When Is a Gay Cake Enough?

Have you seen the story from Louisville? To people unfamiliar with the world of evangelical education, the story might seem incomprehensible. To this reporter, it looks like a savvy 15-year-old (and her mom) just outfoxed her school principal.

gay cake

Out, vile monster!

Here’s the little that we know: Whitefield Academy, a conservative evangelical school in Louisville, just expelled a freshman. Why? The immediate cause was that the student posted a picture of herself wearing a rainbow sweater and smiling in front of a rainbow-colored birthday cake.

Even super-conservative Christians such as Rod Dreher have expressed their disapproval. As Dreher tweeted,

Unless there’s something not in the story, this sure sounds like an idiotic, even cruel, move by the Christian school

Moreover, the story has drawn unwelcome attention to the school from other sources. Curmudgucrat Peter Greene doesn’t mind if conservative Christians embrace their values, but he does care if public tax dollars fund it. And as Greene wrote recently,

This is some first rate bluegrass bullshit (and the type preferred by Secretary DeVos). . . . the end result is exactly precisely the same as spending tax dollars on vouchers for private schools. Private schools just like Whitefield Academy.

Why would Whitefield Academy do it? I have zero inside knowledge, but my guess is that Bruce Jacobson, the head of the school, simply goofed. He played right into the student’s hands. Jacobson tried to explain that the student was not kicked out only for the cake/sweater “incident.” He explained that she had been in trouble for two years, following a series of unspecified “lifestyle violations.”

I’m guessing Jacobson overestimated his own power. He assumed people would take his word for it. Instead, he faces a teenager and her mom who know how to generate bad publicity for the school. And instead of being known in Louisville as a serious Christian school with well-behaved students, now Whitefield Academy will be known as the kooky right-wing anti-gay school who kicked out a kid for a cake.

LGBTQ and Evangelical Colleges: Can We Please Just Skip to the End?

It might sound good to some, but a recent “Fairness for All” bill will not solve evangelical colleges’ problems with LGBTQ issues. With respect to all the smart, loving, sincere supporters of these half-measures, the historical record is glaringly clear on this one. Evangelical universities cannot fudge the issue of LGBTQ rights and the issue will end up splitting evangelical institutions. Again. But evangelical tradition has plenty of room to accommodate changing times. Can we please just skip to that part of this story?

Here’s what we’re talking about: Utah Representative Chris Stewart introduced recently a “Fairness for All Act.” The bill has the ardent support of evangelical organizations such as the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. In short, the act would ban discrimination against LGBTQ persons, except at institutions that have a religious reason for discrimination or at small businesses.

Will it work? No. And not only for the usual political reasons. In short, this attempt to square the LGBTQ circle for evangelical institutions is another half-measure that will not satisfy anyone. It is similar to the ways many evangelical institutions these days make an impracticable distinction between LGBTQ “identity”—which is approved—and LGBTQ “practice”—which is not. Or the weird ruling recently at Fuller Seminary that same-sex “relationships” are okay, but same-sex “marriages” are not.

Based on the history I uncovered in the research for Fundamentalist U, these half-measures will end up being a curious footnote in the story of evolving LGBTQ rights in the evangelical world. Here’s my prediction—hold me to it—of what the end result will be.

First, though, let me be as clear as I can be on this point: I do not equate the evolving policies about LGBTQ rights with the 20th-century history of decreasing racism at evangelical colleges. The two cases are distinct. But what is similar is a central fact that many prominent historians have pointed out. Namely, evangelical Americans are still Americans, and their ideas about changing cultural norms are in line, more or less, with the rest of the country. As Daniel K. Williams put it, like many other white Americans, white evangelicals in the mid-20th century worked “to distance themselves from the overt racism that had characterized their churches.” And, as Molly Worthen argued similarly, “the moderate middle” of white evangelicalism “experienced a genuine change of heart about the meaning of skin color,” similar to what the moderate middle of white people in general experienced.

Again, racism is different from anti-LGBTQ ideas. Intelligent evangelicals will tell me that sexual morality is an inherent part of true Christianity, while racism was a deviation from true Christianity. I get that. Nevertheless, the point remains—evangelicals have shifted their ideas about LGTBQ identity along with the rest of the country. They will continue to do so.

