What Gets Conservative Kids Excited?

So…what do conservative college students get excited about? Monarchism, apparently. That’s the word from conservative stalwart Patrick Henry College, at least. And, as I found in the research for my upcoming book about conservative evangelical higher education, today’s monarchist enthusiasts are joining a long tradition at conservative schools. I can’t help but wonder if today’s college presidents will respond the way presidents always have responded.

It might just be hopeful dreaming, but at National Review Jeff Cimmino argues that young students at conservative colleges are jumping on to the traditionalist bandwagon. Mostly, at schools such as Hillsdale, Patrick Henry, as well as at mainstream schools such as Notre Dame, smart young conservatives are discovering the work of Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke, and other traditionalists.

There are also kookier ideas floating around student lounges. Christian McGuire, the student editor of a conservative review at Patrick Henry College, reported loads of enthusiasm for conservative Catholic thinking and Russell Kirk. But that’s not all. According to Cimmino,

When asked whether monarchist sentiments could be found on campus, McGuire responded firmly: “Yes, absolutely.” Though still very much a minority view at Patrick Henry College, some traditionalist-minded students are open to the idea of a king.

A king! Zoiks. It sounds kooky, but as I discovered in my recent research in the archives of other conservative evangelical schools, such student intellectual enthusiasms are nothing new.

Cimmino doesn’t mention it, but monarchism and Burkeanism have not been the most potent intellectual traditions that have excited young evangelical intellectuals. Time and again, students at evangelical schools have discovered—as if it were new—the bracing intellectual rigor of Calvinism.

I include in my book, for example, the story of Calvinist dissent at Wheaton College in the 1930s and 1940s. Back then, high-flying scholar Gordon Clark accepted a job at Wheaton. Clark had an Ivy-League PhD and the kind of elite academic credentials evangelical colleges like Wheaton yearned for.

But Clark’s Calvinism rubbed along awkwardly in the interdenominational world of 1930s American fundamentalism. As soon as he arrived, Clark started a “Creed Club” on campus. His brainy Calvinism excited and attracted plenty of Wheaton students. But Clark’s unyielding intellect made him unpopular with the administration.

Callow Calvinist students began protesting, for example, that Wheaton placed far too much emphasis on missionary work. And they began adopting Clark’s dismissive attitude toward campus revivalism. Like their hero Professor Clark, students began deriding such things as mere “mass psychology.”

What did Wheaton do? In 1943, they showed Clark the door. They loved his resume, but they couldn’t accept the notion that their students were pooh-poohing ideas so near and dear to the heart of American fundamentalism. If such student enthusiasms got too much attention, Wheaton worried it would lose support from the fundamentalist community.

Could that pattern repeat itself?

At Patrick Henry, especially, administrators might get nervous if students veer to the right of their school’s goal of reclaiming America for Christ.

What would Patrick Henry leaders do, for example, if over-enthusiastic student monarchists began pooh-poohing American Constitutionalism? If they bruited about the idea that republicanism itself—Americanism itself—was nothing but a mistake to be corrected?

Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the archives of university presidents, but I can’t help but think that Patrick Henry’s leaders would have to put a stop to such things, worried about what it might do to their school’s reputation as an outpost of more-American-than-thou religious conservatism.

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Trump Makes Conservative College Dreams Come True

You can hear the cheering all the way from Michigan to Washington DC. The long-held dreams of Hillsdale College just might be coming true. This unique conservative institution has labored for 50+ years to become the premier intellectual training ground for American conservatism, and its influence in the Trump administration seems proof that it’s really happening.

hillsdale college

Take that, Harvard!

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware of the Hillsdale story, but for those readers who aren’t, here it is in a nutshell: Back in the 1960s, the college dedicated itself to a self-consciously dissenting notion of conservative American higher education. Hillsdale is generally friendly to evangelical thinking, but it has never really been an integral part of the network of conservative evangelical schools I’m focusing on in my new book, Fundamentalist U. Some elements of its mission, though, are very similar.

