Sinning to Survive: Evangelical Colleges Cheat to Live

Maybe it’s legal, but it sure isn’t ethical. Just like mainstream universities, evangelical ones have engaged in morally dicey practices in order to keep the tuition dollars rolling in. Should they be held to a higher standard?liberty phd online

Here’s what we know: Inside Higher Ed reported this morning on the complicated legal settlements made recently by Oral Roberts University and North Greenville University. The details are confusing, but in short, both ORU and NGU paid big bucks–$300,000 and $2.5 million, respectively—to settle accusations that they had broken the law.

Both schools are accused of contracting with a now-defunct company to recruit students. Apparently, universities aren’t allowed to offer companies a percentage of the “take” for that kind of recruiting if the students are eligible for federal loans. The law makes sense: The feds worry about “predatory” institutions chasing after federal loan dollars, leaving hapless students with big debt.

Meanwhile, what Liberty University is doing might not be illegal, to me it seems just as troubling. Recently the evangelical behemoth has been advertising a program that will leave students unemployable. The program in question is a fully online History PhD. Liberty promises that the program will help students land jobs. As they advertise (emphasis added by me),

Are you interested in a career in education, research, politics, archaeology, or management of national landmarks or museums? Whatever your history-related career goals are, Liberty University’s Ph.D. in History can provide the theoretical background, research and writing abilities, and experience you’ll need to excel in either academic or nonacademic career fields related to humanities or social sciences.

When you complete your doctorate in history, you’ll be prepared to pursue a variety of career opportunities. You might join the world of academia as a professor, professional researcher, or academic publisher or editor. Or you could pursue a position as a museum curator, international development specialist, author, archaeologist, or federal government employee.

Academics and many other career fields need people like you who are knowledgeable about the undercurrents, culture, and societal standards surrounding historical events. Prepare to excel in whichever career field you choose when you pursue our doctoral degree in history.

I don’t think there’s anything illegal about this sort of thing, but it does strike me as deeply misleading. The academic job market for history PhDs has not been strong since the late 1960s and these days it is positively dismal.Advertised-Job-Openings-Compared-to-the-Number-of-New-History-PhDsIn general, the very few jobs that are available in history departments have go to candidates with impeccable credentials. I have a hard time imagining that any history department would be willing to hire a candidate who had completed a fully online PhD program. In short, I do not think it is ethical for Liberty to tell people that they “might join the world of academia as a professor.”

I understand that the Liberty advertisement hedges its promises by talking about a “variety of career opportunities.” As do other desperate history programs who offer non-academic career advice, Liberty can fall back on its language about non-academic career paths as proof of its good intentions. I don’t think that’s enough. Even non-academic jobs for history PhDs are ferociously competitive and a candidate with an online degree will not be able to cut the mustard.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why these evangelical schools make these sorts of insincere promises and shady deals. From the perspective of the recruiters’ offices, the prospect for the entire field of American higher education is scary and getting worse. There are fewer and fewer college-going young people and by 2025 the number will have dwindled even more.

Schools are closing and combining. Evangelical colleges have not been safe from this trend, as a recent shake-up at Gordon College attests. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to demand more than simple law-following from leaders of evangelical institutions. Bending the truth to get students in the door is something no one should tolerate, least of all people who want colleges to hold up the high ethical values of evangelical Christianity.

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Gordon with a Twist

These are tough times for colleges. Dropping enrollments and increasing costs have led many schools to shut their doors or slash programs. The latest in the evangelical world has been Gordon College. As I shared recently with a reporter for Inside Higher Ed, I think we need to understand the peculiar pinched politics of evangelicalism if we hope to make sense of Gordon’s recent changes. I hope the changes work out well for the Gordon community, but I can’t help but notice that they don’t seem to match Gordon’s history or tradition.

plea to alumnus funds for library cartoon

At Gordon, money has always been tight. This alumni appeal came from the 1940s.

Like all evangelical colleges, Gordon has always had to walk a tightrope. It has always had to promise parents and families a top-notch academic education, including preparation for professional careers. At the same time, it has had to guard its evangelical reputation vigilantly. Like all evangelical colleges, Gordon has had to worry that the college-going evangelical public will see it as too liberal or too conservative.

Back in the day, Gordon was a leader in the evangelical evolution from “missionary-training school” to “Bible college.” What began as the Gordon Missionary Training School in 1895 became the Gordon Bible Institute in 1914, then Gordon Bible College in 1916, then Gordon College of Theology and Missions in 1921.

Back then, the changes were not driven by financial pressures but rather by the changing nature of American higher education. As then-president Nathan Wood explained, the school changed its name in 1921 to accommodate the desires of students and alumni for a college degree, not merely a missionary certificate. As Wood explained in his autobiography, a group of current and former class presidents came to him to request the 1921 name change. They wanted, in Wood’s words,

a change of name . . .  which would express the collegiate and theological work of the school. . . . It meant much to them as future Alumni.

