The Future of Liberty’s Love Affair with Trump

With university commencement season approaching, it’s time for a new round of culture-war outrage.  Schools scramble to secure the most famous names as markers of their higher-ed cachet.  And, predictably, some invited speakers will be shouted down, provoking a new round of hand-wringing over the parlous state of campus free speech.

The news from the world of evangelical colleges tells us that the traditions of Fundamentalist U are alive and well.  Here’s the nail-biter: Can we assume that the twentieth century will repeat itself?  Read on.  Your humble editor will make some predictions that he can be held to.

Trump at liberty

I Love You, Man

But first, the news.  It won’t come as any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH.  According to the Washington Post, Trump is heading back to Lynchburg, Virginia to speak at Liberty University.

As your humble editor has argued elsewhere, Liberty has come up the big winner in this presidential election.  Its second-generation Falwell, Jerry Jr., has bragged about his appointment to a top-level super-secret Presidential commission on higher ed.  And at least one Liberty student is starry-eyed with the news of Trump’s upcoming visit.  What does Trump’s speech mean?  To one gun-toting Flame, at least, it means “That’s how you know my school is better than yours.”

But Trump’s appearance at Liberty’s commencement is more than just payback to one of his loyal evangelical supporters.  By acting chummy with Liberty, Trump scores big.  As I argue in my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher ed, in the 1970s Liberty and other fundamentalist schools came to represent one-stop shops for politicians seeking evangelical approval.

If nothing else has been clear or predictable about Trump’s presidency, his courtship of the conservative evangelical vote has been steady and unimaginative.  It’s not just Jerry Falwell Jr.  By surrounding himself with folks such as Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos, Trump has sent unmistakable signals about his support for America’s fundamentalist traditions.

How will it end for him?  If history is any guide—and we all know it usually isn’t—President Trump is in for a rough ride.  Back in 1980, President Ronald Reagan pioneered a cynical courtship of conservative evangelicals.  He palled around with Jerry Falwell Sr. and other fundamentalist school leaders such as Bob Jones III.

Once in office, though, Reagan disappointed them and their wrath was Biblical in its proportions.  The most pressing issues back then were racism and tax policy.  Reagan and the GOP had promised to throw out Jimmy Carter’s persecution of racist fundamentalist schools.  Once in office, however, Reagan realized that the segregatory policy of schools such as Bob Jones University was politically impossible.  So Reagan punted.  He reversed himself.  The reaction of Bob Jones III was immediate and ferocious.

Reagan, Jones III ranted, had proved himself a “traitor to God’s people.”  It was time, Jones threatened, for fundamentalists to “stay away from the polls and let their ship sink.”

The full story of Jones III’s relationship with the Reagan White House had some complications, and you can read the full story in my upcoming book.  However, the general drift was clear: Politicians could court the fundamentalist vote by appearing at evangelical and fundamentalist colleges, but the demands of those fundamentalists might not be politically palatable.

And no one is quicker to resent political compromise than fundamentalists.

So what do I predict for the Trump/Falwell love affair?  First, let me offer a few nerdy qualifications.  YES, I understand that Liberty today has worked hard to shed some of its fundamentalist trappings.  And YES, I understand that Falwell Jr. is not Falwell Sr., and neither of them shared the shoot-first-ask-questions-later fundamentalist style of the Bob Joneses.

However, with all that said, I will go on record as predicting a blow-up between the Trumpists and the Flames.  The existing anti-Trump vibe on Liberty’s campus will grow into an irresistible force.  Falwell will eventually come out against his current BFF, when the conservatives and (relative) liberals in the extended Liberty community unite against Trumpism.

Hold me to it!

Shoot ‘em Up at Fundamentalist U

Christians, get yr guns. That’s the message this week from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. The message for us fundamentalism-watchers is that we’ll never get the whole picture about conservative evangelical religion if we limit ourselves to theology alone.

