Crisis at Moody Bible Institute: The Curse of the Fundamentalists

The revelations coming out of Chicago are sad. Even sadder—for those who know the history of evangelical higher education—is that they fit squarely and depressingly into a century-old pattern. The nature of Protestant fundamentalism as established in the 1920s left schools like Moody Bible Institute in a treacherous position.

1940s MBI banner and patch

From happier times, c. 1940.

Here’s what we know: As Christianity Today has reported, the flagship Moody Bible Institute in Chicago has shaken up its leadership. The president, chief operating officer, and provost are all out. MBI officially thanked the three for their leadership, but the institute also acknowledged “widespread concerns over the direction of the school,” according to CT.

Many of those concerns were publicized by another ousted employee, Julie Roys. Roys had hosted a radio program on WMBI and she recently raised alarms at the financial and theological misdeeds of top MBI leaders. On her blog, Roys had pointed out that the leaders had made unwise and possibly shady financial arrangements. She also noted alumni complaints that the school had indulged liberal ideas.

I don’t have any inside knowledge of the goings on at MBI. As I argue in my new book about the history of evangelical higher ed, though, the pattern is familiar, and part of the DNA of evangelical higher education. In a nutshell, the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s attracted most of the Bible-institute movement. Flagship MBI became a reluctant leader of fundamentalism, along with other higher-ed institutions such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones College in Florida (it moved twice, only becoming Bob Jones University in its current South Carolina location in 1947).

The nebulous nature of interdenominational fundamentalism left these institutions in a bind. Not as an accident, but as an inherent part of this conservative protest movement, there existed no higher (human) power that could set the boundaries of real orthodoxy for these schools.

1940s postcard library

Getting those dispensations right…c. 1940s.

As a result, different schools figured out different ways to decide what was kosher and what wasn’t. Bob Jones College established a rigid authoritarian structure. True religion, at Bob Jones College, was what the Bob Joneses said it was.

Wheaton College adopted a more spread-out network of authority. They established a board of fundamentalist celebrities and donors to help guide the school. But they also hired a series of powerful, charismatic presidents to embody the school’s mission. In addition, Wheaton courted alumni to help fund and direct the school. Often, tensions among the various leaders resulted in mixed messages and confusing, conflicting arguments about what constituted proper evangelical religion. Larycia Hawkins’s experience is nothing new.  Just ask Russell Mixter or President Buswell, two stories I describe in detail in the book.

Cover art final

Read all about it…

MBI did something similar, and the results are evident in the recent controversies. Reliance on celebrity fundamentalists and in-group leadership structures has always plagued evangelical colleges. In today’s case, Left Behind author Jerry Jenkins is accused of receiving sweetheart financial deals and tweaking the school’s moral code. MBI’s leaders are accused of giving one another perks without opening their deliberations to the whole school community.

The accusations range beyond financial hanky-panky. MBI’s leaders are accused of winking at theological sloppiness, too, another pattern established in the twentieth century. In today’s MBI case, alumni have charged the top leaders with

trading the sure foundation of God’s Word and the mission of training men and women to know and teach the Gospel for the fragile foundation of the cultural tides of the day. . . . students around campus and on my floor were not acting in ways that showed their desire to love and know the Lord fully. . . . Moody has become not a unique place to study and know God’s Word, but instead a place infiltrated by liberal political stances and clichéd cultural buzzwords without a solid theological foundation.

Such accusations have a timeless ring in the world of evangelical higher education. Similar complaints have been lodged against school leaders in every decade of the twentieth century and the twenty-first. And though they always seem new, they are the predictable result of the uncertain goals of evangelical higher education.

Like all evangelical institutions, MBI is in an impossible situation. It exists as a school dedicated to a certain vision of eternal truth, yet it can only survive if it also changes periodically. For example, few members of today’s MBI community would encourage racial segregation on campus, but in the 1930s it was part of an MBI education. All schools need to change, but this can be difficult for evangelical schools that promise to be purveyors of God’s eternal Truth.