Culture-war politics have also always driven decisions at Gordon. In the 1960s, for example, Gordon’s faculty rejected a move to the political right. In 1964, then-president James Forrester hoped to import a free-market conservative focus to Gordon. With help from politically conservative administrators of The King’s College, Forrester planned a big free-market conference at Gordon, including conservative luminaries such as Congressman Walter Judd and Leonard Read of the Foundation for Economic Education. They wanted to bring Gordon on board, to focus on teaching students

a pervading high regard for Freedom in its spiritual, economic and political dimensions.

When Forrester ran his plan by Gordon’s faculty, however, they nixed the idea. They didn’t want Gordon to be associated with what one faculty leader called the “extreme right.” The faculty had higher academic ambitions for Gordon, not merely to indoctrinate students in what faculty called “a program of education in conservative thinking.”

Today’s changes seem worlds removed from these Gordon precedents. As Elizabeth Redden described, today’s students are not driving today’s changes. Rather, many students seemed surprised and saddened by the reduction in major programs and the reduction of faculty positions.

Gordon 1944 ad for donations in Watchman Examiner

A different plea for money, to the evangelical community, c. 1944.

Plus, the current administration of Gordon does not seem cowed by faculty pressure. Rather, Redden found herself unable to find a single faculty member willing to comment. The changes in Gordon were decided upon by top administrators, not faculty. Moreover, the administration seems willing to move Gordon’s reputation more to the conservative side of the evangelical world, with reminders in recent years that Gordon has never approved of LGBTQ “practice.”

I don’t doubt that Gordon’s administrators are feeling pinched. Like college administrators everywhere, they have had to make some difficult decisions. In this case, though, speaking as a fly on the wall, I can’t help but notice how different today’s decisions are from the ones Gordon College has made in the past.

Moody Student RIP

It’s difficult to believe that it’s really only a budget thing. After all, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, student newspapers at evangelical colleges have always been a thorn in the sides of conservative administrators. Whatever the real reason, I’m sorry to hear that Moody Bible Institute in Chicago will cease publication of its student paper. In my research for Fundamentalist U I spent many hours reading through back issues. As with other student papers, the old Moody Student gave me a sense of the ways evangelical colleges really operate.

The news from Chicago is somber. One faculty member pleaded to keep the paper going. Administrators, meanwhile, insist the decision to close down the Moody Standard was about budgets, not bibles. As one administrator put it,

The decision to no longer fund The Moody Standard was not an isolated one, but prayerfully considered as a part of our ongoing strategic desire to steward resources in a way that achieves strategic balance in our education department and better serves students.

Whatever the reason for its demise, I’m sorry for future historians of MBI. After all, the old copies of the Moody Student helped me wrap my mind around the ways evangelicalism played out at MBI across the twentieth century.

For example, consider the back-and-forth on the editorial page of the Moody Student in January, 1942. One student complained that he had asked for coffee in the dining room and been snarkily informed by another student, “Real Christians don’t drink coffee.”

It wasn’t a huge issue roiling the world of American evangelicalism. It didn’t involve big labels like “fundamentalists” vs. “new-evangelicals.” There were no celebrities involved. And that’s precisely why the story was so helpful to this historian—it helped me see the everyday gripes and disagreements that defined the world of college evangelicalism.

I found similar examples all over my notes. For example, what did MBI students think of courtship and dating? One series from 1945 was a big help to me, as student reporters interviewed their peers about “What I Look for in a Christian Young Woman” and “What I Look for in a Christian Young Man.” My favorite line: the perfect Christian man, one woman explained, will help even with home décor. He won’t think “it’s sissy to regard neatness and color-harmony.”

Jumping to the 1960s, the Moody Student provided an insight into the upside-down student politics of a conservative institution.

1964 WMBI and Goldwater

Capturing the evangelical vote, c. 1964.

As one student editor wrote in 1969, the job of MBI students should be to prove that a “silent majority” of students weren’t like “SDS.” Those fake radicals, the MBI editor explained,

try to give the impression that they are planting the seeds of freedom.  In truth, they are plowing furrows of division among Americans.

The student paper also helped me understand the divisions that developed over white racism at MBI. In 1970, for example, the Moody Student reported on anti-racism protests among MBI alums. As the anti-racist alums wrote,

The hypocrisy, frustration and profound spiritual damage suffered by us, both consciously and unconsciously, lead us to tear up our degrees and a diploma.

