Which Christian College Should My Kid Attend?

Looking for help picking an evangelical college? I’ll save you some time: I can’t help. And the worse news is that no one is sure how to categorize them. However, there are some guides out there.

I’ve been receiving inquiries lately from concerned parents. They’ve been looking for good evangelical colleges for their kids and they’ve stumbled across this humble blog. So they’ve asked me for help picking the “right” evangelical school.

Now, it’s true we talk a lot in these pages about evangelical higher education. My book about the twentieth-century history of such schools is almost finished. But I’m sorry to say I can’t offer any tips or strategies about how to pick the right evangelical college.

I wish I could help. I’ve got a kid in high school and I’m wondering about where she’ll go to college and how we’ll pay for it. I’m sure she won’t be going to an evangelical school of any sort, but besides that, I’m at a total loss. For evangelical Protestants, this tricky decision is made more difficult by the wide array of evangelical schools out there. There’s a wide variety in evangelical colleges and there always has been.

Evangelical families have to consider questions of location, price, academic prestige, size, and etc., just like the rest of us. But if they’re planning to attend an evangelical college—or as they tend to call themselves, a “Christian college”—they have to consider other factors as well. Is School X or Y too liberal? Too conservative? Too dispensationalist? Too Calvinist? Is it too friendly to same-sex partnerships? Too unfriendly? Too obsessed with young-earth creationism? Not obsessed enough? Etc.!

I’m not jealous. It can be exhausting and expensive to get the real scoop about any campus. They all tell us they are the best in everything and it can take some digging to find out what life is really like for their students. This is why the nebulous concept of “prestige” weighs so heavily in these decisions.

And I’ve got some bad news. Just like other sorts of college rankings, even the most well-informed experts can’t agree on how to categorize Christian colleges.

Among historians, at least, there has always been some dispute about whether different schools should be considered “fundamentalist” or “new-evangelical.”

Writing from the campus of Bob Jones University back in 1973, for example, historian George Dollar tried to list different sorts of evangelical schools: “militant Fundamentalist” ones, “moderate” ones, and the “modified or new-evangelical group.” He warned, however, that his lists had some problems. Even new-evangelical schools had some “hard-line Fundamentalists who take good stands individually.”

The View from Greenville: George Dollar’s Categorization of Evangelical Colleges (1973)
Militant Fundamentalist Moderate New-Evangelical
Bob Jones Philadelphia College of the Bible (now Cairn University) Barrington College (now part of Gordon College)
Midwestern Baptist Bible College Cedarville University Fuller Seminary
Baptist Bible College in PA (Now Summit University) Biola Wheaton College
Calvary College in Kentucky Westminster Seminary Gordon College
Clearwater Christian College in Florida Tennessee Temple University (now defunct) Houghton College
Faith Theological Seminary Moody Bible Institute King’s College
Central Baptist Seminary in Minnesota John Brown University Oral Roberts University

A decade later, another evangelical historian tried to offer a similar guide. William Ringenberg warned that there was no simple and definitive way to classify schools. The “fundamentalist” side of the family could be identified generally by their emphasis on revivalism, authoritarian leadership, focus on religious purity over academic freedom, and political conservatism. What evangelical schools counted as “fundamentalist” to Ringenberg? Liberty, Bob Jones, Baptist Bible of Missouri, and the now-defunct Tennessee Temple schools.

Around the same time, leading evangelical historian Timothy Smith offered another guide. For Smith, the list of “independent fundamentalist” schools included Biola, Grace College in Indiana, Northwestern College in Minnesota, Bob Jones, and Liberty.

Clearly, even the best-informed experts haven’t agreed on what counted as a “fundamentalist” school. How are the rest of us supposed to know what to think?

Plus, it’s been a while since then. Some of the schools have folded, others have combined, and certainly some have changed their focus. King’s College, for example, moved to the Big City and began to emphasize culture-war involvement. New schools, too, such as Patrick Henry College, offer a new kind of conservative evangelical higher education.

