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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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

I’m not reading much that isn’t from the 1820s these days, but there were some stories this week that just couldn’t be ignored:

What vouchers will do: Orlando Sentinel explores fundamentalist textbooks paid for with tax dollars.

ACE florida 1

Should taxes pay for these textbooks?

John McWhorter on Ta-Nehisi Coates: “more . . . performance art than thought.” At AI.

Mormon and gay—inside the process at BYU. At CHE.

Dollars for scholars: Koch spending on campus, at CHE.

Franklin Graham tries to win California voters for conservative evangelicalism, at NYT.

Title IX at Moody Bible Institute, “The West Point of Fundamentalism:” Molly Worthen at NYT.

Fundamentalist U & Me: Eugene F. Douglass

Welcome to our second 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.

This time, we are talking with Dr. Eugene F. Douglass, MS, MDiv, PhD. Dr. Douglass has a rich experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical higher education. He currently teaches chemistry at a large public university and has had a long career teaching in a number of different institutions of higher education.

Read on and discover why Dr. Douglass thinks “Christian colleges are infested with hypocritical young people sent there by abusive parents who want the college to convert their reprobate kids.”

Eugene Douglass today

Dr. Douglass today…

ILYBYGTH: When and where did you attend your evangelical institutions?

The King’s College, formerly in Briarcliff Manor, NY, now New York City.  1975-79, BA Chemistry and Math

Theological Seminaries – started at Concordia Seminary in St Louis, summer of 1986, then switched to Covenant Seminary St Louis, August 1986 till December 1987.  Bethel Theological Seminary (BGC) San Diego Campus, 1988-89 MDiv.

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

I decided on King’s because I liked Dr. Robert A Cook on family radio which has a station in Philadelphia area, then I met two guys Roy McCandless of admissions, and Wayne Frair of the Biology Department at Jesus 1974 near Grove City PA, summer of 1974.  I was looking at attending Wilkes College, founded by my grandfather Eugene Farley in Wilkes Barre, PA, considered applying to RPI, MIT, Princeton, and Swarthmore College, but decided on TKC because of its biblical standards and as a new Christian out of an intellectual, hypocritically religious family (unitarian and universalist Quaker), I wanted to learn about the Bible and the Christian faith, and have Christian friends, and liked very much their rules of behavioral expectations, as I did not want to be directly/openly exposed to public drunkenness, immoral premarital sexual relations, of which I grew up around growing up in Swarthmore College, where teenagers getting drunk/stoned and sexually acting out was open normal behavior.  I expected and wanted TKC experience to be different, but I was naïve to think that fellow students did NOT live as real Christians in private.  Therefore, the dating environment at TKC was bizarro world, and even severely perverted, as I was (according to most of the fellow students) a crude/vulgar infidel with a Christian label, so I was persecuted by many there, but thankfully for many of the faculty who knew why I was there, I was able to rise about that crap.

kings college realFrankly, I loved working as a cab driver in Philadelphia for summer jobs, and most were appalled at my doing it, I found that to be very funny after the original shock of it.  So, I learned to attack some people back with the fact I liked it, even describing my times where I shared my Christian faith with fellow cabbies.

No, most of my family was offended and annoyed I chose to go to a “no name” Christian college that was so culturally offensive to them.  Frankly I was very surprised when I found out later that most of my classmates attended TKC because their parents MADE them go there.  So, I vowed I would never do that to my own kids (which I got two sons eventually, and enabled them to choose for themselves, based on mainly who provided most financial assistance).  Because in graduate school at North Dakota State University and the University of Connecticut, I had experience with campus ministries like Intervarsity (at NDSU) and then Campus Crusade at UConn.  Those groups were much more what I thought TKC would be like before I attended there but I was stupidly naïve to think that.  Part of me because of all history that makes me think, that any parent forcing their kid to go to a Christian college or university is real child abuse.  And the only students that go to Christian colleges should be allowed to go there, because they WANT to be there, and are happy to obey/follow the Christian rules of behavior, which are good because it helps honorable people to learn self-control and behave properly privately and in public.  But, I believe it was fucking horrible for some parents to force their kids to go to TKC and other Christian colleges.  (Yes, I use that vocabulary on purpose, because the sexual atmosphere at TKC was perverse, which make out sessions in formal lounges etc. the norm, and students thought it was FUN to do it to show off).  Secular universities are much healthier for young people, because even though much more is going on privately, the maturity level is higher with real people (without a christian façade).

