Higher Ed as a Weapon

Looks like the tradition continues. As the Brett Kavanaugh hearings sweep over Washington DC like a brushfire, Liberty University is back to its old 1970s tactics. Turns out clean-cut well-dressed conservative Christian students are a potent political weapon.

liberty busses at kavanaugh hearing

From Jack Jenkins…

Here’s what we know: Jack Jenkins has reported that two Liberty University busses pulled up to the Kavanaugh hearings this morning. Presumably, Jerry Falwell Jr. is pulling a few pages from his dad’s political playbook.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Jerry Falwell Sr. was fond of using Liberty University students to twist arms on Capitol Hill. Most famously, he sent his “I Love America” bus tour around to various state houses to sing and dance about America.

The goal was to attract attention to Falwell’s conservative policy plans. He hoped to get headlines and push politicians to get on the Liberty bus. Politically, that is.

That wasn’t all.

I didn’t have room to include much of this in Fundamentalist U, but Falwell Sr. employed students as smiling lobbyists. In early 1980, for example, he had students hand-deliver his “95 theses for the 1980s” to US Representatives.

falwell i love america tour

La la la…we love Americaaaaa

Charles F. Bennett, of Florida’s 3rd district, told Falwell that Bennett was delighted to receive the information directly from a

Fine young Christian student.

And Carroll Hubbard, of Kentucky’s 1st district, wrote to Falwell to say that he was posting the 95 theses on his desk. As Rep. Hubbard put it,

You are an inspiration to my family and me. 2 Chronicles 7:14.

For Jerry Falwell Jr., then, sending busloads of students to support Judge Kavanaugh is anything but a surprise.

Fundamentalist University Can’t Stay Afloat

Looks like the world of fundamentalist higher education will be shrinking at the end of this semester. Chattanooga’s Tennessee Temple University will be closing its doors, merging with nearby Piedmont International University. In spite of accusations by some critics, this closing does not prove that fundamentalist colleges can’t make it in today’s society. After all, these kinds of closings are all too common among all sorts of schools.

On their Last Crusade...

On their Last Crusade…

Officially, TTU will close due to the lack of financial support from alumni. Instead of the needed three to five million dollars trustees hoped for, TTU alumni coughed up a meager $65,000.

Critic David Tulis blamed the closure on the insular theology of the school. Leaders had grown too fond of their own dispensational truths and “Christian Zionism,” Tulis charged. TTU had allowed itself the unaffordable luxury of inbred intellectualism and backwater academics.

There may be truth in such charges, but anyone familiar with the shaky history of higher education will know that all sorts of schools close for all sorts of reasons.

Most recently, the closing of Virginia’s Sweet Briar College has sent tremors through the world of higher education. If a storied institution with a fat endowment can be run out of business, who is safe?

Among evangelical colleges, too, these sorts of closings and mergers are not unique to the more conservative fundamentalist type. In the 1980s, Barrington College merged with nearby Gordon College. Financial pressures can obviously become overwhelming, irrespective of theological positions.

In the case of Barrington and Gordon, as I’m finding in my current research, these two (relatively) liberal evangelical schools had long been rivals. As late as 1961, the president of Barrington declared that he would never consider joining with Gordon in any sort of money-saving merger. The only way for Barrington to succeed, President Howard Ferrin insisted twenty-five years before the schools’ eventual merger, was by “stressing its differences from Gordon.”

We must remember also that colleges from this fundamentalist Baptist tradition can do very well financially. Most obviously, Virginia’s Liberty University makes more money than it knows what to do with. By making savvy investments in online education, the leaders of Liberty have proved that a fundamentalist school can thrive in today’s turbulent higher-education market.

But not every fundamentalist school. The leaders of Tennessee Temple have promised that current students will be able to finish their academic programs, one way or another. Also, as President Steve Echols ruminated,

countless lives have been forever changed and will continue to be changed through the heritage of Tennessee Temple University.

In spite of what some pundits might assert, this news from Chattanooga does not mean that fundamentalist higher education is on the way out. The financial struggles at TTU, after all, serve as more proof that fundamentalist universities and colleges often have more in common with non-fundamentalist schools than their leaders might like to admit.

Homeschooling: A Scheme to Take Over America

What do Sarah Palin, Gordon College, and Christian homeschoolers have in common? According to evangelical-turned-atheist Frank Schaeffer, they are all “still fighting a religious war against their own country.” I’m no homeschooler or Palin fan, but Schaeffer’s accusations just don’t hold up to historical scrutiny.