But the dilemma for evangelical families remains. Since there is such a wide spectrum among the expansive evangelical family, how can students and parents know if any particular school matches their own beliefs and attitudes?

Here’s the good news: There are guides out there to help. The expansive Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, for example, has a school guide for families to consider. Christianity Today also publishes a Christian-college guide. If families are committed to young-earth creationism, they can turn to YEC-specific guides like the one at Answers In Genesis.

Just as in the world of non-evangelical higher education, though, our best bet is to talk to people we know and trust. Visit campuses. Ask hard questions. Talk to alumni. Talk to students and faculty.

And then relax. Our kids are not just silly putty, vulnerable to any wacky idea or dangerous trend that might drift across their phone screens. All colleges, whatever their faith background or academic atmosphere, offer a lot of opportunity to their students.

Nailing Jello to the Wall…Again

Whatever you do, don’t invite an historian to lunch. They’ll ruin your meal with their endless disputes about stuff no one else cares about. In this case, it’s the definition of American fundamentalism that has us in a tizzy. Why is it so problematic?

These days, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m just about finished with my book manuscript about conservative evangelical higher education. In the book, I’m arguing that colleges, universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes did more than most institutions to define evangelicalism. And I’m offering a new definition that will probably get me disinvited to more lunches.

It’s not as straightforward a question as you might think.

Back in the 1930s, the first academic history of Protestant fundamentalists—Stewart G. Cole’s History of Fundamentalism—defined fundamentalism as a “cult;” a blight on American society led by “disturbed men” who suffered from a “psychotic condition.” Ouch.

Soon, leading religious historian H. Richard Niebuhr (the famous theologian’s brother) gave academics a definition that was less vicious, but offered the same basic outlines. Fundamentalism, Niebuhr wrote, was a hillbilly affair, surely destined to wither in the sunshine of modernity.

Sutton

What is fundamentalism? “Radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.”

In 1954, another academic history of fundamentalism suggested a similar explanation. Norman Furniss’ book The Fundamentalist Controversy assumed that fundamentalism meant a lack of knowledge about modern life, a head-in-the-sand stupidity.

These early definitions of fundamentalism were so far removed from reality that it was only a matter of time before a new generation of historians threw them out. Just as a 1960s class of historians from non-elite backgrounds offered new and better histories of minority ethnic groups and working classes, so too did historians from evangelical backgrounds redefine their own tradition.

Most influential, Ernest Sandeen argued that fundamentalism was best understood as the modern rebirth of an old evangelical theological tradition, premillennialism.

George Marsden counter-argued. Yes, premillennialism was vital to fundamentalism, but it was not enough. In his 1980 book Fundamentalism and American Culture, Marsden lay out the definition of fundamentalism that most nerds still use today. What is fundamentalism? Marsden noted that we need to include revivalism, premillennial theology, common-sense philosophy, and a vague but vital political and cultural conservatism.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

Or maybe a “grammar. . . a corporate evangelical framework.”

In the past few years, ambitious historians have re-opened the case. Matthew Sutton, for example, fresh off his blockbuster academic hit Aimee Semple McPherson, took on the challenge of defining American fundamentalism. Yes, fundamentalism is a blend of influences, Sutton argued in American Apocalypse, but it’s not just a jumble. If we want to understand fundamentalism, Sutton insisted, we need to understand that the defining feature of the radical evangelical experience has been its fixation with the end times.

Sutton isn’t alone in wondering what it has meant to be fundamentalist. Kathryn Lofton has pointed out (sorry, subscription required) that fundamentalists and their arch theological enemies were both “commonly modern.” Brendan Pietsch has demonstrated that one of the signature methods of fundamentalist Bible-reading—the dispensational lens—is a profoundly modern approach.

Most compelling, from my point of view, has been Timothy E.W. Gloege’s definition. Like me, Gloege focused on evangelical higher education, in his case, the earlier history of the Moody Bible Institute. From that lens, it seems clear that it will always be self-defeating to offer any simple theological definition to fundamentalism. Why? In short, fundamentalism worked as a set of goals, not a system of doctrine. Fundamentalism was a kind of least-common-denominator coalition, not a list of beliefs or a systematized theological vision.

