Mumbling Toward Gomorrah

Which side are you on? That’s the question college administrators hate to answer. A few recent headlines make it clear that conservative evangelical college leaders continue to prefer mumbling through some of the touchiest issues they face. As I found in the research for my new book about evangelical higher education, it has always been thus.

baylor-header

What’s their position on homosexuality? …how much time do you have?

I was reminded of this dilemma when I came across a conservative lament about Baylor University in Texas. One outraged correspondent wrote to Benedictophile Rod Dreher to complain that Baylor had ditched its Baptist tradition. Officially, according to this American conservative, Baylor’s code of student conduct prohibits homosexual relationships. But as he or she described, it can be very difficult to actually find that rule spelled out. As s/he told Dreher, in order to find out that Baylor officially bans homosexuality,

You must start here Student Misconduct Defined https://www.baylor.edu/student_policies/index.php?id=32401 only to be redirected here for Sexual Conduct Policy https://www.baylor.edu/student_policies/index.php?id=32294 which says literally nothing, but directs you here: https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php?id=39247. This tells you almost nothing but at least tells you sex is only allowed in marriage–but these days, who knows that means? The Baylor website basically says they understand marriage according to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message but tough shit, we aren’t going to give you a link; you’re are on your own. I found it: http://www.baptiststart.com/print/1963_baptist_faith_message.html And it turns out that according to the Baptist Faith and Message, marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. Whew! I’m tired already! Lots of link-chasing and more than a few logical inferences from different webpages are necessary to conclude that in fact, homosexual contact is prohibited by Baylor policy.

Baylor isn’t the only evangelical school to founder in the face of sex policy. SAGLRROILYGYTH may remember a recent case from Boston. Gordon College’s President D. Michael Lindsay set off a firestorm a couple of years ago when he reminded the Gordon community of Gordon’s long-standing policy against homosexual relationships among students. The Gordon community remains painfully divided over the question, with entire faculty committees resigning their leadership roles in protest over leadership decisions.

Now, I’m no evangelical. I’m not conservative. I wouldn’t send my child to a school that banned homosexual relationships, even if that school buried those rules deep in ivy. But as an outside observer, I can’t help but notice what so many school leaders have always known: Sometimes the best policy is mumbles. Anything else can blow up in your face.

After all, Lindsay at Gordon wasn’t changing any rules. He was not imposing a new, draconian policy. Rather, he was simply stating established Gordon rules. And that was enough to create an uproar. It would be difficult for other school leaders not to get the message. Time and time again, cautious school administrators and others can see the enormous benefits of mumbling. Of studied silences. Of intentional ambiguity.

Baylor considers itself a mainstream school, a powerhouse in both faculty lounges and football fields. The fact that its policy officially prohibits homosexual sex isn’t something it likes to promote.

Similarly, President Lindsay’s statement about student sex did nothing more than openly state the school’s longstanding policy, yet his statement has led to prolonged anguish for the Gordon community.

With stakes so high, it certainly seems to be in colleges’ best interest to maintain some flexibility in their official policies. This strategy is nothing new.

To describe just one example from my new book, in the 1960s Wheaton’s administrators faced a similar upsurge from the Wheaton community. Students wanted to revise the forty-year-old student pledge. The old rules against movies, alcohol, and card-playing—rebels insisted—reflected the college’s sad fundamentalist past. They insisted on more flexible rules in order to give them more moral responsibility.

In 1967, President Hudson Armerding agreed, sort of. He approved and announced a new set of guidelines for student behavior. From then on, instead of the old list of banned activities, students were expected to abide by the following rules:

                1.) Cooperate constructively in the achievement of the aims and objectives of Wheaton College and the responsibilities of citizenship in the community and nation.

2.) Exhibit Christian conduct, based on principles taught in the Scriptures, which will result in the glorification of God, the edification of the Church and his own growth in grace

3.) Observe, while under the jurisdiction of the college, Wheaton College’s ‘Standards of Conduct.’

4.) Take maximum advantage of the educational opportunities available to him by ordering his life so that he can live in harmony with both the academic and non-academic goals.

