When a Muslim Student Met an Evangelical Professor at Cambridge in 1815


Samuel Lee

Check out Nile Green‘s piece at Aeon on the relationship forged at Cambridge in 1815-1816 between an Iranian Muslim visiting student named Mirza Salih and an evangelical Hebrew professor named Samuel Lee.

Here is a taste:

The don who was selected to host Salih was a certain Samuel Lee of Queens’ College. Lee appears to have been an odd candidate for supporter of the young taliban, as the students were called in Persian. A committed Evangelical, Lee was devoted to the cause of converting the world’s Muslims to Christianity. Along with other colleagues at Queens’, including the influential Venn family, he also had close ties to the Church Missionary Society. Founded in 1799, the Society was fast becoming the centre of the Cambridge missionary movement.

Yet it was precisely this agenda that made the young Muslim so attractive to Lee. The point was not so much that Salih’s conversion might bring one more soul to Christian salvation. Rather, it was that as an educated Persian-speaker, Salih might help the professor in his great task of translating the Bible into Persian, a language that was at the time also used across India, as well as what is today Iran. Lee jumped at the opportunity. And so it was that Salih was invited to Cambridge.

As his Persian diary reveals, Salih came to like the professor enormously. For though posterity would commemorate Lee as the distinguished Oxbridge Orientalist who rose to the grand status of Regius Professor of Hebrew, his upbringing was far humbler. Lee had been ra


Mirzah Salih in later life

ised in a small Shropshire village in a family of carpenters and, in his teens, was apprenticed to a woodworker himself. On a research trip from California, I visited Lee’s home village of Longnor. It is still a remote place today, reached by single-lane tracks hidden in the hedgerows. At the local church, I was delighted to find the initials of his carpenter great-grandfather, Richard Lee, carved into the pews he had made for his fellow villagers.

Two hundred years ago, it was almost unknown for a country boy like Sam Lee to become a Cambridge professor, but he had a genius for languages that won him the patronage of a local gentleman. As a similarly ambitious young scholar on the make, Salih warmed to the self-made Lee, and in his Persian diary he recorded his life story with admiration.

Read the entire piece here.

Khizr Khan Has Introduced the Idea of Empathy Into Our Democratic Culture

Khizr Khan, the father of American military hero and Purple Heart winner Captain Humayun Khan, has been all over cable news this week after his moving speech at last week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Here is the speech:

A lot has been said about the speech and Khan has taken his fifteen minutes of fame to send out a powerful message about American identity.

As a historian, I am always struck whenever Khan uses the word “empathy” in his criticism of Trump.  I like this term.  Not only is the concept of empathy essential to the survival of American democracy, but it is also vital to the discipline of history.  The study of history requires empathy.  Thus, if my logic is correct, the study of history might also be useful to a robust and thriving democratic life in the United States.

As the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I have been making this argument for several years.  I most recently wrote about empathy in a Christian Century piece on the recent police shootings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge.   But since I am the proprietor of this blog, and we are always getting new readers, I reserve the right to make it again.

Here is what I had to say about empathy in my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

As historian John Cairns notes, empathy “is the passport to gaining a genuine entry into the past as a foreign land, and something distinct from our time.”  Empathy requires the historians to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms and not ours.  Historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions–their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”  The practice of empathy may be the hardest part of being a historian.  This is largely because our natural inclination, or, as Sam Wineburg calls it, our “psychological condition at rest,” is to find something useful in the past.  We want to make the past work for us rather than enter into it with an attitude of wonder about what we might find and the kinds of people and ideas we might encounter.  Historical empathy thus requires an act of the imagination.  The practice of bracketing our own ways of seeing the world in order to see a strange world more clearly requires discipline on the part of the historian.  It demands a certain level of intellectual maturity.  It requires a willingness to listen to the past…

Empathy differs from sympathy.  Empathy is all about understanding.  It is an attempt to discover why a particular individual in the past acted in the way that he or she did.  It might even mean exploring such actions in an attempt to grasp how he or she reflects the mentality of all of those living in that time and how such a mentality differs from our own.  Sympathy, however, carries a deeper moral component than empathy.  The sympathetic person develops an emotional attachment–such as a desire for the other person to be happy–that can sometimes make empathy difficult and might even get in the way of an accurate historical interpretation.

To illustrate the differences between empathy and sympathy, let me relay a conversation I recently had with my fourteen-year-old daughter.  Allyson had just finished reading Harriett A. Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, in her eighth-grade American Studies class.  Published in 1861, the book tells the story of how Jacobs was physically and sexually abused by her master and, in an attempt to escape the torture, hid for roughly seven years in a storeroom crawl space.  Allyson returned home from school emotionally shaken by Jacob’s story.  This was her first exposure to such a graphic slave narrative.  Her response was outrage, anger, and sadness.  She sympathized with the plight of Jacobs, but she was unable to empathize–to rid herself of what she perceived as the moral injustice done to this slave woman.  She failed to fully understand the world of the nineteenth-century South in which Jacobs lived.  My daughter developed an emotional connection with Jacobs, and I was glad that she did.  She grew as a moral being through the reading of the narrative.  But she was unable to understand Jacobs historically because sympathy kept getting in the way.  This, of course, should be expected from a fourteen-year-old.  Historical thinking of this nature, as I noted above, requires intellectual maturity.