Back in the early 1980s, for example, one of the fundamentalist schools I’m studying proclaimed its culture-war mission: In 1981, Liberty University’s Ed Hindson declared,

A few thousand highly committed and thoroughly trained young people, who were willing to put their Christianity to work in every sector of our society, could see America changed in our life time.

If you substitute “conservatism” for “Christianity” in Hindson’s sentence, you’d end up with something like what Hillsdale is looking for. Hillsdale’s newfound influence in the Trump administration seems proof that the plan is working, at least in part.

What does “conservative higher education” mean in Hillsdale, Michigan?

The school stridently refuses to accept any government funding. Its core curriculum teaches a traditional vision of the European canon, guided by “Judeo-Christian values.” Its campus proudly features statues of conservative heroes such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The faculty have always welcomed leading conservative thinkers, including Russell Kirk back in the 1970s, and today’s superstar conservative-evangelical historian and public intellectual D. G. Hart.

hillsdale college reagan statue

The Gipper chillin on campus…

When your humble editor read this morning that Hillsdale President Larry Arnn is getting some rare and valuable one-on-one time with Secretary Betsy DeVos, we wondered just how far Hillsdale’s star had risen with the new administration.

Turns out, pretty far.

In all the hubbub-ery following Trump’s inauguration, we missed one story: Back in February, President Arnn claimed to be on a short list for DeVos’s job. And, according to the school newspaper, Hillsdale alumni filled some important roles in the Trump administration. Josh Venable (Class of 2002) became chief of staff in the Ed Department. David Morrell (2007) served as associate counsel to Trump. And two alums, Brittany Baldwin (2012) and Stephen Ford (2010) wrote speeches for the President and VP.

At least, they did back in February. In the current fast-changing White House, maybe they are out by now.

The bigger point, however, remains the same. Hillsdale’s dreams, like those of other conservative schools such as Liberty University, Patrick Henry College, and The King’s College, has long been to exert more influence in government and politics. Hillsdale doesn’t talk about the “Christian” part as much, but the goal is very similar.

Those of us who scratch our heads and wonder how any intellectual—progressive, conservative, or other—could support the clown-prince buffoonery of Trump would do well to appreciate the ways Trumpism is making long-held conservative dreams come true.

Required Reading: Faces of Fundamentalism

When I first saw notice for Jona Frank’s book I worried it was another callow safari-style tour of fundamentalism in America.  I worried that the photographer hoped to shock and titillate non-fundamentalists with photographs from a bizarre subculture.  While Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League does include some elements of that cultural-tourist mindset, overall Frank offers a rich collection of portraits that are well worth exploring.

The book is a collection of portraits of the students at the new Patrick Henry College.  The students at PHC usually come from conservative religious homeschooling families.  The raison d’etre of the school, after all, is to get conservative kids into influential positions in politics and culture.  When I first saw promo photographs from the book, it looked to me as if Frank hoped to emphasize the distinctive subcultural elements of these students.  Many of the students appear awkward and over-dressed.  Some look distinctly overstuffed and uptight, as if they are surprised to find themselves in twenty-first century America.

Juli, whose career goal is to be a homeschooling mom.

Juli, whose career goal is to be a homeschooling mom.

After spending some time with the book, I feel Frank deserves more credit.  She wrestles explicitly with these issues in her conclusion.  As she writes, the “assuredness” of PHC students “confuses me.”  As she put it,

I had vague notions that I would marry and have a family when I was twenty-two, but both were far off.  What I wanted was exploration, travel, stories, youth hostels and road trips, part-time jobs and film school.  Before commencement I yearned for freedom.  This is part of being young in American, or so I believed until I went to Patrick Henry.