So what will happen? If history is any guide here, we will end up with (yet another) split among evangelical institutions on this issue. Most universities will find a way to double-down on their traditional sexual morality while making room for LGBTQ rights. How? Not by today’s compromises, but rather by falling back on the heart of evangelical sexual morality, insisting that sexuality must be reserved only for monogamous marriage. The definition of “marriage,” though, will expand to include same-sex marriage. No more false distinctions between “identity” and “practice.” No more meaningless opining about the importance of sexless same-sex relationships. No, in the end, most evangelical institutions will basically embrace LGBTQ rights, but re-frame them in a traditional way, with an emphasis on marriage. Sex outside of marriage will still be forbidden. But marriage will come to include same-sex marriage.

At other schools, hard-liners will double-down on anti-LGBTQ tradition. They will not only ban same-sex relationships, but any element of LGBTQ inclusion. If necessary, they will fight against all comers, including the US government, to preserve their discriminatory anti-LGBTQ policies.

What do you think? Should we agree to meet back here in thirty years to find out if this prediction comes true?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Two big anniversaries this week and a whole lot of other stuff, too. Welcome to our weekly review of ILYBYGTH-themed stories from around the interwebs:

“How do we have a safe conversation about unsafe ideas?” Using biology class to fight racism, at NYT.

Utah Congressman introduces new LGBTQ discrimination law, at CT.

The law would prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation, including retail stores, banks, and health care service providers. Currently, under federal law and in the majority of states, LGBT people can be evicted from rental property, denied loans, denied medical care, fired from their jobs, and turned away from businesses because of their sexual orientation. . . . The Fairness for All Act exempts religious groups—both churches and nonprofits—from the anti-discrimination rules. . . . The anti-discrimination rules would not apply to for-profit businesses with 14 or fewer employees, excluding them from the definition of “public accommodation.”

chris stewart CT

Okay, so here’s the deal: No one can discriminate against LGBTQ people, unless they REALLY want to…

At what point does kooky political conspiracy theory become legally insane? At NYT.

“You’ve got a real, real tradition of insanity defense cases of very, very seriously mentally ill people who committed their crime out of some kind of utterly bizarre political motivation,” he said.

Embracing charters = embracing Queen Betsy, at WaPo.

To embrace charter schools in 2020 is to embrace Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump and other Republicans who stand to gain more politically from charter support than black communities have gained in jobs and educational benefits.

Gay pizzazz at George Fox University: RNS.

George Fox spokesman Rob Felton noted that the university already dedicates a section of its website to “Supporting LGBTQ students at George Fox.” It affirms the “dignity of every person” and calls for civility and “better communication,” but maintains that “God has intended sexual relations to be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman.”

“This is a hard and emotional issue,” Felton told RNS in an email. “It is not an ‘us versus them’ issue, it’s a ‘we’ issue. It’s personal for everyone involved. George Fox students come from various faith traditions so we understand that they may hold different views on LGBTQ issues.”

Why do nice Christians love Trump? A new insider look at RS.

[Trump] affirmed and evangelized the belief that it is not only acceptable but actually advisable to grant cultural dominance to one particular religious group. . . . “I don’t think he’s godly, Alex,” my aunt tells me. “I just think he stands up for Christians. Trump’s a fighter. He’s done more for the Christian right than Reagan or Bush. I’m just so thankful we’ve got somebody that’s saying Christians have rights too.”

What does it mean to be “evangelical?” NT Wright takes a crack at an explanation at the Atlantic.

I’ve taken the view that the word evangelical is far too good a word to let the crazy guys have it all to themselves, just like I think the word Catholic is far too good a word for the Romans to keep it all to themselves. And while we’re at it, the word liberal is too good a word for the skeptics to have it all for themselves. It stands for freedom of thought and exploration.

New international test scores are out. The USA doesn’t look so good, at NYT.

It starts by tapping into the universal anxiety about the future. . . . [but] there is no evidence to justify, let alone prove, the claim that PISA indeed measures skills that are essential for life in modern economies.

