Are Christian Colleges No Longer Possible?

The dream has been the same for a hundred years. Is a recent move by Trinity Western University a sign of changing times? Must more-conservative evangelical colleges and universities choose between their two most cherished purposes?

twu_primary-logo_cmyk_0

Christian sexuality? Or Christian lawyers?

Here’s what we know: According to Christianity Today and Inside Higher Education, TWU has elected to drop its mandatory “community covenant” for students. The Canadian Supreme Court had blocked TWU’s efforts to establish a law school, based on the discriminatory anti-LGBTQ covenant. In short, in order to open an evangelical law school, TWU has eliminated its core lifestyle rules for students.

What’s the big deal?

As I argue in my book about the history of evangelical higher ed, schools like TWU have always promised to do two things at once. As a special sort of religious school, they promised to shepherd and guide the faith of their students in specific directions. At the same time, though, they have insisted that their graduates would be perfectly prepared to enter the professions. Going to a “Christian” school, in other words, wasn’t supposed to be a retreat from the world, just a better, particularly evangelical preparation to thrive in that world.

As Bob Jones—one of the most famous evangelical college leaders of the twentieth century—put it in 1929,

It is our plan to train and educate strong, outstanding Christian leaders.  This is what America needs—lawyers, doctors, business man, teachers, preachers, all strong leaders.

Evangelical colleges have always promised both halves of this equation. Students would receive top-notch professional training as well as relentless Christian guidance.

In its recent decision, TWU seems to have had to choose between preparing evangelical lawyers and insisting on its conservative definition of evangelical lifestyles. TWU will no longer force students to agree to its many rules, including the legally problematic ban on sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage.

Previously TWU students had to “affirm” the following statement:

sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman, and within that marriage bond it is God’s intention that it be enjoyed as a means for marital intimacy and procreation.

From now on, students will apparently no longer be bound by the rules of TWU’s covenant. But they will be free to become lawyers. [Insert gratuitous Jonah Hill gag here, at :52 in the clip below.]

For the most conservative sorts of evangelical colleges, does this mean the end? Must they choose between their two goals?

Advertisements

Listen, America!

Is this normal these days? I was surprised to hear that Oxford has just released an audio version of Fundamentalist U. I hope that means more people can interact with the book in one format or another.

audio book

Now…for your listening pleasure…

If you are a listener rather than a reader, I hope this new format helps you get into the book.

I didn’t know that academic presses were issuing audio versions. Is that a twenty-first century kind of thing that my twentieth-century brain just needs to get used to?

How to Kill Fundamentalist Higher Education

[UPDATE: thanks for letting me know about the bad link. It’s fixed now.]

Want to kill uber-conservative evangelical Protestant colleges and universities? The recipe is simple: Have a lot more news stories like this one from Milwaukee.

Schmidt young earth timeline

Schmidt preaches the young-earth gospel…

Outsiders like me might not get it at first. We might think that fundamentalist colleges are happy to live in a little bubble, utterly protected from trends in the wider world. And, to some degree, they are. But when it comes right down to the hard facts, even the most conservative evangelical institutions care what people think about them. They have to. If colleges want to attract students and their tuition dollars, they have to prove that students’ college experiences will help them professionally. Colleges have to be able to assert that they are more than an educational punchline.

As I found out in the research for my recent book about the history of fundamentalist higher education, even the staunchest fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College yearn for mainstream respect.

Even though they traditionally eschewed accreditation, fundamentalist universities and colleges promised that their educations were not only theologically and culturally pure, but also good preparation for professional careers. Bob Jones University liked to assert that its students’ GRE scores were higher than similar schools. Founder Bob Jones Sr. often claimed that his school would do more than protect students’ faith—it would prepare them to be faith-filled doctors, engineers, lawyers, and teachers.

His decision to avoid accreditation, Senior often noted, was not due to lack of campus resources. Rather, it was only a measure of BJU’s spiritual superiority. As founder Bob Jones Sr. bragged in 1950,

Bob Jones University is probably the only one in America that could join an association that does not join, and we refuse to join. We believe . . . that a Christian institution should make its own policies in line with the purposes it has in view and that no association of any kind should dictate the administrative policies of the institution.

For most institutions of higher education, though, accreditation has always represented a crucial mark of respectability. Schools that could not afford to earn accreditation have always risked losing students to accredited schools.

It makes sense. Why would a student spend tuition dollars at a university when those classes would not be recognized by other institutions? Why would students attend an undergraduate college when their degree wouldn’t qualify them to enter any graduate schools?

As a recent story from my adopted hometown of Milwaukee demonstrates, evangelical colleges risk losing credibility if they aren’t accredited. Here’s what happened: The current acting sheriff, Richard Schmidt, often brags about his advanced degrees. He has one PhD, he likes to say, and he is working on a second. His election signs tout him as “Dr.” Smith.

So what’s the problem? Unfortunately for Schmidt, his degrees are only from unaccredited evangelical colleges. He earned his undergraduate degree from Hyles-Anderson College. His doctorate comes from the defunct Northland International University.