Fundamentalists, Gloege argues, were united by their dream of creating a new, modern sort of orthodoxy, laid out on the model of the modern corporate business organization. But that approach left fundamentalists dangling when it came to traditional orthodoxy. They did not and would not mimic traditional denominational orthodoxies by agreeing on a systematic theology, because they were never willing to compete with denominations. At the same time, however, most fundamentalists valued and venerated the idea of a traditional Christian orthodoxy.

pietsch disp moder

Nothing old…

At the Moody Bible Institute, at least.

I’m still tweaking my argument, so you’ll have to wait until Fundamentalist U comes out to see the deets. (It will be soon, I promise.) It seems clear to me, though, that if we really want to understand the history of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism we will have to ditch our impulse to copy the theological creeds offered time and again by fundamentalists themselves.

If we don’t, we keep bumping up against unsolvable dilemmas:

  • What do we do with people like J. Gresham Machen, the breakaway Princeton Calvinist who said he was and wasn’t a fundamentalist?
  • What sense can we make of a fundamentalism that never agreed with itself on what fundamentalism required? For example, Bob Jones College forced its students to participate in dramatic plays, while Wheaton College banned such things. How can we step in and say one was right?
  • What IS the theology of fundamentalism? Calvinism? Yes. Arminian revivalism? Yes. Dispensational premillennialism? Yes. Amillennialism or postmillennialism? Yes.

It’s tempting to wade into these disputes with a hindsight definition. We might want to say Professor Machen was not a fundamentalist, but rather a Calvinist, or a creedal conservative, or a denominational conservative. All those are also true, but they sidestep the central difficulty that Machen was considered a fundamentalist during the peak of the 1920s controversies, including by himself.

We might want to say that fundamentalism was one core belief, fringed by an accumulation of disputed ideas. If we do that, we can say that both Bob Jones College and Wheaton were fundamentalist, but they disagreed on some non-essential details. That’s a smart approach, but it avoids the main problem—both sides insisted that their positions on student drama were CENTRAL to their fundamentalist identity.

We might try to say that one theology represented real fundamentalism, while others only thought they were fundamentalist.  Those others weren’t real fundamentalist theologies; they were confused. But this mistakes the central fact that both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists worked together and considered themselves fundamentalists. Except when they didn’t. It ignores the fact that Calvinists, revivalists, and lots of others all taught at fundamentalist schools. Maybe not happily, but loosely united in their self-image as fundamentalists. Usually.

In short, there’s no way to untie this knot, definitionally. Instead, we need to cut it; we need to take a different approach to understanding fundamentalism. At least, that’s what I’m arguing in the book. And it’s not easy. It takes me about 128,000 words to make my case.

See? This is why I don’t get to leave the house much. Not many people find this kind of thing as interesting as full-time historians.

The Future of Liberty’s Love Affair with Trump

With university commencement season approaching, it’s time for a new round of culture-war outrage.  Schools scramble to secure the most famous names as markers of their higher-ed cachet.  And, predictably, some invited speakers will be shouted down, provoking a new round of hand-wringing over the parlous state of campus free speech.

The news from the world of evangelical colleges tells us that the traditions of Fundamentalist U are alive and well.  Here’s the nail-biter: Can we assume that the twentieth century will repeat itself?  Read on.  Your humble editor will make some predictions that he can be held to.

Trump at liberty

I Love You, Man

But first, the news.  It won’t come as any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH.  According to the Washington Post, Trump is heading back to Lynchburg, Virginia to speak at Liberty University.

As your humble editor has argued elsewhere, Liberty has come up the big winner in this presidential election.  Its second-generation Falwell, Jerry Jr., has bragged about his appointment to a top-level super-secret Presidential commission on higher ed.  And at least one Liberty student is starry-eyed with the news of Trump’s upcoming visit.  What does Trump’s speech mean?  To one gun-toting Flame, at least, it means “That’s how you know my school is better than yours.”

