Anti-LGBTQ: Follow the Anti-Evolution Road

It must be a difficult time to oppose full inclusion for LGBTQ children. Two major banks have pulled out of a Florida voucher school program. Why? Because the program supported schools that discriminated against LGBTQ students, families, and teachers. The historian in me can’t help but wonder: Will anti-LGBTQ conservatives repeat the century-old model of anti-evolution activism?

I know it is silly to make predictions based on the past, but the anti-LGBTQ movement among conservative Christians certainly seems to be following the road laid down a century ago by anti-evolution activists. Here is how it worked back then:

Phase 1: We Are the Real Christians. In this phase, conservative intellectuals tried to fight the growing sense that their conservatism made them something new. Instead, conservatives insisted they were only upholding the time-tested truths of real Christianity. Their opposition to evolution, they insisted, did not make them anything other than “Christians.”

For example, in 1923 James M. Gray of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago lamented the tendency of anti-evolution “Fundamentalists” to call themselves anything other than “Christians.” As Gray put it,

As a matter of fact, not a few church members . . . believe that Fundamentalism is some new thing and some awful heresy that must metaphorically, be stamped out. . . . dear brethren, do not let the old name slip away from us. . . . It is a name that stands for the pure and complete gospel of Jesus Christ, a name that has never been identified with any movement, fanaticism, or fad, and which has been made so sacred to us by its defenders in all the years.

Phase 2: Scare Tactics. In the 1920s, evolution came to represent the best of modern science to many Americans. Conservative anti-evolution activists found themselves suddenly on the defensive, needing to prove to their co-religionists that evolution was truly dangerous. Many of them, like evangelist T.T. Martin, found themselves using more and more extreme language to describe the threat posed by evolution. As Martin wrote in 1923,

Ramming poison down the throats of our children is nothing compared with damning their souls with the teaching of Evolution.

Phase 3: Fight for our Right. At the same time, conservative anti-evolution Christians campaigned to purge public institutions of evolutionary ideas. At my alma mater the University of Wisconsin, for example, in 1921 William Jennings Bryan taunted President Edward Birge to either ban evolution or post the following signs on all classrooms:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

Phase 4: A School of Our Own. When those fights failed, anti-evolution conservatives turned inward. They founded schools of their own that would teach an anti-evolution version of Christianity. As evangelist Bob Jones Sr. described his new school in 1928,

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 first glance, the anti-LGBTQ wing of conservative Christianity seems to be following the same path. Just like the 1920s, these days conservatives are confronted with rapidly changing mainstream attitudes. Back then, it was evolution. These days, it is about gender and sexuality.

Save our Schools Cover Art jpg

Will anti-LGBTQ activists in the 2020s follow the path of anti-evolution activists in the 1920s?

And we’ve seen a similar pattern. For example, as I noted in a recent commentary in the Washington Post, conservative Christians like Karen Pence often defend their anti-LGBTQ attitudes as simply traditional or (small-o) “orthodox” Christianity.

Second, anti-LGBTQ conservatives work hard these days to convince their fellow Christians that LGBTQ rights present a dire threat. For example, creationist activist Ken Ham has long warned of creeping LGBTQ acceptance. As Ham wrote back in 2015,

From what we’ve seen and know about the LGBT movement, the leaders don’t just want legalization of their immmoral behavior, but also want to force acceptance of this on everyone. They want everyone not just to tolerate their position, but to accept it while they themselves show intolerance for those who do not hold to their views.

Next, anti-LGBTQ Christians have certainly been competing for influence within mainstream institutions. From California to Missouri, activists have tried hard to purge public schools and libraries of pro-LGBTQ ideas. Most often, just as anti-evolution activists did in the 1920s, anti-LGBTQ activists have lost.

And some of them have moved to Phase 4. Perhaps most famously, crunchy conservative Rod Dreher has called for the Benedict Option, separating from an irredeemably corrupt mainstream society to form purer enclaves where traditional ideas of sexuality and gender can dominate.

How will it all play out? History is a famously bad guide to the future, but the trajectory of anti-evolution activism offers a few possibilities. Back in the 1920s, opposing mainstream science worked. Schools and colleges that planted a flag for anti-evolutionary “fundamentalism” thrived.

In Illinois, for example, Wheaton College declared itself an anti-evolution institution in 1925 and its enrollment grew in leaps and bounds. Between 1916 and 1928, enrollment at Wheaton grew by four hundred percent. (By way of contrast, similar non-fundamentalist colleges in the area grew by an average of 46%.)

