Fundamentalism’s Retreating American Horizon

It’s not about Darwin. It’s not even about Jesus. We see again this morning that radical young-earth creationism—at least Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis brand—is built on a vision of American history in which fundamentalists are always under more and more attack.ken ham on the moon

Here’s what we know: This morning Ham tweeted a nostalgic video about Apollo 8. On that mission, astronauts circled the moon for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1968. In a live broadcast, astronauts read the opening verses from Genesis.

We can ignore the obvious stuff, like the fact that Ken Ham misdescribed this 1968 moon circling as the 1969 moon landing. We’re more interested this morning in Ham’s take-away from the video itself. What lesson did Ham draw?

2: The culture has changed–NASA sadly would not allow this today

Of course, as historians and SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, back in the 1960s, Ham’s predecessors were articulating very similar laments about the dangerous trends in American culture. In early 1963, for example, Samuel Sutherland of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) warned of the dangerous effects of the recent SCOTUS ruling against Bible-reading and teacher-led prayer in public schools.

What would happen now? Sutherland warned the SCOTUS decision might

Make our country an atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself. . . . in prohibiting the name of God to be used in any form of prayer, [SCOTUS] are in effect advocating that the children be taught atheism.

Sutherland wasn’t alone in warning that 1960s America had gone to the atheist dogs. In 1965, for example, in the pages of Carl McIntire’s Christian Beacon magazine, one writer warned that the banishment of teacher-led Christian devotions from public schools

will mean the division even more sharply of this nation into communities of the secular and the Church, which will inevitably lead to more expression of the secular and more repression of the Christian. When this happens, repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution will be the natural course to follow in secular opposition to Christian witness.

In the glorious 1960s, then, Ken Ham’s predecessors were making the same kinds of warnings that Ham is making today: Things used to be better for conservative evangelical Protestants. Public schools and public policy used to speak in the tones of evangelicalism.

Over and over again, across the decades, fundamentalist Cassandras have articulated a similar historical vision. The past was always better. The present–no matter what year–is characterized by a bitter sense of loss, by a grief for a glorious Christian past stripped away by scheming secularists and soft-minded false Christians.

It doesn’t have much to do with actual creationism, of course, or with evolutionary science. But this relentless alarmist nostalgia does a lot to help us understand why some evangelicals yearn to Make America Great Again.

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Fundamentalist U & Me: Alexis Waggoner and Biola

Welcome to our 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.

This time, we are talking with Rev. Alexis James Waggoner. The Rev. Waggoner is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and received her M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. She works in the field of religious scholarship — as a Minister of Christian Education, and as the Education Director for a non-profit dedicated to religious literacy. She also serves as a Chaplain in the Air Force Reserves. She graduated from Biola University in 2003.

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

“Pressure” is the wrong word – my parents presented it to me like a (conservative, Evangelical) Christian college was my only option. The other “options” were all similar (Westmont, Asuza, etc).

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Alexis Waggoner today

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

While I have SO many problems now with schools like Biola, I think it was actually a good fit for me at the time. I grew up insulated and very conservative so Biola was actually a rather “diverse” place for me to be, in that it wasn’t as monolithic as my upbringing had been. It did deepen my faith at the time. And in no small way, it set me on a path that led me where I am today. My family would probably say this is for the worse; I would say it’s for the better. So something about being exposed, in a small way, to differing ideas about Christianity made me want to keep digging and questioning, and find out what else was out there that I hadn’t been exposed to.

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

Absolutely, 100% not. For reasons that will likely become obvious below! I am completely removed from the evangelical environment of my upbringing and find the movement to be harmful at best, abusive at worst.

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Teach . . . the children well . . .

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

No. I did for a while but as my theology and ideology diverged more and more, I realized I no longer could, in good conscience, support a place that contributed to social conservatism, Christian supremacy, othering of the LGTQI community, less-than-full inclusion of women, etc.

ILYBYGTH: If you’ve had experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions of higher education, what have you found to be the biggest differences? The biggest similarities?