But Trump’s appearance at Liberty’s commencement is more than just payback to one of his loyal evangelical supporters.  By acting chummy with Liberty, Trump scores big.  As I argue in my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher ed, in the 1970s Liberty and other fundamentalist schools came to represent one-stop shops for politicians seeking evangelical approval.

If nothing else has been clear or predictable about Trump’s presidency, his courtship of the conservative evangelical vote has been steady and unimaginative.  It’s not just Jerry Falwell Jr.  By surrounding himself with folks such as Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos, Trump has sent unmistakable signals about his support for America’s fundamentalist traditions.

How will it end for him?  If history is any guide—and we all know it usually isn’t—President Trump is in for a rough ride.  Back in 1980, President Ronald Reagan pioneered a cynical courtship of conservative evangelicals.  He palled around with Jerry Falwell Sr. and other fundamentalist school leaders such as Bob Jones III.

Once in office, though, Reagan disappointed them and their wrath was Biblical in its proportions.  The most pressing issues back then were racism and tax policy.  Reagan and the GOP had promised to throw out Jimmy Carter’s persecution of racist fundamentalist schools.  Once in office, however, Reagan realized that the segregatory policy of schools such as Bob Jones University was politically impossible.  So Reagan punted.  He reversed himself.  The reaction of Bob Jones III was immediate and ferocious.

Reagan, Jones III ranted, had proved himself a “traitor to God’s people.”  It was time, Jones threatened, for fundamentalists to “stay away from the polls and let their ship sink.”

The full story of Jones III’s relationship with the Reagan White House had some complications, and you can read the full story in my upcoming book.  However, the general drift was clear: Politicians could court the fundamentalist vote by appearing at evangelical and fundamentalist colleges, but the demands of those fundamentalists might not be politically palatable.

And no one is quicker to resent political compromise than fundamentalists.

So what do I predict for the Trump/Falwell love affair?  First, let me offer a few nerdy qualifications.  YES, I understand that Liberty today has worked hard to shed some of its fundamentalist trappings.  And YES, I understand that Falwell Jr. is not Falwell Sr., and neither of them shared the shoot-first-ask-questions-later fundamentalist style of the Bob Joneses.

However, with all that said, I will go on record as predicting a blow-up between the Trumpists and the Flames.  The existing anti-Trump vibe on Liberty’s campus will grow into an irresistible force.  Falwell will eventually come out against his current BFF, when the conservatives and (relative) liberals in the extended Liberty community unite against Trumpism.

Hold me to it!

…so very angry…

I don’t get out much. I’ve been happily ensconced in my nerd cocoon for the past couple years, working on my new book about the history of conservative higher ed. So I know I’m out of touch with what normal people think and know about these things. But I’m still surprised by the venom of some recent comments about Wheaton College. Is the average person-in-the-street really so very angry about evangelical colleges?

raw story wheaton comments

…so very angry…

Here’s the background: I recently published in History News Network a few thoughts about the history behind Wheaton’s decision to terminate tenured Professor Larycia Hawkins. In short, Professor Hawkins is being fired for saying that Muslims and Christians “worship the same god.” RawStory picked up the essay.

I am floored by the level of venom in the RawStory comments thread. Of course, I know that internet comments are the abode of trolls. Still, I’m surprised by the hostility people seem to have toward Wheaton College.

Here are a couple of examples of the comments people saw fit to make:

  • I have a very special file for job applicants who graduated from religious “schools.” It is round, and lined with a plastic bag.

  • So people willingly and enthusiastically jump into sewers and then act shocked when they’re shit upon? I just don’t get it.

  • How wonderful it is receiving a degree from a Troglodyte University!

  • Hopefully Prof. Hawkins can find another position at a real school and put the memory of Holy Roller Hogwarts’ behind her.

