Notre Dame and the Fundamentalist Dream

Is it practical? I have no idea. But the proposal last week from students at the University of Notre Dame to block porn from campus pushes all the buttons that animated fundamentalist college reformers a century ago. It goes against the very openness—as Gene Zubovich wrote recently—that has led Catholic higher education to be so much more intellectually vibrant than the conservative evangelical versions.

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Can they keep the baby if they block the bathwater?

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for student activism against pornography. I admire the zeal and vision of the Notre Dame students. I’m especially happy to see my fellow men stand up against the exploitation of women and children. As the Notre Dame signatories argued,

We are calling for this action in order to stand up for the dignity of all people, especially women. . . . Pornography is the new sex education, providing a disturbing script about what men find sexually appealing and what women should do to please them. Notre Dame’s sincere efforts to educate students about consent and other aspects of healthy sexuality are pitifully weak in light of the fact that by the time students arrive on campus, many have been addictively watching pornography for years. . . . ​Porn is not acting. The overwhelming majority of contemporary pornography is literally filmed violence against women — violence somehow rendered invisible by the context.

I don’t dispute any of that. Historically, however, the goal of blocking and shielding students as part of a righteous college education has had some unintended consequences. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, the heart and soul of the fundamentalist college dream was to block, ban, prohibit, limit, encircle, and deny. In short, what fundamentalist school founders wanted was to create an alternative system of higher education in which young people could learn without being exposed to the behaviors and attitudes that had taken over mainstream higher education.

As Gene Zubovich argued recently, Catholic higher education has had a different tradition. Of course the Catholic Church has its own long, lamentable tradition of prohibition. Nevertheless, Catholic intellectuals became the big brains of America’s conservative movement in the twentieth century, Zubovich wrote, because

Unlike evangelicals, conservative Catholics could draw on research universities, law schools, medical schools, business schools and other intellectual-producing institutions in the fight against secularism.

Now, I disagree with Zubovich’s across-the-board dismissal of academic and intellectual life at evangelical universities. It was not only Carl Henry (whom Zubovich mentions) who dreamed of creating an academic intellectual powerhouse. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, the roots of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities were in another ambitious and practical plan to improve the tenor of intellectual life in evangelical schools.

However, that quibble is beside the point this morning. Zubovich is absolutely correct in marking a big difference between the attitudes of leaders at Catholic universities, compared to evangelical ones. Faculty at Catholic universities do not have to sign detailed statements of faith. Hiring for academic positions is done by credentials, not by faith backgrounds. Most important, the expectations of students at Catholic universities has never matched the sometimes-extravagant lifestyle controls imposed by evangelical schools.

What does this all have to do with Notre Dame’s proposed porn filter? Just this: imposing a block or a filter might seem like a laudable purpose, but the long-term impact on any academic institution will be serious, even severe. Do Notre Dame’s signatories want to take their institution down the long path to wall-building?

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Frost on the pumpkins and the Brewers in the playoffs. What could be better? How bout another week full of ILYBYGTH-themed stories from around the interwebs?

More teens are abandoning traditional gender categories, at CNN.

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What do some conservatives have against the unicorn?

Why are tests so hard to kill? New Jersey struggles to get rid of its common-core tests, at NJ.com.

What color is your Jesus? Three-quarters of white evangelicals still support Trump. Three-quarters of black evangelicals oppose him, at Vox.

Going up for tenure? Don’t bother with public scholarship, says a new survey at CHE.

Why so many Catholics and so few evangelicals on SCOTUS? Gene Zubovich says it’s a matter of school history.

By virtue of their 19th-century separationist anxieties and their investment in institutions of higher learning, Catholics have become the brains of the religious Right in the US.

Moody Bible Institute picks a new leader after a rough year, at CT.

Jerry Falwell Jr. explains why evangelicals love Trump, at The Guardian.

Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been a good, moral person, a strong leader, a tough leader – and that’s what this country needs.

Kirk on campus. No, not that Kirk. A review of Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk’s new book about conservative campus dreams at CHE.

Dirty tricks, done dirt cheap: Arizona Republicans get busted trying to donate $39.68 to their Democratic rivals, posing as communists. At The Guardian.

There’s One Word Missing from this Essay about Trump’s Christian Nationalism

Sorry for the long title, but it’s all true. I read with great interest Gene Zubovich’s recent article in Religion & Politics about Trump’s appeal to Christian Nationalism. It’s a great argument, but Zubovich leaves out one crucial word.

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For Jesus AND America…

Zubovich hits the nail squarely on the head when he argues that Trump’s shameless appeals to God and Country are a big part of Trump’s appeal among conservative evangelicals. As Zubovich puts it,

Trump has repeatedly argued that when America remains true to its faith and traditional values, God will bless the country with the might to defeat its foes. And his words resonate with Christian nationalists—those who believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation and must continue to be one—because they tie together so many of the Christian Right’s beliefs and instincts. We have good reason to believe that Christian nationalism is one of the reasons evangelicals overwhelmingly support Trump.

Moreover, Zubovich recognizes the other side of this coin. Though big majorities of conservative evangelicals love Trump’s Christian-nationalist spiel, evangelicals also provide its most trenchant critics. For example, as Zubovich explains,

In May, American clergy issued the “Reclaiming Jesus” manifesto, which rejected Trump’s nationalist slogan of America First “as a theological heresy for followers of Christ.” . . . [They] reminded Americans: “Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries.” They went on to say, “We, in turn, should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.”

So far, so good. But Zubovich leaves out a vital bit. This debate over the relationship between nationalism and globalism among American evangelicals has always really only been a debate among WHITE American evangelicals. For other groups, most notably African American conservative evangelicals, the temptation to lump religion in with government has never been an issue.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not that there aren’t a lot of patriotic African American conservative evangelicals in the USA. There certainly are. The urge to equate the government with the church, though, has only been a curse among white evangelicals. For obvious historical reasons, African Americans have always tended to keep their church strictly separate from other social institutions, institutions that all too often embraced slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-black racism.

Insisting on this one word, then, is more than just academic nitpicking. If we want to understand Trump’s appeal among conservative evangelicals—and we DO want to understand it—we need to be very careful to remember that only one segment of American conservative evangelicals has suffered from a muddling of religious zeal with patriotic fervor.