Christian College? Or Hetero U?

What’s the problem? That’s the question I’ve heard from interested evangelical-higher-ed watchers the last couple days. Since I warned that Gordon College’s ‘uge new donation could put them in a difficult position, people have asked me to explain my concern. What is so bad about a gigantic donation? In short, I worry that huge donations—and even the promise of huge donations—has always threatened the religious mission of evangelical universities and colleges.

american studies conference 1966 program

…the plans for the canceled NFEC conference at Gordon:

First, a quick reminder: Gordon College announced last year that it was in financial straits. To survive, Gordon restructured its academic offerings and reduced its faculty. This week, Gordon announced a $75.5 million donation from an anonymous source.

Second, a disclaimer: I have absolutely no inside information about the goings-on at Gordon. I do not know anything about the goals of the anonymous donor. I don’t know if there were any formal strings attached to the donation. Plus, I have no skin in this game. I am not an alumnus or financial supporter of any evangelical colleges. I’m just a mild-mannered secular historian with a lot of respect for evangelical academic life.

Third, the history: Back in the 1960s, Gordon faced a similar dilemma, as did many conservative evangelical colleges. As I described in Fundamentalist U, Gordon’s president in the 1960s was excited about a new funding source. The National Freedom Education Center offered evangelical colleges financial support if presidents signed their schools up. Participating schools would agree to align their teaching with free-market/free-enterprise conservatism. As the NFEC leaders put it,

Objective: Inclusion in the curricula and teaching emphasis in Christian colleges of a pervading high regard for Freedom in its spiritual, economic and political dimensions and to create an informed student-citizen leadership needed to safeguard and extend Freedom in the years ahead.

President Forrester was on board. Faculty members on campus pushed back. When President Forrester announced his plans for a big free-enterprise conference on Gordon’s campus, faculty rejected the plan. One influential faculty leader said Gordon was against a merely political program. He insisted Gordon would not ever indoctrinate students with “a program of education in conservative thinking”. His vision, and the vision of most faculty members at the time, was that their conservative religion was far broader than mere political conservatism. Even if many of them personally supported free-market ideas.

national freedom education center letterhead

There are ALWAYS strings attached…

Fourth, the problem: Back in the 1960s, evangelical intellectuals at Gordon and elsewhere rejected the pressure to adapt their teaching to only one secular conservative goal. They also rejected the funding that went along with it.

Today, institutions such as Gordon College are taking a lonely stand in favor of conservative evangelical thinking about gender identity and sexual morality. As today’s President [and, full disclosure, a former postdoc colleague of mine] D. Michael Lindsay told evangelical journalists, his school has become a “city on a hill” in secular New England.

In my view, this presents a 2019 version of Gordon’s 1965 dilemma. If they take money from people who want them to over-emphasize only one part of their evangelical mission, it is a dangerous move. It threatens to narrow their traditionally broad evangelical emphasis to only one issue. Yes, many conservative evangelicals today hope to emphasize traditional sexual morality and marriage rules, but that has never been the sole defining issue of their religion. It has certainly never been the sole defining issue of a Gordon College education.

Back in the 1960s, faculty leaders had the power to reject the free-marketeering imposition of the National Freedom Education Center. They rejected the pressure and temptation to turn their Christian college into a single-issue education center.

Today’s faculty members at Gordon and other schools might not have the same power. They are very aware of the effects of financial hard times, with programs slashed and faculty positions eliminated. But the danger seems the same. To survive, will Gordon and other evangelicals schools take money that pushes them to emphasize only one aspect of their complex Christian goals? Will they give up their goal of being an evangelical Christian college to focus on being primarily a Traditional-Marriage University?

A Dangerous Payday for Evangelical Colleges?

Is it worth it? Evangelical college-watchers are agog about a huge new donation to Gordon College in Massachusetts. I have to wonder if this is part of a new culture-war playbook for evangelical higher ed. Will the hidden costs of this largesse end up being too steep? After all, back in the 1960s, Gordon’s faculty turned down this kind of financial support.

Here’s what we know, and it’s not much: Christianity Today reports an anonymous donation of $75.5 million to Gordon. As CT describes, this is a very unusual event in the world of evangelical higher education. Only a handful of evangelical universities have ever received gifts this large.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH will recall, this comes on the heels of Gordon’s recent belt-tightening announcement. Last May, Gordon restructured its academic offerings. Faculty were let go, budgets were cut. It wasn’t a stretch to wonder how long Gordon would survive.

Now, for a little while at least, the financial wolf seems to have been chased from Gordon’s door. We don’t know why, but it seems fair to assume that the anonymous donor wanted to see Gordon continue its evangelical mission.

