Adam Laats on Evangelical Colleges and Trump: Concluding Thoughts

6258d-clintonatmessiahAdam Laats has now had a chance to respond to my critique of his HNN piece .  I am not going to go into too much detail here, but I think we will just have to agree to disagree on some of the key assertions he makes.

Consider this paragraph from his response:

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 callobama-and-hillarys 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.

There is a lot of good stuff in these paragraphs that people who study evangelical higher education need to keep in mind.  For example, constituency, boards, and donors obviously play a major role in institutional identity. Boards do indeed guard reputations.  Donors and constituencies do have a voice.

But I return to the argument posed in Laats’s original piece.  Laats argued that evangelical Christian colleges were one of the main reasons why so many evangelicals turned to Trump.  I still disagree.

Frankly, part of me wants to agree with Laats.  I wish vast numbers of evangelicals paid attention to what Christian colleges have to offer evangelical political and cultural witness. Sadly, then do not.

In the quoted paragraphs above, Laats assumes that there is a correlation between a board concerned with a college’s Christian reputation and that board’s support or endorsement of Trump.  It is certainly possible that the leadership or board members of a Christian college that wants to define itself in certain confessional ways on issues related to other world religions, gay marriage, doctrine, religious liberty, etc. can still reject Trump.  Many did, although it is hard to gauge since many Christian college boards are not always in the business of endorsing or not endorsing presidential candidates.

Let the conversation continue in the comment section.

The 2016 POTUS Election: A View From the Christian College Classroom

bethel-college

John Haas is Associate Professor of History at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. Bethel is a member of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU).

Haas has commented on Adam Laats’s response to my critique of his History News Network piece suggesting that Christian colleges had something to do with the evangelical support for Donald Trump in November.  His thoughts originally appeared in the comments section of my post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I thought his remarks were worth turning into a separate post.

Here it is:

Prof. Laats is certainly correct that evangelical institutions, strapped as they are for cash, competing with each other for students, fearful of any bad publicity (especially the kind that leads to folk inside the community doubting your soundness), and etc., leads these institutions (schools, and local churches, too) to be very skittish about political mind-fields. And he’s also right that the communities connected to these institutions (parents, donors, etc.) lean largely right: nostalgic, pro-business, militarist, with some degree of ambivalent tolerance for prejudiced individuals associated with the community (while sincerely officially condemning such attitudes), and so forth.

What that means is, as schools, and as faculty (usually), you’re not going to hear strident condemnations of Donald Trump even from those who personally are appalled by him, whereas more latitude would be granted the (usually rare) crotchety professor who might use their classroom to launch into an anti-Hillary rant. There would be a wide range of personal or small group conversations, of course.

More, I suspect a lot of evangelical faculty who personally find Trump and his politics unacceptable, are nevertheless sympathetic to some evangelical motives for voting Trump, just as they can sympathize with more consistently leftist evangelicals who deplore Hillary’s militarism and neo-liberalism, but who felt conscience-bound to vote for her.

I know, for myself that while I mentioned the contest several times before and after the election, in class, I restricted myself to 1) general discussions of recent developments that might throw light on the election; 2) explanations of the electoral college; 3) brief recommendations of books and articles explaining Trump supporters and their motives; 4) a discussion of how tight a connection there is between Supreme Court appointments, the party affiliation of the justices, and their decisions on hot questions; and 5) a quick look at the map and the electoral statistics right after the election. These were very brief–5 to 10 minutes, at most. Almost always, these were student-initiated mini-discussions that led to brief departures from the task of the day.

I certainly did not advocate voting for any candidate or offer arguments for why voting for a candidate was unacceptable. I marveled at trump’s success at times, but my only extended meditation came in conjunction with a discussion of the rise of Andrew Jackson and populism, which was on the syllabus for that day.

My reasons for all this have more to do with my job description (historian) and the time constraints of the semester which militate against off-topic discussions. I also don’t want my students thinking of me in political terms. I have my thoughts, but my role in their life is as a fair and unbiased conduit of things out of the past. I don’t want them to even suspect I may have an agenda, less because I’m afraid of a backlash than because it would undermine my effectiveness as a teacher. That said, if a student asked, I would honestly answer any question about my commitments or political behavior (though i might ask that we defer the answer till post-class, so as not to get off-topic).