I went to Biola, and – ten years later – to Union Theological Seminary; two schools that are almost as opposite on the “Christian” school spectrum as you can get. I could write a dissertation on the differences; some are probably pretty obvious. The biggest similarity, though, is that both engage in religious fundamentalism. They both have lines you can’t cross, things you can’t admit to, stuff you can’t question – they just lie on completely opposite sides of the spectrum. As someone who now identifies as an extremely liberal, non-orthodox Christian, who is part of a progressive denomination, serving in a liberal church in NYC … I wish this was something we in the progressive movement did better. We fall into the same traps as our Evangelical counterparts, the same things that we critique them for. I am fascinated by the work that needs to be done that could lead to an actual conversation instead of both extremes yelling past each other.

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Fighting fundamentalism…

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

I was a liberal arts major so I took the basic science classes, I don’t remember much but I do remember – and here’s where the relative “diversity” of thought I mentioned above comes into play – being taught evolution. At least as a theory. I can’t remember exactly how it was presented; but it was done so in enough of a way that it was one of the threads of my fundamentalist upbringing that began to unravel. I’d been taught that creationism IS fact, and there are a few fringe people out there who believe this crazy thing called evolution but it’s not really that big a deal. I came to see that it was actually the opposite, and the fact that that piece of my education had been so off made me wonder what else could be wrong with my beliefs and assumptions. You can begin to see why I have mixed feelings about Biola. 🙂

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 definitely was not the stereotypical experience, and I’m sure it would’ve been different had I been at a secular college. I had friends and roommates for whom partying and hook-up culture was more of the norm (well, a sub-culture norm). But there was also the pressure to keep purity pledges and that sort of thing. I think my experience was somewhere in between.

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?

Oh absolutely yes. We had mandatory chapels, and we had to take a mandatory 30 units of Bible classes so that everyone ended up with a minor in Biblical Studies.

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?

Here again was where I learned about relative diversity of thought within Christianity. The school absolutely skewed conservative, politically, but there were some student groups who pushed those boundaries. And I remember thinking something along the lines of, I didn’t know you could be anything but Republican and be a Christian! Here again, the small level of exposure I had at Biola to other ways of thinking, began to erode my fundamentalist foundations. Which is pretty ironic. My parents sent me to an Evangelical school to (I assume) further educate me in their belief system and cement my faith. At the time I suppose it did that, somewhat, but in the long run it was the questions I began asking at Biola that led to the whole thing (over many, many subsequent years) eventually all falling apart for me.

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?

As much as it pains me to say it, the advantage they have is, in a world that is becoming more and more polarized, they have dug in their heels and continue to offer an option to people who buy into the narrative that Christians are being assaulted and persecuted. Many people have this worldview and so for them, the “safety” that these schools offer is appealing. However, on the other side of the coin, I believe that the future of evangelical education is similar to the future of the evangelical church. While there is drastic entrenchment, and thus there will likely always be a market for fundamentalism, younger generations continue to be more diverse, more liberally minded, less willing to deal with the exclusivism preached by these churches and universities. So I guess as long as they can survive on the backs of those they’ve convinced to become more entrenched, they will. But I’m hoping the evangelical church as a whole (as we know it) soon will either reinvent itself or become relatively obsolete.

Thanks, Alexis!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with Adam at the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

Are Christians Allowed in New York?

It makes conservatives furious, but is Dan Piepenbring right? Piepenbring recently blasted Chik-fil-A’s “creepy infiltration” of New York City in the pages of the New Yorker. The brouhaha shows how little most of us understand about New York’s real status in our continuing culture wars. It has never really been the Great Sodom that conservatives excoriate and progressives celebrate.

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The Christians that never sleep?

Piepenbring is mad that Chik-fil-A is sneaking into his city. He dislikes the conservative evangelical politics of the chain’s founder. More than that, though, he seems put out by the Midwestern aw-shucks-ism at play. Piepenbring seems offended by the way Chik-fil-A imported a family-values vibe into his grunge-chic citycape. The company’s trademark Cows exemplify the problem. As Piepenbring puts it,

The joke is that the Cows are out of place in New York—a winking acknowledgment that Chick-fil-A, too, does not quite belong here.

Conservatives reacted with predictable hauteur. For example, American Conservative’s Rod Dreher blasted Piepenbring’s “Yankee bigot[ry].” “In terms of parochial, un-self-aware narrow-mindedness,” Dreher opened,

it is hard to beat this piece from the New Yorker on how the a [sic] popular purveyor of delicious chicken and waffle fries is making Manhattan into an unsafe space.

