Is Trump the Real Menace to Evangelical Higher Ed?

We’ve had a lot to talk about this week. When Beto O’Rourke told CNN he would try to revoke the tax-exempt status of any religious institution that didn’t recognize same-sex marriage, he set off a firestorm among the evangelical-higher-ed community. As two Democratic congresspeople pointed out this week, though, the bigger threat to evangelical higher ed might actually be coming from a very different direction.

As SAGLRROILYYBYGTH are aware, the discussions at evangelical universities and colleges about LGBTQ rights have been intense. By stating that he would revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that did not recognize same-sex marriage, O’Rourke raised the specter of Bob Jones University v. USA. Back in the 1980s, that SCOTUS case proved that the government really could deny tax-exempt status to schools that insisted on maintaining racial segregation. Might the government make a similar move about LGBTQ rights?

Evangelical intellectuals reacted furiously. As John Fea commented,

Beto has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination. His campaign has been on life support for a long time and last night he probably killed it.  You better believe that his comment will rally the Trump base and legitimate the fears of millions of evangelical Christians.

In my opinion, too, Beto’s comment was a poorly considered response to a badly worded question. I’m no evangelical, but like Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta, I disagree with Beto on two counts. First of all, the government should not be in the business of policing religious belief. (When we want to talk about federal funds for student loans, we will need to have a different conversation.) Second, though, simply strategically, Beto goofed. In short, when the clown car of Trumpism is on fire, opponents should do everything they can to help people escape. It makes no strategic sense to lock people in.

Unnoticed in all the hubbubery about Beto’s comments, though, two Democratic congresspeople this week sent a letter to Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos. Representatives Andy Levin of Michigan and Jamie Raskin of Maryland complained that the Trump administration was selectively enforcing its rules about campus free speech.

As they noted, President Trump signed an executive order threatening to withhold grants from universities that do not welcome free speech. The idea was to punish public universities such as the University of California that de-platformed conservative speakers. As the congresspeople noted, however, the worst offenders against campus free speech are conservative evangelical colleges like Liberty University.

As the Congresspeople complained,

Despite Executive Order 13864, which directs the Department to ensure institutions promote free inquiry, you have failed to act in cases of suppression of ideas that involve the administration’s political allies, such as Liberty University.

It’s not just Liberty U., which by any standards is an outlier in the field of evangelical higher ed. As I’ve argued in these pages and in Fundamentalist U, free speech presents a unique challenge to conservative evangelical higher education as a whole. Restrictions on speech and belief are the defining feature of evangelical universities. Unlike mainstream colleges, evangelical colleges do not claim to represent forums for all sorts of controversial ideas.

liberty letter devos

Dear Queen Betsy:

Threatening to revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that don’t believe in same-sex marriage might sound scary to conservative evangelicals. But Trump’s warning to revoke student grants from institutions that don’t recognize free-speech rights should be of more immediate concern. To be fair, Trump’s executive order specified that private institutions should only be pushed into

compliance with stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech.

Presumably, that wouldn’t help Liberty much, but it would give cover to conservative evangelical colleges that respect their own official rules restricting student and faculty speech. However, in the big picture, by threatening to take federal action against schools that restrict free speech, Trump might be planting the seeds of a longer-term problem for evangelical institutions.

After all, the language of LGBTQ rights has some wiggle room. Plenty of evangelical institutions could plausibly claim to recognize the rights of LGBTQ students and faculty while still embracing their religious skepticism about LGBTQ “practice.”

When it comes to free speech, however, evangelical universities have been built on a promise of restriction. If they were forced to abandon those rules, it would force them to give up the biggest single feature that distinguishes them from mainstream higher ed. It is free speech, not LGBTQ rights, that is the most important thing separating evangelical colleges from others.

Beto is talking a lot, but the real danger to evangelical higher ed might come from the other side. It might be Trump, in the end, who blunders into undermining the very foundation of evangelical higher ed.

A Real Modern Family

Bad news for the rest of us: When it comes to radical views about science and religion, we can’t assume that those views are somehow isolated on the fringes. Take a look at this flat-earth video and you’ll see what I mean.

 

According to Hemant Mehta, the video comes from a homeschool family of nine in Alberta.

So here’s the kicker: We know flat-earth beliefs are pretty extreme. Even radical young-earth creationist organizations like Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis disavow flat-earthism. But we can’t and shouldn’t therefore assume that flat-earthism is somehow socially isolated to obviously “fringe”-type characters. If we really want to understand our culture-war differences about religion and science, we have to come to terms with the fact that radicals don’t look radical.

To this reporter, for example, the house, fashion, and even lame jokes shown in Jessica Faith’s flat-earth video don’t seem all that different from the houses, fashions, and lame jokes on mainstream TV shows such as Modern Family. And Jessica herself bears at least a passing resemblance to Modern Family’s Claire Dunphy.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH don’t need a reminder, but here it is anyway: There’s nothing un-modern about radical science and radical religion. A “modern family” could just as easily be flat-earth homeschoolers as anything else.

