Christian Culture Warriors Come in from the Cold

It has not been easy to be anti-gay lately. In a rush, support for same-sex marriage went from fringe to front-and-center. Many conservative religious people have felt flash-frozen out of the mainstream. When it comes to LGBTQ issues, many evangelicals have been surprised to hear themselves called bigots. In her continuing role as conservative dream-maker, Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos recently moved to bring anti-LGBTQ religious activists back into the mainstream. Will it work?

DeVos lgbtq

Welcoming anti-welcomers

First, let me lay out the required clarifications. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but new folks might not know where we’re coming from here at ILYBYGTH. So here they are: I personally feel strongly about LGBTQ rights, in school and elsewhere. But in these pages—as in my recent book about educational conservatism—I’m more interested in understanding the politics involved than scoring political points one way or the other.

Second, a little background: In the past three years or so, many conservative religious folks have been surprised to find themselves so quickly tossed from the precincts of respectability when it comes to LGBTQ issues. As I’ve been working on my book about evangelical higher ed, I’ve noticed how often university leaders have bumped up against the question. At Gordon College near Boston, for example, President Michael Lindsay was surprised by the ferocious response to his reminder about Gordon’s policy against homosexuality. The issue of same-sex rights threatened to split the world of evangelical higher education in two.

As traditional evangelical notions about homosexuality were kicked out of the mainstream, evangelical intellectuals were confronted again with their perennial dilemma. Do they maintain their dissident notions and deal with the consequences? Or do they adapt their ideas as mainstream culture changes?

Today, we see that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos has moved to reverse the tide. As reported by BuzzFeed, she invited two unapologetically anti-LGBTQ groups to an official Ed Department meeting. Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council both participated in a recent Father’s Day event. The signal couldn’t be clearer: Opposing expanding LGBTQ rights and protections does not make conservatives unwelcome in Queen Betsy’s regime.

We should not be surprised. In the twentieth century, according to progressive critics, Queen Betsy’s family foundation gave sizeable donations to both Focus on the Family and its offshoot Family Research Council. And there is absolutely no doubt that the two groups are stridently opposed to LGBTQ rights. Founder James Dobson views homosexuality and transgender as transgressions, pathways to “orgies” and sin.

Will such notions move back into the mainstream? Will groups who hold such views be allowed to participate in federally funded projects? It’s a frightening prospect, and the Trump White House makes it seem frighteningly realistic.


I command you, tide…

In the end, though, I think DeVos’s Canute strategy is doomed. She seems blithely unaware of her own separation from mainstream notions, but she will nevertheless be forced to deal with it. By including Focus and FRC, for example, she alienated the national Parent-Teacher Association, hardly a group known for its culture-war extremism.

As with her recent remarkable comments about discrimination in schools, Secretary DeVos will find herself apologizing for her inclusion of these anti-LGBTQ groups. There is no doubt she would like to welcome their ideas back into the mainstream, but she doesn’t have the power to reverse the tide.


Bryan College: Creationism Déjà vu All Over Again

It’s all over but the shouting.  That’s the news from Bryan College.  Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we see that Bryan College has settled its legal dispute with two of its professors.  The creationist courtroom drama may have been avoided, but we are left with one question: If this is part of a predictable pattern at conservative evangelical colleges, can we learn a better way to handle each new episode?

Why can't we all just get along...?

Why can’t we all just get along…?

Two Bryan College professors, Stephen Barnett and Steven DeGeorge, have settled their lawsuit with the school, according to the local newspaper.  Readers may remember that the school abruptly changed its statement of faith to insist that Adam and Eve did not descend from another species.  Faculty members had to make a tough decision: Could they agree to the newly explicit language about humanity’s origins?  Barnett and DeGeorge argued that it was not fair—nor even legal—for the school to impose such a decision on faculty.  It appears they have decided to drop the lawsuit, though the terms of this settlement have not been made public.

Why did Bryan’s leadership feel a need to make such a change?  They were in a tight spot.  As I’ve argued before, leading young-earth creationists such as Ken Ham are able to wield outsized influence on evangelical colleges.  Even the whiff of suspicion that a school has abandoned the true faith is enough to drive away students and their precious tuition dollars.  At Bryan—and I’m claiming no inside knowledge here, just a historian’s best guess—the leadership felt obliged to shore up its orthodox creationist bona fides.

This tension is nothing new at evangelical colleges.  Perhaps the most startling example of the deja-vu nature of the Bryan situation is an eerily similar case from Wheaton College in 1961.  In that case, faculty such as Russell Mixter hosted a conference on origins.  Whatever actually occurred at that meeting, rumors flew that Wheaton had opened itself to the teaching of evolution.  As a result, anxious trustees rammed through a change to the obligatory faculty creed.  From then on, faculty had to attest to their belief in “an historical Adam and an historical Eve, the parents of the human race, who were created by God and not descended from lower forms of life.”

Back then, Mixter signed.  He was more interested in the broad outlines of what he called “progressive creationism” than the details of the Garden of Eden.  But the nervousness of the leadership at Wheaton was palpable.  In addition to the change in creed, the school took out big advertisements in evangelical magazines such as Christian Life that trumpeted Wheaton’s continuing creationism.

