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Can fundamentalist colleges trust their faculty? We see this week an unfortunate blow-up in the continuing saga of power struggles at Bryan College in Tennessee. Does this bitter squabble between president and faculty represent an inherent problem for conservative evangelical schools? The history of these colleges suggests something along those lines.

According to Chattanooga’s Times Free Press, Bryan President Stephen Livesay has doubled down on his fight for control. As we’ve documented in these pages, for the past few years the college has gone back and forth in its struggle, with faculty approving a no-confidence vote last spring, and members of the board resigning this past summer.

He said, he said, c. 1953

He said, he said, c. 1953

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m up to my elbows in my new book about the twentieth-century history of conservative evangelical colleges. Time and again, administrators and trustees have demonstrated a deep distrust of their faculty.

In the 1930s, for example, Bob Jones College purged a suspect group of teachers. One of the fired faculty, Joseph Free, penned a protest letter. He had previously worked at three different colleges, Free wrote,

two of them orthodox. (But not obnoxious.) My loyalty was never questioned. . . . It simply never occurred to me that I was not free to express my opinions and I did express them. How was I to know that loyalty meant dictatorship?

Perhaps more famously, this pattern was repeated at Bob Jones University in the 1950s. Ted Mercer was fired in the summer of 1953, accused of a host of crimes including planning a “revolt of many faculty members.” Mercer himself claimed to have been blindsided by his dismissal. Maybe he had become too popular with students and faculty. Perhaps Bob Jones Sr. was too zealous in his jealousy of other administrators. In any case, Mercer went on to a long career at Bryan College.

The abiding distrust of faculty at fundamentalist colleges has not been unique to Bryan and Bob Jones U. At Wheaton College as recently as 1961, faculty scientists were pressed into a needless and humiliating mea culpa. After a conference on evolution and creationism in 1960, anxious trustees forced Wheaton administrators to tighten the school’s official position on the origins of humanity. No longer would it suffice for faculty to agree that God created. Since 1961, they have had to affirm that Adam and Eve were real historical personages and the true parents of the species. Professor Russell Mixter had to affirm his orthodoxy over and over again in order to allay the fears of Wheaton’s guardians of orthodoxy.

Nor was Dr. Mixter’s ordeal out of the ordinary at Wheaton. As historian Michael S. Hamilton wrote in his brilliant 1994 study of Wheaton’s history, the board of trustees has always been distrustful of the faculty. In Hamilton’s words, trustees have believed “the faculty represented the single greatest danger to maintaining the college’s Christian character.”

As usual, Hamilton’s history proves prescient. According to the Times Free Press, new rules at Bryan College seem intended to crush any whisper of faculty independence. New rules restrict professors’ ability to call meetings, for example. As the TFP explains,

Under this new policy, a faculty member is required to go through a seven-step process that includes approval from the Academic Council, a written rationale stating the purpose of the meeting and a waiting period of at least a week.

This sort of contrived impotence may seem shocking to those unfamiliar with the unique traditions of fundamentalist higher education. Within that charmed circle, however, it seems like nothing more than a new take on an old tradition: When the going gets tough, the faculty get blamed.

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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.

Homeschooling: A Scheme to Take Over America

What do Sarah Palin, Gordon College, and Christian homeschoolers have in common? According to evangelical-turned-atheist Frank Schaeffer, they are all “still fighting a religious war against their own country.” I’m no homeschooler or Palin fan, but Schaeffer’s accusations just don’t hold up to historical scrutiny.

Schaeffer’s most recent broadside appeared in Salon. In his article, Schaeffer blasted a wide range of “far-right” institutions. When parents choose to pull their kids out of public schools to indoctrinate them at home, Schaeffer charged, it amounts to nothing less than “virtual civil war carried on by other means.” As Schaeffer put it,

the evangelical schools and home school movement were, by design, founded to undermine a secular and free vision of America and replace it by stealth with a form of theocracy.

