The Ugly Truth: Sex Abuse at Evangelical Colleges

I wish it were a shock or a surprise. Instead, the terrible stories coming out of the Larry Nassar case are all too familiar: young people threatened and abused, an abuser tolerated for the sake of victory, the whole story hushed up. Why did so many responsible adults look the other way? One phrase from gymnast and whistleblower Rachel Denhollander struck me: “not simple institutional protectionism.” Denhollander sees it as a theological problem, but in the research for my new book about evangelical colleges, I found a more complicated truth.

rachel denhollander

Denholland testifies…

Of course, the demon of sexual abuse and institutional cover-up is not a problem for evangelical churches and colleges alone. The Catholic Church, big football schools like Penn State, and in the Nassar case, Michigan State all have an atrocious record of institutional protectionism.

However, I argue in my book that evangelical colleges faced a peculiar double-pronged problem. First, in the early years of the fundamentalist movement, leaders were keen to protect the reputation of their controversial movement. Second, without an outside arbiter—a denominational convention or presbytery or Vatican—fundamentalist institutions tended to turn into self-contained fiefdoms. The thoughts and plans of charismatic leaders tended to become authoritative, if not authoritarian.

A couple of examples will illustrate the trend. In the 1930s, Denver Bible Institute was wracked with a gruesome sex-abuse scandal. The accused leader and perpetrator, Clifton Fowler, turned to a blue-ribbon panel of Bible-institute worthies to clear his name. The panelists tried hard, in the words of the chair, to keep their investigation a “strictly private matter among Christian brethren.” They wanted to find out the truth about Fowler, but they didn’t want to publicize it. They were worried about the reputation of fundamentalism as a whole and Bible institutes in particular. It wasn’t a cover-up, exactly, but it was a form of discouraging complaint and public outcry.

This sort of “institutional protectionism” isn’t exactly theological, but it has been a tradition written deep into the bones of conservative evangelical and fundamentalist institutions since the 1920s. The movement has always had a sense of beleaguered outsider status, of being ripped off and usurped, kicked out of its rightful role as leaders of denominations and higher education. Certainly, this sense of hyper-defensive circle-the-wagons clubbishness is related to the theology of fundamentalism, but it is not itself a theological notion.

Maybe one more example will help illustrate the tradition. At Bob Jones College during its Tennessee years (1933-1947), founder and president Bob Jones Sr. established the patterns that guided the school for decades. Unfortunately, those patterns also fostered and abetted sexual abuse. During the 1930s, Jones established his rule against “dirty gripers.” Anyone who complained—faculty and students alike—about conditions at the school, Jones insisted, was not welcome. As Jones put it in a chapel talk:

we are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us. We can get ‘cussin’’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . Gripers are not welcome here. If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us.

It is not difficult to see how this rule discouraged student victims from coming forward. With no other authority to turn to, evangelical colleges like Bob Jones College sometimes deteriorated into authoritarian echo chambers. For years, students and faculty at institutions like this had no chance to condemn their abusers.1940circa-cl000198-bjcsign-4students

This sort of authoritarian structure isn’t strictly a theological thing, but it is also a central part of the fundamentalist tradition. As in the Denver case, Bob Jones College leaders had to create some sort of self-supporting authority. They couldn’t turn to denominational boards or conventions. Instead, they vested authority in other ways, including in overweening charismatic leaders like the Bob Joneses.

Again, these sorts of institutional protection are not at all unique to evangelical colleges. But there are historical patterns that are specific to the fundamentalist movement. Those patterns can make abuse worse. At times, they are linked to theology, as Denholland pointed out. Far more common, though, they are a result of the unique history of evangelical institutions as a self-consciously defensive group that had no higher bureaucracy to help figure out disputes.

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A February for Fundamentalism

Don’t dilly-dally. You’ve only got three weeks left to pick out your outfit. It’ll need to look sharp, because you’re invited to a talk on February 23rd, on the scenic campus of Binghamton University.

All joking aside, all Binghamton-area folks are heartily invited to come hear me share some of my current research as part of the university’s spring 2015 speaker series. In this talk, I’ll discuss the ways conservative evangelical colleges helped define what it meant to be a “fundamentalist” in the 1930s.

bju bannerI’ll tell stories from three very different places: The Denver Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Bob Jones College. Each of them had a very different idea of what it meant to be fundamentalist, as well as a different idea of who had the right to decide.

At DBI, supreme leader Clifton Fowler ran into hot water in the early 1930s as his faculty and church split. Fowler was accused of holding non-fundamentalist ideas about sex, leadership, and Scripture. To heal the rift, Fowler appealed to fundamentalist leaders nationwide to conduct an investigation.Billy Graham Center 2

At Wheaton, meanwhile, President J. Oliver Buswell was tossed out for a range of offenses, including Buswell’s leadership of a Presbyterian faction as well as Buswell’s moderate ideas about creationism.

Down at Bob Jones College (not Bob Jones University until the 1940s), founder Bob Jones Sr. engaged in a very different sort of definition. When faculty members got too chummy with students, when they played jazz records and mocked Jones’s uptight attitude toward modern culture, Jones gave them the boot. At Bob Jones College, fundamentalism meant what the founder said it meant.