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

Yes, because of many of the faculty and administration I met at TKC, they were mostly good examples of adult behavior, as most were committed Christians who were there for the right reasons.  I also am very thankful for the solid orthodox Christian doctrine I learned there, inter-denominational (truly evangelical) in focus, so I could decide for myself which system of doctrine I truly believed and could inculcate in my own belief structure and life.  One of my favorite textbooks I used there was Buswell’s Systematic Theology, by J Oliver Buswell, who finished his career at Covenant Seminary in the 60s and 70s, I still love it as a good summary of my Christian faith.  Also, because I grew up in a very broken non-christian family environment their examples of Christian men and women, and their family life gave me much hope that one day I would have a real Christian family of my own.  But, the way I view many of my former classmates is a totally different matter, most had almost contempt for me.  So, it is a mixture of being very grateful to God for part of it, and appalled/sickened because of it.  That dichotomy was a great thing to learn, about the fact of tares among the wheat, even goats among the sheep, some wolves pretending to be sheep in most churches and organizations.   Real Christians are still a minority in evangelical Protestantism.  Even the falling apart of TKC in the 80s was because of the hidden moral corruption of administration and faculty, from faculty coming out as militant lesbians, drunkenness, homosexual behavior on campus covered up, to other nefarious bad administration that gutted its financial foundation, by losing students and alumni that used to support the college.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still feel connected to your alma mater?

The Douglasses in the 1980s

The Douglasses, c. 1984

Yes, and no.  I am very thankful to God for me going there, based on what I said above, but connected with most of my former classmates, hell no.  Thankfully.  Most of them fell away from any Christian faith they had when they attended there or retreated into their church cocoon/cloister, after they graduated, becoming essentially tasteless “salt of the world”.  I found it very interesting, in 1984 I attended my 5 TKC reunion for my class of 1979, with my new wife of 4 months, (who also became a christian out of a very broken pagan home, 6 months before I met her.), most of my former classmates treated her very badly, because she was a very beautiful blond.  Because of the very weird interactions with my female classmates I had at TKC, I thought/hoped that many had grown up and would be happy for me and my new wife, but they hated her.  Very weird.  Even Dr. Cook took me aside and quietly said to me that he was disappointed in me because I could have done better than Carol, picked someone better for me.  Hearing that from him blew away any appreciation I had for that asshole (yes, I used that pejorative deliberately).  So, instead of going to the reunion lunch the next day, I took Carol on a car tour of favorite New York City spots, that I had visited when I was at TKC.  Even places that I used to have fun passing out tracts with Jews for Jesus folks in Manhattan, and witnessing I did in Central Park a small group of us went down to Manhattan some Saturdays.  I got good training with Campus Crusade folks at TKC, form outreach, so in a way the Fact that Campus Crusade ended up buying the name and library/resources of TKC in the 90s was a good thing.  Because now I think they have a much better perspective, in training students to go out in the world to make a difference but not be “of the world”.  So, I feel more oddly connected with the newer version of TKC, than the old.

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

The good Christian doctrine I learned, that I have used and needed to be an effective Christian in a fallen world.

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college?

Based on my TKC experience I advised my sons where they should consider and encouraged them to choose for themselves if they were able.  One son, my eldest Eugene Jr, chose Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA, because of academic reasons, he was top of his class at Concord HS, in Concord New Hampshire, he majored in Chemistry there, and then went on to get his PhD in Chemistry/Biochemistry at Yale University, in New Haven, CT.  Intellectually he made good choices.  But, he chose to drop the surface Christian faith he grew up with in our family as he proceeded through there, but being real and genuine was something I more wanted my sons to be, than hypocritical in believing something because I did.  God will deal with Gene Jr as He did with me in 1972-3 in His own way, God does the real converting/saving, parents do NOT.

Our youngest son Robert chose to go to a different college based on recommendations I got from a family pastor friend (that I met due to my attending Concordia seminary for a brief time), and that I recommended to him, as he could not decide where he wanted to go or why, we/he decided on Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, MN a conservative Lutheran College (connected to old Evangelical Lutheran synod, an offshoot of WELS).  He had his own reasons for going there and is proud to be an alumnus of there for mixed reasons also.

