I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

This week’s review of the latest news ‘n’ views from around the interwebs:

Atheists for Jesus: Pulling evangelical voters to the left at FA.

Peter Greene on why teachers join unions.

rockwell teacher union thugTexas school board gives history another once-over, and Hillary Clinton is out. At DMN.

Surviving purity culture at NPR.

In this culture, men and boys are talked about as being sexually weak and women and girls are supposed to be the holders of all sexual purity. So ultimately women and girls are responsible for the sexual thoughts and feelings and choices that men make, and it’s women and girls’ responsibility to dress right, to act right, to talk right, to do everything just right to ensure non-sexuality for all people — and if they don’t, they potentially risk being categorized as impure or as a harlot.

Parents in Leiyang riot over school quality, at The Economist.

A liberal ex-evangelical finds a church home, at NR.

Still no-go for yoga in many public schools, at The Atlantic.

What is behind the coddling of the American mind? It’s not just “safetyism,” says reviewer at IHE.

Students have not been coddled, they’ve been defeated.

Concerned scientists weigh in on removal of climate change and weakening of evolutionary theory in Arizona standards, at NCSE.

Queen Betsy misquotes Professor Haidt, at CHE.

Let’s call it ‘Haidt’s choice’: Pursue truth or pursue harmony.

Advertisements

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.

Purity Policy at Cedarville U

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that evangelical colleges tend to insist on stricter rules for student behavior than do secular or liberal schools. Faculty members, too, are held to high expectations for orthodox thinking and behavior. Those tensions are a big part of my new history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher ed.

The goings-on at Cedarville University in Ohio, though, seem to be more extreme than the norm. By insisting on a new definition of “purity” in its curriculum, based on Philippians 4:8, the administration at Cedarville has some evangelical intellectuals scratching their heads in confusion.

righting america at the creation museum

Keeping an eye on Cedarville…

The folks at Righting America at the Creation Museum have been watching Cedarville closely. Recently, they asked your humble editor to offer some historical perspective. Are Cedarville’s new purity rules an odd exception to the usual functioning of evangelical schools?

Today, they kindly published my two cents. (Well, technically one cent. They’ll publish the second half soon.) Check out my argument over at Righting America at the Creation Museum.

Are Cedarville’s purity police something dramatically new? Or just par for the course at evangelical institutions? What do you think? Please head over to RACM to add your insights and comments.

Investigative Report: Sex Abuse at Fundamentalist U

HT: DW

Are fundamentalist universities guilty of encouraging sex abuse? Does “purity culture” encourage predators? Does the environment at fundamentalist universities force victims, at best, to suffer in silence and shame?

We don’t have all the answers, but the GRACE report of sex abuse at Bob Jones University offers a few clues. Short answer: BJU is guilty of establishing an idiosyncratic administration and campus culture that punished victims and rewarded loyalty over caring and competence.

I’ve taken some heat in the past for wondering if fundamentalist universities had been targeted unfairly on this subject. Certainly, fundamentalist schools have done a terrible job in handling sexual assault and abuse. But so have secular and liberal schools. Wasn’t it possible, I asked, that the no-drinking, no-partying culture at fundamentalist colleges helped deter some cases of assault? Given the large number of alcohol-fueled assault cases recently, I still think these are fair questions.

In spite of such questions, however, the recent GRACE report paints a damning picture of Bob Jones University. I’ll repeat: I do not think it is fair to assume that conservative schools will somehow automatically do a worse job of handling abuse and assault cases than other schools. However, the GRACE report points to systemic problems at BJU that are likely shared by smaller, less prestigious fundamentalist colleges and schools.

As I see it, BJU has failed in two significant ways. First, it has insisted on a climate in which student complaints of any kind were viewed as a moral failing for the complainer. Second, since the 1930s BJU has maintained a policy of rewarding staff loyalty over any other concern. As a result, leading administrators were woefully—perhaps even criminally—incompetent to deal with student victims of sexual abuse and assault.

I do not make these charges lightly. Nor do I have any personal animus toward BJU or other fundamentalist colleges. But the record is clear.

First, some brief facts of the case. Two years ago, administrators at BJU commissioned an outside study of their response to abuse claims. In itself, this sort of outside examination made a clear break with BJU tradition. The assembled commission, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE, recently published its findings. BJU’s current leader, Steven Pettit, has apologized for any suffering the university has caused or ignored.

That is a start. The university, in my opinion, has two main faults for which it needs to apologize.

First, the leaders of the school have insisted for decades on one cardinal rule: No “griping.” Students who complain have been consistently treated as disloyal, or at least suspicious. For example, in one statement made by the founder, Bob Jones Sr., on June 19, 1953, Jones advised the BJU community of the first rule: “Griping not tolerated, but constructive suggestions appreciated.”

In practice, the culture at BJU has promoted a suffer-in-silence mentality.

Second, and perhaps more problematic, hiring and promotion practices at BJU have encouraged loyalty above all other factors, including competence. In cases of abuse and assault, this has led to terrible consequences. As the GRACE report documents, administrator Jim Berg handled many abuse reports since 1981. Time after time, Berg demonstrated his lack of preparation. For a while, Berg was unaware of South Carolina’s mandatory-reporting law.

The blame here belongs to more than Berg alone. Berg’s leadership role was the product of an institutional culture that valued loyalty first. Berg’s decisions and professional intuitions were the product of a culture that saw itself as removed from all obligations to the outside world.

The evidence for this loyalty-first culture is abundant. In the same 1953 statement referred to above, Bob Jones Sr. warned faculty that he had an obligation to fire anyone “who is not loyal.” This statement came in the wake of mass resignations at the school in 1952 and 1953.

That was not the only time the school’s leaders made their emphasis on loyalty clear. In 1936, just before another group firing, Bob Jones Sr. warned one faculty member,

First: There must be absolute loyalty to the administration. If something happens in the administration which you do not like, your protest is your resignation. If you stay here you must not under any circumstances criticise [sic] the administration.

The results of such a sustained policy are clear. Those who remained in leadership positions at BJU were rewarded for loyalty first, competence second. In the case of student abuse and assault, such an emphasis left students in the hands of utterly unprepared administrators.

All schools—all institutions—can suffer from incompetence, of course, but the BJU policy of loyalty-first intentionally undervalued professional competence.

It bears repeating that BJU’s current leader has apologized for these faults. As he put it,

I would like to sincerely and humbly apologize to those who felt they did not receive from us genuine love, compassion, understanding and support after suffering sexual abuse or assault …To them I would say—we have carefully listened to your voice. We take your testimony in this report to our hearts. We intend to thoroughly review every aspect and concern outlined in the investigation and respond appropriately.

And, sadly, we must remember that fundamentalist institutions are by no means alone in establishing and protecting cultures of abuse. Other religious groups, such as the Catholic Church, and other colleges, such as Penn State University, have similarly criminal histories.

As it might at those institutions, perhaps the future at BJU and other fundamentalist universities will be brighter than the past.