We’re only guessing, but it seems reasonable to assume that the donor might have shared the belief that Gordon played a unique role in its region. As CT described,

[Gordon]’s both a well-known liberal arts college among Christians and an evangelical bastion in increasingly secular New England, surrounded by some of the most competitive, prestigious universities on the planet.

“We’re, respectfully, a city on a hill in this part of the world,” [President D. Michael] Lindsay said. “When our chapel services meet, it’s one of the largest gatherings of evangelical Christians in the Northeast. We’re the largest evangelical employer in six states.”

I agree with President Lindsay. His school really does represent a lonely conservative evangelical voice in the Boston metro area. Under his leadership, Gordon has tacked in more conservative culture-war directions. Five years ago, President Lindsay affirmed Gordon’s established policy against sex outside of heterosexual marriage. And at the time, some conservative evangelicals offered Lindsay some advice that turned out to be prophetic. As one conservative writer wrote in 2014,

To Michael Lindsay, the gifted president of Gordon, and to the board of trustees, I remind you: Many eyes are watching you, knowing that the decisions you make could either strengthen or dishearten many other schools that will soon be put under similar pressure.

I have no idea who Gordon’s anonymous benefactor might be, but I can’t help but wonder: Is this huge gift meant to keep President Lindsay’s evangelical “city on the hill” alive and kicking? …to maintain a conservative evangelical citadel in New England? Was the donor one of the many people watching Lindsay back in 2014, and is this donation a result of Lindsay’s conservative stances?

If so, it presents a difficult dilemma for evangelical college leaders worldwide. Yes, taking a firm political stand might earn you huge donations like this one. But they also change inexorably the mission of your school. Instead of focusing primarily on educating young people in evangelical ways, Gordon might now be tempted to organize itself in ways that satisfy big culture-war supporters.

Again, all this is pure speculation at this point. However, none of it seems outlandish. And the danger is clear: If evangelical colleges tack to the political right to attract big donors, will they be able to continue their traditional mission of providing excellent liberal-arts educations to new generations of evangelical students?

In the twentieth century, the faculty at Gordon College rejected attempts to transform their school into a merely politically conservative institution. Today, the power on Gordon’s campus has clearly shifted. Will Gordon and other evangelical colleges resist the allure of a big payday, if it means watering down their traditional liberal-arts focus?

Sinning to Survive: Evangelical Colleges Cheat to Live

Maybe it’s legal, but it sure isn’t ethical. Just like mainstream universities, evangelical ones have engaged in morally dicey practices in order to keep the tuition dollars rolling in. Should they be held to a higher standard?liberty phd online

Here’s what we know: Inside Higher Ed reported this morning on the complicated legal settlements made recently by Oral Roberts University and North Greenville University. The details are confusing, but in short, both ORU and NGU paid big bucks–$300,000 and $2.5 million, respectively—to settle accusations that they had broken the law.

Both schools are accused of contracting with a now-defunct company to recruit students. Apparently, universities aren’t allowed to offer companies a percentage of the “take” for that kind of recruiting if the students are eligible for federal loans. The law makes sense: The feds worry about “predatory” institutions chasing after federal loan dollars, leaving hapless students with big debt.

Meanwhile, what Liberty University is doing might not be illegal, to me it seems just as troubling. Recently the evangelical behemoth has been advertising a program that will leave students unemployable. The program in question is a fully online History PhD. Liberty promises that the program will help students land jobs. As they advertise (emphasis added by me),

Are you interested in a career in education, research, politics, archaeology, or management of national landmarks or museums? Whatever your history-related career goals are, Liberty University’s Ph.D. in History can provide the theoretical background, research and writing abilities, and experience you’ll need to excel in either academic or nonacademic career fields related to humanities or social sciences.

When you complete your doctorate in history, you’ll be prepared to pursue a variety of career opportunities. You might join the world of academia as a professor, professional researcher, or academic publisher or editor. Or you could pursue a position as a museum curator, international development specialist, author, archaeologist, or federal government employee.

Academics and many other career fields need people like you who are knowledgeable about the undercurrents, culture, and societal standards surrounding historical events. Prepare to excel in whichever career field you choose when you pursue our doctoral degree in history.

I don’t think there’s anything illegal about this sort of thing, but it does strike me as deeply misleading. The academic job market for history PhDs has not been strong since the late 1960s and these days it is positively dismal.Advertised-Job-Openings-Compared-to-the-Number-of-New-History-PhDsIn general, the very few jobs that are available in history departments have go to candidates with impeccable credentials. I have a hard time imagining that any history department would be willing to hire a candidate who had completed a fully online PhD program. In short, I do not think it is ethical for Liberty to tell people that they “might join the world of academia as a professor.”