A different kind of school “choice” helps richer, whiter areas resegregate their schools, at Forbes.

In recent years, another approach has appeared–the splinter district. These occur when a community aims to secede from their current district; these new districts frequently adopt a new border that corresponds to racial and/or economic borders–a sort of school district gerrymandering. It’s white flight, without the actual flight.

nat geo pearl harbor mapPearl Harbor remembered:

nat geo attack viewThe other anniversary this week–Fifty years after Altamont, at HNN:

In what was to become, quite literally, a fatal mistake, the event organizers hired the Hells Angels motorcycle gang to serve as security guards. As noted in Joel Selvin’s book, Altamont, the biker group was hired (for $500 worth of beer) on the recommendation of Rock Scully, the Grateful Dead’s manager.

Today, the event is remembered by the shocking images of violence that occurred at the climax of the concert, as the Rolling Stones took the stage surrounded by Hells Angels. As the drug-fueled young men and women in the crowd surged forward, the leather-jacketed gang members beat many senseless with pool cues and motorcycle chains. Dozens were taken to the hospital and one young black man was stabbed to death.

Squaring the LGBTQ Circle

I thought I understood it, but this story has me stumped. I’ve wrestled with the complicated history of LGBTQ issues at evangelical universities, but I just don’t understand recent news out of evangelical flagship Fuller Seminary.

Fuller entranceHere’s what we know: The storied seminary is facing a lawsuit from a former student who was kicked out for being married to another woman. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I personally support greater LGBTQ rights at all institutions, civil and religious. But I also sympathize with the position of conservative religious schools for whom this issue poses an authentic moral conundrum.

In the twentieth century, evangelical universities had a shameful history of dealing with LGBTQ students, but so did non-evangelical ones. As historians Maggie Nash and Jennifer A.R. Silverman have argued, all sorts of universities conducted vicious purges of non-heterosexual students in the middle of the twentieth century.

In this century, many evangelical institutions have come to an uneasy and awkward position on LGBTQ rights. At many universities, for example, LGBTQ identity is welcomed, but LGBTQ “practice” is not. To my mind, this is not a very sustainable position. It feels like a temporary holding plan until institutions decide whether to support LGBTQ rights or to oppose them.

I don’t support that compromise, but at least I understand it. What I don’t understand is the position taken by Fuller Seminary. According to the LA Times,

Though the college does allow same-sex relationships, it does not allow “homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct” and has made clear that it believes sexual intimacy is reserved for a marriage between a man and a woman….

What is the distinction here? Did the reporter maybe just muddle the explanation of Fuller’s true position? Or maybe does Fuller allow students and faculty to be engaged in non-sexual same-sex relationships? That would explain the distinction between “same-sex relationships” and “homosexual sexual conduct.” In effect, that would be just another, more complicated way of stating the distinction between identity and practice made by several universities.

But even if that’s the explanation, it doesn’t seem to make sense in this case. How would Fuller know that the expelled student was engaged in “explicit sexual conduct” with her wife? According to the article, the student was expelled when her same-sex marriage was discovered by Fuller’s administrators. As everyone knows, however, there have been plenty of celibate marriages. That leads me to wonder if there is some other distinction being made in this case. Perhaps the problem comes from the student’s marriage. Maybe by Fuller’s definition, a “marriage” automatically implies “sexual conduct.” . . . ?

I’m honestly stumped. Can anyone explain it?

From the Archives: Why Chik-fil-A’s LGBTQ Decision Feels a Lot Like Evangelical Anti-Racism

It’s different. I get that. But this week’s furor over Chik-fil-A’s decision to defund anti-LGBTQ Christian groups feels a lot like the debates about race and racism among white evangelicals back in the late 20th century. This morning, I’d like to share one episode from 1970-71 that feels eerily familiar to this week’s Chik-fil-A story.chik fil a protest

Here’s what we know: The chicken chain is doing great, apparently. Chik-fil-A is now the world’s third biggest fast-food chain, after Starbucks and Micky D’s. But its anti-LGBTQ reputation has limited the chain’s growth. As a result, Chik-fil-A announced this week that it will no longer donate to the Salvation Army or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They will direct their philanthropy instead to groups with no anti-LGBTQ reputation.