  • I don’t get how a strict, fundamentalist college can also be an elite learning institution. In what exactly? The made up field of theology? Perhaps (heavily censured) literature and definitely rewritten history to fit the Christian angst? Home economics? Does creationism even qualify as serious subject of study? Really, what?

And there’s more!

Again, I know I live and work in an intellectual bubble. But are people in general really so very angry towards evangelical colleges? I thought people in general respected Wheaton as a top-tier evangelical school. In fact, I KNOW people do. But are they the exceptions?

Why Did Wheaton Fire Larycia Hawkins?

Did you hear the news yet?  According to Christianity Today, Wheaton College in Illinois has begun termination proceedings against tenured political science Professor Larycia Hawkins.

HNN article Larycia Hawkins

All the news that about the old…

Why?  For explanations from Professor Hawkins and Wheaton College, take a look at the Christianity Today piece.

But for historical context, check out my essay at History News Network.  In short, I argue that this kind of faculty uber-supervision is par for the course at evangelical colleges, even elite ones such as Wheaton.

Life Sucks. College Should, Too.

Want to get a conservative intellectual hoppin mad? Tell them (yes, I can use the plural to refer to just one person now) that college students have a right to complain.

back to school thornton melon

College protesters get no respect…

A recent comment about the harshness of real life by a new Haverford student has a few conservative commenters cheering. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I’m no conservative myself. But I wonder if erudite pundits such as R.R. Reno and Rod Dreher really want to start down the anti-intellectual path they seem to be taking.

In the pages of the social platform Odyssey, Haverford student Olivia Legaspi explains that working at McDonald’s taught her more about life than did her elite college sensitivity seminars. As she put it,

I have PTSD — because of this, the environment at work was anxiety-producing much of the time. Yet there was no “trigger warning” for when a customer was about to start yelling, when the restaurant would get so busy that I had no time to breathe between orders and the noise would make me feel faint, when a group of men in the drive-thru would whistle and catcall me as they pulled away. The sexual harassment I experienced there is another story entirely — the point is, at work, my mental illness and I were irrelevant. And from that, I grew; I learned to take care of myself in ways that didn’t inconvenience anyone, draw unnecessary attention to myself, or interfere with the structures in place and the work which had to be done. McDonald’s was not a “safe space” for me, and that was how it should be; I was a small part of a big picture, and my feelings had no business influencing said big picture.

At First Things and The American Conservative, respectively, R.R. Reno and Rod Dreher cheer Legaspi’s real-world education. McDonald’s, Dreher cheers, taught her the value of “hard work and humility.” Her essay, Reno notes, shows that excessive college “luxury isn’t helpful.”

I can’t believe they really mean it. And, to be fair, Reno explicitly points out that the goal of college should be to create “communities of care that uplift rather than run down.” However, to say that college students should not be complaining about unsafe spaces because the real world is not safe misses the point entirely.

This is the same tired anti-intellectual argument that we’ve seen for generations. Why study Plato, or postmodernism, or piano, when such things are not valued in the real world?  I don’t believe thoughtful commentators really hope to diminish the value of non-real-world higher education.

What should we do instead? All of us—progressive, conservative, and either/or—should be celebrating the fact that a few college students are a little over-eager in their moral activism. We don’t want to castigate schools for helping create a safe space. Rather, we should be encouraging students to take their campus activism out to the streets and the fast-food counters.

Legaspi points out that her McDonald’s manager would have simply fired her if she tried to complain about working conditions. To her mind—and to Reno’s and Dreher’s—that real-world lesson was worth more than any sensitivity-raising workshop at Haverford. But they seem to come to the morally opposite conclusion. Instead of pushing Haverford to loosen up and get more like McDonald’s, we should all be figuring out ways to make McDonald’s more like Haverford.

What Today’s Campus Radicals Should Be Doing

Not instead of, mind you, but in addition to. We all know elite colleges and college-watchers are aflutter with the recent batch of campus protests. A dean at Claremont McKenna was roasted for inappropriately worded sympathy. An instructor at Yale was blasted for inappropriately worded revelry. Cafeteria workers at Oberlin were attacked for inappropriately sautéed chicken.

protestingoncampus

What do we want? Not sure! When do we want it? Now!

