Christian Culture Warriors Come in from the Cold

It has not been easy to be anti-gay lately. In a rush, support for same-sex marriage went from fringe to front-and-center. Many conservative religious people have felt flash-frozen out of the mainstream. When it comes to LGBTQ issues, many evangelicals have been surprised to hear themselves called bigots. In her continuing role as conservative dream-maker, Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos recently moved to bring anti-LGBTQ religious activists back into the mainstream. Will it work?

DeVos lgbtq

Welcoming anti-welcomers

First, let me lay out the required clarifications. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but new folks might not know where we’re coming from here at ILYBYGTH. So here they are: I personally feel strongly about LGBTQ rights, in school and elsewhere. But in these pages—as in my recent book about educational conservatism—I’m more interested in understanding the politics involved than scoring political points one way or the other.

Second, a little background: In the past three years or so, many conservative religious folks have been surprised to find themselves so quickly tossed from the precincts of respectability when it comes to LGBTQ issues. As I’ve been working on my book about evangelical higher ed, I’ve noticed how often university leaders have bumped up against the question. At Gordon College near Boston, for example, President Michael Lindsay was surprised by the ferocious response to his reminder about Gordon’s policy against homosexuality. The issue of same-sex rights threatened to split the world of evangelical higher education in two.

As traditional evangelical notions about homosexuality were kicked out of the mainstream, evangelical intellectuals were confronted again with their perennial dilemma. Do they maintain their dissident notions and deal with the consequences? Or do they adapt their ideas as mainstream culture changes?

Today, we see that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos has moved to reverse the tide. As reported by BuzzFeed, she invited two unapologetically anti-LGBTQ groups to an official Ed Department meeting. Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council both participated in a recent Father’s Day event. The signal couldn’t be clearer: Opposing expanding LGBTQ rights and protections does not make conservatives unwelcome in Queen Betsy’s regime.

We should not be surprised. In the twentieth century, according to progressive critics, Queen Betsy’s family foundation gave sizeable donations to both Focus on the Family and its offshoot Family Research Council. And there is absolutely no doubt that the two groups are stridently opposed to LGBTQ rights. Founder James Dobson views homosexuality and transgender as transgressions, pathways to “orgies” and sin.

Will such notions move back into the mainstream? Will groups who hold such views be allowed to participate in federally funded projects? It’s a frightening prospect, and the Trump White House makes it seem frighteningly realistic.

canute

I command you, tide…

In the end, though, I think DeVos’s Canute strategy is doomed. She seems blithely unaware of her own separation from mainstream notions, but she will nevertheless be forced to deal with it. By including Focus and FRC, for example, she alienated the national Parent-Teacher Association, hardly a group known for its culture-war extremism.

As with her recent remarkable comments about discrimination in schools, Secretary DeVos will find herself apologizing for her inclusion of these anti-LGBTQ groups. There is no doubt she would like to welcome their ideas back into the mainstream, but she doesn’t have the power to reverse the tide.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

What did you miss last week?  Here are a few stories that might be of interest…

The tradition continues: The entire faculty senate at Gordon College resigned suddenly this week. HT: JF

All you college teachers out there: Dan Willingham reviews two new studies about students who use laptops during lectures.  Dell won’t be happy.

READING woman apple

Words, words, words…

Senator Bernie Sanders introduces his free college-tuition plan. He doesn’t think it will pass, but that’s not the point.

Will privatization school reformers repeat the mistakes of the GOP health-care flop? Andrew Rotherham makes the case.

Why are some free-marketeers nervous about Betsy DeVos? They want more charters and more choices, too, but they think her plans to get them might backfire.

Hersh? Ze? They! Grammar nerds decide we can use “they” and “them” instead of “he or she” and “him and her.” As in “everybody has their opinion,” instead of “everybody has his or her opinion.”

Evangelical Christians have always had a complicated relationship to nationalism and patriotism.  Is America a “Christian nation?” Has God been “kicked out?”  Is Trump’s appeal to Christian nationalism anything new?  For a great set of academic articles considering these tough questions, check out the new volume of Religions, edited by the inestimable Mark Edwards.

 

The Crack Appears at Christian Colleges

It wasn’t hard to predict, but I’m surprised it has come so quickly.

World Magazine reported recently that a potential split had developed among the members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Two schools, it seems, have liberalized their policies about homosexual employees. Will this lead to a break in the CCCU? If so, it might be the last blow for a network that started with big ambitions.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH will know that I hardly ever get anything right. It is famously difficult for historians to use the past to predict the future. But in my current research, I see time and again that issues such as homosexuality have divided the family of evangelical colleges and university. It was not very hard to see that the recent SCOTUS decision about same-sex marriage would lead to a split among evangelical schools.

eastern mennonite university

A founding member of the CCC upsets the applecart…

Exactly three months ago in these pages, I put two and two together: the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriages would present evangelical schools with a terrible dilemma.