Conservatives have reacted with predictable outrage. As crunchy conservative Rod Dreher put it,

I love Chick-fil-A, but it’s going to be a while before I go there again. This is nothing but gutless surrender.

Former Governor Mike Huckabee agreed, tweeting,

Today, @ChickfilA betrayed loyal customers for $$. I regret believing they would stay true to convictions of founder Truett Cathey. [sic] Sad.

huckabee chik fil a tweetConservative pundits are not wrong when they complain that moral orthodoxy about LGBTQ rights has changed rapidly. They can claim to agree with President Obama, c. 2008, when he still opposed same-sex marriage. They can insist, like Rod Dreher, that their recently moderate opinions have turned them suddenly into “pariahs.”

That’s all true enough, but from a historical perspective the current LGBTQ debates sound hauntingly familiar. Conservatives won’t relish the comparison, but today’s rapidly shifting mainstream attitudes toward LGBTQ rights feel very similar to shifting racial attitudes after World War II. As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, evangelical universities scrambled to keep up with those changes.

This morning I’d like to share more of a story that I didn’t have room to include in the book. One episode in particular seems relevant to today’s battle over the moral status of LGBTQ rights among conservative Christians.

The institution was the Moody Bible Institute, the year was 1970, and the moral question was racial segregation. MBI had invited fundamentalist celebrity John R. Rice to be a featured speaker at its annual Founder’s Day celebration. Rice had attracted notoriety recently for supporting the racial segregation at Bob Jones University.

Members of the MBI community protested. As one anonymous letter put it,

Dr. John R. Rice is an acknowledged racist.  Earlier this year, he invited Lester Maddox, also a racist, to speak at the Sword of the Lord anniversary.  Also, he published in his magazine why Bob Jones University refuses to admit Negroes.  By other statements in the article, he showed clearly his racist position.  We Do Not Want HIM IN CHICAGO.  If you bring him here to speak, we will have one of the biggest demonstrations Chicago has ever seen.  We will have all the publicity we need, radio, television, press, plus public demonstration of course every day of the conference, especially when he is going to speak and on the Alumni Day No matter what reason you have for bringing him here, there will be a demonstration by radical groups Let him stay down South with his racist companions.  You can get all the police and protection, we are still coming.  We are not coming to cause trouble.  We are trying to ‘help’ you wipe out racism.  We ‘love’ John R Rice too much to allow him to dehumanize himself here.  IF you IMMEDIATELY drop his name from the list of speakers, and PUBLICLY declare this IMMEDIATELY, then there will be no demonstration.  BUT again if you don’t, we are coming, black and white included.

What did MBI do? After consideration, the administration of William Culbertson agreed. They canceled Rice’s invitation. The manuscript of Culberton’s public statement shows how fraught the decision was. He went over and over the wording, cutting out sections that he thought would be too provocative. The things he cut are telling. Why, for example, might he have cut the phrase “of any kind?” Here’s the next-to-final draft, with edits included:

The Moody Bible Institute has for eighty-five years welcomed young people of all races and nationalities to its tuition-free training in the Bible.  Through times of changing social mores the policy has always been to emphasize the salvation from God by which all men who believe are made one in Christ.  We have sought, and do seek, to apply the spiritual principles set forth in the Word of God to the practical problems of our culture.  We believe that there is nothing in the Bible that forbids interracial relationships of any kind.

                In the present period of surging change we are grateful that among our racially mixed student body there seems to be little or no dissent, though some former students recently involved in civil rights activities have felt that we might have taken a more leading role than we have.  We are absolutely opposed to injustice and exploitation of any kind.  We are dedicated to the proposition that we are debtors to all men.

Just as with Chik-fil-A’s recent decision, MBI’s decision to disinvite a fundamentalist segregationist did not end the matter. The archival files are full of passionate letters in support of Rice and in support of MBI’s decision to disinvite him.

