Are Evangelicals Unfit for Office?

Remember Larycia Hawkins? Senator Bernie Sanders does. In a recent hearing, Bernie suggested that a Wheaton College grad was unfit for office since he publicly supported his alma mater in its fight against Professor Hawkins.

During the recent presidential campaign, Candidate Sanders sounded friendlier to evangelical Protestants. He even ventured into the fundamentalist lion’s den, making a speech at Liberty University.

Down in Virginia, Bernie didn’t make a secret of his disagreement with conservative evangelical politics. But he did say some friendly things about Liberty, such as the following:

You are a school which tries to teach its students how to behave with decency and with honesty and how you can best relate to your fellow human beings, and I applaud you for trying to achieve those goals.

This week, Bernie wasn’t applauding. He suggested that any earnest evangelical was unfit for public office.

Before we get to his ferocious criticism of evangelicalism, let me say a few words of clarification: I like Bernie. I’m no evangelical myself. I’m just a mild-mannered historian who has written a book about the history of schools such as Wheaton and Liberty.

And maybe I’ve spent too much time in the archives of evangelical institutions, but Bernie’s recent accusation seemed pretty surprising to my ears. I’m at a loss to know how we should understand this situation.

Here’s what we know: according to Christianity Today, Senator Sanders was questioning Russell Vought in his hearing for his appointment in the Office of Management and Budget.

Vought is a Wheaton alum and had defended the school’s decision to initiate termination proceedings against tenured political science Professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins had sparked controversy by wearing hijab and asserting that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the “same God.”

Vought disagreed. He applauded Wheaton’s firm stance. Only evangelical Christians, Vought wrote, can truly be saved. Only through the redemptive power of Jesus’s sacrifice can people come to God. As Vought put it bluntly,

Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.

Bernie didn’t like it. He challenged Vought:

Are you suggesting that all of those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too? I understand that Christianity is the majority religion. But there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

It’s a pickle. For secular folks like me (and Bernie), Vought’s language seems pretty harsh. Is sounds as if he is damning to hell everyone who doesn’t agree with him. And, in a way, he is. But Vought’s belief is nothing radical. In fact, however, it is one of the central tenets of evangelical belief. The National Association of Evangelicals recently offered a four-point statement of basic evangelical belief:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Some evangelical pundits were quick to lambaste Bernie. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention called Bernie “breathtakingly audacious and shockingly ignorant.” Senator Sanders, Moore charged, was trying to impose an utterly unconstitutional religious test for office.

I don’t know what to think. On the one hand, I agree with Bernie. Vought seemed to make his point in a particularly offensive way, using language calculated to seem harsh and intolerant. I don’t want public officials who see non-evangelicals as somehow inferior. And there are plenty of evangelicals who agree with me. Even at Wheaton, after all, plenty of earnest evangelicals decried the school’s decision to oust Professor Hawkins.

On the other hand, Vought’s statement was nothing but basic evangelical belief. Perhaps Vought said it more loudly than people like me find polite. But Vought and anyone else is perfectly free to think the rest of us are condemned. As a religious belief, that doesn’t do me any harm. In fact, however, I am no more offended by Vought’s belief that I am condemned than I am by scientologists’ notions that I am not “clear.”

What do you think? Is Bernie right to raise the red flag? Or should Vought and his comrades be free to voice their religious beliefs loudly and proudly?

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Could This Happen at an Evangelical College?

As John Leo reports at Minding the Campus, Professor Anthony Esolen is under pressure. He’s accused of being “racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, and religiously chauvinistic.” He says he’s just being truly Catholic and accuses his Catholic college of straying. As I finish up my book on the history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education, the story brings a question to mind: Would this—could this—DOES this happen at evangelical colleges?

For those who are outside the orbit of Catholic higher education, let’s start with an inadequate primer: The Catholic Church and its schools include several different orders. Many Catholic colleges, including famous ones such as Georgetown, Boston College, and Marquette, are run by the Jesuits. Other big names, such as Catholic University and Notre Dame, are run directly by the Church. Esolen’s Providence College is Dominican. All of them are Catholic, but they have different bureaucracies and different ways of doing things.

