For Evangelical Colleges: The Dangers of Keeping Up

These are dark times for smallish institutions of higher ed. When it comes to universities, the rich are getting richer—in terms of applications and endowments—while the poor are getting closed down. To evangelical college administrators, this might seem like a new and desperate challenge, but in fact it goes back a long way. I know history is a bad guide, but as I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, in this case, the past fifty years offer pretty clear guidance about what NOT to do.

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How Wheaton hoped to survive, c. 1980.

In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, we read about administrators at small and smallish Christian schools trying to figure out how to stay alive. Indiana Wesleyan (IWU), for example, is emphasizing its traditional focus on person-centered spiritual education while also trying to cash in on online education.

If the past is any guide, one of those is a good idea.

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One promise: academic rigor. Another: smart girls with modest hairstyles.

Consider the bumptious early 1960s. In many ways, they were boom years for institutions of higher education. The post-war GI Bill had set millions—MILLIONS—of new students scrambling to find someone to give their government money to.

For evangelical colleges, however, the new landscape of American higher education presented a new dilemma. At Wheaton College in Illinois, for example, the early 1960s meant a startling and dangerous drop in applications. As Charles Schoenherr reported to President V. Raymond Edman, the numbers spelled doom:

  • 1958: 2009 applications
  • 1961: 1666
  • 1962: 1467
  • 1963: 998

For good reason, Wheaton’s top administrators panicked. They struggled to find reasons to explain this sudden drop in interest among the college-going evangelical public. For one thing, they had instituted a new way to count applications and a new high-school graduation requirement, but those changes could not account for this drastic drop. Like today’s administrators, Wheaton in the early 1960s faced two unpleasant questions:

  • Why were the numbers of applications plunging? And
  • What should they do about it?

Back then, Wheaton’s administrators couldn’t answer the first question satisfactorily. But they had some suspicions. As Schoenherr asked the next President, Hudson Armerding,

Has the ‘image’ of the College changed?  Has this had a bearing on the number applying?  What has been the image?  Has it been an image of excitement, challenge, and leadership or one of apathy, status quo, and noninvolvement?  To what extent have rumors about Wheaton going ‘liberal’ hurt?

If Wheaton was dying due to perceived progressivism, then one course was clear. They could choose to swing back toward their conservative traditions, emphasizing their continuing adherence to fundamentalist norms.

That’s not what Wheaton did and it should serve as a lesson to today’s evangelical college administrators. Wheaton decided to double down on its existing strengths. It had always been known as the premier academic evangelical college, and instead of swerving hard to the right, Wheaton swerved hard toward its reputation as academically elite.

By 1980, for example, Wheaton’s promotional materials showed the school’s commitment to respecting its conservative roots while emphasizing its academic excellence. In a 1980 promotional brochure, the statement of Wheaton’s beliefs was shunted way to the back. “Yes, Wheaton is strict,” the statement concluded, “but we try not to be insensitive.”

The rest of the brochure showed pictures of students doing science-looking stuff, enjoying sports, and learning in the beautiful scenic campus. The message was clear. If you want an awesome, “real” college experience, come to Wheaton. Other evangelical colleges can’t match its traditions or academic excellence.

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…plus football and dates.

What’s the message for today’s strapped evangelical administrators? First, take heart. These are tough times, but you’ve been here before. Second, don’t chase after trends that don’t fit with the long-standing appeal of your school. If you think you can cash in quick on online education, watch out. You might find you’ve traded in your birthright for a mess of credits.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week, another batch of surprises. A collection of news stories for SAGLRROILYBYGTH:

White evangelicals and racism: Are they or aren’t they? A review of Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise at TGC.

A Parks-n-Rec moment in South Bend: Notre Dame decides to cover its Columbus murals, at IHE.

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From Pawnee, not South Bend….

School superintendent charged with felonies after using her insurance to get med care for a student. At CBS4.

The original dream of public ed is dead, at TC.

The teacher crunch: When teachers can’t afford to live in their cities, at HP.

Old-school creationism in Indiana, at AU.

The OTHER split at evangelical colleges, at RIP.

a whopping 85% of incoming students to evangelical colleges and universities find it at least moderately important that their campuses are welcoming toward LGBT people, with 44% finding it very important.

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Welcoming campuses…?

Why did eugenics persist in US textbooks? Sex, at TH.

Christian persecution update: Pence at NBC. HT: RC.

Ben Shapiro reveals my secular plot to discredit religion (19:30).