Too often, leaders at evangelical schools fudge this dilemma by making back-room decisions about changes, hoping the evangelical public does not complain too loudly. Every once in a while, however, influential board members, faculty, students, or alumni shout out a protest, like the one we hear today from Chicago.

It’s important to note, of course, that similar problems exist in non-evangelical institutions as well. Wherever charismatic leaders are allowed to make decisions without consulting concerned constituencies, abuse is predictable. Most often, in secular higher education, this has happened with high-profile athletic programs such as the ones at Penn State and Florida State.

The situation at MBI is sadly similar. Instead of a structure by which changes can be discussed and agreed upon, a closed-door group of influential leaders has felt forced to go ahead on its own. None of us should be surprised that structures like that lead to financial malfeasance or unpopular policies.

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Reds Under the Bed? Christians Under the Couch!

Conspiracy sells.  Just ask Dan Brown.  But unwarranted anxiety about conspiracy also poisons our shared public life.

Source: The Guardian

Conspiracy hunting used to be a sport dominated by conservatives.  Think Joe McCarthy waving his sweaty lists of communist infiltrators.  In recent years, though, politicians and commentators have found a new subversive threat: the Religious Right.  A new book by former GOP functionary Mike Lofgren, for instance, warns of the ways his Republican Party was infiltrated and taken over by “stealthily fundamentalist” religious conservatives.

This kind of “paranoid style” has a long history in American public life.  Witches were fiendishly difficult to detect in seventeenth-century New England.  Scheming Catholics worried nineteenth-century WASPs.  Communists emerged as the primary subversive threat in America’s twentieth century.

Leaders of the Religious Right have often worked up convincing conspiracies of their own.  As historian William Trollinger has described, this tradition started with the first generation of American fundamentalists in the 1920s.  One of the most prominent leaders of that Scopes generation, William Bell Riley, finally blamed evolutionary theory on a far-reaching plot of “Jewish Communists.”

In 1926, as I describe in my 1920s book (now in paperback!), one of the new grassroots fundamentalist organizations, the Bible Crusaders, announced the root of the evolution problem.  “Thirty years ago,” the Bible Crusaders revealed,

“five men met in Boston and formed a conspiracy which we believe to be of German origin, to secretly and persistently work to overthrow the fundamentals of the Christian religion in this country.”

A generation later, writing in the magazine of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, one evangelical writer shared his experience with the famous progressive educator John Dewey.  This writer told a cautionary tale of secularist conspiracy, with a story of Dewey’s eighty-fifth birthday party in 1944.  Our evangelical witness had been invited to the celebration, the other guests unaware of his theological commitment.  Celebrating the life of the prominent progressive educator, the guests proudly recalled their efforts to transform America’s schools from Christian institutions to secular training centers.  “A generation has passed since that birthday gathering,” reported the evangelical spy to the MBI readership,

“and the plan has been immeasurably advanced by a series of court decisions that have de-theized the public schools.  As a result, American state-supported schools are as officially secular and materialistic as are their counterparts in Communist countries.  Are we awakening?”

Such warnings shouted by Christian conservatives have occasionally attracted enormous audiences outside of religious circles.  In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth became a runaway bestseller.  With his co-author Carole Carlson, Lindsey spun a premillennial dispensationalist reading of the Bible into a riveting tale of international conspiracy.  In the premillennial dispensational interpretation, popular among some conservative evangelical Protestants, the Antichrist will return in the guise of a savior, combining governments into a massive superstate.  What seems like secular salvation is quickly revealed as the ultimate cosmic conspiracy, dedicated to binding all of humanity to a Satanic anti-religion.

Image source: Wikipedia

These themes saw another burst of popularity in the late 1990s, when Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins repeated Lindsey’s feat.  LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ Left Behind series fictionalized Lindsey’s tale, again turning a conspiratorial interpretation of the apocalypse into beach reading for millions of Americans.

These Christian conspiracies have not been without cultural cost.  Though LaHaye and Jenkins carefully included a righteous Roman Catholic Pope among their fictionalized true Christians, other Christian conspiracy theorists, like William Bell Riley, have been too quick to implicate anyone outside of their circle of conservative evangelical Protestantism.