Last but not least, the Moody Student provided a public forum for the MBI community to debate changing ideas about student rules. As one editor opined in 1970,

Rules are necessary to develop discipline in the individual student, but equally important, the student must have freedom to make decisions on his own.  There must be a balance.  A person will not mature nor be able to face today’s world if he is not free to make choices. . . . I personally don’t think Moody has provided its students with that freedom to decide.

8 20 student paper pictures

What did the “Moody World” look like in 1971?

Reading the student paper, too, gave me a chance to see the non-written clues about changing norms and values at MBI. Student styles in the summer of 1971 were worlds removed from those of the buttoned-down 1940s.

In the end, I wholeheartedly agree with the MBI faculty member who argued that the student paper plays a vital role on campus. But even if I didn’t, I would feel sorry for those future historians who won’t have this resource to help understand the world of college evangelicalism in the twenty-first century.

1940s postcard library

…what did it look like c. 1941?

Attention: Fellow Cheapskates!

Good news: if you’ve been waiting for the right time to acquire your copy of Fundamentalist U, wait no longer!

fundamentalist u cheap

These prices can’t last…

I can’t pretend to understand the logarithmic mysteries of Amazon.com, but it seems like they drop the price everytime they come close to selling out their latest batch.

Sales have been brisk, so right now they have dropped the price to a measly $12.25. You can’t even get in to see Endgame for that! So grab your copy while the grabbin’s good!

Will the Real Evangelical Please Stand Up?

I sympathize. I’m no evangelical myself, but I truly sympathize with all the caring, thoughtful, engaged evangelicals out there who have a hard time seeing the ugly truth. But all the sympathy in the world doesn’t make the truth less true, or any less ugly.

pence

Love him or hate him, Pence really does represent American evangelical values.

We saw it again this week in the news from Indiana. Writing in the Washington Post, Amy Peterson lamented the choice of Vice President Mike Pence to give the commencement speech at evangelical Taylor University.

Peterson was absolutely right that the choice of Pence serves as a signal to evangelicals of the kind of institution Taylor wants to be. She was definitely correct in suggesting that Pence sides with Taylor’s underground conservatives, evangelicals who want their institution to enforce traditional sexual norms and starchy moral codes.

But Peterson makes a common mistake in her conclusion. She reports that many faculty members and students at Taylor shared her dismay at the choice of Pence. She ends on this hopeful note,

If the uproar at Taylor this week is any indication, white evangelicals may not be such a monolithic voting bloc the next time around.

But that’s just it. The uproar at Taylor is NOT a fair indication of the way white evangelicals think. Or vote.

As Slacktivist Fred Clark calls it, “faculty lounge” evangelicalism is not a fair measure of evangelicalism as a whole. In other words, evangelical intellectuals are, by definition, not average. Their ideas about “real” evangelicalism do not match real American “evangelicalism.” As Clark put it,

the evangelicals of the faculty lounge cannot speak for most white evangelicals.

We’ve seen it over and over again. Not just in the twentieth century, as I examined in Fundamentalist U, but in the past five years. And not just at the more politically conservative schools such as Liberty—though it has been dominant there—but at “faculty-lounge” strongholds such as Wheaton. Just ask Larycia Hawkins.

This is not only a problem for evangelical academics, of course. I remember a hastily-assembled conference at my (very secular) home institution in November, 2016. A group of historians scrambled to put Trump’s election victory in context. We just couldn’t find any way to make good sense of it. Our vision of American values and American voting just didn’t match reality. But our confusion couldn’t change the fact that large numbers of Americans seemed to prefer Trump’s brand of toxic Americanism.

Evangelical academics are in the same boat. When they encourage their fellow white evangelicals not to put their nationalism before their religion, like Randy Beckum did, they are shocked to find such notions controversial.  Or, as Methodists found out recently, when they assume their ideas about sexuality are the world-wide norm, they get harshly disabused of such notions.

The Taylor/Pence story hits the same ugly notes. I sympathize entirely with Amy Peterson and her friends and allies at Taylor University. I wish evangelical institutions would embrace the best traditions of evangelical religion. I hope—though I don’t pray—that large numbers of white evangelicals reject Trump’s toxic Americanism at the polls in 2020.

In the end, however, we all need to face realities. The faculty and some students at Taylor might reel in dismay at the university’s decision to honor Mike Pence. But in the end, as Peterson recounts, lots of Taylor students and faculty loved it. And the school’s administrators, as always desperate to reassure students and families that they represent “real” evangelical values, decided that Pence embodied those values. When pollsters explore beyond the faculty lounge, they find that white evangelicals prefer Pence to Peterson.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Are colleges addicted to the internet? Are charter schools “public?” Do Satanists pick up litter? We read with interest the answers to all these questions and more, in our weekly round-up of news ‘n’ views:

Fancy college finds out it can’t live without technology, at IHE.