I understand that the Liberty advertisement hedges its promises by talking about a “variety of career opportunities.” As do other desperate history programs who offer non-academic career advice, Liberty can fall back on its language about non-academic career paths as proof of its good intentions. I don’t think that’s enough. Even non-academic jobs for history PhDs are ferociously competitive and a candidate with an online degree will not be able to cut the mustard.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why these evangelical schools make these sorts of insincere promises and shady deals. From the perspective of the recruiters’ offices, the prospect for the entire field of American higher education is scary and getting worse. There are fewer and fewer college-going young people and by 2025 the number will have dwindled even more.

Schools are closing and combining. Evangelical colleges have not been safe from this trend, as a recent shake-up at Gordon College attests. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to demand more than simple law-following from leaders of evangelical institutions. Bending the truth to get students in the door is something no one should tolerate, least of all people who want colleges to hold up the high ethical values of evangelical Christianity.

Why Liberal Evangelicals Aren’t

I’ve been trying to think of one for a long time and I think I’ve finally found an analogy that fits. Let me know: Does this comparison help you understand the difficult pickle in which politically liberal white evangelicals find themselves? Or did you have to grow up watching hockey for it to make sense?

 

It’s an old problem, I know, but I started thinking about it again this week talking to a reporter from Inside Higher Ed about the changes and cuts at Gordon College. As a relatively elite, relatively liberal evangelical college, Gordon has long found itself in a tough position. It has been accused of being too liberal, yet its president has also staked out some relatively conservative positions on LGBTQ issues in recent years.

At Taylor University, too, liberal students and faculty have protested against the school’s welcome of VP Mike Pence. Several dozen students walked out when Pence took the podium at their commencement ceremony. At least one student (at the 1:27 mark in the video above) refused to shake Pence’s hand.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, I don’t share the optimism of some liberal white evangelicals that we are at the start of a new age in America’s culture wars, one with a vibrant “evangelical left,” one in which evangelical religion frees itself from its pact with conservative politics.

Rather, I think these recent higher-ed dilemmas highlight the ultimate weakness of politically liberal white evangelicalism.

Before I lay out my analogy, I should repeat that I don’t have any skin in this game. I’m no evangelical myself, liberal or otherwise. My personal politics certainly tip toward the progressive, so I’m more in tune with liberal evangelicals than conservative ones, but I myself can’t claim to share in the travails of liberal evangelical friends, though I admire them.

From the bleachers, then, I’ve been wondering why politics has been so difficult for politically liberal evangelicals for the past fifty years. As David Swartz has explored so well, the “evangelical left” has always struggled to gain electoral traction. From Mark Hatfield to Pete Buttigieg, from Jim Wallis to John Alexander, liberal evangelicals have often attracted enthusiastic support, but not huge numbers.

Why?

I think I have finally found an analogy that makes sense. The evangelical left is in a similar position to hockey purists who want to ban fighting.

 

 

Think about it: In many ways, the anti-fighting faction has a strong case. They argue that the sport is being hurt by the constant fighting, that brutish “enforcers” are kept on team rosters just to intimidate the opposition. The anti-fight faction can point to decades of expert opinion on their side, including a strong 1988 anti-fight statement from the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine. The constant fights, experts agree, are killing the game of hockey. At the college and youth levels, fighting has significantly decreased.

Yet fighting retains its revered unofficial status in the NHL. Why?

For one thing, fans love it. For many hockey lovers, fights are the big attraction, not an unfortunate exception. Indeed, I would wager than many hockey fans have no idea that one could separate fighting from hockey. And it’s not only the fans who love it. Players, coaches, advertisers, team owners…all of them consider fights to be a central part of the appeal of professional hockey.

And here’s the kicker: People who love the fights support them with their dollars. People who don’t like the fights have an easy option; they can just stop watching. Why would the governing body of the National Hockey League listen to the anti-fight faction—the group that is likely to leave the sport—instead of the pro-fight faction—the group that is invested for the long haul?

So forgive me if I’m stretching this analogy too far, but I think it helps me understand the ticklish dilemma of politically liberal white evangelicalism. Like the anti-fight hockey faction, liberal evangelicals have a very easy door out, but a very difficult, slippery, obstacle-filled uphill climb to change things.

