I am very pleased that Professor Adam Laats has agreed to respond to my critique of his History News Network piece. In case you are new to the conversation, you can get up to speed by following these links:
Laats’s original piece: “What Were White Evangelicals Thinking?“
My second response “More on Whether or Not Christian Colleges Were Behind the Evangelical Support of Trump.”
And now here is Laats’s response. I hope you find this dialogue helpful. –JF
Thanks for the chance to write a few more words on the subject. Like most people, I’m tired and a little bruised from all the post-election back-and-forth. But unlike most people, I don’t seem able to stop talking about it. So thanks to Professor Fea and the TWOILH community for this forum.
I should say at the outset that I’m aware of my own significant weaknesses here. I work at a public university, I earned my PhD at a public university, and I’m not an evangelical myself. Professor Fea works every day at an evangelical school and he has a much better feel for the day-to-day vibe at an evangelical college. Plus, when I started my graduate program way back in the twentieth century, the first reading list my mentor Ron Numbers gave me included an article by Professor Fea. Since then I’ve been an avid follower and fan of his writing. So it is with great respect that I put forward this response.
Nevertheless, I stand by my argument that there is something in the air at evangelical colleges that contributes somehow to evangelical support for Trump. It’s not a simple matter of faculty or administration pressuring students to vote Trump, but it is a real and powerful part of evangelical higher ed nevertheless.
How does it work?
I think it makes sense to begin where Fea ended. As he points out, most white evangelicals, like most white people in general, do not go to college. And as we’ve all been told over and over again, President-elect Trump’s biggest support came from white voters who did not attend college. (Though it appears the biggest correlation of white voters who did not vote for Romney but did vote for Trump is best measured by their unhealthy levels of blood sugar(!)) We—I—need to be careful to remember that the cultural impact of higher education is much smaller than it seems from my perspective down here in the archives of evangelical universities.
Second, Fea is absolutely right that the goings-on at Mid-America Nazarene University do not fairly represent evangelical higher education as a whole. There are plenty of stark differences between various evangelical schools, not just about Trump and electoral politics. Last year around this time, for example, I predicted the imminent break-up of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities over the issue of same-sex marriage. It is a rare moment when leaders of evangelical schools can agree on anything. To say that “evangelical colleges” think any particular thing is as vapid as saying that “white evangelicals” think any particular thing.
Granting all that, however, I think the intellectual history of evangelical colleges is relevant and important in this case. The dominant knee-jerk patriotism of mid-twentieth-century American evangelical higher education is not as securely ensconced in the past as Professor Fea asserts.
Fea suggests that “the overwhelming majority” of the faculty and administrators at evangelical schools probably did not vote Trump. And if students voted Trump, Fea writes, it was not due to prompting by their faculty.
We don’t know if they did or didn’t, though we can profit from the educated guesses made by Chris Gehrz. I’m willing to concede that at many schools—not schools like Liberty, of course—but many evangelical schools, the majority of the faculty probably actively or passively opposed Trump.
If that’s the case, then how can I assert that evangelical colleges somehow supported Trumpism?
First off, there are schools like Liberty and others where faculty, administration, and students did indeed support Trump, actively or passively. Even if other students at those schools protested. But that’s not the crucial point. The crucial point is written deep into the foundation of every evangelical college, university, seminary, and institute.
More than that, it is written deep into the foundation of every American institution of higher education.
The leaders of all schools, not just evangelical ones, have to remain excruciatingly aware of a kind of “third rail” in American higher education. To remain alive—and don’t forget that mere survival cannot be taken for granted these days—institutions of higher education must preserve at all costs their reputations. This has always been and will always be a maddeningly frustrating and imprecise challenge. At all schools, reputation becomes an unpredictable mix of academic prestige, numbers of applicants, perceptions of peers, athletic performance, and a host of other factors. Not just to thrive and prosper, but simply to continue to exist, administrators must guard their schools’ reputations relentlessly. A good reputation means more applications, which means a higher selectivity ranking, which means more applications, which means more tuition dollars, which means improved facilities, which means more applications, etc. etc.
Evangelical colleges share this dilemma, but with an added factor. Evangelical schools need to maintain and defend their reputations as academic institutions, but also as safe havens for evangelical youth. In addition to the challenges faced by every college administrator and trustee, the leaders of evangelical schools need to wrestle with the ever-changing and ever-contentious nature of evangelicalism itself.