It should be funny, Dreher notes, to read anything that soberly invokes phrases such as “suburban piety.” In actual fact, Dreher concludes, Piepenbring’s half-baked screed is more than a sad joke; it serves as yet more evidence of widespread “anti-Christian bigotry.”

I can’t agree with Dreher’s main point about anti-Christian bigotry, but I do think that Piepenbring’s brand of “keep New York weird” rhetoric misses some important truths. Full disclosure: I share the desire to sponsor local over chain. Up here in sunny Binghamton, I go to Laveggio instead of Starbucks; Consol’s instead of Olive Garden. But even though I share Piepenbring’s anti-corporate aesthetics, I can’t help but think he is willfully ignoring some fundamental truths about his city.

It’s beyond obvious, of course, that New York City is the headquarters of America’s financial and corporate culture. Less obvious, perhaps, is that New York has also served as a center of conservative evangelical intellectual culture and activism.

A century ago, progressive New Yorkers were similarly riled by the fiery fundamentalism of New York’s John Roach Straton, pastor of Calvary Baptist and one of the undisputed national leaders of the 1920s fundamentalist movement. I spent some time with Straton’s archived papers a few years back and they are chock-full of ardent correspondence with all the top conservative evangelicals of his generation.

Again and again, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists praised Straton and acknowledged his New-York-based leadership of the national fundamentalist movement. In 1922, for example, the president of fundamentalist Wheaton College in Illinois wrote to Straton

to thank you for the attack you are making on the infidel teaching of our time.

Beyond any dispute, Straton used his New York City headquarters to fight evolution and theological liberalism. He used the cultural clout of his big-city address to add oomph to his fundamentalist activism. Yet even his fundamentalist admirers tended to assume that fundamentalism was not a true product of the Big Apple. Straton himself sometimes agreed. In spite of the fact that he had built his fundamentalist empire from Manhattan, Straton told the New York Times in 1925 that fundamentalism was a Southern thing. As Straton put it, fundamentalism represented

a rising tide of spiritual earnestness preparing in the South and West which will sweep the country.

Even today, New York City is home to some of conservative evangelicalism’s most vital institutions. Most notably, The King’s College moved downtown in order to exert its presence in the heart of Gotham. As one enthusiast put it, by moving to New York, TKC could be

a counter cultural Christian college in New York City that leads with academic excellence and ‘convictional civility.’

Though both conservatives and progressives have tended to assume that conservative evangelicals don’t fit in New York’s hurly-burly cultural landscape, both sides have frequently missed the long, continuing tradition of New York’s role as a capital city of conservative evangelicalism.

They don’t agree on much, but both sides seem to ignore New York’s real role as an international headquarters of conservative evangelical religion. Why?

Dayton Dilemmas I: WBR and Christian Nationalism

How could they do it? How could earnest, intelligent, educated Christians ever mash together their faith with their patriotism? That’s the tough question people were asking yesterday at the University of Dayton. I don’t have an easy answer, but I do think the case of William Bell Riley helps shed some light on it.dayton flyers

First, the background: Thanks to the dynamic scholarly duo of Professors Bill and Susan Trollinger, authors (among other things) of Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’m down in sunny Dayton, Ohio these days. Yesterday I talked with members of the Flyer community about my recent book, Fundamentalist U. I focused on the long tradition in evangelical higher education of combining conservative evangelical Protestant faith with a certain sort of Make-America-Great-Again patriotism.

The argument I tried to make is that white fundamentalists have always felt a deep sense of proprietary interest in the United States. For white fundamentalists, America has always been “our” country. Over the course of the twentieth century, in schools and society, fundamentalists have felt kicked out by trends toward secularism and political liberalism. They have repeatedly rallied to politicians who have promised to Make America Great Again.

righting america at the creation museumTrump’s not the first. As audience members pointed out, we can go back to Reagan and Nixon to find coded and not-so-coded appeals to “law-and-order,” the “silent majority,” and “shining cities on a hill.” For white evangelical voters, particularly the more politically conservative among them, those campaign promises have always been enormously appealing.

Some of the intellectuals in the audience—steeped in a very different tradition, the Catholic intellectual tradition—asked the tough question: How could any Christian of any denominational background ever mix up their priorities so badly? How could any Christian confuse his (primary) devotion to his religion with his (secondary) devotion to his country?