As one alum protested,

In cancelling Dr. Rice from this Conference you have robbed the Founder’s Week guests from great blessings, insulted a great man of God, and lost an opportunity to re-affirm the posture of Moody Bible Institute…[sic ellipsis in original] which by the way is in some question already, and more so now. … Last March, while attending a Pastor’s Conference in Hammond, I had dinner in the sweetshop at Moody.  To my surprise the students for the most part were mop-headed and unkept and were hardly what one would think of as Ambassadors of Christ. . . . I know that your action has alienated me, my wife and my church.

Other members of the expansive MBI community celebrated. As one faculty member wrote,

I have never been prouder to be a member of the Moody Bible Institute faculty.

The files in Culbertson’s archives are full of similar pro- and anti- letters about the decision to ban John R. Rice. The controversy proved so heated that MBI ended up canceling its entire Founder’s Day celebration for 1971. There just was no way they could continue without an embarrassingly public dispute about their moral commitment to racial integration.

anti john rice demonstration warning letter

Evangelical anti-racism, c. 1970. Does this smell like today’s Chik-fil-A?

It’s impossible not to hear echoes of the 1970 debate at MBI in today’s debate at Chik-fil-A.

We need to be careful, of course. The history of racism and segregation cannot be simply equated to today’s LGBTQ debates. The process by which evangelical institutions make these decisions, however, seems remarkably similar.

When mainstream moral values change, conservative evangelical institutions have difficult decisions to make. Do they go along with the changes? Do they re-examine their own moral assumptions in the light of changing social mores? Or do they stick to their guns, deciding that traditional ideas about issues such as racism and sexuality are in fact part of their compromise-proof religious commitment?

Why Do Scientists Defend Some LGBTQ Rights and Not Others?

Okay, all you science nerds—what do you make of this story? It raises a couple of big questions. First: among mainstream scientists, is anti-LGBTQ Christianity really more objectionable than anti-mainstream-science Christianity? And are some kinds of anti-LGBTQ religion more objectionable than others?GSA baylor adHere’s what we know: Two professional scientific organizations recently pulled job ads from Brigham Young University. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America yanked the ads because BYU discriminates against LGBTQ students and faculty.

I have my own strong opinions about this sort of move.* This morning, though, we’re not talking about me. Rather, we need to examine a couple of questions raised by this move. The first question is the most obvious, and it was raised by some faculty members at BYU. Namely, why is Brigham Young University being singled out for exclusion? The GSA, at least, still apparently welcomes ads from other universities that discriminate against LGBTQ students.baylor creationism

By accepting an ad from Baylor University—which has an explicit anti-LGBTQ “practice” policy—the GSA seems to be differentiating between types of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Why?

The decision to nix the BYU ads raises another troubling question: Would these science organizations take ads from institutions that dispute mainstream science itself? Though Baylor quickly reversed course, in the early part of this century it established a creationist science center on its campus. According to at least one report, President Robert Sloan tried to impose a religion litmus test on new faculty. As one participant later recalled,

Jim Patton, a professor of neuroscience, psychology, and biomedical studies and former chairman of his department, remembers sitting in on an interview with Sloan and a candidate for a psychology position. The young scholar was asked whether he went to church and read the Bible. When he answered yes, he was then asked the topic of that week’s Sunday school lesson and which theology texts he was currently reading. “If precise answers weren’t acceptable,” Patton told me, “folks weren’t allowed to work here.” Many professors came to feel that Sloan was filtering out everyone but the fundamentalists.

Baylor may have changed course in terms of creationism. But when the university was pushing a different kind of science, would the GSA or AGU have accepted ads from Baylor? Or would these professional organizations have made the same protest against alternative-science institutions that they make against (one) anti-LGTBQ one? And what about now?

These problems lead us to our questions of the day. What do you think:

  1. Should professional organizations discriminate against discriminating colleges?
  2. Should they be more consistent and ban Baylor, too? (And other anti-LGBTQ schools)?
  3. Should they defend mainstream science with the same vim that they use to defend LGBTQ rights?

