Scotsmen, Falwell, and Why Historians Can’t Define ‘Evangelicalism’

How is this possible? Have you seen the poll numbers? As I write this, when Katelyn Beaty asked on Twitter if the abominable evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. was “an evangelical leader,” about three-quarters of respondents said no.KB twitter falwell

What? How could so many people think that the leader of a ‘UGE evangelical university doesn’t count as an evangelical leader? The obvious conclusion is that people are disgusted by Falwell’s alleged behavior as a shady alcohol-fueled real-estate scammer and Lynchburg bully. Anyone who behaves like that, people might be thinking, doesn’t count as a real evangelical.

As usual, historian Tim Gloege has offered a clear-sighted explanation of this evangelical conundrum. There has always been an evangelical tendency, Gloege explained, to explain away the parts of the evangelical tradition that people don’t like. “It’s not us,” evangelicals have always said about members of the evangelical family that they would rather not acknowledge. As Dr. Gloege put it,

Because being evangelical means never having to say you’re sorry.

Being evangelical means “it’s not us.”

In the case of Falwell, it seems like this tradition is alive and well. By behaving badly, many people seem to think, Falwell Jr. has defined himself out of the evangelical family. If being an evangelical means having a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ, the reasoning goes, then Falwell can’t be an evangelical. No one with a real evangelical religious commitment could behave the way Falwell does.

This disagreement about the definition of “real” evangelicalism has always been tricky for historians of evangelicalism. A while back, historian John Fea and I had a polite disagreement about the nature of “real” evangelicalism in colleges and universities. In the wake of Trump’s election, I argued that evangelical higher education had ALWAYS supported Trumpish values. As I wrote back then at History News Network:

White evangelicals are a religious group, true, but they have also always been energized by a vague yet powerful patriotic traditionalism.  Like other enthusiastic Trump supporters, white evangelicals have been fueled by a combative culture-war patriotism.  They have always defined themselves by their proprietary attitude about “our” America, the one they hope President Trump will make great again.

Historian John Fea took issue with my argument. As he responded,

For every Liberty University or Mid-America Nazarene there are dozens and dozens of evangelical colleges who reject this kind of Christian nationalism and Trumpism.

I would venture to guess that the overwhelming majority of the faculty and administrators at evangelical colleges and universities in the United States DID NOT vote for Donald Trump.

If students at evangelical colleges voted for Trump–and there were many who did–it was not because they were fed pro-Trump rhetoric from their faculty.  In fact, I know several faculty and graduates from the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University who strongly opposed the Trump presidency.

Just as with current disagreements about whether or not Falwell is “an evangelical leader,” Professor Fea and I were both right, in our ways. After all, the evangelical family is so broad and diverse that any statement anyone makes about “real” evangelicalism is subject to a million counter-examples.

When it comes to whether or not Falwell is “an evangelical leader,” I bet both the “yeses” and the “nos” can agree: There have always been prominent evangelical leaders, in charge of prominent institutions, who have embraced political positions that are immoral and untenable, racial segregation being the most prominent example. There have always been prominent evangelicals who have behaved in personally immoral ways; leaders who have engaged in sexual and financial crimes while publicly mouthing evangelical platitudes.

Where do we disagree? The “yeses” might think something like the following: But those have all been mistakes, wanderings from the evangelical path. No true evangelical—meaning someone who shares the profound personal love of Jesus Christ—should have embraced those values.

The “nos” might think: When there is a pattern of this kind of thing, that pattern must be considered part of the definition, not whisked away by the No True Scotsman fallacy. Consider the Catholic abuse story. Would a true follower of Christ abuse children? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that the second a Catholic priest does so, he is therefore no longer representative of the structural flaws within the Catholic hierarchy itself, a hierarchy that is both committed to preaching the saving love of Jesus Christ AND guilty of covering up abuse to protect its own interests.

So is Jerry Falwell Jr. an “evangelical leader?” Beaty’s question exposes a long tension at the heart of the evangelical experience in the USA. As a prominent leader of a prominent evangelical institution, of course he is. But as a scumbag, of course he isn’t.

