One Big Unhappy Family

Normal people might be forgiven for saying ‘Enough already.’ The Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College has been poked and prodded by commentators and armchair pundits from every conceivable angle, including my own humble contribution at History News Network about Wheaton’s relevant history. But just one more word from me before I let the subject drop: Does this purge help heal the rift between fundamentalist universities?

In case you’ve been living life and not keeping with the latest, here’s a quick refresher: Professor Hawkins was fired for her statements that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Commentators have offered a full spectrum of analysis. One Wheaton professor defended his school. Crunchy conservative Rod Dreher also spoke up for Wheaton’s right to police its theological borders. A former student said Wheaton’s decision was in line with evangelical tradition. And perhaps most intriguing, historian extraordinaire Michael S. Hamilton told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Wheaton doesn’t like it when people don’t fit into its white, Northern, fundamentalist tradition.

In all the hullaballoo, I missed an important piece in this evangelical jigsaw puzzle. Just as Wheaton decided to suspend Professor Hawkins, they got some support from an unlikely source. President Steve Pettit of Bob Jones University tweeted his support for the beleaguered administration.

pettit tweet BJU supports Wheaton firing dec 2015

Are they all on the same page again?

As I noted recently, my current research into the history of evangelical colleges has revealed continuing tensions between the two schools. I won’t rehash the whole story here, but in brief, a stormy rivalry in the 1930s developed into an outright breach in the 1970s. By that point, BJU had become the flagship university of steadfast separatist fundamentalism, while Wheaton represented the best of a broader conservative evangelicalism.

Maybe things have changed. President Steve Pettit of BJU recently visited Wheaton’s campus, a remarkable thaw in the deep freeze between the two schools. Now President Pettit is extending his support to Wheaton’s “embattled” leaders in this difficult time.

What does that mean?

Might it mean that President Pettit hopes Wheaton will move closer to its fundamentalist roots? At Bob Jones University, fundamentalism had often meant ruthless purges of dissenting faculty and administration. Since its founding in the 1920s, Bob Jones University has maintained a steady record of firing anyone who does not agree with the administration. As founder Bob Jones Sr. memorably expressed it in a chapel talk,

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.

I’ve got no inside scoop here, but I can’t help but wonder: Does Wheaton’s recent faculty purge put it back on the “fundamentalist” side of this long-lived divide?

Fundamentalist U: The Original “Safe Space”

It’s not a new idea. In spite of what journalists and pundits might suggest, today’s push on college campuses for “safe spaces” has a century-long tradition. The schools I’m studying these days—conservative evangelical colleges, universities, and Bible institutes—have always promised to provide “safe spaces” for young people.

We’ve talked before about the ways the recent spate of college protests might best be understood as an “impulse to orthodoxy.” Sometimes the ferocity of student protests seems woefully out of proportion to the alleged offenses at elite schools such as Yale and Claremont McKenna College.

At Yale, for example, two faculty members were berated and hounded for their suggestions that some Halloween costumes might be acceptably offensive. And at Claremont McKenna, a top administrator was driven out for her worry that non-white students might have a legitimate reason to feel unwelcome on her campus.

BJU BALMER

You’ll be safe here…

The moral outrage of students, however, makes perfect sense as a defense of a moral orthodoxy. As with any orthodoxy, deviation is not just disagreement. Orthodox thinking raises seemingly mild disagreement into existential threats. Those who veer in the smallest degree from orthodoxy must not only be ostracized. Their heterodox notions must be denounced in the most ferocious terms in order to emphasize one’s own continued loyalty.

Seen in terms of orthodoxy, talk of “safe spaces” makes perfect sense. In the orthodox mindset, challenging ideas raise the specter of unacceptable deviation. Young people must be protected from threatening ideas until they are well-enough schooled in orthodoxy to protect themselves.

Today’s protesters might not like the company, but the network of Protestant fundamentalist schools that emerged in the 1910s and 1920s made such “safe spaces” its raison d’etre.

In the 1920s, for example, President James M. Gray of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago told parents to send their fundamentalist children to his “safe space” for two years of Bible training before they went on to a traditional four-year college. Why? In his words,

It renders [a student] immune to the evolution and modernistic germs, while it enables him to examine them in the light of the Christian revelation as he could not have done before.

A few years later, school founder and evangelist extraordinaire Bob Jones promised parents a new sort of college, one that would offer a totalized “safe space.” In the June, 1928 edition of Bob Jones Magazine, Jones promised,

If you fathers and mothers who read this magazine have children to educate, and you wish them to attend a school which will protect their spiritual life, send them to the Bob Jones College. The fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children.

This tradition of fundamentalist “safe spaces” continues today. As young-earth creationist impresario Ken Ham argued last year in response to my questions,

We are burdened to help parents choose a college wisely that does not put stumbling blocks in their children’s way that could lead them to doubt and ultimately disbelieve the Scriptures.

