Fundamentalist U & Me: Kurt Morris

Welcome to our latest edition of Fundamentalist U & Me, our occasional series of memory and reflection from people who attended evangelical colleges and universities. [Click here to see all the entries.] The history I recounted in Fundamentalist U only told one part of the complicated story of evangelical higher education. Depending on the person, the school, and the decade, going to an evangelical college has been very different for different people.

This time, we are talking with Kurt Morris, a mental health advocate, writer, storyteller, and speaker in Boston. Morris attended Taylor University from 1997 to 2001 and has a masters in Library Science from Indiana University, Bloomington, and a masters in American Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.Kurt Morris

ILYBYGTH: How did you decide on Taylor? What were your other options? Did your family pressure you to go to an evangelical college?

I never really wanted to go to college but didn’t know what else to do with my life and my parents pushed the idea of how important it is to get a college education. I went to Taylor because I was too scared to go anywhere else. I dealt with a lot of anxiety as a teen (and still do to some extent) and the idea of going to school where I wouldn’t know anyone was terrifying to me. Especially a big state school. My sister went to Taylor and so I knew that I would at least know her and her friends. Also, my parents agreed to pay for college if I went to a Christian college, but not if I went to a non-Christian college.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

I don’t think my college experience necessarily deepened my faith, nor did it make it weaker. It just kind of was. I can’t think of any powerfully religious part of my experience beyond evening floor prayers and chapels. I feel slightly connected to my alma mater, mainly because I’m part of a Facebook group of alumni who are quite liberal.

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college? If so, why, and if not, why not?

I don’t have kids and don’t know if I will, but I’d let them make their own decision on where to attend college. However, given that my partner and I aren’t Christians, it would be rather odd if our children did want to attend an evangelical college.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still support your alma mater, financially or otherwise? If so, how and why, and if not, why not?

I don’t support my alma mater in any way. I never have and never will. I haven’t kept them in the loop as far as my contact info so I haven’t received any solicitations in probably ten years or more. As I’m not a Christian and as I didn’t really enjoy my experience there I don’t see any reason to support them.

ILYBYGTH: If you’ve had experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions of higher education, what have you found to be the biggest differences? The biggest similarities?

I went to state schools for my graduate degrees and loved them. When I went to the first one I still considered myself a Christian (although I was slowly falling away from the evangelical movement in which I was raised) and when I went to the second grad program I wasn’t a Christian. It was great to be around diverse groups of people with open minds. Going to an evangelical college, especially one like Taylor that is in a rural setting, can place you in a bubble.

I’d say beyond the basic structure (both have buildings, classes, professors, homework, projects) there were few similarities. At Taylor we had rules about when men and women could be in one another’s rooms. You couldn’t live off campus until your senior year. You couldn’t drink, do drugs, or smoke. People often had issues if you cussed or didn’t go to church or chapel.

The classes at Taylor, while they provided a good foundation in history, were never intellectually challenging. I never felt like I had to really dig and question my beliefs like I did in my grad programs. Things definitely skewed conservative at Taylor while they skewed incredibly liberal for my grad programs.

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

I only took a couple general education requirements for my science classes. One was environmental science and one was geography, which had a lot to do with geology. I didn’t feel like they were particularly Christian. I imagine the classes at a non-evangelical college would be somewhat similar as far as subject matter but it’s not something I’ve thought about.

ILYBYGTH: Was your social life at your evangelical college similar to the college stereotype (partying, “hooking up,” drinking, etc.) we see in mainstream media? If not, how was it different? Do you think your social experience would have been much different if you went to a secular institution?

Ha ha ha! It was definitely not similar. I was a pretty straight-laced kid in college so I wasn’t really interested in partying anyway. I partied much more in my graduate programs although even that was slightly more reserved than what one sees in the media. At Taylor I spent a lot of time going to concerts in nearby college towns and being into music. Some people drank at those shows but I wasn’t interested in drinking anyway so it wasn’t a big deal to me. I’m not really sure if my situation would’ve been different at a secular institution. I might’ve just latched on to a church and spent most of my time with those folks. I find it hard to imagine I would’ve partied and hooked up with people when I was college-aged, even at a state school. I was a pretty insecure, depressed, anxious kid.

ILYBYGTH: In your experience, was the “Christian” part of your college experience a prominent part? In other words, would someone from a secular college notice differences right away if she or he visited your school?