The Milwaukee report skewers this sort of higher education mercilessly. Not only are both schools unaccredited, but they split their classes and majors by gender. The more serious topics of Bible study, for example, are considered to be for men. Women can focus on challenging courses such as “secretarial procedures,” “crock-pot cooking,” and “The Christian Wife.”

hyles anderson women program

Sorry, I can’t go out tonight. I’ve got my big final in Crock-Pot tomorrow…

This embarrassingly shoddy college poses a career risk for Acting Sheriff Schmidt. For our purposes, the bigger threat is to fundamentalist higher education itself. If conservative evangelical students and families see that unaccredited colleges are the butt of jokes, they just won’t attend. And if degrees from these schools prove a hindrance to professional success—as they are for Sheriff Schmidt—students will take their tuition dollars elsewhere.

In the end, if you want to kill off fundamentalist higher education, all you have to do is laugh at it.

Thanks to N(M)S for the tip.

Cheap Date!

Been waiting to pick up a copy of Fundamentalist U? Wait no longer! Sales have been brisk and by the secret algorithms known only to Jeff Bezos, the price right now is lower than it has ever been.fire sale fuSo get em while they’re hot.

From the Archives: Emily Post at Evangelical U

What were evangelical colleges for? As I argue in my new book, evangelical and fundamentalist schools promised to do lots of things at once. Thanks to alert SAGLRROILYBYGTH DW, we have new evidence of two of those things from Indiana Wesleyan University.Marion COllege rules c 1946 1

As DW discovered on a recent campus visit, Indiana Wesleyan (former Marion College) recently posted these dining-hall rules from 1946. They are more than just a nostalgic goof, though. As did the interdenominational conservative evangelical colleges I focused on in my book, back in 1946 Marion’s leaders were trying to accomplish two deadly serious goals in their dining hall.

First, many evangelical colleges needed to introduce their students to middle-class social norms and aspirations, as I note in my book. As one student at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute remembered, back in the 1920s many MBI students

were raw farm boys, you know, and so on and so forth. If you’d had a smattering of education: fully high school or not, never mind, as long as you were really on fire for Christ, you know. And some who didn’t know very much about etiquette and that kind of thing.

For many evangelical students, especially Bible-institute students, the middle-class norms expected of college graduates had to be taught explicitly and enforced rigorously. Clearly, at Marion College, some students needed reminders, as rule number 9 points out,

It is considered proper courtesy for the gentleman to allow the lady at his right to serve herself before he serves himself; the lady in turn should receive this courtesy with lady-like appreciation.

Plus, at all evangelical colleges in the period, and in fact at almost all colleges in the period, social interactions between men and women were rigidly policed. Administrators needed to be able to assure parents that no hanky-panky would be going on. marion college rules c 1946 2

Mealtimes, at most schools, offered students a rare opportunity to interact with the opposite sex, and all college administrators worked to prevent students from taking advantage. That’s why the final rule on this list is very clear:

All men are expected to leav [sic] the dormitory immediately following the meal excepting after the evening meal when they may stay in the parlor on Wed. evenings until 7:30 and on Friday evenings until 10:30.

These rules might seem like quaint relics these days, but they are more than mere quirks. They show us how higher education combined many functions. In addition to academic instruction, students were supposed to pick up religious zeal and upward social mobility, all while being rigidly controlled. At the time, parents expected college students to learn more than just a profession; at conservative religious colleges especially, parents wanted children to learn how to mingle in society politely, and above all, safely.

Thanks, DW!

Fundamentalist U & Me: Kurt Morris

Welcome to our 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.

This time, we are talking with Kurt Morris, a mental health advocate, writer, storyteller, and speaker in Boston. Morris attended Taylor University from 1997 to 2001 and has a masters in Library Science from Indiana University, Bloomington, and a masters in American Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.Kurt Morris

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

I never really wanted to go to college but didn’t know what else to do with my life and my parents pushed the idea of how important it is to get a college education. I went to Taylor because I was too scared to go anywhere else. I dealt with a lot of anxiety as a teen (and still do to some extent) and the idea of going to school where I wouldn’t know anyone was terrifying to me. Especially a big state school. My sister went to Taylor and so I knew that I would at least know her and her friends. Also, my parents agreed to pay for college if I went to a Christian college, but not if I went to a non-Christian college.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

I don’t think my college experience necessarily deepened my faith, nor did it make it weaker. It just kind of was. I can’t think of any powerfully religious part of my experience beyond evening floor prayers and chapels. I feel slightly connected to my alma mater, mainly because I’m part of a Facebook group of alumni who are quite liberal.

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

I don’t have kids and don’t know if I will, but I’d let them make their own decision on where to attend college. However, given that my partner and I aren’t Christians, it would be rather odd if our children did want to attend an evangelical college.

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

I don’t support my alma mater in any way. I never have and never will. I haven’t kept them in the loop as far as my contact info so I haven’t received any solicitations in probably ten years or more. As I’m not a Christian and as I didn’t really enjoy my experience there I don’t see any reason to support them.

ILYBYGTH: If you’ve had experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions of higher education, what have you found to be the biggest differences? The biggest similarities?

