I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Have you ever wondered how conservative Christians think about porn? I haven’t really, but I read about it this week with a lot of interest. That story and more made our weekly review of ILYBYGTH-themed news ‘n’ views:

Porn and the evangelical community: Samuel Perry talks about his new book Addicted to Lust, at NY.

What I found is that, whatever we think pornography is doing, those effects tend to be amplified when we’re talking about conservative Protestants. It seems to be uniquely harmful to conservative Protestants’ mental health, their sense of self, their own identities—certainly their intimate relationships—in ways that don’t tend to be as harmful for people who don’t have that kind of moral problem with it. . . .

But for women, if they are lusting over things visually—if they are looking at things like pornography and masturbating to them or getting turned on—they really feel like an extreme pervert. They experience what I would call a double shame. They are violating their own sexuality in a way that God doesn’t want. So they’re sinning, but they’re also sinning like a man. And so they feel trapped.

In my neighborhood, a group of kids just attacked an elderly man, at BJS.

The end of an era: Moody Bible Institute shuts down its student newspaper, at RNS.

Ew: looks like Trump’s “fixer” fixed some photos for Jerry Falwell Jr., Reuters reports.

Strikes at Chicago charters win big concessions, at Chalkbeat.

chicago charter protestTraining kids as first responders: Should we have ‘active-shooter’ drills in schools? This mom says no.

Losing our ability to feel shame, at FPR.

It doesn’t take a great act of the imagination to apply the rebuke to those of us today who enjoy watching the train-wreck conversations that often accompany the comments sections of various online media outlets—for, as Dante well knew, there is an immense and indecent pleasure in watching other people, especially people whom we instinctively feel ourselves better than, hate one another.

More from Senator Warren on college-debt forgiveness—will a racial angle win more votes? At IHE.

And (a little) more about Senator Harris’s edu-funding plan at The Atlantic.

“It is completely upside down that we currently have a system where the funding of a school district is based on the tax base of that community,” the Democratic hopeful vying to run against President Donald Trump in 2020 said. The line met with approving head nods and a chorus of agreement. “It’s just basic math,” she continued, on a roll. “The community that has the lowest tax base is going to receive the fewest resources, and by the way probably [has] the highest need.”

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Moody Student RIP

It’s difficult to believe that it’s really only a budget thing. After all, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, student newspapers at evangelical colleges have always been a thorn in the sides of conservative administrators. Whatever the real reason, I’m sorry to hear that Moody Bible Institute in Chicago will cease publication of its student paper. In my research for Fundamentalist U I spent many hours reading through back issues. As with other student papers, the old Moody Student gave me a sense of the ways evangelical colleges really operate.

The news from Chicago is somber. One faculty member pleaded to keep the paper going. Administrators, meanwhile, insist the decision to close down the Moody Standard was about budgets, not bibles. As one administrator put it,

The decision to no longer fund The Moody Standard was not an isolated one, but prayerfully considered as a part of our ongoing strategic desire to steward resources in a way that achieves strategic balance in our education department and better serves students.

Whatever the reason for its demise, I’m sorry for future historians of MBI. After all, the old copies of the Moody Student helped me wrap my mind around the ways evangelicalism played out at MBI across the twentieth century.

For example, consider the back-and-forth on the editorial page of the Moody Student in January, 1942. One student complained that he had asked for coffee in the dining room and been snarkily informed by another student, “Real Christians don’t drink coffee.”

It wasn’t a huge issue roiling the world of American evangelicalism. It didn’t involve big labels like “fundamentalists” vs. “new-evangelicals.” There were no celebrities involved. And that’s precisely why the story was so helpful to this historian—it helped me see the everyday gripes and disagreements that defined the world of college evangelicalism.

I found similar examples all over my notes. For example, what did MBI students think of courtship and dating? One series from 1945 was a big help to me, as student reporters interviewed their peers about “What I Look for in a Christian Young Woman” and “What I Look for in a Christian Young Man.” My favorite line: the perfect Christian man, one woman explained, will help even with home décor. He won’t think “it’s sissy to regard neatness and color-harmony.”

Jumping to the 1960s, the Moody Student provided an insight into the upside-down student politics of a conservative institution.

1964 WMBI and Goldwater

Capturing the evangelical vote, c. 1964.