According to Schaeffer, this nefarious plot spreads beyond the anti-democratic practice of homeschooling. The “far-right,” Schaeffer insists, turns women into submissive breeding mares. The Right has opened its own colleges and universities as part of its plan to take over civil society. Jerry Falwell himself, Schaeffer relates, explained his reasons for opening Liberty Law School. “Frank,” Falwell confided, “we’re going to train a new generation of judges to change America!”

Is the sky really falling?

Is the sky really falling?

Inspired by the apocalyptic rhetoric of wild-eyed prophets such as Rousas Rushdoony, and marshalled by irresponsible self-aggrandizers such as Sarah Palin, the Christian Right will not stop until it has taken over. Conservative religious folks, Schaeffer insists, want nothing less than to impose a rigid theocracy on the United States. They will not be content until they have dictated the morals and mores of their neighbors as well as those of their children.

Are Schaeffer’s charges fair?

Certainly, he has the right to boast of his insider connections. His father, the late Francis Schaeffer, really did inspire a fair bit of the social philosophy of today’s conservative evangelicals. Schaeffer Senior articulated in the 1970s and 1980s the notion that US culture had been infiltrated by a sneaky “secular humanist” worldview. In order to properly live as Christians, then, Schaeffer Senior advocated a wide-ranging rejection of modern social mores. Perhaps most important for day-to-day culture-war politics, Schaeffer Senior along with C. Everett Koop denounced abortion rights as equivalent to murder.

At times, Frank Schaeffer seems blinded by his own imagined influence. In this Salon article, for example, he shamelessly name-drops his connections to writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Mary Pride. He claims to have been “instrumental” in bringing together the New Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Such unpleasantness aside, however, do Schaeffer’s charges stick? Are Christian homeschooling and evangelical higher education part of a long-ranging plot to undermine American traditions of pluralism and tolerance?

Short answer: No.

Before I offer a few examples of the ways Schaeffer’s breathless expose doesn’t match reality, let me explain my background for those who are new to ILYBYGTH. I am no apologist for fundamentalist Christianity. I’m no fundamentalist, not even a former fundamentalist. When it comes down to it, I will fight hard against fundamentalist-friendly school rules about prayer or sex ed. I don’t homeschool my kid. I don’t attend or teach at an evangelical college. I’m only a mild-mannered historian, with the sole goal of deflating hysterical culture-war accusations.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of Schaeffer’s claims.

First, is Christian homeschooling really as sinister as he claims? Schaeffer suggests that homeschoolers have been inspired by the work of leaders such as Mary Pride and Nancy Leigh DeMoss. The point of homeschooling, Schaeffer charges, is to train girls and women to submit to fathers and husbands, to glory in their second-class role as child-bearers and house-keepers.

There are indeed homeschoolers who adopt these notions. But anyone who follows the work of historian Milton Gaither can tell you that the world of homeschooling—even the more limited world of conservative evangelical homeschooling—is a kaleidoscope of missions, strategies, and techniques. I don’t doubt that some Christian parents hope to impose a rigid patriarchal vision on their children. What falls apart, though, when looked at carefully, is the notion that these folks are somehow the “real” reason behind Christian homeschooling. What falls apart are accusations that Christian homeschoolers are some sort of monolithic force scheming to take over the rest of our society. In reality, Christian homeschoolers are a remarkably fractious bunch.

Second, what about Rousas Rushdoony? As Schaeffer correctly points out, Rushdoony was the intellectual force behind “Reconstructionist” theology. In short, Rushdoony believed that Christians should impose true Christian morality on all of society, including Old-Testament-inspired laws about sex and conduct. In reality, though, the direct influence of Rushdoony’s social ideas has been rather limited. As scholars such as Michael J. McVicar have argued, Rushdoony has had far more influence on liberal pundits than on the conservative rank-and-file.

Next, are evangelical colleges really training a generation of conservative culture warriors? As I conduct the research for my next book, I’m struck by the ways evangelical colleges have been battlegrounds more than training centers. In other words, evangelical colleges and universities have had a hard time figuring out what they are doing. They are hardly in the business of cranking out thousands of mindless drones to push right-wing culture-war agendas.