In response to shootings in San Bernardino and elsewhere, Falwell told students at his booming megaversity that they could “end those Muslims.” He told students about the concealed .25 in his own back pocket, joking that he didn’t know if it was illegal or not.

Cole-Withrow-Jerry-Falwell-Commencement-Liberty-University-20130517

Jerry, Get Your Gun

For Liberty watchers like me, this is not the first time the school has taken an aggressive pro-gun position. And for fundamentalism watchers like me, it is more proof that a fundamentalist is never only a fundamentalist.

To put it in nerdy terms, some historians have suggested a theological definition of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Protestantism has been explained as the tradition of millennialism. It is best understood, others say, as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” These definitions are helpful for distinguishing fundamentalism from close cousins such as Pentecostalism, Holiness Wesleyanism, and conservative Anabaptism.

Such definitions fail to explain, however, outbursts like the one from President Falwell. There’s nothing about the apocalypse in his yen for guns. Rather, it is a product of the simple fact that fundamentalists—like all people—are amalgams of multiple identities. Falwell is a fundamentalist, true, but he’s also an American. He’s also a Southerner. He’s also a conservative. And, of course, he’s also a gun-lover.

It is not only Liberty U that has struggled with this conundrum of fundamentalist identity. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, a popular administrator at Mid-America Nazarene University took considerable heat for reminding students that Christian religion did not always come wrapped in the American flag. From a theological position, what Dean Beckum said was utterly unremarkable. But conservative evangelical religion in America is more than just religion. It is also conservative. It is also American.

President Falwell and Liberty University, as I’m arguing in my current book, are emblematic of the complicated nature of conservative evangelical higher education. As institutions, they are driven by humdrum factors such as tuition, enrollment, athletics, and accreditation. As evangelical institutions, they’re driven by a desire to maintain a religiously pure, “safe space” for their students. As conservative institutions, they’re driven by a wide variety of political impulses, including the overpowering urge to shoot em up.

A Socialist in the Liberty Lion’s Den

Ronald Reagan. Mitt Romney. Ted Cruz. Jeb Bush. ….Bernie Sanders?

For decades, Liberty University has played host to leading conservative politicians. From Reagan to Romney, (Jeb) Bush to Cruz, presidential hopefuls have visited the campus to make speeches about Jesus and American greatness. So it’s no surprise that a leading presidential candidate will make a speech at next month’s convocation. But hold on to your fair-trade coffee: This year the presidential hopeful on the Liberty docket will be none other than Bernie Sanders. Why would this self-proclaimed non-religious socialist rabble-rouser from the hippie hills of Vermont want to journey to the unofficial headquarters of fundamentalist politics? Why would Liberty want to include him?

Could he grab some votes?

Could he grab some votes?

First of all, let me admit that this is old news. I’ve been on vacation recently and I’m just now catching up on all the latest culture-war headlines. A few weeks ago, Liberty published its schedule for its fall convocation. Along with predictable right-wing notables such as Texas’s Louis Gohmert and presidential hopeful Ben Carson, Liberty will welcome Senator Sanders.

As the SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for my new book about the history of evangelical/fundamentalist higher education. Liberty was a latecomer to that story, but it soon became a 500-pound gorilla in the world of Christian higher education. Thanks to its huge and lucrative online program, Liberty can claim enormous cash reserves. It has used that money to build big sports programs, big libraries, and big convocation rosters.

Yet in spite of all its parvenu riches, Liberty has struggled to overcome its image as a fundamentalist madrassah. When Ted Cruz made a speech on campus a few months back, outsiders like me gasped that Liberty’s students were forced to attend. The school, journalists exclaimed, still imposed rigid lifestyle requirements on its students. The school, some writers implied, was trapped in the past.

Perhaps the invite to Bernie Sanders resulted from an ambition to overcome this provincial reputation. As current president Jerry Falwell Jr. told the Washington Post, his school is only doing what great universities do. Liberty, Falwell said, is taking up the mantle of true higher education. As he put it,

A university is supposed to be a place where all ideas are discussed. . . . That’s what we’re doing.

