The Prodigal College Returns

The trend seems clear: Michigan, Florida State, Texas State, Ohio State, and other big schools have banned fraternities. School administrators are scrambling to control dangerous drinking, deadly hazing, and horrifying sexual assault. I can’t help but ask: Have the fundamentalists been proven right?

blanchard hall

Do all paths lead back to Blanchard Hall?

A hundred years ago, after all, as I explore in my new book, fundamentalists founded their new network of evangelical colleges, institutes, and universities for two main reasons. First, they wanted an intellectual refuge. Mainstream colleges, fundamentalists universally agreed, had drunk the Kool-aid of evolutionism and materialism. At least as dangerous, however, were the behavioral norms that had come to prevail at mainstream schools.

In the 1920s, fundamentalist school leaders such as Charles Blanchard at Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones at Bob Jones College in Florida promised their schools would protect students from both loose ideas and loose behavior.

At Wheaton, for example, fraternities were banned, along with smoking, drinking, cinema, dancing, and card-playing. The school posted spies outside the downtown movie theater to make sure Wheaton students weren’t sneaking in. At Bob Jones, students were prohibited from “loitering,” talking freely with members of the opposite sex, and absolutely anything that hinted of “jazz.”

For a century now, evangelical schools have been mocked as small-minded anti-intellectual “church colleges,” hopelessly out of touch with modern higher ed. They have also been attacked—often by their own students—as ridiculously controlling.

Back when he was a Wheaton student in 1966, for example, historian Mark Noll led the drive to reexamine the “Pledge.” It was simply not possible, students felt, for them to receive a decent college education if they weren’t allowed to make their own decisions. They were embarrassed to tell their friends at other schools that they weren’t allowed to go to the movies.

But who is embarrassed now? As leaders of secular colleges struggle to find ways to impose restrictions on student behavior, are they reverting to fundamentalist arguments of the 1920s? As Frank Bruni argued recently in the New York Times,

On a range of fronts, fraternities — and sororities — contradict our stated values and undercut our supposed goals for higher education, putting our inconsistencies and hypocrisies under a magnifying glass.

To ban them, though, or even to take real moves to enforce rules against certain types of student behavior, wouldn’t be as simple as it seems. As the first generation of fundamentalist college leaders lamented, a central principle of mainstream higher education has been the notion that students themselves must be in charge of their decisions.

To make any real change in the deadly culture at many frats, mainstream college leaders would need to make big changes in the way they see their role. Like fundamentalist colleges and their evangelical heirs, mainstream schools would need to insist on their roles as moral guardians.


Take a Trip to a Science Museum with a Creationist

“See, fossils!  That’s science.”  So says Megan Fox, self-identified creationist homeschool mom, Tea Partyer, blogger, and Latest YouTube Sensation.

We’ve taken plenty of museum trips here at ILBYGTH: to the Institute for Creation Research’s museum in San Diego, to the big Creation Museum in Kentucky, and even to a medley of creation and mainstream science museums.  Now there is a new option: Take a trip to Chicago’s Field Museum with Megan Fox.  In this half-hour video, Fox explains all the problems with mainstream science.

Plenty of commentators have blitzed Mrs. Fox with insults.  More interesting will be an attempt for those of us outside the creationist community to find out what this creationist thinks about mainstream science.

I’m no creationist-basher, but Mrs. Fox does seem to have an unpleasantly loud and in-my-face personality.  Predictably, bloggers have teed off on her “expose” of mainstream science at the Field Museum. Atheist PZ Myers called Fox “Smug and Stupid.” At Dangerous Minds, she was called a “blithering idiot,” and worse.

I would imagine that many of the intelligent creationists out there wouldn’t have chosen Fox as their ideal spokesperson. But what if we watch her museum tour as a chance to learn more about her creationist vision of science? Historians have worked hard—maybe too hard—to explain the philosophical underpinnings of creationist and Protestant fundamentalist science.

Many agree with George Marsden, who has argued that at heart, fundamentalist science hearkens back to the scientific principles laid down in the 1600s by Francis Bacon. As Marsden wrote in Fundamentalism and American Culture (2006 edition, pg. 59):

the role of the interpreter, according to the same Baconian assumptions, was not to impose hypotheses or theories, but to reach conclusions on the basis of careful classification and generalization alone.

Other historians have agreed. Mark Noll, for example, argued in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (pg. 197),

Creationists regularly reaffirm the principles of Baconian science: no speculation without direct empirical proof, no deductions from speculative principles, no science without extensive empirical evidence.