I had the chance to talk with Professor Bill Trollinger about the question. Bill is the universe’s greatest expert in the life and career of 1920s fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley. Riley, like many early fundamentalists, was a devoted Baptist. For Riley, in the early 1920s fundamentalism was a campaign to take back his denomination from the worrisome liberal trends that had begun to creep in.

American Baptists, ever since the days of Roger Williams, have placed an enormous emphasis on the freedom of the church from the government, and on the inviolate primacy of religious devotion over any political loyalty. By the twentieth century, however, Baptist fundamentalists like William Bell Riley seemed to have lost their yen for avoiding entanglement with government. Riley and other Baptist fundamentalists pushed hard to establish (or, as they would put it, re-establish) their evangelical religion in a more prominent place in public life. They wanted greater influence on public affairs. They hoped for increased influence on government decisions, such as banning alcohol, gambling, and other immoral activities.gods empire

How did that happen? How did ardent Baptists become so enthusiastic about “taking back America”?

Professor Trollinger and I came up with a short list, and I hope SAGLRROILYBYGTH will add their two cents.

How did fundamentalists like Riley combine their devotion to their religions with their devotion to the USA?

1.) Riley would always agree that church and state should be separate, but that the church must always represent the conscience of the society.

So although there must never be church control of government, government leaders should always be guided by religious leaders. Riley’s career could be characterized, in fact, by his increasing bitterness and resentment at his perceived lack of Main-Street influence. By the end of his life, Riley had become a vengeful, anti-semitic extremist, dedicated to sour conspiracy theories to explain his failure to establish himself in the level of public leadership to which he felt entitled.

2.) Riley wanted influence and was in part blinded by patriotic tradition.

Like many fundamentalists since, Riley failed in some measure to maintain his own Baptist tradition, even though he would never admit that. For Riley, as for many fundamentalists of later generations, America became representative of a Christian community. The division between church and society—if not church and state—became blurred in Riley’s mind and in his activism.

3.) The devil made them do it.

For many fundamentalists, political activism was intimately, necessarily connected and equated with religious activism. Patriotism was inseparable from faith. Why? Because of their belief in literal, incarnate supernatural entities acting through political entities. But we’ll save that for our next post.

Fundamentalists Forget their Furious Family Feud

Maybe there’s hope for every family feud. The death of Billy Graham last week inspired an outpouring of love and respect from people whose fundamentalist forefathers loathed Graham’s revivals. Creationist impresario Ken Ham, for example, never one to water down his fundamentalist faith, had nothing but praise for Graham’s ministry. The archives tell a much different story.

Some of today’s no-compromise conservatives seem to have forgotten the legacy of their fundamentalist forefathers. Ken Ham, for example, praised Graham’s evangelistic outreach. As a child he listened to a Graham rally in Australia. As Ham recalled,

I remember people going forward in this church after listening to him and committing their lives to Christ.

Of course, it’s never kosher to speak evil of the dead. Ken Ham, however, lauded the whole body of Graham’s evangelistic outreach, from the 1950s through today. Ham included no whisper of accusation about Graham’s work.

Does he not know the backstory? Or have fundamentalists given up their ferocious feelings about Graham’s revivals in the 1950s?

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Yes, there is a place to read the full story…

To be sure, Graham’s passing has attracted some criticism from intellectuals. Historian Matthew Avery Sutton blasted Graham’s reactionary politics. D.G. Hart recalls the fact that many conservative Protestants were “not exactly wild about Graham’s ministry.”

The epochal anger and denunciations sparked by Graham’s outreach, however, seem to have been forgotten by some latter-day fundamentalists themselves.

I look into this history in my new book about evangelical higher education. In a nutshell, Graham’s revivals split the conservative evangelical community. The sticking point was follow-up. At Graham’s hugely popular services, audience members who felt Jesus’s call were put in touch with a sponsoring church. Those churches included more liberal Protestant churches as well as more conservative ones.