But what’s in it for Senator Sanders? In a statement, he explained that he hoped to pull a Pope Francis at the conservative campus.

It goes without saying that my views on many issues — women’s rights, gay rights, education and many other issues — are very different from the opinions of some in the Liberty University community. I think it is important, however, to see if we can reach consensus regarding the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, about the collapse of the middle class, about the high level of childhood poverty, about climate change and other issues.

Before we pooh-pooh Sanders’s dreams, let’s remember that today’s Liberty University is much different from the rigidly political campus of the 1980s. Back in Jerry Falwell (Sr.)’s heyday, the school was a proud incubator of right-wing politics. These days, as faculty member Karen Swallow Prior has argued, there is much more cultural wiggle room for students.

The dress code has been lifted. There has even (briefly) been a College Democrats club.

This leaves us with a few tough questions to consider:

  • Is it possible? Can Liberty University transform itself from a southern fundamentalist college to a Great American University?
  • And, could Senator Sanders convince any Liberty students that they are part of a progressive alliance, part of a left-leaning movement that has excited the base of the Democratic Party?

Is THIS the Future for Christian Colleges?

Now what do we do? That is the question plaguing conservative college administrators nationwide. Since the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriages, many evangelical schools have wondered if they will have to change the way they do things. In Michigan, Hope College has announced its accommodation with the ruling. Will other Christian colleges do the same thing?

The gateway to the future?

The gateway to the future?

As the Sophisticated and Good-Looking Regular Readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, questions of homosexuality and same-sex marriage have long bedeviled evangelical colleges. For non-evangelicals, it might come as a surprise to hear that the issue is contentious. After all, at most evangelical schools, the official doctrine clearly and resolutely condemns homosexual activity.

Yet at all sorts of schools, the campus community is much more welcoming. At Gordon College recently, the president’s reminder that the school officially bans “homosexual practice” brought furious protests from students and faculty. Even at the far more conservative Liberty University, faculty members do not always take the harsh tone we progressives might expect.

As our Supreme Court decided the constitutionality of state bans on same-sex marriage, many evangelicals fretted that their decision would trash traditional rules on their campuses.

At Hope College in Michigan—a school in the Reformed Church tradition—the leadership and campus has experienced similar turbulence on the issues of homosexuality. In 2010, for example, the administration provoked protests when it banned the film Milk. More recently, the campus has welcomed homosexual student organizations, though the administration has continued to endorse the Reformed position on homosexuality.

In its most recent announcement, the school’s leaders have declared their intention to abide by the SCOTUS decision. From now on, same-sex married partners of college employees will be eligible for the same benefits as heterosexual partners. The administration again affirmed its respect for the Reformed Church’s official doctrine that homosexuality is a sin. That does not mean, however, that the school will contravene the law.

Is this the path other schools will follow? Unlike pluralist colleges, evangelical schools face intense pressure to stay true to traditional beliefs and norms. As Professor Michael Hamilton wrote in his study of Wheaton College,

The paradigm that has dominated Wheaton through the century holds that colleges, more than any other type of institution, are highly susceptible to change, and that change can only move in one direction—from orthodoxy toward apostasy. . . . The very process of change, no matter how slow and benign it may seem at first, will always move the college in a secular direction, inevitably gathering momentum and becoming unstoppable, ending only when secularization is complete.

Hope College may find itself the front line for this debate within the Reformed Church in America. The church as a whole has gone back and forth for decades about the proper Christian reaction to homosexuality. Is it better to embrace the sinner? Or to drive out the sin? Conservatives within the RCA will doubtless take this announcement as proof that Hope has gone soft. Progressives will celebrate it as a small step towards equity.

Other evangelical schools will face similar scrutiny. If they openly welcome homosexual students, faculty, and staff, they will be subject to withering condemnation from conservatives. If they don’t, however, they’ll risk being sidelined, branded as anti-gay bigots.