As one student editor wrote in 1969, the job of MBI students should be to prove that a “silent majority” of students weren’t like “SDS.” Those fake radicals, the MBI editor explained,

try to give the impression that they are planting the seeds of freedom.  In truth, they are plowing furrows of division among Americans.

The student paper also helped me understand the divisions that developed over white racism at MBI. In 1970, for example, the Moody Student reported on anti-racism protests among MBI alums. As the anti-racist alums wrote,

The hypocrisy, frustration and profound spiritual damage suffered by us, both consciously and unconsciously, lead us to tear up our degrees and a diploma.

Last but not least, the Moody Student provided a public forum for the MBI community to debate changing ideas about student rules. As one editor opined in 1970,

Rules are necessary to develop discipline in the individual student, but equally important, the student must have freedom to make decisions on his own.  There must be a balance.  A person will not mature nor be able to face today’s world if he is not free to make choices. . . . I personally don’t think Moody has provided its students with that freedom to decide.

8 20 student paper pictures

What did the “Moody World” look like in 1971?

Reading the student paper, too, gave me a chance to see the non-written clues about changing norms and values at MBI. Student styles in the summer of 1971 were worlds removed from those of the buttoned-down 1940s.

In the end, I wholeheartedly agree with the MBI faculty member who argued that the student paper plays a vital role on campus. But even if I didn’t, I would feel sorry for those future historians who won’t have this resource to help understand the world of college evangelicalism in the twenty-first century.

1940s postcard library

…what did it look like c. 1941?

Have Students EVER Been Able to Change Evangelical Colleges?

The news might be glum for conservative folks in the world of evangelical higher education. A new survey finds that many students at evangelical schools expect their campuses to be more welcoming of LGBTQ people. Does the history of evangelical higher ed offer any hope that student activism might actually change things?

Here’s what we know: According to data from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study (IDEALS),

a whopping 85% of incoming students to evangelical colleges and universities find it at least moderately important that their campuses are welcoming toward LGBT people, with 44% finding it very important.

Now, there are a lot of ifs, ands, or buts here. The evangelical college students included in this survey can’t simply taken to be representative of all evangelical students at every school. Of the 122 institutions included, only a small minority could be considered “evangelical,” even by the broadest of definitions. And though the evangelical participants do seem to include a breadth of types of schools, like the more-liberal Wheaton in Illinois and the more-conservative God’s Bible School and College in Cincinnati, we can’t think they represent the vast diversity of evangelical higher ed.

rip poll lgbtq

Welcoming campuses…?

Plus, unless I’m missing it, these results aren’t broken down by school. So, for example, we can’t tell if huge majorities of pro-LGBTQ students at Wheaton balance out larger percentages of anti-LBGTQ students at God’s Bible School and College. All we get are a lump of “evangelical student” opinion.

Noting all the limitations, though, it seems remarkable that so many students at evangelical colleges seem to want their schools to be more welcoming to LGBTQ students and it raises a question: Have students ever been able to make big changes at their evangelical schools? As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, in the twentieth century student activism had mixed results.

For example, in the 1930s, students at Moody Bible Institute begged their administrators to offer a degree program. On July 27, 1931, a group of students sent the following signed letter to then-President James M. Gray:

We desire the degree, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end, that we might stand anywhere and everywhere, and preach or teach God’s living Word, full of the Holy Spirit, and at the same time make men know we can ‘give a reason for the hope that is within us’: not only from a scriptural standpoint, but also as to their own high standards of education and be used of God to win the well-educated as well as the less-educated man to Christ.

Did it work? Not really. MBI didn’t introduce its first degree program until October, 1965, and even MBI required degree students to get two years of coursework at a different liberal-arts school.

1940s postcard library

Studying hard for no degree…c. 1940s.

In the turbulent 1960s, evangelical campuses saw their share of student activism. The most successful tended to be anti-racism protests. At Wheaton, for example, in late 1968 a group calling itself the “Black and Puerto Rican Students of Wheaton College” issued a demand for more non-white professors and students, more African-studies classes (called “Black Studies” at the time), and, in general, “a Christian education relevant to our cultural heritage.”

It worked, sort of. By 1971 Wheaton’s administration had put resources into hiring more non-white faculty and offering new courses such as “Black Americans in  American Society,” “Urban Sociology,” and “People of Africa.”