The dangers from conspiracy theorizing are not limited to the conspiracies imagined by conservative Christians.  Overheated accusations about the threat from subversive groups have long posed a profound danger to our public life, as any blacklisted Hollywood writer or interned Japanese-American could attest.  The threat is not limited to false conspiracies.  Satan may not have inspired Salem’s witch troubles, but historian Ellen Schrecker has argued that the communist-hunters of the 1950s often targeted real communist conspirators, if in a clumsy and overly aggressive way.

Similarly, Lofgren’s ominous warnings are not spun of whole cloth.  Lofgren warns vaguely of the “ties” of many leading Republican politicians to extreme positions such as Christian Dominionism.  This theology, associated most closely with the late Rousas John Rushdoony, wants to establish Christian fundamentalist control over American political life.  As Lofgren emphasizes, such thinkers approve the need to act “stealthily.”

Lofgren did not make this up.  Dominionism exists.  Prominent Republican politicians such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann really do work with groups who support such notions.  But the way Lofgren and other commentators discuss such threats from the Christian Right distort the public discussion over the role of religion in the public sphere.  As with warnings about President Obama’s connections to the “terrorist professor” Bill Ayers, this kind of conspiratorial rhetoric encourages a no-holds-barred approach to politics.

After all, as Lofgren intones, the “‘lying for Jesus’ strategy that fundamentalists often adopt” gives anti-fundamentalists a reason to punch below the belt in their culture-war battles.  If they did not, the warning goes, they would be helpless before the wiles of the Christian Right.  This is the primary danger of such breathless exposes as Lofgren’s.  They build a shaky and fantastic argument upon a foundation of authentic examples in order to convince the convinced.  Activists swallow the outlandish examples without demur.  Such true believers do not consider the real complexities of their opponents, but rather paint a simplistic and terrifying image to shock and motivate their own side.

As with the real communist movement, the real world of American conservative Christianity is not such a simple place.  Nor is it so headline-grabbingly power hungry.  Consider a recent leadership poll by the National Association of Evangelicals.  This organization, an umbrella group for conservative evangelical Protestants, asked just over one hundred of its leaders if the United States constituted a “Christian Nation.”  Sixty-eight percent said no.  One respondent told the NAE, “I hope others will learn to love Christ as I do, but that will happen more authentically through the Church and individual Christians sharing the Good News and demonstrating the person of Christ through our words and actions.”

This kind of statement from a conservative Christian does not sell books.  What does sell is a cherry-picked catalog of statements by Christian leaders revealing their plans to take over American politics and public life.  It was easy enough in Cold War America to discover evidence of a world-wide subversive communist movement.  But as America learned from Senator McCarthy’s outlandish claims, there is a danger in stripping down the image of subversives to cartoonish bogeymen.

I am not a conservative Christian myself.  I do not hope to apologize for the excesses of some conservative Christians.  Indeed, I believe denunciations of the schemes of conservative Christians have some basis in fact.  But when they serve only to encourage anti-fundamentalists to fight dirty, they do more harm than good.  When such conspiracy-hunters ignore the complexities and ambiguities of their targets, they attack more than their real enemies.  They smear innocent bystanders and poison the political life of the nation.

Forget the Zombies, It’s a Bible Apocalypse

Kirk Cameron as Buck Williams

Ask Kirk Cameron.  One of the most compelling parts of a Biblical worldview is its clear explanation of the future.  And that future isn’t too rosy, at least for those outside of the charmed circle of Biblical Christianity.

How are those of us outside this circle to understand this prophetic tradition?  We might start by trying to understand the ways some conservative Protestants read the Bible.  After all, if one believes in an inerrant Bible, one is encouraged to interpret its words in the most obvious sense.  The dangers, in this tradition of Bible interpretation, come when readers exalt their own understanding higher than the words of Scripture.

And the most obvious interpretation of some Biblical books, such as Daniel and Revelation,  is that they are prophecies of what is to come.

