Well, that just proves it, you might be tempted to say. When Wheaton College can suspend a tenured professor for saying that Muslims and Christians worship the “same God,” it just goes to show that the “Fundamentalist Harvard” is (still) more “Fundamentalist” than “Harvard.”
But wait just one minute. If we look at this episode another way, we see that Wheaton’s recent strange action puts it smack dab in the mainstream of elite higher education these days.
You’ve probably seen the story by now. As Christianity Today reports, political science professor Larycia Hawkins was suspended recently. Professor Hawkins planned to wear a traditional Islamic headcovering—the hijab—during Advent this year to express her Christian solidarity with Muslims.
That’s not why she was suspended, at least not officially. The college suspended her, officially, for her statements about God. In a Facebook post on December 10, Professor Hawkins explained the reasons for her act of sartorial solidarity: “as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
Non-evangelicals like me might not see the problem. But as Christianity Today pointed out, the question of Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God is intensely controversial among some Christians.
It is tempting to see this episode as proof of Wheaton’s continuing status as a school outside of the higher educational mainstream. As I’m arguing in my new book about the history of conservative evangelical higher education, however, the truth has always been more complicated. Wheaton is NOT outside the mainstream here. Rather, this is exactly the sort of action that is taking place at elite colleges across the nation.
Of course, the details are different; the specific issues are different. In Wheaton’s case, the administration acted to suspend Professor Hawkins because, in their words,
As a Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton College embodies a distinctive Protestant evangelical identity, represented in our Statement of Faith, which guides the leadership, faculty and students of Wheaton at the core of our institution’s identity. Upon entering into a contractual employment agreement, each of our faculty and staff members voluntarily commits to accept and model the Statement of Faith with integrity, compassion and theological clarity.
This final problem of “theological clarity” seems to be the rub. Wheaton’s administration said they sympathized with Prof. Hawkins’s sympathy for Muslims. But, they repeated, “our compassion must be infused with theological clarity.” Professor Hawkins, in short, was suspended for “theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.”
Obviously, no pluralist, liberal, or secular school would suspend a professor for an act of theological un-clarity. As we’ve seen over the past few months, however, elite colleges everywhere are suspending professors and administrators for actions and statements that seem inconsistent with their non-theological convictions.
Like Professor Hawkins, for example, Erika Christakis at Yale has left her teaching duties. Why? Because she wrote an email that many students found unsettling. We might say that Christakis’s suspension was due to her lack of sufficient “clarity” about her racial ideology.
Or, we might consider the case of Mary Spellman at Claremont McKenna College. Did Dean Spellman make racist comments? No, but her attempt to care for one non-white student seemed to lack clarity to many students and activists.
SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it. But I think it is true, and I think this episode is further proof: Mainstream colleges today are moving more toward the “impulse to orthodoxy” that has been the hallmark of conservative evangelical colleges like Wheaton.
It’s easy enough to point out differences, of course. At Wheaton, pressure came from conservative alumni and administrators. At the other schools, pressure came—at first—from students. At Wheaton, the statement of faith is explicit and official, whereas the other orthodoxies are implicit and tentative.
In the end, though, I think the parallels are striking. At elite colleges these days, instructors, students, and administrators are expected to do more than agree generally and in principle with their schools’ current orthodoxy. They are expected, rather, to agree with forceful clarity. They are expected to avoid any statement or action that “seem[s] inconsistent” with dominant moral ideas.
To this reporter, it looks as if Wheaton College continues to be more similar than different from other elite schools these days.