Sure enough, Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University recently announced their plans to hire non-celibate homosexual faculty. They do not necessarily want to leave the CCCU, though. Leaders of the CCCU network are wondering: Will this lead to a split? Will member schools be forced to choose between a homosexual-friendly evangelical network and a traditional gay-is-not-okay one?

Unfortunately, the history of the CCCU offers little help on that question. In its early days as the Christian College Consortium, the network had some grandiose dreams. Some leaders, such as Hudson Armerding of Wheaton College, fantasized about a multi-campus evangelical university. The dream was to concentrate resources in order to keep up with secular colleges.

As far back as the 1950s, some evangelical college leaders toyed with this idea of a California-style mega-versity. Some schools, Armerding hoped, could offer more intense engineering programs. Others might focus on missionary preparation or languages. Yet others could host pre-med degrees. All of them would contribute toward a central graduate campus, too.

In this way, the future CCCU would remain orthodox in religion, yet be able to compete with big public and rich private universities.

As Armerding put it in a confidential letter to his fellow school leaders in 1955,

Each particular college would offer the same undergraduate instruction for the first two years and then would offer a limited number of majors for the final two undergraduate years and graduate studies leading to the doctorate. . . . There would be the possibility of mobilizing the entire evangelical community to support the proposed Christian university, challenging their loyalties through familiar and accepted institutions to which this constituency had already committed itself. Hence the continuing support of the university would be relatively assured. The geographic distribution would make possible a nation-wide impact upon the social and cultural life of the nation and would facilitate the educating of students who might otherwise be unable to travel to one central location.

Speaking from Gordon College near Boston, President James Forrester wrote in 1961 to evangelical intellectual leader Carl F. Henry to support the idea:

I have wondered if a beginning might not be made toward the consolidation of some of the evangelical effort at the undergraduate level on such a campus as ours. This could be done under a federated scheme similar to Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Toronto, Claremont College, and other associated programs. I think particularly of King’s and Barrington and wonder if some person who transcends the entrenched interest of our three schools, could bring together in conference key personnel for a discussion of this possibility. I do find that the limited assets available to Christian higher education in the area are divided among Wheaton, King’s, Barrington, and Gordon. All of us struggle with capital problems and operating deficits. . . . I am also conscious that with such a fractured effort as we now represent, we are no match for the consolidated interests of educators committed to the philosophical position of a naturalistic humanism in the university field. I also feel that this could be the natural groundwork from which could be extended ultimately your magnificent concept of a great Christian university.

It didn’t work out that way. In practice, the CCCU became a loose association of schools. So loose, in fact, that no one seems really sure what will happen now. Member colleges pledge vaguely

To advance the cause of Christ-centered higher education and to help our institutions transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth.

Can they do that if they welcome non-celibate homosexual faculty and staff? Or do those schools need to go elsewhere? If they do, how many of the 181 member schools will they pull with them?

From grand 1950s dreams of a powerful and aggressive evangelical multiversity, it seems evangelical colleges will be split yet again into smaller and smaller organizations.

Is THIS the Future for Christian Colleges?

Now what do we do? That is the question plaguing conservative college administrators nationwide. Since the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriages, many evangelical schools have wondered if they will have to change the way they do things. In Michigan, Hope College has announced its accommodation with the ruling. Will other Christian colleges do the same thing?

The gateway to the future?

The gateway to the future?

As the Sophisticated and Good-Looking Regular Readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, questions of homosexuality and same-sex marriage have long bedeviled evangelical colleges. For non-evangelicals, it might come as a surprise to hear that the issue is contentious. After all, at most evangelical schools, the official doctrine clearly and resolutely condemns homosexual activity.

Yet at all sorts of schools, the campus community is much more welcoming. At Gordon College recently, the president’s reminder that the school officially bans “homosexual practice” brought furious protests from students and faculty. Even at the far more conservative Liberty University, faculty members do not always take the harsh tone we progressives might expect.

As our Supreme Court decided the constitutionality of state bans on same-sex marriage, many evangelicals fretted that their decision would trash traditional rules on their campuses.

At Hope College in Michigan—a school in the Reformed Church tradition—the leadership and campus has experienced similar turbulence on the issues of homosexuality. In 2010, for example, the administration provoked protests when it banned the film Milk. More recently, the campus has welcomed homosexual student organizations, though the administration has continued to endorse the Reformed position on homosexuality.