For one thing, evangelical colleges have usually insisted on maintaining intellectual respectability in the eyes of non-evangelical scholars. Even such anti-accreditation schools as Bob Jones University have used outside measures such as the Graduate Record Examination to prove their academic bona fides. As historian Michael S. Hamilton noted in his brilliant study of Wheaton College, this desire prompted Wheaton in the 1930s to invite outside evaluators such as John Dale Russell of the University of Chicago to suggest changes at the “Fundamentalist Harvard.” This need for intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream intellectuals has continually pulled fundamentalist schools closer to the mainstream. Such colleges—even staunchly “unusual” ones like Bob Jones—have been much more similar to mainstream colleges than folks like Schaeffer admit.

Schaeffer uses Gordon College in Massachusetts as an example of the ways Christian colleges train new generations of young people to see the US government as evil. But as I found in my recent trip to the Gordon College archives, the community at Gordon has always been divided about the purposes of higher education. Back in the 1960s, Gordon College students held protests, sit-ins, and “sleep-ins” to change Gordon’s policies and attitudes. As one student put it during a 1968 protest, “we want to be treated like real college students.” How did the evangelical administration respond? By commending the students’ commitment to “activism over apathy.” To my ears, that does not sound like a brutal and all-encompassing mind-control approach.

The world of conservative evangelicalism, of “fundamentalism,” is one of continuous divisive tension. There is no fundamentalist conspiracy of the sort Schaeffer describes. Or, to be more specific, there are such conspiracies, but there are so many of them, and they disagree with one another so ferociously, that the threat Schaeffer warns us about is more fiction than fact.

Does Christian homeschooling really serve as a first step in a long-ranging scheme to take over America? Only in the fevered imaginings of former fundamentalists such as Frank Schaeffer.

MOOCing Jesus

Does online education work? A new survey of college faculty by Gallup for Inside Higher Education offers an unstartling new answer: It depends. Here at ILYBYGTH, we have a different question: Does online education work for conservative religious colleges?

After all, as I’m exploring in my new book, conservative religious colleges have always had a different goal from secular schools. Instead of just hoping to prepare students for careers and intelligent life, conservative schools have also intended to bolster the faith of their students. They have worried that any change might lead them into a slow slide into secularism. As a corollary, most conservative schools have maintained stricter lifestyle rules over students than secular colleges have. Conservative schools have insisted that classes be led faithfully, not just competently. But can they do this in online classes?

The survey of faculty for Inside Higher Ed includes some interesting points. [You can click to get the entire report, but you have to register.] In brief, faculty remain unconvinced that online education can deliver equal results to old-fashioned in-person classes. Online classes might do a good job—in some cases—at delivering content. But most faculty agree: there is something important lost when face-to-face interaction isn’t a leading part of university classes.

IHE CHART

Source: Carl Straumsheim, “Online Ed Skepticism and Self-Sufficiency: Survey of Faculty Views on Technology,” Inside Higher Education, October 29, 2014.

The survey specifically excluded some of the schools we’re interested in, what it calls “Bible colleges and seminaries.” And none of the questions included anything about student faith.

But no one interested in online higher education these days can ignore the fundamentalist elephant in the room. Liberty University, a school founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, now claims almost 100,000 online students. In addition to standard online coursework, Liberty offers online spiritual help, too. Students can join online prayer groups and Bible blogs.

But this menu of religious fare does not seem to match the traditional goals of conservative religious colleges. At most schools, the faith of students has been the primary concern, not merely an additional click on a webpage. And most college administrators have been keenly worried about sliding into heterodoxy and secularism. In his brilliant 1994 dissertation about Wheaton College, historian Michael Hamilton explained this sentiment like this:

The paradigm that has dominated Wheaton through the [twentieth] 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.

