Fundamentalist U & Me: Christian McGuire, Patrick Henry College

Welcome to our latest edition of Fundamentalist U & Me, our occasional series of memory and reflection from people who attended evangelical colleges and universities. [Click here to see all the entries.] The history I recounted in Fundamentalist U only told one part of the complicated story of evangelical higher education. Depending on the person, the school, and the decade, going to an evangelical college has been very different for different people.

This time, we are talking with Christian McGuire, a recent graduate from Patrick Henry College (PHC). Mr. McGuire graduated last month and now works in communications at a think-tank in Arlington, Virginia.

I first met Christian through an article in National Review about odd intellectual fads at conservative evangelical colleges. Christian told me about a more popular attraction at Patrick Henry. Read on to hear more about his experiences:

ILYBYGTH: When and where did you attend your evangelical institutions?

I attended PHC from 2014 to this May.

ILYBYGTH: How did you decide on that school? What were your other options? Did your family pressure you to go to an evangelical college?phc logo

I applied to a variety of other colleges. PHC was the only evangelical school I considered. The others—Georgetown, UChicago, Berkeley, etc.—were all secular. At first, I was fairly unconvinced that I would want to attend PHC, a relative no-name compared to the other schools on my list. After attending, however, I was definitely drawn in by how welcoming all of the students were. I was also impressed by PHC’s law school track record, which fit nicely with my post-graduate plan at the time. PHC students have very high average LSAT scores and punch far above their weight in admission to top law schools, as well as important judicial clerkships. I think it probably helped that my father was also very impressed by PHC; his approval was probably more emotionally significant than I understood at the time. But I was definitely not pressured to make any particular choice.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

I think my college experience was important to my faith, but definitely not in the way that I (or PHC administrators) expected. I converted to Catholicism in the second semester of my freshman year, after five years of theological study and discussion. That definitely defined the rest of my college experience. Some people—students, professors, administrators—were downright hostile to Catholicism, and I am not the type of personality that can keep a low profile. So I think some of my spiritual development came from adversity. On the other hand, PHC’s best classes generally contained spiritual wisdom that was certainly, and perhaps even especially, applicable to me as a Catholic. Some classes even strengthened my convictions, although I am sure that result was inadvertent.

In one sense, I think I will always be connected to my alma mater. I was lucky to exit college with many strong friendships, and those relationships will always be an indirect link to PHC. On the other hand, I think that after a couple of years of trying to reform what I saw as the faults of PHC, I eventually grew disheartened and gave up. So I am not as emotionally invested in the college as I was a couple of years ago.

The most powerful religious experience did not really occur within the context of my college career—my confirmation into the Church. However, it was attended by many PHC students, and I think it helped jump start a movement towards the Church at PHC.

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college? If so, why, and if not, why not?

I don’t see college selection as the job of the parent, so if I had a child that wanted to go to an evangelical school, I would let them. On the other hand, since I am no longer evangelical and would not raise my children as such, I would be a little surprised at such a decision.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still support your alma mater, financially or otherwise? If so, how and why, and if not, why not?

No, not yet. I might donate in the future, although I would probably focus on donating to specific departments or goals within PHC, rather than the institution as a whole.

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

A preface: I reject the notion that fundamentalist “science” is “Christian” in any meaningful sense of the word. Usually evangelical institutions such as PHC differentiate themselves from mainstream science by rejecting the theory of evolution, but strictly historical interpretations of the first chapters of Genesis don’t represent the only or best approach to the biblical text. St. Augustine, for example, famously dissented from a strongly literal exegesis of these chapters despite predating Darwin by more than a millennia. So I slightly object to the wording of this question.

PHC taught a fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis, which was only really an issue in their biology and “earth science” classes. Humorously, the college was forced to offer earth science instead of biology the year I took the class, because their accreditors discovered that the professor who taught biology was not sufficiently credentialed to teach the subject.

During that class, I occasionally was bothered by the bias present in our discussion of Earth’s origins. I remember one test question asking me to outline the “evolutionist” view on something and contrast it with the “biblical” view of something. However, I think the professor made a real effort to educate us on what we would be taught at a secular institution overall.

ILYBYGTH: Was your social life at your evangelical college similar to the college stereotype (partying, “hooking up,” drinking, etc.) we see in mainstream media? If not, how was it different? Do you think your social experience would have been much different if you went to a secular institution?

PHC social life was very different from that stereotype. The college enforces fairly strict standards of conduct that ban alcohol consumption, enforce curfews for Freshmen and Sophomores, and prohibit sex outside of marriage. Of course, not everyone follows those rules. But overall, social life is still much tamer at PHC than elsewhere, even at other Christian colleges that I know of. I think part of the reason is that homeschooled backgrounds (PHC is overwhelmingly composed of former homeschoolers) tend to encourage a deference to authority.

ILYBYGTH: In your experience, was the “Christian” part of your college experience a prominent part? In other words, would someone from a secular college notice differences right away if she or he visited your school?