It has to be a lot of pressure to have a daily conversation with yourself about how you will impact the world.  In some ways, it’s the summer of ’69 at PHC, and they experiencing their own counterculture.  Of course, they are not ripping off their shirts and taking LSD.  It’s much quieter, but it’s not less complex.  The world is a complicated place.  It’s at odds with the homes they grew up in, and they are holding fast to the ideals of a life they believe is right.

In this passage and elsewhere, Frank demonstrates her awareness of her own limited perspective.  Just because we make certain assumptions about what “college” is supposed to be like, we must not impose those assumptions on everyone.  This is true whether students attend a button-down fundamentalist school like Patrick Henry or whether students are working two jobs while taking classes at a local community-college campus.

For those of us trying to understand conservative thinking and practice in education, Frank’s book also contains valuable samples of student work and wonderfully lengthy interviews with students.  One student sample, by “Grace M.,” reported on David Aikman’s biography of George W. Bush.  As this student reported dutifully, as “Dubya” matured,

It became obvious that his faith and religious convictions were a pleasant aroma to Americans.

Maybe not the best prose, but no worse than much of the student work from the non-fundamentalist schools in which I’ve worked.

Some of the students sound as if they are simply parroting the party line.  Jeremiah, for example, related his understanding of the purpose of PHC.  The school’s mission, he told Frank, included

Impacting government, impacting the media, impacting Hollywood, the culture, the arts. . . . Now our heaviest focus is on government, but the long-term goal is to impact the media, the arts, television, and the movies.

To my ears, this sounds like the sort of indoctrination I’d fear at a fundamentalist school.  Teachers say something, and students repeat it.  But, to be fair, when I listen to many of my undergraduate students here at a highly selective pluralist public university, they often also sound as if they are just repeating back what they’ve been told.

And we see some evidence that PHC dives deeper into true intellectual diversity than do many secular schools.  Another student, Juli, explained why they read so many non-Christian and even anti-Christian writers.  Such writers as Nietzsche, Juli explained

May be absolutely wrong, but they are not foolish, so we can’t just mock them.

How many students at pluralist universities would say the same thing about writers they disagree with?  How many students even read the work of conservative intellectuals as part of their training?  As former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg recently accused, have too many mainstream colleges turned into liberal indoctrination mills?  Have fundamentalist schools like PHC become more intellectually diverse than mainstream colleges?

To be sure, Frank’s book also contains glimpses of more disturbing tendencies at PHC.  One student accused the leadership of being “Draconian, totalitarian, in regard to students and faculty.”  And Frank includes an image of a repressive-sounding “Bride’s Guide.”  Young women are offered the following tidbit of complementarian advice: “Be a Woman Who Is Willing to Give Up All your Dreams.”

To outsiders like me, that sounds shockingly sexist.  To her credit, Frank includes this sort of depressing anti-feminism alongside photographs of an engagement party in which the women seem joyful and wholly at peace with their complementarian commitments.  Frank seems aware that the “Bride’s Guides” might fulfill my stereotypes of harsh fundamentalist impositions, but she also seems aware that the students at PHC often confound my stereotypes by embracing such rules freely and healthily.

Of course, a book can only be so long, but I wish that Frank had explored the theme of institutional growing pains more deeply.  She notes the generational divide at work here.  Many of these students came from families who see themselves as homeschooling pioneers.  But in being part of the first decade of life at PHC, these students also take a role as pioneers.  As I explored in my 1920s book and plan to treat at more length in my upcoming higher-ed book, fundamentalist universities are similar to other organizations in many ways.  The first generation, under the direct leadership of a charismatic founder, has a unique set of challenges and problems.  PHC still lingers in that first phase of development.  It seems to me that Frank could have taken more time to explore that tension.

She might have looked at the history of evangelical higher ed, in which each successive generation has opened a new school meant to be a “fundamentalist Harvard.”  In the 1920s, it was Bob Jones University.  In 1970, it was Liberty University.  How does PHC echo those experiences?  How is it unique?  Frank seems disappointingly uninterested in those questions, or unaware of them.