Student pressure didn’t always come from the Left. Conservative students, too, have been able to push their schools in more conservative directions. At Biola, for example, students successfully petitioned in 1969 for a stricter enforcement of women’s dress codes and for a more conservative lean in invited speakers. As the conservative protesters wrote to President Samuel Sutherland,

we are deeply concerned about danger signs showing themselves among some of our conference speakers and members of the student body!  . . . Indications now present seem to point to a trend that the school is moving from its Biblical foundation.  May God prevent such a tragedy! [Emphasis in original.]

For today’s students, the lesson is not crystal clear. In some cases, even the most polite, Bible-passage-stuffed petitions do not bear fruit. In others, though, student pressure has had a decisive impact. In general, as with Wheaton’s move toward more racial diversity or Biola’s tightening of dress codes, student protests worked when they pushed administrators in a direction they wanted to go in already.

The Year in ILYBYGTH

I wasn’t going to do it. I was going to try awkwardly to maintain my dignity and refrain from any sort of year-end top-ten list. But then a couple of enforcers from the WordPress goon squad showed up and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

So here it is: The eleven most popular posts of 2018:

  1. What is Life Like at Evangelical Colleges? Reflections from alumni of “Fundamentalist U.” What was it like to attend different schools in different decades? How did evangelical higher ed shape these students’ lives?
  2. Billy Graham and Bob Jones From the archives, a look at the tempestuous and angry relationship between teacher and former student.

    Billy Graham

    RIP Billy Graham, here preaching to the multitudes in London, 1954.

  3. Crisis at Moody Bible Institute From way back in January 2018, a look at the ways the history of fundamentalist higher ed in the early 1900s set the pattern for the recent leadership shake-up at Chicago’s storied Bible school.
  4. The Dilemma of the Fundamentalist Intellectual An ugly story of resume inflation is par for the course in the world of fundamentalist academic life. Why?
  5. The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die: It doesn’t seem to matter that historians have punctured this story completely. Journalists still love it, probably because a lot of evangelicals love it.
  6. Christians Don’t Know Christianity: Are Christians supposed to actually believe Christian doctrine? Or only hold it as a personal preference? religion as personal belief
  7. Where Were You Radicalized? A simple question on Tweeter gets people thinking, but there’s one place no one seemed to be talking about.
  8. Evangelical Colleges Aren’t Teaching Christianity A professor complains that her students don’t know Christian orthodoxy. I lay out the historical case that this is nothing new in evangelical higher education.
  9. Bad News for Creationists Science just makes young-earth creationism harder and harder to believe. What will YECs do? I have a guess…

    20171228_090906

    Because…Darwin?

  10. How Did Christian Colleges Become Racist? I made the case for an under-suspected culprit behind the racism of white evangelicals: mainstream higher education.
  11. Is Creationism Hate Speech? Can–SHOULD–mainstream universities ban radical young-earth creationism because it is hateful to non-heterosexuals?

Who Pays Tuition to Have Students Killed?

I’m sorry to hear about the death of American missionary John Allen Chau. I don’t want to argue over it—whether he died a hero, a “terrorist,” or a “self-important, arrogant, deluded, foolish . . . pest.” Instead, I want to point out that Chau’s life and death demonstrate the one way that “Fundamentalist U” is now and has always been radically different from mainstream higher ed.

north seintinel island

“Fields white unto harvest…?”

If you haven’t heard the story yet, here it is in a nutshell: Chau was a missionary working with an organization called All Nations. He had made several efforts to contact an isolated group of islanders in the Indian Ocean. The hundred people who live on North Sentinel Island are protected by the Indian government. They have had very limited contact with outsiders.

Chau hired some locals to take him near the island. Islanders paddled out to meet their boat and fired a volley of arrows at Chau, one lodging in his Bible. Chau took a solo kayak and paddled to the island. Later, locals saw islanders burying a body that looked like Chau’s.

missions cartoon guy

The mission: From Liberty University student newsletter, c. 1982

Clearly, the missionary impulse is alive and well. Chau wrote in his diary that he didn’t want to die, but he accepted the risks in his effort to spread the Gospel to the world.

But that missionary impulse hasn’t survived on its own. It has been nurtured and supported by organizations such as All Nations. It has also been taught and encouraged by evangelical colleges and universities. And this missionary focus, I argued in Fundamentalist U, is the thing that most sharply defines evangelical higher education from mainstream schools.

Mission centered

From Biola’s student paper, 1939.