Fundamentalists worried that Graham’s preaching was leading souls directly into the pit of hell, by sending them to false churches to learn poisoned theology. These fears weren’t limited to a few right-wing wackos; they were a prominent part of conservative evangelical thinking in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

In 1963, for example, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University denounced Billy Graham. To a correspondent who accused Sutherland of cooperating with Billy Graham, Sutherland wrote,

I do appreciate the truth found in the Word of God which Billy Graham proclaims.  We appreciate also the souls that are saved and who find their way to Bible-believing churches and thus are nurtured in our most holy faith.  We deplore quite definitely, and have said so publicly, that there are so many doctrinally questionable individuals who are identified in prominent ways with the campaign and we are disappointed beyond words in the knowledge that so many of those who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ at the crusades will doubtless find their way into churches where the Word of God is not proclaimed and where they will not have a chance to know what the Gospel is all about or what it means, actually, to be born-again.  I am with you.

In 1971, one outraged fundamentalist wrote to Moody Bible Institute President William Culbertson to express his disgust at the Graham crusades. As he put it, the Graham crusades only sent people into false churches, such as “Luthern” [sic], “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, etc.”

anti culbertson anti graham letter 1

Fundamentalists didn’t like Billy Graham…

For a fundamentalist, that was a serious accusation.

Such accusations flew fast and furious around the world of fundamentalist higher education. The magazine of Biola University ran one typical reader letter in 1958. Reader Dorothy Rose condemned Graham as a false Christian and a servant of world communism. Rose warned (falsely) that Graham had been expelled from two “outstanding, sound Bible colleges.” As Rose wrote direly,

It is easy to be popular with the high-ups and with the press if we are willing to compromise.  But what is the cost spiritually?

No one denounced Graham more fiercely than Graham’s former mentor Bob Jones Sr. In 1958, for example, Jones wrote to a fundamentalist ally,

No real, true, loyal, Bible friend of Bob Jones University can be for the Billy Graham sponsorship . . . . [Billy Graham is] doing more spiritual harm than any living man.

Fundamentalists have come a long way. When it comes to the legacy of Billy Graham at least, no-compromise conservatives seem to have forgiven, or more likely, forgotten the divisive nature of Graham’s ministry.

Poison Pens at Evangelical Colleges

What’s going on at Taylor University in Indiana? According to a recent anonymous newsletter, the evangelical campus is seething with

gossip, slander, backbiting, profanity, vulgarity, crude language, sexual immorality (including adultery, homosexual behavior, premarital sex and involvement with pornography in any form), drunkenness, immodesty of dress and occult practice.

Zoiks!

Taylor’s administration struggles to respond to this conservative carping. For those in the know about the history of evangelical higher education, this sort of anonymous poison-pen assault has always been part of life at Christian colleges.

As I found in the research for my new book, critics from both the evangelical left and the fundamentalist right have often resorted to anonymous open letters in their attempts to influence policy at their schools. The archival files bulge with letters and newsletters of this type.

At Biola University, for example, a self-identified group of disgruntled fundamentalists buttonholed President Samuel Sutherland with a list of concerns in 1969. As they wrote anxiously,

we are deeply concerned about danger signs showing themselves among some of our conference speakers and members of the student body! Indications now present seem to point to a trend that the school is moving from its Biblical foundation.  May God prevent such a tragedy!

The students were concerned with the slackening of the student dress code, particularly for women. The rules stated that skirts and dresses must not be shorter than one and a half inches above the knee. As the conservative students complained, though,

the failure of a number of Biola girls to adhere to the dress rule is altogether too evident.  Excessive bodily exposure of Biola girls has even been seen in the seminary section of the library and has proven a hindrance to study. . . . We urge the administration to be rigorous in enforcing the rules and regulations of Biola Schools.  IN particular, the dress length rule should be observed because of its obvious Biblical basis.

Rock and roll, too, had snuck onto campus. As the protesters warned,

Unfortunately, many students here are experiencing a diet of music consisting primarily of the popular beat of the day.  Our group does not advocate avoidance of popular tunes!  However we do oppose the trend toward an exclusive diet of rock and roll even to the extent that our religious music is to be constructed around the beat.

All in all, the fundamentalist protesters in 1969 worried about the very continuation of Biola as a safe evangelical school. As they concluded,

Many great schools of the past today are under the sway of heresy.  We do not believe that loss happened within a few months.  We believe the erosion was gradual.  May God help all of the administration and faculty at Biola Schools to become more alert in detecting danger signs and in taking action to prevent the deterioration that has begun here.

