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.

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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.

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.

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.