Anthony-Esolen

Plus Catholique que L’Administration?

Why does it matter? Each order has its own history and its own theological, cultural, and educational traditions. Some tend to be more conservative; some more liberal. As a very loose and general rule, American Jesuits and Franciscans tend to be more liberal when it comes to some things. Dominicans, in my very limited experience, tend to be more conservative. But it varies enormously.

At his Dominican school, Anthony Esolen thinks that the Dominicans are not being nearly conservative enough. As he has complained,

The dirty not-so-secret is that the same people who for many years have loathed our Development of Western Civilization program — the focus of curricular hostility — also despise the Catholic Church and wish to render the Catholic identity of the college merely nominal.

In a lot of ways, it sounds like the perennial tensions at evangelical colleges. Since the early 1960s, market pressure among evangelical and fundamentalist colleges has been so great that any rumor of faculty heterodoxy at evangelical schools has been ferociously squelched by school administrators. In other words, in their life-or-death struggle to attract as many students as possible, administrators at evangelical colleges have worked hard to shut down any whiff of liberalism among their faculty. They have been terrified of alienating conservative parents and losing their tuition dollars.

And school-watchers know it. Conservative and fundamentalist critics—including trustees and celebrities—have scrutinized the goings-on at evangelical schools with a gimlet eye. In many cases, they have threatened to publicize the liberalism of evangelical schools, hoping to cow administrators into cracking down. Time and time again, evangelical administrators have taken drastic action to head off any accusation that they are no longer trustworthy.

It sounds as if Professor Esolen is working from a similar playbook. As he said on Facebook recently, “It is no longer clear to me that Providence College would qualify as ‘worth attending’.”

In the world of fundamentalist and evangelical higher education, these sorts of enrollment threats carry a great deal of weight. Young-earth creationist Ken Ham, for example, has been able to push schools to shore up their creationist credentials by wondering, in effect, if some evangelical schools are still worth attending.

But here’s where I’m puzzled. Have evangelical schools had to wrestle with professors who are too conservative? Too creationist? Too fundamentalist?

I can think of a few cases, but nothing seems perfectly analogous.

For example, take the story of Gordon Clark at Wheaton. Back in the 1930s, Clark had a sterling resume, with an Ivy League PhD. Wheaton College was happy to have him, for a while. Clark’s ferocious Calvinism, however, sat roughly with Wheaton’s interdenominational, big-tent-evangelical tradition. Clark pooh-poohed the emotional revivalism so popular among Wheaton’s students. In 1943, for instance, he dismissed a campus revival as mere “mass psychology,” not true salvation. And he disdained a popular evangelical method of Bible reading, the dispensational approach. So Clark didn’t last at Wheaton.

It’s sort of similar to Esolen’s case, but not exactly. Professor Clark never accused Wheaton of abandoning its evangelical tradition. Rather, Clark wanted evangelical students to be more rigorously conservative, more systematically Calvinist. But Clark never thought Wheaton had abandoned its Calvinist roots, because it hadn’t. Professor Clark understood that Wheaton shared the perennial problem of interdenominational evangelical schools everywhere: They wanted an impossibly generic orthodoxy.

On the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities, we mostly hear about professors who get in hot water for being too liberal, not too conservative. Most recently, for example, the case of Larycia Hawkins comes to mind. She was booted (yes, she was booted, no matter that she officially agreed to depart on her own) for wearing a hijab, bragging about it, and proclaiming that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worshipped the same God.

For all you SAGLRROILYBYGTH out there who know the world of evangelical higher education better than I do….am I missing something? Are there other conservative professors who get in trouble for being more fundamentalist than their evangelical schools? Could Professor Esolen’s dilemma be repeated on an evangelical campus? HAS it been?

One Big Unhappy Family

Normal people might be forgiven for saying ‘Enough already.’ The Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College has been poked and prodded by commentators and armchair pundits from every conceivable angle, including my own humble contribution at History News Network about Wheaton’s relevant history. But just one more word from me before I let the subject drop: Does this purge help heal the rift between fundamentalist universities?