5.) Make full use of his God-given abilities so as to achieve maximum personal development.

6.) Continually evaluate his commitment to Christ and to the purposes of Wheaton College.

Armerding was a past master at mumbling through these questions. He could tell students with a straight face that he had heard their complaints. He really did approve a new approach.

Yet at the same time, President Armerding could tell conservative alumni and trustees that the new rules left the old ones in place. Students still had to abide by the old standards of conduct while on campus. He could look parents in the face, as he did in a 1971 chapel talk, and tell them that nothing had changed. As Armerding put it, Wheaton would never approve

a shallow permissiveness [that] conveys a distorted view of God who deals far differently with His children. . . . We believe that students should be disciplined and corrected and that this should be consistent with the teachings of the Word of God.

The questions in the 1960s and 1970s weren’t about homosexuality. But the strategies were the same. As do administrators at all types of colleges, many evangelical school leaders cherish the value of fuzzy, possibly two-sided rules.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

As we Americans get ready to celebrate our nation’s heritage by blowing up some small portion of it, here are a few stories you might have missed:

A new plea for an old idea: Nobel laureate explains how to improve science education in colleges.

SCOTUS decides in favor of religious schools. Government can be forced to include churches in grant-funding schemes. Blaine Amendments are out.

What could a religious conservative dislike about “worldview” education? Rod Dreher thinks it misses the point of true education.

How can we encourage career-changers without allowed untrained teachers? Curmudgucrat Peter Greene makes his case for high-quality alternative teacher certification.Bart reading bible

Historian Daniel K. Williams explains the “Democrats’ religion problem” in the NYT.

Amy Harmon follows up on her story about teaching climate change. What are real teachers doing?

Historian John Fea blasts the “Christian Nation” rhetoric of Trump’s “Court evangelicals.”

Do “evangelicals” oppose same-sex marriage? Or only old evangelicals? In WaPo, Sarah Pulliam Bailey looks at new survey results.

What does it mean to learn something? Daniel Willingham wrestles with a definition.

Who is protesting on campuses? It’s not “liberals,” Jacques Berlinblau argues.

Peter Berger, RIP. D. Michael Lindsay eulogizes Berger’s influence among evangelical academics.

Feed ‘Em to the Lions!

HT: KP, DW

Are Christians persecuted in American culture? Two sociologists say yes. Elite attitudes, David Williamson and George Yancey say, are dominated by a vicious self-righteous “Christianophobia.”

In the pages of the Christian Post, Yancey lays out the argument of his recent book, So Many Christians, So Few Lions. There are plenty of Christians around, they say. But among certain influential elites, they noticed “unnecessary vitriol and fears” about evangelical Protestantism.

Do YOU feel persecuted?

Do YOU feel persecuted?

The problem, Yancey explained, is that this particular form of bigotry does not see itself as bigotry. Anti-Christian elites tend to see themselves as anti-bigots, fighting the forces of religious obscurantism. As Yancey put it, Christianophobes think

Christians are ignorant, intolerant and stupid individuals who are unable to think for themselves. The general image they have of Christians is that they are a backward, non-critical thinking, child-like people who do not like science and want to interfere with the lives of everyone else.

But even worse, they see ordinary Christians as having been manipulated by evil Christian leaders and will vote in whatever way those leaders want. They believe that those leaders are trying to set up a theocracy to force everybody to accept their Christian beliefs. So, for some with Christianophobia, this is a struggle for our society and our ability to move toward a progressive society. Christians are often seen as the great evil force that blocks our society from achieving this progressive paradise.

The authors note that there is also a good deal of bigotry toward atheists. It is the elite status of the anti-Christian bigots, they say, that makes it so troublesome. It is difficult to get elected to public office as an atheist, they note, because so many average voters dislike atheism. On the other hand, Christianophobia might cause Christians to have a harder time winning scholarships and admission to elite universities, where Christianophobes dominate.

Even for non-evangelicals like me, it is easy to see some intuitive truth in these claims. At a big public university like mine, it might be difficult for conservative evangelicals to avoid certain dismissive attitudes among their professors or colleagues.