DBISignIn each case, we can see the ways institutions wrestled with the tricky question of definition. At a small school like DBI, the leader had to ask famous fundamentalists to give him a fundamentalist seal of approval. At Bob Jones College, on the other hand, leaders imposed a more top-down idiosyncratic definition. At Wheaton, fundamentalism did not have room for the sort of bare-knuckle denominational wrangling that Buswell considered the heart and soul of fundamentalism.

These stories have it all: sex, jazz, and Presbyterianism. So come on down to Binghamton University at four o’clock on February 23rd. We’re meeting in the conference room of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, on the first floor of the Library Tower.

The event is free and open to all; no registration is required.

Gay + Christian = Celibate: A Long Tradition

What is a gay conservative Christian to do? With plenty of justification, many Americans think that conservative Catholics and evangelicals are anti-gay. A recent article in the Washington Post suggests that homosexual Christians have found a new answer to this conundrum, though those in the know know that there’s nothing new about it.

Michelle Boorstein’s article discusses the spiritual path of bloggers such as Eve Tushnet, whom Boorstein describes as a leader of a

small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re celibate.

When Tushnet converted to Catholicism, Boorstein describes, she felt as if she were the first gay Christian to choose celibacy. To be fair, neither Boorstein nor Tushnet claims this is brand new.  It is “easier” to be openly gay, Boorstein writes.  But not easy.  As the article discusses, such a decision opens one up to attacks from both sides. Some conservatives hope that God can “heal” homosexuals. Such folks want homosexual Christians to abjure their homosexual identities. From the other side, some gay activists argue that choosing celibacy is a terrible option, a truckling to anti-gay animus among conservatives.

What the article doesn’t examine is the long history of this question among conservative evangelicals. As one might expect, issues of sexuality and sexual attraction have long played a central role at America’s network of conservative evangelical colleges. What should young people do if they feel sexually attracted to their own gender? What should loving Christians tell them in college classes and counseling sessions? In my current round of archival research into the history of these schools, I’m seeing a long tradition of the answer “discovered” by folks such as Tushnet: Gay conservatives can remain true to their religious beliefs and true to their sexual attractions by committing to lifelong celibacy.

Certainly, as Boorstein notes, the language has changed, as have public attitudes. In the past, conservatives did not claim their homosexuality as openly or as proudly. But this does not mean that the celibacy “solution” is at all a new one.

In the 1930s, for example, among the troubles at the Denver Bible Institute was the leader’s insistence that all relationships be “continent.” This leader, Clifton Fowler, was accused of homosexual attractions. Indeed, he was accused of active homosexual sexual relationships. His solution was to insist that all married relationships—apparently all potentially sexual relationships—remain celibate. In that case, the facts were obscured by conflicting accusations on all sides. It seems clear, however, that the celibate “solution” to the perceived dilemma of homosexual attraction among Protestant fundamentalists is nearly as old as American fundamentalism itself.

In a later generation, the language used to discuss homosexuality and celibacy grew slightly more frank, while remaining just as harshly anti-gay. In 1951, a student at Biola College (now Biola University) promised counselors that he would remain celibate. As I read the record, this promise was taken at the time as a satisfactory and traditional “solution” to the problem of gay fundamentalism. Take, for example, the following explanation he offered to his dean:

as to the matter [i.e., homosexuality] that has been at the root of all my grief, I am positive that I am cured. The perverted urge will probably come upon me many times in the future but now that I know giving in to it has cost me all that I held dear, I am certain that I will be enabled to grasp the strength of the Lord to withstand.

Back in 1951, it seems, as in the late 1930s, among these conservative Christians, celibacy seemed an appropriate and acceptable solution to homosexual attractions. The student here did not suggest that being “cured” of homosexuality meant becoming heterosexual. Rather, all he promised was the ability to “withstand” what he called his “perverted urge.”

Continuing into the 1970s, leaders at evangelical schools seemed open to the idea that celibacy could be an acceptable evangelical answer for homosexuals. For instance, in a 1977 interview with Wheaton College’s student newspaper, Wheaton President Hudson Armerding offered this response:

The church should respond in love toward those with homosexuality [sic] tendencies and in humility seek to assist such persons to maintain and develop a life-style that is in obedience to the Word of God.

Armerding did not insist that evangelical homosexuals be “cured” of their sexual identity. Rather, he simply demanded that they find a “life-style”—presumably including celibacy—that went with Armerding’s understanding of God’s Word.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, then, evangelical homosexuals could remain both evangelical and homosexual by living celibate lives. Nor does the notion of celibate homosexuality seem particularly revelatory to evangelical collegians today. Julie Rodgers currently works at Wheaton College as an openly gay celibate Christian. She helps counsel students about sexual issues, among other things.

Certainly, the language these days has changed. Rodgers, for example, openly describes herself as gay. The gay celibate student at Biola College in 1951, in stark contrast, was driven to extremes in his attempt to hide his gay identity. Back in the 1930s, Clifton Fowler never admitted to any homosexual attractions, though there seems ample evidence of it.

Nevertheless, for those in the know, there is nothing new among conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists about the celibate “solution” to homosexual attractions.