Politicians split, leaving the rest of us in the middle, at the Economist.

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.

The O Word Punctures this Dream of a Conservative University

Why can’t they have their own anti-progressive university? That’s the question Rick Hess and Brendan Bell of the conservative American Enterprise Institute asked recently. The problem runs deeper than they want to acknowledge. It’s not only about funding or hiring; it is rooted in the O word, a central but unexamined assumption of conservative higher-ed thinking over the past hundred years.

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It wasn’t ORTHODOXY that make Falwell successful…

In short, Hess and Bell propose a new $3-billion-dollar elite university, free from the oppressive “academic monoculture” of today’s top schools. They hope to reform American and global culture by creating an incubator for ideas that challenge progressive assumptions, an academic launching pad for scholars

inclined to critique feminist tropes, study the benefits of traditional marriage, or pursue other lines of inquiry that don’t comport with regnant mores.

As sharp-eyed critics such as Sarah Jones have pointed out, Hess and Bell don’t adequately acknowledge the fact that there is already plenty of conservative money flooding academia. And, as Jones notes, in the end

Hess and Bell sound markedly like the campus liberals they seek to escape – an ivory tower of their own is nothing if not a plea for a safe space.

Jones doesn’t mention it, but there is a bigger nuts-and-bolts problem with Hess and Bell’s plan, too. Founding a university might be easy, given enough money. But starting an elite institution from scratch is not, no matter how deep one’s pockets. Hess and Bell list examples of success, from Stanford and Johns Hopkins in the past to my alma mater Wash U recently. But they don’t note the many failures, such as Clark University a century ago. Nor do they seem aware of unsuccessful plans from the twentieth century, such as Hudson Armerding’s detailed scheme to establish an elite multi-campus evangelical university, as I describe in Fundamentalist U.

Even those challenges might be overcome, though, if Hess and Bell’s plan weren’t doomed by a deeper structural flaw. Like many conservative higher-ed dreamers before them, Hess and Bell do not adequately grapple with the O-word. That is, they do not understand the deeper implications of the concept of orthodoxy in the world of higher education.

As have other conservative intellectuals, Hess and Bell use the O-word a lot. They identify their primary bugbear, for instance, as

the progressive orthodoxy at today’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

They also explain that their new elite institute will be one that “challenges the prevailing orthodoxies of the campus monoculture.”

And there’s the rub. As I argue in Fundamentalist U, in spite of generations of talk about orthodoxy in conservative institutions, real orthodoxies are few and far between.

Why does it matter? If Hess and Bell, like their conservative forebears, truly hope to open a new school “oriented by a clear mission,” they need to define clearly their guiding ideas. It is not enough to target “progressive orthodoxy,” precisely because there is no such thing.

We might agree with Hess and Bell that elite American institutions are guided by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions” that conservatives don’t like. But there is a world of difference between mores, conventions, and real orthodoxies. An orthodoxy is precisely something that even Hess and Bell admit doesn’t exist in this case, “a concerted, organized effort” to define truth and falsehood.

An orthodoxy is relatively easy to both attack and defend. If there really were a progressive orthodoxy in American elite higher education, Hess and Bell’s plan might stand a chance of success. And because so many higher-ed pundits tend to throw around the O-word so loosely, it is not surprising that Hess and Bell don’t notice the problem.

Maybe the case of conservative evangelical higher education will help clarify the O-word dilemma. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, starting in the 1920s most conservative-evangelical colleges promised that they were founded on evangelical orthodoxy. The problem is, they weren’t. They were founded to be conservative safe spaces for religious students and faculty. They also had to remain broadly conservative and broadly evangelical in order to remain attractive to a wide range of fundamentalist families. As a result, they never were able to establish a true orthodoxy. That is, they never established a clear list of religious tenets by which every challenge and crisis could be decided.

There were exceptions of course. Especially at denominational schools, leaders were able to clear some of the fog of American conservatism by following the path of specific orthodoxies. In the 1920s, for example, Princeton’s J. Gresham Machen opened a rare school that actually adhered to Machen’s vision of Presbyterian orthodoxy. As a result, Machen earned the scorn of other evangelical school leaders by allowing his students to drink alcohol. Booze wasn’t forbidden by any actual theological rule, Machen reasoned, but rather only by the “regnant mores” of American evangelicals.