I went to state schools for my graduate degrees and loved them. When I went to the first one I still considered myself a Christian (although I was slowly falling away from the evangelical movement in which I was raised) and when I went to the second grad program I wasn’t a Christian. It was great to be around diverse groups of people with open minds. Going to an evangelical college, especially one like Taylor that is in a rural setting, can place you in a bubble.

I’d say beyond the basic structure (both have buildings, classes, professors, homework, projects) there were few similarities. At Taylor we had rules about when men and women could be in one another’s rooms. You couldn’t live off campus until your senior year. You couldn’t drink, do drugs, or smoke. People often had issues if you cussed or didn’t go to church or chapel.

The classes at Taylor, while they provided a good foundation in history, were never intellectually challenging. I never felt like I had to really dig and question my beliefs like I did in my grad programs. Things definitely skewed conservative at Taylor while they skewed incredibly liberal for my grad programs.

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?

I only took a couple general education requirements for my science classes. One was environmental science and one was geography, which had a lot to do with geology. I didn’t feel like they were particularly Christian. I imagine the classes at a non-evangelical college would be somewhat similar as far as subject matter but it’s not something I’ve thought about.

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?

Ha ha ha! It was definitely not similar. I was a pretty straight-laced kid in college so I wasn’t really interested in partying anyway. I partied much more in my graduate programs although even that was slightly more reserved than what one sees in the media. At Taylor I spent a lot of time going to concerts in nearby college towns and being into music. Some people drank at those shows but I wasn’t interested in drinking anyway so it wasn’t a big deal to me. I’m not really sure if my situation would’ve been different at a secular institution. I might’ve just latched on to a church and spent most of my time with those folks. I find it hard to imagine I would’ve partied and hooked up with people when I was college-aged, even at a state school. I was a pretty insecure, depressed, anxious kid.

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?

I think someone from a secular college definitely would’ve noticed a difference. In fact, the few times my friends who went to the nearby state school came to visit they thought the place was weird. The vernacular used and the rules were so foreign to them. And these people were Christians, too!

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?

Taylor definitely skewed politically conservative. I felt I could form my own opinions about the news. I was pretty liberal as far as political interests go—I was reading Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn if that says anything. I picked them up on my own after hearing about them through interviews with punk bands I listened to. I’m sure the school would’ve loved to have us all have the same opinions on political issues, but I didn’t care. That said, I certainly skewed conservative on a number of social issues: gay marriage, abortion, etc. I still felt those were bad things but no longer feel that way.

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?

I think as Church membership declines and more young people come out as non-believers (as statistics show is happening) some schools will have a difficult time staying open. I’m sure there will be some mergers and closings. Still, I don’t think we’re going to see the end of evangelical colleges in our lifetimes. One thing they certainly provide is a safe setting for believers. Evangelical colleges are bubbles where one can theoretically grow in one’s faith and not feel threatened. That’s a very comforting proposition (and somewhat the reason I attended Taylor) so I think as long as there are people who feel threatened by the secular world, there will be a place for evangelical schools.

Thanks, Kurt!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with Adam at the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

Fundamentalist U & Me: Christian McGuire, Patrick Henry College

Welcome to our 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.

This time, we are talking with Christian McGuire, a recent graduate from Patrick Henry College (PHC). Mr. McGuire graduated last month and now works in communications at a think-tank in Arlington, Virginia.

I first met Christian through an article in National Review about odd intellectual fads at conservative evangelical colleges. Christian told me about a more popular attraction at Patrick Henry. Read on to hear more about his experiences:

ILYBYGTH: When and where did you attend your evangelical institutions?

I attended PHC from 2014 to this May.

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

I applied to a variety of other colleges. PHC was the only evangelical school I considered. The others—Georgetown, UChicago, Berkeley, etc.—were all secular. At first, I was fairly unconvinced that I would want to attend PHC, a relative no-name compared to the other schools on my list. After attending, however, I was definitely drawn in by how welcoming all of the students were. I was also impressed by PHC’s law school track record, which fit nicely with my post-graduate plan at the time. PHC students have very high average LSAT scores and punch far above their weight in admission to top law schools, as well as important judicial clerkships. I think it probably helped that my father was also very impressed by PHC; his approval was probably more emotionally significant than I understood at the time. But I was definitely not pressured to make any particular choice.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

I think my college experience was important to my faith, but definitely not in the way that I (or PHC administrators) expected. I converted to Catholicism in the second semester of my freshman year, after five years of theological study and discussion. That definitely defined the rest of my college experience. Some people—students, professors, administrators—were downright hostile to Catholicism, and I am not the type of personality that can keep a low profile. So I think some of my spiritual development came from adversity. On the other hand, PHC’s best classes generally contained spiritual wisdom that was certainly, and perhaps even especially, applicable to me as a Catholic. Some classes even strengthened my convictions, although I am sure that result was inadvertent.

In one sense, I think I will always be connected to my alma mater. I was lucky to exit college with many strong friendships, and those relationships will always be an indirect link to PHC. On the other hand, I think that after a couple of years of trying to reform what I saw as the faults of PHC, I eventually grew disheartened and gave up. So I am not as emotionally invested in the college as I was a couple of years ago.