The answer you choose depends on how you think about evangelicalism. If you think of it primarily as a way of being a true Christian, then you can define away anyone you don’t like. But if you think of “evangelical” as a box to check on a census, a way to explain your social background, then of course we have to include all the members of the group, even the ones we don’t like.

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The Mess at Liberty U: Historians’ Perspectives

Even given everyone’s low expectations, the recent expose of Liberty University’s flim-flamming seems shocking. Alumnus Brandon Ambrosino accused Liberty of being a straight-up scam, not just a well-meaning Christian college with a few fundamentalist foibles. What have historians had to say about it?

LU sign on mountain

Go tell it on the mountain…

In case you’re the one person who hasn’t yet read Ambrosino’s piece, it includes “insider” rips like the following:

“We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,” said a senior university official with inside knowledge of Liberty’s finances. “We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”

What have historians of evangelicalism had to say?

Over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, John Fea of Messiah College warns that these scandals are nothing new in the world of fundamentalist empire-building. Nor do they tend to tarnish the power and influence of leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. As Dr. Fea concludes,

I imagine that many students and alumni at Liberty will see Falwell Jr. and Liberty as victims of the liberal media and other forces trying to undermine evangelical Christianity, religious freedom, and Christian nationalism in America. Liberty will remain a safe place for these parents and students.

At Righting America, William Trollinger of the University of Dayton compares the Falwell of today with the founder of American fundamentalism, William Bell Riley. Dr. Trollinger points out that Falwell’s institution is not all that unusual. As Dr. Trollinger puts it,

it is important to keep in mind that Falwell is not an anomaly. In fact, for the past century it has been a feature of fundamentalist institutions – colleges, churches (particularly megachurches), apologetics organizations, and the like – to be run by a male autocrat who holds almost total sway over his fiefdom.

For William Bell Riley in the 1930s, like Jerry Falwell Jr. today,

there were no checks on the Great Fundamentalist Leader. He said what he wanted, did what he wanted, and there was no one there who could stop him, no one who would dare challenge him. There was, for example, no one to suggest that his behind-the-scenes scheming to take control of the Minnesota Baptist Convention was unseemly and unethical.

My research into evangelical higher education has led me to similar conclusions. In Fundamentalist U, I argued that the tendency toward autocracy and eventual corruption was not a bug, but a feature of a theologically vague interdenominational fundamentalist movement. It didn’t happen at all schools, but in places like Bob Jones University and Liberty University, the answer to the dilemma of fundamentalist authority was to invest all power in a single domineering leader.

As I argued recently in these pages, back in the 1930s Bob Jones Sr. pioneered Falwell’s brand of autocratic fundamentalist leadership. At Bob Jones College,

All faculty members were required to agree with every jot and tittle of Jones’s beliefs. . . . It might never have been crystal clear what “fundamentalism” meant, but at Bob Jones College (later Bob Jones University), it always meant whatever the leader said it meant. Any disagreement, any “griping,” meant a fast ticket out the door, with a furious gossip campaign among the fundamentalist community to discredit the fired faculty member.

Are the recent revelations about Liberty sad? Yes. Dismaying? Yes. Surprising? Not to anyone who is familiar with Liberty U and the history of American fundamentalism.

The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die

It happens sometimes. Academic historians think they have consigned a myth safely to long-deserved oblivion, only to see it pop up again and again. This time, New York Times journalist Clyde Haberman repeats the tired old falsehood that conservative evangelicals only got into politics in the 1970s. What do we have to do to get rid of this misleading but popular timeline?

Gods own party

Read a book…

Here’s the story the way it is often told: White evangelicals had always steered clear of politics, but when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, conservative white evangelicals rallied against him. Jerry Falwell Sr. led them out of their churches and into polling booths to elect Ronald Reagan and become a political force.

It’s a compelling timeline, but it’s just not true.

So why do intelligent journalists keep taking the myth at face value? As Haberman puts it incorrectly,

American evangelicals had long steered clear of politics, but with the advent of Moral Majority that was no longer so.

It just didn’t happen that way. Even the celebrity historians Haberman talks to could have told him that. For example, in the long video, Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer gives the real story. In the late 1970s, Balmer explained,

For really the first time in any significant way, evangelicalism becomes interlocked with the Republican Party.