The benefits of standing outside the mainstream had their costs, however. Back in the 1920s, anti-evolution fundamentalists tended to believe in a far less radical form of creationism. Most of them, even the firmest anti-evolution activists among them, still wanted to earn the respect of mainstream scientists. They mostly pooh-poohed radical ideas about a young earth and a sudden, fiat creation of all life.

When anti-evolution activists started their own institutions, however, it gave them the ability to encourage more radical forms of Christian belief. In schools like Bob Jones University, young-earth creationism became the norm. Perhaps because they had given up on mainstream acceptance, they were able to indulge ideas such as young-earth creationism that had absolutely no merit outside the charmed circle of radical-creationist schools.

Will that happen again? It just might. As anti-LGBTQ conservatives read more headlines like the ones we’re seeing today, they might grow more and more convinced that their ideas are unwelcome outside their own circles. It might seem more and more tempting to create separatist institutions in which their own ideas are welcomed. If that happens, perhaps we will see a repeat of the creationist tradition. Namely, the mainstream might grow more and more comfortable with LGTBQ acceptance while a small but energetic minority embraces more and more radical versions of anti-LGTQ thinking.

Lamanites and the Ugly History of Racism at Evangelical Colleges

It must be jarring. Imagine opening the new Sunday-school manual of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and finding cruel racist histories and warnings against racial mixing. It’s not that plenty of white Christians aren’t sincere about fighting racism. But episodes like this show how paper-thin those efforts are, given the nasty history of white racism. It’s not only LDS, by any means. The history I researched in Fundamentalist U shows the same Get-Out-level nastiness in white evangelical institutions.

Here’s what we know: The LDS hierarchy recently apologized for a glaring “error.” (I know, we’re not supposed to use “LDS” anymore, or “Mormon,” but calling it the whole long name every time seems crazy.) The new Sunday-school manual included old language about race, ideas the LDS church no longer teaches. Most shocking, the new 2020 manual says the following:

“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing,” the book explains, citing a statement made some 60 years ago by then-apostle and future church President Joseph Fielding Smith.

Erm.

Today, a spokesman announced, LDS churches “unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.” Good for them. Nevertheless, this episode serves as a reminder of the explicit, official racism that was church policy until very recently. It helps show how inadequate it is to simply promise not to be racist anymore; it helps demonstrate why we haven’t moved beyond our racist history, even if many people would like to believe we have.tisby color of compromise

It certainly isn’t only a problem among LDS churches. I just finally ordered my copy of Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise. I’m looking forward to reading it. As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, many evangelical colleges have an ugly history of racism. These days, even the schools with the most aggressively racist histories have disavowed racism, officially at least. But like the LDS “error,” its legacy is clearly visible. Like the painfully tense garden-party scene in Get Out, the history of institutional racism has been awkwardly papered over, leaving a painfully inadequate no-longer-racism where all the racism used to be.

Just a reminder: Yes, Bob Jones University—like the LDS—issued in 1960 a searing “Biblical” defense of racial segregation. But even up north, evangelical institutions such as Wheaton College and Moody Bible Institute suffered from explicit intentional racism.

bju race statement

Mea culpa, sorta…

At Wheaton, for example, in the 1950s there was only one integrated student club. Ironically, that was the Dixie Club for southern students. As one white Wheaton student later remembered from that era, one African American student seemed to prefer the company of her white southern friends, “even though obviously we represented repression for her in some ways.”

swartz moral minorityAs historian David Swartz described in his terrific book Moral Minority, Wheaton tried hard to become less racist. It led to some strange tensions. One white anti-racist faculty member in the 1960s edited an anti-racist newsletter, Freedom Now. If Wheaton students wanted a copy, they could get one at the campus bookstore, but only by asking for it by name. Copies were kept under the counter.

Wheaton wasn’t the only prominent evangelical school to wrestle awkwardly with its own institutional racism. At MBI, in 1952 an interracial couple was asked to split up. As Dean Maxwell Coder reported internally, he asked them

not to associate on or off the campus in anyway [sic] that would attract attention to themselves as a couple and give rise to criticism . . . because of the racial problem involved.

By 1970, MBI had taken bolder steps to fight its own racist history. In that year, segregationist fundamentalist John R. Rice had been invited to give a prominent talk at MBI. Rice had continued his pro-segregation rhetoric. MBI disinvited him. (For the intensely awkward details, see here. The MBI leaders had a hard time settling on language that would satisfy all parties.)