Instead, Frank seems to play along with the school’s claim to be part of something new, a new “evangelical Ivy League.”  Why, when she is careful to hold the school’s other assumptions at arm’s length, does Frank simply accept this kind of description?  After all, a school founded in the past five years can’t fairly be compared to the Ivy League.  Those institutions have a unique place in elite circles.  No student from the real Ivy League would say that no one knows about their college, as one of the PHC students complained about PHC.  Though PHC’s students might have ambitions of taking a fast track to elite positions, the school itself is more bluster than reality at this point.  To accept the founder’s (and students’) claim that PHC represents the very best of evangelical higher education is to make a woeful misapprehension of the state of American evangelical culture.

Such quibbles should not deter readers from getting their hands on a copy of Frank’s book.  For those interested in exploring the world of conservative education, Right will be well worth your time.

 

Can Christian Colleges Say the R-Word?

Do conservative Christians encourage rape?  It’s a difficult thing to talk about, but it is a question these days at the center of discussions about conservatism, Christianity and higher education.  Most recently, blogger Samantha Field related the stories of students at Pensacola Christian College who had been punished by the school after suffering sexual assaults.  The accusations have attracted enough attention that PCC has felt obliged to make a public denial.  The school said it has been “harassed and victimized” by these accusations.  PCC, the school insisted, has always acted in accordance with the law.

This is not only an issue at Pensacola Christian College.  As journalist Kiera Feldman argued in a recent New Republic article, a similar culture of institutional arrogance prevails at Patrick Henry College.  And Bob Jones University has gone back and forth with its efforts to examine its own culture.  More broadly, Billy Graham’s grandson attracted attention a few months back for asking if evangelical Protestants had a worse record of dealing with sex abuse than did the Catholic Church.

These are difficult questions to ask.  For an earlier post about this issue, I’ve been called insensitive (fair, and I apologize again), ignorant (sometimes fair, sometimes unfair) and guilty of condoning or excusing cover-ups (utterly unfair).  What I asked was whether or not these accusations of institutional misconduct rely on stereotyped assumptions about conservative evangelical Protestants.  In other words, is there something specifically about the religion of these schools that is somehow to blame?  Or is it an institutional culture at these conservative schools that blames victims and excuses criminals?  Is there something about the Christian nature of these schools that promotes and excuses rape?  Or is this a question of institutional mismanagement?  Finally, we have to ask, is this whole thing somehow more aggravated at these schools than it is at secular or pluralist schools?

After reading more about these cases, it seems the attitude toward rape of school leaders really is wrapped up intimately with their institutional tradition, and maybe even with their theological tradition.  It seems this is more than just another case of fundamentalist-bashing.  In the past, I have defended young-earth creationists against accusations that they are guilty of criminal abuse.  I’ve chided secular journalists—with whom I’m generally sympathetic—for misrepresenting the claims of young earth creationists.  These cases from conservative colleges seemed to me, at first, to represent similar sorts of knee-jerk anti-fundamentalist stereotyping.  I didn’t try to cast doubt on the sincerity of the victims, to be clear, but I did ask whether the accusations against the schools unfairly tied belief in an inerrant Bible to cases of institutional misconduct.

I do not come from a conservative evangelical or fundamentalist background.  But for a living, I study conservative educational activism, especially the educational thinking of conservative Protestants in the United States.  I’m aware of the history of American fundamentalism, including the ways theology has been profoundly combined with hierarchical gender notions.  As I wrote in my 1920s book and as Margaret Bendroth argued in hers, in its early decades American fundamentalism relied on notions of male dominance and female submissiveness.

We know that all colleges these days are struggling with proper ways to handle sexual assault cases.  The charges against schools such as Patrick Henry College, Pensacola Christian College, and Bob Jones University suggest that the campus culture at these conservative schools makes that difficult task much harder.  It seems the fundamentalist culture of these schools has intensified the already brutal culture on many secular college campuses.