In Chau’s case, it was Oral Roberts University. ORU celebrated the fact that its teaching had led directly to the death of a former student. As ORU put it,

Oral Roberts University alumni have gone to the uttermost bounds of the earth for the last 50 years bringing hope and healing to millions. We are not surprised that John would try to reach out to these isolated people in order to share God’s love. We are deeply saddened to hear of his death.

In most ways, evangelical colleges and universities look and feel a lot like mainstream schools. They promise to prepare students for careers. They promise to help shape students’ values. They promise to keep students safe.

When it comes to missionary work, however, evangelical colleges throw the higher-ed playbook out the window.

missionary cartoon ad

From the Moody Student, 1969.

For generations, evangelical colleges have maintained their focus on guiding students toward missionary careers. Especially among schools with roots in the Bible-institute tradition, the pressure on students to think about self-sacrificing missionary work was often intense.

One student who attended Moody Bible Institute in the 1920s was a case in point. His father was an atheist. His mother was Catholic. Neither of them wanted him to attend MBI. But he went anyway. And the central lesson he learned there was that he had to give his life to Jesus as a missionary. As he later remembered,

It dawned on me that I had a responsibility toward the Lord’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).  You see, you can’t be in the Moody Bible Institute very long before you’ll have to face that.

The dedication to sending young missionaries out into the world remained central to evangelical higher education throughout the twentieth century. To offer just one small example of the scope of these schools’ missionary efforts, consider a poll from Biola University in 1962. In that year, according to the student paper, 47% of its graduating class was heading out to full-time missionary work.

IMG_1919

Classroom notes, MBI, c. 1940s

This focus on missionary work—today and in the past—has been the thing that has made evangelical higher education most radically different from the mainstream. In addition to all the ways it has mimicked mainstream schools—with sports, careers, social life, and academics—“Fundamentalist U” also trained students to give it all up, to sacrifice themselves in missionary labor.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

I don’t know how people had time to write stuff when the Brewers were in the playoffs, but they did. It has been a whirlwind week. Here are some of the top ILYBYGTH-themed stories from the interwebs:

What 81%? A new look at white evangelicals and Trump, at CT.

Some background on the new president of the Moody Bible Institute at RNS.

1940s postcard library

Getting those dispensations right…c. 1940s.

Trump, Pocahontas, and the Cherokee Nation: Senator Warren releases her DNA results, denied by both Cherokee Nation and Trump, at Politico.

Schools and the midterm elections: In Ohio, a failed charter network becomes a political football.

“He was clinically upset.” Rich parents reject Zuckerberg’s edu-plan, at NYMag.

Atheists keep sneaking in God through the back door. A review of Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism at NR.

What Christianity and secular humanism share is more important than their differences: No other religious tradition—Jewish, Greek, Indian, Chinese—envisions history as linear rather than cyclical or conceives of humanity as a unitary collective subject. The very idea of utopia—a place where everyone is happy—could not have occurred to people who took for granted that individuals have irreconcilable desires and ideals, and that conflict is therefore impossible to eliminate. Western universalism, Gray scoffs, is very provincial indeed.

It can happen here: A century after the Spanish flu, what are the chances of another worldwide pandemic? At Vox.

keep the faith vote for science

Hoosiers can love Jesus AND Bill Nye…

Finally! Indiana voters urged to “Keep the Faith and Vote for Science,” at IS.

How are America’s public schools really doing? It’s a trickier question than it seems, says Jack Schneider at WaPo.

America’s schools don’t merely reflect our nation’s material prosperity. They also reflect our moral poverty. . . . Reform rhetoric about the failures of America’s schools is both overheated and off the mark. Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

Why is an academic life harder for women and minorities? Columbia offers its findings at CHE.

Conservative campus group restricts audience for Ben Shapiro at USC, at IHE.

New survey: America’s evangelicals tend to like heresy, at CT.

religion as personal belief

How school reform works, until it doesn’t. Maine tries a new approach, then retreats, at Chalkbeat.

Proponents of proficiency-based learning argue that none of this reflects flaws in the concept. Maine struggled, they say, because they didn’t introduce the new systems thoughtfully enough, moving too quickly and requiring change rather than encouraging it.

Atheist and creationism-basher Lawrence Krauss announces his retirement after harassment allegations, at FA.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Frost on the pumpkins and the Brewers in the playoffs. What could be better? How bout another week full of ILYBYGTH-themed stories from around the interwebs?