Getting into bed with the GOP is not at all the same thing as getting into politics. I thought historians such as Daniel K. Williams had long made this point clear to everyone. As Williams put it in God’s Own Party,

evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing this for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party. It was an event more than fifty years in the making.

Similarly, Matthew Sutton underlined the point that white evangelicals had never really been out of politics. As Professor Sutton put it in American Apocalypse, the “rise-fall-rebirth” story of evangelical involvement in politics was beloved by fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr., but it doesn’t match the historical record. As Sutton explained, fundamentalists’

Sutton

…for Christ’s sake!

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

I told a similar story in Fundamentalist U. Especially at Bible Institutes, the long-held and cherished myth that evangelicals were above politics is just not true. Even at the other-worldliest of schools, Moody Bible Institute, leaders in the 1920s such as James M. Gray always considered themselves ardent political operatives. Sorry to quote myself, but as I wrote in Fundamentalist U, in 1928,

When MBI’s radio station came under political pressure . . . Gray came out swinging. “The time for fighting has begun,” Gray intoned ominously. If MBI’s lawyer was not powerful enough to protect the school’s rights, Gray insisted, then the school should enlist the political support of allies such as Missouri senator James M. Reed. There was no doubt in Gray’s mind that his institution must engage with mainstream politics. Retreat and withdrawal, Gray reasoned, would compromise his school’s missionary testimony.

As the savvy historians quoted in the NYT piece are very well aware—leaders in the field such as Randall Balmer and John Fea—there has never been a time when white evangelicals were really out of politics. Rather, unique among American religious groups, America’s white evangelicals have always considered themselves both outside the world and, in America at least, the proper people to be in charge of it.

It has been white evangelical leaders who have promoted this myth that they were once outside of politics, and only reluctantly got involved in the scary secular seventies. If we really want to understand American history and politics—let alone the enormous support for Trump among white evangelicals—we need to stop re-telling this convenient evangelical myth as if it were true.

Why Didn’t Jerry Falwell Jr. Say THIS Instead?

In this era of playground taunts and adolescent boasting, Jerry Falwell Jr. seems to feel right at home. Falwell complained recently that his Liberty University should still be considered the largest Christian university in America, despite the fact that Grand Canyon University was larger. Falwell claimed that real Christian universities do something GCU doesn’t do. It seems to this reporter he could have made a much more powerful argument against GCU. I have a hunch why he didn’t.

grand-canyon-university_2015-03-23_14-34-58.004

Cactus, cross…and ka-ching?

Here’s what we know: Religion News Service recently published an acknowledgement from Liberty that GCU had “supplanted” them as America’s largest evangelical university. President Falwell wrote to RNS to complain. GCU, Falwell wrote, isn’t really “Christian,” since it doesn’t require faculty to sign an annual statement of evangelical faith.

As historian John Fea commented, Falwell’s use of “Christian” to mean only those few conservative-evangelical universities that grew out of the fundamentalist movement seems stunted.

I certainly agree. When former Liberty President Pierre Guillermin bragged in 1982 that his evangelical school planned to become “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically,” it’s difficult not to wonder what all those Notre Dame Christians might have thought. For Guillermin, Falwell, and many other conservative-evangelical leaders, the use of “Christian” to denote only their own conservative-evangelical faith seems presumptuous indeed.

However, if we accept for the sake of argument Falwell’s definition of “Christian” universities as limited only to conservative-evangelical schools, his complaint makes a little more sense. As I noted in my recent book about the history of evangelical higher education, requiring faculty annually to sign a statement of faith really HAS been a hallmark of these schools, and GCU really has abandoned that requirement in its effort to attract more students and retain more faculty.

As GCU pointed out, they require faculty to sign a statement saying they “understand” the school’s mission, but that is a far cry from the “ironclad” attempts of fundamentalist schools to ensure all faculty members agreed with their schools’ religious beliefs without any mental reservation. In contrast to that strong fundamentalist tradition, GCU claims to be a “missional community” that welcomes “students, faculty and staff from all walks of life, some of whom may experience Christianity for the first time at the university.” Unlike the conservative-evangelical schools that grew out of the fundamentalist movement—and the many denominational schools that generally consider themselves part of the conservative-evangelical network—GCU does not require faculty to “commit to affirming and practicing the same faith.”

moreton

How did capitalism, Christianity, and college combine?

