Protests: Part of Life at Fundamentalist U

Shut em down! That’s what radical college students are saying these days. As Molly Wicker writes in the New York Times, even conservative students at conservative colleges are getting in on the action. We shouldn’t be surprised. As I describe in my new book, student protest has always been part of life at conservative evangelical schools.

Wicker is a junior at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. As she writes, her school and her fellow students are firmly conservative. The school is dedicated to a conservative, free-market sort of philosophy, one that bundles interdenominational evangelicalism with small-government enthusiasm.

pence trump clown car

Not conservative enough for GCC?

The school’s commencement speaker this year will be Vice President Mike Pence. We might think it a perfect fit. Pence, after all, is the White House’s living symbol of conservative evangelical values.

As Wicker relates, however, many of her fellow students are protesting Pence’s presence. Not because Pence is so conservative, but because Trump is not. As a representative of the Trump administration, Wicker writes, Pence represents Trump’s brand of “toxic, fear-inflating rhetoric.”

Like their fellows at Berkeley and other leftist havens, Grove City’s protesters are planning to demonstrate their displeasure at their school’s choice of commencement speaker. Wicker and the NYT editors suggest we should be surprised at this decision by conservative students at a conservative school.

We shouldn’t.

Student protest—sometimes polite, sometimes not—has always been a part of life at fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical colleges.

During the campus protests of the 1960s and 1970s, evangelical and fundamentalist schools witnessed their own wave of student activism. Many of those protests took on the tones of the continuing family feud between new-evangelicals and fundamentalists.

At Wheaton College, for example, students published a searing criticism of fundamentalist rules. The Wheaton administration tried to get them to cool it. The school, President V. Raymone Edman warned students, needed to protect the faith of all students, even fundamentalists.

Student protesters weren’t convinced. As one leader put it,

We must note that the ‘protective’ approach proscribes the natural freedom of man to seek truth where he will. . . . Christian education must exist in the free atmosphere of such a perspective or we will have no choice but to reject Christian education.

Student protests at conservative schools happened long before the Sixties, too. As long as there have been fundamentalist colleges, there have been fundamentalist student protests.

In the late 1930s, for example, Wheaton College President J. Oliver Buswell was on the ropes. Trustees wanted him out. Buswell was accused of many things, including a too-ferocious opposition to mainline denominations.

Students dived into the controversy with enthusiasm. One student of Buswell’s wrote an open letter to the Wheaton community. Buswell had to go, she wrote, because he was not doing a good job of training young fundamentalists. She had taken Buswell’s capstone ethics class. She didn’t want to complain; she prayed hard that God would “take away entirely my murmuring.” However, she felt compelled to voice her protest.

Buswell’s class, she protested, did not do what fundamentalist college classes were supposed to do. “It is most necessary,” she wrote,

for an educated young person, and especially a Christian, to know the struggle men have had through the ages to come to satisfactory conclusions about the First Cause, the final culmination, and the reason behind life. We cannot meet people of our day on an intelligent basis if we have no idea of their philosophy of life.

Unfortunately, though this student worked hard at every task Buswell assigned, she did not learn what she needed to know. Why did Buswell need to go? As this conservative student protested, Buswell had failed to perform the most important task of conservative evangelical higher education.

These protests were part of life at fundamentalist schools all over the country. Students felt obligated to speak up—as conservatives—to defend the true conservative ideals of their conservative schools.

At Bob Jones College in the 1930s, for example, this sort of more-conservative-than-thou student protest was institutionalized in the Pioneer Club. In this student club, members gathered every day to pray and organize school activities. They also pledged to root out “any atheistic or modernistic teacher” who might have somehow infiltrated the fundamentalist perimeter. And, most tellingly, they promised to shut down the school itself if they ever suspected a slide into liberalism and modernism.

Like the students at Grove City today, student protests at conservative evangelical colleges have often fought for a more consistent conservatism. Protests have sometimes succeeded when students have articulated their goals as the true goals of the schools themselves.