Wal-Mart and the Death of College

Don’t be fooled. Just because the rumors of Sweet Briar College’s death have been greatly exaggerated, don’t think that small colleges have any reason to be optimistic. And for small conservative religious colleges, there is an even more difficult problem. They need to perform an impossible feat—get more religious and less religious at the same time.

Adorable but unaffordable?

Adorable but unaffordable?

As I’m arguing in my current book, fundamentalist and evangelical colleges and universities have always faced all the same challenges of mainline schools, plus many unique ones. The situation today is exactly the same. Conservative religious colleges face the same sorts of Wal-Mart-style challenges of scale, plus the additional constraints of remaining true to religious orthodoxy.

Though its affluent alumni seem to have saved Sweet Briar College, small evangelical and fundamentalist colleges have been winking out like dead fireflies lately. The reasons are clear. Just as the Wal-Martification of retail stores has made Mom-and-Pop stores impossible, so have the twentieth century’s slow academic revolutions made small colleges impossible. Many of them just don’t seem to know it yet.

What happened at Sweet Briar? The numbers just didn’t add up. Writing in the pages of Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik quoted a gloomy financial report:

A report last month by Moody’s Investors Service said, “In Sweet Briar’s case, challenges included small scale, which, combined with weakening demand, declining pricing flexibility and an insufficient endowment, led to an unsustainable business model.” Some of the very qualities that make alumnae so loyal also make it hard to balance the books, Moody’s said. “Sweet Briar’s model of providing highly personalized education with small class sizes is expensive, as indicated by educational expenses per student of approximately $42,000,” said the report. “Although this cost structure is commensurate with the other rated women’s schools, standing at the median, colleges either need greater pricing flexibility, larger endowments or more gift revenue to sustain the model.”

Small colleges are trapped in a terrible pickle. To survive, they have to achieve a certain minimum size. Otherwise, they can’t afford to offer all the programs and services that students these days expect from a college. But they can’t achieve that minimum size if they keep their prices high. Students will go elsewhere if they are charged the full sticker-price. If schools lower prices, however, they will also die.

In Sweet Briar’s case, activist alumni pledged to raise 12.5 million dollars to keep the school running. That’s a lot of moolah. And no school—not even one with wealthy and involved alumni—can expect to survive only on the good wishes of its past students.

For conservative evangelical schools, the outlook is even more gloomy. In order to attract students, they must continue to demonstrate beyond question their religious orthodoxy. In some cases, such as the controversies lately at Bryan College, Mid-America Nazarene, and Northwest Nazarene, this will mean clamping down on faculty who seem to be moving in a liberal direction. At the same time, however, in order to attract students, they need to widen their pool of potential students. That means offering more programs and more courses. It also means opening up to students from different religious backgrounds. After all, if tuition dollars are getting harder to find, it will get harder and harder to turn paying students away.

Some fundamentalist schools are thriving in this difficult environment, at least for now. Most prominently, Liberty University in Virginia is raking in the dough. By making itself into a leader in online education, Liberty has managed to grow at a breakneck pace in the past decade.

Raking in mountains of dough...

Raking in mountains of dough…

As its online offerings increase, however, Liberty has to somehow demonstrate that it has not watered down its strict religious requirements. Those requirements, after all, are the school’s primary raison d’etre. Even as it pumps money into its football team and its all-year faux snowboard hill, Liberty’s leaders need to watch out for the creeping liberalism that tends to accompany higher-ed growth.

I’m happy for those folks who love Sweet Briar College. But their impressive display of life-support should not give comfort to other college leaders. The fundamental financial situation has not changed. Small colleges have to remain small to maintain their traditional style of teaching, but they have to grow in order to be financially solvent.

Small evangelical colleges face those same impossible challenges, plus some unique ones. They have to remain orthodox in order to keep their niche, yet they have to broaden their appeal in order to survive at all.

I’m glad I’m not in charge of one of those schools.