Perhaps the most careful student of conservative Protestant encounters with mainstream science, Jon Roberts, argued similarly in his 1988 book Darwinism and the Divine in America (pp. 41-42 of that first edition from the University of Wisconsin Press),

Nonscientists were also enamored of the Baconian method, for they believed that it was the surest route to the certainty they associated with science. Asa Mahan, a prominent philosopher who served as the first president of Oberlin College, presented in 1872 a typical statement of the prevailing view within the American Protestant intellectual community: ‘Science is knowledge systematized. Into a scientific process, nothing but what is absolutely known can enter.’

Is this what Megan Fox is doing? More interestingly, which term fits Fox better: “blithering idiot” or “Baconian loudmouth”?

I think a better term for Fox’s scientific vision is one used by historian Ted Davis. Though the roots of Fox’s attitude toward proper science may have originated in Baconian principles, it seems misleading to suggest that Fox selected a Baconian framework out of thin air. Like most of us, Fox’s ideas of proper science seem to come from a mix of sources, some of them only dimly understood.

So, instead of calling Fox “Baconian,” I think we should use Davis’s label of “folk science.” As Davis explains, the term came from Jerome Ravetz, Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems (1971).

Of course, it is not only creationists who practice “folk science.” As Dan Kahan argues, there is not much daylight between creationists and non-creationists when it comes to actual knowledge about evolution. Most of us have only the vaguest grasp on the real meanings and implications of mainstream science. Unlike Mrs. Fox, however, most of us are willing to learn mainstream science when we go to the Field Museum, not try to pit our folk-ish understandings against the efforts of mainstream science educators.


Do You Read the Bible? Why?

Do you read the Bible?  Regularly?  If you do, you’re in good company.  Or at least you have lots of company.  Results from a survey have been published by the Center for the Study of Religion in American Culture at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis, fondly known as Ewee-poohee.

The survey-meisters attached Bible-related question to two large-group surveys, the General Social Survey and the National Congregations Study.  The authors suggested a few key findings:

*   There is a 50/50 split among Americans who read any form of
scripture in the past year and those who did not. Among those who did,
women outnumber men, older people outnumber younger people, and
Southerners exceed those from other regions of the country.

*   Among those who read any form of scripture in the past year, 95%
named the Bible as the scripture they read. All told, this means that 48%
of Americans read the Bible at some point in the past year. Most of those
people read at least monthly, and a substantial number-9% of all
Americans-read the Bible daily.

*   Despite the proliferation of Bible translations, the King James
Version is the top choice-and by a wide margin-of Bible readers.

*   The strongest correlation with Bible reading is race, with African
Americans reading the Bible at considerably higher rates than others.

*   Half of those who read the Bible in the past year also committed
scripture to memory. About two-thirds of congregations in America hold
events for children to memorize verses from the Bible.

*   Among Bible readers, about half had a favorite book, verse, or
story. Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd…” was cited most
often, followed by John 3:16.

*   Bible readers consult scripture for personal prayer and devotion
three times more than to learn about culture war issues such as abortion,
homosexuality, war, or poverty.

*   There are clear differences among Bible readers consulting scripture
for specific reasons. Age, income, and education are key factors.

*   Those reading the Bible frequently consult it on culture war issues
more than two times the rate as those who read it less frequently.

*   Less than half of those who read the Bible in the past year sought
help in understanding it. Among those who did, clergy were their top
source; the Internet was the least cited source.

*   Among Bible readers, 31% read it on the Internet and 22% use

*   Bible reading differences among religious traditions followed
predictably the historic divides between Protestants and Catholics, and
between white conservative and white moderate/liberal Protestants.
However, reading practices defy some stereotypes about certain groups.

What can we take away from these headlines?  First, for those of us who don’t read the Bible regularly and who don’t really care about what the Bible might say about any given social issue, this report serves as a reminder that many Americans see the Bible very differently.  For instance, if I read the above numbers correctly, about a quarter of respondents told interviewers that they thought it was important to memorize chunks of the Bible.  Also, those who do tend to read the Bible also tend to use the Bible to prove points on social issues.  For example, I do not find the Bible to be relevant to the issue of gay marriage, but many Americans do.  Finally, we see yet another reminder that religious divisions do not neatly match political ones.  African Americans, for example, tend to vote Democratic.  Yet they also tend to read the Bible more often than other groups.

Yet moving past the headlines, we also see some confirmation in this report of stereotypes about the Bible.  For instance, the authors found that Bible-reading was much more common among old people than among the young.  Of those over 75, 56% reported reading the Bible in the past year.  Of those between 18-29, only 44% did so.  Also, Bible-reading was most prevalent in the South (61%) and least prevalent in the Northeast (36%).

