Keeping the Faith in Evangelical Colleges

Thanks to Eric Miller and Religion & Politics for publishing an interview this afternoon about Fundamentalist U.Bob-Jones-GettyImages-50615822-780x508

Professor Miller asked questions that got right at the heart of the book: What does it mean to be a “real” college? How did students react to the strict rules at evangelical colleges? Do evangelical schools have academic freedom?

Click on over to read the entire thing.

At first, I thought Professor Miller was simply a peculiarly acute reader, but it turns out he himself spent some time in evangelical higher ed, so he really knew what he was talking about.

Which Religious Right? A New Islamic College for America

Whom do we think of when we think of religious conservatives in the United States?  Folks who want to censor and ban books?  Who want to get kids out of public schools and into religious one?  Who question the authority of mainstream science?

Most important for today’s post, who do we think of when we think of religious folks who start their own schools and colleges in order to pass along their religious traditions?

The obvious suspects, of course, are conservative Protestants, especially those from the evangelical tradition.  As I argued in my 1920s book, conservative evangelicals have worked hard throughout the twentieth century to save young people from pernicious ideas such as materialism and evolution.  They have founded influential schools and colleges in order to do so.

But in this century, we need to consider a new type of conservative religious school, the Islamic academy.

Recently, Religion & Politics featured an excerpt from Scott Korb’s new book about Zaytuna College, “the Nation’s first Muslim liberal arts college.”

As Korb notes in this excerpt, Zaytuna College has big plans.  Its founders hope to make Zaytuna “a place where . . . the text of the Koran could meet the context of American culture.”  Korb also argues that Zaytuna’s famous co-founder, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, is best understood as “conservative.”

In some ways, Sheikh Hamza’s educational ideology seems to echo that of his Christian co-conservatives.  For instance, Korb points out that Yusuf works with his siblings to promote religious homeschooling.  He has warned fellow Muslims, “We absolutely must remove our children from state schools.”

Though Korb’s excerpt did not include this, Sheikh Hamza has also worked together with other religious-conservatives intellectuals to discourage the availability of pornography in hotels.  Sheikh Hamza has publicly critiqued arrogant mainstream science, science that purports to know more than it can reasonably justify.

In all these ways, Sheikh Hamza and his new college seem to parallel the thinking of conservative Protestants in the United States.  However, there are some important differences.  Look, for example, at the books he recommends.  Some are classics from the conservative canon.  Michael Behe’s intelligent-design polemic Darwin’s Black Box made the list, as did William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, Newt Gingrich’s To Renew America and John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down.  Nothing most conservative evangelicals might not endorse.  But Sheikh Hamza’s reading list includes progressive favorites, including Howard Zinn’s People’s History of America and Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

More important, history matters.  Korb points out that many journalists have been too quick to call Sheikh Hamza a “‘moderate’ or ‘progressive’ Muslim” due to Sheikh Hamza’s stern anti-terrorism.   Yet even a profoundly conservative Muslim educator in 2013 faces a very different educational landscape than that faced by conservative evangelicals in 2013, or 1973, or 1913.  Unlike conservative evangelical Protestants, conservatives of other traditions don’t have the common feeling of having “lost” public education in America.  For conservative Muslims, like conservative Catholics and other sorts of conservative religious folks, the public schools in the United States have historically been hostile institutions.  Not so for many conservative evangelical Protestants.  Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, anyone paying attention can hear a lingering desire among conservative evangelicals to “Reclaim YOUR School.”

What will it mean to have a new conservative college in the United States?  One from a very different faith tradition?  Perhaps this will continue the broadening of “conservatism” in America.  As James Davison Hunter predicted so many years ago, perhaps our culture wars will continue to change into broad, diverse coalitions of the “orthodox” against those on the other side.


Artsy-Fartsy Tea Partsy?

What does Fundamentalist America hang on its walls?  If America’s Left has its Guernicas and its Imagines, what art can those on the Right embrace?

Perhaps the nerdy could dust off a Marinetti or simply adopt almost anything that smacks of Christian heritage.  Middlebrow folks could always seek out an appropriate Thomas Kincade.

Marinetti, from “Words in Freedom”

These days, those looking for a more in-your-face political print to hang above their couches can snap up a Jon McNaughton print.  As reviewed today for Religion & Politics by Duke’s David Morgan, McNaughton’s work offers today’s conservative activists an unabashedly explicit political and cultural message.