Gordon with a Twist

These are tough times for colleges. Dropping enrollments and increasing costs have led many schools to shut their doors or slash programs. The latest in the evangelical world has been Gordon College. As I shared recently with a reporter for Inside Higher Ed, I think we need to understand the peculiar pinched politics of evangelicalism if we hope to make sense of Gordon’s recent changes. I hope the changes work out well for the Gordon community, but I can’t help but notice that they don’t seem to match Gordon’s history or tradition.

plea to alumnus funds for library cartoon

At Gordon, money has always been tight. This alumni appeal came from the 1940s.

Like all evangelical colleges, Gordon has always had to walk a tightrope. It has always had to promise parents and families a top-notch academic education, including preparation for professional careers. At the same time, it has had to guard its evangelical reputation vigilantly. Like all evangelical colleges, Gordon has had to worry that the college-going evangelical public will see it as too liberal or too conservative.

Back in the day, Gordon was a leader in the evangelical evolution from “missionary-training school” to “Bible college.” What began as the Gordon Missionary Training School in 1895 became the Gordon Bible Institute in 1914, then Gordon Bible College in 1916, then Gordon College of Theology and Missions in 1921.

Back then, the changes were not driven by financial pressures but rather by the changing nature of American higher education. As then-president Nathan Wood explained, the school changed its name in 1921 to accommodate the desires of students and alumni for a college degree, not merely a missionary certificate. As Wood explained in his autobiography, a group of current and former class presidents came to him to request the 1921 name change. They wanted, in Wood’s words,

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

Culture-war politics have also always driven decisions at Gordon. In the 1960s, for example, Gordon’s faculty rejected a move to the political right. In 1964, then-president James Forrester hoped to import a free-market conservative focus to Gordon. With help from politically conservative administrators of The King’s College, Forrester planned a big free-market conference at Gordon, including conservative luminaries such as Congressman Walter Judd and Leonard Read of the Foundation for Economic Education. They wanted to bring Gordon on board, to focus on teaching students

a pervading high regard for Freedom in its spiritual, economic and political dimensions.

When Forrester ran his plan by Gordon’s faculty, however, they nixed the idea. They didn’t want Gordon to be associated with what one faculty leader called the “extreme right.” The faculty had higher academic ambitions for Gordon, not merely to indoctrinate students in what faculty called “a program of education in conservative thinking.”

Today’s changes seem worlds removed from these Gordon precedents. As Elizabeth Redden described, today’s students are not driving today’s changes. Rather, many students seemed surprised and saddened by the reduction in major programs and the reduction of faculty positions.

Gordon 1944 ad for donations in Watchman Examiner

A different plea for money, to the evangelical community, c. 1944.

Plus, the current administration of Gordon does not seem cowed by faculty pressure. Rather, Redden found herself unable to find a single faculty member willing to comment. The changes in Gordon were decided upon by top administrators, not faculty. Moreover, the administration seems willing to move Gordon’s reputation more to the conservative side of the evangelical world, with reminders in recent years that Gordon has never approved of LGBTQ “practice.”

I don’t doubt that Gordon’s administrators are feeling pinched. Like college administrators everywhere, they have had to make some difficult decisions. In this case, though, speaking as a fly on the wall, I can’t help but notice how different today’s decisions are from the ones Gordon College has made in the past.

Gay Students and the New Fundamentalism

The distinction between “new evangelicalism” and “fundamentalism” was never all that clear. As a story from my neighborhood this week shows, though, it is getting easier to see the difference on the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities. We seem to have a new fundamentalist checklist, not of policies necessarily, but of institutional attitudes on certain key issues.

campbell csu

Out and out.

As I described in Fundamentalist U, the split between fundamentalists and new evangelicals was not a clean break on evangelical campuses. Between the late 1940s and, say, the late 1980s, there were a lot of continuing close connections between evangelical schools that remained with the “fundamentalist” branch of the family and those that had moved to the “new evangelical” side.

These days, generally, the “fundamentalist” label is out of fashion, even among fundamentalist stalwarts such as Bob Jones University. But the meaning remains, and these days we are seeing a clearer and clearer dividing line between evangelical colleges and no-longer-fundamentalist-in-name-but-fundamentalist-in-spirit institutions.

How do you know these days if a school is fundamentalist? It’s not necessarily a question of policies, but rather a spirit in which certain hard-line positions are maintained and a zeal with which they are publicized. ALL evangelical colleges and universities will be creationist, for example. And all will—from a mainstream perspective—have discriminatory policies against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. All conservative-evangelical schools will also tip toward conservative politics and cultural traditionalism.