 ILYBYGTH: If so, why, and if not, why not?

I have no regrets for how I advised my sons.

At my older son’s Christian group on campus at WPI he attended now and then for his first couple of years at WPI, was an odd place for developing Christian friendships, because even there the girls there were not really interested in real friendship/companionship first.  Perhaps that is one reason he drifted away, in his head first.  The breakup of my marriage to their mother did not help either one of my sons, they handled the burdens of that in different ways.  As my wife decided to go back to her old life, and old pagan family.  Perhaps she had more of a surface faith too.  I hope for her return.  Odd that God is expecting me to live now as if one of those papers I attached in my previous email was true, I do not mind, because I believe the commitment I made to God for our marriage and to Carol means more even now, when we are estranged and have not seen here for over 13 years.

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

No, I have never supported TKC financially, as I did not, and do not believe God wants me to use the funds He provides for me to support that college because of the more and more heterodox moral/biblical standards it began to have in the years I could afford to provide some financially for their needs.  It would have been like throwing money in the trash.  Even now I will not because Cru taking over TKC, for me to support them financially would be for me to put a stamp of approval on what TKC has become in its attempt to be a force in the world.  It has become a warped yuppified name dropping pompous ass caricature of what it should be, even though it has good faculty and students now.  Financially supporting them in any more would be for me a blank approval of everything about them.

I still pray for them and for the mission that it portends to want to share the gospel.  But, like any other worldly institution it has severe flaws that give me pause.

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?
More in emphasis, as the saying goes, blind men describing the elephant.  Some conservative seminaries get in very right in one to many areas, but wrong in others.  For example, I considered briefly attending Dallas Theological Seminary, because of some of the faculty there, but ruled it out because my beliefs are NOT dispensational.

Looking in from the outside, I have nothing but contempt for so-called Christian seminaries and colleges that have abandoned biblical standards easily summarized in either the Apostles or Nicaean Creed.  They are merely mills for producing more and effective false prophets.

ILYBYGTH: The biggest similarities?

Good evangelical colleges/universities/seminaries like Westminster, Reformed, Knox are still good, because most of it they get right.  But, looking back I am proud and thankful God had me go to seminary, because it helped me to learn to communicate effectively both in written form and verbally, so I could be effective teaching chemistry, and with the educated world.  My own niche.  But, in many ways it was a waste of money and time to go to any of those places because I really did not learn anything I did not already learn or know before by observing, or my own reading.  Particularly, when my favorite systematic theology book I used at TKC was much more foundational than seminary ever was.

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? 

Yes, because foundationally my professors in Chemistry, Physics and Biology helped me to understand and appreciate fundamentally that science investigation is part of studying God’s GENERAL revelation in how He created and DESIGNED the world/universe to function, pure chance with no DESIGNER is absurd.  And faith in the Creator is a spiritual step of faith, not provable empirically.

ILYBYGTH: Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

Yes, but we used standard secular textbooks for Chemistry, Physics and Biology at TKC, the scientists teachers I had were particularly good in their own areas of expertise.  Even my view of creationism was changed profoundly when the Geology professor at TKC debated Duane Gish a prominent young earth proponent, at King’s and wiped the floor with him rhetorically.  That day, my view changed drastically.  Fundamentally, it became God created real people Adam and Eve and put them in the real Garden of Eden, and all humans are descended from them (the others, Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon, other hominids were wiped out in the great flood), and fundamentally the exact timing of those events in historically does NOT matter.  What difference does it make if there is an age/gap, or literal 24-hour days before the 6th day?  God’s word in Genesis is an outline all people of any education level can understand if they want to.  It is NOT a full and clear description of events like a video description of an outside observer.  And it is therefore, fundamentally stupid to argue about it, and split churches about it.  God knows the timing and He does NOT provide us with videos for viewing on YouTube.

The reason I knew was when I graduated my education in math and chemistry was doing well in all my GRE exams, general and subject tests.  80%ile and higher.  My success in earning my first master’s degree and later my doctorate are proof of that as well.  God did not use those places to train me to be a scientific idiot, or ignorant in my chosen field.

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?

I have already answered this question in earlier questions.  It was bizarre, and perverted at TKC, and just as much for different reasons in my son Robert’s experience at Bethany Lutheran College, with similar situations he was in.