Walmartification of college, at CHE.

  • Why are evangelical universities over-represented in the mega-online world? Here at ILYBYGTH.

    college enrollment trends

    The sawdust trail moves online…

NJ passes mandatory LGBTQ curriculum, at WNYC.

Why white evangelical women still love Trump, at TC.

White evangelical women . . . rally behind Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump and equate their conservative version of traditional femininity with grace and elegance. . . . The seeming paradox of white evangelical women backing Trump really isn’t a paradox at all. In fact, their support says more about the state of white evangelical Christianity in the US than it does about anything else.

Not just polarized, but…Emma Green on “the bubble:”

a significant minority of Americans seldom or never meet people of another race. They dislike interacting with people who don’t share their political beliefs. And when they imagine the life they want for their children, they prize sameness, not difference. . . . When asked how they would feel about their child marrying someone from the opposite political party, 45 percent of Democrats said they would be unhappy, compared with 35 percent of Republicans.

More strikes and rumors of strikes: Oakland ‘n’ West Virginia, at NPR.

Fundamentalist U leading from behind: More universities assert in loco parentis authority, at CHE.

Are charter schools “public?” Peter Greene says no, at Curmudgucation.

More evidence: 1970s’ hijinx have become 2019 felonies.

On the highway to hell: Satanists adopt a mile in Arkansas, at FA.

Highway to hell

…wow.

 

Fundamentalist U Leads from Behind

When universities these days re-impose in loco parentis rules to avoid lawsuits, they are joining a group of schools that never abandoned that role. Despite the headline in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, there’s nothing “new” about it. There’s not even anything new about secular schools copying evangelical ones. It’s been going on for a while. We might even say that evangelical colleges and universities have become the accidental trend-setters for mainstream higher ed.

eye on u

How “New”?

Here’s what we know: In CHE, Vimal Patel describes the trend: Some universities are claiming more institutional control over students’ lives. Historically, as Patel correctly notes, some mainstream schools abandoned such rules after student protests in the 1960s. Universities no longer agreed to act, in essence, as local parents.

With accusations of sexual assault, unsafe hazing, and other campus dangers, though, universities these days worry about legal liability. A lot. As a result, they are returning to their tradition of asserting control over students’ lives outside the classroom. As Patel writes,

This resurgent version, at traditional four-year colleges, is more attitudinal than legal, and motivated by 21st-century conditions. Past iterations were paternalistic, but the new version is driven by tuition-payers’ expectations, colleges’ concerns about legal liability, shifting cultural and social norms, and an evolving understanding of human development.

What Patel doesn’t mention is that plenty of institutions don’t have to return to in loco parentis, because they never really left. Consider as one example a talk given by President Hudson Armerding of Wheaton College at Parents’ Day Chapel, October 30, 1971. President Armerding told the assembled parents that most colleges had abandoned their in loco parentis responsibilities. He told them that mainstream colleges positively bragged about their lack of concern for students’ non-academic lives. What was the result? Quoth Armerding,

a shallow permissiveness conveys a distorted view of God who deals far differently with His children.

Wheaton College would be different, Armerding promised. He and his school embraced their in loco parentis responsibilities. As he concluded,

We believe that students should be disciplined and corrected and that this should be consistent with the teachings of the Word of God.

Patel’s not interested in the distinct and vital traditions I analyzed in Fundamentalist U. But this is not meant as a knock on Patel. (Though to be fair, I find it egregious that anyone writing about the history of in loco parentis rules wouldn’t mention Christopher Loss’s book Between Citizens and the State.)

Rather, I take Patel’s article as just another example of the ways evangelical colleges have served as reservoirs of academic tradition, reservoirs that mainstream colleges keep returning to.

Today’s interest in in loco parentis rules is only one example. Consider, too, the ways mainstream institutions seek to establish “safe spaces” on campuses. As we’ve argued in these pages, ALL of evangelical higher education was meant as an intellectual “safe space.”

Or consider today’s wave of student protests at elite mainstream schools. In many ways, like in loco parentis rules, what we call the “impulse to orthodoxy” was shepherded and nurtured at evangelical colleges long after mainstream institutions tried to discard it. When student radicals at Yale, Middlebury, and Claremont McKenna push their administrators to enforce moral absolutes, they are not breaking new ground but merely returning to old ground—ground on which evangelical schools have always remained.

If there really is a trend to return to in loco parentis rules at mainstream colleges, it might just add fuel to a surprising conclusion: After a century, instead of lingering as institutional backwaters, evangelical colleges have become trend-setters for the mainstream.

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.

IMG_1558

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.

IMG_1557

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.

IMG_1562

…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.

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.

panel_4_large

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.

rip poll lgbtq

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.

image1

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.