So, my sense, for my school, at least, was that if we had any impact on the election, it was by not making our college an inhospitable place for your typical garden-variety white evangelical student. I suspect if we had tried to do that, we would have alienated rather than converted many of them. Election seasons aren’t always the best times for those kinds of polemics–minds are usually closing as polling day approaches. The fact is, evangelicalism is what it is, and faculty at evangelical schools have a hard enough time getting students to think about just war theory, appreciate Dickenson, and know what was in Hamilton’s reports, and so forth. We can help them understand their world, we can encourage certain perspectives that follow from bringing the Bible to bear on that understanding, but we cannot–and, I believe, should not–be demanding people vote one way or another, or condemning them for voting as they do, or creating atmospheres of one kind or another directed at their political beliefs.

What I want, from my liberal and conservative students both, is that they become more aware of the roots and effects of their choices, their parallels and precedents, and have some awareness, perhaps, of the paradoxes, problems, unintended consequences and such that will attend the various choices they make in life–political and otherwise. Most of them are not mature enough nor have they nuanced enough worldviews yet to really do that, but I hope I’m planting questions, hints and suggestions they can dredge up later, when it seems more relevant to them.

A Fundamentalist–Neo-Evangelical Detente?

Bob Jones University President Steven Pettit

In the wake of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1910s and 1920s conservative evangelicals in America divided into two groups. 


This has been a well-chronicled story (see works by George Marsden and Joel Carpenter, especially), but it is worth repeating for those of you who need to get up to speed.
 

Neo-evangelicals retained a good deal of fundamentalist theology, but rid themselves of the separatism and militant anti-modernism of their immediate ancestors who fought for control of the major Protestant denominations a generation earlier.  Neo-evangelicalism prided itself on “cooperation without compromise.” They wanted to engage the world–intellectually and spiritually–from the perspective of their conservative Protestant faith.  Most historians suggest that the neo-evangelical movement was born when the National Association of Evangelicals was established in 1942. 


Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois quickly became the flagship undergraduate college of this movement.

Other conservative Protestants chose to remain in their separatist enclaves and continue the militant battle against liberal theology.  They not only separated from the world, but they also separated from anyone (especially neo-evangelicals) who they believed were “compromising” with the world.  While neo-evangelicals rid themselves of the label “fundamentalist” in the 1940s and 1950s, these Protestants kept the monicker and continued to build a movement around it.

Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina was the flagship undergraduate college of post-1925 American fundamentalism.

Interesting fact:  Billy Graham spent his first year of college at Bob Jones College (when it was located in Cleveland, Tennessee).  He left the college because he could not handle the rules.  He eventually made his way to Wheaton.

As Adam Laats notes at his blog I Love You But You’re Going to Hell, Bob Jones and Wheaton College have not always been on the best of terms.  But a recent visit to Wheaton by the president of Bob Jones may be a sign that hatchets have been buried.

Here is a taste of Laat’s post:

…Given that protracted and ugly history, President Pettit’s visit to Wheaton’s campus seems revolutionary indeed.
Have things turned a corner? Does President Pettit’s visit really signal a thaw in this long evangelical cold war? Several signs point to yes.
First of all, Pettit is no Jones. For the first time in the history of BJU, the school is not led by a direct descendant of the founder. Maybe that gives Pettit a little more wiggle room to ignore family feuds.
Also, BJU is changing. It now claims accreditation as well as athletic teams. It has apologized for its history of racism.
Wheaton is changing, too. As did BJU in the 1970s and 1980s, Wheaton has tussled with the federal government. Just as BJU did in the 1980s, Wheaton insists that its religious beliefs must give it some leeway when it comes to federal rules.
If Wheaton sees itself pushed a little more out of the mainstream, and Bob Jones University pushes itself a little more toward that mainstream, they might just meet somewhere in the middle. There will always be some jealousy between these two giants of evangelical higher education, but it seems possible that the worst of the fundamentalist feud may have passed.
I encourage you to read Laat’s entire post.  He has uncovered some very interesting history on the relationship between these two schools.  I don’t think we can make too much of BJU president Steven Pettit’s visit to Wheaton, but it is worth contextualizing.
Here is my question:  Does this meeting tell us more about Wheaton or Bob Jones? 

