Protests: Part of Life at Fundamentalist U

Shut em down! That’s what radical college students are saying these days. As Molly Wicker writes in the New York Times, even conservative students at conservative colleges are getting in on the action. We shouldn’t be surprised. As I describe in my new book, student protest has always been part of life at conservative evangelical schools.

Wicker is a junior at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. As she writes, her school and her fellow students are firmly conservative. The school is dedicated to a conservative, free-market sort of philosophy, one that bundles interdenominational evangelicalism with small-government enthusiasm.

pence trump clown car

Not conservative enough for GCC?

The school’s commencement speaker this year will be Vice President Mike Pence. We might think it a perfect fit. Pence, after all, is the White House’s living symbol of conservative evangelical values.

As Wicker relates, however, many of her fellow students are protesting Pence’s presence. Not because Pence is so conservative, but because Trump is not. As a representative of the Trump administration, Wicker writes, Pence represents Trump’s brand of “toxic, fear-inflating rhetoric.”

Like their fellows at Berkeley and other leftist havens, Grove City’s protesters are planning to demonstrate their displeasure at their school’s choice of commencement speaker. Wicker and the NYT editors suggest we should be surprised at this decision by conservative students at a conservative school.

We shouldn’t.

Student protest—sometimes polite, sometimes not—has always been a part of life at fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical colleges.

During the campus protests of the 1960s and 1970s, evangelical and fundamentalist schools witnessed their own wave of student activism. Many of those protests took on the tones of the continuing family feud between new-evangelicals and fundamentalists.

At Wheaton College, for example, students published a searing criticism of fundamentalist rules. The Wheaton administration tried to get them to cool it. The school, President V. Raymone Edman warned students, needed to protect the faith of all students, even fundamentalists.

Student protesters weren’t convinced. As one leader put it,

We must note that the ‘protective’ approach proscribes the natural freedom of man to seek truth where he will. . . . Christian education must exist in the free atmosphere of such a perspective or we will have no choice but to reject Christian education.

Student protests at conservative schools happened long before the Sixties, too. As long as there have been fundamentalist colleges, there have been fundamentalist student protests.

In the late 1930s, for example, Wheaton College President J. Oliver Buswell was on the ropes. Trustees wanted him out. Buswell was accused of many things, including a too-ferocious opposition to mainline denominations.

Students dived into the controversy with enthusiasm. One student of Buswell’s wrote an open letter to the Wheaton community. Buswell had to go, she wrote, because he was not doing a good job of training young fundamentalists. She had taken Buswell’s capstone ethics class. She didn’t want to complain; she prayed hard that God would “take away entirely my murmuring.” However, she felt compelled to voice her protest.

Buswell’s class, she protested, did not do what fundamentalist college classes were supposed to do. “It is most necessary,” she wrote,

for an educated young person, and especially a Christian, to know the struggle men have had through the ages to come to satisfactory conclusions about the First Cause, the final culmination, and the reason behind life. We cannot meet people of our day on an intelligent basis if we have no idea of their philosophy of life.

Unfortunately, though this student worked hard at every task Buswell assigned, she did not learn what she needed to know. Why did Buswell need to go? As this conservative student protested, Buswell had failed to perform the most important task of conservative evangelical higher education.

These protests were part of life at fundamentalist schools all over the country. Students felt obligated to speak up—as conservatives—to defend the true conservative ideals of their conservative schools.

At Bob Jones College in the 1930s, for example, this sort of more-conservative-than-thou student protest was institutionalized in the Pioneer Club. In this student club, members gathered every day to pray and organize school activities. They also pledged to root out “any atheistic or modernistic teacher” who might have somehow infiltrated the fundamentalist perimeter. And, most tellingly, they promised to shut down the school itself if they ever suspected a slide into liberalism and modernism.

Like the students at Grove City today, student protests at conservative evangelical colleges have often fought for a more consistent conservatism. Protests have sometimes succeeded when students have articulated their goals as the true goals of the schools themselves.

However, students like Molly Wicker and her conservative friends might take note: They might find themselves unpopular among their school’s administrators. The fervent evangelical student editor at Wheaton, after all, was kicked out for a full year. Any student—even members of the Pioneer Club—who questioned Bob Jones Sr.’s decisions was similarly shown the door.

Even when students insist that they are only protesting in favor of their school’s true values, administrators tend to expel first and ask questions later.

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