Squelching LGBTQ at Wheaton

It’s not in the rulebook. It doesn’t need to be. As at every evangelical college, there is one unwritten rule at Wheaton College that administrators must enforce with merciless rigor. We see it again recently with Wheaton’s ruthless crushing of student attempts to celebrate LGBTQ rights. This attitude is not an exception to Wheaton’s relatively liberal, tolerant, inclusive brand of evangelical Christianity. Rather, as I’m arguing in my new book, there is an unmentionable but inviolable third rail in evangelical higher education, one that no administrator dares to touch.

First, some background for SAGLRROILYBYGTH who aren’t familiar with the world of evangelical higher education: In the family of evangelical colleges and universities, Wheaton has long claimed special status as the “Fundamentalist Harvard.” The college—just outside of Chicago—committed to the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s. In the 1940s, Wheaton led the way in a fundamentalist reform movement, confusingly known as new-evangelicalism, or simply evangelicalism. These days, Wheaton prides itself as the academic jewel in the evangelical crown, alma mater of evangelical academics, intellectuals, and celebrities.

Given the relatively inclusive atmosphere at Wheaton and among Wheaton’s elite alumni, it may seem surprising that the school has cracked down recently. Most famously, it moved to fire a tenured professor who had seemed too friendly to Islam. Now, as alum William Stell reports in the pages of Religion Dispatches, the administration has crushed student expressions of LGBTQ pride.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The unwritten rules are as old as evangelical higher education itself. And they are implacable.

According to Stell, students surreptitiously inserted a rainbow flag into the school’s display of flags of the world. It was quickly removed. Then, students painted a campus bench in a rainbow display. It was painted over. A student who displayed a rainbow flag in a dorm window was forced to remove it.

The message is clear: Wheaton does not want the evangelical public to think that the school is too friendly to LGBTQ rights. But why not?

wheaton gay pride bench

Before & after, from Religion Dispatches…

The school’s history makes it clear. Wheaton, like every other evangelical college and university, has an absolute need to be seen as a safe environment for evangelical students. Anything that is seen as threatening has always been ruthlessly purged from the school’s public image.

There is a lot of wiggle room in the nebulous concept of “safety.” The boundaries of “safe” evangelical environments have changed over the decades. The process has been messy and confusing.

In the 1920s, for example, Wheaton posted student volunteers outside the downtown movie cinema to make sure no Wheaton students were watching movies. In the early 1960s, the administration rammed through an addendum to the school’s statement of faith, clarifying that all faculty believed in a real, historic Adam and Eve. In 1960, too, the administration tried to bury a faculty report calling for greater anti-racist activism among the white evangelical public.

Clearly, the generally accepted evangelical attitude about safe ideas and behaviors changes over time. In the 1960s, polite student rebels won a relaxation of the strict rulebook. They were allowed to decide for themselves if certain movies or TV shows met high evangelical standards for moral decency. And Wheaton’s official attitude toward creationism has changed. The administration no longer feels much need to pander to the notion that only young-earth creationism can save students from atheism. These days, too, the cautious racial conservatism of the administration in the 1960s is an embarrassment for Wheaton.

In short, Wheaton’s administration can go with the flow when enough evangelicals agree that an idea is not dangerously anti-Christian. But there is no clear or simple way to know when that threshold has been reached, and students and faculty have always been punished mercilessly if they cross the invisible line.

Consider the example of Critique. In the early 1960s, the administration clamped down on a student newspaper, Brave Son. In response, five Wheaton students published their own newspaper. They did it all themselves: Wrote it, paid for it to be published, distributed it. Their goal was to puncture some of the crusty fundamentalist attitudes that still dominated campus. As one of the student editors put it,

Christian education must exist in [a] free atmosphere . . . or we will have no choice but to reject Christian education.

The upstart publication was crushed. The student editors were suspended for a full year. As one sympathetic faculty member complained, the punishment seemed excessive. After all, the students had broken no rules. They had, in fact, engaged with important questions of faith and freedom. They had done so in a thoughtful Christian way.

It didn’t matter. They were kicked out for “insubordination.” As one student reported, then-President V. Raymond Edman put it in stark terms. “This college,” Edman reportedly told the student,

will be a place Christian parents can send their children to with the confidence that their faith will be established and not shaken.

The rule is clear, even if it is unwritten. Evangelical colleges like Wheaton can embrace student and faculty dissent. Their campuses benefit from a vigorous intellectual give-and-take that includes a wide and diverse set of voices. But nothing can ever suggest that a school is not a safe environment for evangelical youth. Any glimmer that the school promotes un-safe thinking or behavior must be crushed utterly.

critique student paper BGC

From the archives: student dissent at Wheaton, c. 1963

These crackdowns are not exceptions; they are the rule. Listen to just one more example from 1960. In that year, a faculty committee was empowered to investigate Wheaton’s racial history. The committee decried the way the school’s original anti-racist evangelicalism had been swamped by white supremacist attitudes. The faculty group called for aggressive anti-racist policies.

The administration was sympathetic. Top leaders also wanted to fight for greater racial egalitarianism. But as one administrator at the time put it,

Will some of the parents of our students regard a tacit approval of inter-racial marriage as a danger to their children?

Even asking the question in those terms made the administration’s response clear. Any whiff of danger was unacceptable. They buried the faculty report.

Today’s surprisingly harsh crackdown on student LGBTQ sympathies may seem out of line with Wheaton’s intellectual vigor. It may seem odd for an academically elite school—one that embraces students of all backgrounds, of all nationalities and all races—to crush these seemingly mild and harmless expressions of student LGBTQ sympathies.

We shouldn’t be surprised. They did it decades ago with student and faculty civil-rights activism. They did it decades ago with faculty ideas about progressive creationism. They did it this decade with faculty ideas about God and Islam. And they’re doing it now with student expressions of LGBTQ pride.

No matter what, Wheaton must retain its reputation as a safe campus. For now, the administration clearly believes that LGBTQ pride is outside the boundaries of safe ideas for evangelical youth. Until that changes—until the administration is convinced that a large segment of the evangelical public is cool with LGBTQ pride—the administration will continue its surprisingly harsh no-tolerance policy.