University Apocalypse

Are conservative religious academics forced these days to live “deeply closeted” lives? Have elite universities become so hostile to conservative religious thought that openly acknowledging their religion would be career suicide for academics? In the aftermath of the recent debate over gay rights and religious freedom in Indiana, one elite academic shares his worries in the pages of The American Conservative.

We have to ask: Are things really so dire for conservative academics?

Private?  or Closeted?

Private? or Closeted?

First, though, some context. Readers may remember Jonathan Zimmerman’s (liberal) plea to include more conservatives on campus. And leading schools such as Colorado University have adopted programs to bring conservative thinking to liberal colleges. Both conservatives and non-conservatives agree: Good universities need to recruit actively among a wide diversity of intellectual types.

New voices say it’s not happening.

Crunchy conservative Rod Dreher recently shared his conversation on these issues with an anonymous professor at an elite law school. This professor worried that the “overculture” had reacted with frightening intellectual totalitarianism to the recent Indiana case. At leading colleges, “Prof. Kingsfield” warned, religious conservatives are no longer welcome.

“A college professor who is already tenured is probably safe,” Dreher tells us, summing up “Kingsfield’s” story.

Those who aren’t tenured, are in danger. Those who are believed to be religious, or at least religious in ways the legal overculture believes constitutes bigotry, will likely never be hired. For example, the professor said, he was privy to the debate within a faculty hiring meeting in which the candidacy of a liberal Christian was discussed. Though the candidate appeared in every sense to be quite liberal in her views, the fact that she was an open Christian prompted discussion as to whether or not the university would be hiring a “fundamentalist.”

“Kingsfield” also argues that conservative schools will likely face increasing pressure from accrediting bodies. He cites the recent experience of Gordon College. In that case, a re-articulation of a long-standing school policy against sexual activity among students—including homosexual students—created a firestorm of controversy.

Rod Dreher included as a follow-up several emails from academics claiming to have been discriminated against in higher ed.

Do you buy it?

There are a few caveats we need to keep in mind. First, Professor “Kingsfield” seems to be talking about trends at elite colleges. I’ve been told many times by the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) that their experiences in non-elite colleges have been very different. One correspondent, for instance, told me that his colleagues in a large second-tier state school explicitly taught their students to teach in a conservative religious way.

Also, we need to remember that we’re only talking about one conservative tradition here. Generally, non-religious conservatives have had a very easy time fitting into the culture at elite universities. Folks such as the late Milton Friedman, surely, have not faced any sort of career danger for their conservative ideas.

In my experience, my fellow progressive academic folks really do often combine a shocking ignorance of conservative religious culture with a casual contempt for conservative religious ideas. One of the reasons I started this blog, in fact, was due to the fact that so many of my fellow progressives seemed utterly hostile to and uninformed about American conservatism.

On the other hand, my beloved medium-sized public university seems fairly welcoming to religious conservatives. Perhaps because I talk too much about conservatism and fundamentalism, more than one of my faculty colleagues have shared their religious beliefs and background. They don’t trumpet their beliefs, but they don’t hide them either.

My colleagues keep their beliefs private. That’s not the same thing as keeping them “deeply closeted,” though. Are things really so bad for conservative religious academics?