More teens are abandoning traditional gender categories, at CNN.

genderunicorn1

What do some conservatives have against the unicorn?

Why are tests so hard to kill? New Jersey struggles to get rid of its common-core tests, at NJ.com.

What color is your Jesus? Three-quarters of white evangelicals still support Trump. Three-quarters of black evangelicals oppose him, at Vox.

Going up for tenure? Don’t bother with public scholarship, says a new survey at CHE.

Why so many Catholics and so few evangelicals on SCOTUS? Gene Zubovich says it’s a matter of school history.

By virtue of their 19th-century separationist anxieties and their investment in institutions of higher learning, Catholics have become the brains of the religious Right in the US.

Moody Bible Institute picks a new leader after a rough year, at CT.

Jerry Falwell Jr. explains why evangelicals love Trump, at The Guardian.

Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been a good, moral person, a strong leader, a tough leader – and that’s what this country needs.

Kirk on campus. No, not that Kirk. A review of Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk’s new book about conservative campus dreams at CHE.

Dirty tricks, done dirt cheap: Arizona Republicans get busted trying to donate $39.68 to their Democratic rivals, posing as communists. At The Guardian.

Evangelical Colleges Aren’t Teaching Christianity

What do students learn at evangelical colleges? For a hundred years now, the promise has been that these schools will teach reliably conservative, reliably orthodox religion. We see more evidence this morning that they tend to focus on something else instead.

It took me a while to catch on. As I conducted the research for my new book about evangelical higher education, I swam through reams of creeds, statements, and charters for new and renewed fundamentalist colleges. All of them promised orthodoxy—relentless and unyielding.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

Pure first.

It was only by reading and talking with Tim Gloege that I was able to grasp the big problem. And once he explained it to me enough times for me to understand, it clarified a whole lot.

Here’s the problem: The fundamentalist movement of the 1920s wasn’t really about orthodoxy. It couldn’t be. It was based, instead, on the creation of a new defense against a new threat. By the 1920s, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists hoped to form a coalition to oppose theological modernism in Protestant churches. They didn’t really have a single theology to be for, but rather a theological trend to be against. Instead of imposing a clear theological orthodoxy on its schools and churches, then, fundamentalism between 1920 and 1950 (ish) had to embrace a far vaguer vision of purity.

What did purity mean? It was never precisely spelled out, but it included a mish-mash of conservative theological principles, traditional social rules, and habits American evangelicals had picked up over the years. Most important, it was ruled by a vague and shifting consensus among evangelical leaders. As culture changed, so did notions of proper purity. In the 1920s, for example, cinema was banned as impure. The rule was maddeningly slippery: Purity was defined by what a consensus of the evangelical public seemed to think it was.

It’s confusing, so let me offer an example that helped me see the distinction. In 1929, Calvinist theologian and sometimes-fundamentalist J. Gresham Machen finally left Princeton Seminary. He opened his own school nearby, Westminster. Machen was dedicated to the notion of running a truly orthodox Calvinist seminary. The rules he set up for his students followed the demands of Calvinist orthodoxy.

From Wheaton College in 1936, President J. Oliver Buswell reached out to Machen with a concern. Was it true, Buswell asked, that Westminster students were allowed to drink alcohol? For Buswell, the notion that students would be allowed to do so was nearly inconceivable. It flouted every assumption he had as the leader of a fundamentalist college. For the theologically sophisticated Machen, however, there was no real problem. There was no theological reason to ban alcohol. Such rules were only cultural baggage from evangelicals’ prudish past, not creedal requirements from Calvinism’s rich orthodox legacy.

In other words, rules against alcohol were a result of the lowest-common-denominator evangelical quest for purity, not a requirement of Christian orthodoxy.

The tension between orthodoxy and purity at evangelical colleges continues. This morning we read a report from George Fox University in Oregon. Professor Abigail Favale writes in First Things that her GFU students don’t know about Christian orthodoxy and don’t really care. As she explains, it’s not that her students haven’t been thoroughly steeped in evangelical schools dedicated to “orthodoxy.” In her words,

Almost all students in the program are born-and-bred Christians of the nondenominational variety. A number of them have been both thoroughly churched and educated through Christian schools or homeschooling curricula.

favale

Purity first. And second.

But few of her students accept one key tenet of orthodox Christian thinking—the resurrection of the physical body. “Resistance to the idea of a physical resurrection struck them as perfectly logical,” she writes.