However, students like Molly Wicker and her conservative friends might take note: They might find themselves unpopular among their school’s administrators. The fervent evangelical student editor at Wheaton, after all, was kicked out for a full year. Any student—even members of the Pioneer Club—who questioned Bob Jones Sr.’s decisions was similarly shown the door.

Even when students insist that they are only protesting in favor of their school’s true values, administrators tend to expel first and ask questions later.

I Owe, I Owe

It was a squeaker, but it worked. I promised my editor I’d deliver the manuscript for Fundamentalist U by Monday, and I just mailed it in today. Coupla days to spare. Whew!

If I were cooler, I would copy Brendan Pietsch’s world’s-coolest acknowledgements page. But I’m not. I’ve accumulated a bunch of debts—financial, intellectual, and otherwise—and I feel a need to express my gratitude the ol-fashioned way.

pietsch acknowledgements

How the cool kids do it these days…

First, the Spencer Foundation footed the bill. Their program for small research grants allowed me to spend the academic year 2014-2015 working full time on this book. I was able to travel to six of the schools I’ve been studying. Without this grant, I would never have been able to put this book together. Thank you Lyle!

There are plenty of other people that also made the book possible. Most important, the archivists at the schools I visited often bent over backward to help me find materials. At Biola, for example, Stacie Schmidt and Sue Whitehead allowed me to work right in their office. They also helped me get permission to use some of the cartoons from Biola’s periodicals that will appear in the book.

At Wheaton, Keith Call helped me find a ton of stuff. He also spent time sharing with me his one-of-a-kind experience with and knowledge of the world of evangelical higher ed. Since my visit, too, he has kept me in the loop about some of the goings-on at Wheaton and elsewhere.

Robert Shuster at the Billy Graham Center kept the room open late for me and helped me dig through the vast resources of their oral history collections. I depended on those oral histories to find out what life was like at fundamentalist colleges for students.

Down South at Bob Jones University, Patrick Robbins over-extended himself to help me locate materials. He has been doing so for years and I’m extremely grateful.

In Chicago, Corie Zylstra and Nikki Tochalauski allowed me to linger late in the Moody Bible Institute archives. They also shared their experiences as students and workers at the most famous Bible Institute in the world.

Even at schools I couldn’t visit in person, friendly archivists were willing to spend time and energy talking to me about my research. At the late Tennessee Temple University, for example, Keith Woodruff took time and risked carpal tunnel syndrome emailing back and forth with me.

One of my local schools, Summit University (the former Baptist Bible of PA) let me use their terrific collections of fundamentalist and evangelical periodicals.

It didn’t work, but I appreciate the efforts of two of my academic heroes, Jon Zimmerman and Ron Numbers, to try to help me get an additional fellowship to fund my work on this book.

And when it came to the book itself, my fellow nerds helped me out enormously. Most especially, Tim Gloege and Dan Williams read several parts of the book and helped me with their enormous expertise. I also conned a group of A-list experts to help me improve the book. The book covers a lot of territory, so I shamelessly braced friends, acquaintances, and even people I only knew by reputation.

First, I reached out to higher-ed historians such as Roger Geiger, Christopher Loss, and Ethan Schrum. The book also wrestles with questions of the nature of conservative evangelical Protestantism, so I asked Molly Worthen, John Fea, Bill Trollinger, and Brendan Pietsch for expert help. There’s a lot about creationism in there, too, and Ron Numbers and Michael Lienesch agreed to read sections and point out my blunders. Then, of course, there are the group of experts specifically in the history of evangelical higher education and I asked them all for their time: Jared Burkholder, Michael Hamilton, and Chris Gehrz. To top it all off, I also pestered other smart people I knew to give me their opinions, including L. Herbert Siewert, Tim Lacy, and David Bernstein.

Thanks to all…but that’s not all. I’m also grateful to all the SAGLRROILYBYGTH for taking part in our conversations about evangelicalism, college, fundamentalism, conservatism, and etc. etc. etc. over the past few years.

