Fundamentalist U & Me: Drew Crawford

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

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Mr. Crawford today…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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