So when Falwell complains that GCU isn’t really following the same playbook, he’s not wrong.

But ditching the required faculty statement of faith is not the most shocking innovation GCU attempted. When its enrollment numbers plummeted at the start of this century, GCU adopted a for-profit business model. It became Grand Canyon Education, Incorporated and focused on in-demand majors such as nursing and education. These days, with for-profit schools under scrutiny, GCU has attempted to move back to non-profit status.

So here’s my question: If Falwell wanted to prove that his “Christian” school was the biggest, why didn’t he say that GCU shouldn’t be considered “Christian” because it was a for-profit business?

And here’s my hunch: Since at least the late 1800s, American cultural conservatives have assumed that capitalism is the best sort of social system. Many conservative Christians have argued that free-enterprise systems are somehow God’s preferred way of organizing an economy. In the twentieth century, a lot of the connections between capitalism and Christianity came from the shared opposition to communism.

9780393339048_FromBibleBelttoSunbelt_PB.indd

God = Capital

The tight connections between free-market principles and evangelical ones were usually simply taken for granted. To cite just one example, the president of Gordon College promised in 1967 that his school was a place in which

youth is encouraged to have faith in the historical validity and continuity of the principles of competitive free enterprise.

As historians Darren Dochuk and Bethany Moreton have explored, some schools such as Harding College and John Brown University raised the principle of “Christian free enterprise” to an all-encompassing mission.

So it doesn’t seem crazy that President Falwell wouldn’t even wonder if adopting a for-profit status might push his rival GCU out of consideration as a real “Christian” school. At least, that’s how it looks to this reporter.

Am I missing something? Is there any other reason why Falwell would ignore the huge, obvious fact that GCU wasn’t really “Christian” if it peddled its mission for mere lucre?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week, another flood of ILYBYGTH-themed stories. Thanks to everyone who sent in tips…

What happens when computers grade essays, at Curmudgucation.

tank refurbish

My next dream job…

Rednecks bridge the racial divide, at FPR.

School reform? Or social reform? The “Loving Cities” plan, at The Progressive.

  • “promoting school choice as the solution is a distraction from the basic fact that parent income, along with interrelated racial and economic segregation, remain powerful determinants in the quality of education a child receives.”

Ixnay on ace-ray: Wisconsin school district bans talk of “white privilege,” at MJS.

I’ve found my next line of work, at PM.Bart reading bible

Historian John Fea on the coarsening of American culture, at TWOILH.

Has teaching changed? Larry Cuban reflects on the ways teachers taught in the past.

College cuts comedian’s mike. At CHE.

Loving Trump and hating the Age of Reasonthe long history of Christian politics in the US, at R&P.

Conservative commentator resigns in protest from Fox News, calling it a “propaganda machine.”

Why would a creationist praise an academic critic? At RACM.

Genetics and the new science-denial of race, at NYT.

human history map

New maps don’t start at the Garden of Eden…

March Madness and the history of anti-segregation in sports, at LSJ. HT: DW.

What’s wrong with new teacher-evaluation schemes? Peter Greene tees off at Curmudgucation.

  • Best line: “Reducing the evaluation of teacher quality to a “rigorous rubric” is not a positive. Academians and economists like it because it lets them pretend that they are evaluating teachers via cold, hard numbers, but you can no more reduce teaching to a “rigorous rubric” than you can come up with a rubric for marital success or parental effectiveness. . . . at the moment rubrics and checklists still take a back seat in most districts to Big Standardized Test scores soaked in some kind of VAM sauce.”

“Theoretical children . . . don’t fart:” At The Progressive, a call for less theory and more experience with real children.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

A holiday week didn’t slow down the news. Cussing from the Oval Office, aspirations from Oprah’s couch…it was a weird week. Here are some of the top ILYBYGTH-related stories:

President Oprah?

Why do so many white evangelicals love Trump? Darren Guerra says it’s only “Jacksonian Evangelicals,” at First Things.Bart reading bible

Want to stop school segregation? Stop attacking charter schools, says Emily Langhorne at USNWR.