The results of the absence of true orthodoxy in conservative-evangelical higher education may seem odd to readers who don’t grasp the implications of the O-word. Historically, we saw cases such as that of Clifton Fowler in Denver in the 1930s, when a school leader charged with sexual and theological peccadillos was allowed to continue his depredations by a blue-ribbon panel of evangelical college leaders.

We see it today as well, with the befuddling statements of Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. If, as we might tend to think, Liberty were a school guided by evangelical orthodoxy, Falwell himself might be less inclined to make outlandish statements in support of Trump. As it is, Christine Emba argued recently, the best word for Falwell’s Trumpism is not “orthodoxy.” As Emba wrote in the Washington Post, Falwell’s

statements are in total contradiction to Christian truth. This isn’t just benign confusion: This is heresy.

Yet Falwell continues to attract adherents and funding for his conservative-evangelical institution. It is not because he is redefining evangelical orthodoxy. It is not because evangelical orthodoxy has room for Trumpism. He isn’t and it doesn’t. Rather, Falwell is able to veer so far from traditional evangelical doctrine because interdenominational American evangelicalism has not been guided by true orthodoxy. Rather, it has felt its way in the cultural dark guided only by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions.”

In the case of Hess and Bell’s dreams, making policy about those mores and conventions is far more difficult than challenging real orthodoxies. Mores and conventions are plastic, fluid, flexible, and nearly infinitely defensible. Orthodoxies are rigid, clearly defined, and easily subject to dispute.

The false assumption of orthodoxy has punctured the dreams of generations of conservative higher-ed thinkers. Hess and Bell shouldn’t be blamed for not recognizing the problem, because writers from both left and right tend to see orthodoxy when there isn’t any.

Fundamentalists in the early twentieth century falsely assumed an evangelical orthodoxy that couldn’t exist. Hess and Bell flail against a progressive orthodoxy that doesn’t.

The Year in ILYBYGTH

I wasn’t going to do it. I was going to try awkwardly to maintain my dignity and refrain from any sort of year-end top-ten list. But then a couple of enforcers from the WordPress goon squad showed up and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

So here it is: The eleven most popular posts of 2018:

  1. What is Life Like at Evangelical Colleges? Reflections from alumni of “Fundamentalist U.” What was it like to attend different schools in different decades? How did evangelical higher ed shape these students’ lives?
  2. Billy Graham and Bob Jones From the archives, a look at the tempestuous and angry relationship between teacher and former student.

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    RIP Billy Graham, here preaching to the multitudes in London, 1954.

  3. Crisis at Moody Bible Institute From way back in January 2018, a look at the ways the history of fundamentalist higher ed in the early 1900s set the pattern for the recent leadership shake-up at Chicago’s storied Bible school.
  4. The Dilemma of the Fundamentalist Intellectual An ugly story of resume inflation is par for the course in the world of fundamentalist academic life. Why?
  5. The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die: It doesn’t seem to matter that historians have punctured this story completely. Journalists still love it, probably because a lot of evangelicals love it.
  6. Christians Don’t Know Christianity: Are Christians supposed to actually believe Christian doctrine? Or only hold it as a personal preference? religion as personal belief
  7. Where Were You Radicalized? A simple question on Tweeter gets people thinking, but there’s one place no one seemed to be talking about.
  8. Evangelical Colleges Aren’t Teaching Christianity A professor complains that her students don’t know Christian orthodoxy. I lay out the historical case that this is nothing new in evangelical higher education.
  9. Bad News for Creationists Science just makes young-earth creationism harder and harder to believe. What will YECs do? I have a guess…

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    Because…Darwin?

  10. How Did Christian Colleges Become Racist? I made the case for an under-suspected culprit behind the racism of white evangelicals: mainstream higher education.
  11. Is Creationism Hate Speech? Can–SHOULD–mainstream universities ban radical young-earth creationism because it is hateful to non-heterosexuals?

From the Archives: Football and Fundamentalist U

Professor Putz got me wondering: How often has football—not just sports in general, but specifically football—thrown evangelical colleges into a tizzy? Turns out, it’s more common than you might think. The allure of all the trappings of college life has always been a challenge for evangelicals, especially back in the early decades of the fundamentalist movement.

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…to the ten…to the five…JESUS CHRIST with the TOUCHDOWN!!!!!

As Professor Putz pointed out, Liberty University has always slavered for the kind of prestige that comes with football victories. The Falwells have built their dreams around the successes of other religious schools such as Brigham Young University and Notre Dame.