“It doesn’t feel right to say there’s a human body in heaven, when the body is tied so closely to sin,” said one student. In all, fewer than ten of my forty students affirmed the orthodox teaching that we will ultimately have a body in our glorified, heavenly form. None of them realizes that these beliefs are unorthodox; this is not willful doctrinal error. This is an absence of knowledge about the foundational tenets of historical, creedal Christianity.

If these evangelical students weren’t learning evangelical theology, what were they learning? It seems these days, just like in the twentieth century, the impossible goal of an interdenominational orthodoxy has been replaced with a vague but stern emphasis on purity. At least, that’s what Prof. Favale reports. “Without a guiding connection to orthodoxy,” she thinks,

young Evangelicals are developing heterodox sensibilities that are at odds with a Christian understanding of personhood. The body is associated with sin, the soul with holiness. Moreover, this sense of the body, especially under the alias flesh, tends to be hypersexualized. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Evangelical emphasis on purity, a word that has become synonymous with bodily virginity.

The goals of most fundamentalist colleges in the twentieth century included a lot of things. Students were supposed to become better Christians and better people. The details, however, were almost always left vague. Time and time again, theological orthodoxy had to take a back seat to a loosely defined devotion to purity.

What They Missed about Liberty Online

Want to understand evangelical higher education these days? Then you need to read the recent exposé of Liberty University’s online program in the New York Times. But when you do, remember that they left out a central piece of the picture.

moody literature mission

Early distance-learning programs at MBI claimed to reach the world with cutting-edge technology, c. 1947. These “mountaineers” got free Gospels if they read them in school. And, yes, that is their school building.

The Liberty Online story is a big one. As the Times article describes, Liberty now claims $2.5 billion (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) in net assets, largely from its online department. Because Liberty is a non-profit, it is not subject to the same oversight as for-profit schools such as Corinthian and the University of Phoenix.

Some online students, the article describes, felt pressured to sign up and ripped off with the results. As one unhappy former Liberty student told the Times,

What’s killing me is that I went into this program to try to change my situation . . . and I’m worse off than I was at the beginning.

It’s an ugly story. There is no doubt that Liberty’s online program has been a cash cow. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, there’s also no doubt that Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. has plowed his online profits back into the brick-and-mortar campus. Sports, star faculty, and campus facilities all get plenty of funding. Recently, the Liberty football squad used that money to fulfill one of the school’s long-standing dreams by defeating top-ranked Baylor.

But the Times story leaves out a crucial part of the historical context. The way they put it, Liberty’s online program came about as part of an experiment, an “educational novelty.” As the article explains,

One educational novelty that Falwell dabbled in, starting in the mid-’70s, was an early form of distance learning. Liberty would mail lecture videotapes and course packets to paying customers around the country — at first just certificate courses in Bible studies, and by the mid-’80s, accredited courses in other subjects as well.

The inspiration, according to the NYT, was the work of John Sperling and the University of Phoenix. I don’t doubt that President Falwell Jr. admired Sperling’s business model. I don’t dismiss the importance of the notion that Falwell has treated his school, as he told NYT, “like a business.”

However, if we really want to understand Liberty’s online success, we have to also understand its context as part of the history of evangelical higher education. It is difficult for some secular people (like me) to notice or acknowledge, but evangelical schools and missionary institutions have always led the way with finding new ways to use new technology to deliver distance education.

letterhead from BGC 3

Check out the 1950s-era “high-tech” logo! More evidence of the evangelical obsession with technology and distance learning, from Fuller Seminary, c. 1956.

Perhaps the best example might be the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. No matter the decade, no matter the technology, the Moody educational empire has found ways to expand its reach using new technological means. The drive is obvious: For MBI and other evangelical institutions, the primary goal is to deliver the Gospel to as many human eyes and ears as possible, as fast as possible. If new technology will help accomplish that mission, all the better.

To note just a few of the best-known programs, MBI was a pioneer in early radio, with its WMBI established in 1926 to bring the Word to the world. By 1940, WMBI’s Radio School of the Bible had over 10,000 registrants. In 1942, WMBI claimed to broadcast its programs through 187 radio stations across the USA, Canada, China, and Latin America.

In the 1940s, MBI set up its Moody Institute of Science, distributing missionary science films to a wide audience.

At the same time, MBI carried out less-well-known distance-learning programs as well. As I discovered in the MBI archives, from the 1920s through the 1960s the Moody Literature Mission delivered millions of books and tracts to readers throughout the country and throughout the world.