If some ideas are indeed sacred, then young people do indeed need “safe spaces” in order to preserve their impulse to orthodoxy. For fundamentalists, it was easy to declare their schools “safe spaces,” since they wanted explicitly to protect young people from certain heterodox ideas.

It is much harder, of course, for non-fundamentalists to make the same point. Students who want “safe spaces” without acknowledging their impulse to orthodoxy don’t have the same explicit rationale. They want the results of fundamentalist higher education without being able to acknowledge their desire for it.

Power on Campus: Fundamentalists Have the Last Laugh

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. At places such as Yale, Claremont McKenna, and Missouri, presidents are resigning and faculty are trembling. Ham-fisted protesters are demanding an end to free speech. Halloween costumes have become a disguise for racial oppression. To regular joes and pundits alike, this burst of campus outrage can seem puzzling. But there is one group to whom this phenomenon would make perfect sense.

A brief review of the cases:

The episodes can tell us a good deal about the real levers of power on campus. Who doesn’t have power? Administrators charged with insensitivity toward systematic racism and oppression. They get the boot, and fast, if they seem to oppose racial inclusivism.

Who else doesn’t have power? Students who want bread-and-butter economic reforms of higher ed. Even when a million students protested for lower tuition and lower student debt, it didn’t generate the same feverish buzz as these recent racial protests. To my knowledge, no university president has resigned because his or her school is expensive.

Who else is out? Even protesters against racial insensitivity, if they try to use physical coercion. When that happened recently at Missouri, for instance, the offending bully resigned and even sympathetic leftist pundits agreed that the protesters weren’t “always-wise.”

Just as informative, these protests tell us who really has power on campus. Who has it? Football teams. Duh. But even those athletes are energized by a surprising fact.

The real power on campus these days comes from an ancient but complicated moral idea. We might call it “the impulse to orthodoxy.” It can be tricky to understand, especially since no one is talking about it in those terms. The impulse to orthodoxy includes a moral two-step: Not only must people behave in a moral way, but they must actively seek out and root out those who fail to understand the proper reasons for moral action.

How does this ancient idea work in today’s campus protests? The successful campus protests these days insist not only that school leaders fight racism. More telling, protesters are fired up by the idea that they are under a moral imperative to expose and exclude all those who do not adequately understand the nuances of systematic racism.

At Missouri, for example, system president Tim Wolfe eventually resigned due to a perceived lack of administrative action against repeated racial incidents. The protesters wanted more than new policies. They wanted Wolfe out. Why? Because Wolfe personally seemed to misunderstand or even belittle complaints about systematic racism. One student leader went on a much-publicized hunger strike until Wolfe was kicked out. The student, Jonathan Butler, explained that only the ouster of Wolfe would make the school “a better place.”

At Yale, too, the impulse to orthodoxy has caused some observers to scratch their heads. On one level, it seems like a slightly hysterical protest about a fairly reasonable request. Faculty masters Nicholas and Erika Christakis suggested that students might relax about Halloween costumes. So what’s the problem? Morally orthodox students could not stand Christakis’s suggestion that they simply “look away” from offensive outfits. For the orthodox, looking away from immorality is as bad or worse than the immorality itself.

A similarly insufficient zeal damned an administrator of the elite Claremont McKenna College in California. Dean of Students Mary Spellman wrote a sympathetic email to a student who complained about racial insensitivity. So what’s the problem? Spellman included a line about non-white students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” To protesters, such language smacked of a hidden, intolerable insensitivity.

In all these cases, school leaders and faculty are under attack for two reasons. First, they are accused of displaying an inadequate understanding of and zealousness about racial inclusivity. The oft-confusing part, though, comes from the second reason. The impulse to orthodoxy demands that such inadequate agreement be tirelessly sought out and ruthlessly purged. It is not enough to apologize. Campus protesters feel free to use any coercion, stamp out any speech, if those things seem to promote immorality.

Today’s racial protesters will be surprised at the people who might understand them best: Protestant fundamentalists. As I’m finding out as I research my new book, the history of fundamentalist higher education is mostly the story of a similar impulse to orthodoxy. Beginning in the 1920s, it was not enough for fundamentalists simply to protest against secularization of the academy. It was not enough simply to disagree with the theological implications of evolution. Rather, for fundamentalists since the 1920s, it was necessary to demand that schools purge all such things. When that didn’t work, fundamentalists opened their own schools, places such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, and Bryan College.

Throughout their histories, fundamentalist colleges have taken drastic action to purge any hint of compromise. In 1961, for example, Wheaton scientist Russell Mixter had to offer elaborate apologies to those who thought he might have accepted mainstream evolutionary theory.

These days, similar drastic action is wracking the campus of Bryan College. Faculty who seem not to be sufficiently zealous in their embrace of a young earth are being shown the door.