The most powerful religious experience did not really occur within the context of my college career—my confirmation into the Church. However, it was attended by many PHC students, and I think it helped jump start a movement towards the Church at PHC.

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

I don’t see college selection as the job of the parent, so if I had a child that wanted to go to an evangelical school, I would let them. On the other hand, since I am no longer evangelical and would not raise my children as such, I would be a little surprised at such a decision.

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

No, not yet. I might donate in the future, although I would probably focus on donating to specific departments or goals within PHC, rather than the institution as a whole.

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?

A preface: I reject the notion that fundamentalist “science” is “Christian” in any meaningful sense of the word. Usually evangelical institutions such as PHC differentiate themselves from mainstream science by rejecting the theory of evolution, but strictly historical interpretations of the first chapters of Genesis don’t represent the only or best approach to the biblical text. St. Augustine, for example, famously dissented from a strongly literal exegesis of these chapters despite predating Darwin by more than a millennia. So I slightly object to the wording of this question.

PHC taught a fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis, which was only really an issue in their biology and “earth science” classes. Humorously, the college was forced to offer earth science instead of biology the year I took the class, because their accreditors discovered that the professor who taught biology was not sufficiently credentialed to teach the subject.

During that class, I occasionally was bothered by the bias present in our discussion of Earth’s origins. I remember one test question asking me to outline the “evolutionist” view on something and contrast it with the “biblical” view of something. However, I think the professor made a real effort to educate us on what we would be taught at a secular institution overall.

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?

PHC social life was very different from that stereotype. The college enforces fairly strict standards of conduct that ban alcohol consumption, enforce curfews for Freshmen and Sophomores, and prohibit sex outside of marriage. Of course, not everyone follows those rules. But overall, social life is still much tamer at PHC than elsewhere, even at other Christian colleges that I know of. I think part of the reason is that homeschooled backgrounds (PHC is overwhelmingly composed of former homeschoolers) tend to encourage a deference to authority.

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?

Incredibly so. Everything that PHC does is very consciously evangelical: mandatory chapels are held every single week day, professors are evaluated at the end of every semester on how well they integrated a biblical worldview into their class, prayer often opens classes. And this isn’t just a focus that comes from the administration—students are very invested in their faith as well, on average. Debates about theology are common in the dining hall, and social interactions on campus often include prayer, spiritual encouragement, or some other form of religious flavoring. PHC, I think, was always afraid of going the way of more prominent Christian institutions—starting out staunchly Christian, but ending up only nominally religious. A lot of safeguards were built into the school’s founding documents. For example, the school cannot change its Statement of Faith without losing its land deeds.

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?

The school’s environment was unquestionably conservative. The school’s founder and first president, Michael Farris, was a conservative legal activist who currently heads the Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the most prominent conservative legal groups in the nation.

At the same time, PHC was unblinkingly devoted to exploring all sides of most debates. While the majority of students were conservative, it was completely socially acceptable to make arguments that went against normal conservative positions on economics or foreign policy. I would say that there was only a real taboo on dissenting from pro-life political positions, and maybe a half-taboo on dissenting from the conservative consensus against gay marriage.

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?

I think that evangelical schools, and PHC in particular, are up against more cultural headwinds than ever before. If you read conservative Christian commentators, you will discover that a lot of them are still trying to forge a post-Trump consensus on what the future of political Christianity is. Some want to continue the political alliance they have made with the Republican party, but many Christian intellectuals and young evangelicals are disgusted by that prospect. As a result, colleges like PHC that focus on “leading the nation and shaping the culture” (one of PHC’s slogans) are at a crossroads. Less political evangelical colleges won’t have quite the same burden, but they still have to deal with increasing secularization among young people.

However, I think that as conservative Christianity becomes more and more at odds with the culture writ large, there will be an additional emphasis on forming explicitly Christian bonds. Those who remain devout in their faith are probably more likely to want to attend Christian schools where they can deepen their intellectual understanding of the faith. A lot of Christians are wondering in the Trump era, “where do we go from here?” Maybe evangelical colleges can be part of that answer.

Thanks, Christian!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

Three Reasons to Read Fundamentalist U

Thanks to Justin Taylor for finding three reasons to recommend Fundamentalist U.

Cover art final

Three reasons to put this on your summer reading list…

Taylor is senior vice president at Crossway books and a scholar of evangelical history. I appreciate his description of the book as a “unique and important project.”

What are Taylor’s three reasons for reading? You’ll have to click over to find out.

Fundamentalist U & Me: Elesha Coffman

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.

coffman rising stars

Prof. Coffman today.

This time, we are talking with Elesha Coffman. Dr. Coffman is assistant professor of history at Baylor University and author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (Oxford, 2013). Between her undergraduate studies at Wheaton and her PhD at Duke, she worked for five years as an editor at Christianity Today International.

ILYBYGTH: When and where did you attend your evangelical institutions?

I attended Wheaton 1993-1997.

