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

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