Of course, the specific moral ideas are extremely different. At fundamentalist colleges, the dangerous trends were toward theological modernism and evolutionary science. At today’s elite mainstream colleges, the moral imperative demands the removal—root and branch—of those who don’t sufficiently act against systematic racism.

Yet the impulse remains the same. The moral imperative of orthodoxy requires more than just a certain set of ideas. It implies a tireless and ruthless dedication to root out all those who do not adequately understand or embody those ideas.

Required Reading: Gloege on MBI

It’s not just a metaphor, not just a handy way of speaking. According to Timothy Gloege, fundamentalism acts like a business because it was founded like a business. In his terrific new book Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, Gloege digs into the history of America’s premier Bible Institute to uncover the reasons for these tight connections. Along the way, he tells us a lot about the history of evangelicalism and of evangelical higher education.Gloege Guaranteed Pure

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m up to my ears in writing my new book about fundamentalist/evangelical higher education. And Guaranteed Pure is the best book on the subject I’ve read in a long time.

For those in the know about evangelicalism and evangelical education, the centrality of MBI doesn’t need explaining. Started in the 1880s by Bible evangelists and their corporate backers, MBI became a juggernaut of publishing, broadcasting, and education. By the mid-twentieth century, MBI loomed large among evangelicals as a brick-and-mortar institution, a solid headquarters for a fundamentalist movement that often ran on shoestrings and prayers. As Gloege puts it near the end of his story (pg. 227), “It is difficult to think of an interwar fundamentalist that did not have or attempt to establish some connection to MBI.”

For those who are unfamiliar with these histories, Gloege’s book would be a great place to start. He offers vivid and fully realized portraits of central personalities such as Reuben Torrey. He fleshes out the complicated relationship between different types of conservative evangelicals around the turn of the twentieth century, from California Pentecostals to Minneapolis Fundamentalists and everything in between.

No matter how well you know these connections, you’re sure to find something enlightening in Guaranteed Pure. For example, Gloege offers the best history I’ve read of the emergence of The Fundamentals, a twelve-volume series of books that is often seen as the first articulation of emerging fundamentalism.

As Gloege recounts, the big-business ethos that emerged in the end of the 1800s did more than just set the tone for the founding of Moody Bible Institute. Rather, leaders such as Henry Crowell of Quaker Oats applied the same emerging modern attitudes toward marketing and profits to MBI as he did to oatmeal. That didn’t mean Crowell was cynical or insincere. Rather, it merely helps us make sense of the sometimes-strange career of early fundamentalism.

For example, every attempt to define early fundamentalism clearly quickly runs up against seemingly insuperable problems. Historian Matthew Sutton, for instance, in his recent book American Apocalypse offered a compelling definition. The thing that set radical evangelicals apart from other religious traditions, Sutton argued, was their overweening concern with the coming apocalypse. In Sutton’s words, it was “fundamentalists’ anticipation of the soon-coming apocalypse [that] made them who they were” (pg. 3).

True enough, but we quickly run into problems. There were leading intellectuals such as J. Gresham Machen who explicitly didn’t fit that label, yet who were considered—even by themselves—to be the brains of the fundamentalist impulse. And there were leading fundamentalist schools such as Bryan University (later Bryan College) that considered and rejected a statement about the coming premillennial apocalypse in their all-important creed.

Professor Sutton knows these things, but by asserting a theological definition on a wide-ranging movement he was forced to trim some edges here and there.

Gloege offers a way out of this pickle. Instead of giving us a rigid definition of fundamentalism, Gloege instead defines it in action. As he puts it (pg. 3),

Fundamentalism is often described in terms of manifestos and theological propositions. Yet at MBI at least, the life force of the movement was its corporate evangelical framework, which operated at a more foundational level. It functioned as a set of unexamined first principles—as common sense. Once developed, these principles became for conservative evangelicalism what the rules of grammar are to a conversation: something used rather than analyzed.

How could Machen be a fundamentalist intellectual if he hemmed and hawed about the fundamentalist movement? How could Bryan University be a fundamentalist school if it eschewed fundamentalist end-of-the-world theology?

Easy. They could be fundamentalists if everyone knew they were. They could be fundamentalists if it seemed like common sense to include them.

Gloege’s priceless contribution in terms of pinning this sort of definitional jello to the wall is not the only major contribution of his book. For those of us interested in evangelical higher ed, Gloege’s business context makes some things clear in new ways.

For example, evangelical colleges are famously anxious about the public image of their students. Depending on the decade, students were not allowed to smoke, drink, dance, or attend plays or movies. Even when they were not at school. Why? Because students were not seen as consumers of evangelical education, they were seen as its product. They were its advertisements, its guarantors of purity.

As Gloege describes, in the 1910s MBI published a painstakingly detailed student guide. Every aspect of student life was regulated, theoretically at least. Why was this so important? In Gloege’s words (pg. 159),

the students and faculty were themselves a form of promotion for the institute. MBI served as a sort of test kitchen demonstrating the effectiveness and purity of its message. No longer conceptualized primarily as workers learning on the job, students were treated as products of the Bible Institute.