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

Wheaton sweatshirt

The Wheaton years…

My father worked at another school within the Christian College Consortium, which meant that I got free tuition at Wheaton. I was strongly encouraged to go to one of the schools within the consortium, for financial reasons and to be “safe.” I might have been able to get a competitive financial package at another college, but I did not investigate that possibility.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

My faith was altered in many ways at Wheaton. Most significantly, I learned that not all Christians interpreted the Bible or current events the same way. That might be surprising, given the homogeneity of the school, but there were serious discussions on lots of topics in and out of the classroom. Reading Stanley Fish’s essay “Is There a Text in This Class?” in one of my lit courses was absolutely mind-blowing for me, although I don’t remember the professor discussing the implications of the essay for Bible-reading. (I wish I remembered which of my professors assigned the piece!) I was not, at the time, moving away from standard evangelical religiosity, but the seeds of historical and hermeneutical consciousness were sown.

Another significant collegiate religious experience was totally different. Spring of my sophomore year, a revival broke out during a Sunday night worship service. That was the only year I regularly attended the Sunday night services, so it was almost accidental that I was on hand for the event, which rolled on through the rest of the week. (See archives and oral histories here.) If I had not witnessed the start of the revival, I would have been deeply skeptical about it. But that whole week was unlike anything I experienced before or since. Now I have a religious studies label for it—Durkheim’s “collective effervescence”—but I can’t dismiss it as some kind of mass delusion.

All of this said, I do not feel connected to my alma mater, because of changes in my own life and recent moves by the college (described below).

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

I now work at a Christian (though not exactly evangelical) college, so a version of the same tuition deal that I once took advantage of is available to my own children. This might prove to be by far the most affordable choice for them. Otherwise, an evangelical college would not be my first choice. As “evangelical” has become more synonymous with “white Republican,” I’d fear a narrowness in my kids’ education, their collegiate peer group, and their post-college opportunities.

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

I stopped donating to Wheaton when it forced out tenured sociology professor Larycia Hawkins in 2016.  I was already disgusted with the school for abruptly dropping health insurance coverage for students instead of complying with the Affordable Care Act. But Wheaton’s treatment of Hawkins—its only tenured female professor of color, whose “offense” was embodied solidarity with Muslims—enraged me as a woman, a scholar, and a Christian. The next time I got my yearly fundraising call from some poor work-study student, I told her I was cutting off my donations, and why. Best I could tell, the student on the phone agreed with me.

ILYBYGTH: If you’ve had experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions of higher education, what have you found to be the biggest differences? The biggest similarities?

In my experience, evangelical colleges distinguish themselves from less-evangelical Christian colleges mostly in how strictly they police behavior, notably drinking and sex. I think the distinctions in what students actually learn would be more different between fundamentalist and evangelical schools than between evangelical and other Christian schools—or many secular schools, if you’re comparing a high-ranking academic school such as Wheaton to a similarly ranked secular school. Religion classes would be quite different in the various institutional contexts, but most of the rest of the curriculum I would expect to be pretty similar.

Perhaps the biggest similarity across all of these categories is that all colleges are fanatically concerned about their reputations. Evangelical schools prioritize theological and moral “purity” in ways that other schools don’t, but every school has its version of an image to uphold, and it will go to great lengths to protect that image. Also, everybody complains about parking, printers, course management systems, and faculty being overworked while lacking a real voice in governance. Everybody.

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?

I took only my required gen-ed science courses at Wheaton, one lab and one non-lab. My non-lab “Origins” class was team-taught by professors from physics, geology, biology, anthropology, and Bible. They all had reconciled Genesis 1 and 2 with modern science in somewhat different ways, but none of them subscribed to seven-day creationism or perceived science and religion to be fundamentally at odds with each other. It was a fantastic class, one that certainly would only be taught at a Christian college. It nearly wasn’t offered, however. My freshman year, new president Duane Litfin delivered an ultimatum that faculty members must uphold belief in a literal, historical Adam and Eve or seek employment elsewhere. Faculty members threatened to leave en masse, and even some board members pushed back, so Litfin capitulated. This was the first major story I was involved in covering at the student newspaper, and I remember calling faculty members at home for comment, wondering, “Why are they all so angry but too scared to speak on the record?” Tensions between Litfin and the faculty ran high while I was at Wheaton. His relationship with the student newspaper wasn’t very congenial, either.

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?

Ha! Wheaton routinely ranked right behind BYU as the most “stone-cold sober” school on the Princeton Review list, and I always felt that we should have been No. 1. I occasionally heard of students drinking or encountering drugs, but the “party scene” consisted mostly of school-sponsored square dances, Late-Night Skates (themed costumes, roller skates, and ‘80s music), and my personal favorite, “Christmas in Tweed,” an off-campus party at which we sang carols and did a read-through of Twelfth Night. Because this party took place after December finals, students were “off the pledge,” and boxed wine was provided. I was underage, though, so I didn’t imbibe.

late night skate

…making the scene.

This is the aspect of college life that would have been most different for me if I had attended a secular school. When I finally saw a “normal” collegiate party and hook-up scene, at Duke, I was appalled, especially at the toll it took on female undergraduates. Nothing about that scene appealed to me. The Duke lacrosse scandal happened when I was in grad school, and while the danger of prosecutorial misconduct is rightly the main lesson to take away from that debacle, it all seemed plausible at the time because drunkenness, sexual assault, and misogynist rhetoric were so common. I have no regrets about avoiding these aspects of the college experience as an undergrad.