In its most recent announcement, the school’s leaders have declared their intention to abide by the SCOTUS decision. From now on, same-sex married partners of college employees will be eligible for the same benefits as heterosexual partners. The administration again affirmed its respect for the Reformed Church’s official doctrine that homosexuality is a sin. That does not mean, however, that the school will contravene the law.

Is this the path other schools will follow? Unlike pluralist colleges, evangelical schools face intense pressure to stay true to traditional beliefs and norms. As Professor Michael Hamilton wrote in his study of Wheaton College,

The paradigm that has dominated Wheaton through the century holds that colleges, more than any other type of institution, are highly susceptible to change, and that change can only move in one direction—from orthodoxy toward apostasy. . . . The very process of change, no matter how slow and benign it may seem at first, will always move the college in a secular direction, inevitably gathering momentum and becoming unstoppable, ending only when secularization is complete.

Hope College may find itself the front line for this debate within the Reformed Church in America. The church as a whole has gone back and forth for decades about the proper Christian reaction to homosexuality. Is it better to embrace the sinner? Or to drive out the sin? Conservatives within the RCA will doubtless take this announcement as proof that Hope has gone soft. Progressives will celebrate it as a small step towards equity.

Other evangelical schools will face similar scrutiny. If they openly welcome homosexual students, faculty, and staff, they will be subject to withering condemnation from conservatives. If they don’t, however, they’ll risk being sidelined, branded as anti-gay bigots.

Gay Marriage and Christian Resistance

What is a conservative Christian to do? The US Supreme Court’s decision in favor of gay marriage has sent shock waves across America. Will conservative Christians accept this decision? Or, as some have warned, does this move our culture war over sexuality one step closer to real war?

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms...

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms…

Of particular interest at ILYBYGTH these days, the new ruling will likely meet its first test at conservative religious colleges. As we’ve noted (and as the New York Times eventually noticed) the SCOTUS ruling has brought up questions about the limits of acceptable dissent in higher ed. Can schools discriminate against homosexual “practice?” As I’m writing about in my current book, the same tension played out in the 1970s, when Bob Jones University insisted on its religious right to racial discrimination. It seems colleges will be the first institutions to feel pressure to accommodate demands to end institutional discrimination against homosexuals.

The reaction to the SCOTUS decision has been fast and furious among conservative evangelicals and other Christians. Rick Scarborough of Vision America told the New York Times that the decision must be resisted. “If they change the playing field and make what we do out of bounds,” Scarborough said,

we will disobey; we will disrespect this decision. . . . We’ll treat it like Dred Scott and other decisions courts have handed down over the years that counter natural law. God made a male and a female, and no amount of surgery is going to change that.

Similarly, Robert Jeffress told the Christian Post that the decision proves America’s persecution of Christians. As the Rev. Jeffress put it,

I think today’s decision is just one more step in the marginalization of conservative Christians. I made this argument and have been ridiculed for doing so, but I think it is very legitimate. The Nazis did not take the Jews to the crematoriums immediately. . . . The German people would not have put up with that. Instead, the Nazis begin to marginalize the Jewish people, make them objects of contempt and ridicule. Once they changed the public opinion about the Jewish people, then they engaged the [Holocaust]. . . . Once secularists have made Christians objects of contempt, I think it will be very easy to revoke other rights that they have as American citizens.

And in the pages of World Magazine, Ryan Shinkel advocated Christian resistance to an overweening state and society. “The movement for marital restoration is beginning,” Shinkel wrote just before the SCOTUS decision,

and the chance for moral courage and a life daring to be countercultural is at hand. By continuing to speak up for religious freedom, the restoration of a marriage culture, and dignity of the family in the face of potential setbacks at the Supreme Court, we can become the Nietzscheans who hammer the libertine and atomistic idols of our age.

Secular folks like me, progressive people who celebrate the SCOTUS decision, might blanch at these dire warnings. Some of my friends and colleagues might take these statements as proof that conservative Christians will never admit to marriage equality. But folks like us need to listen also to the other voices of conservative Christians.

In the Washington Post, for example, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention suggests Christians calm down. It is a terrible ruling, Moore agrees. And it does indeed push conservative evangelicals into a dissenting position that might seem “freakish” these days. But so what? Moore wants conservatives to “embrace a freakishness that saves.”

Similarly, Mark Galli of Christianity Today worries that evangelicals will react badly. “The temptation,” he writes,

is to go off and sulk in our holy corner. Or to dig in our heels and fight harder. Or to lash out in anger. Or to despair. We can do better.