Of course, such big-business thinking permeated all sorts of institutions at the time, not just MBI or evangelical colleges. As historian Roger Geiger argues in his new history of American higher education, not only MBI but all institutions of higher education were undergoing a transformative triple revolution during this same period.

Indeed, Gloege could easily have expanded his argument beyond the walls of the MBI. As I’m arguing in my new book, too, there’s no better way to make sense of fundamentalism and evangelicalism in the twentieth century than by uncovering the history of its most important institutions.

Do I Need to See the Light?

Joel Carpenter is. Mark Noll is. George Marsden is. Ron Numbers is was. John Turner is. John Fea is. I’m not. Does it matter?

Many of the best academic historians of evangelicalism and fundamentalism grew up as part of an evangelical church. Indeed, among academic historians in general, since the 1960s it has been seen as a big plus to have a personal background with the group(s) we study.

It’s not universal. As far as I know, Matthew Sutton didn’t. Molly Worthen didn’t. Tanya Luhrmann didn’t. And if they did, it is not a big part of their public persona. In other words, they write as scholars of evangelical religion, not necessarily as evangelical scholars of evangelical religion.

This is more than just “PC” cliquishness. Historians are sobered and humbled by their own history. Though African American historian WEB DuBois clearly debunked the dominant but false histories of Reconstruction way back in the 1930s, white historians didn’t catch up until the 1960s.

With fundamentalism in particular, non-evangelical historians did a terrible job. Until the 1970s, mainstream historians told us that fundamentalism died after the Scopes Trial of 1925. It had done nothing of the sort, of course. A new generation of evangelical historians such as Ernest Sandeen and George Marsden knew it hadn’t, since they had grown up with it.

Having a background in the world of conservative evangelicalism gives historians an ear for the language and a feel for the connections between groups. When I was stumbling through my graduate work at Wisconsin, for example, my mentor Ron Numbers was able to point me toward super-rare creationist documents from the 1930s. How did he know about them? They were written by his grandfather!

That sort of connection is something we outsiders can never acquire.

As outsiders, though, we non-evangelical historians enjoy some benefits. For us, there are no pre-existing good guys or bad guys. We aren’t embarrassed by the rhetorical excesses of 1920s fundamentalists. They don’t have anything to do with us! We don’t feel a need to demonstrate how different such hellfire preachers are from our own intellectual roots. To us, it’s all archival material.

In short, evangelical historians will always have insights I lack. But they will also have hang-ups and assumptions I’m free from.

Recent discussions on this blog have pointed out the continuing importance of these questions. When I noted the recent visit of Bob Jones University President Steven Pettit to the scenic campus of Wheaton College, I was mostly interested in the turbulent historical relationship between the two schools. At least one commentator, however, accused me of trading in “guesswork and gossip.” I didn’t mean to suggest that BJU was somehow “moving toward neo-evangelicalism.” Many readers within the world of fundamentalism and evangelicalism have very strong feelings about such things. I don’t.

As I plow forward with my new book about conservative evangelical colleges and universities, I need to keep these issues in mind. I need to remind myself that I might be missing out on subtleties of tone or implication that are obvious to those raised within this tradition. I need to watch for connections that are not made explicit to outsiders, but are nevertheless glaringly obvious to those in the know.

Time to Bury the Fundamentalist Hatchet?

Maybe there’s hope for us all. In the world of evangelical higher education, the relationship between fundamentalist Bob Jones University and evangelical Wheaton College has always been a rocky one. According to a story in the Wheaton Record [sorry, not available online], last week BJU president Steve Pettit visited Wheaton’s campus, the first time a Jones leader has done so in a long time. There were smiles all around. Does this mean that the times they are a-changin?

Smiles, everyone, smiles...

Smiles, everyone, smiles…

For those who don’t know their history, last week’s visit may have seemed like no big deal. The leader of one evangelical college visited another evangelical college. What’s the big whoop? As I’m discovering in the research for my new book about the history of conservative evangelical higher education, this détente may signal an important shift in the worlds of fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

Since the beginning in the 1920s, leaders of the two schools fought viciously. BJU founder Bob Jones Sr. accused sitting Wheaton president J. Oliver Buswell of jealousy. Jones wrote,

Dr. Buswell and his field staff working under him were putting out propaganda everywhere that Bob Jones’ credits had no value and that we were misrepresenting facts when we told students that our graduates were admitted to leading graduate schools. . . . [Buswell is a] conceited, frustrated, ambitious, disappointed man.