Schaeffer’s most recent broadside appeared in Salon. In his article, Schaeffer blasted a wide range of “far-right” institutions. When parents choose to pull their kids out of public schools to indoctrinate them at home, Schaeffer charged, it amounts to nothing less than “virtual civil war carried on by other means.” As Schaeffer put it,

the evangelical schools and home school movement were, by design, founded to undermine a secular and free vision of America and replace it by stealth with a form of theocracy.

According to Schaeffer, this nefarious plot spreads beyond the anti-democratic practice of homeschooling. The “far-right,” Schaeffer insists, turns women into submissive breeding mares. The Right has opened its own colleges and universities as part of its plan to take over civil society. Jerry Falwell himself, Schaeffer relates, explained his reasons for opening Liberty Law School. “Frank,” Falwell confided, “we’re going to train a new generation of judges to change America!”

Is the sky really falling?

Is the sky really falling?

Inspired by the apocalyptic rhetoric of wild-eyed prophets such as Rousas Rushdoony, and marshalled by irresponsible self-aggrandizers such as Sarah Palin, the Christian Right will not stop until it has taken over. Conservative religious folks, Schaeffer insists, want nothing less than to impose a rigid theocracy on the United States. They will not be content until they have dictated the morals and mores of their neighbors as well as those of their children.

Are Schaeffer’s charges fair?

Certainly, he has the right to boast of his insider connections. His father, the late Francis Schaeffer, really did inspire a fair bit of the social philosophy of today’s conservative evangelicals. Schaeffer Senior articulated in the 1970s and 1980s the notion that US culture had been infiltrated by a sneaky “secular humanist” worldview. In order to properly live as Christians, then, Schaeffer Senior advocated a wide-ranging rejection of modern social mores. Perhaps most important for day-to-day culture-war politics, Schaeffer Senior along with C. Everett Koop denounced abortion rights as equivalent to murder.

At times, Frank Schaeffer seems blinded by his own imagined influence. In this Salon article, for example, he shamelessly name-drops his connections to writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Mary Pride. He claims to have been “instrumental” in bringing together the New Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Such unpleasantness aside, however, do Schaeffer’s charges stick? Are Christian homeschooling and evangelical higher education part of a long-ranging plot to undermine American traditions of pluralism and tolerance?

Short answer: No.

Before I offer a few examples of the ways Schaeffer’s breathless expose doesn’t match reality, let me explain my background for those who are new to ILYBYGTH. I am no apologist for fundamentalist Christianity. I’m no fundamentalist, not even a former fundamentalist. When it comes down to it, I will fight hard against fundamentalist-friendly school rules about prayer or sex ed. I don’t homeschool my kid. I don’t attend or teach at an evangelical college. I’m only a mild-mannered historian, with the sole goal of deflating hysterical culture-war accusations.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of Schaeffer’s claims.

First, is Christian homeschooling really as sinister as he claims? Schaeffer suggests that homeschoolers have been inspired by the work of leaders such as Mary Pride and Nancy Leigh DeMoss. The point of homeschooling, Schaeffer charges, is to train girls and women to submit to fathers and husbands, to glory in their second-class role as child-bearers and house-keepers.

There are indeed homeschoolers who adopt these notions. But anyone who follows the work of historian Milton Gaither can tell you that the world of homeschooling—even the more limited world of conservative evangelical homeschooling—is a kaleidoscope of missions, strategies, and techniques. I don’t doubt that some Christian parents hope to impose a rigid patriarchal vision on their children. What falls apart, though, when looked at carefully, is the notion that these folks are somehow the “real” reason behind Christian homeschooling. What falls apart are accusations that Christian homeschoolers are some sort of monolithic force scheming to take over the rest of our society. In reality, Christian homeschoolers are a remarkably fractious bunch.

Second, what about Rousas Rushdoony? As Schaeffer correctly points out, Rushdoony was the intellectual force behind “Reconstructionist” theology. In short, Rushdoony believed that Christians should impose true Christian morality on all of society, including Old-Testament-inspired laws about sex and conduct. In reality, though, the direct influence of Rushdoony’s social ideas has been rather limited. As scholars such as Michael J. McVicar have argued, Rushdoony has had far more influence on liberal pundits than on the conservative rank-and-file.