And this:

The sixteenth-century writer Montaigne once said, “Every man calls evil what he does not understand.”  Our everyday lives will always be filled with disagreements and misunderstandings, but a democratic society will survive only if we are able to live civilly with them.  We are correct to believe that in the United States we have a “right” to our opinions and beliefs, but there are also times when we must rise above private interests and temporarily sacrifice our rights for the greater good of the larger community.  Such a view of the common good, which the late Pope John Paul II called “solidarity,” requires that we see others, even those who we may believe are “evil,” as neighbors and “sharers on part with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.”  To put an alternative spin on Montaigne’s quote, “The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.”adbb2-why2bstudy2bhistory-baker

Because we all have our own views and opinions, civil society requires conversation.  We may never come to an agreement on what constitutes the “common good,” but we can all commit ourselves to sustaining democracy by talking to and engaging with one another.  As author and activist Parker Palmer puts it, “Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change.  Partisanship is not a problem.  Demonizing the other side is.”  The inner working of this kind of democracy is described best by the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.  His description of the mechanics of democratic conversation is worth citing in full:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead.  We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade.  Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational.  Most of us tend to think of it…as a clash of rival dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives an ground.  But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents.  They are won by changing opponents’ minds–something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments.  In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”


Angela Merkel and the Future of Christianity In Europe

Mother AngelaI recently asked historian Benjamin Brandenburg to take some of his recent tweets on Brexit and Christianity and write them up for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I am glad he agreed to do so.   

Brandenburg is an International Historian at Montreat College in North Carolina. His current project, “Evangelical Empire: Billy Graham’s Good News in the American Century,” investigates the politics of the gospel in the Global North and Global South. He tweets @benbrandenburg. Enjoy! –JF

As the aftershocks of Great Britain’s Brexit vote continue to reverberate across the globe, initial reactions focused on the future of capitalism, world order, and globalization.  The religious dimension was nowhere to be found. Contrary to what is often claimed on this side of the pond, Christianity continues to matter in European politics. When the returns signaled that a fear of immigration tilted the referendum towards Leave, it became obvious that voters had Mutter Angela on their minds. Europe’s current impasse was in no small part launched by the decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to invite over one million predominantly Muslim asylum seekers from the Middle East into the heart of the European Union. David Cameron, Britain’s lame duck Prime Minister, admitted as much.

So it is worth taking a deeper look at the ways Merkel’s Immigration Revolution of 2015 reignited Europe’s on-again off-again discussion about Christianity’s role in public life.

Europeans, it seems, have never quite stopped discussing the meaning of Christianity in Europe. Following the Second World War, debates about the future the European system resulted in the political phenomena of Christian Democracy. Harvard historian Samuel Moyn recently argued that this Western European ideology understood Europe to be nothing less than a Christian Civilization. Often misunderstood in the United States, the Christian Democratic movement is perhaps the most important ideological innovation of the postwar period.  With a surprising mixture of pan-Europeanism, Catholic social teaching, and anti-communism, the party took hold in Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries in the immediate aftermath of the war.  When Christianity began to lose its firm grip on postwar society Christian Democrats sought to push the conversation by inviting Billy Graham to the stadiums of Europe. Europeans debated whether America’s most iconic religious export could re-Christianize Cold War Europe. They later used Graham’s satellite TV events as a yardstick for discussing religious pluralism. More recently, the failed attempt at crafting a European Constitution in the early 2000s was dominated by discussions, with an assist by Jürgen Habermas, about whether Europe had an explicit Christian identity.

Enter Angela Merkel. In her eleven years in office, leaders within her conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Union) criticized the mild mannered politician for underemphasizing the “Christian” part of her party and for supporting relativism as she moved the party leftward. Her strongest belief, it appeared, was her effervescent love for Die Mannschaft, Germany’s national soccer team. Still, one can understand her reasoning for broadening the base, her CDU was one of Europe’s few remaining Christian Democratic strongholds.

And then Merkel made a momentous decision that would land her the cover of TIME’s person of the year.

She opened the German borders for Syrian refugees who were in limbo in Hungary. And she has stuck to her plan even as the price tag reached €94 billion. Some called the move a reaction to her upbringing in closed-border East Germany (Merkel’s father was a Lutheran official who earned the nickname “The Red Minister”). Others suggested it was a last ditch effort to save Europe’s borderless Schengen Zone or to bring in low wage labor. Perhaps a more accurate reading is to admit that Merkel attempted to reinvigorate a Christian Democratic understanding of politics on the continent. Merkel is forcing Christians in Europe to choose between her vision of Compassionate Conservatism and the Christian Nationalist vision of Fortress Europe that is cresting in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Poland, and Nigel Farage’s Britain. In response to a question on the Islamisation of Europe, Merkel responded:

We all have the opportunity and the freedom to have our religion, to practice it, and to believe in it. I would like to see more people who have the courage to say ‘I am a Christian believer’. And more people who have the courage to enter into a dialogue with our guests…Fear was never a good adviser. Culture’s that are marked by fear will not conquer their future.

This Wilkommenskutlure should be interpreted as a distinct vision of Christian hospitality. Historians will need to wait for decades to see how this conversation plays out, but it could lead—to borrow a phrase from Robert Wuthnow—to a Restructuring of European Christianity.

Trump and the Know-Nothing Platform of 1856


Several historians have compared the Trump candidacy to the American Party (commonly referred to as the Know-Nothing Party) of the 1850s.