Christian colleges are infested with hypocritical young people sent there by abusive parents who want the college to convert their reprobate kids, when fundamentally it is God’s job, not a college’s job.  If TKC was full of students who all wanted to be there for all the right reasons it would be a great place for young people, who wanted to be there.  Even in seminaries I attended, most who went there were there because of other’s expectations of them, or the young people or older people wanted the seminary to teach them a good moral code, when they had little to none of their own.  I did not even consider going to seminary until I was convinced my heart morally was prepared to be there, the Bible is clear, the criteria for Christian leadership is morally above reproach, everything else follows that.  You do not go to seminary or a Christian college to fix moral flaws.  They made it hell for those of us who wanted to be there again for the right reasons.  I have seminary stories that would you would even find tragic or funny, depending on your point of view.

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?

Yes, but for most it is merely a veneer for a cess pool, white wash for a tomb as Jesus would say.

If people want to be or teach there for the right reasons they can be helpful and make an impact, positively.

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?

I have no idea, that is up to God, all “Christian” still seem to follow the example of Harvard, Princeton and others that used to be orthodox.  Dishonest wolves go in among the sheep and poison much of what is good there, to the point of the school falling apart into irrelevance, or uselessness (tasteless salt as Jesus Christ would say, useless for anything other than to be tread on under one’s feet).  But, the good ones often go in cycles, much like the Southern Baptist Convention was overall successful in driving out the theological liberals from its denomination, colleges and seminaries, other denominations have had similar or less effective purges of the phonies, false prophets among them.  The Seminex controversy in the early 1970s was great for the Missouri Synod Lutherans, but those who remained and new false prophets persist in that denomination driving it either towards liberalism or sacerdotalism.  I saw that transition for myself.

Thanks, Professor Douglass!

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

Can Big-Time Sports Do It Again?

I never thought I’d see it, but here it is. Following Brigham Young University’s tentative opening to LGBTQ+ students and issues, could the same spark change things in evangelical higher ed? After all, schools like Liberty have long yearned to follow the BYU path in one crucial area.

BYU LGBTQ

Fighting for LGBTQ+ recognition at BYU…

Here’s what we know: Liberty University in particular has always jonesed for recognition as a leading university, and sports has always been one of its preferred qualifications. As President Pierre Guillermin put it awkwardly in 1982, Liberty wanted to be “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.”

Of course, the Catholic leaders of Notre Dame might say that they already ARE the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically, but let’s move on. The central point is that leaders of evangelical higher education have always wanted recognition as more than just niche colleges; they have always wanted to reclaim their role as the leaders of American higher education overall.

When Liberty brilliantly and ruthlessly capitalized on the possibilities of online education, current president Jerry Falwell Jr. did not invest the money back into Liberty’s online program. No, Falwell tried to make the old Liberty dream come true. He poured money into traditional campus amenities, especially including Liberty’s athletic program.

This year, the investment paid off. Liberty beat top-ranked Baylor in football, triggering a joyous campus-wide freak-out. Which leads us to our question: Will the dream of big-time sports force Liberty to open itself to friendlier LGBTQ+ policies?

After all, that’s what seems to be happening at Brigham Young. As Chronicle of Higher Ed reports this morning, BYU’s recent tentative opening to LGBTQ+ students was sparked by BYU’s lust for athletic recognition.

As CHE recounts,

In 2016, the Big 12 Conference announced it was officially considering expansion. BYU’s administrators and athletic director jumped at the chance to join. But publicly vying to join the conference brought on national criticism of the university, which observers said did not uphold the NCAA’s stated support of inclusivity because of its treatment of LGBTQ students.

After the university’s effort to join the Big 12 failed, Tom Holmoe, the athletic director, suggested that pushback from LGBTQ advocate groups stood in its way. In response, BYU requested an invitation to the NCAA’s annual Common Ground conference, an effort begun in 2014 to provide a place where leaders and students at religious institutions can talk about LGBTQ issues and “begin exploring how to bridge these gaps and find common ground.”

Might Liberty follow a similar path?

Generations of Christian pleading for equality and recognition have scored only minor victories. As I noted in my recent book and in these pages, administrators at evangelical colleges—even the more liberal schools—are under intense pressure not to change their rules about same-sex issues.

Perhaps it will take a different sort of pressure from a different direction to really change things in evangelical higher education.