The goal for Christians, Galli writes, is to take confidence that they are on the right side, God’s side. This decision provides another healthy—if intensely uncomfortable—opportunity for Christians to re-engage with important questions above love, marriage, and the proper relationship between Church and society. Though some conservatives might offer extreme rhetoric, Galli warns, evangelicals in America “are far from living at the margins.”

If we are to make sense of the culture-war rhetoric surrounding this SCOTUS decision, we need at least to remember some historical precedent. As I’ve argued elsewhere, for generations evangelical Christians have been battered by landmark SCOTUS decisions that seem to kick them out of public life. In every case, evangelical pundits have insisted that each new SCOTUS decision changed America from a Christian nation to a persecuting Babylon. In every case, however, evangelicals have continued to wield enormous cultural and political power.

Will this decision be any different? Will this decision really change the balance of power in America’s continuing culture-war debates?

MBI Kind of Town…

What did you do after high school? Did you go to a “college?” Or was it a “university,” “institute,” a “normal school,” or maybe a “professional school?” For generations of ambitious Protestant missionaries, the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago has been the best-known institution of evangelical higher ed. So much so that MBI has clung to the “BI” name much longer than many other evangelical colleges.

DOWNtown funk...

DOWNtown funk…

I just rolled into Chi-town on the last of my research trips this year. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m working on a book about the history of evangelical higher ed. This year, I’ve traveled to Bob Jones University, Wheaton College, Biola University, Gordon College, and Liberty University.

MBI is last, but certainly not least. I’ve logged my share of time in these archives over the years, especially while working on my PhD dissertation and first book. MBI is not the oldest Bible Institute, but it has remained far and away the most influential.

For those outside of the orbit of evangelical culture, the primary goal of Bible institutes has been to provide quick and affordable education for missionaries. In order to serve effectively on the mission field, many evangelicals have believed, missionaries need a thorough knowledge of the Bible. In order to bring people to true salvation, missionaries need a proper knowledge, too.

Beginning in the late 1800s, Bible institutes popped up in American cities nationwide. Many of them attracted students without a lot of academic preparation. These students, after all, were not heading into the traditional professions, but rather heading out to spread the Gospel in every land. They did not need to know Latin and trigonometry, but rather only the Bible and maybe some basic medicine and language skills.

Over the decades, many of these Bible institutes turned into colleges or universities of one kind or another. This was part of the triple revolution in higher education that Roger Geiger describes in his new book, The History of American Higher Education. By 1940, Professor Geiger argues, the wild diversity of early institutions of higher education had become standardized, a recognizable modern system of American higher education.

In this system, no one went to college without first completing a high-school education. They looked forward to an education that would prepare them for specific professions. Colleges themselves closed their preparatory departments or split them off into stand-along high schools. Universities had shaken out into a relatively stable hierarchy of prestige and social influence. At the top were wealthy old schools such as Harvard and the University of Michigan. At these universities, undergraduate education rollicked along in a cloud of sports, fraternities, and social climbing, while the schools themselves fought viciously to increase their research footprint.

As this modern system regularized itself in the years after World War I, several types of institutions phased out. These evolutionary also-rans included many institutes of technology, proprietary medical or legal schools, “female institutes,” normal schools, and—though Professor Geiger doesn’t mention them—most of the Bible institutes.

These old-fashioned types of higher education did not disappear. Rather, most of them changed to offer the new standard bachelor’s degrees. Many of them built new dormitories and fielded sports teams. And most of them took their place in the competitive hierarchy that arched from Harvard down to Podunk State College & Grill.

A very few exceptions stood out from this winnowing process, at least symbolically. Some of the old-fashioned institutions of higher education had been so successful in the 1800s that they felt no need to change their names, even as they usually adopted some of the features of modern higher education. Most notably, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology never changed its name to call itself a “college” or a “university.” MIT began as one of a scramble of “institutes of technology” in the years surrounding the Civil War. Unlike today’s MIT, the early institutes did not focus on recognizably pure modern research. Instead, they mostly provided students with a more practical mechanical education meant for workers in industrial workshops.

As more and more students wanted to spend their tuition dollars at a “college” or “university” that took its place in the ever-more-rigid hierarchy after World War I, most of these “institutes of technology” turned themselves into “colleges” or “universities.”

Following a somewhat similar pattern, since 1940 most of the crop of Bible institutes that sprang up around the turn of the twentieth century turned themselves into “colleges” or “universities.” Biola University, for example, began its life as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles—BIOLA, get it? Gordon College, too, had its roots as the Boston Missionary Training School. As early Gordon President Nathan Wood remembered, the first name change—to Gordon College of Theology and Missions—resulted from student pressure.   Three class presidents, Wood recalled, requested

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

To put it in terms Wood never used, the Gordon students recognized early the congealing patterns of modern American higher education. A “training school” did not convey the same prestige and professional opportunities as did a “college.”