____________________________________________________________________________________________

*In general, I support this sort of professional activism. I agree that anti-LGBTQ policies put institutions outside the realm of mainstream thinking. If religious institutions want to engage in anti-LGBTQ policies, that is their right, but such policies should not be supported by public money. And other institutions, such as these professional societies, are well within their rights to exclude discriminatory colleges. I personally would support such a move by my closest professional organization, the History of Education Society (US). But just to make sure everyone dislikes me, I also advocate more freedom for students to participate in discriminatory student groups.

Can Big-Time Sports Do It Again?

[Editor’s Note: Well, they went down in flames, but Liberty football gave it a good go yesterday against Brigham Young University. As commentators scrambled to explain the cultural significance of this gridiron contest, I thought it might be worth rerunning this piece from last year. As Liberty U climbs the peaks of college respectability, it will find itself paying a higher and higher price for its stubborn refusal to accept other parts mainstream higher-ed normalcy.  We’ve seen that Liberty faces some unique pressure in its quest to retain top faculty. Will its dream to become the “Notre Dame” of the evangelical world lead it to a different sort of conformist pressure?] liberty v byu

I never thought I’d see it, but here it is. Following Brigham Young University’s tentative opening to LGBTQ+ students and issues, could the same spark change things in evangelical higher ed? After all, schools like Liberty have long yearned to follow the BYU path in one crucial area.

BYU LGBTQ

Here’s what we know: Liberty University in particular has always jonesed for recognition as a leading university, and sports has always been one of its preferred qualifications. As President Pierre Guillermin put it awkwardly in 1982, Liberty wanted to be “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.”

Of course, the Catholic leaders of Notre Dame might say that they already ARE the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically, but let’s move on. The central point is that leaders of evangelical higher education have always wanted recognition as more than just niche colleges; they have always wanted to reclaim their role as the leaders of American higher education overall.

When Liberty brilliantly and ruthlessly capitalized on the possibilities of online education, current president Jerry Falwell Jr. did not invest the money back into Liberty’s online program. No, Falwell tried to make the old Liberty dream come true. He poured money into traditional campus amenities, especially including Liberty’s athletic program.

This year, the investment paid off. Liberty beat top-ranked Baylor in football, triggering a joyous campus-wide freak-out. Which leads us to our question: Will the dream of big-time sports force Liberty to open itself to friendlier LGBTQ+ policies?

After all, that’s what seems to be happening at Brigham Young. As Chronicle of Higher Ed reports this morning, BYU’s recent tentative opening to LGBTQ+ students was sparked by BYU’s lust for athletic recognition.

As CHE recounts,

In 2016, the Big 12 Conference announced it was officially considering expansion. BYU’s administrators and athletic director jumped at the chance to join. But publicly vying to join the conference brought on national criticism of the university, which observers said did not uphold the NCAA’s stated support of inclusivity because of its treatment of LGBTQ students.

After the university’s effort to join the Big 12 failed, Tom Holmoe, the athletic director, suggested that pushback from LGBTQ advocate groups stood in its way. In response, BYU requested an invitation to the NCAA’s annual Common Ground conference, an effort begun in 2014 to provide a place where leaders and students at religious institutions can talk about LGBTQ issues and “begin exploring how to bridge these gaps and find common ground.”

Might Liberty follow a similar path?

Generations of Christian pleading for equality and recognition have scored only minor victories. As I noted in my recent book and in these pages, administrators at evangelical colleges—even the more liberal schools—are under intense pressure not to change their rules about same-sex issues.

Perhaps it will take a different sort of pressure from a different direction to really change things in evangelical higher education.

What Do Radical Creationists Really Care About?

Sure, creationists care about creationism. But as SAGLRROILYBYGTH know well, radical creationists these days tend to talk a lot more about other culture-war issues. (What counts as “radical” creationism? Check out the classification system I’m using in the new book.)

what do radical creationists care about

Ken Ham’s tweets categorized: October 4, 2019–November 4, 2019.

This morning, I got curious about the relative emphases different issues got by radical creationists, so I did an unscientific little test. I perused the tweets of young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis for the past month. I noted the top issue in each of Ham’s threads.

In some cases, issues could have been counted in different ways, but I limited each thread to what I thought was presented as the most important issue. For example, in recent tweets about the AIG Pastors’ Conference, Ham tweeted about both the topic of the conference–racism–and the proceedings of the conference. I placed each tweet in only one category, based on my reading of what Ham was presenting as the most important issue.

The results are not very surprising to people who follow the goings-on at Answers In Genesis. Sure, AIG cares about promoting its flashy Ark Encounter and Creation Museum. But by far the most important issue–at least in terms of tweet volume–is the threat posed by LGBTQ rights. Just over a quarter of Ham’s tweets warn followers of the dangers of Drag Queen Story Hour, same-sex marriage, and transgender equality.

So what? It’s not news, really, that Ken Ham should primarily be understood as a fundamentalist minister who draws a culture-war line based on young-earth creationism, rather than as a science activist who happens to have conservative religious beliefs. This tweet-chart only demonstrates the way Ham’s focus these days is anti-LGBTQ first, creationism second.

Is Trump the Real Menace to Evangelical Higher Ed?

We’ve had a lot to talk about this week. When Beto O’Rourke told CNN he would try to revoke the tax-exempt status of any religious institution that didn’t recognize same-sex marriage, he set off a firestorm among the evangelical-higher-ed community. As two Democratic congresspeople pointed out this week, though, the bigger threat to evangelical higher ed might actually be coming from a very different direction.

As SAGLRROILYYBYGTH are aware, the discussions at evangelical universities and colleges about LGBTQ rights have been intense. By stating that he would revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that did not recognize same-sex marriage, O’Rourke raised the specter of Bob Jones University v. USA. Back in the 1980s, that SCOTUS case proved that the government really could deny tax-exempt status to schools that insisted on maintaining racial segregation. Might the government make a similar move about LGBTQ rights?

Evangelical intellectuals reacted furiously. As John Fea commented,

Beto has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination. His campaign has been on life support for a long time and last night he probably killed it.  You better believe that his comment will rally the Trump base and legitimate the fears of millions of evangelical Christians.

In my opinion, too, Beto’s comment was a poorly considered response to a badly worded question. I’m no evangelical, but like Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta, I disagree with Beto on two counts. First of all, the government should not be in the business of policing religious belief. (When we want to talk about federal funds for student loans, we will need to have a different conversation.) Second, though, simply strategically, Beto goofed. In short, when the clown car of Trumpism is on fire, opponents should do everything they can to help people escape. It makes no strategic sense to lock people in.

Unnoticed in all the hubbubery about Beto’s comments, though, two Democratic congresspeople this week sent a letter to Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos. Representatives Andy Levin of Michigan and Jamie Raskin of Maryland complained that the Trump administration was selectively enforcing its rules about campus free speech.

As they noted, President Trump signed an executive order threatening to withhold grants from universities that do not welcome free speech. The idea was to punish public universities such as the University of California that de-platformed conservative speakers. As the congresspeople noted, however, the worst offenders against campus free speech are conservative evangelical colleges like Liberty University.

As the Congresspeople complained,

Despite Executive Order 13864, which directs the Department to ensure institutions promote free inquiry, you have failed to act in cases of suppression of ideas that involve the administration’s political allies, such as Liberty University.

It’s not just Liberty U., which by any standards is an outlier in the field of evangelical higher ed. As I’ve argued in these pages and in Fundamentalist U, free speech presents a unique challenge to conservative evangelical higher education as a whole. Restrictions on speech and belief are the defining feature of evangelical universities. Unlike mainstream colleges, evangelical colleges do not claim to represent forums for all sorts of controversial ideas.

liberty letter devos

Dear Queen Betsy:

Threatening to revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that don’t believe in same-sex marriage might sound scary to conservative evangelicals. But Trump’s warning to revoke student grants from institutions that don’t recognize free-speech rights should be of more immediate concern. To be fair, Trump’s executive order specified that private institutions should only be pushed into

compliance with stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech.

Presumably, that wouldn’t help Liberty much, but it would give cover to conservative evangelical colleges that respect their own official rules restricting student and faculty speech. However, in the big picture, by threatening to take federal action against schools that restrict free speech, Trump might be planting the seeds of a longer-term problem for evangelical institutions.

After all, the language of LGBTQ rights has some wiggle room. Plenty of evangelical institutions could plausibly claim to recognize the rights of LGBTQ students and faculty while still embracing their religious skepticism about LGBTQ “practice.”

When it comes to free speech, however, evangelical universities have been built on a promise of restriction. If they were forced to abandon those rules, it would force them to give up the biggest single feature that distinguishes them from mainstream higher ed. It is free speech, not LGBTQ rights, that is the most important thing separating evangelical colleges from others.

Beto is talking a lot, but the real danger to evangelical higher ed might come from the other side. It might be Trump, in the end, who blunders into undermining the very foundation of evangelical higher ed.

A Dangerous Payday for Evangelical Colleges?

Is it worth it? Evangelical college-watchers are agog about a huge new donation to Gordon College in Massachusetts. I have to wonder if this is part of a new culture-war playbook for evangelical higher ed. Will the hidden costs of this largesse end up being too steep? After all, back in the 1960s, Gordon’s faculty turned down this kind of financial support.

Here’s what we know, and it’s not much: Christianity Today reports an anonymous donation of $75.5 million to Gordon. As CT describes, this is a very unusual event in the world of evangelical higher education. Only a handful of evangelical universities have ever received gifts this large.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH will recall, this comes on the heels of Gordon’s recent belt-tightening announcement. Last May, Gordon restructured its academic offerings. Faculty were let go, budgets were cut. It wasn’t a stretch to wonder how long Gordon would survive.

Now, for a little while at least, the financial wolf seems to have been chased from Gordon’s door. We don’t know why, but it seems fair to assume that the anonymous donor wanted to see Gordon continue its evangelical mission.

We’re only guessing, but it seems reasonable to assume that the donor might have shared the belief that Gordon played a unique role in its region. As CT described,

[Gordon]’s both a well-known liberal arts college among Christians and an evangelical bastion in increasingly secular New England, surrounded by some of the most competitive, prestigious universities on the planet.

“We’re, respectfully, a city on a hill in this part of the world,” [President D. Michael] Lindsay said. “When our chapel services meet, it’s one of the largest gatherings of evangelical Christians in the Northeast. We’re the largest evangelical employer in six states.”

I agree with President Lindsay. His school really does represent a lonely conservative evangelical voice in the Boston metro area. Under his leadership, Gordon has tacked in more conservative culture-war directions. Five years ago, President Lindsay affirmed Gordon’s established policy against sex outside of heterosexual marriage. And at the time, some conservative evangelicals offered Lindsay some advice that turned out to be prophetic. As one conservative writer wrote in 2014,

To Michael Lindsay, the gifted president of Gordon, and to the board of trustees, I remind you: Many eyes are watching you, knowing that the decisions you make could either strengthen or dishearten many other schools that will soon be put under similar pressure.

I have no idea who Gordon’s anonymous benefactor might be, but I can’t help but wonder: Is this huge gift meant to keep President Lindsay’s evangelical “city on the hill” alive and kicking? …to maintain a conservative evangelical citadel in New England? Was the donor one of the many people watching Lindsay back in 2014, and is this donation a result of Lindsay’s conservative stances?

If so, it presents a difficult dilemma for evangelical college leaders worldwide. Yes, taking a firm political stand might earn you huge donations like this one. But they also change inexorably the mission of your school. Instead of focusing primarily on educating young people in evangelical ways, Gordon might now be tempted to organize itself in ways that satisfy big culture-war supporters.

Again, all this is pure speculation at this point. However, none of it seems outlandish. And the danger is clear: If evangelical colleges tack to the political right to attract big donors, will they be able to continue their traditional mission of providing excellent liberal-arts educations to new generations of evangelical students?

In the twentieth century, the faculty at Gordon College rejected attempts to transform their school into a merely politically conservative institution. Today, the power on Gordon’s campus has clearly shifted. Will Gordon and other evangelical colleges resist the allure of a big payday, if it means watering down their traditional liberal-arts focus?