The fundamentalist branch of the family, though, will insist on the hard edge of these positions in a consistently aggressive way and they will go out of their way to publicize their hard stand on these issues. Fundamentalist schools will trumpet their insistence on the following:

  • Young-earth creationism ONLY;
  • Political and cultural traditionalism;
  • And, most relevant for our purposes today, a loud, publicized hard line against any whiff of homosexuality on campus.

Consider the news from Clarks Summit. A former student has tried to re-enroll. Gary Campbell dropped out in 2005, only six credits shy of his degree. After a rough stint in the Navy, Campbell now wants to return. The school says no.

According to Campbell, the Dean of Students contacted him to let him know Campbell won’t be allowed to return, because Campbell is homosexual.

To be clear, from a mainstream perspective, all evangelical colleges discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. Even firmly non-fundamentalist evangelical institutions such as Gordon College and Wheaton College have issued reminders recently that gay is not okay.

But Clarks Summit University’s stance has a hard edge to it that helps define the new fundamentalism. Campbell’s sexual identity was apparently revealed to administrators by a fellow student, at least according to Campbell. The school could easily have re-admitted Campbell quietly.

Instead, the school’s administration chose to use this case as a chance to publicize its hard line. When journalists called about Campbell’s story, the university issued the following statement:

As a Christian college, we expect all students to act in a way that is consistent with our biblical belief system. We have always clearly stated those beliefs and have exercised the freedom to uphold our faith. . . . To prepare students for worldwide service opportunities, CSU clearly affirms biblical sexuality. We clearly communicate to all prospective students that we adhere to biblical truths, and expect them to do the same. That is part of what has made CSU a successful educator for more than 80 years. We would be happy to assist any former or prospective student who does not choose to agree with those faith standards to find another school in order to finish a degree.

These days, to be a fundamentalist institution means flying and flaunting the fundamentalist flag. It means taking every opportunity to enforce hard lines on sexual identity.

We see the same phenomenon in other issues such as creationism or political conservatism. In order to remain attractive to fundamentalist students and parents, school administrators take drastic steps to ratchet up their commitment to young-earth creationism or knee-jerk political conservatism.

What does it mean to be “fundamentalist” these days in evangelical higher education? As has Clarks Summit University, it means taking and, importantly, publicizing a hard line on issues of sexuality, creation, and political conservatism.

Fundamentalist colleges want their level of commitment to be known. They hope students, alumni, parents, and donors will recognize their positions and reward them with continued enrollments, donations, and support.

An Exception? Or a Rule?

Conservatives are cutting up their socks in protest. And at least one evangelical college has dumped Nike over its defense of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests. Some in-the-know commentators think this is way out of bounds for evangelical schools. Historically, though…not so much. Is knee-jerk patriotism the rule or the exception at conservative evangelical colleges?

nike sock protest

Take that, anti-anthem mega-corp!

As I argued in Fundamentalist U, during the twentieth century aggressive conservative patriotism played a large role at all the evangelical colleges I studied. At some, such as The King’s College and John Brown University, it became a central focus. In the mid-1960s, at least, notions of fusing traditional patriotic conservatism with evangelical conservatism held a lot of appeal for many evangelical academic types.

A “Freedom Forum” planned at Gordon College in 1965, for instance, offered the following rationale:

What philosophy shall give direction to the material world we are developing?  Shall the long-felt influence of the Christian ethic be brought to bear on current history?  Dare we succumb to the seemingly plausible suggestions that in our time government-over-man is preferable to America’s long proven concept of man-over government?

Can we survive as a people, even with our unparalleled abundance of things, if our thinking excludes our traditionally motivating intangibles . . . . [sic ellipsis in original] reverence for God, total human concern for the individual, an abiding dedication to preservation of our Constitution and a cherishing regard for personal Freedom? [sic]

The Christian educator occupies a unique position of leadership from which emanate those spiritual emphases which give salutary meaning and purpose to life, not only individual but national.  Waiting for that leadership are millions of earnest Americans who need help in their endeavor to ‘prove all things and hold fast that which is good.’ . . .

Objective: Inclusion in the curricula and teaching emphasis in Christian colleges of a pervading high regard for Freedom in its spiritual, economic and political dimensions and to create an informed student-citizen leadership needed to safeguard and extend Freedom in the years ahead.”

In the end, under pressure from Gordon faculty to avoid too close collusion with the political “extreme right,” the vaunted Freedom Forum didn’t happen. But there was always—and I think still is—a very strong push among many evangelicals to tie their conservative patriotic impulses to their religious beliefs.

american studies conference 1966 program

For God and Country…or Country and God…?