Ouch. For his part, Buswell retorted that he had never said such things, had never been anything but friendly and helpful to Jones’s new school. What he had done, Buswell admitted, was protest against the sin-friendly policies at Bob Jones College. For those who don’t know their Wheaton history, it may come as a shock to find out that in the early days, Wheaton accused Bob Jones of not being fundamentalist enough. Wheaton’s President Buswell had critiqued Bob Jones’s new school in a review of a book of Jones’s sermons. The sermons themselves were first-rate, Buswell wrote.

But Dr. Jones, let me ask you a question or two. Your own educational program is reeking with theatricals and grand opera, which lead young people, as I know, and as you ought to know, into a worldly life of sin.

Double ouch.

Things never got much better from that point on. Bob Jones Jr., son of the founder and second president of Bob Jones University, told a story of his father’s traveling days. One time, Jones Sr. was on a train with some Wheaton students. One of the students, “trying to be very smart,” asked Jones how Bob Jones College could allow dramatic productions and still call itself fundamentalist. As Bob Jones Jr. explained,

Wheaton used to turn up their self-righteous noses at our drama, but they played inter-collegiate football, which we had had to give up at Bob Jones University because we found the people were betting on our games, littering our campus with whiskey bottles when they came out to see us play; and we found that inter-collegiate athletics were a definite blight to our spiritual lives.

By the 1970s, the relationship turned from one of frigid civility to outright hostility. In 1974, Bob Jones III officially changed the status of Wheaton in BJU’s internal coding system from “Friendly” to “Unfriendly.” Jones’s secretary explained the shift in an internal memo:

The above school or organization has been coded “F”; however, Dr. Bob III, has changed the code now to “U” to make our coding system more consistent. It has been a problem for some people because an organization or school would be coded “F” but we would treat them like “U” people.

From that point on, BJU officials would not even maintain their polite façade of cooperation with Wheaton officials. In 1977, an administrator from Wheaton wrote to Bob Jones III to ask for guidance in establishing a student drama program. He asked if Jones would offer some tips from its long experience with such programs. Through a secretary, Jones informed the Wheaton official, “because of the Neo-Orthodox position of Wheaton College, we are unable to give you the assistance you request.”

Pettit visits wheaton 2

No self-righteous noses here…

Given that protracted and ugly history, President Pettit’s visit to Wheaton’s campus seems revolutionary indeed.

Have things turned a corner? Does President Pettit’s visit really signal a thaw in this long evangelical cold war? Several signs point to yes.

First of all, Pettit is no Jones. For the first time in the history of BJU, the school is not led by a direct descendant of the founder. Maybe that gives Pettit a little more wiggle room to ignore family feuds.

Also, BJU is changing. It now claims accreditation as well as athletic teams. It has apologized for its history of racism.

Wheaton is changing, too. As did BJU in the 1970s and 1980s, Wheaton has tussled with the federal government. Just as BJU did in the 1980s, Wheaton insists that its religious beliefs must give it some leeway when it comes to federal rules.

If Wheaton sees itself pushed a little more out of the mainstream, and Bob Jones University pushes itself a little more toward that mainstream, they might just meet somewhere in the middle. There will always be some jealousy between these two giants of evangelical higher education, but it seems possible that the worst of the fundamentalist feud may have passed.

Can a College Be Christian?

After Ben Carson’s stupid and hateful comment that the USA should not have a Muslim president, Baylor theologian Roger Olson noted that we really could not have a Christian president, either. In my current work about evangelical colleges, I’m struggling to define what it meant to be Christian at school, too. It raises an ancient question: Can an other-worldly religion (successfully) run worldly institutions?

Olson noted that the only sincere evangelical to sit in the Oval Office in recent decades has been Jimmy Carter. And Carter, Olson argued, was a terrible president. Not by accident, either, but because he was an honest-to-goodness Christian. As Olson put it,

I am not cynical, but neither am I naïve. America is no longer a true democracy; it is run by corporations and the super-rich elite. Occasionally they don’t get their way, but, for the most part, they do. One reason they do not seem to is that they do not agree among themselves about everything. So, sometimes, a president, a senator, a congressman, has to choose between them in decision-making. But, in the end, the policy remains that “What’s good for business is good for America” even when what’s good for business is bad for the working poor (to say nothing of the destitute).

No, given how modern nation states work, I do not think a real Christian, a true disciple of Jesus Christ who seeks to put first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, can be president of the United States or any modern nation state.

The deeper question of belief and institutional necessity is one I’m wrestling with these days. As I write my new book about the history of evangelical higher education, I find myself struggling to offer a satisfactory definition of what it has meant to be a fundamentalist. It’s a question that has bedeviled historians (and fundamentalists) for a good long while, so I feel I’m in good company.

For good reasons, historians have insisted that we need a fairly narrow definition of fundamentalism. In his great book Revive Us Again, Joel Carpenter argued, “more generic usage obscures more than it illumines” (page 4). Carpenter was leery of commentators who slapped a “fundamentalist” label on any and all conservatives or conservative Protestants. As he argued,

Labelling movements, sects, and traditions such as the Pentecostals, Mennonites, Seventh-day Adventists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Churches of Christ, black Baptists, Mormons, Southern Baptists, and holiness Wesleyans as fundamentalists belittles their great diversity and violates their unique identities (4).