This does not mean that every fundamentalist condones sexual assault, of course.  This does not even mean that every student, faculty member, or administrator of these schools agrees with the overall school culture.  Nor can we even say with confidence that this culture is somehow a necessary outgrowth of the theology of the schools, rather than primarily a question of hierarchical, closed-off, inflexible administrative structure.  But it does seem that the dominant atmosphere of these schools needs to share blame in this aggravated culture of condoning and excusing sexual assault.

The best comparison, it seems to me, is the atrocious record of the Catholic Church with its recent sex-abuse scandals.  No one says that every Catholic—let alone every Catholic priest—is part of this scandal.  Nor do we even say with confidence that this is something caused directly by the theology of the Catholic Church.  And we can of course point out that far more non-Catholics committed sex abuse than did Catholic priests.  But such objections miss the point.  There was something profoundly wrong with the way the power structure of the church handled those cases.  It seems there’s a similar connection here between institutional structure and moral accountability.

Those few who might use these cases to suggest that Christianity as a whole is a rape-centered religion are just as wrong as they have ever been.  And we must remember that there is a wide variety in conservative evangelical colleges.  A culture that dominates at BJU, PHC, or PCC will be very different from the culture at other evangelical schools such as Wheaton.  But even remembering those important caveats, there is something deeply troubling with the institutional power structure in these fundamentalist schools.

What will colleges do to respond?  As I’ve argued elsewhere, these schools rely on their reputation as havens of religious orthodoxy in a secularized society.  As the first Bob Jones insisted when he founded Bob Jones College in the 1920s,

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.

Today’s school leaders, no less than the founders, must be able to say confidently that students will be theologically and physically safe.  How can they reassure parents and future students that they have responded to these accusations?

Jesus College and the Rape Smear

I’m no fan of Patrick Henry College.  But I’m even less of a fan of the cultural politics of smearing.  Smears are the biological weapons of cultural warfare; they poison the ground for generations.

Last week we read with interest an “expose” of the rape-friendly campus at the attention-grabbing conservative school.  Rape is a terrible problem.  And campus rape seems to have taken on a life of its own.  But the author of this article seemed more intent on smearing Patrick Henry and conservative religious people in general than she did in exploring the real issues.

This sort of smear attack is doubly dangerous. First, smears like this convince the already convinced that their Christian enemies must be fought tooth and nail.  After all, the article implies, conservative Christians support rape.  What kind of monsters are they?  Second, conservative Christians will easily be able to point out the unfair guilt-by-association tactics this writer resorts to.  For Christians, this sort of smear simply provides more proof that Bible-loving Christians are a beleaguered minority, under unfair attack from an aggressive, hostile, secularizing liberal elite.

Let me be crystal clear: I am not defending Patrick Henry College.  I am not saying that the administration and students did or did not react badly to allegations of sexual assault.  I am not saying that assaults did or did not take place.  I am certainly not saying that allegations of sexual assault need not be taken seriously, nor that female victims ought to blamed.

But the author of this article, Kiera Feldman, repeatedly resorts to insinuation and smear in an attempt to demonize this conservative Christian institution.  The article tells the story of Claire Spear, a freshman, who was attacked by a fellow student.  Feldman also describes the case of Sarah Patten, who was assaulted on campus.  Feldman accuses the college administration of pooh-poohing the incidents.  More powerfully, Feldman implies that the conservative Christian campus culture actually encourages male-on-female sexual assaults.

To build her case, Feldman relies on some tried-but-false McCarthyite tactics.  Patrick Henry College, Feldman notes correctly, was opened in 2000, in large part to provide a congenial collegiate home for the burgeoning numbers of conservative Christian homeschooled kids.  But Feldman asserts with wild inaccuracy, “Underlying homeschooling culture is the Christian patriarchy movement.”  Of course, some Christian homeschoolers—even some members of the ILYBYGTH community—have had horrific experiences with this sort of quiverfull-esque homeschooling monstrosity.  But to imply that homeschooling culture is dominated by this sort of attitude demonstrates woeful ignorance about the true contours of American homeschooling.