With good reasons, pundits have excoriated these overly precious effusions of moral indignation. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I’m bullish overall on this round of campus activism. But I think we old folks should humbly remind today’s students of some of the more elementary rules of social activism. In short, we need to remind today’s activists that it is more important to hit em where it hurts than to garner big negative headlines.

What effect do today’s protests have? They allow people around the country to laugh up their sleeves at the ways fancy students react to the tiniest smidgens of intellectual discomfort. That is not their aim. Rather, I think today’s protests are, at heart, admirable attempts to make elite colleges more truly inclusive, more truly welcoming.

That is an enormously important goal. If elite colleges remain the province of an already privileged minority, we will see nothing but a fierce doubling-down of America’s yawning class divide.

Today’s elite university students are in a unique position to change the game. If students can push colleges to do more than change their ideological window-dressing, they might make higher education more welcoming to all.

But just chanting and blocking aren’t enough.

Elite colleges these days only retain their inflated prestige due to their ability to set potential students against one another. The competition for spots at elite schools has become fiercer than ever. That allows the top schools to reject most applicants, retaining their “selective” status and feeding the vicious cycle.

What can today’s campus radicals do? Go on an application strike. If no top students applied to Oberlin, Yale, or Claremont McKenna, the elite status of those schools would be instantly deflated. That is something school administrators absolutely could not allow. They would be willing to make real, dramatic changes to their admissions policies in order to bring back top applicants.

Could it work? Probably not, because applicants have nothing in common except their deep insecurities and hyperactive resume-building. And this scheme would face the eternal problem of labor solidarity. If a few scabs chose to take advantage, the entire scheme would be defeated.

Moreover, as Peter Greene has recently noted, elite college students today are literally killing themselves in their competition with their fellow applicants. That sort of mindset does not lend itself to picket-line solidarity.

Plus, this kind of activism would require real sacrifice on the part of student activists. They would have to gamble with their collegiate futures. Instead of just protesting on Monday, then graduating and moving into their high-powered careers on Tuesday, this plan might leave them out in the cold, forced to attend less-Olympian schools.

Nevertheless, I think it’s worth talking about. The real problem of inclusion at today’s top universities is not a question of culturally appropriative Halloween costumes or cafeteria offerings. The real problem, instead, is that students are fighting each other tooth and nail for admission. Only students who are already privileged stand a chance to get into the even-more-privileged world of high-end higher education.

Change that, and you could make some real changes in the inequities of schools and society.

Why Go to Fundamentalist U? To Get a Better Job!

Why should students go to a fundamentalist university? For about a century, the argument has always been the same. A new marketing campaign by fundamentalist behemoth Bob Jones University shows that the times, they are a’changin.

Pettit on BJU

What is school for? Careers!

To be fair, Bob Jones University has always insisted that its graduates would have the absolute best academic education. Back in its earliest days, founder Bob Jones Sr. insisted that the school would keep children both theologically safe and academically privileged. As he put it in 1928,

The fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children.

Jones’s very next line, though, showed that he understood what parents really wanted in a college. Not only should it keep kids Christian, but it should also prepare them for professions. In his words,

Your son and daughter can get in the Bob Jones College everything that they can get in any school of Liberal Arts.

In 1949, Bob Jones Sr. re-emphasized the point that his school—now a University—would always insist on the very best academics. As he put it,

We have always insisted that an educational institution with the right kind of spiritual standards will maintain the highest possible academic standards.

It’s fair to say, however, that for marketing purposes, the biggest selling point of BJU in the past was its staunch commitment to fundamentalist Protestantism. Other schools may waver, the Bob Joneses have always promised, but BJU would never budge.

If you wanted your child to have a college experience firmly dedicated to fundamentalism and only fundamentalism, the message was, BJU is for you.