If we need a straightforward definition for those reasons, Matthew Sutton’s recent definition of fundamentalism as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism” will do the trick. Certainly, fundamentalist theology was defined by its vision of end-times as well as by the centrality of those apocalyptic visions to the movement.

But such definitions don’t seem to match the ways fundamentalism has been defined in its leading institutions. At the colleges I’m studying—schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, Bryan College, Biola University, The King’s College, and similar schools—there’s more to the school than just theology.

When these schools called themselves “fundamentalist” (and they DID, even relatively liberal schools such as Wheaton), they meant more than theology. They meant more than just “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” They meant more than just “not-Mennonite-or-Pentecostal.”

Defining fundamentalism as it was used in fundamentalist institutions is a trickier issue than simply defining fundamentalist theology. By and large, when schools talked about themselves as “fundamentalist,” they meant that the professors and administration all signed on to fundamentalist theology. But they also meant that the students would have a vaguely conservative atmosphere in which to study. No smoking, no dancing, no etc. They also meant that students would be controlled and guided in their life choices. And they also meant that students would be more likely to socialize with similarly fundamentalist friends and future spouses.

I’m not sure how to define that kind of fundamentalism. I like the way historian Timothy Gloege has done it in his new book about the Moody Bible Institute. Gloege focuses on what he calls the “corporate evangelical framework” that guided MBI since its founding in the 19th century.

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

As Gloege argues, at a school like MBI, fundamentalism was more than a set of “manifestos and theological propositions.” Rather, it worked as a set of “unexamined first principles—as common sense.” Fundamentalism, Gloege writes, is better understood as a certain “grammar” than as a list of religious beliefs.

That kind of definition seems closer to the ways it was used in the schools I’m studying.

Roger E. Olson argues that it will be impossible for any sincere evangelical Christian to be president. There are simply too many worldly factors that violate the otherworldly morality of Christianity. Similarly, evangelical colleges have not defined themselves merely along theological lines. They couldn’t. Instead, they have defined what it has meant to be a “fundamentalist” based on a range of factors. Of course, they care about student religious belief. But they also care about student fashions, patriotism, diets, and social lives. And such things were usually considered a central part of making a school authentically “fundamentalist.”

Can a college be Christian? In the sense that Roger E. Olson is asking, I guess not. Just as every president has to violate evangelical morality, so every institution of higher education has to consider a range of non-religious factors in order to survive.

The Kids Aren’t Alright…with Transgender

My Fellow Progressives: What if time isn’t on our side? We tend to think that each new generation will get cooler, more tolerant, more progressive. But what about those stubborn conservative kids who consistently disprove our assumptions? A new student protest in Missouri shows once again that young people are not somehow automatically progressive.

Who is the future here?

Who is the future here?

Academic historians learnt this lesson the hard way. Beginning in the 1930s, liberal academics assumed that the fundamentalists of the 1920s had melted away in the glare of modernity. In their liberal imaginations, historians such as Norman Furniss explained that fundamentalism had died away, a vestige of an older, stupider time.

For many liberal historians, the fact that they no longer saw fundamentalists on their campuses or in the headlines of their newspapers proved their case. It backed up their assumptions that the modern world would squeeze out people who embraced a decidedly old-fashioned way of reading the Bible.

Of course, fundamentalists hadn’t died away after the 1920s. Beginning in the later 1950s, evangelists such as Billy Graham brought the fundamentalist tradition back to America’s headlines and center stage. It took a new generation of historians, many of them raised in fundamentalist families, to explain what had happened. Writers such as Ernest Sandeen, George Marsden, and Joel Carpenter demonstrated the continuing strength and vitality of American fundamentalism.

Protestant fundamentalism, these historians showed, was a thoroughly modern phenomenon. In the face of progressive assumptions that people would naturally become more secular and more morally sophisticated, lots of Americans actually became more religious and more firmly moored in Biblical morality.

Progressives today share a similar short-sighted demographic hangover. Many of us, even those of us too young to have lived through the social movements of the 1960s, remember the vibe of youth power. As Andrew Hartman has argued so eloquently in his new book, the ideas of the 1960s fueled much of the later culture war vitriol. In the face of much evidence to the contrary, it was often assumed by 1960s culture warriors (and their successors) that youth was somehow naturally progressive.

Not your father's GOP...