In case you’ve been living life and not keeping with the latest, here’s a quick refresher: Professor Hawkins was fired for her statements that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Commentators have offered a full spectrum of analysis. One Wheaton professor defended his school. Crunchy conservative Rod Dreher also spoke up for Wheaton’s right to police its theological borders. A former student said Wheaton’s decision was in line with evangelical tradition. And perhaps most intriguing, historian extraordinaire Michael S. Hamilton told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Wheaton doesn’t like it when people don’t fit into its white, Northern, fundamentalist tradition.

In all the hullaballoo, I missed an important piece in this evangelical jigsaw puzzle. Just as Wheaton decided to suspend Professor Hawkins, they got some support from an unlikely source. President Steve Pettit of Bob Jones University tweeted his support for the beleaguered administration.

pettit tweet BJU supports Wheaton firing dec 2015

Are they all on the same page again?

As I noted recently, my current research into the history of evangelical colleges has revealed continuing tensions between the two schools. I won’t rehash the whole story here, but in brief, a stormy rivalry in the 1930s developed into an outright breach in the 1970s. By that point, BJU had become the flagship university of steadfast separatist fundamentalism, while Wheaton represented the best of a broader conservative evangelicalism.

Maybe things have changed. President Steve Pettit of BJU recently visited Wheaton’s campus, a remarkable thaw in the deep freeze between the two schools. Now President Pettit is extending his support to Wheaton’s “embattled” leaders in this difficult time.

What does that mean?

Might it mean that President Pettit hopes Wheaton will move closer to its fundamentalist roots? At Bob Jones University, fundamentalism had often meant ruthless purges of dissenting faculty and administration. Since its founding in the 1920s, Bob Jones University has maintained a steady record of firing anyone who does not agree with the administration. As founder Bob Jones Sr. memorably expressed it in a chapel talk,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us. We can get ‘cussin’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school. We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard. If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him! We throw him overboard. . . ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’ Gripers are not welcome here. If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

I’ve got no inside scoop here, but I can’t help but wonder: Does Wheaton’s recent faculty purge put it back on the “fundamentalist” side of this long-lived divide?

…so very angry…

I don’t get out much. I’ve been happily ensconced in my nerd cocoon for the past couple years, working on my new book about the history of conservative higher ed. So I know I’m out of touch with what normal people think and know about these things. But I’m still surprised by the venom of some recent comments about Wheaton College. Is the average person-in-the-street really so very angry about evangelical colleges?

raw story wheaton comments

…so very angry…

Here’s the background: I recently published in History News Network a few thoughts about the history behind Wheaton’s decision to terminate tenured Professor Larycia Hawkins. In short, Professor Hawkins is being fired for saying that Muslims and Christians “worship the same god.” RawStory picked up the essay.

I am floored by the level of venom in the RawStory comments thread. Of course, I know that internet comments are the abode of trolls. Still, I’m surprised by the hostility people seem to have toward Wheaton College.

Here are a couple of examples of the comments people saw fit to make:

  • I have a very special file for job applicants who graduated from religious “schools.” It is round, and lined with a plastic bag.

  • So people willingly and enthusiastically jump into sewers and then act shocked when they’re shit upon? I just don’t get it.

  • How wonderful it is receiving a degree from a Troglodyte University!

  • Hopefully Prof. Hawkins can find another position at a real school and put the memory of Holy Roller Hogwarts’ behind her.

  • I don’t get how a strict, fundamentalist college can also be an elite learning institution. In what exactly? The made up field of theology? Perhaps (heavily censured) literature and definitely rewritten history to fit the Christian angst? Home economics? Does creationism even qualify as serious subject of study? Really, what?

And there’s more!

Again, I know I live and work in an intellectual bubble. But are people in general really so very angry towards evangelical colleges? I thought people in general respected Wheaton as a top-tier evangelical school. In fact, I KNOW people do. But are they the exceptions?

Why Did Wheaton Fire Larycia Hawkins?