For some stand-out schools, however, these rules did not apply. Moody Bible Institute was so well known among evangelicals its name sufficed to keep students coming. There was no need for it to change its name to acknowledge the changing environment of American higher education. Like MIT, MBI had created such a unique niche in higher education that it kept its old fashioned name and much of its old-fashioned structure. Also like MIT, MBI took on many of the features of modern higher education. Unlike in its early days, MBI now offers college degrees, not just Bible training.

Doubtless, I’ll find some evidence here in the archives about efforts over the years to change MBI’s name. Unlike smaller schools, however, MBI had the size needed to stand out as an island in the new seas of modern higher education.

University Apocalypse

Are conservative religious academics forced these days to live “deeply closeted” lives? Have elite universities become so hostile to conservative religious thought that openly acknowledging their religion would be career suicide for academics? In the aftermath of the recent debate over gay rights and religious freedom in Indiana, one elite academic shares his worries in the pages of The American Conservative.

We have to ask: Are things really so dire for conservative academics?

Private?  or Closeted?

Private? or Closeted?

First, though, some context. Readers may remember Jonathan Zimmerman’s (liberal) plea to include more conservatives on campus. And leading schools such as Colorado University have adopted programs to bring conservative thinking to liberal colleges. Both conservatives and non-conservatives agree: Good universities need to recruit actively among a wide diversity of intellectual types.

New voices say it’s not happening.

Crunchy conservative Rod Dreher recently shared his conversation on these issues with an anonymous professor at an elite law school. This professor worried that the “overculture” had reacted with frightening intellectual totalitarianism to the recent Indiana case. At leading colleges, “Prof. Kingsfield” warned, religious conservatives are no longer welcome.

“A college professor who is already tenured is probably safe,” Dreher tells us, summing up “Kingsfield’s” story.

Those who aren’t tenured, are in danger. Those who are believed to be religious, or at least religious in ways the legal overculture believes constitutes bigotry, will likely never be hired. For example, the professor said, he was privy to the debate within a faculty hiring meeting in which the candidacy of a liberal Christian was discussed. Though the candidate appeared in every sense to be quite liberal in her views, the fact that she was an open Christian prompted discussion as to whether or not the university would be hiring a “fundamentalist.”

“Kingsfield” also argues that conservative schools will likely face increasing pressure from accrediting bodies. He cites the recent experience of Gordon College. In that case, a re-articulation of a long-standing school policy against sexual activity among students—including homosexual students—created a firestorm of controversy.

Rod Dreher included as a follow-up several emails from academics claiming to have been discriminated against in higher ed.

Do you buy it?

There are a few caveats we need to keep in mind. First, Professor “Kingsfield” seems to be talking about trends at elite colleges. I’ve been told many times by the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) that their experiences in non-elite colleges have been very different. One correspondent, for instance, told me that his colleagues in a large second-tier state school explicitly taught their students to teach in a conservative religious way.

Also, we need to remember that we’re only talking about one conservative tradition here. Generally, non-religious conservatives have had a very easy time fitting into the culture at elite universities. Folks such as the late Milton Friedman, surely, have not faced any sort of career danger for their conservative ideas.

In my experience, my fellow progressive academic folks really do often combine a shocking ignorance of conservative religious culture with a casual contempt for conservative religious ideas. One of the reasons I started this blog, in fact, was due to the fact that so many of my fellow progressives seemed utterly hostile to and uninformed about American conservatism.

On the other hand, my beloved medium-sized public university seems fairly welcoming to religious conservatives. Perhaps because I talk too much about conservatism and fundamentalism, more than one of my faculty colleagues have shared their religious beliefs and background. They don’t trumpet their beliefs, but they don’t hide them either.

My colleagues keep their beliefs private. That’s not the same thing as keeping them “deeply closeted,” though. Are things really so bad for conservative religious academics?

Fundamentalism and the Modern University

Are evangelical colleges modern? Or, with their insistence that knowledge has its roots in God’s Holy Word, are they somehow trapped in medieval ideas about knowledge and the purposes of higher education? The answer is more complicated than it might seem at first.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of ILYBYGTH (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are sick of hearing, I’m hard at work on my book about evangelical higher ed. In the twentieth century, Protestant fundamentalists opened or transformed a network of colleges dedicated to protecting fundamentalist faith. If students are led astray at mainstream secular colleges, the thinking went, fundamentalists needed their own schools to teach each new generation of Christians how to be educated and evangelical.