The stories are so similar that it is hard to believe they are separated by over fifty years.  And they lead us to obvious questions: Why do evangelical colleges have such anxiety about their reputations as creationist colleges?  Why do leaders feel such a compelling need to publicize their continuing orthodoxy?  And perhaps most important, if these controversies are so predictable, why is there no better way to handle them?

As historian Michael Hamilton has argued about Wheaton, “Anxiety about constituent response hangs over virtually every decision the college has made since 1925.”  The same could be said for Bryan and every other school that relies on conservative evangelical families for its student bodies.

Each of these schools’ identities, after all, relied on the notion that they have been “safe” alternatives to mainstream schools.  At the more conservative Bob Jones University, for example, founder Bob Jones promised a different sort of college experience.  In 1928, just a few years after the school was founded, Jones promised,

fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children.

And even though Wheaton College was a very different sort of evangelical school, this central notion was the same.  In the 1930s, Wheaton advertised itself as a “safe college for young people.”

This pledge means more than just institutional window-dressing.  For conservative evangelical schools, the issue of orthodoxy looms large.  This stretches beyond the issue of creationism.  As we see in cases such as the recent controversy at Gordon College, ideas about sexuality also prove intensely controversial.  If schools want to change their policies, or sometimes even to clarify existing policies, they risk sparking a no-holds-barred fight that might threaten the continuing existence of their college.

No wonder school leaders are nervous.

The most recent episode at Bryan seems to have limped its way off the public stage.  But not without resentment, bitterness, and feelings of betrayal all around.  So we are left with a few questions for the leaders of conservative colleges: If this is such a central organizing principle of conservative orthodox colleges, why do they seem never to learn?  Why does today’s controversy at Bryan copy the pattern of Wheaton’s in 1961 so exactly?  Is there no better way to handle this predictable tension?

Evangelicals and Homosexuality on the College Campus

Maybe President Lindsay feels better knowing that only high pressure can create diamonds. Because the leader of evangelical Gordon College is feeling intense pressure from two sides right now. On one hand, the school’s accrediting agency has threatened to take away its accreditation if Gordon does not revise its policy on homosexuality. On the other, the school’s conservative supporters insist the policy must stay in place. If history is any guide, it appears one group might make the crucial difference in this case.

Are all welcome?  MUST all be welcome?

Are all welcome? MUST all be welcome?

This Gordon-ian knot is one that all conservative evangelical colleges have tried to pick apart. Schools such as these are in a pickle: they need to remain intellectually respectable and financially viable, yet a decision either way threatens both intellectual consistency and the bottom line.

As I’m finding as I research my new book, similar schools have had a difficult time walking this line. In the 1930s, for example, Wheaton College leaders moved fast to bring Wheaton up to accreditors’ standards. As historian Michael Hamilton argued, the president at the time, Oliver Buswell, viewed accreditation as more than just a piece of paper. To Buswell, accreditation was the “one of the best ways to earn intellectual respect for fundamentalist Christianity.”

But college leaders such as Buswell were also under intense pressure to maintain both the appearance and the reality of theological steadfastness. Leaders needed to maintain the confidence of the evangelical community that their schools were not slipping into secularism. In 1929, for instance, Buswell withdrew from publication a controversial book he had written. Why? As he explained to a colleague, above all Buswell felt the need to keep “the confidence of fundamentalist leaders . . . in the administration of Wheaton College.”

Losing either accreditation or the respect of the “fundamentalist” community could mean a wasting death for an evangelical college. And the two have often pushed in opposite directions.



Much has changed since then, but President Lindsay at Gordon College finds himself coming under similar pressure from both sides. [Full disclosure: I worked with Michael Lindsay in the Spencer Foundation/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellows program. I consider him a friend and colleague.]

For those who are just joining us, this story began back in July, when President Lindsay signed an open letter to President Obama about religious exemptions to an anti-discrimination law. Now, the question has become whether Gordon’s Statement on Life and Conduct violates the rules of its accrediting agency.

At issue is the Gordon ban on “homosexual practice.” The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has collaborated with Gordon in setting up a “discernment” group to examine the policy.  (As an aside, we could ask why only this part of the policy has come under investigation. After all, the Gordon policy also bans “blasphemy” and “profanity,” not to mention heterosexual sex outside of marriage. Doesn’t this impinge upon the free speech rights of potential students?)

For a host of reasons, the accrediting agency doesn’t care about blasphemy. But it is threatening to withdraw accreditation over the ban on “homosexual practice.” For Gordon College, loss of accreditation would have serious consequences. Its graduates would not necessarily be considered qualified for graduate school. Nor could they receive student loans backed by the federal government. Perhaps most important, though, loss of accreditation would be a symbolic slap in the face. Gordon would face the challenge of proving its continued intellectual respectability.

But that is not the only pressure facing Gordon right now. Just as President Buswell at Wheaton worried about both mainstream intellectual respectability and credibility within the world of conservative evangelicalism, so President Lindsay faces a double-sided threat.