Similarly, in her attempt to tar Patrick Henry as a hotbed of rape culture, Feldman mentions Missouri Senator Todd Akin’s terrifying discussions of “legitimate rape.”  As far as I can tell, Akin has absolutely no connection to Patrick Henry College, but Feldman mentions Akin’s accursed name, only to point out that Patrick Henry College “sponsored similar ideas.”  This is the smear tactic at its worst.  Did you know, for example, that the Communist Manifesto listed a graduated income tax as one of the ten top goals for communists?  Therefore, President Wilson must clearly be a communist, since he sponsored such a tax a century ago.

Campus rape is a real problem.  The most common statistic we hear is that one in five female students will experience some sort of sexual assault during their school experience.  This is an issue that has justifiably attracted the attention of activists and politicians.  For instance, state senators in California have introduced a bill that would mandate consent for every sexual act as the new legal standard.

But this problem is not somehow related to the Christian theology of school such as Patrick Henry.  Indeed, even if we take Feldman’s numbers of assaults to be accurate—which the administration of the school vigorously denies—it seems Patrick Henry has been a remarkably safe school, compared to other colleges.  Indeed, as the California legislators pointed out, complaints about assault and rape at schools such as UC-Berkeley and Occidental College far outstrip the complaints Feldman chronicles at Patrick Henry.

Indeed, it might seem more accurate to ask if Patrick Henry’s conservative culture PREVENTS sexual assault.  After all, the drinking, partying lifestyle that seems to be such a big part of student life at many secular schools will find no home at Patrick Henry.  As Caitlin Flanagan recently described in the pages of The Atlantic, fraternities and sororities at public and more secular schools have astonishing rates of sexual assault and injury.

Not that such things would excuse Patrick Henry’s administrators if they did downplay the seriousness of sexual assault charges.  But it must give readers pause.  If the Christian culture at Patrick Henry encourages sexual assault, as Feldman implies, surely we’d expect to see more cases pop up at Patrick Henry than at secular schools.  That’s just not the case.

The King’s College and Christian Higher Education

Can a firmly conservative Christian college save America?  Or should it focus on saving souls?  This is a question conservative evangelicals have been asking themselves for almost a century.  As I detail in my 1920s book, the first generation of Protestant fundamentalists hoped a new clutch of truly Christian colleges could heal America’s benighted culture.

The recent dust-up at The King’s College over the personal life of celebrity president Dinesh D’Souza illustrates this inevitable tension.

According to a recent article by Melissa Steffan in Christianity Today, The King’s College has moved itself away from the hurly-burly of D’Souza’s brand of cultural politics.  When asked if the college would keep D’Souza’s trademark political obstreperousness while finding new leadership, interim president Andy Mills replied, “[TKC] is a Christian college.  Period.”

According to Steffan, TKC has changed its self-description:

“In the presidential search that led to D’Souza’s hiring, TKC published a list of ‘”true ideas” that distinguish King’s within … higher education,’ including ‘biblical competition’ and the right to ‘seek prosperity and risk bankruptcy.’ TKC no longer lists these on its website.”

Even more intriguing, Steffan points to similar changes at similar schools:

“Gene Edward Veith, provost at Patrick Henry College, says his school’s conservatism has become ‘more sophisticated’ since its founding in 1998. What he described as a ‘meltdown’ in conflict between faculty and administrators six years ago ‘was mainly a matter of the institution maturing and going through some disillusionment struggles,’ he said. ‘I see that happening across the board. Christian activists who get involved with politics soon find that things are not so simple as getting Christians elected.’”

What direction for Patrick Henry and The King’s College?  Without their distinguishing dedication to ferociously conservative politics, do they become quiescent Christian colleges?  In the case of TKC, the question is whether they return to a long previous life avoiding headlines instead of chasing them.