As part of my reading list, I’m deep in Roger Geiger’s new book, The History of American Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2015). I’m writing a full review for Teachers College Record and I’ll be sure to post links to that review when it comes out.

Are fundamentalists colleges modern? Or are they trapped in the 1600s?

Are fundamentalist colleges modern? Or are they trapped in the 1600s?

In the meantime, though, Professor Geiger’s survey of the first colleges raises some tricky questions for fundamentalist higher education. As with so many early American institutions, colleges such as Harvard and Yale represented the tail end of medieval traditions, just as they were changing into recognizably modern ways of thinking.

Conservative evangelicals like to point out that America’s leading colleges were often founded as religious schools. It’s true. Harvard and Yale were both intended, first and foremost, to defend orthodox Puritanism. Not only were they ferociously religious, but they envisioned their role in a radically non-modern way. Instead of serving as an institution that encouraged new thinking, Harvard and Yale in the 1600s and early 1700s both saw their role as passing along established truth. As Prof. Geiger puts it, in the early decades, “The corpus of knowledge transmitted at Harvard College was considered fixed, and inquiry after new knowledge was beyond imagining.”

Orthodoxy at these early schools was defended with a rigor that would make twentieth-century fundamentalists proud. Harvard’s first president, for example, was ousted for theological reasons. President Henry Dunster came to believe that infant baptism was not a scriptural practice. As a result, the General Court summarily got rid of him. In their words, no one could lead a college if they “manifested themselves unsound in the faith.”

Both Harvard and Yale made explicit their goals. In early years, Yale explained its primary religious mission:

Every student shall consider the main end of his study to wit to know God in Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a Godly sober life.

It was not much different at Harvard:

the main end of [a student’s] life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, Joh. 17.3

In all these aspects, life at Harvard and Yale between the 1630s and 1720s seems remarkably similar to life at fundamentalist colleges in the early twentieth century. For schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones College, Bible Institute of Los Angeles, or Gordon College, these Puritan echoes resounded loudly. At all these fundamentalist schools, leaders insisted that the first goal was to help students understand themselves as Christians. The first intellectual challenge was to study seemingly distinct bodies of knowledge to see the hidden connections put in place by God.

In this way, then, it seems as if fundamentalist colleges—even those more liberal schools that eventually abandoned the “fundamentalist” label—hearken back to a pre-modern vision of higher education.

We have to be careful, though, before we assume too much. In other important ways, twentieth century dissenting religious colleges participated fully in the central intellectual tradition of modern higher education.

According to Professor Geiger, colonial higher education went through a revolutionary change in the 1720s-1740s. During that period, endowed professorships at Harvard gave some faculty members the independence to pursue new forms of knowledge. These professors began to incorporate the ideas of new thinkers such as Isaac Newton and John Locke.

The radical change came not only from the newness of the ideas, but from the notion that the college or university should be the place to explore such new ideas. As Professor Geiger puts it,

The significance and prestige of Newtonian science altered college teaching by introducing the experimental lecture employing apparatus, creating a demand for specialized professors and establishing the expectation that the curriculum should incorporate new knowledge.

A fundamental characteristic of the modern university emerged in the decades before the American Revolution. College, more than any other institution, came to be seen as the province of cutting-edge thinking. As Professor Geiger points out, even before Ben Franklin made his famous experiments with lightning, John Winthrop at Harvard used his endowed Hollis Chair funding to purchase equipment that would allow him to demonstrate the properties of electricity.

Just as the fundamentalist colleges of the twentieth century clung to the pre-modern notion that universities ought to pass along established truths, those same fundamentalist schools fully participated in the modern notion that universities ought to explore new truths.

An evangelical scientist, for example, such as Russell Mixter at Wheaton College in the 1950s, believed that no amount of human investigating could overturn the truths of Scripture. But Mixter (and others like him) also saw himself as an intellectual specialist, a scientist exploring the outer boundaries of biology to discover new things about God’s creation.

Are fundamentalist and evangelical colleges modern? In this sense, they certainly are. The faculty at twentieth- and twenty-first century conservative colleges are divided into academic disciplines. Each of them is expected to carry out research in his or her field. The definition of those fields may be different from the ones at secular institutions, but the fundamentally modern notion of research remains central.

At the same time, though, by envisioning themselves as the guardians of students’ faiths, fundamentalist colleges hearken back to the pre-modern roots of the Ivy League. As Professor Geiger argues about 17th century Puritan higher education, “the deeper purpose of the college course and the overriding preoccupation of the institutions were to demonstrate the truth of Christianity.”