I recognize and admire the efforts of lots of white evangelical activists who have tackled this racist history, now and in the past. Yet it just doesn’t feel like quite enough. In the end, I agree with one LDS scholar:

The manuals “should have been shredded when this egregious error was found prior to international distribution,” said Jerri Harwell, associate professor in Salt Lake Community College’s English, linguistics and writing studies department. “The money that would have been lost on this is nothing compared to one day’s interest on $100 billion in [the church’s] reserves.”

Trump-ing Academic Life

A Miss USA, a bachelor, a gun-toter, a filmmaker, and a MAGA youtuber, all clumped together on a college campus to promote “Judeo-Christian values.” What could go wrong? If it were a reality show, I’d watch it. But it’s not. Instead, this group of culture-war B-listers is the first cohort of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center Fellows. These Trumpish all-stars promise/threaten to upend a long tradition of alternative academic institution-building in conservative evangelical higher ed.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, we’ve been following developments at Liberty’s new Falkirk Center with a lot of interest. The founders—Jerry Falwell Jr. and Turning Point’s Charlie Kirk—warned us that they plan to put “Judeo-Christian values” back in the center of American political life via an “aggressive social media campaign.” Given the history of ambitious academic centers at conservative evangelical universities, there’s not much of a chance the Falkirkers will achieve their goals. Given the recently announced line-up of founding Falkirk Fellows, I’m starting to think that they might, in fact, have a totally different goal in mind. Namely, they might want to trash the entire evangelical academic tradition, or at least not mind if they do.

As I argued in Fundamentalist U, since the 1920s conservative evangelical colleges, institutes, and universities faced a formidable task. They had to create an entirely separate academic system of prestige, one that rewarded scholars outside of mainstream academic channels. As part of their effort to do so, many universities poured scarce resources into the painstaking effort to build their own independent network of academic prestige, one that did not rely on mainstream ideas. For example, institutions such as Wheaton College and Gordon College heaped honors on creationists such as Harry Rimmer. Authors such as Arthur Brown scrambled to compile impressive-sounding lists of academic “experts” who scorned mainstream science.

To be sure, these alternative academic “experts” often had extremely shallow credentials. When evangelical universities gave them honorary doctorates and other academic honors, however, they were signaling to the conservative evangelical community that their universities shared the religious and political values of their honored experts. The universities were creating, in essence, a world of academic prestige outside the entire system of mainstream academics.

The recent move by Liberty University seems as different from that kind of thinking as Trump is from Reagan. What does it take to earn a coveted spot as an inaugural fellow at the Falkirk Center? Let’s take a look:

Frantzve

Adding a little sparkle to academic life…

First, we have Erika Lane Frantzve, Miss USA 2012. Ms. Frantzve claims a “background” in political science and is dedicated to charity work. Next, there is Josh Allan Murray, best known from his appearance on The Bachelorette. These days, in spite of the quick break-ups of his TV nuptials, Mr. Murray is apparently “bouncing back better than ever.” Third comes Antonia Okafor Cover, who works to get more guns on college campuses. She claims to have been told she should not feel free to speak her mind, but as she puts it, “I didn’t listen.” Another fellow will be David J. Harris, Jr., a vlogger and Trump enthusiast who preaches the dangers of the “crazed left.” Last but not least is Jaco Booyens, filmmaker and opponent of sex trafficking.

I don’t mean to be a campus snob, but what kind of achievements can a group like this hope to achieve? To quote Charlie Kirk, how can this assemblage “‘play offense’ against efforts by liberals to water down Judeo-Christian values in the Bible and Constitution”?

The short and obvious answer is, they can’t. This is a group of second-rate conservative media presences, not a group of alternative academics. Unlike people like Harry Rimmer in an earlier generation, they have no coherent ideas to promote. They are not scientists frozen out of mainstream science, or theologians pushed out of mainstream institutions. Those kinds of non-mainstream intellectuals used to be the ones to win academic honors from the evangelical academy. This group looks decidedly different.

Even from within the alternative academic tradition of conservative evangelical schools, a tradition in which non-traditional intellectuals were often awarded traditional academic honors, this group of Falkirk Fellows looks remarkably intellectual weak. Instead of building an independent system of academic prestige as earlier evangelical colleges have done, the Falkirk Center seems to be merely leaping aboard the Trump Train to trash the entire idea of academic prestige.