This is true not only for uber-patriotic schools such as Harding, John Brown, and the College of the Ozarks. Giants like Liberty University and smaller schools such as Mid-America Nazarene still have a hard time figuring out the relationship between religion and patriotism, with patriotism often coming out on top.

In this case, College of the Ozarks certainly seems like a Nike-hating outlier. But is the impulse to in-your-face conservative patriotism really so out of bounds for other conservative evangelical colleges? I don’t think so.

Why Didn’t Jerry Falwell Jr. Say THIS Instead?

In this era of playground taunts and adolescent boasting, Jerry Falwell Jr. seems to feel right at home. Falwell complained recently that his Liberty University should still be considered the largest Christian university in America, despite the fact that Grand Canyon University was larger. Falwell claimed that real Christian universities do something GCU doesn’t do. It seems to this reporter he could have made a much more powerful argument against GCU. I have a hunch why he didn’t.

grand-canyon-university_2015-03-23_14-34-58.004

Cactus, cross…and ka-ching?

Here’s what we know: Religion News Service recently published an acknowledgement from Liberty that GCU had “supplanted” them as America’s largest evangelical university. President Falwell wrote to RNS to complain. GCU, Falwell wrote, isn’t really “Christian,” since it doesn’t require faculty to sign an annual statement of evangelical faith.

As historian John Fea commented, Falwell’s use of “Christian” to mean only those few conservative-evangelical universities that grew out of the fundamentalist movement seems stunted.

I certainly agree. When former Liberty President Pierre Guillermin bragged in 1982 that his evangelical school planned to become “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically,” it’s difficult not to wonder what all those Notre Dame Christians might have thought. For Guillermin, Falwell, and many other conservative-evangelical leaders, the use of “Christian” to denote only their own conservative-evangelical faith seems presumptuous indeed.

However, if we accept for the sake of argument Falwell’s definition of “Christian” universities as limited only to conservative-evangelical schools, his complaint makes a little more sense. As I noted in my recent book about the history of evangelical higher education, requiring faculty annually to sign a statement of faith really HAS been a hallmark of these schools, and GCU really has abandoned that requirement in its effort to attract more students and retain more faculty.

As GCU pointed out, they require faculty to sign a statement saying they “understand” the school’s mission, but that is a far cry from the “ironclad” attempts of fundamentalist schools to ensure all faculty members agreed with their schools’ religious beliefs without any mental reservation. In contrast to that strong fundamentalist tradition, GCU claims to be a “missional community” that welcomes “students, faculty and staff from all walks of life, some of whom may experience Christianity for the first time at the university.” Unlike the conservative-evangelical schools that grew out of the fundamentalist movement—and the many denominational schools that generally consider themselves part of the conservative-evangelical network—GCU does not require faculty to “commit to affirming and practicing the same faith.”

moreton

How did capitalism, Christianity, and college combine?

So when Falwell complains that GCU isn’t really following the same playbook, he’s not wrong.

But ditching the required faculty statement of faith is not the most shocking innovation GCU attempted. When its enrollment numbers plummeted at the start of this century, GCU adopted a for-profit business model. It became Grand Canyon Education, Incorporated and focused on in-demand majors such as nursing and education. These days, with for-profit schools under scrutiny, GCU has attempted to move back to non-profit status.

So here’s my question: If Falwell wanted to prove that his “Christian” school was the biggest, why didn’t he say that GCU shouldn’t be considered “Christian” because it was a for-profit business?

And here’s my hunch: Since at least the late 1800s, American cultural conservatives have assumed that capitalism is the best sort of social system. Many conservative Christians have argued that free-enterprise systems are somehow God’s preferred way of organizing an economy. In the twentieth century, a lot of the connections between capitalism and Christianity came from the shared opposition to communism.

9780393339048_FromBibleBelttoSunbelt_PB.indd

God = Capital

The tight connections between free-market principles and evangelical ones were usually simply taken for granted. To cite just one example, the president of Gordon College promised in 1967 that his school was a place in which

youth is encouraged to have faith in the historical validity and continuity of the principles of competitive free enterprise.

As historians Darren Dochuk and Bethany Moreton have explored, some schools such as Harding College and John Brown University raised the principle of “Christian free enterprise” to an all-encompassing mission.

So it doesn’t seem crazy that President Falwell wouldn’t even wonder if adopting a for-profit status might push his rival GCU out of consideration as a real “Christian” school. At least, that’s how it looks to this reporter.

Am I missing something? Is there any other reason why Falwell would ignore the huge, obvious fact that GCU wasn’t really “Christian” if it peddled its mission for mere lucre?