Today’s evangelical colleges would agree.

Fundamentalist University Can’t Stay Afloat

Looks like the world of fundamentalist higher education will be shrinking at the end of this semester. Chattanooga’s Tennessee Temple University will be closing its doors, merging with nearby Piedmont International University. In spite of accusations by some critics, this closing does not prove that fundamentalist colleges can’t make it in today’s society. After all, these kinds of closings are all too common among all sorts of schools.

On their Last Crusade...

On their Last Crusade…

Officially, TTU will close due to the lack of financial support from alumni. Instead of the needed three to five million dollars trustees hoped for, TTU alumni coughed up a meager $65,000.

Critic David Tulis blamed the closure on the insular theology of the school. Leaders had grown too fond of their own dispensational truths and “Christian Zionism,” Tulis charged. TTU had allowed itself the unaffordable luxury of inbred intellectualism and backwater academics.

There may be truth in such charges, but anyone familiar with the shaky history of higher education will know that all sorts of schools close for all sorts of reasons.

Most recently, the closing of Virginia’s Sweet Briar College has sent tremors through the world of higher education. If a storied institution with a fat endowment can be run out of business, who is safe?

Among evangelical colleges, too, these sorts of closings and mergers are not unique to the more conservative fundamentalist type. In the 1980s, Barrington College merged with nearby Gordon College. Financial pressures can obviously become overwhelming, irrespective of theological positions.

In the case of Barrington and Gordon, as I’m finding in my current research, these two (relatively) liberal evangelical schools had long been rivals. As late as 1961, the president of Barrington declared that he would never consider joining with Gordon in any sort of money-saving merger. The only way for Barrington to succeed, President Howard Ferrin insisted twenty-five years before the schools’ eventual merger, was by “stressing its differences from Gordon.”

We must remember also that colleges from this fundamentalist Baptist tradition can do very well financially. Most obviously, Virginia’s Liberty University makes more money than it knows what to do with. By making savvy investments in online education, the leaders of Liberty have proved that a fundamentalist school can thrive in today’s turbulent higher-education market.

But not every fundamentalist school. The leaders of Tennessee Temple have promised that current students will be able to finish their academic programs, one way or another. Also, as President Steve Echols ruminated,

countless lives have been forever changed and will continue to be changed through the heritage of Tennessee Temple University.

In spite of what some pundits might assert, this news from Chattanooga does not mean that fundamentalist higher education is on the way out. The financial struggles at TTU, after all, serve as more proof that fundamentalist universities and colleges often have more in common with non-fundamentalist schools than their leaders might like to admit.

Homeschooling: A Scheme to Take Over America

What do Sarah Palin, Gordon College, and Christian homeschoolers have in common? According to evangelical-turned-atheist Frank Schaeffer, they are all “still fighting a religious war against their own country.” I’m no homeschooler or Palin fan, but Schaeffer’s accusations just don’t hold up to historical scrutiny.

Schaeffer’s most recent broadside appeared in Salon. In his article, Schaeffer blasted a wide range of “far-right” institutions. When parents choose to pull their kids out of public schools to indoctrinate them at home, Schaeffer charged, it amounts to nothing less than “virtual civil war carried on by other means.” As Schaeffer put it,

the evangelical schools and home school movement were, by design, founded to undermine a secular and free vision of America and replace it by stealth with a form of theocracy.

According to Schaeffer, this nefarious plot spreads beyond the anti-democratic practice of homeschooling. The “far-right,” Schaeffer insists, turns women into submissive breeding mares. The Right has opened its own colleges and universities as part of its plan to take over civil society. Jerry Falwell himself, Schaeffer relates, explained his reasons for opening Liberty Law School. “Frank,” Falwell confided, “we’re going to train a new generation of judges to change America!”

Is the sky really falling?

Is the sky really falling?

Inspired by the apocalyptic rhetoric of wild-eyed prophets such as Rousas Rushdoony, and marshalled by irresponsible self-aggrandizers such as Sarah Palin, the Christian Right will not stop until it has taken over. Conservative religious folks, Schaeffer insists, want nothing less than to impose a rigid theocracy on the United States. They will not be content until they have dictated the morals and mores of their neighbors as well as those of their children.

Are Schaeffer’s charges fair?

Certainly, he has the right to boast of his insider connections. His father, the late Francis Schaeffer, really did inspire a fair bit of the social philosophy of today’s conservative evangelicals. Schaeffer Senior articulated in the 1970s and 1980s the notion that US culture had been infiltrated by a sneaky “secular humanist” worldview. In order to properly live as Christians, then, Schaeffer Senior advocated a wide-ranging rejection of modern social mores. Perhaps most important for day-to-day culture-war politics, Schaeffer Senior along with C. Everett Koop denounced abortion rights as equivalent to murder.