Anyone who reads this blog or has read my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past knows that historical analogies can be dangerous, but when historian Gordon Belt posted the 1856 American Party platform on my Twitter feed today I was once again taken by some of the similarities between this nativist political platform from the 19th-century and the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign.

I will let you decide.

Here is the 1856 platform with some of my very limited, off-the-cuff, commentary:

(1) Repeal of all Naturalization Laws. 
(2) None but Americans for office.
(3) A pure American Common School system. 
(4) War to the hilt, on political Romanism.  (Replace “Romanism” with Muslims)
(5) Opposition to the formation of Military Companies, composed of Foreigners. (Read ISIS)
(6) The advocacy of a sound, healthy and safe Nationality. (In his speech today in New York Trump said “we are going to make America safe again”)
(7) Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic. (Replace “Papal influences” with Muslims)
(8) American Constitutions & American sentiments.  
(9) More stringent & effective Emigration Laws. (Interesting that Trump did not mention the “Wall” in his speech.  Does he still want to build it?)
(10) The amplest protection to Protestant Interests.  (See Trump’s recent meeting with evangelicals in which he said he would protect their interests).
(11) The doctrines of the revered Washington.  (Today in his speech Trump said, “One of the first major bills signed by George Washington called for the ‘encouragement and protection of manufacturing’ in America”  I realize this is a bit of stretch, but he DID appeal to Washington for something!)
(12) The sending back of all foreign paupers.  (Round-up undocumented immigrants and send them back).
(13) Formation of societies to protect American interests.  
(14) Eternal enmity to all those who attempt to carry out the principles of a foreign Church or State.  (Again, read Muslims).
(15) Our Country, our whole Country, and nothing but our Country.  (Today in his NYC speech Trump said “We are going to put America first and we are going to make America Great Again.”)
(16) Finally,-American Laws, and American legislation; and death to all foreign influences, whether in high places or low!  (Kill ISIS).

Again, I realize some of the comparisons I have made are not perfect (feel free to call me out), but they are still interesting and worth noting.  Consider this an exercise in “continuity” rather than “change over time.”

Franklin Graham On His Father’s Meeting with Muhammad Ali

Billy-Graham-Muhammad-Ali1John Schmalzbauer just dug this up on Franklin Graham’s Facebook page.  Franklin adds some detail to the Associated Press report I mentioned in this post earlier today.

The world has lost a champion. Muhammad Ali was considered by many as the greatest boxer of all time. His career began during a difficult period in our country with the racial tensions of the 1960s and the Vietnam War. His outspoken positions caused him to be both loved and hated by some. I had the privilege of meeting him on several occasions, and he visited at my parents’ home in Montreat, North Carolina. Muhammad Ali’s father brought him to visit my father Billy Graham because he was concerned over Ali’s faith in Islam and was afraid that his son had been led astray. They had a great visit, and my father had prayer with him. They met together again several years ago in Louisville, Kentucky, when my father was there to preach. My prayers are with his family as they mourn this loss.

When Muhammad Ali Paid a Visit to Billy Graham

Ali and Graham 2

I never knew that Muhammad Ali met Billy Graham until I read a recent Facebook post by sociologist John Schmalzbauer.

Here is that the Associated Press reported on September 17, 1979:

MONTREAT, NC (AP). Muhammad went to the mountain and apparently he liked what he saw.

Muhammad Ali, three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, spent several hours Sunday with Billy Graham in the evangelist’s home atop a mountain in Montreat.  Ali said his visit was one of “looking and searching” in an effort to “learn more about other people.”

Sitting on the porch of Graham’s home, Ali looked at the evangelist and said, “He comes before me, I’m just a boxer–famous and all that…but he leads people to God. I look up to him.”

“I’ve always admired Mr. Graham, I’m a Muslim and he’s a Christian, but there is so much truth in the message he gives, Americanism, repentance, things about government and country–and truth.  I always said if I was a Christian, I’d want to be a Christian like him.”

Ali spent the afternoon talking with Graham, then left for Louisville, KY, to address the National Conference of Christians and Jews on Monday.  Ali retired from the ring recently and said he was “trying to figure out what to do now.”

For some historical context of this meeting, check out Paul Harvey’s piece at Religion Dispatches.  Here is a taste:Ali and Graham

Graham later wrote to Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum, Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, and suggested that he meet with Muhammad Ali, as Graham thought him to be warm to the state of Israel and supportive of Jews generally.

That was then, but this is now; that was Billy Graham’s evangelical vision, while his son, Franklin, has taken a stand with Trump on banning Muslims. And Trump’s endorsement by Paul Ryan this week indicates that, all in all, he and the House Republicans will be just another brick in Trump’s wall. Ryan’s resurrection of compassionate conservatism and the elder Graham’s more capacious visions for evangelical embrace of others have fallen, like George Foreman in 1974, to a rope-a-dope strategy.

Trump is Running Strong Among Racists and People Who Fear Muslims

trump 2

Over at Religion News Service, Tobin Grant reports on a brand new survey of Trump supporters  It was conducted by the American National Election Study.

Here are some random findings:

  • Trump gets more support from people who think blacks are “lazy” than from those who do not believe this.
  • Trump gets more support from people who believe Muslims are “violent” than from those who do not believe Muslims are “violent.”
  • The more people dislike Barack Obama, the more they like Trump
  • Evangelicals who think blacks are lazy give Trump over 27 more points than evangelicals who do not think blacks are lazy
  • Trump gets less support from evangelicals who attend church regularly than those who do not.