What happens next?

It will still be a while before the book hits shelves. The folks at Oxford will give my manuscript some copy-editing. Then they’ll put together a set of proofs, set as the actual pages will look. Once we get to that stage, I’ll pore over the proofs to write my index.

It all takes time and patience. When will the book finally be published? Hard to say exactly, but it’s usually about twelve to eighteen months. I’ll keep you posted.

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.

Jesus at the Big Dance

Liberty University got a chance at basketball glory this year.

As World Magazine reports, Liberty’s men’s basketball team squeaked into the NCAA tournament.  They quickly squeaked back out again.

As we’ve noted at ILYBYGTH, Liberty has used its flood of on-line-student tuition money to build up both its campus and its athletic programs.

The school, founded in 1971 by televangelist Jerry Falwell, always wanted to inject conservative evangelical Protestant values into mainstream American life.  It had hoped to raise up a new generation of lawyers, doctors, and teachers who would bring conservative Christian values into their everyday professional lives.

Now it has expanded those dreams.  With tens of thousands of tuition-paying on-line students, Liberty is rolling in money.  It has used that money, in part, to build up world-class athletic programs.

This first shot at NCAA hoopla since 2004* represents another example of Liberty’s long-term hopes.

*Updated and corrected thanks to CV.

Liberty and Intellectual Diversity

Can the faculty at a fundamentalist university embody a true intellectual diversity?  In some senses, of course they can.  Depending on the school, faculty at conservative Protestant schools may disagree vehemently on important issues such as the age of the earth, the best tax system, or the proper way to structure an election.  But fundamentalist schools still face a narrower list of potential faculty members than do less strictly defined colleges.  At many conservative schools, prospective faculty members must agree to an institutional creed.  This has the desired effect of cutting out a wide range of dissenting intellectual perspectives.

Journalist Michael McDonald brought up these issues of perennial interest this morning in a Bloomberg.com article about Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

McDonald’s main interest was in the financial aspect and prospect of Liberty’s enormous and lucrative on-line branch.  As McDonald notes, the deeply conservative evangelical Protestant school is now the largest private non-profit university in the country.  For a school dedicated to a sternly fundamentalist theology, that is a remarkable achievement.

In his research for the article, Mr. McDonald asked me if I thought Liberty’s success could mean that it will become a model for mainstream universities.  As McDonald quoted in his piece,

“This dream of turning it into Notre Dame won’t work for Liberty,” said Adam Laats, an assistant professor in education and history at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. “Liberty University faculty will always be more constrained in the breadth of intellectual diversity they can welcome.”

It’s true: most colleges and universities do not require faculty to sign a strict creed.  If Notre Dame could only hire Catholics, or if my alma mater Northwestern University could only hire Methodists, they might be in a similar situation.

But Liberty’s potential faculty will have to agree with the school’s strict evangelical Protestantism, and this will always set it apart from more pluralistic colleges.

Of course, I’m not the first person to note this, by any means.  Leading evangelical historians such as Mark Noll and George Marsden have long argued that evangelical institutions differ in important ways from pluralist ones, due largely to this tradition of faculty and institutional creeds.

But already I have heard some intelligent objections.  Dan Richardson contacted me to object to my premise in the Bloomberg article.  As Mr. Richardson wrote,

“I read your comments with interest on Bloomberg concerning Liberty University. As a graduate myself of the Virginia Public University system, I found essentially zero tolerance or professors willing to even consider or give any credence/discussion to any philosophy other than relativistic, humanistic,  at best agnostic culture on campus today. There are countless examples of ‘conservative’ speakers, hassled, disinvited, shouted down at many public universities. If you truly care about the breadth of intellectual diversity, start with thyself.”

Richardson makes an important point.  Simply because the faculty of fundamentalist colleges lack some of the inherent intellectual diversity of pluralist schools, this does not mean that pluralist schools do a perfect job of encouraging true diversity themselves.