In the 1950s, for example, as “fundamentalist” schools were separating from “neo-evangelical” colleges, BJU sold itself as the unapologetic fundamentalist choice. So unapologetically, in fact, that leading evangelical magazines such as Moody Monthly refused to run its advertisements for fear of alienating good evangelical readers.bju canceled MM ad full again good one RIGHT SIDE UP

Today, in contrast, BJU’s President Steven Pettit offers fundamentalist families a very different primary reason for attending his school. Why should they attend BJU? For its unbeatable record of preparing students for high-flying professional careers. BJU students, President Pettit promises, do better at passing med-school exams, accounting exams, nursing exams, and engineering exams.

As Pettit puts it,

If you’re looking for a college worth the investment of your time and money, a college that will prepare you well for future employment, and help you to grow spiritually in the process, Bob Jones University is the place for you. . . . I think you’ll find BJU provides the value you’re looking for.

Why go to Fundamentalist U? To get a better job!

More proof that schools such as Bob Jones University are not quite as different as other colleges and universities as we might think.

Shoot ‘em Up at Fundamentalist U

Christians, get yr guns. That’s the message this week from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. The message for us fundamentalism-watchers is that we’ll never get the whole picture about conservative evangelical religion if we limit ourselves to theology alone.

In response to shootings in San Bernardino and elsewhere, Falwell told students at his booming megaversity that they could “end those Muslims.” He told students about the concealed .25 in his own back pocket, joking that he didn’t know if it was illegal or not.

Cole-Withrow-Jerry-Falwell-Commencement-Liberty-University-20130517

Jerry, Get Your Gun

For Liberty watchers like me, this is not the first time the school has taken an aggressive pro-gun position. And for fundamentalism watchers like me, it is more proof that a fundamentalist is never only a fundamentalist.

To put it in nerdy terms, some historians have suggested a theological definition of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Protestantism has been explained as the tradition of millennialism. It is best understood, others say, as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” These definitions are helpful for distinguishing fundamentalism from close cousins such as Pentecostalism, Holiness Wesleyanism, and conservative Anabaptism.

Such definitions fail to explain, however, outbursts like the one from President Falwell. There’s nothing about the apocalypse in his yen for guns. Rather, it is a product of the simple fact that fundamentalists—like all people—are amalgams of multiple identities. Falwell is a fundamentalist, true, but he’s also an American. He’s also a Southerner. He’s also a conservative. And, of course, he’s also a gun-lover.

It is not only Liberty U that has struggled with this conundrum of fundamentalist identity. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, a popular administrator at Mid-America Nazarene University took considerable heat for reminding students that Christian religion did not always come wrapped in the American flag. From a theological position, what Dean Beckum said was utterly unremarkable. But conservative evangelical religion in America is more than just religion. It is also conservative. It is also American.

President Falwell and Liberty University, as I’m arguing in my current book, are emblematic of the complicated nature of conservative evangelical higher education. As institutions, they are driven by humdrum factors such as tuition, enrollment, athletics, and accreditation. As evangelical institutions, they’re driven by a desire to maintain a religiously pure, “safe space” for their students. As conservative institutions, they’re driven by a wide variety of political impulses, including the overpowering urge to shoot em up.

Affirmative Action for College Professors? No, But…

Thank you.  After discussions here and in real life, I’ve changed my mind.  I thought we needed affirmative action for conservative college professors, but now I agree on a different solution.

The other day, I wrote that our campuses needed more ideological diversity. Not, as some commentators have argued, mainly to provide a richer intellectual climate. Nor to be fair to conservative intellectuals. Rather, for me the compelling issue was that many students—conservative students—felt like fair game for both fellow students and professors.

Too many students, I thought (and think!) feel as if their conservative beliefs—especially religious beliefs—are the butt of jokes. They do not feel included; they do not feel like valued members of the campus community. That is not acceptable.

But following Jonathan Haidt’s advice for colleges to “actively seek out non-leftist faculty” won’t help.

Rather, we need to use existing mechanisms on campus to ease the problem.