Primary Source of the Day

George Washington to Tench Tilghman

Mount Vernon Mar. 24th 1784

Dear Sir,
I am informed that a Ship with Palatines is gone up to Baltimore, among whom are a number of Tradesmen. I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner & Bricklayer, (who really understand their profession) & you would do me a favor by purchasing one of each, for me. I would not confine you to Palatines. If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any Sect—or they may be Athiests—I woud however prefer middle aged, to young men. and those who have good countenances & good characters on ship board, to others who have neither of these to recommend them—altho, after all, the proof of the pudding must be in the eating. I do not limit you to a price, but will pay the purchase money on demand—This request will be in force ’till complied with, or countermanded, because you may not succeed at this moment, and have favourable ones here after to do it in[.]1 My best respects, in which Mrs Washington joins, are presented to Mrs Tilghman & Mrs Carroll 2—and I am Dr Sir Yr Affecte Hble Servt



Evangelical Heirs: Falwell and Graham

franklin-graham-libertyLast week The New York Times ran a piece on Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham and their different approaches to politics in this election year.  Of course Falwell Jr. and Graham are both heirs to influential 20th-century evangelicals.

Here is a taste:

Both men say there is no rivalry between them as they pursue different ways of engaging in politics.

“He’s got to make decisions and do things that he feels God is calling him to do,” Mr. Graham, 63, said of Mr. Falwell, 53. “And I have to do things that I feel God is calling me to do.”

But for both, those decisions play out in the shadows of their fathers.

“The Grahams and Falwells across generations have chosen different tactics, but the tactics could be equally influential,” said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and an author of “The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy.”

He added: “I don’t see Franklin Graham as deeply involved in partisan politics the way Jerry Falwell Jr. is with his endorsement of Trump. But he’s much more active in politics in the broader sense.”

Read the entire article here.

After reading this piece I wondered if Graham and Falwell Jr. actually have more in common with one another.

Did Wheaton College and Larycia Hawkins Really “Reconcile?”


Jacob Lupfer, a graduate Oklahoma Baptist University and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University, is not buying it.

Here is a taste of his recent piece at Religion News Service:

(RNS) The ongoing drama of Professor Larycia Hawkins’ strained relationship with her employer, evangelical Wheaton College, was headed for a climactic heresy trial this month.

Instead, the parties announced in a Saturday (Feb. 6) statement that they will part ways, despite supposedly having “found a mutual place of resolution and reconciliation.”

If separating from a tenured professor under a confidential agreement is “reconciliation,” then surely the word has no meaning.

Confidential agreements often include undisclosed financial payments. I have no insight into what legal counsel Hawkins may have received. But if Wheaton did pay Hawkins to go away, then selling the departure as reconciliation seems especially egregious.

Unfortunately, actual reconciliation was unlikely right from the start of this bungled episode. Hawkins had run afoul of Wheaton’s conservative ethos before, as when she was photographed in a Chicago home on the day of the LGBT pride parade.

Read the rest here.

In Case You Missed What Obama Said at the Islamic Center of Baltimore

Obama at mosque

He penned an op-ed for Religion News Service.  I think this may be one of those primary source documents that will soon be assigned in American religious history courses.  It also may be another reason why some of us will miss Obama.

By the way, when Obama says that the founders defended religious liberty, but also thought that religion would help “strengthen our nation,” he gets it right.

(RNS) This past week, I had the privilege of visiting the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a mosque that serves thousands of Muslim American families, as well as neighbors of different faiths. Like houses of worship across our country, it’s a place where families come together to pray, but also a school where students learn and a health clinic that serves those in need. My visit was a chance to celebrate the contributions that Muslim Americans make to our country every day and to reaffirm our commitment to freedom of religion.

Our Founders knew that religious liberty is essential not only to protect religion, but because religion helps strengthen our nation. From our Revolution to the abolition of slavery, from women’s rights to civil rights, men and women of faith have often helped move our nation closer to our founding ideals. This progress is part of what makes us a beacon to the world.

Likewise, generations of Muslim Americans have helped build our country. They’re the teachers who inspire our kids, and the nurses and doctors whom we trust with our health. They’re the champions we cheer for — from Muhammad Ali to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They’re the police and firefighters who keep us safe, and the men and women in uniform who have fought and bled and died for our freedom.

Since 9/11, however, and more recently since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, some have blamed the horrific acts of a few on the broader Muslim community. Right now, many Muslim Americans are worried because threats and harassment against their community, are on the rise. We’ve seen Muslim Americans assaulted, children bullied and mosques vandalized, and we’ve heard shameful political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country.

When any part of our American family is made to feel isolated or targeted, it tears at the very fabric of our nation. So we have to tackle this problem together, head-on.

First, at a time when others are trying to divide us along religious lines, we have to reaffirm that most fundamental truth — that we are all God’s children, all born equal with inherent dignity. Mere tolerance of different religions is not enough. Our faiths summon us to actively embrace our common humanity. Muslim Americans can keep reaching out and sharing their faith to help more Americans understand Islam’s tradition of peace, charity and justice. Americans of all faiths can reach out to their Muslim American neighbors — perhaps even visit the nearest mosque — to help break down stereotypes and build understanding.

Second, as Americans, we have to stay true to our core values, and that includes freedom of religion for all faiths. An attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths, and when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up. We cannot be bystanders to bigotry. We have to reject any politics that targets people because of religion. We have to make sure that hate crimes are punished, and that the civil rights of all Americans are upheld.

