What Is Pat Robertson Up To?

You heard it here last: Pat Robertson has come out against Alabama’s new anti-abortion law. It is not an isolated incident. As SAGLRROIYBYGTH recall, Robertson has also recently criticized radical creationism. We have to ask: What is Robertson doing?

Here’s what Robertson said:

I think Alabama has gone too far. They passed a law that would give a 99-year prison sentence to people who commit abortion. There’s no exception for rape or incest. It’s an extreme law. They wanna challenge Roe versus Wade, but my humble view is this is not the case we wanna bring to the Supreme Court because I think this one’ll lose.

On its face, this could be a simple strategy statement. Fight abortion rights? Sure—but do it in a way that will win. Given Robertson’s other recent culture-war positioning, however, I can’t help but wonder if there is something else going on.

Consider Robertson’s recent statements about young-earth creationism. Not only has he mocked young-earth beliefs as “nonsense” and “embarrassing,” but he has promised to add a class at his Regent University to help conservative Christians combat young-earth ideas.Ham v robertson

Is Robertson trying to situate himself as a reasonable Christian conservative, different from the hard-right folks? Is he willing to bet his culture-war credentials against radicals such as Answers In Genesis’s Ken Ham and Alabama’s Terri Collins? And, if so…do you think it will work? Can Pat Robertson create political space for a not-quite-so-radical Christian Right?

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?

Christians & Caitlyn

What are conservative evangelical Christians to do? Mainstream American culture seems to be celebrating our newfound openness about sexuality and gender identity. Caitlyn Jenner is feted and adored, not stigmatized and isolated. Should evangelicals join in the celebration? In the pages of Christianity Today, evangelical psychologist Mark Yarhouse lays out his vision of the proper Christian response to transgender issues. Will it work? Can it lift evangelical churches above the culture-war fray?

First, the usual caveat: I’m no evangelical. I’m just a mild-mannered historian interested in culture-war issues. Today’s article by Professor Yarhouse will help outsiders like me understand one way conservative evangelicals might understand those issues.

Good news for the Good News?

Good news for the Good News?

Yarhouse works at Regent University in Virginia, where he directs the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. For evangelicals, Yarhouse argues, there are three common reactions to today’s discussions about gender dysphoria.

First, some Christians think of it as a question of “integrity.” God created us male and female, some think, and we need to respect that.

Or, Christians might think of gender dysphoria as a “disability.” Like depression or schizophrenia, gender dysphoria is a mental-health issue. It is not a moral question, Yarhouse argues, though the decisions people make as a result of their mental-health issues can certainly have moral consequences.

Finally, Yarhouse notes, many mainstream Americans see gender dysphoria through the lens of “diversity.” Seen this way, transgender persons should be celebrated for their bravery and moral courage.

In language that some conservative folks might find disconcerting, Yarhouse thinks there is value in all three of these approaches. Churches must continue to value ideas about gender integrity, he believes. Understanding maleness and femaleness must be part of any attempt to live Christian lives. But he thinks evangelicals should also approach transgender people with “empathy and compassion.” Not least, Yarhouse values the notion that transgender people should be welcomed and celebrated, just as every person who comes to every church should be welcomed and celebrated.

As he puts it,

When it comes to support, many evangelical communities may be tempted to respond to transgender persons by shouting “Integrity!” The integrity lens is important, but simply urging persons with gender dysphoria to act in accordance with their biological sex and ignore their extreme discomfort won’t constitute pastoral care or a meaningful cultural witness.

The disability lens may lead us to shout, “Compassion!” and the diversity lens may lead us to shout “Celebrate!” But both of these lenses suggest that the creational goodness of maleness and femaleness can be discarded—or that no meaning is to be found in the marks of our suffering.

Most centrally, the Christian community is a witness to the message of redemption. We are witnesses to redemption through Jesus’ presence in our lives. Redemption is not found by measuring how well a person’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex, but by drawing them to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us into his image.

Churches, Yarhouse argues, must rise above “culture wars about sex and gender that fall closely on the heels of the wars about sexual behavior and marriage.”

Now, I’m not an evangelical and I’m not a transgender person, so I’m probably getting this wrong. But as an outsider, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by Yarhouse’s prescription. I can’t help but notice that many conservative evangelical communities are influenced at least as much by their conservative identity as by their evangelical one. For many thoughtful conservatives, the rush to embrace transgender people as part of a “new normal” seems pusillanimous. Even if they recognize the Christian weight of Yarhouse’s arguments, they still feel bound to defend traditional gender rules and norms.

And from the other side, if I were a transgender individual, I don’t think I’d feel fully welcomed into a church that still insisted on maintaining a respect for the “integrity” of male-female gender duality. That is, even in the best-case scenario, if a Yarhouse-ite church allowed me to become a member, but maintained a strong sense that I was suffering from a disability and that I was somehow going against the integrity of God’s gender plan, I don’t think I’d rush to join.

Am I off base? Do conservative Christian readers find Yarhouse’s ideas compelling? Do transgender folks?