Great Enrollment Crash—Evangelical Edition

There are a lot of jobs I’m glad I don’t have. Being admissions director at a small or medium-sized evangelical liberal-arts college is just one of them. As a recent commentary in Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription only, sorry) makes crystal clear, these are dark times for some mainstream colleges. I can’t help but think they’ll be even darker for evangelical ones.

wheaton-website-proofs-102817-1

How much will families pay for fancy buildings and philosophy degrees? …for Christian ones?

Bill Conley, enrollment guru at Bucknell University in Ohio, describes a “perfect storm” of declining enrollments at private liberal-arts colleges like his. Yes, there have been panics before, but this time it is serious. Especially in “soft” non-professional majors, enrollment since the financial crash of 2008 has plummeted. As Conley grimly describes,

with each demographic blip, and with every crossing of a new are-you-kidding-me? threshold for cost of attendance, colleges still reported record selectivity, robust enrollments, and financial-aid programs that, for some, effectively reduced sticker shock. Indeed, reports of a higher-education bubble about to burst appeared to be greatly exaggerated. American higher education seemingly had an elasticity that could withstand periodic, short-term fluctuations in demand and cost.

Then came 2008. The Great Recession devastated university endowments, shattered the majority of family wealth and income, and confounded the predictive modeling of enrollment managers. The near-term chaos was very real. Somehow, at varying rates, most colleges managed to survive, but in order to do so they established a “new normal” that would allow them to claim renewed stability for the long haul. That brings us to the summer of 2019, when the cracks in this new normal really started to show.

What does the future hold for private colleges like Bucknell? Conley is not optimistic. As he concludes,

Higher education has fully entered a new structural reality. You’d be naïve to believe that most colleges will be able to ride out this unexpected wave as we have previous swells.

Not all universities are in the same boat. Public universities with lower tuition sticker prices are booming. Technical and professional programs are doing fine. But parents and students are increasingly unlikely to shell out big bucks for liberal-arts degrees. What will this mean for the world of evangelical higher ed?

As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, when it came to admissions numbers, evangelical colleges and universities shared the historical patterns of mainstream institutions.

Before World War II, the few fundamentalist colleges that offered more than Bible-institute training had more students than they could manage. One survey in the late 1940s found that enrollment at a group of seventy evangelical colleges doubled between 1929 and 1940. In 1936 alone, the enrollment at Wheaton College in Illinois jumped by seventeen percent.

By the 1960s, however, due largely to an infusion of federal money from the GI Bill, the number of evangelical colleges had grown so rapidly that they struggled to fill their classrooms. Suddenly, liberal-arts colleges like Wheaton faced a new dilemma. Students just weren’t coming. In 1964, 8,528 high-school students requested information about Wheaton. By 1967 that number dropped to only 6,403, with only 1,101 actual applicants.

Clearly, Wheaton College survived that 1960s slump and one might be tempted to think Conley’s worries today are similarly exaggerated. I’m not so sure. What would convince parents and students to spend tens of thousands of extra tuition dollars to attend an evangelical college instead of an academically comparable (or superior) state college?

In the past, the answer has always been the uniquely evangelical environment of evangelical colleges. Where else can a family be sure that all the professors share their faith? That most of the students do? That the entire mission of the college is to teach students in a specifically evangelical manner?

The hard truth is that families will have to figure out how much those things are worth, in dollars and cents. Will they pay $100,000 extra? $50,000? $200,000? It doesn’t take much of a historical perspective to see that the magic number will likely shrink past the point colleges can stand. If they pay more to maintain their high-quality evangelical environment, can they compete with cheaper state schools?

These days, as schools like Bucknell see their traditional family loyalties dry up in the face of unmatchable price competition from state schools, evangelical colleges will face similar storms. For more and more families, college will be a chance to learn professional skills, not form Christian faith. If the price difference is steep enough, families will let their churches do the Christian part, and state schools do the higher-ed part.

The Myth About Evangelical Politics Just Won’t Die

Big-name pundits such as Newt Gingrich and Kevin Kruse are battling about one historical myth. Meanwhile, in a quieter corner, there’s another myth that just won’t go away. Among historians, there is no doubt that conservative evangelicals never really retreated from politics. As one evangelical writer just demonstrated, however, that historical fact hasn’t sunk very deep roots yet. What’s it gonna take for people to stop saying that evangelicals retreated from politics between the 1920s and the 1970s?