Poll data also suggests some truth to these anti-Christian claims. Consider the results of a 1993 Gallup poll, for instance, in which 45% of respondents admitted they had a “mostly unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of “religious fundamentalists.”  Or a similar Gallup finding from 1989, in which 30% of Americans admitted they would not like to have “religious fundamentalists” as neighbors.

Such poll results, one might object, do not fairly specify the meaning of “fundamentalist.”  The folks answering such questions might have objected to living next door to Osama bin Laden as much as they did to Jerry Falwell.  The 1993 poll, for instance, found that only 25% of respondents had a “mostly unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of “born-again Christians” in general.  And in the 1989 poll, even 24% of the respondents who identified themselves as “evangelical” said they would not want to live next door to a “religious fundamentalist.”

Consider also, the work of prominent sociologist D. Michael Lindsay. In his 2007 book Faith in the Halls of Power, Lindsay interviewed hundreds of Christians in influential positions. If these religious folks are our leaders, we might ask, where is the Christianophobia Yancey and Williamson warn against?

Are Christians Too Bigoted to Work With?

You may have seen the headline by now: Christian College Discriminates Against Homosexuals.  And the follow-up: City Cuts Off Christian College.  But isn’t it weirdly ironic that non-religious governments now seem to be repeating the separatist struggles of fundamentalists?  Doesn’t it seem odd that the drive for tolerance pushes pluralists to act like the more extreme religious separatists?

In this case, it was the public decision of Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay to sign a letter to President Obama that sparked the furor.  [Full disclosure: Lindsay and I worked together as 2009 Spencer/National Academy of Education postdoctoral fellows, and I admire Lindsay personally and consider him a friend and colleague.]  Along with a host of other prominent evangelical leaders and intellectuals, Lindsay asked President Obama for a religious exemption to a planned executive order banning workplace discrimination against homosexuals.

Lindsay’s participation caused a furious reaction.  Gordon alumni and students petitioned Lindsay to retract.  Gordon College’s accrediting agency promised to investigate.  And most notably, the nearby city of Salem, Massachusetts canceled its partnering contract with Gordon to operate an historic city building.

Let me be clear about a couple of points.  First, I personally agree that institutions should not discriminate against homosexuals.  Public governments, especially, have a duty to include all members of society, not only passively, but actively.  IHMO.  Also, I do not wish to argue whether Lindsay’s position is or is not “anti-gay,” since he has publicly insisted that Gordon College does not discriminate against homosexuals.  And though I find it curious, I don’t want to ask why President Lindsay has become the center of this controversy, even though the letter was signed by many other evangelical leaders as well.  Even on my humble little blog, for example, I’ve experienced a surge of search terms such as “D. Michael Lindsay bigot” and “Gordon College Anti Gay.”  Why has Lindsay become the focus in this case?  Why not all the other signatories?

Though interesting, we have to leave such questions aside for now.  From an historical point of view, there is a more interesting aspect to this case.  It seems that those who support tolerance and diversity have, in some ways, adopted the position of the traditionally conservative fundamentalists.

Here’s what I mean: In the twentieth century, conservative Christian colleges carried on a furious and often angry internecine debate about the propriety of partnering with non-Christian institutions.  Schools such as Gordon and Wheaton College earned the vicious denunciation of more conservative schools such as Bob Jones University.  Among the many accusations, more conservative, “fundamentalist” schools often insisted that the more open, “evangelical” schools had tainted themselves by their open association with non-Christian ideas.  Separatist fundamentalists often cited the Bible passage 2 Corinthians, chapter 6, verse 14:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

In order to be truly Christian, separatists argued, believers could not allow themselves to be joined with those who did not share their belief.  So, for instance, when fundamentalist megastar Jerry Falwell worked with conservative Catholics and Jews in the Moral Majority, fundamentalist leaders at Bob Jones University denounced Falwell as the “most dangerous man in America.”

This rigid separatism, indeed, has been one of the hallmarks of American fundamentalism.  Some fundamentalists have insisted that they must practice even a “secondary separation,” not sharing Christian fellowship with other Christians if those other Christians share fellowship with questionable folks.