That’s Not How Religious Schools Work

You’ve probably seen it by now: The case of Shelly Fitzgerald has attracted a ton of attention. She is a counselor at a Catholic school in Indiana, under pressure to resign due to her same-sex marriage. Some critics have suggested that the case demonstrates the essential bigotry of religious schools. But that’s not how religious schools have ever worked. Instead, this case shows the eternally contested nature of religious schools.

Here’s what we know: Ms. Fitzgerald has worked at her Catholic high school for fifteen years. She has been in a same-sex marriage for twenty-two years. An anonymous activist outed her to the school administration and archdiocese. As a result, Fitzgerald has been asked to resign or separate from her partner. Alumni, meanwhile, are protesting in her favor.

What can this episode tell us about the nature of religious schools? It’s not what my friend the Friendly Atheist thinks. As Hemant Mehta noted, this sort of anti-gay policy should not come as any surprise. It is literally written in the contract signed by employees. As Mehta argued recently,

don’t get mad at the school for being run by bigots. Blame the Church for its rules and blame the parents for sending their kids here. Hell, blame Fitzgerald for taking a job with them when she should’ve known this day would come.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might agree that such blanket denunciations are simplistic, perhaps willfully so. As I argued in my recent book about evangelical higher education, religious schools have NEVER operated as simple outlets for orthodoxy. Instead, they have served as forums where adherents of a religion hash out what they really care about in terms of God, politics, and culture.

Consider a few recent examples.

At Gordon College near Boston, the president ignited a local firestorm. How? By reminding Gordonians and the public about Gordon’s long-established rules and policies concerning same-sex relationships. President Lindsay did not make up any new rules. He didn’t fire anyone or punish anyone. But even by simply publicly noting the institution’s rules, Lindsay caused a furor among students, neighbors, and alumni.

Or consider the case of Wheaton College’s conspicuous not-firing of Larycia Hawkins. Professor Hawkins came under fire for publicly sporting hijab and writing that Christians, Muslims, and Jews all worshipped the same God. She didn’t break any rules, but she was still forced out.

What’s our takeaway? In religious schools the rules are not the rules. They are one weapon that partisans of different visions can use to change practice at their institutions.

The rules at any religious school are not etched in stone. Rather, in every case, the rules are a negotiation, a guess, a political statement, an aspiration. If you want to understand a religion, don’t look only at statements of faith or official policies. Instead, put in the time to understand how students, teachers, administrators, and church leaders view their schools.

What Does a Friendly Atheist Want to Know about Fundamentalist U?

I had a chance to talk with Hemant Mehta, the famous Friendly Atheist. He had great questions to ask about Fundamentalist U.

friendly atheist

FA on FU

For example, Mehta wondered what today’s evangelicals didn’t like to hear about their own collegiate history.

He asked how schools that were dedicated to passing along eternal truths somehow rationalized changing their beliefs. In Mehta’s words, schools essentially had to tell students. “We’re correct NOW, but in the past when we said we were correct we were wrong.” Why would anyone believe such things?

Mehta also wondered how schools can change ONE rule, like racial segregation, without admitting that they might be wrong on everything?

That’s not all. Here are a few other topics Mehta pressed me about:

  • How did Bryan College get away with changing their faculty statement of faith in 2014?
  • Do schools like this “exist in a bubble?” Or do they want to be influential in mainstream culture and politics? How does the history of the CCCU help answer these questions?
  • How have evangelical colleges handled sexual assault and abuse?

It was a real pleasure for me to talk with him. I’ve long been a follower and fan of his blog. Click on over and listen to the whole interview if you’ve got some time to kill.

In the News: Atheist Hate Crime

Three people are dead, shot in the head by a murderous thug. That thug was an outspoken atheist, and the victims were publicly identified as members of a religious group. Does this count as an atheist hate crime?

To be fair, many of the facts are still up in the air, but it does not seem disputed that Craig Stephen Hicks shot three of his neighbors dead. The neighbors were all Muslim, and Hicks was an outspoken atheist.

According to a story on Yahoo News, Hicks had posted the following rant on his Facebook page:

There’s nothing complicated about it, and I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being — which your religion does with self-righteous gusto, . . . the moment that your religion claims any kind of jurisdiction over my experience, you insult me on a level that you can’t even begin to comprehend.

Is this an escalation of culture-war polemics to real-war violence? ILYBYGTH readers will recall the episode from August, 2012, when Floyd Lee Corkins shot a security guard in the office of the conservative Family Research Council. Is this another example of anti-religious terrorism?

For their part, leading atheists are scrambling to make sense of these charges. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has issued a statement blaming mental instability, not atheism, for the atrocity. Yet as Hemant Mehta (my personal favorite atheist pundit) has charged, if this shooter had been a member of any religion, leaders of that religion would be called onto the carpet to separate themselves publicly from the act.

Is it fair to ask if militant atheism somehow contributed to this heinous murder?