Third, as we protect our country from terrorism, we should not reinforce the ideas of terrorists themselves. Groups like ISIL are desperate to portray themselves as religious leaders and holy warriors who speak for Islam. We must never give them that legitimacy. They’re not defending Islam or Muslims — the vast majority of the people they kill are innocent Muslim men, women and children. America could never be at war with Islam, or any other faith, because the world’s religions are a part of our national character. So we should never play into terrorist propaganda or suggest that all Muslims, or Islam itself, is the problem. That betrays our values. It alienates Muslim Americans. It helps our enemies recruit. It makes us all less safe.

Finally, just as all Americans have a responsibility to reject discrimination, Muslims around the world have a responsibility to continue to push back against extremist ideologies that are threatening some of their communities. This is not some clash of civilizations between the West and Islam; it’s a struggle within Islam, between the peace-loving majority and a radical minority. That’s why across the Islamic world, Muslim leaders are not only roundly and repeatedly condemning terrorism, they are also speaking out with an affirmative vision of their faith. America — and I, as president — will continue to help lift up and amplify these voices of peace and pluralism.

I want every Muslim American who may be wondering where they fit in to know that you’re right where you belong — because you’re part of America, too. You are not Muslim or American. You are Muslim and American. And I want all Americans to know that across our country and around the world, Muslim communities are standing up for peace and understanding as well.

We are one American family. And I’m confident that if we stay true to our values — including protecting the right of all people to practice their faith free from fear — we will stay strong and united. We are, and must always remain, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What is a Christian College?

a9fde-messiah2bgraduationHere are some of my thoughts about evangelical higher education in light of the Larcyia Hawkins case at Wheaton College.  I pitched it a few places, but no one seemed to want it.  My opinions here are solely my own.  Regular readers at The Way of Improvement Leads Home will find some of this stuff familiar–JF

It has been a few years since I taught Messiah College first-year students in our “Created and Called for Community” course.  The course begins with Genesis 1 where we read of God speaking his word into the darkness which covered the face of the earth.  He said “let there be light,” and there was light.  He then went on to create the water, land, plant life, the universe, and all living creatures.  His greatest creation, of course, was human beings.  Genesis 1:26-27 reminds our students that women and men are the highest form of God’s creation as they were created in His image.

“And God saw that it was good.”

I like to think of these first days of the Created and Called for Community course as a fitting introduction to a Christian liberal arts education.  Students learn that all of their fellow human beings have dignity, worth, and value because of the doctrine of Imago Dei.

As a historian and a Christian.  I am especially appreciative of this aspect of Messiah College’s curriculum.  Historians, after all, are a very earthy bunch.  We are in the business of studying human beings. The Imago Dei reminds us that the human beings we study have a very special identity, independent of their actions and behavior.  While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subjects bear the image of God and thus have inherent value in his eyes.

If life is indeed sacred and valuable, then Christians have a responsibility to celebrate and protect it.  Scholars debate the way a belief in Imago Dei should be applied in our lives, but most would agree that it serves as a foundation for Christian social teaching and, by extension, a Christian education.  I want the students in my history courses to know that all the voices of the people we encounter in the past count in the stories we tell in the classroom, on the printed page, on the Internet, and in museums and other historical sites.

I have been thinking a lot about “Created and Called for Community” and the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Imago Dei in light of the recent Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College.

In case you have not heard, Hawkins is a political science professor at Wheaton, the Chicago-area school that many consider American evangelicalism’s flagship institution of higher education.  Last December Hawkins decided to wear a hijab during the Advent season to show solidarity with her Muslim neighbors.  It was a compassionate, even Christ-like gesture that at least one Wheaton alumnus believes was fitting with the college’s nineteenth-century commitment to social justice.

But when Hawkins claimed that Muslims and Christians worship the same God she apparently went too far.  The Wheaton administration has placed her on leave, threatened to take away her tenure, and has decided to move to terminate her employment at the college.

After listening to Hawkins speak in a video posted by The Chicago Tribune it seems that her decision to wear the hijab and acknowledge the common monotheistic ancestry of Christians and Muslims was a direct expression of her evangelical faith.  Think about it.  How many political science professors in the United States engage in what Hawkins calls “Advent worship?” Better yet, how many evangelical Christians–the kind of folks who could sign Wheaton’s statement of faith–participate in “Advent worship?”  On this front, Hawkins appeared to be a model faculty member.

Of course the leadership of Wheaton College has every right to draw theological boundaries as they see fit.  If we believe in religious liberty we must defend the college’s right to terminate Hawkins, whether we agree with the decision or not.  But this entire case does offer some interesting opportunities to think about the identity of Christian colleges.

I imagine that there are a lot of evangelical colleges and universities who would have responded to Hawkins’s Advent worship in a similar fashion as Wheaton. But not all Christian colleges are alike.  I would hope that any administrators at Christian colleges would take Imago Dei seriously, but they would not all apply this doctrine in the same way amid the day-to-day life of their institutions.

What is an evangelical Christian college?  First of all, Christian colleges are not churches.  Churches exist to uphold, defend, and promote Christian theology and the proper worship of God.  Churches are primarily in the business of formation and catechism in a particular Christian tradition.  One should expect the leadership of a church to promote what they believe to be correct doctrine and, in the process, show how other manifestations of religion are wrong.

Second, Christian colleges are places of learning, just like every other college. They are educational communities where students should feel comfortable asking the “big questions” about the meaning of life.  They are places where intellectual risks are taken and ideas—even ideas that we may believe to be sacred—are critically analyzed.