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?

A visitor to Wheaton in the 1990s would certainly have been struck by students’ seriousness, sobriety, modesty in dress, and piety in language. Required chapel—with assigned seats—three times a week would have been pretty obvious, too.

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?

Evangelical colleges face the same challenges as other small, liberal arts schools: high costs and small endowments necessitating high tuition; shaky enrollment; and the dilemma of whether to double down on “tradition” or change with the times. Schools with a large endowment or a very strong brand will survive; schools with neither might not.

Evangelical identity is an advantage in that it gives these schools a marketing edge over schools that might otherwise be competitors. For example, Wheaton attracts some athletes who could play Division I but instead play D-III, without scholarships, because they really want to attend a Christian school.

A lot of folks at evangelical (and conservative Catholic) schools are panicking, though, about potential regulatory changes pertaining to sex and gender issues. Bob Jones University famously lost its tax exempt status over its ban on interracial dating. If evangelical colleges faced similar consequences for banning same-sex relationships, or otherwise discriminating against LGBTQ individuals, few of them could survive the loss of tax-exemption and federal tuition aid. I really don’t know what would happen in that scenario.

Thanks, Professor Coffman!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

Fundamentalist U & Me: Eugene F. Douglass

Welcome to our second 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.

This time, we are talking with Dr. Eugene F. Douglass, MS, MDiv, PhD. Dr. Douglass has a rich experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical higher education. He currently teaches chemistry at a large public university and has had a long career teaching in a number of different institutions of higher education.

Read on and discover why Dr. Douglass thinks “Christian colleges are infested with hypocritical young people sent there by abusive parents who want the college to convert their reprobate kids.”

Eugene Douglass today

Dr. Douglass today…

ILYBYGTH: When and where did you attend your evangelical institutions?

The King’s College, formerly in Briarcliff Manor, NY, now New York City.  1975-79, BA Chemistry and Math

Theological Seminaries – started at Concordia Seminary in St Louis, summer of 1986, then switched to Covenant Seminary St Louis, August 1986 till December 1987.  Bethel Theological Seminary (BGC) San Diego Campus, 1988-89 MDiv.

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

I decided on King’s because I liked Dr. Robert A Cook on family radio which has a station in Philadelphia area, then I met two guys Roy McCandless of admissions, and Wayne Frair of the Biology Department at Jesus 1974 near Grove City PA, summer of 1974.  I was looking at attending Wilkes College, founded by my grandfather Eugene Farley in Wilkes Barre, PA, considered applying to RPI, MIT, Princeton, and Swarthmore College, but decided on TKC because of its biblical standards and as a new Christian out of an intellectual, hypocritically religious family (unitarian and universalist Quaker), I wanted to learn about the Bible and the Christian faith, and have Christian friends, and liked very much their rules of behavioral expectations, as I did not want to be directly/openly exposed to public drunkenness, immoral premarital sexual relations, of which I grew up around growing up in Swarthmore College, where teenagers getting drunk/stoned and sexually acting out was open normal behavior.  I expected and wanted TKC experience to be different, but I was naïve to think that fellow students did NOT live as real Christians in private.  Therefore, the dating environment at TKC was bizarro world, and even severely perverted, as I was (according to most of the fellow students) a crude/vulgar infidel with a Christian label, so I was persecuted by many there, but thankfully for many of the faculty who knew why I was there, I was able to rise about that crap.

kings college realFrankly, I loved working as a cab driver in Philadelphia for summer jobs, and most were appalled at my doing it, I found that to be very funny after the original shock of it.  So, I learned to attack some people back with the fact I liked it, even describing my times where I shared my Christian faith with fellow cabbies.

No, most of my family was offended and annoyed I chose to go to a “no name” Christian college that was so culturally offensive to them.  Frankly I was very surprised when I found out later that most of my classmates attended TKC because their parents MADE them go there.  So, I vowed I would never do that to my own kids (which I got two sons eventually, and enabled them to choose for themselves, based on mainly who provided most financial assistance).  Because in graduate school at North Dakota State University and the University of Connecticut, I had experience with campus ministries like Intervarsity (at NDSU) and then Campus Crusade at UConn.  Those groups were much more what I thought TKC would be like before I attended there but I was stupidly naïve to think that.  Part of me because of all history that makes me think, that any parent forcing their kid to go to a Christian college or university is real child abuse.  And the only students that go to Christian colleges should be allowed to go there, because they WANT to be there, and are happy to obey/follow the Christian rules of behavior, which are good because it helps honorable people to learn self-control and behave properly privately and in public.  But, I believe it was fucking horrible for some parents to force their kids to go to TKC and other Christian colleges.  (Yes, I use that vocabulary on purpose, because the sexual atmosphere at TKC was perverse, which make out sessions in formal lounges etc. the norm, and students thought it was FUN to do it to show off).  Secular universities are much healthier for young people, because even though much more is going on privately, the maturity level is higher with real people (without a christian façade).