Next, are evangelical colleges really training a generation of conservative culture warriors? As I conduct the research for my next book, I’m struck by the ways evangelical colleges have been battlegrounds more than training centers. In other words, evangelical colleges and universities have had a hard time figuring out what they are doing. They are hardly in the business of cranking out thousands of mindless drones to push right-wing culture-war agendas.

For one thing, evangelical colleges have usually insisted on maintaining intellectual respectability in the eyes of non-evangelical scholars. Even such anti-accreditation schools as Bob Jones University have used outside measures such as the Graduate Record Examination to prove their academic bona fides. As historian Michael S. Hamilton noted in his brilliant study of Wheaton College, this desire prompted Wheaton in the 1930s to invite outside evaluators such as John Dale Russell of the University of Chicago to suggest changes at the “Fundamentalist Harvard.” This need for intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream intellectuals has continually pulled fundamentalist schools closer to the mainstream. Such colleges—even staunchly “unusual” ones like Bob Jones—have been much more similar to mainstream colleges than folks like Schaeffer admit.

Schaeffer uses Gordon College in Massachusetts as an example of the ways Christian colleges train new generations of young people to see the US government as evil. But as I found in my recent trip to the Gordon College archives, the community at Gordon has always been divided about the purposes of higher education. Back in the 1960s, Gordon College students held protests, sit-ins, and “sleep-ins” to change Gordon’s policies and attitudes. As one student put it during a 1968 protest, “we want to be treated like real college students.” How did the evangelical administration respond? By commending the students’ commitment to “activism over apathy.” To my ears, that does not sound like a brutal and all-encompassing mind-control approach.

The world of conservative evangelicalism, of “fundamentalism,” is one of continuous divisive tension. There is no fundamentalist conspiracy of the sort Schaeffer describes. Or, to be more specific, there are such conspiracies, but there are so many of them, and they disagree with one another so ferociously, that the threat Schaeffer warns us about is more fiction than fact.

Does Christian homeschooling really serve as a first step in a long-ranging scheme to take over America? Only in the fevered imaginings of former fundamentalists such as Frank Schaeffer.

Kicking Out the Christians: Duck Dynasty and “Facial Profiling”

Christians are a persecuted minority!

That’s the claim we hear over and over again from conservative religious folks.

Today we get some surprising evidence that bearded holy men of the Christian faith really are punished unfairly.  Duck Dynasty star Jase Robertson was apparently kicked out of the Trump Hotel in New York City when an employee assumed he was homeless.

jase-robertson4

Robertson. Image Source: A&E

As the Christian Post reports, Robertson didn’t take the incident too seriously.  He called the episode a case of “facial profiling.”

It was not Robertson’s Christian faith, but rather his appearance, that apparently led to this embarrassing incident.  The big reality-show star didn’t make a fuss.  But other conservative Christians like the Robertson family have consistently complained that they are treated like despised minorities in American culture.

In 1980, for example, evangelical superstar Jerry Falwell called conservative Fundamentalists “the largest minority bloc in the United States.”[*]

These feelings among conservative Protestants have been especially strong in debates over public education.  Since the 1920s, conservative evangelical Protestants have complained that their rights have not been respected.  To cite just one example, in 1965 evangelical editor John R. Rice lamented the fact that conservative Christians were not only a minority, but a minority that had been consistently singled out for unique persecution.  “Why not have freedom in America as much for one minority as another?” Rice asked.  “Why not observe the rights of Bible believers as well as the rights of the infidels in the churches and infidels in courts or schools?”[†]

We have seen despised-minority rhetoric again and again in conservative calls to include creationism in public-school science classes.  In the early 1980s, creationists pushed laws that would include both evolution and creationism, in order to protect the constitutional rights of minority creationist students.  Laws such as Arkansas’ Arkansas’ Act 590 of 1981, for example, emphasized that such rules would “protect academic freedom . . . [and] freedom of religious exercise.”[‡]

Creationists have also often complained that their views are ignored out of an anti-scientific zeal to punish minority dissent.  In 1984, for example, creationist Jerry Bergman published his expose of anti-creationist persecution in American higher education.  Bergman himself claimed to have been denied tenure at Bowling Green State University solely for his religious beliefs.  “Several universities,” Bergman lamented,

state it was their ‘right’ to protect students from creationists and, in one case, from ‘fundamentalist Christians.’ . . . This is all plainly illegal, but it is extremely difficult to bring redress against these common, gross injustices.  This is due to the verbal ‘smoke-screen’ thrown up around the issue.  But, a similar case might be if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’[§]

Kicking out a bearded Christian holy man from a fancy New York hotel won’t offer much clarity to this old dispute.  Jase Robertson himself did not seem at all offended that a hotel employee took him outside to a park when Robertson asked for directions to a bathroom.