Incredibly so. Everything that PHC does is very consciously evangelical: mandatory chapels are held every single week day, professors are evaluated at the end of every semester on how well they integrated a biblical worldview into their class, prayer often opens classes. And this isn’t just a focus that comes from the administration—students are very invested in their faith as well, on average. Debates about theology are common in the dining hall, and social interactions on campus often include prayer, spiritual encouragement, or some other form of religious flavoring. PHC, I think, was always afraid of going the way of more prominent Christian institutions—starting out staunchly Christian, but ending up only nominally religious. A lot of safeguards were built into the school’s founding documents. For example, the school cannot change its Statement of Faith without losing its land deeds.

ILYBYGTH: Did you feel political pressure at school? That is, did you feel like the school environment tipped in a politically conservative direction? Did you feel free to form your own opinions about the news? Were you encouraged or discouraged from doing so?

The school’s environment was unquestionably conservative. The school’s founder and first president, Michael Farris, was a conservative legal activist who currently heads the Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the most prominent conservative legal groups in the nation.

At the same time, PHC was unblinkingly devoted to exploring all sides of most debates. While the majority of students were conservative, it was completely socially acceptable to make arguments that went against normal conservative positions on economics or foreign policy. I would say that there was only a real taboo on dissenting from pro-life political positions, and maybe a half-taboo on dissenting from the conservative consensus against gay marriage.

ILYBYGTH: What do you think the future holds for evangelical higher education? What are the main problems looming for evangelical schools? What advantages do they have over other types of colleges?

I think that evangelical schools, and PHC in particular, are up against more cultural headwinds than ever before. If you read conservative Christian commentators, you will discover that a lot of them are still trying to forge a post-Trump consensus on what the future of political Christianity is. Some want to continue the political alliance they have made with the Republican party, but many Christian intellectuals and young evangelicals are disgusted by that prospect. As a result, colleges like PHC that focus on “leading the nation and shaping the culture” (one of PHC’s slogans) are at a crossroads. Less political evangelical colleges won’t have quite the same burden, but they still have to deal with increasing secularization among young people.

However, I think that as conservative Christianity becomes more and more at odds with the culture writ large, there will be an additional emphasis on forming explicitly Christian bonds. Those who remain devout in their faith are probably more likely to want to attend Christian schools where they can deepen their intellectual understanding of the faith. A lot of Christians are wondering in the Trump era, “where do we go from here?” Maybe evangelical colleges can be part of that answer.

Thanks, Christian!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

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Can Jesus Make a Profit?

It’s true—there are lots of topics that I had to leave out of my new book about evangelical higher education. Among the most difficult choices was the decision to focus tightly on one group of interdenominational evangelical schools that had its roots in the 1920s fundamentalist movement. Lots of important and interesting evangelical colleges got (mostly) left out of the story: Oral Roberts University, Regent University (VA), and Patrick Henry College, to name a few.

grand-canyon-university_2015-03-23_14-34-58.004

Cactus, cross…and ka-ching?

A recent call from a journalist has me yearning to have been able to include one of the most unusual and idiosyncratic stories in the history of evangelical higher education—the tangled tale of Grand Canyon University.

Like a lot of evangelical schools, Grand Canyon University started out as humbler Grand Canyon College, an institution catering to local Southern Baptists. With such a small draw, the school had trouble keeping the lights on. In an effort to attract more students, it adopted an interdenominational evangelical posture. So far, so ho hum. All evangelical colleges—well, almost all—could tell similar tales in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—tales of dwindling enrollments and desperate attempts to lure more students.

What makes GCU so interesting is its radical 21st-century attempt to rewrite the Christian college playbook. In order to stay afloat, in 2004 GCU converted into a for-profit institution. There’s nothing new about for-profit higher education. As my friend and colleague A.J. Angulo has argued so powerfully, the for-profit sector has a long and often shameful history.

What IS unusual is an evangelical college hoping to join the for-profit club. To be sure, plenty of evangelical colleges make money. Most famously, Liberty University made gagillions of dollars in online education in the past dozen years. But that money isn’t a profit for shareholders; it is plowed back into campus resources, including the newly respectable Liberty football team.

diploma mills

Tsk, tsk. Not a club I’d think Christian colleges would want to join…

If recent news is any indication, there are good reasons why evangelical colleges don’t try to make a profit. In Phoenix, GCU has recently agreed to buy back its right to be a non-profit school. It won’t be cheap. The school plans to spend almost a billion dollars (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) to buy back its stock.

Some of the benefits are concrete. As a non-profit institution, GCU will once again be eligible to accept tax-deductible donations. It will be able to participate in NCAA sports and compete for research grants. As all colleges must do to survive, these trappings will allow GCU to look like a “real” college.

The quest to maintain status as a “real” college has always animated evangelical schools. They have fretted that their doctrinal peculiarities and severe campus rules would cause higher-ed outsiders to look down their noses at them as mere “church colleges.”

So GCU’s desire to reclaim its non-profit status makes perfect sense in the longer story of evangelical higher education. This morning I’ve got a different question. All evangelical colleges want to have sports, research, and the other trappings of “real” colleges. But they’ve also insisted on their status as “real” Christian institutions, though they have never been able to agree on a precise definition of that term.

So here’s the question: How could GCU have ever moved into the for-profit world? Could an evangelical college ever hope for respect if it made a profit off of its students? Wouldn’t that undermine its claims to being a truly Christian institution?

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.

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.