But what makes Christian colleges unique is the fact that they occupy a space somewhere between the church and the broader non-Christian academy.  This makes them different from the public university down the road or the private, non-sectarian liberal arts institution.  Christian colleges do not offer the same kind of academic freedom afforded to faculty at other institutions.  They have statements of faith and community expectations that result in the drawing of specific intellectual boundaries.  They attract faculty who feel comfortable pursuing their academic vocations in such a confessional environment.  (Some have argued that this is a kind of “academic freedom” unavailable to faculty at a public university). They attract students who want their college education to be steeped in a particular Christian tradition.

At the same time, Christian liberal arts colleges are in the business of educating young minds and thus do not draw boundaries in the same way that churches draw boundaries.  We hope that students who attend Christian colleges will be more confident and secure in their faith when they leave four years later, and we want spiritual formation to happen on campus (and we should be concerned when it does not), but this is not the primary goal. Spiritual formation is primarily the job of the church.

So to what extent should an evangelical college carve out space for the celebration of the universal values that apply to all human beings as created in the image of God?  And how should such space exist alongside, or in conjunction with, the more particular or specific doctrinal beliefs that define evangelical Christian faith and the identity of an evangelical college?  These questions seem to go to the heart of what recently happened to Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton.

Don’t get me wrong. The particular doctrines and faith commitments of historic Christianity (however they are defined by the institution) should always be paramount at an evangelical college. These commitments should inform the life of the institution in every way–from student programs to faculty hiring and from the classroom to the chapel. But the kind of expression of human solidarity that Hawkins exemplified in this situation– an expression rooted in Christian theology (the Imago Dei)–is also appropriate at times.

One cannot deny that both Christians and Muslims trace their roots to Abrahamic faith. So in that sense, they do worship the same God.  Of course there are some major distinctions between the way Christians and Muslims worship this God, understand His identity (the Trinity, for example), and interpret his plan for the human beings he created.

Hawkins never denied these distinctions.  Instead, her Advent worship was meant to show us that we all belong to the same family–the human family. And there are times, even in the life of an exclusively Christian college, when those human connections should be acknowledged and even celebrated.

Caution, care, and education must accompany such expressions of solidarity.  They must be explained in the context of a theology of Imago Dei.  But dialogue and conversation on these matters is good.  I am afraid that Wheaton  either missed such an opportunity or, perhaps more likely, was unwilling to be a host to this type of discussion.  In the Hawkins case Wheaton College erred on the side of being Christian over its identity as a liberal arts college.


Why I Agree with Timothy Larsen

9475f-wheatonA few hours ago I wrote a post on Timothy Larsen’s insider remarks about the Larycia Hawkins affair at Wheaton College.   Here are some more thoughts on that piece:

I think we need to remember that there are different levels of critique about what is going on Wheaton. For the mainstream media and the academic world, the criticism of the Hawkins affair should not surprise anyone.  This critique has been around for a long time, but it gains traction whenever something like this happens at a Christian college.  It goes something like this:  Wheaton is fundamentalist, intolerant, maybe racist or sexist, does not permit academic freedom, does not allow Catholics, etc.

When I read this critique I find myself in agreement with Larson.  After all, I teach at Messiah College, one of Wheaton’s younger sisters in the world of Christian college higher education.  Let Wheaton College be Wheaton College. If we believe in religious liberty, then it has every right to define its boundaries as the administration sees fit.

On the other hand, there is an intramural conversation going on that is worth noting. This is a conversation taking place among Christians–mostly bloggers and social media folks–about Wheaton’s theological definition of evangelical Christian faith and the  interpretation of its Statement of Faith.  On this point I disagree with the way the Wheaton administration is handling this case.  If you are a reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, you know that I have argued for a vision of a Christian college that is slightly more inclusive in its approach to solidarity with Muslims.

In a world of social media, online publishing, and the speedy news cycle that they foster, it is often hard to distinguish the difference between these two critiques. Larsen’s piece, which appears at CNN, addresses the secular/academic critique of Wheaton.

Wheaton College: What a Mess!


We are slowly getting more information about the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College.  In this article at the website of Time, several more Wheaton professors speak out in defense of Hawkins.

Elizabeth Dias, the Time reporter on the story, and a Wheaton graduate (she doesn’t identify herself in this way in the byline), has obtained access to e-mails written by provost Stanton Jones to Hawkins and other faculty members.

Is it strange that we have yet to hear from Wheaton president Philip Ryken?   This is not meant to be cynical.   Jones seems to be taking all the heat. Wheaton College is getting skewered in the press and the blogopshere, but the Ryken has been silent.  (Unless I am missing something–which could very well be the case).

I also wonder how this affair is influencing the recruitment of new faculty at Wheaton.  We are in the midst of the academic job season.  Interviews are being conducted.  On-campus visits are being scheduled.  What are these potential faculty members thinking as they go through this process?

And what about the students who are applying for admission?  I am guessing that this whole affair will lead many evangelical high school students to feel even more confident about attending Wheaton College.  But others may decided to go elsewhere.  Whatever the case, today is the application deadline.

And if Hawkins does eventually get terminated, what would this say about the current state of American evangelicalism, and its future?

Here is a taste of Dias’s report, published about an hour ago:

The Wheaton College provost overseeing an expulsion trial against a tenured professor who said Christians and Muslims worship the same God wrote in a private email last month that her comments were “innocuous” but that they had created a public relations disaster for the Illinois college.