Other conservative evangelical Protestants, however, have not laughed off this kind of thing so lightly.  In controversies about the nature of America’s public square, including its public schools, conservative Christians have consistently insisted that they had been treated like persecuted minorities.

It makes me wonder if Jerry Falwell was ever kicked out of a fancy hotel.

 

 


[*] George Vecsey, “Militant Television Preachers Try to Weld Fundamentalist Christians’ Political Power,” New York Times, January 21, 1980, A21.

 

[†] John R. Rice, “White Minorities Have Rights, Too,” Sword of the Lord 31 (3 September 1965): 1.

 

[‡] “Act 590 of 1981: General Acts, 73rd General Assembly, State of Arkansas,” in in Marcel C. LaFollette, ed., Creationism, Science and the Law: The Arkansas Case (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983), 15.

 

[§] Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984), 43.

Faith and Football

Forget Tim Tebow.  The real story in the world of fundamentalist football is Liberty University. The fundamentalist Virginia school founded in the early seventies by Moral Majority frontman Jerry Falwell wants to become the face of conservative Christian college ball.

This isn’t news, but Bill Pennington offered a new look at the program in last weekend’s New York Times.

Pennington points out that a big sports program can signal the emergence of a religious school from sectarian obscurity, as happened with Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame, or a later generation’s Brigham Young University.  Pennington gets the dates wrong; Rockne pulled Notre Dame football to national prominence in the 1920s, not the middle of the century.  But the point still holds.  Football made Notre Dame an American story, not just a Catholic one.

Image source: Wikipedia

According to Pennington, Liberty is different.  The vision of both founder Jerry Falwell and current chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. is of a team that competes with the likes of Alabama and LSU while remaining staunchly fundamentalist.  As Falwell Jr. told Pennington,

‘“We think there would be a vast, committed fan base of conservative, evangelical Christians around the country and maybe even folks who are conservative politically who would rally behind Liberty football,” Falwell Jr. said, smiling at the thought. “They would identify with our philosophy.”’   

In order even to have a shot at such elite play, schools need money.  According to Falwell Jr., that should not be a problem.  Thanks largely to an exploding online program enrolling over 80,000 students, Liberty has announced it will soon reach one BILLION dollars in net assets.

Could they make it happen?  In the world of big-time college ball—to paraphrase an old prayer—with money, all things are possible.

Pennington’s article is worth reading, especially for those interested in college football.  Those interested in the world of conservative Christian higher education will wish Pennington probed a little deeper.  The story of Liberty University in 2012, after all, is much bigger than just an ambitious football program.  As Karen Swallow Prior of the Liberty University faculty pointed out recently, the campus culture has been changing in other important ways as well.  In addition to a loosening of the dress code, students at Liberty have begun showing more diversity in terms of politics and culture, according to Prior.

Liberty watchers have to wonder: Did all these changes—a push for big-time ball, loosening of the dress code, broadening of the politics of the student body—did these changes result from the big on-line payday, or did these changes lead to that payday?  That is, did Liberty make itself the big winner in the new world of online higher education by broadening its appeal?  Or did the broadening happen after the money starting rolling in so fast, according to Falwell Jr., that “we can’t spend it fast enough”?

These questions aren’t new to the world of fundamentalist higher education, nor are they unique to Liberty.  In the 1920s, Bob Jones University also fielded intercollegiate athletic teams.  However, school founder Bob Jones Sr. quickly dropped the program.  Friends said Jones worried that sports would pull the new school too far from its central mission.  Enemies whispered that Jones feared having to accommodate any outside influence in his flagship university.

Liberty University will certainly wrestle with this same tension.  As any football fan knows, money drives success.  It will be difficult for Liberty to compete without putting athletic success first.  And it will be hard to do that without changing the focus of the school from the religion of Falwell to the religion of football.

 

 

The Evolution of Liberty University

First flip-flops, now College Democrats.  What is next for Liberty University?