Yet even the body of the report contains intriguing surprises.  For example, of those who said they consider the Bible the “inerrant Word of God,” a significant percentage did not read the Bible at all in the past year.  If we add in respondents who said they believed the Bible was the “divinely inspired Word of God,” we get an astonishing result: Those Bible-lovers made up 65% of the people who said they had never read the Bible in the past year!  That’s right: of the people who said they had not read the Bible in the past year, 50% still thought the Bible was divinely inspired, and 15% thought that the Bible was inerrant.  Clearly, Bible-reading does not correlate with theological convictions about the importance or status of the Bible.

And, of course, people read the Bible for all sorts of reasons.  It was no surprise to find that the most common reason people give for reading the Bible is prayer and personal devotion.  But large numbers of respondents also claim to read the Bible to find out how to make more money, how to heal themselves, and how to predict the future.  As the study concludes, these uses of the Bible correlate strongly to levels of formal education.  People who have gone to college tend to use the Bible less for these sorts of purposes.  As the authors put it, “those with less education read the Bible at twice the rate of someone with a college degree for the purposes of learning about culture war issues, health and wealth, and what the future holds” (24-25).

So what can this survey tell us?  The IUPUI researchers asked prominent scholars for their opinions.

As prominent historian of religion Mark Noll commented, one hoped-for result of this survey was to add needed complexity to public discussions about the Bible.  “These IUPUI surveys,” Noll suggested, “should bring sanity back into journalists’ reporting on religion, at least to the extent that they show how important non-political use of scripture continues to be in modern American life.”

Professor of African American Studies Sylvester Johnson added a different take-away message.  This survey, Johnson noted, demonstrates the persistence of “the dominant reality of biblical fundamentalism in Black churches.”  Many observers, Johnson said, have long attributed a social progressivism to African American churches that simply doesn’t match the cultural reality.

In any case, whether it is used as a symbol of cultural identity, a source of clues to the future, or a dusty tome on a shelf that is left alone to molder, Americans still care about the Bible.


Liberty and Intellectual Diversity

Can the faculty at a fundamentalist university embody a true intellectual diversity?  In some senses, of course they can.  Depending on the school, faculty at conservative Protestant schools may disagree vehemently on important issues such as the age of the earth, the best tax system, or the proper way to structure an election.  But fundamentalist schools still face a narrower list of potential faculty members than do less strictly defined colleges.  At many conservative schools, prospective faculty members must agree to an institutional creed.  This has the desired effect of cutting out a wide range of dissenting intellectual perspectives.

Journalist Michael McDonald brought up these issues of perennial interest this morning in a article about Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

McDonald’s main interest was in the financial aspect and prospect of Liberty’s enormous and lucrative on-line branch.  As McDonald notes, the deeply conservative evangelical Protestant school is now the largest private non-profit university in the country.  For a school dedicated to a sternly fundamentalist theology, that is a remarkable achievement.

In his research for the article, Mr. McDonald asked me if I thought Liberty’s success could mean that it will become a model for mainstream universities.  As McDonald quoted in his piece,

“This dream of turning it into Notre Dame won’t work for Liberty,” said Adam Laats, an assistant professor in education and history at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. “Liberty University faculty will always be more constrained in the breadth of intellectual diversity they can welcome.”

It’s true: most colleges and universities do not require faculty to sign a strict creed.  If Notre Dame could only hire Catholics, or if my alma mater Northwestern University could only hire Methodists, they might be in a similar situation.

But Liberty’s potential faculty will have to agree with the school’s strict evangelical Protestantism, and this will always set it apart from more pluralistic colleges.

Of course, I’m not the first person to note this, by any means.  Leading evangelical historians such as Mark Noll and George Marsden have long argued that evangelical institutions differ in important ways from pluralist ones, due largely to this tradition of faculty and institutional creeds.

But already I have heard some intelligent objections.  Dan Richardson contacted me to object to my premise in the Bloomberg article.  As Mr. Richardson wrote,

“I read your comments with interest on Bloomberg concerning Liberty University. As a graduate myself of the Virginia Public University system, I found essentially zero tolerance or professors willing to even consider or give any credence/discussion to any philosophy other than relativistic, humanistic,  at best agnostic culture on campus today. There are countless examples of ‘conservative’ speakers, hassled, disinvited, shouted down at many public universities. If you truly care about the breadth of intellectual diversity, start with thyself.”

Richardson makes an important point.  Simply because the faculty of fundamentalist colleges lack some of the inherent intellectual diversity of pluralist schools, this does not mean that pluralist schools do a perfect job of encouraging true diversity themselves.

As historian Jonathan Zimmerman has asked, what would it take to get real intellectual diversity on pluralist campuses?  Do we need an affirmative action program for conservative intellectual faculty?