These sorts of anonymous pleas for reform and renewal haven’t only come from nose-out-of-joint fundamentalists. Liberal students, too, have penned their share of open letters. The archives are full of em, but my personal favorite comes from Moody Bible Institute.

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From the MBI Archives: BEWARE!

In 1971, MBI invited John R. Rice to speak at its annual Founder’s Day event. Before he could make the trip to Chicago, Rice came out in favor of the racial segregation at Bob Jones University. What was MBI to do? The leadership didn’t want to endorse Rice’s brand of Southern-fried racism. But they also didn’t want to anger his considerable fundamentalist following. As they dithered, they received an anonymous letter warning them to cancel Rice’s appearance.

The letter claimed to be written by non-students. To this reporter, however, the tone sounds awfully similar to the phrasing used by evangelical students everywhere and the letter-writers seem to know a lot more about Rice and MBI than any outsider would. For example, they had read Rice’s publication, Sword of the Lord. They knew about Rice’s recent support for racial segregation at Bob Jones U.

What should MBI do? The letter writers made threats:

We Do Not Want HIM [Rice] IN CHICAGO. If you bring him here to speak, we will have one of the biggest demonstrations Chicago has ever seen.

It would get ugly. As the letter concluded,

BEWARE . . . . the hour is later than you think. . . . Obey our orders or REEEEEEAAAAAP what you sow.

In the end, MBI canceled Rice’s speech. Perhaps the administration shared the letter-writers’ concern that their “ ‘image’ will . . . be destroyed.”

What will happen at Taylor? The conservative newsletter complains that the current campus is going to the dogs, according to Inside Higher Education. In classes, the newsletter exclaims, students learn

permissive views of human sexuality, hostility toward creationist perspectives, rejection of the rule of law (especially on the immigration issue) and uncritical endorsement of liberal-progressive ideas[.]

Such poison-pen missives have had a big impact in the past. Perhaps Taylor’s administration will take the path of least resistance and make some move to mollify the “conservative underground.”

Billy Graham and Bob Jones

The news is in: Billy Graham has passed away at age 99. I’m not among his evangelical followers, but over the past several years I’ve gotten to know Billy Graham as I’ve worked on my new book about evangelical higher education.

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Graham preaching to the multitudes, London 1954.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Graham became the embodiment of a new spirit among American fundamentalists. He reached out to other Protestants to help lead big revival services all across the world. Some fundamentalists thought he went too far. (For details, check out my archival survey of fundamentalist fury about Graham’s revival successes.) As I note in my book, Bob Jones Sr. in particular had a long and tempestuous relationship with Graham.

Graham had started his college career at Bob Jones College. After a year, though, Graham left, ending up with an anthropology major from Wheaton. Jones and Graham kept in close contact and their correspondence is the best single source I’ve found to understand the rift between fundamentalists and new-evangelicals.

By the 1950s, Jones actively warned fundamentalists not to trust Graham or any institution that welcomed Graham. Jones’s letters show both the reasons and the personal anguish involved. Below I’ll quote from a five-page single-spaced letter Jones wrote to Graham in 1951.

                Here is the difference between your mistakes and mine: My mistakes grew out of the way I did things because I did not know how to do them.  After I got the right kind of advice, I quit making them.  Your mistakes have not grown out of your lack of information or your inability to get information.  Your mistakes have grown out of the fact that you are not building your evangelistic campaigns on the right foundation and the right principles.  Billy, if you build a house on the right foundation, the storms and wind may blow that house down, but you do not have to ever rebuild the foundation. . . .

In your heart, you love Jesus, and you are happy to see people saved; but your love for glamour and your ambition (which is the strongest ambition I have ever known any man in evangelistic work to have) and your desire to please everybody are so dominant in your life that you are staggering from one side of the road to the other. . . . You, in your effort to please, are putting yourself on the spot. . . .

Most of the material that goes out about you, you put out. . . .

I could tell you much more, Billy; but it does not do any good to talk to you.  You will agree with a fellow, but you go on just as you are, and that is the discouraging thing about it. . . .

You are popular like any showman is popular, but you have no real grasp upon the hearts of the people like Billy Sunday and other men had. . . .

