Adam Laats of the SUNY-Binghamton’s Graduate School of Education is writing a fascinating book on fundamentalist and evangelical colleges. His working title is “Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education.” When completed, this will be the definitive history of evangelical higher education in 20th-century America.
Laats has shared some of his research in a recent History News Network piece titled “What Were White Evangelicals Thinking?” The piece tries to explain why over 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Laats begins by pointing to the well-rehearsed reasons for why evangelicals pulled the level for The Donald: anti-Hillary sentiment, the Supreme Court, and the longstanding link between evangelicals and the GOP.
But Laats wants to offer another reason for why evangelicals supported Trump. He writes:
All those factors are true and important, but they are not sufficient to explain Trump’s popularity among white evangelicals. If we really want to understand it, we need to grasp the true contours of the evangelical intellectual tradition. That tradition has always made room for Trump’s brand of flag-waving, chest-thumping, America-First populism. On the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities—the intellectual citadels of American evangelicalism—Trump-like attitudes have always found congenial homes.
Laats then goes on to describe Christian nationalist sentiment at Wheaton College in 1935, Moody Bible Institute in 1947, and Bob Jones University in 1963.
“Leaders” of these schools did promote Christian nationalism during the 20th-century. Laats is correct. But then he takes his research and launches into the present. He writes:
This sort of star-spangled spirit isn’t just a relic of Cold War Americana. Into the twenty-first century, too, evangelical colleges and universities have harped on an in-your-face patriotism. Last year, for example, administrator Randy Beckum at Mid-America Nazarene University was demoted and embarrassed. His crime? In a chapel talk, Beckum reminded his evangelical audience that their religious values should come before their Trumpish ones.
As Beckum put it, “We have to be very careful about equating patriotism with Christianity.” Even more careful than Beckum imagined, apparently. For questioning the knee-jerk Americanism so prevalent among his students, Beckum found himself the target of evangelical attack and ridicule.
I am familiar with the Mid-America Nazarene case that Laats cites. He has described the case correctly. But I would also add that nearly all evangelical colleges would have allowed, if not endorsed, the views that Beckum presented in the Mid-America Nazarene chapel. In other words, Mid-America Nazarene University is hardly representative of evangelical Christian colleges today. For every Liberty University or Mid-America Nazarene there are dozens and dozens of evangelical colleges who reject this kind of Christian nationalism and Trumpism.
I would venture to guess that the overwhelming majority of the faculty and administrators at evangelical colleges and universities in the United States DID NOT vote for Donald Trump.
If students at evangelical colleges voted for Trump–and there were many who did–it was not because they were fed pro-Trump rhetoric from their faculty. In fact, I know several faculty and graduates from the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University who strongly opposed the Trump presidency.
Laats continues to compare Cold War evangelical colleges to evangelical colleges in 2016:
At evangelical colleges and universities, this tradition has always played a leading role in defining evangelical identity. White evangelicals are a religious group, true, but they have also always been energized by a vague yet powerful patriotic traditionalism. Like other enthusiastic Trump supporters, white evangelicals have been fueled by a combative culture-war patriotism. They have always defined themselves by their proprietary attitude about “our” America, the one they hope President Trump will make great again.
Were evangelical colleges fused with a “combative culture-war patriotism” during the Cold War? Yes. But I don’t think this defines most evangelical Christian colleges today.
Having said that, I am not convinced that evangelical colleges are the best way of measuring evangelical support for Trump in November 2016. Most evangelicals, both in the Cold War and today, did not or do not attend Christian colleges.
NOTE: Since I am a fan of his work and respect his scholarship, I sent this post to Laats before I published it here. He asked for an opportunity to respond and I gladly agreed. Stay tuned.