However the boundaries of evangelicalism are defined, whether in 1935, 1963, or 2016, schools need to remain squarely within them. More relevant, they need to be seen by the evangelical public as remaining squarely within those boundaries. If school administrators fail, students and alumni will vote with their wallets, taking their tuition dollars and donations elsewhere.
This does not mean that faculty, students, and administrators won’t push those boundaries. In fact, at many schools there is a long tradition, almost an expectation, that faculty and students will do so. But we need to be careful not to mistake this tradition—what Fred Clark aptly calls the “faculty lounge” perspective—to be the entirety of evangelical higher education. It’s not. Rather, even the winked-at toleration of such boundary-pushing only underlines the vital fact that every school has certain poorly defined lines that no one is allowed to cross. Or, to be more precise, it means that the evangelical public needs to feel confident that the school as a whole is not crossing those lines, even if some students and teachers are. Or are rumored to be.
This is the core of my argument. It’s the central theme of my current book, and I’d love to hear Professor Fea’s take, as well as the ideas of the entire TWOILH community. In short, to thrive and survive, evangelical colleges need students. To attract students, leaders know their schools must be perceived as safe evangelical environments. Part (and only part) of that perception among the wider evangelical community includes a vague but powerful sense that America is, in an important sense, a Christian nation. Part of that perception among the wider evangelical community, I believe, also includes a powerful sense of nostalgia, a sense that David Barton makes some good points even if he goes too far, a sense that America used to be great and just might be made great again.
This is just as true in 2016 as it was in 1935, and it’s true at more liberal schools as well as at more conservative ones. It is the reason why the intellectual tradition of evangelical schools, ALL almost all evangelical schools, still plays a big role in creating an environment in which support for Trump flourishes.
Don’t buy it?
Ask Professor Larycia Hawkins.
If you didn’t follow the case, here it is in a nutshell: Professor Hawkins was the first tenured female African American professor at Wheaton. She was fired for wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women and for declaring that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worship the “same God.”
Professor Hawkins was defended by Wheaton students. She was defended by Wheaton faculty. Yet she was fired. She and the administration went back and forth several times, eventually agreeing that she would leave without being fired. Why? It wasn’t because faculty members actively demanded her ouster. It wasn’t because students gave her a Randy-Beckum-esque heave-ho. Rather, it was because her widely publicized thoughts made influential members of the evangelical public wonder if Wheaton had crossed a line.
Does this have anything to do with race? With a Trumpish anxiety about Islam? With a sense that the country used to be a better place but progressive changes have ruined it?
Let’s look at the fact of the case again: She was an African American woman, wearing a hijab, proclaiming the essential one-ness of Islam and Christianity. And she was fired for it. I have a difficult time imagining that Trumpish anxieties did not play a leading role.
The administration insisted that the issue was purely theological. And no doubt it was for many members of the wider Wheaton community. But we cannot escape the overwhelmingly obvious connection to questions of race, gender, and Trumpish nationalism. It is not that Wheaton professors were teaching that evangelicalism was the province of white males. It is not that Wheaton students were prejudiced against women professors or African American ones. Rather, the anxious leadership of the school, including trustees and influential alumni, could not risk the perception among the wider white evangelical public that Wheaton had somehow crossed a line, had somehow touched that institutional third rail. They had to act decisively to quash any rumors that Wheaton had turned its back once and for all on the sorts of make-America-great-again notions that have powered Wheaton since the 1920s.
Whatever we might think of this argument, I don’t think we can dismiss Wheaton as a right-wing exception to the evangelical norm. And Wheaton is not alone.
All of them—and many more who have wrestled with these questions more quietly and privately—are bound by the iron-clad rules of evangelical higher education. Whether the issue is traditional chest-thumping patriotism, theological punctiliousness, attitudes about gender equality or racial equality, or creation and evolution…all colleges need to guard their reputations as a special kind of “safe space” for evangelical youth.
I am not assuming that evangelical colleges are trapped in some sort of cultural meat locker, where attitudes from the 1950s have remained frozen in time. Rather, I am arguing that the ideas that fueled Trump’s success—including ideas of American exceptionalism, vague racial nostalgia, a sense that America was once “our” country—have always been and continue to be part and parcel of the self-understanding of white evangelicalism. And because of that, evangelical institutions of higher education have an existential need to maintain the perception that they remain congenial homes to families who hold those beliefs dear.
Thanks, Adam. -JF