Professor Hankins on Fundamentalist U

I’m tickled pink this morning to read a new review of Fundamentalist U from a scholar I have long admired. Barry Hankins of Baylor offered an insightful review today in the pages of Christianity Today.family feud

What did he think? As he explains,

Laats attempts to identify the distinct nature of non-denominational, fundamentalist-evangelical higher education in the 20th century. And he succeeds admirably. . . .

In explaining how this struggle [between fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism] played out, Laats helps us better understand both Christian higher education and the historic relationship between fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

My favorite bit of all?

With fundamentalism subject to such a fluid range of definitions, controversies often centered on the question of authority. In other words, who gets to define fundamentalism for the college? Is it the board, the president, the faculty, or the students (certainly not, unless you ask them)? This was not shared governance but something akin to WrestleMania.

Professor Hankins explores the book’s treatment of issues such as creationism and racism in evangelical higher education and sends us off with a heartening conclusion:

Overall, Fundamentalist U is an exhaustively researched and well-written book, even when it dwells on episodes we might prefer to forget.

Why Didn’t Jerry Falwell Jr. Say THIS Instead?

In this era of playground taunts and adolescent boasting, Jerry Falwell Jr. seems to feel right at home. Falwell complained recently that his Liberty University should still be considered the largest Christian university in America, despite the fact that Grand Canyon University was larger. Falwell claimed that real Christian universities do something GCU doesn’t do. It seems to this reporter he could have made a much more powerful argument against GCU. I have a hunch why he didn’t.

grand-canyon-university_2015-03-23_14-34-58.004

Cactus, cross…and ka-ching?

Here’s what we know: Religion News Service recently published an acknowledgement from Liberty that GCU had “supplanted” them as America’s largest evangelical university. President Falwell wrote to RNS to complain. GCU, Falwell wrote, isn’t really “Christian,” since it doesn’t require faculty to sign an annual statement of evangelical faith.

As historian John Fea commented, Falwell’s use of “Christian” to mean only those few conservative-evangelical universities that grew out of the fundamentalist movement seems stunted.

I certainly agree. When former Liberty President Pierre Guillermin bragged in 1982 that his evangelical school planned to become “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically,” it’s difficult not to wonder what all those Notre Dame Christians might have thought. For Guillermin, Falwell, and many other conservative-evangelical leaders, the use of “Christian” to denote only their own conservative-evangelical faith seems presumptuous indeed.

However, if we accept for the sake of argument Falwell’s definition of “Christian” universities as limited only to conservative-evangelical schools, his complaint makes a little more sense. As I noted in my recent book about the history of evangelical higher education, requiring faculty annually to sign a statement of faith really HAS been a hallmark of these schools, and GCU really has abandoned that requirement in its effort to attract more students and retain more faculty.

As GCU pointed out, they require faculty to sign a statement saying they “understand” the school’s mission, but that is a far cry from the “ironclad” attempts of fundamentalist schools to ensure all faculty members agreed with their schools’ religious beliefs without any mental reservation. In contrast to that strong fundamentalist tradition, GCU claims to be a “missional community” that welcomes “students, faculty and staff from all walks of life, some of whom may experience Christianity for the first time at the university.” Unlike the conservative-evangelical schools that grew out of the fundamentalist movement—and the many denominational schools that generally consider themselves part of the conservative-evangelical network—GCU does not require faculty to “commit to affirming and practicing the same faith.”

moreton

How did capitalism, Christianity, and college combine?

So when Falwell complains that GCU isn’t really following the same playbook, he’s not wrong.

But ditching the required faculty statement of faith is not the most shocking innovation GCU attempted. When its enrollment numbers plummeted at the start of this century, GCU adopted a for-profit business model. It became Grand Canyon Education, Incorporated and focused on in-demand majors such as nursing and education. These days, with for-profit schools under scrutiny, GCU has attempted to move back to non-profit status.

So here’s my question: If Falwell wanted to prove that his “Christian” school was the biggest, why didn’t he say that GCU shouldn’t be considered “Christian” because it was a for-profit business?

And here’s my hunch: Since at least the late 1800s, American cultural conservatives have assumed that capitalism is the best sort of social system. Many conservative Christians have argued that free-enterprise systems are somehow God’s preferred way of organizing an economy. In the twentieth century, a lot of the connections between capitalism and Christianity came from the shared opposition to communism.