[When you were young, you begged me] to call you one of my boys and told me that you got your slant on evangelism at Bob Jones  University.  My evangelistic heart was touched, and I put about you the arms of evangelistic affection.  I came back here to the school and told everybody that you were one of our boys.  I did not tell them what kind of a record you made here.  I took at face value what you said about going to Florida because of your health.  I asked all of our boys to pray for you.  I asked my friends to pray for you.  Remember, Billy, that was before you made the headlines. . . .

you began to think that probably the best thing for you was at least on certain occasions and in certain places not to let people know that you were here [as a student at Bob Jones College] and that, as you had said, you got your slant on evangelism here.  So you began to sort of soft pedal. . . .

Now that you are in the headlines, the fact that I ever said that you were one of our boys because you told me to, and people know about that, and you cover it up gives the idea that we are trying to hang on to your coat tail because you are in the headlines; but we are not, Billy. . . .

I still love you…

Fundamentalists Were Right

For a hundred years, conservative evangelicals have told themselves that college is a dangerous place. As I argue in my new book about evangelical higher ed, the threat posed by mainstream schools pushed fundamentalists in the 1920s to invest in their own network of interdenominational schools, safe colleges for fundamentalist youth. A new study suggests that fundamentalist fears are still well founded.

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How today’s fundamentalists view college…

Back in the 1920s, fundamentalists loved to recount horror stories of college gone bad. As evangelist Bob Jones like to tell revival crowds in the 1920s, one Christian family he knew scrimped and saved to send their beloved daughter to a fancy college. What happened?

At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered. She laughed at God and the old time religion. She broke the hearts of her father and mother. They wept over her. They prayed over her. It availed nothing. At last they chided her. She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Other fundamentalist pundits shared an apocryphal letter from a damned college graduate. This letter, from 1921, told the folks at home,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.

Back then, fundamentalists didn’t just rely on anecdotal evidence. They shared social-science evidence of the dangers of mainstream higher education, especially psychologist James Leuba’s 1916 study of college-student religiosity. The students he interviewed tended to grow less religious during their college years. The takeaway? College must be doing something to strip students’ faith.

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Those darn college professors…

These days, conservative evangelicals are just as nervous as ever about college. On my recent trip to Answers In Genesis’s Ark Encounter in Kentucky, I was surprised to find a huge walk-through comic book illustrating the dangers of higher education.

And, over a hundred years after Leuba’s book, new research seems to suggest that mainstream colleges really do tend to water down student religiosity. The survey by the Interfaith Youth Core was most interested in the ways college students reacted to religious diversity. Along the way, they found that among 7,194 students at 122 colleges, religious activities as a whole tended to drop during the first year of college.

Forty-three percent of the freshman respondents said they had talked about religious ideas in high school, while only a quarter said they did in college. When it came to religious diversity, the numbers are even starker. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they had attended a religious service of a different faith than their own in high school, but only 20% did in college.

College students also reported friendlier attitudes toward liberal ideas after a year of college, from 55% up to 63%. And a majority said they felt some pressure to change their religious ideas and that they tended to keep their religious ideas to themselves.

So while people like me might worry that students are not getting enough exposure to religious diversity, fundamentalists will likely worry more. Even if college students are shying away from other religions, they are also shying away from their own.

The Art Is In!

Thanks to the folks at Oxford, we have a terrific cover for my new book about the history of evangelical higher education. We had batted around a few other ideas about cover art, including artsy-fied excerpts from some of the student rulebooks. In the end, my editor thought those looked too busy and hard to read and I think she was right. Especially when I see this snazzy cover.Cover art final

When can you get your hands on a copy? Soon. Pre-orders are available now, and OUP promises to ship on February 1st.

How Do You Know?

It might seem sloppy or even a little slapdash. Historians claim to know things about the past, but most of us don’t have hard-and-fast proof for the arguments we make. This morning I’d like to share one small example of the way the process works, at least in the case of my upcoming book.