Mumbling Toward Gomorrah

Which side are you on? That’s the question college administrators hate to answer. A few recent headlines make it clear that conservative evangelical college leaders continue to prefer mumbling through some of the touchiest issues they face. As I found in the research for my new book about evangelical higher education, it has always been thus.

baylor-header

What’s their position on homosexuality? …how much time do you have?

I was reminded of this dilemma when I came across a conservative lament about Baylor University in Texas. One outraged correspondent wrote to Benedictophile Rod Dreher to complain that Baylor had ditched its Baptist tradition. Officially, according to this American conservative, Baylor’s code of student conduct prohibits homosexual relationships. But as he or she described, it can be very difficult to actually find that rule spelled out. As s/he told Dreher, in order to find out that Baylor officially bans homosexuality,

You must start here Student Misconduct Defined https://www.baylor.edu/student_policies/index.php?id=32401 only to be redirected here for Sexual Conduct Policy https://www.baylor.edu/student_policies/index.php?id=32294 which says literally nothing, but directs you here: https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php?id=39247. This tells you almost nothing but at least tells you sex is only allowed in marriage–but these days, who knows that means? The Baylor website basically says they understand marriage according to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message but tough shit, we aren’t going to give you a link; you’re are on your own. I found it: http://www.baptiststart.com/print/1963_baptist_faith_message.html And it turns out that according to the Baptist Faith and Message, marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. Whew! I’m tired already! Lots of link-chasing and more than a few logical inferences from different webpages are necessary to conclude that in fact, homosexual contact is prohibited by Baylor policy.

Baylor isn’t the only evangelical school to founder in the face of sex policy. SAGLRROILYGYTH may remember a recent case from Boston. Gordon College’s President D. Michael Lindsay set off a firestorm a couple of years ago when he reminded the Gordon community of Gordon’s long-standing policy against homosexual relationships among students. The Gordon community remains painfully divided over the question, with entire faculty committees resigning their leadership roles in protest over leadership decisions.

Now, I’m no evangelical. I’m not conservative. I wouldn’t send my child to a school that banned homosexual relationships, even if that school buried those rules deep in ivy. But as an outside observer, I can’t help but notice what so many school leaders have always known: Sometimes the best policy is mumbles. Anything else can blow up in your face.

After all, Lindsay at Gordon wasn’t changing any rules. He was not imposing a new, draconian policy. Rather, he was simply stating established Gordon rules. And that was enough to create an uproar. It would be difficult for other school leaders not to get the message. Time and time again, cautious school administrators and others can see the enormous benefits of mumbling. Of studied silences. Of intentional ambiguity.

Baylor considers itself a mainstream school, a powerhouse in both faculty lounges and football fields. The fact that its policy officially prohibits homosexual sex isn’t something it likes to promote.

Similarly, President Lindsay’s statement about student sex did nothing more than openly state the school’s longstanding policy, yet his statement has led to prolonged anguish for the Gordon community.

With stakes so high, it certainly seems to be in colleges’ best interest to maintain some flexibility in their official policies. This strategy is nothing new.

To describe just one example from my new book, in the 1960s Wheaton’s administrators faced a similar upsurge from the Wheaton community. Students wanted to revise the forty-year-old student pledge. The old rules against movies, alcohol, and card-playing—rebels insisted—reflected the college’s sad fundamentalist past. They insisted on more flexible rules in order to give them more moral responsibility.

In 1967, President Hudson Armerding agreed, sort of. He approved and announced a new set of guidelines for student behavior. From then on, instead of the old list of banned activities, students were expected to abide by the following rules:

                1.) Cooperate constructively in the achievement of the aims and objectives of Wheaton College and the responsibilities of citizenship in the community and nation.

2.) Exhibit Christian conduct, based on principles taught in the Scriptures, which will result in the glorification of God, the edification of the Church and his own growth in grace

3.) Observe, while under the jurisdiction of the college, Wheaton College’s ‘Standards of Conduct.’

4.) Take maximum advantage of the educational opportunities available to him by ordering his life so that he can live in harmony with both the academic and non-academic goals.

5.) Make full use of his God-given abilities so as to achieve maximum personal development.

6.) Continually evaluate his commitment to Christ and to the purposes of Wheaton College.

Armerding was a past master at mumbling through these questions. He could tell students with a straight face that he had heard their complaints. He really did approve a new approach.

Yet at the same time, President Armerding could tell conservative alumni and trustees that the new rules left the old ones in place. Students still had to abide by the old standards of conduct while on campus. He could look parents in the face, as he did in a 1971 chapel talk, and tell them that nothing had changed. As Armerding put it, Wheaton would never approve

a shallow permissiveness [that] conveys a distorted view of God who deals far differently with His children. . . . We believe that students should be disciplined and corrected and that this should be consistent with the teachings of the Word of God.