Let me start by laying out some of the things I am not talking about:

I am not saying that students from some conservative religious backgrounds shouldn’t have their worlds shaken up by what they learn in college. For example, if students come from a young-earth creationist background, as David Long has argued, learning mainstream science will come as a profoundly disorienting experience. Colleges don’t need to protect them from that experience.

I am not saying that students should be allowed to perpetuate anti-minority attacks under the name of fairness. As some schools have experienced, “white student union” groups have argued that they, too, should have the right to be exclusive campus communities. Colleges don’t need to protect this sort of faux equality.

But colleges should protect students—even conservative students—from the sorts of ignorant, ridiculous, hateful talk that they are commonly exposed to. Let me give some examples of the kinds of thing I am talking about.

Example #1: Here in the Great State of New York, we’re divided over a recent gun-control law, the SAFE Act. It limited gun ownership in significant ways. One student told me that the subject came up in one of his classes. It wasn’t the main subject of a lecture or anything, just some side-talk that went on as part of a class discussion, the kind of talk that is a common part of every class. The instructor, according to my student, said something along the lines of, “Only total hillbilly idiots oppose the SAFE Act.” My student was a gun owner, from a family of gun owners and opponents of the SAFE Act. He didn’t say so, but I can’t help but think that the instructor’s comments made the student feel shut out.

Example #2: I was giving a talk a while back about Protestant fundamentalists and their educational campaigns. I’ll leave the host university anonymous. After my talk, one audience member shouted out a question, “What’s WRONG with these people!!??!” Many heads nodded and people giggled a little. I was flummoxed.   I couldn’t believe that such an intelligent person could simply lump together all conservative religious people as “these people.” I couldn’t believe that other audience members found such a question unremarkable. I wondered what someone in the audience would feel like if he or she was a fundamentalist. I don’t think he or she would feel welcomed. I don’t think he or she would feel like part of the campus community.

In situations like that, I think the main culprit is faculty ignorance. Too many of us have no idea about the numbers of conservative students we teach. Too many of us assume that the intelligent people in our classes agree with us on questions of religion and politics. Too many of us assume that any anti-conservatism or anti-religious jokes will be enjoyed by all our students.

I plead guilty myself. As I learn more and more about conservatism and religion, I realize how woefully ignorant I have always been. I worry that some of my off-hand comments in the past made some students feel unwelcome or insulted.

That’s why I think we need to do a better job of spreading the word.   Many of our campuses already have sensitivity-training classes. Why don’t we include conservative ideas? Why don’t we help faculty members recognize that they will be teaching students of all sorts of political and religious backgrounds? Why don’t we educate them about the beliefs of people who are very different from them, people who will likely be in their classes?

Of course, it won’t change the minds of people who really don’t want to change. I know there are some professors out there who consider it their job to belittle conservative ideas. Some academics take a positive glee in subjecting religious conservatives to hostile intellectual attack, hoping to educate them out of their unfortunate backwardness.

To some, that might be enlightenment. If it means subjecting vulnerable students to browbeating at the hands of their fellow students or even of their professors, it’s not the right sort of enlightenment.

Affirmative action for conservative professors isn’t the answer. It won’t work and it doesn’t even address the central problem. Colorado has struggled to fit in its token conservative intellectual. More important, as Neil Gross has argued, hiring on campuses is not really squeezed in a leftist death-grip. Rather, left-leaning types tend to be overrepresented among those who go into academic work in the first place.

We should prepare ourselves to welcome religious and ideological diversity just as we do other forms of diversity. We should ask instructors to attend sensitivity workshops that include a variety of ideas. Why do some creationist students believe in a young earth? Why do some religious traditions emphasize a continuing difference between proper roles for men and women?

The goal is not to avoid teaching ideas that might be startling or uncomfortable for students. In a geology class, young-earth creationists will hear that the earth is very old. A class on feminist theory will certainly shake up some students steeped in patriarchal thinking. But we can convey that information in a way that insults and belittles our students, or in a way that does not.

To me, the choice seems obvious.