I just finished reading John Lewis Gaddis’s Landscape of History with my graduate class. Gaddis is a leading historian of the Cold War. In Landscape of History, he argues that academic historians don’t try to make the same claims as social scientists. And that’s okay.Gaddis landscape

Gaddis uses a painting of a wanderer looking down on a fog-cloaked valley to illustrate his point. Historians can never be absolutely sure of their data; they are like the wanderer—looking into a distance that is cloaked and ultimately mysterious. Some social-scientists might object that the process makes claims it can’t back up with real data. Gaddis describes one such encounter:

Some years ago I asked the great global historian William H. McNeill to explain his method of writing history to a group of social, physical, and biological scientists attending a conference I’d organized. He at first resisted this, claiming that he had no particular method. When pressed, though, he described it as follows:

“I get curious about a problem and start reading up on it. What I read causes me to redefine the problem. Redefining the problem causes me to shift the direction of what I’m reading. That in turn further reshapes the problem, which further redirects the reading. I go back and forth like this until it feels right, then I write it up and ship it off to the publisher.”

McNeill’s presentation elicited expressions of disappointment, even derision, from the economists, sociologists, and political scientists present. “That’s not a method,” several of them exclaimed. “It’s not parsimonious, it doesn’t distinguish between independent and dependent variables, it hopelessly confuses induction and deduction.”

Gaddis liked the method anyway, and so do I. As I’m reviewing my research files for my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education (available for preorder now!) I came across a few items that didn’t make the final cut, but they do help illustrate the way I came to make the arguments I’m making.

One of the central arguments of the book is that evangelical and fundamentalist colleges have always been subjected to furious scrutiny from the national network of fundamentalists. There has always been a strong sense among the evangelical public that evangelical colleges must be held to a high standard of religious purity. Naturally, parents and alumni of every sort of college watch their schools closely. After all, they might be spending big bucks to send their kids there. In the case of evangelical higher education, even unaffiliated busybodies feel entirely justified—even compelled—to intrude.stenholm notes in controversial Kodon

Another key argument of the book concerns the feud between the fundamentalist and evangelical branches of the conservative-evangelical family. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, the fundamentalist network split into fundamentalist and new-evangelical camps. Some historians have called this a “decisive break” or an “irreparable breach,” but at institutions of higher education, it always felt more like a continuing family feud. At least, that’s the argument I make in the book.

How do I know?

As Professors McNeill and Gaddis insist, it is mostly a question of time. I spent long hours and days in the archives of various schools. I read everything. As I did so, ideas about these themes developed. As they did, I went back and reread everything. Did the idea seem to match the historic record? Over and over again, I noticed that school administrators fretted about the eternal and invasive fundamentalist scrutiny to which they were subjected. Over and over again, I noticed the tones of betrayal, hurt, and intimate outrage that characterized the disagreements between “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” schools.

Not all the evidence made it into the book. One episode I do discuss is a controversial student publication from Wheaton College in Illinois. Back when he was an earnest evangelical student in the early 1960s, Wes Craven—yes, the Nightmare on Elm Street guy—was the student editor of Wheaton’s literary magazine. As part of his intellectual revolt against fundamentalism, Craven published two stories that he knew would ruffle fundamentalist feathers. In one, an unmarried woman wonders what to do about her pregnancy. In another, a white woman is sexually attracted to an African American man.

A quirk of the archives helped me see the ways the controversy unfolded. At the time Craven’s magazine came out, Gilbert Stenholm had been working at fundamentalist Bob Jones University for quite some time. He kept everything. His archive files are full of unique documents that helped me see how fundamentalist higher education worked in practice.

For example, he saved his copy of Craven’s controversial student magazine. His notes in the margins helped me understand the ways fundamentalists were outraged by their new-evangelical cousins. Along the edges of one story, an outraged Stenholm penned in one shocked word: “Profanity!” Elsewhere, Stenholm filled the margins with exclamation points.

What did this one-of-a-kind archival find tell me? It helped me see that fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones University had never really washed their hands of evangelical schools like Wheaton. For Stenholm, at least, the goings-on at Wheaton were always of intense interest. And it helped clarify to me the ways members of the far-flung fundamentalist community watched one another. They were always nervous about slippage—always anxious that trustworthy schools could slide into the liberal camp.

Stenholm’s outrage in the case of Craven’s student magazine didn’t make the book’s final cut, but this copy of Wheaton’s student magazine in Stenholm’s collection told me a lot. It doesn’t serve as the kind of “parsimonious,” independent-variable method that Gaddis’s social scientists would prefer. But taken all together, bits and pieces of archival gold like this one guided me to the argument I finally “ship[ped] . . . off to the publisher.”