Not your father’s GOP…

To be fair, my fellow progressives aren’t entirely wrong. We tend to assume that young people will be less anti-gay, less racist, less conservative, and we can point to good poll data to back it up. As Pew reported last year,

in addition to the [Millennial] generation’s Democratic tendency, Millennials who identify with the GOP are also less conservative than Republicans in other generations: Among the roughly one-third of Millennials who affiliate with or lean Republican, just 31% have a mix of political values that are right-of-center, while about half (51%) take a mix of liberal and conservative positions and 18% have consistently or mostly liberal views. Among all Republicans and Republican leaners, 53% have conservative views; in the two oldest generations, Silents and Boomers, about two-thirds are consistently or mostly conservative.

But there’s a big problem embedded in these kids of poll data. Though many young people tend toward more liberal views, there are still enormous percentages of people who buck the trend. The recent protest in Missouri can illustrate the ways young people can and will embrace socially conservative ideas.

In that case, a transgender high-school senior, Lila Perry, had been allowed to use the girls’ bathroom. Students walked out in protest. The students and their parents, supported by outside groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, tend to consider Lila to be still male, in spite of her identification as female. As one activist parent put it, his daughters encountered an “intact male” in the locker room.

In spite of what we might expect, we don’t see in this case progressive young people fighting against the bureaucracy. Instead, the bureaucracy in this case moved quickly to establish a policy protecting the rights of transgender students. In reply, conservative students insisted on the rights of “real” girls to be protected from such students.

If history is any guide, as more young people become progressive, the conservative holdouts will become more firmly attached to their conservative principles. Conservative young people will become more likely to take action. Protests like the one at Hillsboro High School will become more common.

Can Fundamentalist Colleges Survive?

We might be on the cusp of another academic revolution. Over the centuries, what people have expected out of college has changed time and time again. Every time it changes, schools have to adapt or die. With the announced closure of Clearwater Christian College, we see another small conservative evangelical liberal-arts college bite the dust. This seems to be more than just bad management or weak organization.  It looks like yet another shift in what people mean when they say “college.” Can small, private liberal-arts schools keep up?

Going the way of the dodo?

Going the way of the dodo?

Clearwater’s students aren’t the only conservative evangelicals scrambling to find a new home. Tennessee Temple also recently announced its closure. Northland has shut its doors. And outside the bounds of fundamentalist higher education, Sweet Briar College in Virginia caused a fuss when it announced its demise, even with a plump $85 million endowment.

Colleges have always opened and closed and these recent happenings might not mark a trend. But it seems likely that the stern financial logic of mainstream higher education is also compelling at conservative religious schools such as Clearwater, Northland, and Tennessee Temple.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed thinks that small liberal arts colleges in rural areas face an existential threat. Students just don’t want to live thirty miles from a Starbucks. They want to go to schools that prepare them for specific careers such as business, health care, or education. The idea of sequestering oneself for four years to contemplate the big ideas in extended bucolic adolescence seems less and less attractive to young people.

Higher education as a whole is not under siege. Some institutions, after all, are thriving. My beloved Binghamton University sees ever-increasing student applications. We can’t build dorms fast enough. In the realm of fundamentalist colleges, too, big enterprises such as Liberty University and Cedarville University are gobbling up students and dollars by the millions.

Historian Roger Geiger’s terrific new book gives us a big-picture perspective on these seismic changes. The higher-education system as we know it is not very old. Only by about 1940 did the system we know come to dominate. Before that time, a slew of higher-ed institutions competed for students and dollars. “Technical institutes,” “normal schools,” “academies,” “female institutes,” and a mess of other schools attracted students. Between the 1890s (ish) and the 1940s, these institutions offered students an array of educational services. In general, they did not insist on completion of high school as an entrance requirement. Some of them did not offer bachelor’s degrees, but rather some sort of training, perhaps accompanied by a certificate of some sort.

By the end of World War II, however, our modern higher-ed system had jelled into place. Schools that did not adapt simply closed down. Students no longer wanted to attend an “institute” that did not offer a bachelor’s degree. Schools that still offered high-school-level work were not seen as real colleges.

That revolution took place in fits and starts over fifty years. Perhaps the wave of school closings we see today reflects the culmination of another fifty-year revolution. Beginning in the 1960s—the decade, not incidentally, in which Tennessee Temple, Northland, and Clearwater were all founded—many traditional notions of “college” began to break down. The idea that a school would serve an authoritative role in dictating students’ educational and lifestyle experiences experienced a thumping defeat. Students themselves came to expect a greater role in running their own educations and their own personal lives.

The idea of college came to tilt more in the direction of student-directed career preparation and away from the notion of a moral and personal formation imposed by authoritative deans and professors. Of course, as Professor Geiger points out, both things have always been part of higher education, but the balance has often shifted. Starting in the 1960s, the college ideal has begun to shift away from one that would favor a small, controlled, rural setting. Instead, in order to be a successful college, schools had to provide a dizzying array of possible professional training and they had to do so in a bustling environment.

