Gay Students and the New Fundamentalism

The distinction between “new evangelicalism” and “fundamentalism” was never all that clear. As a story from my neighborhood this week shows, though, it is getting easier to see the difference on the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities. We seem to have a new fundamentalist checklist, not of policies necessarily, but of institutional attitudes on certain key issues.

campbell csu

Out and out.

As I described in Fundamentalist U, the split between fundamentalists and new evangelicals was not a clean break on evangelical campuses. Between the late 1940s and, say, the late 1980s, there were a lot of continuing close connections between evangelical schools that remained with the “fundamentalist” branch of the family and those that had moved to the “new evangelical” side.

These days, generally, the “fundamentalist” label is out of fashion, even among fundamentalist stalwarts such as Bob Jones University. But the meaning remains, and these days we are seeing a clearer and clearer dividing line between evangelical colleges and no-longer-fundamentalist-in-name-but-fundamentalist-in-spirit institutions.

How do you know these days if a school is fundamentalist? It’s not necessarily a question of policies, but rather a spirit in which certain hard-line positions are maintained and a zeal with which they are publicized. ALL evangelical colleges and universities will be creationist, for example. And all will—from a mainstream perspective—have discriminatory policies against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. All conservative-evangelical schools will also tip toward conservative politics and cultural traditionalism.

The fundamentalist branch of the family, though, will insist on the hard edge of these positions in a consistently aggressive way and they will go out of their way to publicize their hard stand on these issues. Fundamentalist schools will trumpet their insistence on the following:

  • Young-earth creationism ONLY;
  • Political and cultural traditionalism;
  • And, most relevant for our purposes today, a loud, publicized hard line against any whiff of homosexuality on campus.

Consider the news from Clarks Summit. A former student has tried to re-enroll. Gary Campbell dropped out in 2005, only six credits shy of his degree. After a rough stint in the Navy, Campbell now wants to return. The school says no.

According to Campbell, the Dean of Students contacted him to let him know Campbell won’t be allowed to return, because Campbell is homosexual.

To be clear, from a mainstream perspective, all evangelical colleges discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and faculty. Even firmly non-fundamentalist evangelical institutions such as Gordon College and Wheaton College have issued reminders recently that gay is not okay.

But Clarks Summit University’s stance has a hard edge to it that helps define the new fundamentalism. Campbell’s sexual identity was apparently revealed to administrators by a fellow student, at least according to Campbell. The school could easily have re-admitted Campbell quietly.

Instead, the school’s administration chose to use this case as a chance to publicize its hard line. When journalists called about Campbell’s story, the university issued the following statement:

As a Christian college, we expect all students to act in a way that is consistent with our biblical belief system. We have always clearly stated those beliefs and have exercised the freedom to uphold our faith. . . . To prepare students for worldwide service opportunities, CSU clearly affirms biblical sexuality. We clearly communicate to all prospective students that we adhere to biblical truths, and expect them to do the same. That is part of what has made CSU a successful educator for more than 80 years. We would be happy to assist any former or prospective student who does not choose to agree with those faith standards to find another school in order to finish a degree.

These days, to be a fundamentalist institution means flying and flaunting the fundamentalist flag. It means taking every opportunity to enforce hard lines on sexual identity.

We see the same phenomenon in other issues such as creationism or political conservatism. In order to remain attractive to fundamentalist students and parents, school administrators take drastic steps to ratchet up their commitment to young-earth creationism or knee-jerk political conservatism.

What does it mean to be “fundamentalist” these days in evangelical higher education? As has Clarks Summit University, it means taking and, importantly, publicizing a hard line on issues of sexuality, creation, and political conservatism.

Fundamentalist colleges want their level of commitment to be known. They hope students, alumni, parents, and donors will recognize their positions and reward them with continued enrollments, donations, and support.

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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.