Gods own party

Evangelicals have ALWAYS been political…

First, the history. Let’s start with Daniel K. Williams’ work, God’s Own Party. In this terrific book, Prof. Williams demonstrates that conservative evangelicals did not retreat from politics in the 1920s only to re-emerge with the Moral Majority in the 1970s. That was a convenient story for evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Sr., who could claim to be a reluctant politico. It just wasn’t true. As Williams concludes,

evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing this for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party. It was an event more than fifty years in the making.

Similarly, Matthew Avery Sutton argued in American Apocalypse that the “rise-fall-rebirth” myth of evangelical politics doesn’t match reality. As Prof. Sutton wrote, the fundamentalists’

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

For what it’s worth, I made a similar case in Fundamentalist U. Ever since the 1920s, fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical intellectuals remained closely involved with politics, keenly interested in protecting their rights to radio airtime, leading anti-communism rallies and networks, and allying with secular conservatives to fight in the political arena against a variety of foes, including racial integration.

SuttonJust as the furor over the recent 1619 Project demonstrated that we can have vast discrepancies between well-established historical truths and widely held popular opinions about history, so this non-controversial historical truth about evangelical politics seems to be limited mainly to academic circles.

The latest case in point: In a recent article in Christianity Today about Classical Christian schools, Louis Markos repeated the old, false myth about evangelical politics without a blush. As Markos put it,

In the wake of the fundamentalist reaction against modernism and especially Darwinism, conservative evangelicals tended to withdraw from society. If they did engage society directly (e.g., the temperance movement), it was likely to be critical—asserting what they were against, rather than what they were for.

As the universities, the media, and politics absorbed more and more of the modernist world­view, evangelicals withdrew even further, circling the wagons as a means of protecting their children from a society cut off from its Christian roots. Rather than seeking to be salt and light, they embraced a more Old Testament ethos and sought to separate themselves from the unbelievers around them (Ezra 10:11).

This ethos manifested itself in a Bible-only approach to learning that cast suspicion on non-biblical sources of wisdom.

…really? Politics aside, a description of mid-century evangelical higher education as a “Bible-only approach to learning” would come as a nasty surprise to twentieth-century fundamentalist scholars such as J. Gresham Machen and Gordon Clark, not to mention hundreds of less-famous evangelical teachers of the period. Clark, in particular, was famous at Wheaton College in Illinois for teaching classical philosophy. With his Ivy-League doctorate, Clark helped launch the careers of many well-known evangelical scholars, including Edward Carnell, Carl Henry, Paul Jewett, and Harold Lindsell. And Prof. Clark did it by challenging the comfortable assumptions of his students, having them read and debate anti-Christian and pre-Christian philosophy. To be sure, Clark’s approach was controversial at the time, but it was anything but a “Bible-only approach to learning.”

Or consider the final exam from Harold Lindsell’s class at Fuller Seminary in 1961. Students who enrolled in Lindsell’s “Critique of Communism” course confronted the following final exam:

Select any FIVE of the following and write a short and concise statement of what each term means:

  1. Democratic centralism
  2. Socialism in one country
  3. Class struggle
  4. Surplus value
  5. Imperialism
  6. State socialism
  7. Utopian socialism

SELECT ANY THREE OF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS AND WRITE AN ESSAY ON EACH ONE OF THEM.

  • Analyze the concept of DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM, showing what its ideas and components consist in and how it is related to the Weltanschauung of Communism.
  • Describe the unique contribution made to Communism by Lenin.
  • Discuss in detail the Communist system of ethics and indicate how this ethical system operates in actual practice at home and abroad.
  • Construct your own plan of action as an answer to Communism and show what specific steops you would take in order to meet this danger.
  • Analyze the ways in which the views of Marx and Engels have proved to be wrong and state what changes have been made since then to modify their original theories.

Does this sound like a course at a school that had withdrawn from politics? That taught students only the Bible? That was “withdraw[n] from society”? Quite the contrary, and Lindsell’s course was only unusual in that he retained all the papers—including the final exams—in his voluminous files for later historians like me to uncover.

Yet intelligent, informed writers like Markos still default to the old “retreat” story without hesitation. Why? We know—or we have a good guess—why some political conservatives resist the lessons of the 1619 Project so vociferously. But why do smart evangelicals these days embrace this myth of evangelical politics so consistently? And why cling to it when it has been rejected so completely by historians?