What a Fundamentalist College Might Look Like: Part 2

I think Bob Jones University might qualify as a fundamentalist college. 

I wrote about BJU in my M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (thanks Darryl Hart for being my second reader on that beast), but if you want to learn more about this school I recommend Mark Dalhouse’s Island in a Lake of Fire: Bob Jones University, Fundamentalism, and the Separatist Movement.  BJU no longer seems to use the term “fundamentalist” to describe the university. For example, the short “History” section on the university website never mentions the “F” word. 

But it goes without saying that BJU has long been a flagship college in the American fundamentalist movement well after the F-word fell out of favor among conservative American evangelicals.

Bob Jones and Bob Jones Jr., the first two president’s of the college, were pretty hard-core when it came to their fundamentalist beliefs.  They were orthodox Christians who thought that a true believer needed to separate from the world and from other Christians–such as Billy Graham–who did not separate from the world like they did.  This was often described as “second-degree separation” and I recently discussed this phrase in relation to Union University’s decision to leave the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Bob Jones III became president of BJU in 1971.  Under his watch the college began admitting African and African-American students, as long as they were married.  In 1975 the marriage requirement was lifted and African-American students who were single were admitted.  In 2005 Jones III dropped the university’s ban on interracial dating.  He announced this decision on Larry King Live!


Bob Jones III is currently the chancellor of his grandfather’s school.  He also speaks in chapel.  In an October 6, 2015 chapel sermon Jones called attention to a 2011 New York Times op-ed written by (then) Eastern Nazarene College professors Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson titled “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason.” The argument of this op-ed appeared in larger form in Stephen’s and Giberson’s book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

You can listen to the sermon below.  The stuff about Stephens and Giberson comes beginning at the 24 minute mark.  We have transcribed the pertinent part of the sermon below the video.


I want to leave you with something that appeared as an op-ed piece in The New York Times in 2011. It was written by two professors at a college calling itself Christian–Eastern Nazarene College.  I want you to hear the hiss of the serpent.  I want you to hear the scorn in their voices. This is what I am talking about when I say many deceivers…going around in the world who are preaching science falsely…doing the work of the devil from within the church.  They’re everywhere.  The Lord said they were going to be. The apostles said they were going to be.  The epistles they wrote to the churches warned of them in the very day of the early church.


Here is what this op-ed said: “The rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism. It’s textbook evidence of unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious. and one fundamentalist slogan puts it ‘the Bible says it, I believe it, and the settles it.’ But evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism, and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most Republican candidates have embraced.  Like other evangelicals we accept the centrality of faith in Jesus and look to the Bible as our sacred book though we find it hard to recognize our religious tradition in the mainstream evangelical conversation.  Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblical-grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectual engaged, humble, and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, over-confident, and reactionary. Fundamentalist appeals to evangelicals who have become convinced that their country has been overrun by a vast secular conspiracy.  Denial is the simplest and most attractive response to change. They have been scarred by the elimination of prayer in schools, the remove of the nativity scenes from public places, the increasing legitimacy of abortion and homosexuality, the persistence of pornography and drug abuse, the acceptance of other religion and of atheism.  In response many evangelicals created what amounts to a parallel culture nurtured by church, Sunday school, summer camps, colleges, as well as publishing houses, and broadcast networks.” (And then he names some of them).  These are charismatic leaders and they project a winsome personal testimony as brothers in Christ, there audiences number in the tens of millions, they pepper their presentations with so many Bible verses that their messages appear to be straight out of scripture.  To many they seem like prophets, anointed by God. But, in fact, their rejection of knowledge amounts to what evangelical historian Mark Noll (who by the way is a professor at Wheaton College) in his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind described as an intellectual disaster. calling evangelicals to repent of their neglect of the mind.  There are signs of change within the evangelical world. Tensions have emerged between those who deny secular knowledge and those who have kept up with it and integrated it with their faith.” (Did you get that? The faith they believe and preach and embrace is not a biblically-mandated faith but one that has been ameliorated, has been infiltrated with unregenerate intellectualism, and their faith has accommodated the embrace of anti-biblical concepts.  There faith is a Christianity that doesn’t come out of the Bible alone, but out of the infusion with the Bible of anti-biblical intellectualism.)

