Star Conservative Professor Rejects Evangelical Higher Ed

I don’t think he meant to do it. But conservatives’ favorite star academic just trashed the entire tradition of conservative evangelical higher education.robert george christian colleges

It’s pretty safe to say that Professor Robert P. George of Princeton didn’t mean to badmouth conservative evangelical colleges. He was talking—broadly speaking—about the proper way for students to react to campus ideas they didn’t like. They CAN protest, Prof. George wrote, but they really shouldn’t. Even when they are confronted with ideas that strike right at the very heart of who they are as people and as Christians, George advised, students should do something else entirely. They should listen politely, ask questions boldly, and think deeply.

What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. But in his next bit, Professor George inadvertently criticized the entire body of conservative-evangelical universities and colleges. As he put it,

You [students] are there [in college] to be challenged and unsettled—to have your deepest, most cherished, identity-shaping beliefs subjected to scrutiny. That’s what liberal arts learning is most fundamentally about—leading the examined life.

FWIW, I agree entirely. As I found in my research for Fundamentalist U, however, if we accept Professor George’s vision of “what liberal arts learning is most fundamentally about,” we would be forced to admit that conservative-evangelical colleges are not really colleges at all.

After all, though it is fiendishly difficult to define “real” evangelical higher ed, both friends and foes of conservative evangelicalism agree on one thing. Namely, the higher-educational movement that began in the 1920s and included leading evangelical schools such as Wheaton College and Gordon College as well as fundamentalist institutions such as Bob Jones University and Liberty University was built on a profound dissent against Professor George’s vision of proper higher education. They were built, instead, on a promise to carefully control the ideas to which students would be exposed.

For example, though schools such as Bob Jones and Wheaton are worlds apart in many ways, they have always been united by their insistence that all faculty members adhere to a statement of belief. From their beginnings or re-beginnings in the 1920s, conservative evangelical colleges promised evangelical parents, in the words of school founder Bob Jones Sr. (1928), they would have a school in which

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 teachers will steal the faith of their precious children.

At evangelical colleges and universities, students were never supposed to have their “deepest, most cherished, identity-shaping beliefs subjected to scrutiny.”

It wasn’t only at fundamentalist Bob Jones College. At more-liberal Wheaton, too, the ideas that students encountered were carefully curated.

In 1949, for example, a student group invited a liberal, non-evangelical professor from the nearby University of Chicago to give a campus talk about the Bible. The student leader told Wheaton’s president that his group did not want to shake students’ faiths. Rather, he only wanted to strengthen their faith by giving them the experience Professor George describes.

The trustees did not take to such arguments. Professor George’s vision of proper higher education, one conservative insisted, was “a gross violation of the principles for which Wheaton stands.” Moreover, from the trustee’s point of view, this “inclusive, compromising policy” was nothing less than “clearly destructive of every foundation principle for which Wheaton has stood.”

And, lest one think that such anti-free-speech principles have been left behind in the dustbin of history, consider just a few recent cases. Wheaton students who press for greater LGBTQ inclusion have been squelched. Wheaton faculty who question (or maybe who just look like they might question) evangelical theology have been fired.

In my opinion, and the opinions of the thousands of students who thrive in evangelical institutions, these restrictions are part of what makes conservative schools great. Yes, there are significant restrictions on free speech. Yes, the schools are built on the premise and the promise that some ideas will not be given equal space. But there have always been significant advantages to those restrictions, advantages that many non-religious schools are now looking at with envy. (See, for example, trends toward new in loco parentis rules or creating “safe spaces.”)

If, however, we take Professor George’s word for it, real higher education requires a different approach. I don’t think he meant to do so, but by defining proper higher education as disturbing and soul-shaking, Professor George has accidentally insulted a vast network of successful conservative institutions.


Fundamentalist America and Asian America

Quick: Which of these two pictures depicts American evangelical Protestants?

Of course, the answer is both.  But a lot of us still have a lingering, politely unmentionable stereotype about the nature of race and ethnicity in Fundamentalist America.

Academic historians of religion in America often lament this knee-jerk connection of whiteness with evangelicalism.  (See, for example, Edward Blum’s recents posts on the subject at Religion in American Life.)

Beyond just African American evangelicals, the connections between non-white America and Fundamentalist America are profound, but complicated.

Yesterday, the Pew Research Forum published the results of a survey that will illuminate the religious lives of Asian Americans.  As the authors titled the report, there is no simple way to pigeonhole this “Mosaic of Faiths.”  Religious identity for Asian American often depends on the country of origin, with Filipinos often Catholic, Koreans often evangelical Protestant, Vietnamese often Buddhist, and Indians often Hindu.  But just as common is a firmly non-religious identity.

“Indeed,” the report describes,

“when it comes to religion, the Asian-American community is a study in contrasts, encompassing groups that run the gamut from highly religious to highly secular. For example, Asian Americans who are unaffiliated tend to express even lower levels of religious commitment than unaffiliated Americans in the general public; 76% say religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives, compared with 58% among unaffiliated U.S. adults as a whole. By contrast, Asian-American evangelical Protestants rank among the most religious groups in the U.S., surpassing white evangelicals in weekly church attendance (76% vs. 64%). The overall findings, therefore, mask wide variations within the very diverse Asian-American population.” 

What does this mean for those of us trying to understand Fundamentalist America?  First of all, it is another reminder that we need to look beyond deep-rooted stereotypes about the nature of conservative religiosity.  The sweaty Southern tent preacher with snakes in a box and a kerosene-soaked cross up on the hill is a thoroughly misleading picture.  On the campus of the large public university where I work, one of the most active campus religious groups is the Korean Baptist Fellowship, not the traditional Campus Crusade for Christ or Intervarsity Fellowship.

Second, we need to keep in mind that Fundamentalist America no longer maps evenly or neatly onto conservative evangelical Protestant America.  The ecumenism of conservatives got a big boost with Jerry Falwell’s inclusion of Jewish and Catholic conservatives in his Moral Majority movement in the late 1970s and 1980s.  More recently, conservative Catholic scholar Robert P. George and conservative Muslim scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf teamed up to demand the elimination of pornography from major hotel chains.  Catholics and Jews have long claimed their roles as part of Fundamentalist America.  And those groups have been given a push in a thoroughly conservative direction from members of the faith from outside the Euro-American sphere.

Perhaps in coming decades we will see more and more partnership among conservative Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others.  After all, this was the claim of scholar James Davison Hunter in his 1991 book Culture Wars.  The America of the 1980s, Hunter claimed, no longer was divided between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, but rather between the “tendency toward orthodoxy” and the “tendency toward progressivism.”  Perhaps the orthodox will continue to widen their boundaries to embrace the mosaic of fundamentalism among the Asian American community.