This mindset, I believe, is common among conservative evangelical schools. From Wheaton, to Biola, to Gordon, to more conservative schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty…all have worried that change will equal declension. All have been concerned, first and foremost, that novelty will lead faculty and students to abandon their faiths.

So here’s the question we wished Inside Higher Ed had asked professors at conservative schools: How can online education remain orthodox? How can the faith of students be preserved if student/teacher interaction is weakened?

And perhaps this is the toughest question for the folks at Liberty University: Has their wildly successful pursuit of online education changed their goal? Has Liberty abandoned its religious mission? Or, rather, could this massive online presence be compared to the televangelism of an earlier generation? Could the thousands of online students be seen as an enormous “mission field” for Liberty’s evangelical message?

From the Archives: Campus Rape in the 1930s

Do fundamentalist colleges encourage sexual assault?  It’s a terrible and difficult thing to talk about.  As we’ve seen in these pages, some alumni insist that fundamentalist schools force victims of sexual assault to blame themselves.  But we’ve also seen that sexual assault is not at all unique to religious schools.  As I continue the research for my new book about the history of evangelical colleges and universities, I’ve stumbled across a story that might shed light on these tricky questions.

Despot in Denver

Despot in Denver

The way we word the questions themselves is controversial: Are fundamentalist schools cults that pander to the lusts of authoritarian leaders?  Or do the strict sexual ethics of conservative evangelicalism help protect young women and men from predatory teachers and authority figures?

Critics of conservative evangelical colleges warn that that the pervasive “purity culture” of these schools leads directly to rape.  Bloggers such as Samantha Fields have accused fundamentalist colleges of blaming victims of sexual assault.  Journalists have blasted schools such as Patrick Henry College for fostering a rape-friendly environment.  Prominent evangelicals have suggested that the problem is not one of theology, but of an authoritarian institutional culture.  For example, Boz Tchividjian famously suggested that abuse can happen “in any culture, elevating leaders beyond accountability, leaving victims’ rights to their whim, and sidelining critics who challenge their rule.”

I’ve stumbled across a story from the 1930s that might illuminate the longer history here.  In 1936, a high-powered panel of fundamentalist leaders convened to investigate Denver Bible Institute (now part of Colorado Christian University).  At the time, DBI was led by charismatic founder Clifton L. Fowler.  Fowler wanted to join the Evangelical Teacher Training Association, and to do so ETTA demanded that rumors be cleared up.

Unfortunately for Fowler, an extremely disturbing picture emerged.  Fowler, the investigators concluded, ran DBI like a sex-crazed despot.  Students and faculty were pressured to declare lifelong commitments to the schools.  Married faculty members were pushed into pledging “continence.”  (I’m not sure what was meant by “continence” in this context.  Any suggestions?)  Students were encouraged to separate from parents and home churches.  Community members felt pressure to offer Fowler detailed confessions of their sexual sins.  And, yes, Fowler apparently routinely engaged in sexual activities with male students.

From one perspective, this historical episode might seem to confirm the dangers of authoritarian fundamentalist schools.  For as long as there have been fundamentalist schools, we might conclude, leaders have felt free to engage in predatory sexual practices.  Community members felt constrained by their own admitted sexual sinfulness from criticizing the dictatorial leadership.

On the other hand, as Michael Hamilton argued in his excellent 1994 dissertation, Fowler did not have a free hand to do as he pleased.  The accusations against Fowler forced DBI out of decent fundamentalist company.  Local fundamentalist churches cut off DBI.  The Evangelical Teacher Training Association would not let DBI join.  Fowler, in other words, was restrained in his behavior because of the network of fundamentalist schools and churches in which he worked.

As usual, history does not offer any pat solutions.  But this episode does demonstrate the long lifespan of these questions at fundamentalist schools.  It shows that school founders have always been accused of sexual predation.  But it also shows that fundamentalist leaders and communities worked hard to police their own ranks.

In this case, at least, both national leaders and local community members refused to look the other way.