentalist commission tells us about the dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions.

Instead of charging Fowler with the allegations, committee members agreed to keep the accusations quiet, in order not to besmirch the name of fundamentalism. As Buswell put it, he hoped to keep the whole scandal

a strictly private matter among Christian brethren.

It is difficult not to read the testimony as a clear warning bell about the kind of abuse rampant among “cult-like” fundamentalist institutions. As one DBI insider told Buswell’s commission,

All who enter within the confines of the school as students or casual visitors come under a peculiar ‘hypnotic’ spell.

In spite of collecting damning testimony from multiple victims and witnesses, the commission concluded in the end that it could not really do anything to stop Fowler’s predatory behavior. As Buswell concluded in a private letter in 1936,

we cannot commend this man or this work to the confidence of the Christian public.  I do not suppose there is anything more we could do, since we have been given no power to take action, and Fowler practically has his trustees in his pocket, I believe.

In other words, fundamentalist leaders concluded, every fundamentalist could create his own authority. As President Buswell explained, if the trustees of his school remained loyal to Fowler, there were no external levers of control or influence others could exert.

The kind of abuse allegedly perpetrated by Dave Hyles and other independent fundamental Baptist leaders certainly seems to fall into this category. Is it a crime? Yes, indeed. Is it the result of personal sin? I believe so. But those categories of individual blame and transgression don’t adequately explain the ways that the very structures of fundamentalist institutions support and encourage these kinds of abuse and assault.

Does THIS Explain the Football Fornicator?

It has stymied nerds for years now. How could so many white conservative-evangelical Protestants support Trump? He is hardly a moral model. Could a new term help explain Christian Trumpism, and other evangelical oddities such as Liberty University’s recent hire?

Freeze at Liberty

Victory at any cost?

Coming off a year of glorious victory, Liberty doubled down on its football team. Still pursuing its grand dream of becoming “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically,” Liberty brought on one of the best big-time coaches in today’s football scene.

There was only one problem. Coach Hugh Freeze was only available for a non-elite team like Liberty because he had been fired from Ole Miss for a “pattern of personal misconduct,” including using university resources to hire prostitutes.

Why would an evangelical university—supposedly devoted to conservative morals and buttoned-up lifestyle rules—shell out big bucks to hire a fornicator?

On one hand, the answer’s easy. Coach Freeze built up an impressive winning record at Ole Miss, including defeating Alabama two seasons in a row.

On the other, however, it’s a puzzle. As I described in Fundamentalist U, the selling point of conservative evangelical colleges has always been a safe moral environment, one in which students wouldn’t learn to smoke, drink, and have sex, much less believe mainstream science or liberal religion.

How are we to make sense of this phenomenon? …of supposedly values-driven evangelicals supporting anti-values driven celebrities?

Would it help if we called universities like Liberty something besides “evangelical?” Something that captured more clearly the real values of the school, including Trumpism, guns, and big-time sports?sutton tweet

Recently, some historians have been debating the value of another term. Matthew Avery Sutton proposed “Christian Nationalism” for white conservative evangelicals who put their culture-war positions ahead of their evangelical theology. Professor Sutton asked,

should we make a distinction, using “evangelical” for those who are part of a historic, traceable, bounded (para)church network and use “Christian nationalist” for the right-wing political expression of many of these folks and the many more outside the network?

Calling schools like Liberty “Christian Nationalist” colleges instead of “evangelical” schools would go a long way toward clearing up any confusion about stories like that of Coach Freeze. It could fill in for the old “fundamentalist” label, now out of favor even among the most devoted fundamentalists. It could also help make sense of trends at conservative schools such as Hillsdale, which are now attracting a healthy enrollment from Catholic students. And it could explain where the financial support comes from for conservative flag-waving institutions such as the College of the Ozarks.

In short, using a term like “evangelical” to describe an institution like Liberty University seems inherently confusing. Under the leadership of Jerry Falwell Jr., the school has embraced a Trumpist worldview, in distinct contrast to the traditional moral values of conservative evangelicals, at least in the late twentieth century.

Calling it “Christian Nationalist U,” on the other hand, seems to fit. It doesn’t seem outrageous to hear that a “Christian Nationalist” school has hired a football fornicator. A “Christian Nationalist” school would obviously support Trump, whereas an “evangelical” school wouldn’t. A “Christian Nationalist” school would value football victory at any cost, while an “evangelical” school wouldn’t.

I Don’t Need to Beat the Bear…

Did you see the recent article in Forbes? The one in which the number-crunchers drool over the financial successes of hard-right evangelical College of the Ozarks? I can’t help but wonder: In these days of college closings and higher-ed austerity, how is such an extreme school thriving? As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, it’s not new. As far back as the 1920s, evangelical institutions have succeeded by planting a flag for fundamentalism.

bear chasing man

“I swear none of our professors teach evolution!”

It’s like the old joke about the two hunters and the bear. They’re getting chased by a bear, and one hunter pauses to tie his running shoes. The other guy says, Why bother with those shoes? You can’t outrun the bear. And the first hunter says, I don’t need to beat the bear. I only need to beat you.