Sometimes the creeds in place at pluralist universities are implicit.  Sometimes they are more aggressively spelled out.  The recent flap over the funding of a Christian student group at Tufts University, for example, demonstrates the way pluralist universities’ dedication to pluralism often has confounding and unpredictable results.

Nevertheless, I stand by my statement in Mr. McDonald’s article.  Mainstream universities will have different challenges from Liberty University when it comes to welcoming a variety of intellectual perspectives.  Liberty’s dramatic financial success with on-line education does not change that.

The Evolution of Liberty University

First flip-flops, now College Democrats.  What is next for Liberty University?

Karen Swallow Prior commented recently on the changing face of the school founded by Jerry Falwell just over forty years ago.  Prior, chair of Liberty’s English department, notes the remarkable achievements of Liberty.  Since 1971, it has grown to almost 100,000 students (including online) and has almost hit one BILLION dollars in net assets.

Like other Protestant fundamentalist schools, Liberty was founded with the specific intention of educating conservative evangelical Christian students in an environment that encouraged their faith.

Prior argued in Christianity Today that the school has been evolving.  A few years back, it eased up its dress code, allowing students to wear jeans and sandals if they preferred.  As Prior put it, “Administrators knew that the university couldn’t meet the goal of its founder of becoming a ‘world class’ evangelical university by requiring its students to dress like Mormons on mission.”

More recently, Prior writes, the school has had to wrestle with the thornier question of student politics.  Might a school explicitly founded as a conservative institution allow an organization of College Democrats?  As has been the question for fundamentalist higher education since the 1920s, there is an enduring tension between growth and fidelity to mission.  As I’ve analyzed in my 1920s book and an article in History of Education Quarterly, fundamentalist colleges have struggled to understand themselves as either “world class” universities or intentionally provincial ones.  Can they escape from the “scandal of the evangelical mind” without abandoning their unique faith mission?

At Bob Jones University, for example, founded in 1926, students have had to pledge their fidelity to an iron-bound statement of faith.  They have also had to pledge that they will prevent the school from every wavering from its commitment to those principles.

Doubtless Liberty will continue to struggle with this tension.  As Prior explains,

“whether Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian, Liberty students seem to recognize that none of the political parties aligns consistently with their faith. And so, they seem less willing than preceding generations of students to put their faith in politics.”

The Bible in America: Harry Potter and the Demons of Gergesenes

Adult nerds have a new reason to dress up in funny costumes and line up outside of bookstores for days on end.  Seems J.K. Rowling has announced plans to publish a new novel for adult audiences.  She has apparently not released the details of this plan.  As of this writing, we don’t know if it will be about grown-up wizards looking for magical answers to middle-age troubles like underwater mortgages and sagging physiques, or if it might be an “adult”-adult novel in which bodices will rip.

Whatever it is about, Rowling will be hard pressed to improve upon her record of publishing success.  Rowling’s series of Harry Potter novels charted a meteoric path through the worlds of publishing and culture.  All told, by early 2012 her seven young-wizard books sold some 400 million copies.  That’s a lot.  Predictably, academic types rushed to analyze the cultural impact of the phenomenon.  Some argued that the Potter novels succeeded on such a grand scale because they captured the deep mythic memory of our cultural heritage.  Harry represented the powerful trope of the fairy-tale prince and the archetypal Hero.  Others wondered whether the novels could shed light on contemporary Britain’s struggles with “the legacy of a racial and class caste system.”

In any case, it seems hard to argue with the notion that these enormous sales figures tell us something about the nature of American culture.  Though it’s true enough that some measure of the runaway success of these books is due simply to the faddishness of Americans, it also seems reasonable to think that something in the books resonated with something deep in American culture.  The books fascinated so many people because something in the books made sense to Americans.  We identify, perhaps, with the young Harry, when he was surrounded by hostile blowhards who neither understood him nor appreciated him.  Or maybe we feel like the older Harry, when he was struggling to understand himself as an adult with new powers and daunting responsibilities.

In any case, something about Harry Potter means something in American culture.  The sheer numbers of its publication can tell us that.

If that is true—and by now you may have guessed where I’m going with this—then we must also recognize fundamentalists’ claims that the Bible is not just another book.  If Harry Potter’s enormous publication numbers mean that the books struck a chord with American culture, then the staggering publication numbers of the Bible must mean it says even more about that culture.  Consider a few numbers.  The American Bible Society, muggles all, was founded in the early nineteenth century to distribute Bibles and tracts to the population.  Between its founding in 1826 and 1979, the ABS distributed three BILLION Bibles and tracts.  THREE BILLION.  Those are Sagan-esque numbers, and they put Rowling’s sales figures to shame.  In just one year, 1979, the ABS distributed 110 million bibles and tracts in the USA alone.