Liberalism is over, by Patrick Deneen at The Spectator.

San Diego State: Lecturer took anti-white attitudes too far, at CHE.

Museum of the Bible: A “safe space for Christian nationalists,” by Katherine Stewart at NYT.

Leadership shake-up at Moody Bible Institute, at CT.

More Trump/evangelical crack-up. How did evangelicals respond to Trump’s “S***hole” comments?

Big-time college sports—the new Jim Crow. So says Victoria Jackson at LA Times.

History, not Faith

Why do so many white evangelicals support President Trump? Not just in a passive, least-worst, anyone-but-Hillary sort of way, but actively and even enthusiastically? Why have some white evangelical leaders become what historian John Fea calls “court evangelicals?” After all, President Trump is no one’s idea of a Christian. One recent argument ties evangelical Trumpism to faith, but not surprisingly, I think it has a lot more to do with historical imagination. For people who fantasize about a lost American “Shining City upon a Hill,” Trump’s “take-back-America” rhetoric punches important buttons.

Trump make america great again

It’s the hat, stupid.

Over at Religion Dispatches, Eric C. Miller interviews Kurt Andersen about Andersen’s new book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve got it ordered. It sounds fantastic and I’m looking forward to reading the whole thing.

I can’t help but spout off a little, though, about some of Andersen’s arguments in this interview. Andersen describes his explanation of the odd relationship between the starchy moralists of America’s evangelical subculture and the wildly careening leadership of President Trump. Andersen makes connections between charismatic belief and Trumpism, but I think there’s a much more obvious and important explanation. Trump appeals powerfully not to anyone’s ideas about God and worship, but rather to white evangelicals’ implicit vision of American history.

On a side note, I couldn’t help but shudder at one of Andersen’s other statements. Like a lot of pundits, he makes some major goofs about the nature of creationism these days. As Andersen puts it,

Just in the last 15 years, it has become Republican orthodoxy to disbelieve in evolution and to challenge evolution instruction in the public schools. This is a uniquely American phenomenon, and it is a product of a religious tradition that, starting about a half a century ago, decided to make that stand in favor of creationism.

I added the emphasis to point out the problem. Andersen’s not alone on this point, but he is deeply wrong. Radical creationism’s political oomph is not at all uniquely American. To cite just one example, Turkey’s government has made even more aggressive moves in favor of creationism. This is not a minor error, but a major misreading of the nature of modern creationism. As I’m arguing in my current book, following in the footsteps of the great historian of creationism Ron Numbers, radical young-earth creationism is not “uniquely American,” but rather a popular and politically potent response to the dilemma of post-modern life, worldwide and across many religions.fantasyland

That’s a big intellectual problem, but it is not my major beef with Andersen’s argument this morning. No, the real question today is about the relationship between America’s politically active white evangelical Protestant community and the shoot-from-the-hip political style of President Trump. How could it happen?

For Andersen, the connection can be tied in part to one wing of evangelical belief. For charismatic Christians, Andersen explains, belief in the unbelievable is part and parcel of their culture of dissent. Here’s how Andersen made his point, with emphasis added:

[Miller]: Then I have to ask you about Donald Trump. He is now America’s Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief, a position that he attained with support from 81 percent of white evangelicals. Does this research help account for that?

[Andersen]: It’s bizarre. It’s interesting, because he is not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian. So why is it that our most fervently Christian fellow citizens support him so strongly? Well, as you say, our most fervently Christian white citizens. I think there is something there—it suggests that there are other reasons, cultural and economic reasons, together with the religious motivations that are driving that support.

But for my purposes, within this Fantasyland template, I think that they have some things in common beyond resentment of the elites and some of these other traits that are not necessarily connected to belief in the untrue—a lack of respect and all that. But Trump has shown a unique willingness to embrace claims that are demonstrably untrue—that Barack Obama wasn’t born here and a conspiracy covered that up; that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination; that five million illegal immigrants voted against him in the 2016 election; and on and on and on. The fact that he is so indifferent to empirical reality and so willing to stand up and embrace explanations that simply confirm his pre-existing ideas or are convenient for him because they make him seem better or his enemies worse—it’s somewhat unkind, I understand, to say that he shares that tendency with religious people, but I think that is shared.