“Articles are already being written in a variety of news sources, and the media are pounding on our door asking for comments about our faculty who are endorsing Islam,” wrote Provost Stanton Jones, in a December 11 email obtained by TIME to Wheaton Psychology professor Michael Mangis. “We are being asked to defend why we have faculty openly rejecting with the institution stands for.”

The scandal, which has engulfed the evangelical college in Illinois, began a day earlier, when the school’s first-ever tenured black female professor, Larycia Hawkins, wrote a Facebook post declaring solidarity with Muslims following the San Bernardino terrorist attacks. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” Hawkins wrote on Facebook. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Since then the campus has divided, as many fellow professors begin to defend her comments while the administration has begun a proceeding that could lead to her termination for reasons that include her Facebook post. In interviews this week with TIME, several of her fellow faculty spoke out against the administrative proceeding against her. “I have seen no theological argument from the college that would deem her commitments unacceptable,” Gary Burge, professor of New Testament, tells TIME. “[Hers] is a clear, compelling affirmation of what we believe in Wheaton’s Statement of Faith.”

Professors and students at Wheaton sign the school’s “Statement of Faith,” a doctrinal statement that draws on historic Christian creeds and summarizes biblical principles of evangelical Christianity. The statement does not define a relationship between evangelical Christianity and Islam, and there is longstanding division within the evangelical community about the variations of belief that should be allowed.

In the comment section under Hawkins’ original Facebook post, Mangis, the psychology professor, had written to defend Hawkins’ statement in early December. “If you get any grief at work give me a heads-up because I’ll be leading my spring psychology of religion class in Muslim prayers,” he wrote.

Read the rest here.


A Wheaton College Faculty Member Breaks the Silence on the Larycia Hawkins Affair


Everyone is talking about Wheaton College and Larycia Hawkins.  Even the president of the other Wheaton College is getting heat for it.

Over the past week or so I have been in communication with a few Wheaton faculty members to learn more about what is happening in this whole Larycia Hawkins affair.  What I have learned is that the faculty seem to know just as much as everyone else.

Noah Toly is one of Hawkins’s colleagues in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton. He also directs the college’s Center for Urban Engagement.  He is the first Wheaton professor to write something publicly about what is happening.

Here is a taste:

In recent weeks, many have asked why more Wheaton College faculty have not spoken publicly about the recent controversy surrounding the college’s actions against our colleague, Dr. Larycia Hawkins. To some outside of higher education, the relative quiet of our faculty has seemed to suggest either fear or agreement. There are indeed some who fear reprisal – not only those who don’t defend Dr. Hawkins for fear of administrative and board action, but those who don’t defend the institution for fear of alienating many colleagues. There certainly are some who disagree with Dr. Hawkins. There may be some who agree with the administration’s decision to place her on administrative leave and ultimately to initiate termination proceedings. (It is important to note that disagreeing with Dr. Hawkins does not imply agreeing with the administration’s actions.) But I don’t believe these reasons account for the low volume of the faculty response.

Speaking for myself: I have not spoken publicly about the affair until the past two days. I have fielded a barrage of questions from friends, acquaintances, and professional associates (family mercifully spared me from this conversation during holiday visits). I have written letters of concern to the college administration and to our faculty representatives. But I have kept most of my commentary “in-house” and none of it has been public.

My reasons for keeping this conversation in-house until now are neither fear nor agreement. Though John Fea has written that it’s possible “no one at Wheaton College is safe,” I don’t fear whims or witch-hunts. There may be many reasons for that. Some may say that I’m constitutionally defective in my sense of fear. Some will say that because I’m a white male, I have nothing to worry about. And perhaps I rightly trust our administration and board, even when I think the college has done something wrong. In any case, no – it’s not fear.

Read the rest here.

What Would Jonathan Blanchard Do?

BlanchardI my recent response to Aaron Griffith’s post on Wheaton College’s history in light of the Larycinda Hawkins case, I included this sentence:

Griffiths may be right when he argues that Hawkins’s decision to stand with persecuted Muslims in America is fitting with 19th-century Wheaton. (Although I am not sure that Jonathan Blanchard’s activism would have extended to non-Christian religions). 

Over at Old Life, D.G. Hart has seized on this point and elaborated on my parenthetical remark about what Jonathan Blanchard would have thought about Islam.

Hart writes:

Yes, it’s a shame if Dr. Hawkins loses her position over her remarks. Yes, it’s tough for administrators to protect faculty privileges while also maintaining institutional identity (not to mention satisfying alumni and donors).

But we don’t need to make up theology or history to justify our own rooting interests. The idea that the Blanchards would have been on the side of Muslims is risible, almost as funny as thinking that anyone would want to justify an institutional policy or personal conviction today by appealing to — wait for it — Jonathan and Charles Blanchard. Those guys would chew any contemporary Protestant up and spit us out. If they’d do that to Protestants dot dot dot

Read Hart’s entire post here.  He is right.


Attention Christian Colleges: Larycia Hawkins May Be on the Job Market

hawkinsWhen Larycia Hawkins put on a hijab and said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, Wheaton College Provost Stanton Jones had some “concerns.”  He asked the political science professor to address them. Hawkins responded with a “theological statement.”  She has now posted that statement on her website.  You can read it here.