Bush at Liberty: “Seven Thousand Acres of Shared Conviction”

He didn’t have much choice. These days, any front-runner for the Republican Party presidential nomination seems required to make a speech at Liberty University. But when Jeb Bush gave his commencement address at Liberty this week, he did not have to emphasize one of American fundamentalism’s deepest-held convictions. But he did.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, I’m working on a book about the history of schools like Liberty. And among the issues I’m struggling with are the distinctive traditions that set off fundamentalist and evangelical colleges from other religious schools.

Certainly, as Roger Geiger outlined in his definitive new history of American higher ed, in the United States every religious group has scrambled to establish its own colleges and universities. It has become a way for religious groups to confirm their legitimacy and American-ness.

So, for Catholics, and Lutherans, and Methodists, and Nazarenes; for Muslims, and Jews, and Mennonites…every religious group has its own network of schools that train its young people in its distinctive faith traditions as well as in professional skills and the liberal arts.

Unlike most of those other traditions, however, the network of fundamentalist colleges that developed since the 1920s has seen itself not only as a haven from a hostile wider American culture, but more specifically as an enclave of true Americanism. Unlike most other conservative Protestants, even, fundamentalists have a fairly unique proprietary feeling about the US of A.

Back in the day, brainy Catholic kids might have gone to Georgetown or Boston College, either to become priests or just become educated Catholics. And they did so in order to study in an intellectual refuge from the relentless anti-Catholicism that permeated mainstream culture for so long.

Since the 1920s, brainy evangelicals and fundamentalists have gone to Bob Jones or Wheaton or Liberty, either to become pastors or just to become educated evangelicals. But these evangelical schools were not seen as islands set off from a hostile mainstream America. Or, to be more specific, they were seen as islands, but only in the sense that they represented a last resort of true Americanism. Such schools often talked about their need to preserve a slice of the true America.

Since the 1950s, those schools that aligned with the more moderate “evangelical” wing of fundamentalism tended to downplay this tradition. Schools who clung to the “fundamentalist” label—such as Bob Jones, Pensacola Christian College, the late Tennessee Temple University, and Liberty—often doubled down on their sense of usurped Americanism.

When Governor Bush made his Liberty speech, he made the usual paeans to religious freedom and religious liberty. But he also went the extra rhetorical mile to endorse Liberty’s sense of itself as an outpost of true Americanism. As Bush put it,

How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force. Outside these seven thousand acres of shared conviction, it’s a depressing fact that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated. We can take this as unfair criticism, as it typically is, or we can take it as further challenge to show in our lives the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.

“Seven thousand acres of shared conviction”! A phrase surely calculated to warm the hearts of Liberty’s leaders. The implication, clearly, is that Liberty represents an enclave of purity, a reservation for America’s Moral Majority, which promises to preserve American values until that day that they can be spread back into the rest of America’s 2,432,000,000 acres.

GOP Race Kicks Off…at Fundamentalist U

…and they’re off! Senator Ted Cruz of Texas plans to announce his formal candidacy for president today, according to the Houston Chronicle. And he’s making the announcement at Liberty University.

Why Liberty? As the Sophisticated and Good-Looking Regular Readers of ILYBYGTH (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, I’m working on a history of fundamentalist higher education. These schools–places like Liberty, along with more liberal cousins such as Wheaton College and Biola University, and more conservative ones such as Bob Jones University—are central institutions of American conservatism.

Cruz at Fundamentalist U

Cruz at Fundamentalist U

Not only do they represent conservative evangelical belief, but also a vaguer (and politically powerful) sense of cultural traditionalism. The campuses of Wheaton, Liberty, and Bob Jones are not just in-your-face religious environments, but also places where you wouldn’t see until recently a man with long hair or a woman with a short skirt.

Not only that, but college campuses also represent cutting-edge learning. Fundamentalist and evangelical colleges are not only religious, not only conservative, but also forward-looking places. By hosting scholarship and teaching, evangelical schools represent the future.

For all these reasons, at least since Reagan, GOP candidates have made it a point to campaign at these campuses. As CNN noted this morning, everyone from Romney to McCain, Rick Perry to Michele Bachmann has put in an appearance.