I continue: “Almost evangelical colleges employee faculty members with degrees from major research universities, a conduit for knowledge from the larger world.  We find students arriving on campus tired of the culture-war approach to faith in which they were raised, more interested in promoting social justice than opposing gay marriage.  They recognize that the Bible does not condemn evolution.  It says next to nothing about gay marriage.  They understand that Christian theology can incorporate Darwin’s insights and flourish in a pluralistic society.”  

When the faith of so many Americans become an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous, and even dangerous ideas, we must not be afraid to speak out even it means criticizing fellow Christians. What did Eve do in the garden?  She heard the hiss of the serpent that said “if you disobey God, if you will resort to your human reasoning, you can become a god yourself and you don’t have to follow God. You become God.”

Ladies and gentleman, there is treachery abroad in the church.  Their is treachery abroad in this land. And if you and I are not daily constant seekers of God…our fervor disappears, our minds get in mutual, and we become sponges to absorb whatever floating around out there in the name of Christ thought it may have nothing to do with Christ and may even be a denial of Christ.  Do not let that happen to you.  I beg you.

This is classic Bob Jones.  The same sermon could have been delivered by Bob Jones Sr. in the 1925 or Bob Jones Jr. in 1965.

I think it is stuff like this that qualifies Bob Jones University as yet another fundamentalist institution of higher education. 

Adam Laats: I think we found another one.

Having said that, several evangelical scholars, myself included, were also critical of Stephens and Giberson’s op-ed and book (but not for the same reason as Jones III was critical).

See Baylor’s Thomas Kidd here.

And here is what I wrote in the wake of Kidd’s post:

Like Kidd, I also consider Randall Stephens to be a friend.  And like Kidd, I corresponded with him as he wrote The Anointed.  I am also sympathetic to his (and Giberson’s) desire to let the world know that there are evangelical Christians who do not embrace the views of people like Ken Hamm and David Barton.  I find myself doing this all the time.

But I can’t help but agree with Kidd’s review.  Is The New York Times the best place for evangelicals to decry evangelical anti-intellectualism? Indeed, anti-intellectualism is a problem in the evangelical community.  But I wonder, to quote Kidd, if the New York Times op-ed page is  “the most promising way to start addressing that failure?” 

To be completely honest, I also wonder if a book published by Harvard University Press is going to have any impact on rank and file evangelicals.  It seems to me that two kinds of people will read The Anointed:  1). Non-evangelicals who want ammunition to bash evangelical intellectual backwardness and 2). Evangelical intellectuals who already agree with Giberson and Stephens.  I wonder if ordinary evangelicals–the folks who actually listen to Barton and Ham and Dobson–will read the book or even know that the book exists.

In the end, I agree with Kidd.  The anti-intellectual problem in American evangelicalism needs to be addressed in our churches. It is going to require evangelical thinkers to engage congregations in a more purposeful way and give some serious thought to how their vocations as scholars might serve the church.  As I have learned over the years, this will require building trust and listening to and empathizing with the concerns of those whom we want to challenge to think more deeply about the relationship between their faith and the larger culture.

This Is What a Fundamentalist College Might Look Like

Some readers may recall last week’s post on fundamentalist colleges and universities.  It was the most popular post of the week.

In that post I responded to Adam Laats’s post about how we might define “fundamentalism” in the context of an institution of higher education. (Since then I have read a draft of the chapter on the 1920s in Laats‘s current project, Fundamentalist U.  It is excellent!).

I think it is fair to say that Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee just might qualify as a “fundamentalist” university.  (Bryan is one of the colleges that Laats is studying as part of his book project).  

Yesterday a friend called my attention to an article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press titled “Professors, president clash at Bryan College.”  It turns out that the president of the college is not allowing faculty to meet and the student newspaper has been censored. Both the faculty and the students oppose the authoritarian leadership of President Stephen Livesay.  Back in March 2014 the faculty passed an overwhelming vote of no confidence in Livesay .  In July 2014 four members of the board of trustees resigned. Since then, according to the Times Free Press, Livesay has “pushed out” those who disagree with him on certain theological issues, the most prominent of which is creation science.  Meanwhile, the college is losing students and appears to be having financial difficulties.  