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God = Capital

The tight connections between free-market principles and evangelical ones were usually simply taken for granted. To cite just one example, the president of Gordon College promised in 1967 that his school was a place in which

youth is encouraged to have faith in the historical validity and continuity of the principles of competitive free enterprise.

As historians Darren Dochuk and Bethany Moreton have explored, some schools such as Harding College and John Brown University raised the principle of “Christian free enterprise” to an all-encompassing mission.

So it doesn’t seem crazy that President Falwell wouldn’t even wonder if adopting a for-profit status might push his rival GCU out of consideration as a real “Christian” school. At least, that’s how it looks to this reporter.

Am I missing something? Is there any other reason why Falwell would ignore the huge, obvious fact that GCU wasn’t really “Christian” if it peddled its mission for mere lucre?

Why Care about Evangelical Colleges?

Why should historians of religion care about schools? How can our study of history help us heal our culture-war ulcers? This week, I had the chance to talk with Professor Andrea Turpin of Baylor University about these questions and more.

RiAH FU interview

Every mystery explained…

Professor Turpin is one of the few humans who is as fascinated by evangelical educational history as I am. Her first award-winning book examined questions of gender, religion, morality and higher education in the nineteenth century. new moral vision

In our interview, she asked terrific questions that got right to the heart of the matter. What does the history of evangelical higher education tell us about the relationship between “fundamentalists” and “evangelicals?” How does political conservatism line up with theological conservatism? …and more!

For my awkward attempts at answers, click on over to Religion in American History and read the whole thing. Many thanks to Prof. Turpin!

Why Jimmy Carter?

If you didn’t know much about Liberty University or conservative evangelical higher education, you might be surprised to hear that President Jimmy Carter will be giving the commencement address at Liberty this year.

Trump at liberty

Glories of past Liberty commencements…

For SAGLRROILYBYGTH, it makes perfect sense. I lay out my case this morning at The Conversation why Jerry Falwell Jr. would want President Carter to come to Lynchburg.

Why would he? Click on over and check it out. Let me know if you think I’m off base.

Gone but Not Forgotten

Do I have a problem? For sure. Am I embarrassed about it? Not at all. But I do want to make my case for the importance of old grudges and festering scars in understanding the world of evangelical higher education.

griffith moral combat

Good company…

Here’s the context: I’m grateful to Professor John Compton and the LA Review of Books for a recent review of Fundamentalist U. I’m doubly honored to have my book partnered with R. Marie Griffith’s recent blockbuster Moral Combat.

Even better, Compton has nice things to say about my book. As he puts it, Fundamentalist U

offers an invaluable introduction to the esoteric world of Christian higher education. Few existing studies offer this level of insight into the inner workings of schools like BJU and Liberty.

Compton captures the central dilemmas I emphasized, such as the tension between keeping students safe and keeping up with changing academic trends. He notes the important divisions that emerge between new “evangelical” colleges and stalwart “fundamentalist” ones.

I can’t help but comment, though, on one of Compton’s points. He is doubtless absolutely correct when he states,

some readers may be turned off by Laats’s fascination with long-forgotten rivalries involving long-dead university administrators[.]

I am certainly fascinated by such things. And I don’t doubt that sensible people have better things to do with their time than ponder the administrative squabbles in Cleveland, Tennessee or Wheaton, Illinois in 1937. This is why I don’t get invited out very often. Most people are, in fact, turned off by my fascination with these questions.

For those of us who hope to understand American evangelicalism, though, there’s no way we can consider such rivalries “long-forgotten.” As in any family feud, time may have obscured the details, but it has not tempered the animosity. If anything, bitter feelings caused in 1937 may have earned angry compound emotional interest over the decades, giving original squabbles a power and fury they didn’t originally possess.

To give just one example from the book, I can certainly see how many readers might not immediately care about the firing of President J. Oliver Buswell from Wheaton College in the 1930s. President Buswell wanted Wheaton to pursue a more theologically pure separatist approach. He wanted Wheaton to encourage its faculty and students to withdraw from mainline Protestant denominations and focus instead on creating a consistently conservative evangelical institution.

Wheaton’s trustees disagreed. They insisted that Wheaton maintain its efforts to attract conservative students who remained within mainline denominations as well as those that joined breakaway fundamentalist churches.

