Christians CAN Think

Just because someone is a Christian, he or she is not therefore incapable of reasonable thought. That’s the argument recently from Provost Stanton Jones of Wheaton College. But is this true everywhere? Or only in the hallowed halls of Wheaton itself?

Jones was responding to a hatchet job from University of Pennsylvania English Professor Peter Conn. As we noted at the time, Conn accused Wheaton and other evangelical colleges of scamming their way into intellectual respectability. No school that demanded a faculty statement of faith, Conn argued, should be eligible for federal student aid. It was an intellectual and constitutional outrage.

In the discussion in these pages, commenters mostly took Conn to task for closedmindedness. Provost Jones takes a different approach. Not only are Wheaton faculty free to think and research, Jones writes, but they are actually freer than most faculty at non-religious schools. And their work will ultimately be more productive than that of their unfortunate colleagues at those schools.

Those researchers who fit in with the “contemporary intellectual tides,” Jones argues, might feel very free indeed at non-religious colleges. But for those who dissent, the “free” academic environment feels deadeningly constricting. A Bible-believing Christian professor, for example, might not feel entirely comfortable in a rigorously pluralist university like mine. “When we hire colleagues away from nonreligious institutions,” Jones asserts,

we often hear they feel intellectually and academically free here for the first time in their professional careers, because they are finally in a place where they can teach from and explore the connections between their intellectual disciplines and their religious convictions.

That’s not all. Jones uses the tools of postmodern academic life to undermine Conn’s attack. If “truth” is something we can only put in ironic quotation marks, we will be severely limited in our search for it. As Jones puts it,

Purely skeptical and unfettered inquiry is likely to simply chase itself in circles. Disciplined, rigorous, and self-critical inquiry grounded in a thoughtful understanding of one’s particularities can contribute to a vigorous and diverse intellectual marketplace.

Christian academics at schools such as Wheaton, Jones writes, are freer and more productive than their fettered colleagues at secular schools.

We should note, Jones only defends the rigor of academic work at his own school, Wheaton College. Conn’s attack was a broad-brushed condemnation of conservative Protestant colleges in general. Jones does not insist that other evangelical colleges offer conducive research homes for top-notch academics. I can’t help but wonder if this is mere oversight, or an unwillingness to vouch for the academic chops of evangelical higher education in general. Seems like Provost Jones is confident of the high-caliber intellectual firepower at Wheaton, but maybe not so sure of the strength of other evangelical schools.


Close Down Religious Colleges!

Can someone learn to examine ideas critically at a religious college?  To reason and think deliberately and without coerced conclusions?  And if not, should those schools receive federal tax-funded support?  Peter Conn of the University of Pennsylvania says no.

In a recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Conn calls attention to the way religious schools receive accreditation.  The problem, Conn believes, is that accrediting bodies scrupulously avoid judging the religious content of some colleges.  As a result, religious schools such as Wheaton and Bryan receive regional accreditation.  Their students are then eligible for federal financial aid.

There lies the problem, according to Conn.  Schools such as Bryan and Wheaton require their faculties to sign statements of belief.  At such colleges, Conn argues, “the primacy of reason has been abandoned by the deliberate and repeated choices of both its administration and its faculty.”

The problem is not that “religious fundamentalists” convene colleges. The “scandal,” Conn writes, is that accrediting bodies legitimize such anti-intellectual organizations. Further, once such schools are accredited, tax dollars go to support their students.

I hate to speak so harshly, but Conn’s argument seems pigeon-headed to me. I’m not religious; I don’t work at a religious college. But my research has centered on the ways conservative Protestant schools have worked to construct a sub-cultural identity as “evangelicals” or “fundamentalists.” And unless I’m missing some nuance of Conn’s essay, he seems to have very little idea what he’s talking about.

In my 1920s book, I looked at the ways the first generation of self-labeled fundamentalists founded and operated schools such as Bob Jones University and Dallas Theological Seminary. In my current research, I’m looking more broadly at the twentieth-century history of evangelical higher education.

To suggest that such schools ought not be accredited due to mandatory faculty creeds seems ridiculous.  After all, as a faculty member at a large public university, I have to sign a loyalty oath.  Does that make me unfit to teach young minds?  Does that make my research anti-intellectual, bound by previous ideological commitments?

More profoundly, the notion that people who agree to a religious creed cannot conduct rigorous research seems a woeful misunderstanding of the nature of religious belief.  In particular, it demonstrates a shocking ignorance of the history of religious colleges in the US.

I know some readers feel more strongly about the pernicious nature of fundamentalism.  Does anyone agree with Conn’s conclusion?  He writes,

The retrograde battle that religious fundamentalists are waging against science has become a melancholy fact of our contemporary cultural life. Legislators around the country conspire to find academic room for the oxymoronic charade called “creation science.” According to Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican who sits on the House science committee, evolution is a lie “straight from the pit of hell.” By effectively endorsing such blinkered sentiments through its accreditation process, American higher education is betraying itself, and providing aid and comfort to those who would replace reason with theology.