And, as Prof. Putz notes, Liberty may be in for more than it bargained for. At BYU, for example, sports has been the lever that LGBTQ and anti-racist activists have used to apply pressure to the LDS church as a whole.

As I found out in the research for Fundamentalist U, it was ever thus. Back in the 1920s when the fundamentalist movement was born, some of its new flagship colleges found out how hard it was to have a football program.

At Des Moines University, for example, the hard-to-love fundamentalist leaders Edith Rebman and T.T. Shields found they could control a lot of things, but not the gridiron. First of all, when they played rival schools, the fans mocked DMU’s fundamentalist fervor by chanting “Darwin! Darwin! Darwin!” And even though the new administrators fired all the science faculty, they retained their football coach, even though the coach publicly expressed a cynical attitude toward evangelical religion. When reporters asked the coach if he had been converted, “born again,” the coach sneered, “Yeah, lots of times.” To critics, the lesson was obvious: A hypocritical fundamentalist administration could do without its science faculty, but it had to keep its football coach.

In Florida, too, the fledgling Bob Jones College struggled to figure out the football dilemma. In its first years, the fundamentalist school fielded a squad, the Swamp Angels. However, they wouldn’t allow the team to travel, worried about the moral influence other campuses might have on the players. In 1931, Bob Jones Sr. canceled the athletic program, purportedly after finding whiskey bottles on campus after a big game. Critics charged that Jones was more nervous about having to meet league rules than about the moral problems of football fans.

Up in Illinois, the first outside-fundamentalist president of Wheaton College also ran into trouble with the football program. J. Oliver Buswell became unpopular for sparring with football coach Fred Walker. Walker had apparently used foul language with the players, but Buswell resisted firing him. Eventually, Buswell agreed to fire the coach, but the trustees switched their position and decided Buswell had to go instead.

For almost a century, then, football has provided yet another challenge to evangelical college leaders. Without it, their schools might seem inauthentic. Students, parents, and alumni all want to have winning teams to cheer for. But including football has always meant including a wild card. It has meant giving some measure of administrative power away to a coach. It has meant going by league rules, instead of listening only to the dictates of authoritarian school leaders. Most of all, it has meant that fundamentalist schools had to breach their carefully constructed defensive wall against the outside world.

Is it worth it? Time and time again, evangelical college leaders have leaped into the football scrum, only to emerge bruised and battered. As Prof. Putz points out, Liberty U is only the latest of a long string of evangelical hopefuls. What will big-time football mean for Jerry Falwell Jr.?

Sex Abuse and the Fundamentalist C-Word

The most depressing thing about the story might be its tragic predictability. The Fort-Worth Star-Telegram reported this week about the sexual assault and abuse of hundreds of victims by leaders of independent fundamental Baptist Churches. As I detailed in Fundamentalist U, these charges are not a sad quirk or an individual sin, but rather an inherent danger of fundamentalist institution-building.

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The dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions…

The charges are staggering. FWST reporters interviewed hundreds of victims and told their stories in detail. Time and time again, with no denominational authority to turn to, independent fundamental churches and schools relied on the utter authority of a single leader. In case after case, the obvious dangers of investing one human with so much power resulted in atrocious abuse. As one of the interviewees put it,

Those of us that have gotten out definitely know it as a cult.

Part of the cult-like structure of independent fundamental Baptist churches has always been its control of education, including independent colleges led by authoritarian leaders. As FWST reporters noticed,

The churches operate independently. But many pastors are linked by the church-affiliated colleges they attended: Bob Jones University, Hyles-Anderson College, Pensacola Christian College and Golden State Baptist College, to name a few.

Those colleges, in turn, suffer from the same institutional problems that beset independent fundamental Baptist churches as a whole. In a word, without external checks on power and influence, colleges and churches risk descending into cults, with no guard against the rapacity of all-powerful leaders.

In Fundamentalist U, I argue that this structural problem is not an unfortunate exception, but rather the rule for interdenominational conservative-evangelical institutions. Certainly not all of them, but in many cases, institutions that embraced the fundamentalist side of the conservative-evangelical family tended to turn to authoritarian solutions to the inherent dilemma of authority in interdenominational evangelicalism. In the book, I use the twin cases of Bob Jones College and Denver Bible Institute in the 1930s to make my case.

Both schools turned to an authoritarian leader to settle the inherent dilemmas of early fundamentalism. What did it mean to be a “real” fundamentalist? No one could say for sure, so some colleges invested their leaders with ultimate power to define good and bad, real and fake.