If literature scholar Rebecca Sutherland Borah is at all correct in her surmise that the fan communities of the Harry Potter novels can tell us a good deal about the ways communities can form around a shared devotion to Rowling’s texts, how much more of a cultural indicator is the Bible?  Fan communities of Harry Potter may camp out overnight to receive each new installment of the series, but fan communities of the Bible have worked for centuries to help all people of all nations hear the Word.

Consider the work of the Gideons, for instance.  If you’ve spent any time in America, you’re familiar with the ubiquitous Gideon Bibles placed in nearly every hotel room in the country.  The organization began in the late nineteenth century, founded by a small group of Wisconsin businessmen.  They decided they could best spread Christianity by using their travels to spread the Bible.  Starting in 1908, they began distributing Bibles and New Testaments to hotels around the world.  By 2012, they claimed to have given out over 1.6 billion Bibles and testaments.

Granted, they’ve had a century to do so.  Nevertheless, the devotion of such Bible distributors as the Gideons and the ABS demonstrates the reverence with which many fundamentalists hold the Bible.  Mere distribution of the text itself is seen as the most effective type of missionary work they can achieve.

And the success of their efforts has been impressive.  Taken by numbers alone, the Bible really is America’s book.  No other book can come close to rivaling the Bible’s physical presence in the United States.
Nor is this due to devoted missionary distribution networks alone.  The Bible also sells well.  I spent some time recently with a guy who had an easy first job: selling Bibles door-to-door in Texas.  It was easy work, he described, since everyone he met could be convinced that they needed a Bible.  Even though they already had one.  Or several.  ‘Like selling beer at a baseball game,’ he told me.  ‘Heavy to carry around, but not hard to convince people they could use another.’

A glimpse at some sales numbers for the Bible seems to bear this out.  Not only in Texas, but around the country.  For example, there have been 2500 different English-language editions published between 1777 and 1957.  When a new version, the Revised Standard Version, came out in 1952, it sold an average 1,000,000 copies annually for at least a generation.  Similarly, the Kenneth Taylor Living Bible paraphrase sold 25,000,000 copies in its first eleven years of publication.

People buy the Bible.  People distribute the Bible.  We don’t know for sure from these facts what the Bible actually means to people, but we would be a little kooky to assume it doesn’t tell us anything.  If the monstrous sales of the Harry Potter books means something about American culture, then surely the even more startling sales and publication history of the Bible means even more.  It is hard not to agree with leading historians Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch when they insist, “the cultural history of America is unthinkable without the Bible.”


FURTHER READING: The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter, edited by Lana Whited (University of Missouri Press, 2002); Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).


A Fundamentalist Mystery: Protestants and the Supreme Court

Why aren’t conservative Protestants more interested in the religious makeup of today’s US Supreme Court?  Today’s Court is made up of six Catholics (Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, Sotomayor) and three Jewish members (Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan).  Fundamentalist Protestants are intensely interested in the Court, since it has turned into the government agency most closely associated with ultimate decisions about abortion, gay rights, and religion in the public square.  At nearly any other time in American history, the notion that once-dominant Protestantism wouldn’t even have a representative on the Court would have sparked ugly and angry denunciations of the Court’s legitimacy.  Today, I don’t hear much about it.  Just before the most recent new justice, Elena Kagan, was nominated, a Gallup poll asked respondents if they cared if the new judge was Protestant. Only 7% of respondents thought it was “essential.”  This indifference is puzzling.  Is it simply due to the fact that the cultural animosity between Protestants, Jews, and Catholics has been overcome by other cultural identities?  This was James Davison Hunter’s thesis in his 1992 book Culture Wars.  He argued that the differences between groups had diminished, in favor of a more important distinction between orthodox and progressive variants of each individual group.  One of contemporary evangelicalism’s premier evangelicals agreed.  In a 2010 article in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, historian Mark Noll noted that evangelicals have given “intense” support to the nomination of conservative religious justices, even when those justices were Catholic.  More decidedly fundamentalist Protestant intellectuals agreed.  Mathew Staver, dean of the Liberty University law school, noted in the same CT article, “I don’t think a person’s religious affiliation matters as much as their judicial philosophy.”

It makes sense.  But anyone familiar with the bitter twentieth-century hostility of many conservative Protestants to Catholicism might find this explanation a little too pat.  Has it really dissipated to such a remarkable extent?  Are there other likely explanations for the deafening silence among America’s Protestant fundamentalists on this issue?