Christian College Apocalypse: October 8, 2019

The leaders of America’s conservative evangelical colleges are freaking out, and I don’t blame them.  An upcoming SCOTUS case threatens to upend the entire premise of evangelical higher ed.

A little background: In October, SCOTUS is slated to hear a trio of cases about LGBTQ rights. At issue is whether or not LGBTQ sexual and gender identity deserve the same legal protections as other factors such as male/female gender, race, and religion. Not surprisingly, conservative evangelical colleges are alarmed.  An anti-discrimination ruling could have a serious impact on the way they house students, hire faculty, and earn accreditation. (To be clear here, I don’t agree with most evangelical colleges on LGBTQ issues. I would love to see LGBTQ protections deepened and extended. I DO agree with evangelical leaders that this SCOTUS decision is a big deal.)

If SCOTUS decides that LGBTQ people are covered under Title VII and Title IX, for example, universities that don’t recognize transgender identities could be forced to do so, or give up their federal student funds. That would hurt, but it wouldn’t necessary be deadly. As I examined in Fundamentalist U, conservative evangelical institutions have withstood similar shocks in the past. Bob Jones University famously gave up its tax-exempt status back in the 1980s over racial segregation. BJU took a big financial hit, but it didn’t wither and die. BJU might even have benefited in the long run.

In this case, however, the core premise and promise of conservative-evangelical higher education might be disrupted. Since their foundings in the 1920s, colleges in the fundamentalist (and later conservative-evangelical) movement have promised students something other colleges couldn’t. Namely, institutions such as Wheaton College and Bob Jones University promised that all of their faculty members would reliably agree to a “pure” evangelical statement of faith.

This promise about “safe” and “pure” teachers has always been at the core of the conservative-evangelical college appeal. Back in the 1920s, for instance, Bob Jones Sr. could promise,

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.

And even in the twenty-first century, as the case of Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton shows, evangelical colleges insist that their faculty members endorse a “safe,” “pure” sort of evangelical faith. At least when anyone is listening.

What does any of this have to do with the SCOTUS LGBTQ case? As evangelical colleges and their allies have accurately protested to SCOTUS in an amicus brief, if they lose their ability to be very selective about their faculty, they lose their entire raison d’etre. As they write in their brief,

A religious university identifies itself and its community by religious teachings that ‘cover the gamut from moral conduct to metaphysical truth.’ Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 201 (Alito, J., concurring). Because ‘the content and credibility of a religion’s message depend vitally on the character and conduct of its teachers,’ a religious university’s ‘right to self-governance must include the ability to select, and to be selective about’ its employees. Id. For  many religious universities, ‘the messenger matters,’ id.—as do tenets of faith and standards of conduct, see Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 2625 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

In plain English, evangelical colleges complain that they must be able to discriminate when they hire their faculty. If they can no longer promise that their teachers will embody parents’ vision of proper evangelical faith—which for a lot of parents has no room for LGTBQ Christians—they will no longer have any unique appeal for the conservative evangelical public. They will no longer be able to fill the unique role they laid out in the 1920s: An entire college filled only with professors who agree on key matters of evangelical faith.

The worst case scenario is troubling indeed, from the perspective of evangelical higher ed. If they lose their ability to insist on the beliefs of their faculty, they lose everything. If they can no longer force faculty to sign their annual statements of faith, they can no longer promise students and parents a “pure” or “safe” evangelical college experience.

When Loyalty Means Dictatorship: The Latest Sad Story from Liberty U

It is not a happy time to be a Flame. Former student editor Will E. Young offered a blistering expose of the school’s “atmosphere of fear” in the Washington Post. Unfortunately, Young’s experience at Liberty was not a shocking departure from the history of evangelical higher ed, but rather just a new development of an ugly tradition. As Young asks plaintively,

How can a college education stifle your freedom of thought?

Unfortunately, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s dictatorial antics are nothing new. Whether Falwell realizes it or not, he is only the latest fundamentalist school leader to bolster his authority at the cost of his school’s intellectual and spiritual integrity.

Bob jones sr

Falwell adopts the Bob Jones leadership mantra: “My Way or the Highway”

Young was student editor at the Liberty student paper and experienced the full pressure of the administration’s heavy-handed regime of censorship. His faculty advisor required him to preview articles and killed any story that made Liberty or its leader Jerry Falwell Jr. look bad.

