Books and Culture and the Power of the Evangelical Vatican

Andrew Chignell is a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) who currently works as an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University. He recently published an article at SoMA Review chronicling some of the challenges that his alma-mater faces as it chooses a new president and celebrates its 150th anniversary as one of the country’s top liberal arts colleges.

Chignell’s essay is pretty fair-minded and balanced. He praises outgoing Wheaton president Duane Liftin for expanding the campus infrastructure, hiring first-rate faculty, relaxing bans on off-campus drinking and dancing, keeping tuition relatively low, and increasing admissions selectivity.

He also mentions some changes taking place at Wheaton. For example, the college is no longer a bastion of the Republican Party. In 2008 there was a vibrant pro-Obama faction on campus. Chignell notes that Wheaton students are now less interested in politics and more interested in issues like the environment and social justice. The article quotes Amy Black, a politics professor at Wheaton, who notes that Christian college students in general are still strongly pro-life, but are becoming more liberal on gay marriage.

Ironically, Chignell notes, this move toward the center at Wheaton has occurred under a Liftin presidency that was supposed to move the college to the right. (He mentions that Nathan Hatch, the American religious historian and current president of Wake Forest University, was being groomed to be the next president of Wheaton before the conservative board chose Liftin. When Liftin was chosen, Hatch quit the board. This story has circulated in the evangelical world for years, but this is the first time I have ever seen it acknowledged in print).

Chignell mentions, in a fair but unfavorable light, Liftin’s attempt at removing the “wiggle room” in the college doctrinal statement, especially as it relates to the requirement that all faculty must affirm a belief in a literal Adam and Eve. He also calls attention to the Christina Van Dyke case–a woman who was recruited by the philosophy department only to be told, a day before her interview, that the college was no longer interested in her because she had expressed a view that the Bible does not condemn monogamous same-sex relationships. And then there was the Joshuah Hochschild case. Hochschild was removed from the faculty because he converted to Catholicism. He was forced to leave despite his claim that he could affirm everything in the college doctrinal statement.

The article quotes Ashley Woodiwiss, a former political science professor at Wheaton:

“The fact that at a liberal arts college tenured faculty are unwilling and/or uneasy to speak on the record . . . now that might be telling in its own right, no? What is it about the culture at ‘the flagship evangelical institution of higher education’ that would close the mouths of such lions?”

In the end, Chignell’s article does not paint an overwhelmingly positive view of Wheaton College–either to academia at large or to the college’s wealthy conservative donors. When an institution is held up as an “evangelical flagship,” critical essays such as Chignell’s are taken seriously. As Wheaton College goes, so goes evangelicalism– a reality that probably places a lot of pressure on the school’s administration.

Over at Immanent Frame, John Schmalzbauer, a Wheaton graduate who currently holds the Blanch Gorman Strong Chair of Protestant Studies at Missouri State University, argues that the administration at Wheaton would not be pleased with Chignell’s article because some of the faculty members he quotes in it make criticisms of Wheaton similar to Alan Wolfe’s critical comments about the college in a 2000 cover essay in The Atlantic. (Actually, Wolfe had some positive things to say about Wheaton as well.) Wolfe called attention to Wheaton’s anti-Catholicism and the strict theological requirements to which faculty must conform.

No institution is perfect. Even church-related institutions that like to think of themselves as the “evangelical Harvard” have their share of problems. The Wheaton administration may not like Chignell’s article, but it is actually quite honest and somewhat tame. I can think of several Wheaton alums who could probably write the same article in a more bitter tone.

But Chignell’s article created enough of a stir in Wheaton circles to keep it from being the cover article in the November/December 2009 issue of Books and Culture: A Christian Review ( a wonderful review of books that might best be compared to a Christian version of the New York Review of Books. It recently published a nice review of The Way of Improvement Leads Home).

According to Chignell, John Wilson, the editor of Books and Culture, accepted the piece “enthusiastically” and was planning to run it as the cover story until the publisher of the journal, Harold Smith, nixed it with no explanation given (or at least no explanation made public by Chignell). As Wilson told Chignell: “this sort of editorial control had never been exercised in the fourteen-year history of Books and Culture.”

Smith is the CEO of Christianity Today International, the publisher of Books and Culture. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the evangelical subculture, CT International has always had strong ties with Wheaton College. (Smith is NOT a Wheaton alum, but he does attend, according to his biography, the College Church in Wheaton). CT International is based in Carol Stream, IL, about 2.5 miles from Wheaton College.

I don’t know why Chignell’s article appeared in SoMA instead of in Books and Culture, but maybe Wheaton College really is the “Evangelical Vatican.”

ADDENDUM: Inside Higher Ed reports on the story here.