Bryan College: Creationism Déjà vu All Over Again

It’s all over but the shouting.  That’s the news from Bryan College.  Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we see that Bryan College has settled its legal dispute with two of its professors.  The creationist courtroom drama may have been avoided, but we are left with one question: If this is part of a predictable pattern at conservative evangelical colleges, can we learn a better way to handle each new episode?

Why can't we all just get along...?

Why can’t we all just get along…?

Two Bryan College professors, Stephen Barnett and Steven DeGeorge, have settled their lawsuit with the school, according to the local newspaper.  Readers may remember that the school abruptly changed its statement of faith to insist that Adam and Eve did not descend from another species.  Faculty members had to make a tough decision: Could they agree to the newly explicit language about humanity’s origins?  Barnett and DeGeorge argued that it was not fair—nor even legal—for the school to impose such a decision on faculty.  It appears they have decided to drop the lawsuit, though the terms of this settlement have not been made public.

Why did Bryan’s leadership feel a need to make such a change?  They were in a tight spot.  As I’ve argued before, leading young-earth creationists such as Ken Ham are able to wield outsized influence on evangelical colleges.  Even the whiff of suspicion that a school has abandoned the true faith is enough to drive away students and their precious tuition dollars.  At Bryan—and I’m claiming no inside knowledge here, just a historian’s best guess—the leadership felt obliged to shore up its orthodox creationist bona fides.

This tension is nothing new at evangelical colleges.  Perhaps the most startling example of the deja-vu nature of the Bryan situation is an eerily similar case from Wheaton College in 1961.  In that case, faculty such as Russell Mixter hosted a conference on origins.  Whatever actually occurred at that meeting, rumors flew that Wheaton had opened itself to the teaching of evolution.  As a result, anxious trustees rammed through a change to the obligatory faculty creed.  From then on, faculty had to attest to their belief in “an historical Adam and an historical Eve, the parents of the human race, who were created by God and not descended from lower forms of life.”

Back then, Mixter signed.  He was more interested in the broad outlines of what he called “progressive creationism” than the details of the Garden of Eden.  But the nervousness of the leadership at Wheaton was palpable.  In addition to the change in creed, the school took out big advertisements in evangelical magazines such as Christian Life that trumpeted Wheaton’s continuing creationism.

The stories are so similar that it is hard to believe they are separated by over fifty years.  And they lead us to obvious questions: Why do evangelical colleges have such anxiety about their reputations as creationist colleges?  Why do leaders feel such a compelling need to publicize their continuing orthodoxy?  And perhaps most important, if these controversies are so predictable, why is there no better way to handle them?

As historian Michael Hamilton has argued about Wheaton, “Anxiety about constituent response hangs over virtually every decision the college has made since 1925.”  The same could be said for Bryan and every other school that relies on conservative evangelical families for its student bodies.

Each of these schools’ identities, after all, relied on the notion that they have been “safe” alternatives to mainstream schools.  At the more conservative Bob Jones University, for example, founder Bob Jones promised a different sort of college experience.  In 1928, just a few years after the school was founded, Jones promised,

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.

And even though Wheaton College was a very different sort of evangelical school, this central notion was the same.  In the 1930s, Wheaton advertised itself as a “safe college for young people.”

This pledge means more than just institutional window-dressing.  For conservative evangelical schools, the issue of orthodoxy looms large.  This stretches beyond the issue of creationism.  As we see in cases such as the recent controversy at Gordon College, ideas about sexuality also prove intensely controversial.  If schools want to change their policies, or sometimes even to clarify existing policies, they risk sparking a no-holds-barred fight that might threaten the continuing existence of their college.

No wonder school leaders are nervous.

The most recent episode at Bryan seems to have limped its way off the public stage.  But not without resentment, bitterness, and feelings of betrayal all around.  So we are left with a few questions for the leaders of conservative colleges: If this is such a central organizing principle of conservative orthodox colleges, why do they seem never to learn?  Why does today’s controversy at Bryan copy the pattern of Wheaton’s in 1961 so exactly?  Is there no better way to handle this predictable tension?

What do Pastors Believe about Origins?

What do America’s professional Protestants think about evolution and creation?  Biologos has published the results of a survey of US Protestant pastors.

Those concerned with creationism and evolution have published many surveys of the ways evolution is taught in public schools.  Those surveys tend to focus on the ideas of high-school biology teachers.  Most recently, the work of Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer offered a thorough nation-wide look at what biology teachers think and teach.

Source: Biologos Forum

Source: Biologos Forum

This survey, in contrast, asked 602 “senior pastors” for their views.  The results invite a few comments.

First of all, we should note that this is not a survey of religious Americans’ views about evolution and creation.  Rather, this is specifically a survey of a spectrum of US Protestant pastors’ views.  There were no leading Catholics involved, much less Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or any other religious group.  That matters.

Second, the numbers themselves make some interesting points.  We are not surprised by the majority (54%) who call themselves young-earth creationists.  We are surprised, though, by the strong showing for “uncertain” (12%) and the relatively weak showing for “theistic evolution” (18%).  Could these two answers be reasonably combined to form a much stronger bloc—nearly a third—of American pastors who take a theistic but uncommitted view of evolution?

Finally—for now, though the Biologos editors have promised to dig in more deeply to these survey results in the future—what about the striking Biologos note in its seventh point?  As the Biologos editors point out, a majority of pastors with young-earth creationist (YEC) beliefs agreed that publicly challenging those views might cost them their jobs.  In other words, for pastors with YEC beliefs, even a whiff of doubt or skepticism must be avoided.  This seems to confirm the accusations of anti-creationists.  If YEC pastors feel obliged to maintain their positions—feel dug in to YEC beliefs regardless of evidence or personal struggles—it seems fair to accuse YECs of closed-mindedness, obdurate clutching of YEC due more to social and economic pressure than to Biblical conviction.

Certainly, Biologos is not a disinterested party.  The organization hopes to promote “evolutionary creationism” or “theistic evolution.”  And my social-science chops, I’m afraid, aren’t sharp enough to offer a good critique of this survey methodology.  But if we take Biologos’ word for it, there might be a large number of YEC pastors out there who stick to their YEC guns for other reasons than Bible-based conviction.