As Professor Compton notes, all the players in this 1930s drama are long-dead. But their squabble is anything but long-forgotten. Throughout its history, Wheaton struggled to figure out how to handle the tension between conservative purity and (relatively) big-tent inclusiveness. Time after time, whenever faculty members challenged the vagaries of Wheaton’s assumptions about orthodoxy, they were given the boot.

If you think these patterns are no longer in effect, just ask Professor Hawkins. Perhaps no one in that recent Wheaton battle invoked the specter of President Buswell’s 1930s ouster, but the college as a whole still deals with the echoes of every long-ago conflict.

What They Missed about Liberty Online

Want to understand evangelical higher education these days? Then you need to read the recent exposé of Liberty University’s online program in the New York Times. But when you do, remember that they left out a central piece of the picture.

moody literature mission

Early distance-learning programs at MBI claimed to reach the world with cutting-edge technology, c. 1947. These “mountaineers” got free Gospels if they read them in school. And, yes, that is their school building.

The Liberty Online story is a big one. As the Times article describes, Liberty now claims $2.5 billion (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) in net assets, largely from its online department. Because Liberty is a non-profit, it is not subject to the same oversight as for-profit schools such as Corinthian and the University of Phoenix.

Some online students, the article describes, felt pressured to sign up and ripped off with the results. As one unhappy former Liberty student told the Times,

What’s killing me is that I went into this program to try to change my situation . . . and I’m worse off than I was at the beginning.

It’s an ugly story. There is no doubt that Liberty’s online program has been a cash cow. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, there’s also no doubt that Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. has plowed his online profits back into the brick-and-mortar campus. Sports, star faculty, and campus facilities all get plenty of funding. Recently, the Liberty football squad used that money to fulfill one of the school’s long-standing dreams by defeating top-ranked Baylor.

But the Times story leaves out a crucial part of the historical context. The way they put it, Liberty’s online program came about as part of an experiment, an “educational novelty.” As the article explains,

One educational novelty that Falwell dabbled in, starting in the mid-’70s, was an early form of distance learning. Liberty would mail lecture videotapes and course packets to paying customers around the country — at first just certificate courses in Bible studies, and by the mid-’80s, accredited courses in other subjects as well.

The inspiration, according to the NYT, was the work of John Sperling and the University of Phoenix. I don’t doubt that President Falwell Jr. admired Sperling’s business model. I don’t dismiss the importance of the notion that Falwell has treated his school, as he told NYT, “like a business.”

However, if we really want to understand Liberty’s online success, we have to also understand its context as part of the history of evangelical higher education. It is difficult for some secular people (like me) to notice or acknowledge, but evangelical schools and missionary institutions have always led the way with finding new ways to use new technology to deliver distance education.

letterhead from BGC 3

Check out the 1950s-era “high-tech” logo! More evidence of the evangelical obsession with technology and distance learning, from Fuller Seminary, c. 1956.

Perhaps the best example might be the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. No matter the decade, no matter the technology, the Moody educational empire has found ways to expand its reach using new technological means. The drive is obvious: For MBI and other evangelical institutions, the primary goal is to deliver the Gospel to as many human eyes and ears as possible, as fast as possible. If new technology will help accomplish that mission, all the better.

To note just a few of the best-known programs, MBI was a pioneer in early radio, with its WMBI established in 1926 to bring the Word to the world. By 1940, WMBI’s Radio School of the Bible had over 10,000 registrants. In 1942, WMBI claimed to broadcast its programs through 187 radio stations across the USA, Canada, China, and Latin America.

In the 1940s, MBI set up its Moody Institute of Science, distributing missionary science films to a wide audience.

At the same time, MBI carried out less-well-known distance-learning programs as well. As I discovered in the MBI archives, from the 1920s through the 1960s the Moody Literature Mission delivered millions of books and tracts to readers throughout the country and throughout the world.

The point of these distance-learning programs was always the same. MBI, like all evangelical colleges and universities, had a mission of missions. It was dedicated to training young people to carry the Gospel around the world. And, unlike some people’s image of stuffy Luddite conservatives, evangelical institutions were always pioneers in every type of technology: print, radio, film, and internet.

So when the Jerry Falwells experimented with distance education, they weren’t innovating at all, really. Rather, they were merely continuing the long tradition of evangelical higher education—using all available means to deliver the Gospel around the world.