It makes sense. And it leads us to an interesting question: If you planned to run for president, where would YOU make your announcement? I have an idea of what I’d do.

Fundamentalist University Can’t Stay Afloat

Looks like the world of fundamentalist higher education will be shrinking at the end of this semester. Chattanooga’s Tennessee Temple University will be closing its doors, merging with nearby Piedmont International University. In spite of accusations by some critics, this closing does not prove that fundamentalist colleges can’t make it in today’s society. After all, these kinds of closings are all too common among all sorts of schools.

On their Last Crusade...

On their Last Crusade…

Officially, TTU will close due to the lack of financial support from alumni. Instead of the needed three to five million dollars trustees hoped for, TTU alumni coughed up a meager $65,000.

Critic David Tulis blamed the closure on the insular theology of the school. Leaders had grown too fond of their own dispensational truths and “Christian Zionism,” Tulis charged. TTU had allowed itself the unaffordable luxury of inbred intellectualism and backwater academics.

There may be truth in such charges, but anyone familiar with the shaky history of higher education will know that all sorts of schools close for all sorts of reasons.

Most recently, the closing of Virginia’s Sweet Briar College has sent tremors through the world of higher education. If a storied institution with a fat endowment can be run out of business, who is safe?

Among evangelical colleges, too, these sorts of closings and mergers are not unique to the more conservative fundamentalist type. In the 1980s, Barrington College merged with nearby Gordon College. Financial pressures can obviously become overwhelming, irrespective of theological positions.

In the case of Barrington and Gordon, as I’m finding in my current research, these two (relatively) liberal evangelical schools had long been rivals. As late as 1961, the president of Barrington declared that he would never consider joining with Gordon in any sort of money-saving merger. The only way for Barrington to succeed, President Howard Ferrin insisted twenty-five years before the schools’ eventual merger, was by “stressing its differences from Gordon.”

We must remember also that colleges from this fundamentalist Baptist tradition can do very well financially. Most obviously, Virginia’s Liberty University makes more money than it knows what to do with. By making savvy investments in online education, the leaders of Liberty have proved that a fundamentalist school can thrive in today’s turbulent higher-education market.

But not every fundamentalist school. The leaders of Tennessee Temple have promised that current students will be able to finish their academic programs, one way or another. Also, as President Steve Echols ruminated,

countless lives have been forever changed and will continue to be changed through the heritage of Tennessee Temple University.

In spite of what some pundits might assert, this news from Chattanooga does not mean that fundamentalist higher education is on the way out. The financial struggles at TTU, after all, serve as more proof that fundamentalist universities and colleges often have more in common with non-fundamentalist schools than their leaders might like to admit.

Is Jerry Falwell an Idiot?

Is Jerry Falwell Jr. an idiot or a genius? Falwell, the president of Liberty University, has hit the jackpot with Liberty’s incredibly popular—and incredibly lucrative—online programs. Falwell has plowed that money into Liberty’s brick-and-mortar campus. Is Falwell a higher-ed visionary? Or does he simply not recognize the way things are really going in higher education?

The money is hard to ignore. Between 2006 and 2012, Liberty’s net assets increased from $150 million to $860 million, thanks mainly to its booming online business. Instead of using those funds only to increase online education, Liberty has bankrolled an ambitious sports program and a recession-busting campus building program.

The new bajillion-dollar Jerry Falwell Library

The new bajillion-dollar Jerry Falwell Library

Most campuses are going the other direction. At traditional schools, including my beloved State University of New York, presidents and chancellors are scrambling to find ways to profit from online education.

Perhaps Liberty’s got something to prove. Founded only in 1971, it originally met in the basement of the Thomas Road Baptist Church. As I explore Liberty’s archives this week as part of the research for my next book, I’m finding reminiscences of those early years. One early ministry student remembered that he used to have revival meetings on the “old trash dump road” above the current campus. There was no campus back then, so these earnest “preacher boys,” this alum remembered, used to

Even the archives are nice.