As Young explained,

when my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an “oversight” system — read: a censorship regime — that required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review. Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article; they added and deleted whatever they wanted. Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally, as he had a year earlier when, weeks before the 2016 election, he read a draft of my column defending mainstream news outlets and ordered me to say whom I planned to vote for.

Such censorship is not new for Liberty. As we’ve seen, in recent years Liberty’s censorship has grown stricter. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, this kind of leader-focused absolutism has a long and sad tradition in evangelical higher ed. It is not a quirk of Falwell or Trumpism, but rather it is the result of the definitional problem of interdenominational evangelical higher education. Without a single, clearly defined religious orthodoxy to defend, institutions such as Liberty, Bob Jones University, and many others developed a top-down, leader-centric institutional structure. In short, lacking a denominational orthodoxy or hierarchy, some fundamentalist school leaders adopted a bitter, angry “my-way-or-the-highway” approach.

Back in the 1930s, when “fundamentalism” was still finding its legs as an institutionalized religious movement, leaders of fundamentalist colleges such as Wheaton and Bob Jones faced a dilemma. They had no universally agreed-upon definition of fundamentalism, yet they were charged with teaching fundamentalism and maintaining a purely fundamentalist campus.

buswellpres

Buswell at Wheaton.

Different schools reacted differently. Wheaton ended up with a confusing spread of institutional authority. Early President J. Oliver Buswell found out the hard way that he could not simply dictate policy at Wheaton. When Buswell tried to embrace a vision of fundamentalism that meant full separation from non-fundamentalist Protestants, he was summarily fired.

At the same time, Bob Jones Sr. pioneered the kind of fundamentalist leadership that is on display today at Liberty University. All faculty members were required to agree with every jot and tittle of Jones’s beliefs. One faculty member was fired in 1938 for “hobnobbing” with students. As this fired faculty member wrote in an open letter, he had worked at two other evangelical universities in his career,

two of them orthodox. (But not obnoxious.) My loyalty was never questioned . . . . It simply never occurred to me that I was not free to express my opinions and I did express them. How was I to know that loyalty meant dictatorship?

It might never have been crystal clear what “fundamentalism” meant, but at Bob Jones College (later Bob Jones University), it always meant whatever the leader said it meant. Any disagreement, any “griping,” meant a fast ticket out the door, with a furious gossip campaign among the fundamentalist community to discredit the fired faculty member.

Mr. Young’s story from Liberty U is heart-wrenching, but it is not new. The dictatorial style of Jerry Falwell Jr. is not an innovation, but rather only the sad flowering of a poisonous fundamentalist flower.

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.

Will the Real Evangelical Please Stand Up?

I sympathize. I’m no evangelical myself, but I truly sympathize with all the caring, thoughtful, engaged evangelicals out there who have a hard time seeing the ugly truth. But all the sympathy in the world doesn’t make the truth less true, or any less ugly.

pence

Love him or hate him, Pence really does represent American evangelical values.

We saw it again this week in the news from Indiana. Writing in the Washington Post, Amy Peterson lamented the choice of Vice President Mike Pence to give the commencement speech at evangelical Taylor University.

Peterson was absolutely right that the choice of Pence serves as a signal to evangelicals of the kind of institution Taylor wants to be. She was definitely correct in suggesting that Pence sides with Taylor’s underground conservatives, evangelicals who want their institution to enforce traditional sexual norms and starchy moral codes.

But Peterson makes a common mistake in her conclusion. She reports that many faculty members and students at Taylor shared her dismay at the choice of Pence. She ends on this hopeful note,

If the uproar at Taylor this week is any indication, white evangelicals may not be such a monolithic voting bloc the next time around.

But that’s just it. The uproar at Taylor is NOT a fair indication of the way white evangelicals think. Or vote.

As Slacktivist Fred Clark calls it, “faculty lounge” evangelicalism is not a fair measure of evangelicalism as a whole. In other words, evangelical intellectuals are, by definition, not average. Their ideas about “real” evangelicalism do not match real American “evangelicalism.” As Clark put it,

the evangelicals of the faculty lounge cannot speak for most white evangelicals.

We’ve seen it over and over again. Not just in the twentieth century, as I examined in Fundamentalist U, but in the past five years. And not just at the more politically conservative schools such as Liberty—though it has been dominant there—but at “faculty-lounge” strongholds such as Wheaton. Just ask Larycia Hawkins.