The folks at Forbes aren’t wrong. The rude financial health of the College of the Ozarks really is surprising. As they recount, the endowment-per-student ratio puts CofO at 59 of the 650 schools it surveys, higher than many fancy-pants universities. Its acceptance rate is a mere 11%. Its admission yield—meaning the number of admitted students who end up enrolling—is higher than Harvard’s.

College of Ozark Endowment

Lovin ‘Merica all the way to the bank…

Why? As our friends at Righting America point out, it is not because CofO is winning the higher-ed race. Where many schools are improving student amenities and hiring diversity officers, CofO brags about its un-diversity. For example, it claims pride of place as the most LGBTQ-unfriendly campus in America. It mandates patriotic education for its students. It grabs headlines for refusing to compete against teams that kneel for the anthem.

As the head fund-raiser Jerry C. Davis told Forbes,

People don’t give us money because we’re like everybody else. . . . They give it to us because we’re different.

In other words, CofO isn’t trying to outrun the bear. It is not trying to be the best university in the United States. It is only trying to be more radically conservative than the other conservative schools with which it is competing.

Such “don’t-have-to-beat-the-bear” success has always been the case for conservative evangelical institutions. When dispensational scholars in the 1920s wanted to found a more consistently premillennial seminary in Dallas, for example—the school that eventually became Dallas Theological Seminary—their single-minded focus on dispensational premillennial theology caused their enrollments to triple in their first six years.

Between 1926 and 1947, the fundamentalist Bob Jones College grew from 88 students to over a thousand.

And when Wheaton College in Illinois joined the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s its enrollment leaped by over four hundred percent. In 1917, when it was just another small Christian college, sixty percent of its students came from Illinois. By 1938, it welcomed 75% of its students from other states and outside the USA. By declaring itself on the side of the Fundamentals, Wheaton appealed to a much larger national and international constituency. It no longer had to compete against all the other small colleges in Illinois.

None of these institutions promised to be the best colleges in the land. They didn’t need to. All they needed to do to bring in tuition and donation dollars was to satisfy a niche desire for safely conservative evangelical schools.

Who Pays Tuition to Have Students Killed?

I’m sorry to hear about the death of American missionary John Allen Chau. I don’t want to argue over it—whether he died a hero, a “terrorist,” or a “self-important, arrogant, deluded, foolish . . . pest.” Instead, I want to point out that Chau’s life and death demonstrate the one way that “Fundamentalist U” is now and has always been radically different from mainstream higher ed.

north seintinel island

“Fields white unto harvest…?”

If you haven’t heard the story yet, here it is in a nutshell: Chau was a missionary working with an organization called All Nations. He had made several efforts to contact an isolated group of islanders in the Indian Ocean. The hundred people who live on North Sentinel Island are protected by the Indian government. They have had very limited contact with outsiders.

Chau hired some locals to take him near the island. Islanders paddled out to meet their boat and fired a volley of arrows at Chau, one lodging in his Bible. Chau took a solo kayak and paddled to the island. Later, locals saw islanders burying a body that looked like Chau’s.

missions cartoon guy

The mission: From Liberty University student newsletter, c. 1982

Clearly, the missionary impulse is alive and well. Chau wrote in his diary that he didn’t want to die, but he accepted the risks in his effort to spread the Gospel to the world.

But that missionary impulse hasn’t survived on its own. It has been nurtured and supported by organizations such as All Nations. It has also been taught and encouraged by evangelical colleges and universities. And this missionary focus, I argued in Fundamentalist U, is the thing that most sharply defines evangelical higher education from mainstream schools.

Mission centered

From Biola’s student paper, 1939.

In Chau’s case, it was Oral Roberts University. ORU celebrated the fact that its teaching had led directly to the death of a former student. As ORU put it,

Oral Roberts University alumni have gone to the uttermost bounds of the earth for the last 50 years bringing hope and healing to millions. We are not surprised that John would try to reach out to these isolated people in order to share God’s love. We are deeply saddened to hear of his death.

In most ways, evangelical colleges and universities look and feel a lot like mainstream schools. They promise to prepare students for careers. They promise to help shape students’ values. They promise to keep students safe.

When it comes to missionary work, however, evangelical colleges throw the higher-ed playbook out the window.

missionary cartoon ad

From the Moody Student, 1969.

For generations, evangelical colleges have maintained their focus on guiding students toward missionary careers. Especially among schools with roots in the Bible-institute tradition, the pressure on students to think about self-sacrificing missionary work was often intense.

One student who attended Moody Bible Institute in the 1920s was a case in point. His father was an atheist. His mother was Catholic. Neither of them wanted him to attend MBI. But he went anyway. And the central lesson he learned there was that he had to give his life to Jesus as a missionary. As he later remembered,

It dawned on me that I had a responsibility toward the Lord’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).  You see, you can’t be in the Moody Bible Institute very long before you’ll have to face that.

The dedication to sending young missionaries out into the world remained central to evangelical higher education throughout the twentieth century. To offer just one small example of the scope of these schools’ missionary efforts, consider a poll from Biola University in 1962. In that year, according to the student paper, 47% of its graduating class was heading out to full-time missionary work.