As historian Jonathan Zimmerman has asked, what would it take to get real intellectual diversity on pluralist campuses?  Do we need an affirmative action program for conservative intellectual faculty?

Sometimes the creeds in place at pluralist universities are implicit.  Sometimes they are more aggressively spelled out.  The recent flap over the funding of a Christian student group at Tufts University, for example, demonstrates the way pluralist universities’ dedication to pluralism often has confounding and unpredictable results.

Nevertheless, I stand by my statement in Mr. McDonald’s article.  Mainstream universities will have different challenges from Liberty University when it comes to welcoming a variety of intellectual perspectives.  Liberty’s dramatic financial success with on-line education does not change that.

Faith and Football

Forget Tim Tebow.  The real story in the world of fundamentalist football is Liberty University. The fundamentalist Virginia school founded in the early seventies by Moral Majority frontman Jerry Falwell wants to become the face of conservative Christian college ball.

This isn’t news, but Bill Pennington offered a new look at the program in last weekend’s New York Times.

Pennington points out that a big sports program can signal the emergence of a religious school from sectarian obscurity, as happened with Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame, or a later generation’s Brigham Young University.  Pennington gets the dates wrong; Rockne pulled Notre Dame football to national prominence in the 1920s, not the middle of the century.  But the point still holds.  Football made Notre Dame an American story, not just a Catholic one.

Image source: Wikipedia

According to Pennington, Liberty is different.  The vision of both founder Jerry Falwell and current chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. is of a team that competes with the likes of Alabama and LSU while remaining staunchly fundamentalist.  As Falwell Jr. told Pennington,

‘“We think there would be a vast, committed fan base of conservative, evangelical Christians around the country and maybe even folks who are conservative politically who would rally behind Liberty football,” Falwell Jr. said, smiling at the thought. “They would identify with our philosophy.”’   

In order even to have a shot at such elite play, schools need money.  According to Falwell Jr., that should not be a problem.  Thanks largely to an exploding online program enrolling over 80,000 students, Liberty has announced it will soon reach one BILLION dollars in net assets.

Could they make it happen?  In the world of big-time college ball—to paraphrase an old prayer—with money, all things are possible.

Pennington’s article is worth reading, especially for those interested in college football.  Those interested in the world of conservative Christian higher education will wish Pennington probed a little deeper.  The story of Liberty University in 2012, after all, is much bigger than just an ambitious football program.  As Karen Swallow Prior of the Liberty University faculty pointed out recently, the campus culture has been changing in other important ways as well.  In addition to a loosening of the dress code, students at Liberty have begun showing more diversity in terms of politics and culture, according to Prior.

Liberty watchers have to wonder: Did all these changes—a push for big-time ball, loosening of the dress code, broadening of the politics of the student body—did these changes result from the big on-line payday, or did these changes lead to that payday?  That is, did Liberty make itself the big winner in the new world of online higher education by broadening its appeal?  Or did the broadening happen after the money starting rolling in so fast, according to Falwell Jr., that “we can’t spend it fast enough”?

These questions aren’t new to the world of fundamentalist higher education, nor are they unique to Liberty.  In the 1920s, Bob Jones University also fielded intercollegiate athletic teams.  However, school founder Bob Jones Sr. quickly dropped the program.  Friends said Jones worried that sports would pull the new school too far from its central mission.  Enemies whispered that Jones feared having to accommodate any outside influence in his flagship university.

Liberty University will certainly wrestle with this same tension.  As any football fan knows, money drives success.  It will be difficult for Liberty to compete without putting athletic success first.  And it will be hard to do that without changing the focus of the school from the religion of Falwell to the religion of football.

 

 

Shake Up at King’s College

If you look at the $30,000,000 box office sales for his film 2016: Obama’s America, it would seem that Dinesh D’Souza is very in.

