Will Fundamentalist U Crush Trumpism?

Don’t be fooled by the noises coming out of Lynchburg. Though Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University might be shameless (and just kind of weird) in his white-evangelical support for Trump, the overall landscape of evangelical higher education might be driving younger white evangelicals off the Trump train. We have to ask: Did the efforts of evangelical school administrators in the twentieth century lay the foundation for Trump’s political demise?

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Did ‘Fundamentalist U’ teach young evangelicals to value immigration?

Here’s what we know: Recent surveys show that younger white evangelicals don’t share their elders’ anxieties about immigration. As Daniel Cox wrote recently at 538:

Two-thirds (66 percent) of young white evangelical Christians (age 18 to 34) say that immigrants coming to the U.S. strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, a view shared by only 32 percent of white evangelical seniors (age 65+). A majority (54 percent) of older white evangelical Christians believe that immigrants are a burden on American society.

That’s bad news for Trumpism. If younger white evangelicals don’t dislike immigration, they might waver in their support Trump. It might just crack his electoral base.

How does any of this relate to evangelical higher education?

As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, many evangelical universities had a long and shameful racist history, just like most of the rest of American higher education. Starting in the 1950s, though, white evangelicals participated—and often took the lead—in promoting anti-racist attitudes among white Americans.

Institutions such as Wheaton College often floundered, but in the end they added new curriculum about African and African-American history and culture. They recruited more non-white faculty and students. They did not succeed as well as we might hope, but evangelical faculty members and administrators at many colleges worked hard to fight against white racism at their institutions.

What’s the upshot? In some cases, such as at storied Nyack College, the racial climate on campus has been utterly transformed. Nyack might be drowning in debt, but it has succeeded in attracting and retaining non-white evangelical students. When a white evangelical student attends a school like Nyack these days, she gets a very different sense of what it means to be a “good Christian” than her grandmother would have.

It’s not only Nyack or Wheaton. These days, evangelical colleges are far more racially diverse than they were in the past. As Cox notes,

On Christian college campuses, which have seen enrollment gains in recent years, young white evangelical Christians are part of an increasingly diverse student body. White students account for 62 percent of the student body on the roughly 140 campuses affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, down from 82 percent in 1999.

Younger white evangelicals, in other words, are experiencing life as part of a new kind of America, one in which white evangelicals no longer assume that they have a special role to play as the ‘real’ Americans, one in which Making America Great Again is not such a compelling battle cry. In large part, evangelical colleges and universities helped teach each new generation that diversity and immigration are not dangers, but strengths.

And because white evangelicals play such a large role in supporting Trump, today’s evangelical colleges could be spreading a message that will spell the end of Trumpism.

Are Evangelical Colleges Obsolete?

What is the point of sending your kid to a conservative religious college? For almost a century now, many conservative evangelical families have worried that if they didn’t, liberal or secular colleges would steal the faith of their Christian children. New research data suggest that those fears might no longer be realistic. But the new study won’t reassure evangelical parents or college administrators.

As I’m arguing in my new book about the history of evangelical higher education [shameless plug: Pre-orders available now!], a leading reason evangelicals established their own network of dissenting colleges and universities in the 1920s was the fear that mainstream college robbed children of their faith.

As he appealed to fundamentalist parents to send their kids to his new Bob Jones College, for example, evangelist Bob Jones Sr. liked to tell a scary story: A good Christian family scrimped and saved to send their precious daughter to a fancy mainstream college. “At the end of nine months,” Jones reported,

she came home with her faith shattered. She laughed at God and the old time religion. She broke the hearts of her father and mother. They wept over her. They prayed over her. It availed nothing. At last they chided her. She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Never fear, Jones said. Though mainstream colleges had gone to the dogs, new fundamentalist schools like his could be trusted to protect children’s faith in the crucial college years.

Those fundamentalist fears were not left back in the early twentieth century. Today’s conservative leaders, too, warn of the deadly spiritual threat of liberal colleges. A few years back, young-earth creationist pundit Ken Ham defended his insistence on pure creationist colleges. As he put it, too many schools—even nominally evangelical Christian ones—end up putting intellectual

stumbling blocks in . . . children’s way that could lead them to doubt and ultimately disbelieve the Scriptures.

In every century the evangelical assumption has been the same: The college years are a uniquely important and a uniquely dangerous time for young people. If children are raised in conservative evangelical homes, skeptical college professors might turn them away from their family faith.

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Could be worse; could be Notre Dame…

New data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) suggest that colleges aren’t really to blame when young people ditch their religion. At least, not anymore. PRRI’s Daniel Cox explains that more young people these days are leaving their religions before they enter college. As he writes at FiveThirtyEight,

Seventy-nine percent of young adults age 18 to 29 who have become religiously unaffiliated report having made this decision during their adolescent and teen years. But this was not always the case. Those age 65 or older who left their childhood religion reported doing so much later: Only 38 percent who reported leaving their religion did so during their childhood years. The majority (63 percent) of unaffiliated senior citizens left during their college and post-college years.

In other words, the college years USED TO be a vital time, a time of choosing to leave or stay with one’s childhood religion. It seems like that’s not really true today.

Does this mean that conservative evangelical colleges have become obsolete? If one main purpose of those schools is to nurture and protect evangelical faith, it seems as if they are not useful. Rather, if we accept this data, it would seem that evangelicals should focus on K-12 schools instead.

And we should note that evangelical college leaders might look at this data in a more optimistic way. According to the PRRI study, evangelical Protestants are losing adherents at a much lower rate than other American Christian groups. Evangelicalism is still losing young people, that is, but much slower than Catholicism or “mainline” Protestantism. It could be argued that evangelical colleges have helped stem the anti-religious tide among evangelical young people.

Still and all, I’m glad I’m not president of an evangelical college. If I were, I would wonder what to tell parents of potential students. If I couldn’t promise to help protect students’ faith, I wouldn’t have much else to talk about.