At times, Frank Schaeffer seems blinded by his own imagined influence. In this Salon article, for example, he shamelessly name-drops his connections to writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Mary Pride. He claims to have been “instrumental” in bringing together the New Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Such unpleasantness aside, however, do Schaeffer’s charges stick? Are Christian homeschooling and evangelical higher education part of a long-ranging plot to undermine American traditions of pluralism and tolerance?

Short answer: No.

Before I offer a few examples of the ways Schaeffer’s breathless expose doesn’t match reality, let me explain my background for those who are new to ILYBYGTH. I am no apologist for fundamentalist Christianity. I’m no fundamentalist, not even a former fundamentalist. When it comes down to it, I will fight hard against fundamentalist-friendly school rules about prayer or sex ed. I don’t homeschool my kid. I don’t attend or teach at an evangelical college. I’m only a mild-mannered historian, with the sole goal of deflating hysterical culture-war accusations.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of Schaeffer’s claims.

First, is Christian homeschooling really as sinister as he claims? Schaeffer suggests that homeschoolers have been inspired by the work of leaders such as Mary Pride and Nancy Leigh DeMoss. The point of homeschooling, Schaeffer charges, is to train girls and women to submit to fathers and husbands, to glory in their second-class role as child-bearers and house-keepers.

There are indeed homeschoolers who adopt these notions. But anyone who follows the work of historian Milton Gaither can tell you that the world of homeschooling—even the more limited world of conservative evangelical homeschooling—is a kaleidoscope of missions, strategies, and techniques. I don’t doubt that some Christian parents hope to impose a rigid patriarchal vision on their children. What falls apart, though, when looked at carefully, is the notion that these folks are somehow the “real” reason behind Christian homeschooling. What falls apart are accusations that Christian homeschoolers are some sort of monolithic force scheming to take over the rest of our society. In reality, Christian homeschoolers are a remarkably fractious bunch.

Second, what about Rousas Rushdoony? As Schaeffer correctly points out, Rushdoony was the intellectual force behind “Reconstructionist” theology. In short, Rushdoony believed that Christians should impose true Christian morality on all of society, including Old-Testament-inspired laws about sex and conduct. In reality, though, the direct influence of Rushdoony’s social ideas has been rather limited. As scholars such as Michael J. McVicar have argued, Rushdoony has had far more influence on liberal pundits than on the conservative rank-and-file.

Next, are evangelical colleges really training a generation of conservative culture warriors? As I conduct the research for my next book, I’m struck by the ways evangelical colleges have been battlegrounds more than training centers. In other words, evangelical colleges and universities have had a hard time figuring out what they are doing. They are hardly in the business of cranking out thousands of mindless drones to push right-wing culture-war agendas.

For one thing, evangelical colleges have usually insisted on maintaining intellectual respectability in the eyes of non-evangelical scholars. Even such anti-accreditation schools as Bob Jones University have used outside measures such as the Graduate Record Examination to prove their academic bona fides. As historian Michael S. Hamilton noted in his brilliant study of Wheaton College, this desire prompted Wheaton in the 1930s to invite outside evaluators such as John Dale Russell of the University of Chicago to suggest changes at the “Fundamentalist Harvard.” This need for intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream intellectuals has continually pulled fundamentalist schools closer to the mainstream. Such colleges—even staunchly “unusual” ones like Bob Jones—have been much more similar to mainstream colleges than folks like Schaeffer admit.

Schaeffer uses Gordon College in Massachusetts as an example of the ways Christian colleges train new generations of young people to see the US government as evil. But as I found in my recent trip to the Gordon College archives, the community at Gordon has always been divided about the purposes of higher education. Back in the 1960s, Gordon College students held protests, sit-ins, and “sleep-ins” to change Gordon’s policies and attitudes. As one student put it during a 1968 protest, “we want to be treated like real college students.” How did the evangelical administration respond? By commending the students’ commitment to “activism over apathy.” To my ears, that does not sound like a brutal and all-encompassing mind-control approach.

The world of conservative evangelicalism, of “fundamentalism,” is one of continuous divisive tension. There is no fundamentalist conspiracy of the sort Schaeffer describes. Or, to be more specific, there are such conspiracies, but there are so many of them, and they disagree with one another so ferociously, that the threat Schaeffer warns us about is more fiction than fact.

Does Christian homeschooling really serve as a first step in a long-ranging scheme to take over America? Only in the fevered imaginings of former fundamentalists such as Frank Schaeffer.