I think someone from a secular college definitely would’ve noticed a difference. In fact, the few times my friends who went to the nearby state school came to visit they thought the place was weird. The vernacular used and the rules were so foreign to them. And these people were Christians, too!

ILYBYGTH: Did you feel political pressure at school? That is, did you feel like the school environment tipped in a politically conservative direction? Did you feel free to form your own opinions about the news? Were you encouraged or discouraged from doing so?

Taylor definitely skewed politically conservative. I felt I could form my own opinions about the news. I was pretty liberal as far as political interests go—I was reading Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn if that says anything. I picked them up on my own after hearing about them through interviews with punk bands I listened to. I’m sure the school would’ve loved to have us all have the same opinions on political issues, but I didn’t care. That said, I certainly skewed conservative on a number of social issues: gay marriage, abortion, etc. I still felt those were bad things but no longer feel that way.

ILYBYGTH: What do you think the future holds for evangelical higher education? What are the main problems looming for evangelical schools? What advantages do they have over other types of colleges?

I think as Church membership declines and more young people come out as non-believers (as statistics show is happening) some schools will have a difficult time staying open. I’m sure there will be some mergers and closings. Still, I don’t think we’re going to see the end of evangelical colleges in our lifetimes. One thing they certainly provide is a safe setting for believers. Evangelical colleges are bubbles where one can theoretically grow in one’s faith and not feel threatened. That’s a very comforting proposition (and somewhat the reason I attended Taylor) so I think as long as there are people who feel threatened by the secular world, there will be a place for evangelical schools.

Thanks, Kurt!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with Adam at the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Spring still feels pretty far away up here in the woods. Here are some stories that kept us occupied this past week:

Trumpism and the authoritarian personality, at NYT. HT: HD.

Speak no revival: Liberty bans talk of RedLetterRevival, at RNS.

FBI, MLK, and the first televangelist, at R&P.

ok teacher march

Teachers march in OK.

  • “History does not repeat itself, but often, it does rhyme. Today, the White House has an evangelical advisory board and a coterie of televangelists to march alongside the executive branch. Are the African American members of President Trump’s evangelical advisory council the modern day Michauxs?”

How do radical creationists change their mind? Not by argument, at RD.

  • “However well-intentioned you are, bludgeoning people with fact after argument after fact will only entrench them in their position and reinforce a perception of being persecuted by the world.”
  • How can creationists refuse to acknowledge scientific evidence? Easy, at ILYBYGTH.

Arizona’s up-and-coming Betsy Devos clone, at NR.

Why don’t Americans care more about World War I? At The Guardian.

Shocking: Mother uses stun gun to wake her teenager for Easter services. At RNS.

LGBTQ at evangelical colleges: Author interview at IHE.

Hullabaloo at Taylor, too.

Oh my: New flat-earth poll finds only 2/3 of young people “confident” that the earth is a sphere, at LS.

Too far for the Atlantic: Kevin Williamson fired for advocating hanging women who had abortions.

Sweepin Down the Plains: Oklahoma teachers march 110 miles, at NBC.

Are college history classes teaching students to be critical thinkers? Erm…not really, says Stanford’s Sam Wineburg at IHE.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

In like a lion–we’re reeling from an early March blizzard. It left your humble editor plenty of time to scour the interwebs for stories you might like:

Arizona lawmakers push “conservative thought” onto campus, at NYT. HT: HD.

Guns and boys: A pictorial history of Americans’ gun fetish, at HNN.

guns and boys

How long have Americans been in love with guns?

Praying at school—the story from McKinney, Texas, at RNS.

How segregated are public schools? A new survey at Brookings.

Did the Nazis really burn the Reichstag in 1933? New proof, at Telegraph.

Notes from the fundamentalist underground: Campus strife at evangelical Taylor University, at IHE.

West Virginia teachers head back to the salt mines, at CNN.

…or DO they? Strike continues after all.

Lehigh University rescinds Trump’s honorary degree from 1988, at TMC.

Charter schools worldwide—what do they look like with fewer rules? Hechinger Report describes Sweden, New Zealand, and France.

LDS scientist: Mormons have nothing to fear from evolutionary theory, at SLT.

Why did China ban Winnie the Pooh? At BBC.

Is religion for suckers? Mark Bauerlein on Steven Pinker, at FT.

Shipping conservatives to the gulag: Rod Dreher’s latest at AC.