One of Clarence Larkin’s dispensational charts (1919)

Through a few quirks of history—though, of course, no Bible Christian would likely consider them accidental—one interpretation of these prophecies has come to exert an outsized influence on conservative evangelical Protestant belief in 20th­­- and 21st-century America.  This interpretation, burdened with the cumbersome name “dispensational premillennialism,” has become the dominant form of understanding Bible prophecy among the subset of evangelicals who call themselves small-f fundamentalists.

For those like me–outside of this tradition but trying to understand it–it is well worth our time to read some of the terrific academic histories out there.  The late Paul Boyer, of my alma mater, wrote a wonderful introduction to prophecy belief for outsiders.  Writing from closer to the tradition, Timothy Weber also offered a great guide to the history of this theology.  George Marsden also included a helpful introduction in his now-classic history of fundamentalism and American culture.

However, none of these terrific academic studies has reached the kind of audience that the prophecies themselves have claimed.  Just as the Bible’s continuing popularity must tell us something about the nature of popular religious belief in Fundamentalist America, so the popularity of rapture theology must hold some lessons.

In 1970, Hal Lindsey authored a runaway bestseller explaining this interpretation of the end days.  The Late Great Planet Earth sold millions of copies.  The book explained the themes of dispensational premillennial theology in an engaging and convincing way.  Lindsey and co-author Carole Carlson mapped the predictions of Daniel and Revelation onto world events of the 1970s.  As had generations of prophecy writers before him, Lindsey insisted that the world was entering the last days described to John in his Revelation.

A generation later, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins repeated this feat with their Left Behind series.  Beginning in the late 1990s, this fictionalized apocalypse told the story of end times, as understood by dispensational premillennialists.  The series sold millions of copies, and soon spun off an empire of related products, including a kids’ version and the movie starring Kirk Cameron.

What does the wild popularity of these books and their apocalyptic messages tell us about Fundamentalist America?  One danger would be to assume that all of the millions of readers embraced the theology of rapture and Biblical apocalypse.  It seems unlikely that all the readers of these books included themselves in the roll of Bible believers.  Just as the popularity of Harry Potter does not imply an increase in the belief in magic, so the popularity of these books does not necessarily mean a huge bump in belief in this apocalyptic tradition.  Nevertheless, conservative evangelical Protestants since the 1920s have argued for the importance of this particular way of understanding the Bible.  These books helped cement that understanding in the popular imagination.

For many readers, whether or not they buy into the entire theology, The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind books tell THE Biblical story of the last days, not just one interpretation.

For those of us hoping to understand the nature of Fundamentalist America, the books are worth reading.  As long as we avoid the trap of thinking that these books are the last word in what conservative religious people really think, this vision of the nature of reality can go a long way to decoding some traditional shibboleths of the Fundamentalist tradition, such as the dangers of the United Nations and the importance of a strong Israel.

In each case, the politics of today and tomorrow have been explained thousands of years in advance.  As Revelation explains, the Antichrist will appear as the savior of humanity.  He will unite nations into one humanitarian global government.  All will appear obviously to the good.  For dispensational premillennialists, this prophecy provides fodder for an unyielding campaign against internationalism.  In the United States, this tradition has fueled an intense animosity toward organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations.  Again, we must not assume too much.  Not every conservative anti-internationalist has based his or her opposition on Biblical prophecy.  But among those who do, that opposition takes on more weight than simple policy considerations.  The fight against internationalization becomes, for some Bible believers, a literal cosmic battle of Good vs. Evil.  Understanding those roots will guide us in understanding the sometimes-puzzling international policies of some religious conservatives.

As reporter Buck Williams of the Left Behind series might explain, doubt and skepticism must end with the Rapture.  After that, the only option left for a dedicated Tribulation Force is to fight tooth and nail against the scheming Evil of Carpathia and His Global Community.

Further reading:

  • Timothy Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979);
  • Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992);
  • George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006);
  • Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, The Left Behind Series (Tyndale House, 1995-2007);
  • Hal Lindsey and C.C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970).