The point of these distance-learning programs was always the same. MBI, like all evangelical colleges and universities, had a mission of missions. It was dedicated to training young people to carry the Gospel around the world. And, unlike some people’s image of stuffy Luddite conservatives, evangelical institutions were always pioneers in every type of technology: print, radio, film, and internet.

So when the Jerry Falwells experimented with distance education, they weren’t innovating at all, really. Rather, they were merely continuing the long tradition of evangelical higher education—using all available means to deliver the Gospel around the world.

How Did Christian Colleges Become Racist?

People keep asking: Why are white evangelicals so racist? This week we see it in The Atlantic and at Forbes. At leading evangelical colleges—in the North anyway—there’s a big, obvious answer that this week’s pundits don’t mention.

Here’s what they’re saying:

  • Michael Gerson wondered what happened. At his alma mater Wheaton College in Illinois, a strident anti-racism among white evangelical leaders slipped away.
  • Chris Ladd places the blame on slavery and the lingering dominance of Southern Baptists. As Ladd writes,

Southern pastors adapted their theology to thrive under a terrorist state. Principled critics were exiled or murdered, leaving voices of dissent few and scattered. Southern Christianity evolved in strange directions under ever-increasing isolation.

The question should bother all of us, white or not, evangelical or not. Why do so many white evangelicals seem comfortable or even enthusiastic about Trump’s Charlottesville-friendly MAGA message?

1940s postcard library

Not a lot of diversity, c. 1940s

Since neither Gerson nor Ladd bring it up, I will. At some of the leading institutions among white evangelicals, there is an obvious culprit. It’s not the political power of the slave state. It’s not craven lust for political influence. As I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, Christian colleges have always been desperate to keep up with trends in mainstream higher education. And those trends pushed white evangelicals to mimic the white supremacy of mainstream higher education.

Of course, evangelical colleges were happy to stick out in some ways. In the classroom, for example. Evangelical institutions of higher education have always prided themselves on teaching dissident ideas about science, morality, and knowledge. In social trends, too, evangelical colleges didn’t mind having stricter rules for their students about drinking, sex, and dress codes.

When it came to academic luster, however, fundamentalist academics in the first half of the twentieth century were desperate for the respect of outsiders.

At Gerson’s alma mater, for example, President J. Oliver Buswell quietly discouraged African American attendance in the 1930s. Why? There’s no archival smoking gun, but Buswell explicitly discouraged one African American applicant, suggesting that her admission would lead to “social problems.”

When we remember the rest of Buswell’s tenure, his reasons for discouraging non-white applicants become more clear. Against the wishes of other Wheaton leaders at the period, Buswell fought hard for academic respectability. He tried to decrease teaching loads, increase faculty salaries, and improve faculty credentials. As Wheaton’s best historian put it, Buswell

passionately believed that one of the best ways to earn intellectual respect for fundamentalist Christianity would be to make certain that Wheaton achieved the highest standing possible in the eyes of secular educators.

In the 1930s, that respect came from a host of factors, including faculty publications and student success. It also came, though, from limiting the number of African American students and the perceived “social problems” interracialism would impose.

Buswell and Wheaton weren’t the only northerners to impose segregation on their anti-racist institutions. Cross-town at Moody Bible Institute, leaders similarly pushed segregation in order to keep their institution respectable in the eyes of white mainstream academics.

Like other white evangelical institutions, in the late 1800s Moody Bible Institute was committed to cross-racial evangelical outreach. On paper, in any case. And MBI always remained so on paper, but by the 1950s the dean of students broke up an interracial couple. The dean was not willing to say that there was anything theologically wrong with interracial dating, but he separated the couple anyways, worried that public interracialism would “give rise to criticism” of MBI and its evangelical mission.

Why do so many of today’s white evangelicals seem comfortable with Trump and his white-nationalist claptrap? Why didn’t they hold on to the anti-racism that had animated white evangelicals in the past? Both Ladd and Gerson make arguments worth reading.

On the campuses of northern evangelical colleges, though, there was another powerful impulse. For evangelical college leaders, being a real college meant earning the respect of white non-evangelical school leaders. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge, mainstream white college leaders expected racial segregation. White evangelical college leaders weren’t more racist than non-evangelicals. They were just more desperate to seem like “real” colleges.

HT: DL, EC