But at King’s College in Manhattan, D’Souza is out.  According to a recent story by Warren Cole Smith at WORLD magazine, D’Souza has stepped down as the high-profile president of King’s College.  Smith had reported a few days earlier on the tensions among King’s leadership.  D’Souza had ruffled some feathers when he appeared with a woman who was not his wife, shared a hotel room with her, and introduced her as his fiancee.  D’Souza had separated from his long-time spouse, but had not yet been officially divorced.

More interesting for ILYBYGTH readers than the Gossip Girl-ing involved, the story sheds some revealing light on the nature and institutional structure of King’s College itself.  As historian John Fea has remarked, the leadership of King’s College embarked on a remarkable re-branding in the mid-1990s.  It shifted from a small, quiet, conservative evangelical Westchester County college to an aggressive culture-war college in the heart of Manhattan.  The “new” King’s College narrowed its scope, offering only business and politics/economics majors.  The goal of the revised school was to bring conservative evangelical leadership to the heart of New York City.

As journalist Amy Sullivan noted in her piece in The New Republic about the King’s College shake-up, the rivalry between long-time provost Marvin Olasky and D’Souza likely contributed to the scandal.

It seems charismatic conservative evangelical leaders will continue to struggle with such issues.  King’s College represents a long tradition of “new” approaches to fundamentalist higher education.  Liberty University was founded in 1971 with the same purpose.  Even further back, this goal of teaching a new generation of conservative evangelical students to compete for the levers of cultural and political power has roots in the culture-war struggles of the 1920s.  As I argued in my 1920s book, college and seminary founders such as those at Dallas Theological Seminary and Bob Jones University explicitly set out to create schools that would train fundamentalist leaders for mainstream politics, religion, and culture.

Back in the 1920s, such schools wrestled with the same tensions that bedevil King’s College today: How can we institutionalize the uncompromising theology that so often thrives only under the leadership of charismatic individuals?  How can we remain true to our mission of training students in the specific doctrines of our faith while preparing them to engage with the wider world?  How can we retain the loyalty of those who want a firmly conservative evangelical institution, while convincing the world that our graduates have had the kind of broad education they might get at a more pluralistic college?

The Evolution of Liberty University

First flip-flops, now College Democrats.  What is next for Liberty University?

Karen Swallow Prior commented recently on the changing face of the school founded by Jerry Falwell just over forty years ago.  Prior, chair of Liberty’s English department, notes the remarkable achievements of Liberty.  Since 1971, it has grown to almost 100,000 students (including online) and has almost hit one BILLION dollars in net assets.

Like other Protestant fundamentalist schools, Liberty was founded with the specific intention of educating conservative evangelical Christian students in an environment that encouraged their faith.

Prior argued in Christianity Today that the school has been evolving.  A few years back, it eased up its dress code, allowing students to wear jeans and sandals if they preferred.  As Prior put it, “Administrators knew that the university couldn’t meet the goal of its founder of becoming a ‘world class’ evangelical university by requiring its students to dress like Mormons on mission.”

More recently, Prior writes, the school has had to wrestle with the thornier question of student politics.  Might a school explicitly founded as a conservative institution allow an organization of College Democrats?  As has been the question for fundamentalist higher education since the 1920s, there is an enduring tension between growth and fidelity to mission.  As I’ve analyzed in my 1920s book and an article in History of Education Quarterly, fundamentalist colleges have struggled to understand themselves as either “world class” universities or intentionally provincial ones.  Can they escape from the “scandal of the evangelical mind” without abandoning their unique faith mission?

At Bob Jones University, for example, founded in 1926, students have had to pledge their fidelity to an iron-bound statement of faith.  They have also had to pledge that they will prevent the school from every wavering from its commitment to those principles.

Doubtless Liberty will continue to struggle with this tension.  As Prior explains,

“whether Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian, Liberty students seem to recognize that none of the political parties aligns consistently with their faith. And so, they seem less willing than preceding generations of students to put their faith in politics.”