Even the archives are nice.

pray, sing, and practice preaching for about an hour to an hour and a half. We would pray and preach in the Spirit! Walking, shouting, and praying up and down that road, calling out your name to the Father, tears streaming down our cheeks!

As do most fundamentalist schools, Liberty feels a constant need to prove that it is just as good, intellectually, as mainstream universities. As first president Pierre Guillermin put it in an early fundraising letter, any Christian college must maintain “performance standards of unquestionable academic excellence and admirable professional credibility.”

No more Trash Dump Road...

No more Trash Dump Road…

The campus building program may result from a deep need to prove that Liberty is a real university, not just a fundamentalist camp meeting. Or it may be something more strategic. College administrators these days are wracked with anxiety about the future of higher education. Will students in the future simply take classes from a menu of online providers? Will giants such as MIT and Harvard provide the world’s best content online? Can smaller schools continue to exist?

It seems President Falwell is betting big that people will continue to want a traditional campus, with traditional amenities such as sports programs and libraries.

I think he’s right. So far, the leaders in Massive Open Online Courses are not start-up companies in their garages, but established schools such as MIT and Harvard. People still have high expectations that their education—even their online classes—will come from a “real” university.

Spanked with the Bible Belt

Well, fry my biscuits;…things really are different down here. Historians have gone to great lengths to disprove the common misconception that fundamentalism is somehow only a southern thing, or only a rural thing. But there IS something profoundly different about Southern rural fundamentalism.

Go tell it on the mountain...

Go tell it on the mountain…

For those who are just joining us, I’m spending this year traveling to conservative evangelical colleges to research my next book, thanks to funding from the generous Spencer Foundation. Right now, I’m in scenic Lynchburg, Virginia, home of Liberty University. When I rolled into town, I saw something that blew my mind. No, it wasn’t the huge “LU” sign that had taken over a mountainside. I expected that.

Since the mid-1970s, academic historians have thrown out some old myths about American fundamentalism. Led by scholars such as George Marsden and Joel Carpenter, the new generation of histories no longer insist that fundamentalism is an outgrowth of hillbilly religion. Rather, fundamentalism has thrived in America’s biggest cities as well as in its rural hollers.

Consider my itinerary for this research year. To figure out what fundamentalism has meant across the twentieth century, I’ve traveled to schools such as Biola, Wheaton, and Gordon College. I plan to head to The King’s College and the Moody Bible Institute. My travels will take me to Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York City. Those are nobody’s ideas of rural backwaters. And yet they are the intellectual and spiritual headquarters of much of the fundamentalist movement.

Creationism in the lobby...

Creationism in the lobby…

Fair enough. But there is something different about things down here in the South, something different outside of bigger cities. Not only did I drive along Jerry Falwell Parkway to get here, but the lobby of my boring corporate hotel held a big surprise. The books for sale included the standard stuff about horses, cats, and jokes for kids, but there were also a lot of prayer, psalm, and Bible books. Even more remarkable, the shelf included relatively radical creationist books such as Ray Comfort’s Scientific Facts in the Bible.

This is the kicker: Sure, fundamentalism can thrive in big cities. It can certainly thrive in the North. But down here in the South, outside of big cities, fundamentalism becomes the usual fare. It becomes the accepted norm, not just one way to be religious. Even a non-religious, totally vanilla environment such as my hotel lobby offers books that prove the scientific veracity of the Bible.

...and horses.

Satan, Demons…and horses.

My hunch is that our so-called Bible Belt refers to those parts of our great country in which conservative Protestantism is something people assume they all share. It refers to those places where your new neighbor will ask you when you move in if you’ve found your church yet. It refers to those places where people think the “real” America is much whiter and more born-again Christian than it really is.

That’s my impression, anyway. I was raised in Boston, in a non-religious household. I’m guessing people more intimately familiar with life in the “Bible Belt” will know more about this sort of thing.