There is no evidence that people who speak in tongues are speaking a holy language. There is no empirical evidence that faith healing works. There is no real evidence that Jesus was resurrected. I could go on. So, if believing these sorts of things as a matter of faith is central to your identity, then you might identify with a guy who is willing to take strong stands on unprovable claims. If he also shares—or pretends to share—your cultural biases and resentments, then you’re going to like him! That’s about as close as I can come to explaining this strange embrace. Certainly in terms of his lifestyle, his brutal disdain for the least among us, he is so, so unchristian. I haven’t entirely figured that out—it’s another book.

Now, I agree with a lot of what Andersen has to say. I agree that “cultural biases and resentments” are the key to understanding white evangelical Trumpism. But I disagree that we can best explain Christian Trumpism by invoking “religious motivations.”

Not that there aren’t plenty of white evangelicals who justify their Trumpism in religious language. Some leaders like to say that Trump is their modern David or Cyrus. But they wouldn’t say or even allow themselves to think that they can support Trump because they already believe in unbelievable things. I get what Andersen’s saying: If you are accustomed from your religious background to a conspiratorial or fantastic mindset you are more likely to choose and support a conspiracy-theorist president. However, it’s misleading to suggest that such religiously driven beliefs are a leading explanation for Christian Trumpism.

If it’s not mainly due to their religious beliefs, why DO so many white evangelicals actively support Trump? I think Andersen is on the right track when he talks about “cultural and economic reasons,” and “cultural biases and resentments.” As I’m arguing in my new book [have you pre-ordered your copy yet?] about evangelical higher education, a leading theme in evangelical intellectual life has been the story of evangelical exile, of being kicked out of the centers of political power. Among white American evangelicals, a unique historical vision of themselves as the true Americans has fueled a century of culture-war vitriol.

From the 1920s through today, white evangelicals have been goaded and guided by this unique sense of usurpation. Unlike other powerful religious minorities, such as American Catholics, white evangelicals tell themselves over and over again that the United States used to be solidly theirs. Unlike other religious groups—even groups that are closely connected to them by theology such as African-American evangelical Protestants—white evangelicals have been sure that they deserve to claim or reclaim their role as America’s religious voice.

In short, we can’t look to theology or faith to understand evangelical Trumpism. It’s tricky, because evangelical Trumpists will explain their decisions in the language of faith. But if we listen only to such biblical justifications, we’ll miss the far-more-important real reasons for evangelical Trumpism.

For almost a century now, white evangelicals have wanted to “take back America.” Their college campuses have been seen as both citadels and havens for an imagined real America, the kind of America from which the rest of America seemed to have strayed. When a political candidate comes along and declares his wish to “make America great again,” it resonates powerfully. Just ask Reagan.

It is this history of resentment, of a sense of historical exile, of usurpation, that best explains white evangelical Trumpism.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Leaves are falling and campus speakers are speaking. What else is going on out there? Here’s our ILYBYGTH collection of stories of interest:

Almost two-thirds of colleges/universities missed their enrollment targets this year.

The Wall Street Journal agrees with Ed Stetzer. There is no call for anxiety about religious judges or other officials, they note.

Ben bucks Berkeley boos: What happened when Ben Shapiro brought his in-your-face conservatism to California?

What does it mean for a public school to be “public?” Sarah M. Stitzlein of the University of Cincinnati wonders in the pages of EdWeek.Bart reading bible

“Is this heaven?” Some Iowa schools lock bad kids away in “little dungeons,” from The Progressive.

Should we defend Professor Wax’s right to be wrong? That’s Jonathan Zimmerman’s argument at IHE.

Across the (other) pond: South Korean ministry nominee and professor of engineering testifies about his belief in a young earth.

Free-Marketeer Arthur Brooks in the NYT: Universities need to “form communities that do not just tolerate conservatives but actively embrace ideological diversity.”

Is fundamentalism roaring back? John Fea looks askance at recent developments at Southern Baptist Seminary.

Who blocks campus speakers? A reminder from IHE that progressive speakers are being shouted down, too.

…still Think “Evangelical” Is Not a Political Label?