Did you hear the news yet?  According to Christianity Today, Wheaton College in Illinois has begun termination proceedings against tenured political science Professor Larycia Hawkins.

HNN article Larycia Hawkins

All the news that about the old…

Why?  For explanations from Professor Hawkins and Wheaton College, take a look at the Christianity Today piece.

But for historical context, check out my essay at History News Network.  In short, I argue that this kind of faculty uber-supervision is par for the course at evangelical colleges, even elite ones such as Wheaton.

Hijab & Halloween

Well, that just proves it, you might be tempted to say. When Wheaton College can suspend a tenured professor for saying that Muslims and Christians worship the “same God,” it just goes to show that the “Fundamentalist Harvard” is (still) more “Fundamentalist” than “Harvard.”

Hawkins Wheaton

Whose God?

But wait just one minute. If we look at this episode another way, we see that Wheaton’s recent strange action puts it smack dab in the mainstream of elite higher education these days.

You’ve probably seen the story by now. As Christianity Today reports, political science professor Larycia Hawkins was suspended recently. Professor Hawkins planned to wear a traditional Islamic headcovering—the hijab—during Advent this year to express her Christian solidarity with Muslims.

That’s not why she was suspended, at least not officially. The college suspended her, officially, for her statements about God. In a Facebook post on December 10, Professor Hawkins explained the reasons for her act of sartorial solidarity: “as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Non-evangelicals like me might not see the problem. But as Christianity Today pointed out, the question of Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God is intensely controversial among some Christians.

It is tempting to see this episode as proof of Wheaton’s continuing status as a school outside of the higher educational mainstream. As I’m arguing in my new book about the history of conservative evangelical higher education, however, the truth has always been more complicated. Wheaton is NOT outside the mainstream here. Rather, this is exactly the sort of action that is taking place at elite colleges across the nation.

Of course, the details are different; the specific issues are different. In Wheaton’s case, the administration acted to suspend Professor Hawkins because, in their words,

As a Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton College embodies a distinctive Protestant evangelical identity, represented in our Statement of Faith, which guides the leadership, faculty and students of Wheaton at the core of our institution’s identity. Upon entering into a contractual employment agreement, each of our faculty and staff members voluntarily commits to accept and model the Statement of Faith with integrity, compassion and theological clarity.

This final problem of “theological clarity” seems to be the rub. Wheaton’s administration said they sympathized with Prof. Hawkins’s sympathy for Muslims. But, they repeated, “our compassion must be infused with theological clarity.” Professor Hawkins, in short, was suspended for “theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.”

Obviously, no pluralist, liberal, or secular school would suspend a professor for an act of theological un-clarity. As we’ve seen over the past few months, however, elite colleges everywhere are suspending professors and administrators for actions and statements that seem inconsistent with their non-theological convictions.

Like Professor Hawkins, for example, Erika Christakis at Yale has left her teaching duties. Why? Because she wrote an email that many students found unsettling. We might say that Christakis’s suspension was due to her lack of sufficient “clarity” about her racial ideology.

Or, we might consider the case of Mary Spellman at Claremont McKenna College. Did Dean Spellman make racist comments? No, but her attempt to care for one non-white student seemed to lack clarity to many students and activists.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it. But I think it is true, and I think this episode is further proof: Mainstream colleges today are moving more toward the “impulse to orthodoxy” that has been the hallmark of conservative evangelical colleges like Wheaton.

It’s easy enough to point out differences, of course. At Wheaton, pressure came from conservative alumni and administrators. At the other schools, pressure came—at first—from students. At Wheaton, the statement of faith is explicit and official, whereas the other orthodoxies are implicit and tentative.

In the end, though, I think the parallels are striking. At elite colleges these days, instructors, students, and administrators are expected to do more than agree generally and in principle with their schools’ current orthodoxy. They are expected, rather, to agree with forceful clarity. They are expected to avoid any statement or action that “seem[s] inconsistent” with dominant moral ideas.

To this reporter, it looks as if Wheaton College continues to be more similar than different from other elite schools these days.

HT: EH