The questions in the 1960s and 1970s weren’t about homosexuality. But the strategies were the same. As do administrators at all types of colleges, many evangelical school leaders cherish the value of fuzzy, possibly two-sided rules.

From the Archives: Give Us Money! Please! Now!

Do you get the same phone calls I do? As a nerd, I’ve attended several different colleges. And my phone sometimes rings with a call from an earnest undergrad working the alumni phones at Northwestern or Wash U or Madison, asking me to please consider a donation—”even a small one!” As a teacher and a historian, I always tell them I’ve got nuthin. As I worked on my new book about evangelical higher education, though, I couldn’t help but notice the connections between ALL schools when it comes to pleading for alumni cash.

One of the central themes of the new book is that evangelical colleges have sometimes bucked trends in secular/mainstream/pluralist higher ed. At other times these evangelical institutions have been subject to the same forces that shape all schools. Like all institutions, evangelical colleges have always needed money. Like all universities and colleges, evangelical schools have tried to tap their alumni for funds. In some cases, though, evangelical schools threw in a culture-war twist.

During the twentieth century, funding patterns changed for higher ed. Big research schools started getting more and more money from big research institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. However, as historian Roger Geiger pointed out, that sort of big-grant research money tended to go to the same schools over and over. For example, during the 1920s, new Rockefeller funds poured twelve million research dollars into universities. Back then, though, only six schools—Caltech, Princeton, Chicago, Cornell, Stanford, and Harvard—received more than three-quarters of that money.Gordon 1944 ad for donations in Watchman Examiner

Other colleges—evangelical or not—scrambled to find money elsewhere. For most small schools, tuition dollars continued to represent the biggest single source of revenue. Tuition funding is risky, though. In any given year, it can go down drastically and suddenly if enrollment lags. Just ask Sweet Briar.

In response, most colleges—including evangelical ones—scrambled to build donor networks to collect reliable donations. Over the course of the twentieth century, these administrative departments grew larger, more professional, and far more influential.

Most evangelical colleges participated in this trend enthusiastically. Sometimes, though, evangelical schools did it in a unique way: They harped on the unique culture-war features of their institutions. Gordon College, for example, tried to appeal to evangelicals in general to support their work. In the 1940s, for instance, they advertised their school as a vital evangelical institution. “Consecrated young men and women,” they pleaded, “called of God to Christian leadership” needed Gordon, and Gordon needed money.

At the same time, Gordon experimented clumsily and amateurishly with directed appeals to alumni. One plea for library funds didn’t make any mention of evangelical values. It simply begged alumni to donate. (It’s not clear exactly what year this appeal went out, but it is located in a box of materials from before 1944.)plea to alumnus funds for library cartoon

As the century progressed, many evangelical schools continued both strains of fund-raising appeal. They asked alumni for money, like all schools. But they also asked evangelical culture-warriors to support their work. At Biola, for example, the alumni office sent out a personal appeal in 1970. Here’s what they told alums:

Headlines in the 60’s were frightening.  Hippies and Heart-transplants; Racism and Demonstrations; Assassins and Murderers; Mini-skirts and moon landings.  We read much about power, most of it explosive: flower-power, black-power, atomic power, student power.  The decade was full of change, violence, war, noise and new things.

Power—‘all power’—the explosive power of the Word of God created headlines at BIOLA in the 60’s. Student Population Explodes; Classrooms Crowded Out; Thousands Accept Christ in Orient; 1708 Grads Take Message to Frustrated World.

God used investments like yours to make things happen at BIOLA in the 60’s.

Biola, like a lot of evangelical colleges, sold itself in the 1970s as the healthy conservative anti-college, the stalwart Christian school that not only resisted pernicious trends in mainstream higher ed, but also created a powerful form of counter-counter-cultural higher education.

By the end of the century, evangelical colleges and universities—just like almost all institutions of higher education—had organized bureaucracies to solicit donations from alumni. My guess is that they have continued to emphasize both the distinctive elements of their evangelical promise as well as the mundane institutional needs they face.

I’ll go out on a limb this morning: I bet those of you who attended evangelical colleges get the same kinds of alumni appeals I get from my secular alma maters. But I also bet that your letters sometimes talk about particular evangelical values. They probably sometimes talk about boring financial needs such as a new library, and they probably sometimes emphasize the dire need for Christian values and leadership in these dark times. But they ALWAYS ask for money.