At Bob Jones College, the dictatorial authority of the leader was not to be questioned. Due to the school’s success in attracting students and keeping faculty and alumni happy, the structure worked. It certainly had plenty of critics over the years—both internal and external—but BJU was able to retain its insularity and its authoritarian power structure.

At Clifton Fowler’s Denver Bible Institute, however, accusations of sexual abuse and theological malfeasance led to a hearing of sorts. The limits of that hearing help demonstrate the inherent structural problems of fundamentalist institution-building.

In short (check out chapter three of Fundamentalist U if you want the full story), Clifton Fowler was accused of a host of sins. He was charged with conducting sexual relationships with many of the young men under his charge. He was accused of prying into the sexual lives of many of his students and congregants and then using that intimate information to bully and blackmail his students. He was accused of innovating doctrines about sexual relationships, claiming that married men and women should not have sex with one another.

In 1936, Fowler attempted to clear his name. He appealed to national leaders of fundamentalist colleges, such as Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College. The response of that blue-ribbon fundamentalist commission tells us about the dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions.

Instead of charging Fowler with the allegations, committee members agreed to keep the accusations quiet, in order not to besmirch the name of fundamentalism. As Buswell put it, he hoped to keep the whole scandal

a strictly private matter among Christian brethren.

It is difficult not to read the testimony as a clear warning bell about the kind of abuse rampant among “cult-like” fundamentalist institutions. As one DBI insider told Buswell’s commission,

All who enter within the confines of the school as students or casual visitors come under a peculiar ‘hypnotic’ spell.

In spite of collecting damning testimony from multiple victims and witnesses, the commission concluded in the end that it could not really do anything to stop Fowler’s predatory behavior. As Buswell concluded in a private letter in 1936,

we cannot commend this man or this work to the confidence of the Christian public.  I do not suppose there is anything more we could do, since we have been given no power to take action, and Fowler practically has his trustees in his pocket, I believe.

In other words, fundamentalist leaders concluded, every fundamentalist could create his own authority. As President Buswell explained, if the trustees of his school remained loyal to Fowler, there were no external levers of control or influence others could exert.

The kind of abuse allegedly perpetrated by Dave Hyles and other independent fundamental Baptist leaders certainly seems to fall into this category. Is it a crime? Yes, indeed. Is it the result of personal sin? I believe so. But those categories of individual blame and transgression don’t adequately explain the ways that the very structures of fundamentalist institutions support and encourage these kinds of abuse and assault.

Does THIS Explain the Football Fornicator?

It has stymied nerds for years now. How could so many white conservative-evangelical Protestants support Trump? He is hardly a moral model. Could a new term help explain Christian Trumpism, and other evangelical oddities such as Liberty University’s recent hire?

Freeze at Liberty

Victory at any cost?

Coming off a year of glorious victory, Liberty doubled down on its football team. Still pursuing its grand dream of becoming “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically,” Liberty brought on one of the best big-time coaches in today’s football scene.

There was only one problem. Coach Hugh Freeze was only available for a non-elite team like Liberty because he had been fired from Ole Miss for a “pattern of personal misconduct,” including using university resources to hire prostitutes.

Why would an evangelical university—supposedly devoted to conservative morals and buttoned-up lifestyle rules—shell out big bucks to hire a fornicator?

On one hand, the answer’s easy. Coach Freeze built up an impressive winning record at Ole Miss, including defeating Alabama two seasons in a row.

On the other, however, it’s a puzzle. As I described in Fundamentalist U, the selling point of conservative evangelical colleges has always been a safe moral environment, one in which students wouldn’t learn to smoke, drink, and have sex, much less believe mainstream science or liberal religion.

How are we to make sense of this phenomenon? …of supposedly values-driven evangelicals supporting anti-values driven celebrities?

Would it help if we called universities like Liberty something besides “evangelical?” Something that captured more clearly the real values of the school, including Trumpism, guns, and big-time sports?sutton tweet

Recently, some historians have been debating the value of another term. Matthew Avery Sutton proposed “Christian Nationalism” for white conservative evangelicals who put their culture-war positions ahead of their evangelical theology. Professor Sutton asked,

should we make a distinction, using “evangelical” for those who are part of a historic, traceable, bounded (para)church network and use “Christian nationalist” for the right-wing political expression of many of these folks and the many more outside the network?