Karen Swallow Prior commented recently on the changing face of the school founded by Jerry Falwell just over forty years ago.  Prior, chair of Liberty’s English department, notes the remarkable achievements of Liberty.  Since 1971, it has grown to almost 100,000 students (including online) and has almost hit one BILLION dollars in net assets.

Like other Protestant fundamentalist schools, Liberty was founded with the specific intention of educating conservative evangelical Christian students in an environment that encouraged their faith.

Prior argued in Christianity Today that the school has been evolving.  A few years back, it eased up its dress code, allowing students to wear jeans and sandals if they preferred.  As Prior put it, “Administrators knew that the university couldn’t meet the goal of its founder of becoming a ‘world class’ evangelical university by requiring its students to dress like Mormons on mission.”

More recently, Prior writes, the school has had to wrestle with the thornier question of student politics.  Might a school explicitly founded as a conservative institution allow an organization of College Democrats?  As has been the question for fundamentalist higher education since the 1920s, there is an enduring tension between growth and fidelity to mission.  As I’ve analyzed in my 1920s book and an article in History of Education Quarterly, fundamentalist colleges have struggled to understand themselves as either “world class” universities or intentionally provincial ones.  Can they escape from the “scandal of the evangelical mind” without abandoning their unique faith mission?

At Bob Jones University, for example, founded in 1926, students have had to pledge their fidelity to an iron-bound statement of faith.  They have also had to pledge that they will prevent the school from every wavering from its commitment to those principles.

Doubtless Liberty will continue to struggle with this tension.  As Prior explains,

“whether Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian, Liberty students seem to recognize that none of the political parties aligns consistently with their faith. And so, they seem less willing than preceding generations of students to put their faith in politics.”

Traditionalism and Education

This morning’s column by David Brooks in the New York Times is sure to provoke some head-scratching.

Brooks points out the conventional division of contemporary conservatism into two constituent entities. He calls them “economic conservatism” and “traditional conservatism.” Economic conservatives are the free-market champions. They are the sort who cheered when Reagan described the nine most terrifying words in the English language as, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Traditionalists, on the other hand, value localism, organic social structures, and community. They derive their ideas from the likes of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk.

Those who follow the intellectual history of modern conservatism will scratch their heads that Brooks did not include other important types of conservatism, such as the Jerry-Falwell-style Moral Majoritarianism, the kind of conservatism that wants to regulate personal behavior and use government power to improve America’s morals. And where are the “tribal” conservatives, folks such as Rush Limbaugh who cling to “conservatism” largely as a form of in-group identity?

On the other side, people less familiar with the landscape of modern American conservatism might be surprised at Brooks’ evocation of an entirely different style of conservatism. Those unfamiliar with this traditionalist tradition might be shocked to hear of conservatives who oppose a pure laissez-faire approach to economics. Conservatives, as Brooks puts it, who want government to use a “subtle hand” to encourage family and neighborhood cohesion.

As Brooks notes, influential bloggers such as Rod Dreher at the American Conservative keep traditionalist conservatism alive and kicking. Brooks might also have included Patrick Deneen at Front Porch Republic in this survey.

Those of us most interested in the relationship between conservatism and education can explore Deneen’s exposition of traditionalist hero Robert Nisbet.  In 1953, Nisbet had lamented the increasingly universalist nature of higher education.  Deneen argues that such trends have only accelerated.  As Deneen noted a few years back,

“The modern university system has arisen with the consent of those on the Right and Left alike, particularly in its guise as the modern research university aimed toward the end of ‘creating knowledge’ and providing educations that allow our students to ‘succeed’ and to ‘solve problems.’ Both have actively assented to a national, and increasingly international educational system that becomes annually more homogenous and standardized (This is just as true of supposedly ‘conservative’ administrations, one of which gave us ‘No Child Left Behind’ and Margaret Spellings).”

The traditionalist solution, Deneen argues, is to restore some measure of true diversity to university life in America.  Instead of a spread of cookie-cutter colleges arrayed to produce skilled mechanics of a corporate juggernaut, institutions of higher education could instead strive to emphasize the particularities of their own local communities.  Elsewhere, Deneen has suggested that this particularity must embody not only a constrained localism, but also a truer conception of universality. 

As David Brooks suggests, much of the subtlety of this sort of traditionalism has been read out of today’s conservative discussions of education.  For those of us trying to understand conservative thinking about education, however, it is a useful reminder of the complexities of what Brooks calls “half of [the Republican Party’s] intellectual ammunition.”