IMG_1919

Classroom notes, MBI, c. 1940s

This focus on missionary work—today and in the past—has been the thing that has made evangelical higher education most radically different from the mainstream. In addition to all the ways it has mimicked mainstream schools—with sports, careers, social life, and academics—“Fundamentalist U” also trained students to give it all up, to sacrifice themselves in missionary labor.

Falwell Wasn’t Trying to Be Funny…

To be fair, it wasn’t the worst mistake he ever made. But Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent goof has some complicating factors that make it hard to ignore.

lincoln

Erm…actually, Jer…

As we’ve seen, Falwell has a rough track record in quotable quotes. As the president of a huge evangelical Christian university, he has in the past misquoted the Bible. That has to hurt.

In his recent interview with The Guardian, President Falwell compounded his errors. If it were someone else speaking, I would be tempted to think Falwell was making a subtle and hilarious gibe. In reality, though, I think he just got mixed up.

Here’s what we know: In the recent Guardian interview, Falwell lauded President Trump to the skies. Not only did Falwell support Trump for strategic reasons, he actually believed Trump to be a morally good person. As Falwell put it,

Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been a good, moral person, a strong leader, a tough leader – and that’s what this country needs.

That’s a difficult position for me to understand. I can understand backing a bad person who is fighting for your side. I can understand backing an immoral character who fulfills important promises. But I can’t understand how anyone would call Trump a “good, moral person.” Maybe some SAGLRROILYBYGTH can explain that one to me.

The point this morning, though, is different. In his encomiums to President Trump, President Falwell insisted that he and Trump were totally on the same page. As Falwell told the Brits,

I usually tweet something similar to what he tweets a day or two before him. We think alike.

And, apparently unintentionally, Falwell went on to prove his intellectual similarity to Trump by making a glaring historical error. I can’t tell for sure, but I think Falwell got confused about what century America’s Civil War was in. America had not been this polarized in a very long time, Falwell said.

not since the civil war. I don’t know where that takes you. I can’t imagine a war breaking out in a civilised society in the 21st century. But if this was the 18th century, I think it would end up in a war. It’s scary.

I hate to be this guy, but anyone could tell you that America’s Civil War happened in the 19th century, not the 18th.

I know, I know, it’s an understandable mistake, sort of. And I don’t think Falwell meant to be funny, but how hilarious would it be if he wanted to prove his similarity to the fact-averse Trump by insisting on making at least one glaring error per public appearance?

Why Can’t Evangelical Colleges Change?

Who decides the rules at evangelical colleges? In Fundamentalist U, I argued that school leaders were tightly constricted by a lowest common denominator of populist evangelicalism. Yes, deep theological ideas mattered, but more important was the absolutely non-negotiable need for colleges to be perceived by the broader evangelical public as absolutely “safe.” The events at Asuza Pacific University this week seem to confirm my thesis.

asuza pacific

[No] Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes…

Here’s what we know: A few days ago, Asuza Pacific announced a new policy for LGBTQ+ students. Like all students, they could now freely engage in romantic relationships, but sex was out of bounds. It was a bit of an odd decision to outsiders, since APU maintained its insistence that the only proper sexual relationship was a heterosexual marriage. Nevertheless, it represented a pretty big change for a conservative evangelical college.

As we’ve reported in these pages, the question of homosexuality on evangelical campuses has driven a wedge between conservative evangelical schools. I’ve argued recently that the issue of homosexuality, along with other culture-war bloody shirts such as young-earth creationism, is leading to the creation of a “new fundamentalism” in some colleges.

And so, predictably, APU’s announcement led to conservative pushback. Pundits such as Rod Dreher called the policy switch

a feeble attempt by one of the country’s largest conservative Evangelical colleges to satisfy the Zeitgeist while maintaining the fiction that the school is still conservative and Evangelical on human sexuality. . . . some APU students leave college with their faith in tatters, having been transformed into Social Justice Warriors by a college that sells itself as conservative and Evangelical[Emphasis in original.]

As I pointed out in Fundamentalist U, no evangelical college is immune to this kind of pressure. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative gadflies have been able to influence the goings-on at evangelical schools by warning that students might not be “safe” on their campuses.

No matter what administrators might like to do, maintaining their public image as impeccably safe spaces for conservative evangelical youth is absolutely essential. This is not a quirk of Asuza Pacific or a relic of the twentieth century. Just ask Larycia Hawkins. Or Randy Beckum. Or Stephen Livesay.

We should not be surprised, then, to find out this morning that APU reversed its decision. The board announced that the policy change had never been approved. APU, the board declared, was still an unquestionably safe place for conservative evangelical students. As the board put it,

We pledge to boldly uphold biblical values and not waver in our Christ-centered mission. We will examine how we live up to these high ideals and enact measures that prevent us from swaying from that sure footing.

In the language of evangelical higher education, yesterday and today, “change” might be good. But “wavering” has always been beyond the possible. If a university hopes to survive, it must pander to popular conservative ideas about sexuality, politics, race, and any other difficult topic. It absolutely must continue to attract student tuition dollars and alumni donations. Any threat to that bottom line, no matter how theologically sound or spiritually attractive, will always be crushed.