Beyond accreditation pressure, Lindsay must consider the opinions of the far-flung community of conservative evangelicals. As one conservative pundit wrote recently in the pages of the Christian Post,

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.

As this conservative writer worried, Gordon might be willing to “sell its soul” to maintain accreditation.  If it did, conservative students and parents might take their tuition dollars elsewhere.  But if it doesn’t it might lose accreditation.  Without that sort of mainstream credibility, students and parents might take their tuition dollars elsewhere.

So what is a conservative school leader to do? How can President Lindsay balance the pressure to reform with the pressure to hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints?

In this case, there is a new wrinkle. Traditionally, alumni are one of the groups most likely to push school leaders to maintain conservative positions. Today, though, some Gordon alumni are hoping to convince Gordon to change its ways. A group of two dozen alums have published a letter encouraging Lindsay to remove any hint of anti-gay discrimination from Gordon’s policies.

In the past alumni have been one of the most vocal groups fighting any change at evangelical colleges. Conservative evangelical colleges have long been keenly aware of the pressures to modernize and secularize. Traditionally, alumni of these schools have been staunch foes of any perceived change, since any change could lead to an utter loss of the school’s steadfast character. Historian Michael Hamilton described this alumni attitude this way:

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.

In Gordon’s case, however, alumni—at least some of them—are pushing in the other direction. It is impossible to predict what will happen at Gordon. The board of trustees may decide this policy needs updating. Or they may not. And President Lindsay might decide that this language is a central part of the school’s evangelical character. Or he may not.

This case highlights the double pressure faced by conservative evangelical colleges. In a sense, they must serve two masters: the pressure to maintain a vague and shifting “respectability” with mainstream institutions; and the pressure to remain bastions of orthodoxy in a world hurtling headlong into secular mayhem.

Obama Persecutes Christian Schools

Does President Obama have it out for conservative evangelical Christians?  Does he plan to crush them by hitting them where it hurts?  In the pages of today’s Christian Post, Michael Zigarelli worries that Obama’s anti-discrimination policy will do just that.  By putting the squeeze on religious colleges, Zigarelli writes, Obama plans to squeeze the life out of conservative evangelicalism.  This sort of conspiracy-theorizing may sound far-out to non-conservatives like me.  But for those who know the history of evangelical education, it might not seem so wacky.

Zigarelli is commenting on the recent controversy at Gordon College in Massachusetts.  As we’ve noted in these pages, President D. Michael Lindsay of Gordon College attracted attention for signing an open letter to President Obama.  In case you missed the story, Lindsay signed the letter requesting an exemption from a planned executive order.  The order would ban discrimination against LGBTQ persons.

For those like me outside of the world of conservative evangelicalism, Lindsay’s attitude sounds an awful lot like a license to discriminate.  If, as Lindsay wrote, Gordon College does not discriminate against gay students and does not plan to start, why would they need such an exemption?

I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but as I understand it, the evangelicals did not ask to be able to discriminate against anyone, but rather to be able to continue their policy that requires all students and faculty to agree to a goal of chastity outside of marriage.  As we discussed here at ILYBYGTH, to many non-evangelicals and former evangelicals, that seems like a distinction without a difference.

But if we put those sorts of questions to one side for a moment, we can see that Zigarelli’s attitude demonstrates key elements of evangelical thinking.  His op-ed articulates some of the fears of conservative evangelicals.  For many conservatives, Obama’s order means more than just the end to discrimination.  It means the end of conservative evangelicalism in general.  Once conservatives are no longer able to operate their schools and colleges as they see fit, they will no longer be able to educate their children properly.  As Zigarelli concludes ominously,

Empty desks will follow empty pews, at least if this capricious; destabilizing theology is foisted upon our Christian schools. It’s time to take a stand.

To historians, this sort of rhetoric sounds familiar. As I’ve argued in the pages of the Journal of Religious History, conservative evangelicals made very similar sorts of statements after the Supreme Court’s anti-prayer decision in 1963. That school decision prompted conservative evangelicals to shift their thinking about their relationship to the broader American culture. As the editors of the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today expressed it, before that decision, they were confident of their roles as leaders of America’s “devout masses.” After the decision, though, they worried that conservative evangelicals had become nothing but a “believing remnant” in a sinful American culture.

For evangelicals, like all other Americans, any loss of control over schooling can signal a loss of control over public life itself. Some of us may scratch our heads and wonder why evangelicals worry so much about President Obama’s planned non-discrimination order. If, as President Lindsay insists, conservative schools don’t discriminate against homosexuals, what do they have to worry about?

Throughout the twentieth century and into today, though, conservative evangelicals have maintained a tense relationship with the wider American culture. Many conservatives believe themselves to be the representatives of the real American mainstream, the “moral majority.” At the same time, however, conservatives see themselves as persecuted outsiders in a twerking culture besotted with sin, sexuality, and secularism. When big public-policy decisions seem to hurt Christian education, evangelicals react vigorously.

Does Obama plan to crush conservative opposition? As Zigarelli admits, such statements may sound “absurd” and “alarmist.” But given the past fifty years of evangelicals’ relationship with public education, the notion that the federal government might take drastic steps that hurt Christian education does not seem absurd or alarmist at all.