Again, it is not that colleges haven’t always offered professional training, but rather that the primary goal of a lot of students and their families seems to have been shifting over the past fifty years. Not enough people still want to pay for college as an incubatory experience. Schools such as Clearwater, Northland, and Tennessee Temple that started as the educational vision of a specific charismatic religious leader can no longer attract a critical mass of students. Young people and their families just aren’t as interested in imbibing one particular formative idea; they want a buffet of career-training and personality-forming possibilities.

Loving your Homosexual Neighbor: Hell or Rapture?

Why are our culture wars so durable? In his new book American Apocalypse, historian Matthew A. Sutton argues that the answer lies in the end of the world. But more evidence keeps piling up that there is a different answer, a better explanation. For some conservative religious people, the culture wars are about more than just winning elections or improving schools. The fight for America’s soul is nothing less than a battle to save people from eternal torment.

I Love You but It's the End of the World...?

I Love You but It’s the End of the World…?

Professor Sutton’s book is really terrific. He examines the history of what he calls “radical evangelical” belief as it emerged in the twentieth century. Unlike most historians, he doesn’t ignore important aspects of the radical evangelical family, such as Pentecostals and African Americans. The part that I’m struggling with is Prof. Sutton’s definition of radical evangelicalism. At its heart, Sutton says, American fundamentalism can be understood as

radical apocalyptic evangelicalism. . . . fundamentalists’ anticipation of the soon-coming apocalypse made them who they were.

In other words, Professor Sutton thinks that the heart and soul of fundamentalist belief comes from beliefs about the imminent and cataclysmic apocalypse. Our American culture wars are so virulent, he explains in chapter four, because fundamentalists and other radical evangelicals believe that they will be judged soon by a righteous God. They must fight against immoral movies, immoral booze, and other immoral trends because such things are part of the seductive Satanic lure of the end days.

Certainly, ideas of Bible prophecy and apocalypse are central to fundamentalist belief. But are they really as central as Professor Sutton contends? Are there other ideas that are even more important?

We stumbled across an evangelical warning this morning that raises the question again. In the pages of World Magazine, conservative evangelical Andree Seu Peterson explains why fundamentalists can’t relax. She does not mention the coming apocalypse. To Peterson’s way of thinking, there is a different reason why fundamentalists must continue fighting culture wars.

Peterson warns that things have changed fast in the last ten years. For conservatives, the question of homosexuality used to be cut-and-dried. Ten years ago, she says,

homosexuality was fringy and dangerous and you were dead set against it. Today homosexuality is the guy grilling steaks next door, waving to you over the picket fence, calling, “How about those Phillies!”

Conservatives might be tempted to accept homosexuals as part of God’s family. Christians might be tempted to love their neighbors, as Christ commanded. In secular terms, we might say, conservatives might feel pressure to adapt their beliefs to changing cultural norms.

Such thinking is dangerous, Peterson warns. Not because the world will be ending soon, but for a more basic reason, a reason more fundamental to fundamentalists. If you really care about your neighbor, Peterson explains,

If you want to talk about “love your neighbor,” need we mention that neighbors don’t let neighbors go to hell? … What good is all the good will you reap now when in the future Mr. Steak Griller next door curses you from across the chasm for your quiet complicity in his damnation?

When it comes to culture wars, this I-Love-You-but-You’re-Going-to-Hell logic is the equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Whenever religious conservatives might be tempted to relax, to get along, to go with the flow, they can remind themselves of the eternal dangers of compromise. Even when it seems as if the kind thing to do, the loving thing to do, is to meet our neighbors in the middle, such apparent kindness, to some religious conservative, is a terrible mistake.

For some conservative religious people, culture-war issues are not just about accepting our neighbors’ “alternate lifestyles.” If they were, then we could all just get along. As Peterson tells the tale, we could all just smile and wave at one another, then go our separate ways. But for some conservatives, the culture wars have eternal stakes. If they don’t win, they will be guilty of sending people straight to hell.

Is that related to the apocalypse? Sure. Sorta. If Jesus will be returning sometime soon, suddenly and without warning, then these questions of damnation become even more urgent. But it is the damnation itself that is the crucial idea.

For those of us outside the circle of conservative evangelical belief, it can be difficult to understand the vital importance of the idea of damnation to evangelicals. For those of us who don’t believe in a real and terrifying hell, it can be easy to miss the enormous implications of such an idea. The apocalypse is only scary because of the threat of eternal damnation. The culture wars are only worth fighting if we can save some souls from such torment. Missionary work is only crucial because we need to spread the light as far as we can. Indeed, rather than defining fundamentalism as the radical evangelical belief in the apocalypse, we might better define fundamentalism as the radical evangelical belief in a real, eternal, and difficult-to-avoid Hell.

Certainly everyone interested in the nature of fundamentalism and culture wars should read Professor Sutton’s book. And maybe someone can explain to me what I’m missing. It seems to me, though, that the central idea to understanding what makes fundamentalists unique is hell, not just the coming apocalypse.