Here is a taste of the Chattanooga Times Free Press article:

DAYTON, Tenn. — Two years after faculty and the president clashed over how a conservative Christian school should be run, some Bryan College professors say they once again feel unheard and disrespected.

Changes recently made by Bryan’s administration to this year’s Faculty-Administrative Guide make it nearly impossible to call a faculty meeting, some professors say. The new policy restricts how faculty can meet and discuss issues.

It shows the administration’s disregard for professors’ opinions and the truth, critics say.

“The policies are a shameful and foolish act of the administration’s overreach,” said professor Phil Lestmann, who has been teaching at the school for decades.

For years, the private Christian college in this town of 7,300 has faced controversy, much of it centered on decisions made by President Stephen Livesay. But despite two tumultuous years and a continually shrinking student body, Livesay has maintained a grasp on the helm, pushing out many who voice disagreement.

Faculty members believe the new policy is in response to their overwhelming vote of no confidence in Livesay that was taken in the spring of 2014. But the school’s administration denies this, saying the new policy was written to add legitimacy to the faculty’s meetings, if ones are called.

Previously a policy was not in place to outline the requirements faculty would need to use to call a meeting. Under this new policy, a faculty member is required to go through a seven-step process that includes approval from the Academic Council, a written rationale stating the purpose of the meeting and a waiting period of at least a week.

Read the entire article here.

We covered this story here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home when it first broke in 2014.  

Would Bryan qualify as a “fundamentalist” college?  

Fundamentalist U

Laats’s first book: “The Other School Reformers”

If you are not reading Adam Laats’s blog I Love You But You’re Going to Hell I encourage you to bookmark it or put in in your feed.  Laats teaches in the Graduate School of Education at SUNY-Binghamton and has written extensively on religion and the culture wars as they relate to American education.

I have been reading Laats for a year or so, but I just recently learned of his new book project: “Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education.”  Here is Laats’s description of this well-funded project:

In my new book, tentatively titled Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, I’m exploring the complex history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education. In many ways, these schools have functioned as institutional hubs in the kaleidoscopic world of conservative evangelicalism. From Reagan to Romney, from Cruz to (Jeb) Bush, politicians hoping to woo the conservative religious vote have visited conservative schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty University…

Schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty, as well as Wheaton College, Biola, The King’s College, and a host of other institutions, have educated generations of evangelicals in the distinctive intellectual and cultural traditions of their faith. Students at these schools agree to more rigid lifestyle rules than they would on secular campuses. And they agree to have their educations shepherded by faculties who have signed on to detailed statements of faith. Just as alumni of the Ivy League might brag about their alma maters, so alumni of these schools feel a distinct connection to their colleges. Politicians hoping to prove their conservative credentials want to jump on that bandwagon.
But that does not mean that these colleges are somehow monolithic.  The differences between these schools often loom larger than their similarities, at least in the world of evangelical Protestantism.  What does it mean to be “creationist?”  What changes are healthy, and what are dangerously heterodox?  And what is the proper, Godly relationship between men and women?  There is no single “evangelical” answer to these questions.  Just as at pluralist campuses, evangelical campuses have been rocked by controversy on all these issues.
But there is a palpable sense of connection.  There is something that unites the fractious world of evangelical higher education.  And in this book, I’m asking questions about it:  What did such schools hope to teach each new generation of evangelical student?  How did they hope to raise up new generations of faithful young people in a country that was slipping farther and farther into secularism?  And, importantly, how did students respond to these efforts?
If we hope to understand America’s continuing culture wars, we must make sense of the many meanings of these institutions.  After all, our culture wars aren’t between one group of educated people and another group that has not been educated.  Rather, the fight is usually between two groups who have been educated in very different ways.
I’ll be traveling over the next year or so to a set of non-denominational evangelical schools such as Bryan College, Wheaton College, Biola University, Bob Jones University, and others.  I’ll be looking in their archives at the residue of student life and learning across the century.
As I do so, I’ll keep posting updates in these pages about my evolving argument.  And I invite input from readers who’ve attended such schools.  How did going to a conservative evangelical college shape you?  How did you rebel or conform to the school’s expectations?
Stay tuned.  This looks like a really interesting project that will no doubt make a big splash in the Christian college world.