This is not only a problem for evangelical academics, of course. I remember a hastily-assembled conference at my (very secular) home institution in November, 2016. A group of historians scrambled to put Trump’s election victory in context. We just couldn’t find any way to make good sense of it. Our vision of American values and American voting just didn’t match reality. But our confusion couldn’t change the fact that large numbers of Americans seemed to prefer Trump’s brand of toxic Americanism.

Evangelical academics are in the same boat. When they encourage their fellow white evangelicals not to put their nationalism before their religion, like Randy Beckum did, they are shocked to find such notions controversial.  Or, as Methodists found out recently, when they assume their ideas about sexuality are the world-wide norm, they get harshly disabused of such notions.

The Taylor/Pence story hits the same ugly notes. I sympathize entirely with Amy Peterson and her friends and allies at Taylor University. I wish evangelical institutions would embrace the best traditions of evangelical religion. I hope—though I don’t pray—that large numbers of white evangelicals reject Trump’s toxic Americanism at the polls in 2020.

In the end, however, we all need to face realities. The faculty and some students at Taylor might reel in dismay at the university’s decision to honor Mike Pence. But in the end, as Peterson recounts, lots of Taylor students and faculty loved it. And the school’s administrators, as always desperate to reassure students and families that they represent “real” evangelical values, decided that Pence embodied those values. When pollsters explore beyond the faculty lounge, they find that white evangelicals prefer Pence to Peterson.

Fundamentalist U Leads from Behind

When universities these days re-impose in loco parentis rules to avoid lawsuits, they are joining a group of schools that never abandoned that role. Despite the headline in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, there’s nothing “new” about it. There’s not even anything new about secular schools copying evangelical ones. It’s been going on for a while. We might even say that evangelical colleges and universities have become the accidental trend-setters for mainstream higher ed.

eye on u

How “New”?

Here’s what we know: In CHE, Vimal Patel describes the trend: Some universities are claiming more institutional control over students’ lives. Historically, as Patel correctly notes, some mainstream schools abandoned such rules after student protests in the 1960s. Universities no longer agreed to act, in essence, as local parents.

With accusations of sexual assault, unsafe hazing, and other campus dangers, though, universities these days worry about legal liability. A lot. As a result, they are returning to their tradition of asserting control over students’ lives outside the classroom. As Patel writes,

This resurgent version, at traditional four-year colleges, is more attitudinal than legal, and motivated by 21st-century conditions. Past iterations were paternalistic, but the new version is driven by tuition-payers’ expectations, colleges’ concerns about legal liability, shifting cultural and social norms, and an evolving understanding of human development.

What Patel doesn’t mention is that plenty of institutions don’t have to return to in loco parentis, because they never really left. Consider as one example a talk given by President Hudson Armerding of Wheaton College at Parents’ Day Chapel, October 30, 1971. President Armerding told the assembled parents that most colleges had abandoned their in loco parentis responsibilities. He told them that mainstream colleges positively bragged about their lack of concern for students’ non-academic lives. What was the result? Quoth Armerding,

a shallow permissiveness conveys a distorted view of God who deals far differently with His children.

Wheaton College would be different, Armerding promised. He and his school embraced their in loco parentis responsibilities. As he concluded,

We believe that students should be disciplined and corrected and that this should be consistent with the teachings of the Word of God.

Patel’s not interested in the distinct and vital traditions I analyzed in Fundamentalist U. But this is not meant as a knock on Patel. (Though to be fair, I find it egregious that anyone writing about the history of in loco parentis rules wouldn’t mention Christopher Loss’s book Between Citizens and the State.)

Rather, I take Patel’s article as just another example of the ways evangelical colleges have served as reservoirs of academic tradition, reservoirs that mainstream colleges keep returning to.

Today’s interest in in loco parentis rules is only one example. Consider, too, the ways mainstream institutions seek to establish “safe spaces” on campuses. As we’ve argued in these pages, ALL of evangelical higher education was meant as an intellectual “safe space.”

Or consider today’s wave of student protests at elite mainstream schools. In many ways, like in loco parentis rules, what we call the “impulse to orthodoxy” was shepherded and nurtured at evangelical colleges long after mainstream institutions tried to discard it. When student radicals at Yale, Middlebury, and Claremont McKenna push their administrators to enforce moral absolutes, they are not breaking new ground but merely returning to old ground—ground on which evangelical schools have always remained.

If there really is a trend to return to in loco parentis rules at mainstream colleges, it might just add fuel to a surprising conclusion: After a century, instead of lingering as institutional backwaters, evangelical colleges have become trend-setters for the mainstream.