Albert Mohler can say what he wants. To this reporter, there is a much more obvious conclusion. For those of us who struggle to understand evangelical identity, another recent poll seems like more evidence that we can’t rely on religious ideas alone.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing about it, but I can’t stop mulling it over. In my upcoming book about evangelical higher education, for example, I argue that a merely theological definition of American evangelicalism will not suffice. The reason it is so important to study evangelical colleges, universities, seminaries, and institutes—at least one of the reasons—is because these institutions make it startlingly obvious that religion and theology are only one element defining evangelical identity, sometimes a remarkably small one.

Smart people disagree. Recently, for example, Neil J. Young took Frances FitzGerald to task for over-emphasizing the political element of evangelical identity. And a few months back, John Fea called me on the carpet for over-emphasizing the culturally and politically conservative element of evangelical higher education.

And smart people will surely disagree about the implications of recent poll results from the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. To me, they seem like more proof that American evangelicals are more “American” than “evangelical,” at least when it comes to their knee-jerk responses to poll questions.

The poll asked people whether poverty was more the result of personal failings or of circumstances beyond people’s control. As WaPo sums it up,

Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.

Now, I’m not much of a Christian, and I’m not at all evangelical, but I can’t help but think that blaming the poor’s lack of effort for their poverty is not a very Christian attitude. And plenty of Christians agree with me. According to Julie Zauzmer in WaPo, African-American Christians tend to blame circumstances by large margins. The divide stretches beyond race. Democrats tend to blame circumstances. Republicans tend to blame individual failings.

Zauzmer reached out to experts to try to explain why white evangelical Christians might feel this way. She gave Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminar a chance to explain it away. And Mohler did his level best. The reason white evangelicals blame the poor for their poverty, Mohler told her, was because

The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.

I just don’t buy it. If we really want to understand why white evangelical Americans tend to blame the poor for their poverty, we are better off looking at Reagan than at Revelation, at Goldwater than at Genesis. Blaming the poor has deep political and cultural roots. American conservatives—at least since the early twentieth century—have insisted that poverty in the Land of Opportunity must be due to individual failings rather than to structural problems in society. When American evangelicals mouth such notions, they are allowing those political and cultural beliefs to speak louder than their strictly religious or theological beliefs.

If we want to understand American evangelicalism—especially among white evangelicals—we need to understand that the “conservative” half of “conservative evangelicalism” is just as vital as the “evangelical” half. We need to understand that white evangelicals are complicated people, motivated by a slew of notions, beliefs, and knee-jerk impulses.

Why did so many white evangelicals vote for Trump? Why do so many white evangelicals blame the poor for their poverty? If we really want to make sense of it, we can’t focus on the merely religious beliefs of evangelicals. We have to look at the big picture.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Your humble editor has been doubly distracted this week. My book about evangelical colleges is entering its final stages and I’ve been poring over copy-edits. Plus, we got to spend time with some long-lost family members. In the meantime, the interwebs kept spitting out stories. Here are some we might have missed, with extra history added in so you can follow along at home…

More trouble at troubled Bryan College. Long-time faculty member fired, anti-administration petition makes the rounds.

What’s wrong with Frances FitzGerald’s new book? Neil Young says it misses the real point of being evangelical.Bart reading bible

Peter Greene: Don’t believe the talk about a “teacher shortage.”

Is evangelical support for Trump a good thing for progressivism? John Fea wonders if Trumpist evangelicals are making their “Pickett’s Charge.”

From the archives: What did progressives think of William Jennings Bryan in 1945?

  • A taste: “The man who had never been a bigot associated himself with the most narrow-minded religious fanatics. The man who had been the apostle of democratic freedom and of public education had become an advocate of governmental restrictions on the freedom of learning. . . . And it’s high time some serious study was given to the social applications of Bryanism rather than of Darwinism.”

Teaching religion in Chicago’s public schools. Is the answer “religious literacy?” I’m still skeptical.

What’s the latest scheme for predatory faux-profit colleges? Fake Latin names.

From the archives: Glenn Branch gets his hands on a rare 1925 anti-evolution pamphlet.

What’s so “classical” about Classical Schools? At National Review, John Miller gives a short history and endorsement.