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

Yes, because of many of the faculty and administration I met at TKC, they were mostly good examples of adult behavior, as most were committed Christians who were there for the right reasons.  I also am very thankful for the solid orthodox Christian doctrine I learned there, inter-denominational (truly evangelical) in focus, so I could decide for myself which system of doctrine I truly believed and could inculcate in my own belief structure and life.  One of my favorite textbooks I used there was Buswell’s Systematic Theology, by J Oliver Buswell, who finished his career at Covenant Seminary in the 60s and 70s, I still love it as a good summary of my Christian faith.  Also, because I grew up in a very broken non-christian family environment their examples of Christian men and women, and their family life gave me much hope that one day I would have a real Christian family of my own.  But, the way I view many of my former classmates is a totally different matter, most had almost contempt for me.  So, it is a mixture of being very grateful to God for part of it, and appalled/sickened because of it.  That dichotomy was a great thing to learn, about the fact of tares among the wheat, even goats among the sheep, some wolves pretending to be sheep in most churches and organizations.   Real Christians are still a minority in evangelical Protestantism.  Even the falling apart of TKC in the 80s was because of the hidden moral corruption of administration and faculty, from faculty coming out as militant lesbians, drunkenness, homosexual behavior on campus covered up, to other nefarious bad administration that gutted its financial foundation, by losing students and alumni that used to support the college.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still feel connected to your alma mater?

The Douglasses in the 1980s

The Douglasses, c. 1984

Yes, and no.  I am very thankful to God for me going there, based on what I said above, but connected with most of my former classmates, hell no.  Thankfully.  Most of them fell away from any Christian faith they had when they attended there or retreated into their church cocoon/cloister, after they graduated, becoming essentially tasteless “salt of the world”.  I found it very interesting, in 1984 I attended my 5 TKC reunion for my class of 1979, with my new wife of 4 months, (who also became a christian out of a very broken pagan home, 6 months before I met her.), most of my former classmates treated her very badly, because she was a very beautiful blond.  Because of the very weird interactions with my female classmates I had at TKC, I thought/hoped that many had grown up and would be happy for me and my new wife, but they hated her.  Very weird.  Even Dr. Cook took me aside and quietly said to me that he was disappointed in me because I could have done better than Carol, picked someone better for me.  Hearing that from him blew away any appreciation I had for that asshole (yes, I used that pejorative deliberately).  So, instead of going to the reunion lunch the next day, I took Carol on a car tour of favorite New York City spots, that I had visited when I was at TKC.  Even places that I used to have fun passing out tracts with Jews for Jesus folks in Manhattan, and witnessing I did in Central Park a small group of us went down to Manhattan some Saturdays.  I got good training with Campus Crusade folks at TKC, form outreach, so in a way the Fact that Campus Crusade ended up buying the name and library/resources of TKC in the 90s was a good thing.  Because now I think they have a much better perspective, in training students to go out in the world to make a difference but not be “of the world”.  So, I feel more oddly connected with the newer version of TKC, than the old.

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

The good Christian doctrine I learned, that I have used and needed to be an effective Christian in a fallen world.

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college?

Based on my TKC experience I advised my sons where they should consider and encouraged them to choose for themselves if they were able.  One son, my eldest Eugene Jr, chose Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA, because of academic reasons, he was top of his class at Concord HS, in Concord New Hampshire, he majored in Chemistry there, and then went on to get his PhD in Chemistry/Biochemistry at Yale University, in New Haven, CT.  Intellectually he made good choices.  But, he chose to drop the surface Christian faith he grew up with in our family as he proceeded through there, but being real and genuine was something I more wanted my sons to be, than hypocritical in believing something because I did.  God will deal with Gene Jr as He did with me in 1972-3 in His own way, God does the real converting/saving, parents do NOT.

Our youngest son Robert chose to go to a different college based on recommendations I got from a family pastor friend (that I met due to my attending Concordia seminary for a brief time), and that I recommended to him, as he could not decide where he wanted to go or why, we/he decided on Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, MN a conservative Lutheran College (connected to old Evangelical Lutheran synod, an offshoot of WELS).  He had his own reasons for going there and is proud to be an alumnus of there for mixed reasons also.

 ILYBYGTH: If so, why, and if not, why not?

I have no regrets for how I advised my sons.

At my older son’s Christian group on campus at WPI he attended now and then for his first couple of years at WPI, was an odd place for developing Christian friendships, because even there the girls there were not really interested in real friendship/companionship first.  Perhaps that is one reason he drifted away, in his head first.  The breakup of my marriage to their mother did not help either one of my sons, they handled the burdens of that in different ways.  As my wife decided to go back to her old life, and old pagan family.  Perhaps she had more of a surface faith too.  I hope for her return.  Odd that God is expecting me to live now as if one of those papers I attached in my previous email was true, I do not mind, because I believe the commitment I made to God for our marriage and to Carol means more even now, when we are estranged and have not seen here for over 13 years.