Now, it seems the city of Salem feels it must practice a strangely similar form of separatism.  As Salem Mayor Kimberly Driscoll informed Gordon College in a recent letter, the city must separate itself from the college.  Why?  Because, Driscoll wrote, Lindsay’s position implied open discrimination against the LGBT community.  The college had every right to do so, Driscoll believed, but the city could no longer be affiliated with such things.  The city’s non-discrimination law, Driscoll informed Lindsay, “prohibits our municipality from contracting with entities that maintain discriminatory practices.”

This is not the only time when the beliefs of liberals and fundamentalists have neatly swapped sides.  In the creation-evolution debates, for example, creationists took over evolutionists’ positions.  As historian Ronald Numbers has pointed out, by the 1990s creationists began appropriating the language of 1920s liberals.  In the 1920s, evolution supporters insisted that teaching only one theory was bigotry.  By the 1990s, creationists started saying the same thing.

In this case, we see a weird and clearly unintentional echo.  Mayor Driscoll feels compelled to separate her government from any entity that practices discrimination against homosexuals.  It is not enough, morally, for her government itself to avoid such discrimination.  The principle of separation seems to have migrated from fundamentalists to their supposedly tolerant opponents.

 

Dynasties and Christian Colleges

Why do conservative Christian colleges pass from father to son?  That’s the question asked recently by Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times.  He looks at the dynastic succession of school presidents at schools such as Liberty and Bob Jones.  But does Oppenheimer give short shrift to the history of the question?

It’s an intriguing line of inquiry.  Leading schools such as Liberty University, Oral Roberts, and Bob Jones University all have histories of passing leadership from father to son.  Sometimes this has worked well, Oppenheimer points out, but sometimes it has not.

Why have conservative schools constructed these sorts of dynasties?  Oppenheimer explains it as a sort of sectarian necessity.  Colleges such as Liberty and BJU started as outgrowths of the founders’ evangelistic efforts.  Those efforts included the creation of a sub-cultural identity.  Only a limited circle of true believers could be trusted to carry on the legacy.  As a result, Oppenheimer argues,

It would thus be a small band of insiders, versed in the particulars of the founder’s message, who would even be eligible to carry it into the future. That may be why, for example, the presidential search committee at Bob Jones University, while not seeking another Jones descendant, has stated “a preference for a B.J.U. graduate.”

Oppenheimer wisely consulted scholars such as Matthew Sutton and D. Michael Lindsay.  Lindsay warned not to read too much into this dynastic tradition at evangelical schools.  After all, the cases Oppenheimer cites make up only a handful, among hundreds of colleges.  And they are only at the “newer colleges.”

I have the greatest respect for President Lindsay as a scholar, school leader, and all-around nice guy.  [Full disclosure: Lindsay and I served together as postdoctoral fellows with the National Academy of Education.]  But in this case, Lindsay whitewashes the connection between legacy and Christian colleges.  And unfortunately, Oppenheimer lacks either the word count or the historical knowledge to push Lindsay on the issue.  It’s a shame.

After all, in contrast to Lindsay’s assertion, dynasties in evangelical colleges go way back.  And there seems to be some tentative connections we could suggest between the drive for orthodoxy and the family connections.  For example, the flagship evangelical school, Wheaton College, passed from father to son in 1882.  And though this might make today’s evangelicals uncomfortable, Charles Blanchard, son of founder Jonathan Blanchard, originally took the school in an explicitly fundamentalist direction.  To be fair, as I argue in my 1920s book, the meanings of “fundamentalism” as Blanchard the Younger understood them in the 1920s were significantly different than they became after Blanchard’s death.

There can be no mistake, however, in Charles Blanchard’s intention.  He wanted to align Wheaton College with fundamentalism, with orthodoxy, with the fight against modernism.

The question we still need to ask, though, is how much this drive for orthodoxy resulted from the dynastic structure of the college.  Did Charles Blanchard feel pressure to maintain his father’s orthodox legacy?  Did Bob Jones Jr.?  Jerry Falwell Jr.?

Oppenheimer asks a good question in this article.  But we wish he had the space and the background to push it a little further.