In 2010’s “The Forgotten Man,” McNaugton offers what looks like an attack ad.  In 2011’s “Wake Up America!” that forgotten man works his way to freedom by leading a Tea-Party-like protest against a sinister President Obama.

McNaughton’s The Forgotten Man

McNaughton’s Wake Up America!

According to the Religion & Politics piece, this ardent partisanship led McNaughton’s alma mater Brigham Young University to cease selling one of McNaughton’s paintings.  Yet McNaughton has remained a huge seller.  And Morgan finds McNaughton’s work to be more than just a shill.  Morgan compares McNaughton’s frank preachiness to the contemporary interests of artists such as Michaelango and Giotto.  And, Morgan concludes,

It is easy for art critics to scowl at McNaughton’s pictures as preachy, partisan, and cheesy. Their solemnity and their illustrational literalism tempt many observers to dismiss them as propaganda or kitsch. And Wake Up America! certainly seems more political cheerleading than artistic vision. But simply scorning the work misses the opportunity to understand something powerful moving through many religious sub-cultures in the United States today. These groups do not distinguish between religion and politics the way that many commentators and cultural analysts would prefer. For McNaughton and his admirers, as well as many more, there is nothing at all absurd about Jesus holding the Constitution as a sacred artifact, as evidence of his authorial intent.”

Marcel Duchamp, “The Fountain,” 1917

Morgan doesn’t make this connection, and perhaps it doesn’t hold water, but McNaughton’s popularity in Fundamentalist America may result from an even deeper cultural divide.  Since at least Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “The Fountain,” high art in the Western Tradition has prided itself on NOT saying what it seems to be saying.  Some of McNaughton’s popularity may come from simple resentment against a self-appointed cultural elite who look down their noses at any Art that does not somehow befuddle the uninitiated.  American art museums have long embraced the pop art of Warhol’s Soup Cans and the ironic self-referentialism of Lichtenstein’s comic-bookism.  Sworls of color and abstruse “performance pieces” have made art museums cold, forbidding, meaningless fortresses to all those who stand outside their elusive mysteries.

It makes a certain amount of sense that Fundamentalist America would celebrate Art that says what it means.  After all, in Fundamentalist America, that is what the Bible and the Constitution have always done.

Atheists Assemble!

Alfredo Garcia at Religion & Politics offered a report recently from Reason Rally 2012.  The rally welcomed 10,000 non-theists to the national mall to celebrate and recognize freedom from God.  As Garcia notes,

life remains hard for non-theists in the United States. There is, of course, the cultural stigma—of being nontheistic in a nation where more than 90 percent of people believe in a higher power. There is only one openly atheist member of Congress, Rep. Peter Stark from California (who had a video appearance at the Reason Rally). Atheists are viewed more negatively than any other U.S. religious group, with less than half of Americans (45 percent) holding a favorable opinion of them. It can be a lonely existence. With no single umbrella organization to bring non-theists together, individuals can feel isolated, compounded by the fact that the various non-theist organizations are often fragmented in their approaches.

There are a couple of lessons here for those of us trying to understand Fundamentalist America.  The first is that conservative religious folks tend to over-emphasize the power and influence of atheism.  Bogeys like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Robert Ingersoll, and the American Humanist Association have been used by generations of fundamentalist activists as warnings of the growing power of anti-God “forces.”

Second, we can see that the real divide in America’s culture wars isn’t between conservative religious people and atheism.  The atheist side is a small percentage.  The real contenders are between conservative and liberal religious people.  The central issues are between contending visions of the role of religion in public life.  In this fight, atheism punches far above its weight.  That is, many religious people in America support the notion that the public square must be resolutely secular.

Finally, as Garcia insightfully notes, though small, the atheist community has long struggled with the stereotype of the aggressive iconoclast:

It’s the image of the atheist out to pick a fight, the unbeliever who is constantly seeking the next debate. As [Paul] Fidalgo from CFI [Center for Inquiry] put it, O’Hair was an “extremely polarizing” figure who “gained visibility for American Atheists but may have been integral in forming the image of atheism in the U.S. as arrogant.”

And, indeed, as Garcia reports, the reliable Richard Dawkins told the assembled crowd that they must go forth to “ridicule and show contempt” for religious people.  Perhaps the menace of atheism–from the viewpoint of Fundamentalist America–comes from this aggressive, arrogant, in-your-face sort of attitude more than from any sense of growing political clout.