Will Fundamentalist U Crush Trumpism?

Don’t be fooled by the noises coming out of Lynchburg. Though Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University might be shameless (and just kind of weird) in his white-evangelical support for Trump, the overall landscape of evangelical higher education might be driving younger white evangelicals off the Trump train. We have to ask: Did the efforts of evangelical school administrators in the twentieth century lay the foundation for Trump’s political demise?

white evangelical youth immigration

Did ‘Fundamentalist U’ teach young evangelicals to value immigration?

Here’s what we know: Recent surveys show that younger white evangelicals don’t share their elders’ anxieties about immigration. As Daniel Cox wrote recently at 538:

Two-thirds (66 percent) of young white evangelical Christians (age 18 to 34) say that immigrants coming to the U.S. strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, a view shared by only 32 percent of white evangelical seniors (age 65+). A majority (54 percent) of older white evangelical Christians believe that immigrants are a burden on American society.

That’s bad news for Trumpism. If younger white evangelicals don’t dislike immigration, they might waver in their support Trump. It might just crack his electoral base.

How does any of this relate to evangelical higher education?

As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, many evangelical universities had a long and shameful racist history, just like most of the rest of American higher education. Starting in the 1950s, though, white evangelicals participated—and often took the lead—in promoting anti-racist attitudes among white Americans.

Institutions such as Wheaton College often floundered, but in the end they added new curriculum about African and African-American history and culture. They recruited more non-white faculty and students. They did not succeed as well as we might hope, but evangelical faculty members and administrators at many colleges worked hard to fight against white racism at their institutions.

What’s the upshot? In some cases, such as at storied Nyack College, the racial climate on campus has been utterly transformed. Nyack might be drowning in debt, but it has succeeded in attracting and retaining non-white evangelical students. When a white evangelical student attends a school like Nyack these days, she gets a very different sense of what it means to be a “good Christian” than her grandmother would have.

It’s not only Nyack or Wheaton. These days, evangelical colleges are far more racially diverse than they were in the past. As Cox notes,

On Christian college campuses, which have seen enrollment gains in recent years, young white evangelical Christians are part of an increasingly diverse student body. White students account for 62 percent of the student body on the roughly 140 campuses affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, down from 82 percent in 1999.

Younger white evangelicals, in other words, are experiencing life as part of a new kind of America, one in which white evangelicals no longer assume that they have a special role to play as the ‘real’ Americans, one in which Making America Great Again is not such a compelling battle cry. In large part, evangelical colleges and universities helped teach each new generation that diversity and immigration are not dangers, but strengths.

And because white evangelicals play such a large role in supporting Trump, today’s evangelical colleges could be spreading a message that will spell the end of Trumpism.

Culture Wars Update: Who’s Winning?

Is the sky falling for progressives like me? In The Atlantic, journalist Molly Ball argues that liberals are losing the culture wars. The same topic just came up in our recent panel of educational historians. Is Ball right?

Four horsemen?

Four horsemen?

She looked at the results of the recent mid-term elections. In Ohio, voters rejected recreational marijuana. In Houston, they voted against gender-neutral bathrooms. In San Francisco, they booted an immigration-friendly sheriff. In Virginia, gun control struggled. In Kentucky, Kim Davis’s brand of in-your-face culture-war bluster helped win the governor’s office.

Ball’s conclusion?

taken together these results ought to inspire caution among liberals who believe their cultural views are widely shared and a recipe for electoral victory.

Fair enough. But not surprisingly, our all-star panel of historians came to different conclusions. To historians, these electoral losses don’t seem so cataclysmic. After all, consider the historical context: people are voting about making pot legal. Can you really deny Andrew Hartman’s argument that the echoes of the 1960s are dominated by the accents of hippies?

And yes, Houston lost its push for bathrooms that recognize the fluidity of gender. But look again: Who lost? The city in Texas with the openly gay mayor, that’s who.

We can make the same case for the other elections as well. Yes, conservatives here and there will have some successes in blocking the progressive changes that continue to roll through our society. Such blocking maneuvers, however, are a rearguard action.

Voting against gender-neutral bathrooms does not change the fact that we are now considering gender-neutral bathrooms. Thirty years ago—heck, even five years ago—that would not have been up for debate.

I think we need a more nuanced answer to the question of winning and losing when it comes to our culture wars. In my recent book, I looked at the educational activism of conservatives during the twentieth century. A lot of the time, they won. But just as with these recent cases, conservatives tended to succeed only in blocking or delaying certain limited sections of progressive change. Progressives still set the cultural agenda.

Here’s my two cents: first of all, I agree with our dean of educational historians, Jon Zimmerman. Jon argued this week that it is mostly meaningless to talk about winning or losing in this context. As does this Atlantic article, talk about winning or losing is usually a tactic to rally the faithful of each side, not a clear-headed analysis of shifting cultural trends.

Having said that, I think we can discern a century-long trend with these sorts of fights. In every case, conservatives might win or lose the specific battle. They do not win the war. What they do win, time after time, is the right to be listened to, the right to be considered part of the conversation about these issues.

For progressives like me and most of my friends, progressive change seems like an obviously good idea. Of course people should be able to smoke pot if they want. Of course transgender people should be able to use appropriate bathrooms. Of course guns should be controlled, immigrants welcomed, and same-sex marriage rights should be honored.

When we see election results like this one, though, we are reminded that not everyone agrees with us. When we see how strongly people disagree, we should not tear our hair and gnash our teeth. We should not lament the narrow-mindedness of our fellow citizens.

Rather, we should recognize the vast differences between Americans when it comes to these issues. As we do here at ILYBYGTH, we should do our best to understand and even sympathize with those voters who disagree with us.

After all, the only real victory in our bitter culture wars will come when we can respect those with whom we disagree.

What Color Are Your Fundamentalists?

Who are the “fundamentalists” who hope to keep America’s public schools religious?

Some of us may picture a Saddleback-type white suburban evangelical, driving around in a Biblically-sized SUV, worrying in equal measure about sin and soccer.

New!  School Prayer Barbie!

New! School Prayer Barbie!

But as Peter Berger reminds us this morning on The American Interest, that image of conservative evangelicalism might represent the past more than the future.

Berger notes the dramatic effects of immigration on the nature of American Christianity.  New immigrants tend to be Christian, and their Christianity tends to lean conservative.  As Berger concludes,

Both in their theology and religious practice, non-Western Christians are more conservative. Their worldview is strongly supernaturalist: The spiritual world, both benign and sinister, is very close—the Holy Spirit, the Virgin and the saints, miracles of healing—but also the devil and other malevolent spirits. This supernaturalism is strongest in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, but it is also very visible in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. But non-Western Christians are also more conservative in their moral convictions—very little sympathy here for the feminism, let alone the agenda of the gay movement, that has become so prominent in mainline Protestantism in America—and, I suspect, would be more prominent in American Catholicism, were it not for surveillance and intervention from Rome.

The implication of all this is simple and exceedingly important: Immigration will strengthen the conservative forces in American Christianity.

In the future, the fight over religion in America’s public schools may have a very different tone.  Instead of a ring of white conservative suburbs around every ethnically diverse urban core, we may see a shift to immigrant-led demands for more vibrant religion in schools.  Instead of whitebread traditionalism resisting a multicultural liberalism, we might have an ethnically diverse group of conservatives battling to keep morals pure in public education.