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

No, I have never supported TKC financially, as I did not, and do not believe God wants me to use the funds He provides for me to support that college because of the more and more heterodox moral/biblical standards it began to have in the years I could afford to provide some financially for their needs.  It would have been like throwing money in the trash.  Even now I will not because Cru taking over TKC, for me to support them financially would be for me to put a stamp of approval on what TKC has become in its attempt to be a force in the world.  It has become a warped yuppified name dropping pompous ass caricature of what it should be, even though it has good faculty and students now.  Financially supporting them in any more would be for me a blank approval of everything about them.

I still pray for them and for the mission that it portends to want to share the gospel.  But, like any other worldly institution it has severe flaws that give me pause.

ILYBYGTH: If you’ve had experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions of higher education, what have you found to be the biggest differences?
More in emphasis, as the saying goes, blind men describing the elephant.  Some conservative seminaries get in very right in one to many areas, but wrong in others.  For example, I considered briefly attending Dallas Theological Seminary, because of some of the faculty there, but ruled it out because my beliefs are NOT dispensational.

Looking in from the outside, I have nothing but contempt for so-called Christian seminaries and colleges that have abandoned biblical standards easily summarized in either the Apostles or Nicaean Creed.  They are merely mills for producing more and effective false prophets.

ILYBYGTH: The biggest similarities?

Good evangelical colleges/universities/seminaries like Westminster, Reformed, Knox are still good, because most of it they get right.  But, looking back I am proud and thankful God had me go to seminary, because it helped me to learn to communicate effectively both in written form and verbally, so I could be effective teaching chemistry, and with the educated world.  My own niche.  But, in many ways it was a waste of money and time to go to any of those places because I really did not learn anything I did not already learn or know before by observing, or my own reading.  Particularly, when my favorite systematic theology book I used at TKC was much more foundational than seminary ever was.

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? 

Yes, because foundationally my professors in Chemistry, Physics and Biology helped me to understand and appreciate fundamentally that science investigation is part of studying God’s GENERAL revelation in how He created and DESIGNED the world/universe to function, pure chance with no DESIGNER is absurd.  And faith in the Creator is a spiritual step of faith, not provable empirically.

ILYBYGTH: Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

Yes, but we used standard secular textbooks for Chemistry, Physics and Biology at TKC, the scientists teachers I had were particularly good in their own areas of expertise.  Even my view of creationism was changed profoundly when the Geology professor at TKC debated Duane Gish a prominent young earth proponent, at King’s and wiped the floor with him rhetorically.  That day, my view changed drastically.  Fundamentally, it became God created real people Adam and Eve and put them in the real Garden of Eden, and all humans are descended from them (the others, Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon, other hominids were wiped out in the great flood), and fundamentally the exact timing of those events in historically does NOT matter.  What difference does it make if there is an age/gap, or literal 24-hour days before the 6th day?  God’s word in Genesis is an outline all people of any education level can understand if they want to.  It is NOT a full and clear description of events like a video description of an outside observer.  And it is therefore, fundamentally stupid to argue about it, and split churches about it.  God knows the timing and He does NOT provide us with videos for viewing on YouTube.

The reason I knew was when I graduated my education in math and chemistry was doing well in all my GRE exams, general and subject tests.  80%ile and higher.  My success in earning my first master’s degree and later my doctorate are proof of that as well.  God did not use those places to train me to be a scientific idiot, or ignorant in my chosen field.

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?

I have already answered this question in earlier questions.  It was bizarre, and perverted at TKC, and just as much for different reasons in my son Robert’s experience at Bethany Lutheran College, with similar situations he was in.

Christian colleges are infested with hypocritical young people sent there by abusive parents who want the college to convert their reprobate kids, when fundamentally it is God’s job, not a college’s job.  If TKC was full of students who all wanted to be there for all the right reasons it would be a great place for young people, who wanted to be there.  Even in seminaries I attended, most who went there were there because of other’s expectations of them, or the young people or older people wanted the seminary to teach them a good moral code, when they had little to none of their own.  I did not even consider going to seminary until I was convinced my heart morally was prepared to be there, the Bible is clear, the criteria for Christian leadership is morally above reproach, everything else follows that.  You do not go to seminary or a Christian college to fix moral flaws.  They made it hell for those of us who wanted to be there again for the right reasons.  I have seminary stories that would you would even find tragic or funny, depending on your point of view.

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?

Yes, but for most it is merely a veneer for a cess pool, white wash for a tomb as Jesus would say.

If people want to be or teach there for the right reasons they can be helpful and make an impact, positively.

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?

I have no idea, that is up to God, all “Christian” still seem to follow the example of Harvard, Princeton and others that used to be orthodox.  Dishonest wolves go in among the sheep and poison much of what is good there, to the point of the school falling apart into irrelevance, or uselessness (tasteless salt as Jesus Christ would say, useless for anything other than to be tread on under one’s feet).  But, the good ones often go in cycles, much like the Southern Baptist Convention was overall successful in driving out the theological liberals from its denomination, colleges and seminaries, other denominations have had similar or less effective purges of the phonies, false prophets among them.  The Seminex controversy in the early 1970s was great for the Missouri Synod Lutherans, but those who remained and new false prophets persist in that denomination driving it either towards liberalism or sacerdotalism.  I saw that transition for myself.

Thanks, Professor Douglass!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu