Why Jimmy Carter?

If you didn’t know much about Liberty University or conservative evangelical higher education, you might be surprised to hear that President Jimmy Carter will be giving the commencement address at Liberty this year.

Trump at liberty

Glories of past Liberty commencements…

For SAGLRROILYBYGTH, it makes perfect sense. I lay out my case this morning at The Conversation why Jerry Falwell Jr. would want President Carter to come to Lynchburg.

Why would he? Click on over and check it out. Let me know if you think I’m off base.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

What a week–dancing on graves, predatory Liberty, and chicken controversies. Here are some of the biggest stories:

Another view of conservative sex ed: A review of Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body at FT.

Wow: What NYC looked like in 1911, thanks to restored Swedish film.

White evangelicals and Trump: Greg Carey reviews John Fea’s Believe Me at RD.

Chik-fil-A’s “creepy infiltration” of New York.

Did “lax discipline policies” cause the Parkland school shooting? RCI.

How Liberty Online U. got so big, at NYT.

Here’s a weird one: Michigan high school closed after Confederate-flag-waving trucks parked outside. At DN.

And it gets even weirder–I missed this story when it first came out, but schools in my neighborhood are arming students with buckets of rocks to repel invaders. At Reuters. HT: SMSL.

Lovin Trump: White evangelical support higher than ever, at PRRI.PRRI-Trump-Favorability-and-white-evangelicals-2015-2018-1-1024x683

Are we dancing on graves now? The Randa Jarrar/Barbara Bush story. HT: MM.

What They Missed about Liberty Online

Want to understand evangelical higher education these days? Then you need to read the recent exposé of Liberty University’s online program in the New York Times. But when you do, remember that they left out a central piece of the picture.

moody literature mission

Early distance-learning programs at MBI claimed to reach the world with cutting-edge technology, c. 1947. These “mountaineers” got free Gospels if they read them in school. And, yes, that is their school building.

The Liberty Online story is a big one. As the Times article describes, Liberty now claims $2.5 billion (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) in net assets, largely from its online department. Because Liberty is a non-profit, it is not subject to the same oversight as for-profit schools such as Corinthian and the University of Phoenix.

Some online students, the article describes, felt pressured to sign up and ripped off with the results. As one unhappy former Liberty student told the Times,

What’s killing me is that I went into this program to try to change my situation . . . and I’m worse off than I was at the beginning.

It’s an ugly story. There is no doubt that Liberty’s online program has been a cash cow. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, there’s also no doubt that Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. has plowed his online profits back into the brick-and-mortar campus. Sports, star faculty, and campus facilities all get plenty of funding. Recently, the Liberty football squad used that money to fulfill one of the school’s long-standing dreams by defeating top-ranked Baylor.

But the Times story leaves out a crucial part of the historical context. The way they put it, Liberty’s online program came about as part of an experiment, an “educational novelty.” As the article explains,

One educational novelty that Falwell dabbled in, starting in the mid-’70s, was an early form of distance learning. Liberty would mail lecture videotapes and course packets to paying customers around the country — at first just certificate courses in Bible studies, and by the mid-’80s, accredited courses in other subjects as well.

The inspiration, according to the NYT, was the work of John Sperling and the University of Phoenix. I don’t doubt that President Falwell Jr. admired Sperling’s business model. I don’t dismiss the importance of the notion that Falwell has treated his school, as he told NYT, “like a business.”

However, if we really want to understand Liberty’s online success, we have to also understand its context as part of the history of evangelical higher education. It is difficult for some secular people (like me) to notice or acknowledge, but evangelical schools and missionary institutions have always led the way with finding new ways to use new technology to deliver distance education.

letterhead from BGC 3

Check out the 1950s-era “high-tech” logo! More evidence of the evangelical obsession with technology and distance learning, from Fuller Seminary, c. 1956.

Perhaps the best example might be the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. No matter the decade, no matter the technology, the Moody educational empire has found ways to expand its reach using new technological means. The drive is obvious: For MBI and other evangelical institutions, the primary goal is to deliver the Gospel to as many human eyes and ears as possible, as fast as possible. If new technology will help accomplish that mission, all the better.

To note just a few of the best-known programs, MBI was a pioneer in early radio, with its WMBI established in 1926 to bring the Word to the world. By 1940, WMBI’s Radio School of the Bible had over 10,000 registrants. In 1942, WMBI claimed to broadcast its programs through 187 radio stations across the USA, Canada, China, and Latin America.

In the 1940s, MBI set up its Moody Institute of Science, distributing missionary science films to a wide audience.

At the same time, MBI carried out less-well-known distance-learning programs as well. As I discovered in the MBI archives, from the 1920s through the 1960s the Moody Literature Mission delivered millions of books and tracts to readers throughout the country and throughout the world.

The point of these distance-learning programs was always the same. MBI, like all evangelical colleges and universities, had a mission of missions. It was dedicated to training young people to carry the Gospel around the world. And, unlike some people’s image of stuffy Luddite conservatives, evangelical institutions were always pioneers in every type of technology: print, radio, film, and internet.

So when the Jerry Falwells experimented with distance education, they weren’t innovating at all, really. Rather, they were merely continuing the long tradition of evangelical higher education—using all available means to deliver the Gospel around the world.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Spring still feels pretty far away up here in the woods. Here are some stories that kept us occupied this past week:

Trumpism and the authoritarian personality, at NYT. HT: HD.

Speak no revival: Liberty bans talk of RedLetterRevival, at RNS.

FBI, MLK, and the first televangelist, at R&P.

ok teacher march

Teachers march in OK.

  • “History does not repeat itself, but often, it does rhyme. Today, the White House has an evangelical advisory board and a coterie of televangelists to march alongside the executive branch. Are the African American members of President Trump’s evangelical advisory council the modern day Michauxs?”

How do radical creationists change their mind? Not by argument, at RD.

  • “However well-intentioned you are, bludgeoning people with fact after argument after fact will only entrench them in their position and reinforce a perception of being persecuted by the world.”
  • How can creationists refuse to acknowledge scientific evidence? Easy, at ILYBYGTH.

Arizona’s up-and-coming Betsy Devos clone, at NR.

Why don’t Americans care more about World War I? At The Guardian.

Shocking: Mother uses stun gun to wake her teenager for Easter services. At RNS.

LGBTQ at evangelical colleges: Author interview at IHE.

Hullabaloo at Taylor, too.

Oh my: New flat-earth poll finds only 2/3 of young people “confident” that the earth is a sphere, at LS.

Too far for the Atlantic: Kevin Williamson fired for advocating hanging women who had abortions.

Sweepin Down the Plains: Oklahoma teachers march 110 miles, at NBC.

Are college history classes teaching students to be critical thinkers? Erm…not really, says Stanford’s Sam Wineburg at IHE.

Censorship at Christian Colleges

Want to get fired? Try this: Run a controversial story in a newspaper at an evangelical college. This week, Liberty University’s Erin Covey complains that her reporting is being blocked. She’s not the first student reporter to have this experience. On the contrary, student editors have always worked under constant threat.

At issue today is an anti-Trump/anti-Falwell revival going on near Liberty University. Shane Claiborne and his progressive evangelical allies are hosting a Red Letter Revival service, challenging Liberty’s president to join them or change his “toxic” Trump-loving ways.

When student reporter Erin Covey shared her coverage of the revival with Liberty’s leaders, she was told to squelch the story. As she tells it, Liberty’s administration told her,

No let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.

Covey plaintively wondered,

We often wonder: Do other private schools deal with this? What are the levels of freedom that other school papers have? Do we have the same freedoms — is this common?

When it comes to school newspapers—including student newspapers–censorship and content control have been universal practices in the history of evangelical higher education. As I describe in my recent book, this has been true at all evangelical schools, no matter how liberal or how conservative.

Earnestine Ritter

How to get fired at Biola, c. 1957.

Why? Let me share one example from Biola that exemplifies this tradition. In 1957, editor Lloyd Hamill took a strong anti-segregation position. He excoriated white evangelicals who opposed racial integration. As he put it,

No Spirit-controlled Christian can escape the solid fact that all men are equal in God’s sight.  Integration is not only the law of our nation, it is also the plain teaching of the Bible.

Biola, Hamill wrote, didn’t only endorse integration. It practiced it, employing an African American journalist on staff. A deluge of letters flooded Biola. More than 90% of them attacked Hamill’s position, though a few supported him. What did Biola’s administration do? As Biola’s president explained privately to Billy Graham. Hamill was sacked immediately. Biola did not want to endorse

the very foolish letters he wrote and statements which he made.

Granted, the situation is somewhat different. Hamill worked at the college’s magazine, not a student publication. But I think the rule still holds.

Why do evangelical colleges censor their publications so rigorously? Why can’t Erin Covey cover an anti-Falwell revival?

It’s not an accident and it’s not only Liberty. All evangelical colleges live under constant scrutiny. The evangelical public is always wondering if school X or Y has gone soft. The publications coming out of schools—including student newspapers—have always received endless scrutiny from interested members of the evangelical public.

Whatever appears in a student newspaper is often taken to represent more than one student’s opinion. It is taken, at heart, to represent the current moral climate of the school. For students like Erin Covey and editors like Lloyd Hamill, the result is clear: Don’t rock the boat.

Thanks, CHE!

No, no, no, not THAT Che. I mean the Chronicle of Higher Education. Peter Monaghan recently featured my new book in their pages.

CheHigh

urm…different CHE.

Monaghan put his finger squarely on several of the most important issues in the world of evangelical higher education.

For example, as Monaghan explains, the world of evangelical higher education is not somehow trapped in the past. As he puts it,

Many newcomers to the inner workings of fundamentalist Christian colleges are surprised to learn that the institutions consider themselves not just righteous but also thoroughly “modern.”

The differences between evangelical and non-evangelical higher education is therefore not as stark as some outsiders might think. As Monaghan concludes,

Like elite secular institutions . . . fundamentalist ones seek to thrive by “developing a niche that they can exploit,” selling themselves as “experiences” that transform young people. They describe themselves as hubs of academic endeavor, with prospectuses little different from those of their nonreligious peers. Leaders also promote their institutions’ distinguishing features, like size, location, and sports programs, aware that evangelical families want to provide their children with more than doctrinal guidance during their college years.

Almost makes you want to read the whole book, don’t it?

Trumpist Towers? Or Critical Colleges?

I’ve said it before and now I’m saying it again: Trumpism speaks to long traditions among white evangelicals. And time and again, evangelical colleges have been the institutional homes of Trump-like yearnings to “make America great again.” As I argue this afternoon over at Religion Dispatches, however, evangelical colleges have also played another key role.

RD screenshot

Are evangelical colleges bastions of Trumpism? Or are they the only places evangelicals can turn to find out what’s wrong with loving The Donald?

I won’t give away the entire argument. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be bored to tears with the topic and you can read the whole thing if you’re interested. But I will say that it’s no surprise that President Trump loves Liberty University. It’s also no surprise, however, that the Liberty community isn’t sure if they love him back.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

From “creationist” neo-confederates to whiskey-drinkin tooth-pullers, this week had it all. Here are some of the articles that riled us:

Is there an intellectual wing to Trumpism? Daniel McCarthy reviews some conservative contenders at American Conservative.

Should college students have to PAY for speakers they disagree with? Hechinger looks at the fight over mandatory student fees.

Wow! Whatta week for in-depth profiles of ILYBYGTH personalities:

John Kelly’s comments generated a lot of culture-war heat.Bart reading bible

Does THIS count as school segregation? Or is it just a reasonable attempt to reward good behavior?

Ouch. The Nation profiles the painful lengths people go to in Tennessee when they lack dental insurance. Spoiler: It includes “pliers, chisels, and whiskey.”

Schools on a Mission

Why go to college? For most Americans, “college” is about a bunch of things all bundled together. People want to prepare for white-collar jobs. They want to watch football and engage in hijinks. They want to have an “experience” that they hear will shape the rest of their lives. In my new book about evangelical higher education, I’m arguing that fundamentalist and evangelical schools generally offered students all those things and more. In addition to training students to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, and teachers, “Fundamentalist U” prepared students for a unique sort of career that secular universities didn’t. And that focus changed things at evangelical schools in major ways.

1930s application ref form

MBI reference form, c. 1930s. Note question number 8.

For many evangelical Christians in the twentieth century, the main point of going to college was to prepare for a career (or at least an experience) as a missionary. As one Biola student reported in 1940, she wasn’t sure what to do with her life. She had grown up as a missionary kid in China, but she hadn’t planned to go into missionary work herself. However, one day she felt a “call” to become a missionary after all.

How did she go about it? She knew she needed some training, so after diligent prayer and consultation with “the fundamental Church groups” in her area, she decided to enroll at Biola. For her, the entire point of a college education was to become a better missionary. College, in her way of thinking, was the place to learn how to “more perfectly tell [the millions of lost and dying souls in the world] of the matchless wonders of His grace.”

The focus on missionary work didn’t just change the way students decided to go to college and which college to apply to. Schools, too, put formal mechanisms in place to encourage missionary careers. On admissions forms, for example, schools asked about more than just grades and activities. As did the Moody Bible Institute, most schools wanted to know if an applicant “has . . . a genuine love for souls.” Wheaton, too, added extra admissions points if a student had a “demonstrated ability as an outstanding soulwinner.”

The focus on missionary preparation shaped schools in other ways, too. ALL colleges and universities tended to expand their bureaucracies after World War II. They formalized and systematized their admissions departments and alumni outreach bureaus.  In addition to these sorts of new departments, evangelical colleges also formalized their missionary training, by adding departments to help students pick the right missionary career path.

missions flier

Attention Liberty Students–your school will help you get to your mission field. C. early 1980s

One of the central themes of my book is that evangelical higher education experienced its own sort of evangelical existence—IN the world of American higher ed, but not OF it. In some ways, that is, evangelical institutions were shaped by the same sorts of forces that transformed the world of American higher education as a whole. In other ways—as in the focus on training missionaries—evangelical schools shaped those forces to fit their unique vision of proper higher education.

If You Don’t Think It Matters, then YOU’RE the Idiot

Liberty 48, Baylor 45. Bam. Jerry Falwell Jr. might be an idiot for investing unwisely in athletics and brick-and-mortar campus facilities, but at least his investments have paid off. The long-held dream of Jerry Falwell Sr. and his successors seems to be coming to fruition.

As I’ve been working on my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why do so many schools invest so much money in seemingly antiquated relics of higher-educations past? If the future of higher ed is online, why do schools make such sacrifices to have winning sports teams and ivy-covered buildings?

In the case of Liberty University, it would make sense if they avoided pricey campus investments. They made all their money, after all, in the flashy world of online education. And it was a lot of money. Instead of presenting themselves as a new, more modern-than-thou online institution, though, Liberty plowed those winnings back into the trappings of traditional higher education.

The campus is beautiful and growing fast. It even has an all-year snowboarding hill built into Liberty Mountain. Harvard doesn’t have one of those.

LU sign on mountain

Mountain-sized ambitions…

We might think—as I have—that Liberty’s leaders are merely missing the boat. We might think that they are trapped in a dead-end vision of higher education.

If they are, however, at least they are making that vision come true. Their recent upset win over football powerhouse Baylor was treated on campus as a major miracle. Students were given an official holiday to rub Baylor’s noses in it. President Falwell even relaxed the famous curfew rules in order to encourage Liberty’s students to celebrate.

All the hoopla shows how much athletics means to Liberty. As then-president Pierre Guillermin crowed way back in 1982, Liberty Baptist College (it only became Liberty University in 1985) planned to be

the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.

This recent football triumph brings that vision one step closer. And it tells us something about the nature of higher education. College has never been only about professional preparation. Yes, in order to be a teacher or a doctor or an engineer one needs a college degree. But “college” as a whole has never been limited merely to that sort of thing.

When Americans think of higher education, we tend to think of a bundle of things all wrapped together. We want to earn a degree, true, but we also want to have an “experience.” We want to attend a “real” college, one that has ivy and winning sports teams.

To a great degree, this unarticulated assumption is the reason why MOOCs flopped. The ability to take challenging classes online can’t replace the allure of a full-bore college experience.

At some level, President Falwell grasps this key fact in a way policy nerds have not. He sacrificed a great deal (not personally, but in institutional terms) to have a winning football team.

For Falwell, as for generations of scrimping and struggling evangelical colleges, the looming, nagging worry has been that they have not been seen as real colleges. They’ve been seen as dumpy little church schools, though they’ve dreamed of being taken seriously.

The win over Baylor means—at least for today—Liberty’s dreams have come true.