Calling schools like Liberty “Christian Nationalist” colleges instead of “evangelical” schools would go a long way toward clearing up any confusion about stories like that of Coach Freeze. It could fill in for the old “fundamentalist” label, now out of favor even among the most devoted fundamentalists. It could also help make sense of trends at conservative schools such as Hillsdale, which are now attracting a healthy enrollment from Catholic students. And it could explain where the financial support comes from for conservative flag-waving institutions such as the College of the Ozarks.

In short, using a term like “evangelical” to describe an institution like Liberty University seems inherently confusing. Under the leadership of Jerry Falwell Jr., the school has embraced a Trumpist worldview, in distinct contrast to the traditional moral values of conservative evangelicals, at least in the late twentieth century.

Calling it “Christian Nationalist U,” on the other hand, seems to fit. It doesn’t seem outrageous to hear that a “Christian Nationalist” school has hired a football fornicator. A “Christian Nationalist” school would obviously support Trump, whereas an “evangelical” school wouldn’t. A “Christian Nationalist” school would value football victory at any cost, while an “evangelical” school wouldn’t.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

A chock-full week in evangelical higher ed with a heavy dose of teachers’ strikes. Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips:

Our lead story: The Master’s University struggles with the worst legacy of Fundamentalist U: The personality cult. At CHE.

a group of reviewers acknowledged that Master’s is doing some important things right. Under MacArthur, they said, the institution has engendered deep loyalty from faculty, students, and donors. At the same time, the report depicted Master’s as an accreditor’s nightmare: an insular and oppressive institution where loyalty to the president and his church has sometimes trumped both academic and financial concerns.

John_F._MacArthur_1

Get thee behind me, accreditors.

How does a “Bible Belt Ivy” thrive? College of the Ozarks wows the number-crunchers at Forbes.

In remembrance of Pearl Harbor:

pearl harbor ng attack mapAre college faculty really as radical as conservatives think? Ed Burmila says not even close, at UW. HT: MM.

The American right is so heavily invested in the fantasy of radical leftist professors that no evidence can convince them otherwise. . . . If you have considerable time on your hands and wish to see just what kind of leftists run universities, go to the graduate school and propose unionizing Research Assistants, Teaching Assistants, and other itinerant quasi-employees. You’ll discover quickly that senior faculty — the same ones who can’t wait to show you their picture with Tom Hayden or some other talisman of progressive cred — turn into staunch capitalists in a hurry.

Not funny. Columbia students shut down comedian, at IHE.

Bolsonaro’s educational culture war in Brazil, at the Economist.

Tech and reform: Why does every generation think its old ideas are new? By Larry Cuban.

The first teacher strike at a charter school. What will it portend? At NYT.

chicago charter strike

…the wheel of “reform” spins back around…

Liberty U loves Trump, and hires a football coach with a record of hiring prostitutes, at ESPN.

The key to de-segregation? Minnesota’s new reform at Slate. HT: CC.

single-family zoning proved as effective at segregating northern neighborhoods (and their schools) as Jim Crow laws had in the South.

The author of one of the best books about the 1920s KKK explains the complicated history at NPR.

1920s klanHow can we teach about painful historical topics? How about one person’s story at a time, at The Atlantic.

Serving More than One Master

It’s more than a quirk. And it’s more than a coincidence. The savage accreditor’s report about The Master’s University and Seminary (TMUS) reveals yet again one of the basic structural challenges written into the bones of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

John_F._MacArthur_1

Get thee behind me, accreditors.

If you haven’t seen the story yet, it is a sad reminder of the dangerous possibilities of evangelical higher ed. As Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently (now available to non-subscribers) the school’s charismatic leader John F. MacArthur has recreated all of the elements of authoritarian evangelical institutions.

  • One-man show

For example, the accreditors warned that TMUS had

a pervasive climate of fear, intimidation, bullying and uncertainty.

In a speech to the student body about the accreditation report, MacArthur identified such nay-saying as part of the list of things that “God hates.”  His advice to students in this troubling time? “Keep your mouth shut.”

  • Gated community

The accreditors found, too, that TMUS had become an all-or-nothing proposition for its faculty. All institutional power rested firmly in MacArthur’s hands. If they didn’t like it, their only option was to leave, leaving their entire lives behind. As the accreditors put it,

Should they be dismissed or leave TMU over a substantial difference of opinion, they lose their entire support community.