Poison Pens at Evangelical Colleges

What’s going on at Taylor University in Indiana? According to a recent anonymous newsletter, the evangelical campus is seething with

gossip, slander, backbiting, profanity, vulgarity, crude language, sexual immorality (including adultery, homosexual behavior, premarital sex and involvement with pornography in any form), drunkenness, immodesty of dress and occult practice.

Zoiks!

Taylor’s administration struggles to respond to this conservative carping. For those in the know about the history of evangelical higher education, this sort of anonymous poison-pen assault has always been part of life at Christian colleges.

As I found in the research for my new book, critics from both the evangelical left and the fundamentalist right have often resorted to anonymous open letters in their attempts to influence policy at their schools. The archival files bulge with letters and newsletters of this type.

At Biola University, for example, a self-identified group of disgruntled fundamentalists buttonholed President Samuel Sutherland with a list of concerns in 1969. As they wrote anxiously,

we are deeply concerned about danger signs showing themselves among some of our conference speakers and members of the student body! Indications now present seem to point to a trend that the school is moving from its Biblical foundation.  May God prevent such a tragedy!

The students were concerned with the slackening of the student dress code, particularly for women. The rules stated that skirts and dresses must not be shorter than one and a half inches above the knee. As the conservative students complained, though,

the failure of a number of Biola girls to adhere to the dress rule is altogether too evident.  Excessive bodily exposure of Biola girls has even been seen in the seminary section of the library and has proven a hindrance to study. . . . We urge the administration to be rigorous in enforcing the rules and regulations of Biola Schools.  IN particular, the dress length rule should be observed because of its obvious Biblical basis.

Rock and roll, too, had snuck onto campus. As the protesters warned,

Unfortunately, many students here are experiencing a diet of music consisting primarily of the popular beat of the day.  Our group does not advocate avoidance of popular tunes!  However we do oppose the trend toward an exclusive diet of rock and roll even to the extent that our religious music is to be constructed around the beat.

All in all, the fundamentalist protesters in 1969 worried about the very continuation of Biola as a safe evangelical school. As they concluded,

Many great schools of the past today are under the sway of heresy.  We do not believe that loss happened within a few months.  We believe the erosion was gradual.  May God help all of the administration and faculty at Biola Schools to become more alert in detecting danger signs and in taking action to prevent the deterioration that has begun here.

These sorts of anonymous pleas for reform and renewal haven’t only come from nose-out-of-joint fundamentalists. Liberal students, too, have penned their share of open letters. The archives are full of em, but my personal favorite comes from Moody Bible Institute.

anti john rice demonstration warning letter

From the MBI Archives: BEWARE!

In 1971, MBI invited John R. Rice to speak at its annual Founder’s Day event. Before he could make the trip to Chicago, Rice came out in favor of the racial segregation at Bob Jones University. What was MBI to do? The leadership didn’t want to endorse Rice’s brand of Southern-fried racism. But they also didn’t want to anger his considerable fundamentalist following. As they dithered, they received an anonymous letter warning them to cancel Rice’s appearance.

The letter claimed to be written by non-students. To this reporter, however, the tone sounds awfully similar to the phrasing used by evangelical students everywhere and the letter-writers seem to know a lot more about Rice and MBI than any outsider would. For example, they had read Rice’s publication, Sword of the Lord. They knew about Rice’s recent support for racial segregation at Bob Jones U.

What should MBI do? The letter writers made threats:

We Do Not Want HIM [Rice] IN CHICAGO. If you bring him here to speak, we will have one of the biggest demonstrations Chicago has ever seen.

It would get ugly. As the letter concluded,

BEWARE . . . . the hour is later than you think. . . . Obey our orders or REEEEEEAAAAAP what you sow.

In the end, MBI canceled Rice’s speech. Perhaps the administration shared the letter-writers’ concern that their “ ‘image’ will . . . be destroyed.”

What will happen at Taylor? The conservative newsletter complains that the current campus is going to the dogs, according to Inside Higher Education. In classes, the newsletter exclaims, students learn

permissive views of human sexuality, hostility toward creationist perspectives, rejection of the rule of law (especially on the immigration issue) and uncritical endorsement of liberal-progressive ideas[.]

Such poison-pen missives have had a big impact in the past. Perhaps Taylor’s administration will take the path of least resistance and make some move to mollify the “conservative underground.”