  • Loyalty over experience

As has been the pattern for fundamentalist colleges since the early 20th century, MacArthur’s regime consistently promoted loyalty over every other concern, especially including experience or competence. The accreditors cited the worrisome case of MacArthur’s son-in-law Kory Welch, who was put in charge of many elements of TMUS operations despite having no professional experience or discernible credentials.

  • Internal hiring

As did some fundamentalist schools in the twentieth century, TMUS’s insularity came in part from a habit of hiring its own graduates. As CHE reported,

Of the 20 full-time faculty listed on the seminary’s website, not including MacArthur, 13 have received one or more of their degrees from Master’s; 11 have received two or more degrees from that institution; and eight have held positions within Grace Church. The dean of the seminary faculty, Nathan Busenitz, earned all of his degrees from Master’s, and has served in the past as MacArthur’s personal assistant.

  • My way or the highway—to hell

Predictably, MacArthur offered the TMUS community a stark decision: Either accept his one-person leadership model or succumb to the wiles of Satan. In his August speech, for example, MacArthur decried the report as an attack

orchestrated, if not by any humans, by Satan himself.

  • All about the benjamins

Finally, as was the case throughout the twentieth century, MacArthur has been able to retain his stranglehold on institutional power in part due to his prodigious fund-raising abilities. Without MacArthur at the helm, TMUS would not be likely to pull in donations by the millions.

For the accreditors, as for many in the higher-ed field, these astonishing institutional traits may seem a singular development at TMUS. In fact, as I argued in Fundamentalist U, they are part of the legacy of the inherent institutional set-up of interdenominational evangelical higher education.

In the 1920s and 1930s, evangelical institutions that had embraced the fundamentalist movement faced a difficult challenge. As interdenominational institutions, they had no presbyteries, synods, episcopates, or conventions to help guide their activities. Moreover, inherent in the fundamentalist movement was a wariness toward such authorities. After all, fundamentalist intellectuals had been burned when denominational controls had been seized by theological modernists and liberals.

What to do? Different institutions responded differently.

At many schools, leadership was split into a messy and imprecise network of presidents, alumni, trustees, and faculty. At Wheaton College in Illinois, for example, tough decisions were often made even tougher by the array of influential voices that weighed in.

In an institution like this, final authority is difficult to determine and decisions can often be messy. The legacy of this sort of solution to the authority dilemma can still be seen today. Just ask Larycia Hawkins or LGBTQ+ students at Asuza Pacific.

But Wheaton’s diffuse and confusing solution to the authority dilemma was not the only solution. TMUS follows in the mold of authoritarian schools like Bob Jones College.

At Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University in 1947), the answer to the dilemma of authority was solved early and ugly. Bob Jones Sr. established a firm grip on power at the institutions, followed by his son and grandson.

Reaching its fully developed form in the 1930s, Bob Jones Sr. crushed and expelled all dissent. As he put it,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us.  We can get ‘cussin’’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school.  We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard.  If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him!  We throw him overboard. . .  ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’  Gripers are not welcome here.  If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

And over the years, the Bob Joneses did just that. As with TMUS, the Bob Joneses quickly learned to rely only on their own graduates. In the 1933-34 school year, for example, three of the twenty-six faculty members were BJC alumni. By 1946-47, thirty-two of sixty-six were.

There was not likely to be much confusion about the way the Bob Joneses treated “Jonahs,” either. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the case of Ted Mercer. Mercer had been a loyal student, teacher, and administrator for years at Bob Jones College and University. By the early 1950s, however, he grew concerned about the dictatorial nature of the school. As with TMUS, the tipping point came from the question of accreditation.

Mercer wanted the school to pursue accreditation, which the Bob Joneses fiercely resisted. As with TMUS, there was no middle way. When Mercer fell afoul of the Bob Joneses, he was out. And the Bob Joneses spared no effort to vilify and smear Mercer. As the TMUS accreditors warn, when a school becomes too insular, dissidents risk losing their entire social networks if they question the will of the leader.

What is in store for TMUS? MacArthur fits the pattern of fundamentalist authoritarians so precisely it is difficult not to hazard a few predictions. If he is able to maintain fiscal solvency—as Bob Jones could but other would-be authoritarians such as Clifton Fowler at the Denver Bible Institute could not—TMUS is likely to maintain its authoritarian structure into the future.

Despite its moral, theological, and institutional drawbacks, the authoritarian model has proven a durable solution to the dilemma of authority at interdenominational evangelical universities.