Hawkins’s statement is solidly within the theological parameters of evangelical Christianity and Wheaton College’s statement of faith.  I am now more baffled than ever as to why she is being terminated.

On the matter of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, Hawkins quotes Miroslav Volf, Scot McKnight, Timothy George, and John Stackhouse.

Scot McKnight is one of evangelicalism’s foremost New Testament scholars. (Full disclosure:  He taught me Greek in the summer of 1989 at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School).

Timothy George is a “life advisory trustee” of Wheaton College and a “theological advisor” for the evangelical magazine Christianity Today.

John Stackhouse is a Wheaton graduate.

I am beginning to think Hawkins is being fired for reasons other than her theology.

If she is being fired for what she wrote in her theological statement that I linked to above, then no one at Wheaton College is safe.

Wheaton College’s Search for a Usable Past

d67ac-wheatonI really appreciate Aaron Griffith’s attempt to show that Wheaton College’s decision to fire Larycia Hawkins ignores the school’s 19th-century social justice roots.

Griffiths writes:

Wheaton’s brand of evangelicalism cannot be understood without considering its history. Wheaton was founded in 1860 by its first president, Jonathan Blanchard who was active in causes like abolition of slavery and the defense of Indian rights. Blanchard stressed the Christian call to social justice, the need to bring the blessings of the kingdom of God to earth.

The college framed itself along these lines as well. As historian Donald Dayton has shown, Wheaton’s motto, “For Christ and His Kingdom,” is best understood as a social statement flowing out of this evangelical reform impulse: “what ‘John the Baptist and the Savior meant when they preached the ‘kingdom of God’ was ‘a perfect state of society.’ ” Though Blanchard said we should never shut out “the influences and motives of eternity,” he meant to cultivate God’s kingdom here and now.

Wheaton moved in a different direction in the early 20th century. The school tracked with the broader fundamentalist movement that emerged at this time as a reaction to various modernist threats, like liberal theology.

President Charles Blanchard (Jonathan’s son) was instrumental in engineering this shift. Charles was very active in fundamentalist consolidation efforts, even drafting the doctrinal statement of the 1919 World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. He also helped bring a new ethical ethos to Wheaton, stressing individual purity instead of social justice.

In the early 20th century, dancing, card playing, and theater attendance replaced slavery and mistreatment of Indians as Wheaton’s moral bugaboos. Focus on the fundamentals unfortunately meant that social concerns were often swept aside, and, as religion scholar John Schmalzbauer has shown, fundamentalists tied to Wheaton propounded their own brands of Christian bigotry (in this case anti-Semitism).

With this history in mind, Hawkins’s activism on behalf of Muslims begins to look a lot less like an aberration and more in keeping with the original vision of the college. The antebellum evangelical tradition Hawkins drew upon was one primarily concerned with upholding human dignity and advocating for those on the margins. Muslims facing discrimination and threats of violence in present-day American life surely fit that description.

Griffiths may be right when he argues that Hawkins’s decision to stand with persecuted Muslims in America is fitting with 19th-century Wheaton. (Although I am not sure that Jonathan Blanchard’s activism would have extended to non-Christian religions).  But his historical argument lacks punch because it implies that the present-day manifestation of Wheaton College actually takes those 19th-century roots seriously.

I don’t know Wheaton College well, but I would guess that fundamentalism and, subsequently mid-century neo-evangelicalism, offer a more usable past for the administration, trustees, and (most) alumni than the older Jonathan Blanchard social justice years. In this sense, the decision to terminate Hawkins is fitting with the only history of Wheaton  College that the administration is willing to acknowledge.

There is a lesson in change over time in there somewhere.

Wheaton College Goes Forward With Termination Proceedings in the Larycia Hawkins Case

hawkinsThis is what it has come down to at Wheaton College Christianity Today is reporting that Larycia Hawkins, the political science professor who wore a hijab during Advent and said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, is probably on her way out.

Here is a taste of the CT piece:

Wheaton College’s provost has begun termination proceedings against Larycia Hawkins for her public statements supporting Muslims, the college confirmed.

“The Notice is not a termination; rather, it begins Wheaton College’s established process for employment actions pertaining to tenured faculty members,” spokesperson LaTonya Taylor said…

“Dr. Hawkins’ administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions,” the college stated.

A spokesperson for Hawkins said the professor will “provide information regarding the notification” at a press conference tomorrow at the Chicago Temple, and said that Hawkins “maintains Christian support for the Muslim community amidst the ongoing anti-Muslim climate.”

Hawkins received notice Monday that Wheaton provost Stanton Jones was recommending her termination.

The parties reached an “impasse” when Hawkins declined to further elaborate the theological implications of her statements, according to the college.

The matter will now be considered by the Faculty Personnel Committee, made up of 9 elected and tenured faculty members, and then Wheaton president Philip Ryken will consider the recommendations of both the provost and the committee.

The college’s Board of Trustees will then vote on Ryken’s recommendation.

I am not going to add anything to this post, other than to say that this is unfortunate.  But I stand by Wheaton’s right as a Christian institution to draw boundaries in the way that they want to draw boundaries.

I have written (and linked to) a few posts that provide a means of thinking about the Hawkins case in a way that did not have to result in her firing. You can find those posts here. Maybe I will write it up in a more coherent essay.

A Wheaton Graduate Asks His Alma Mater to Consider Its Muslim Neighbors

John Schmalzbauer is not your average Wheaton College alumnus. He is the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair of Protestant Studies at Missouri State University.  

In his recent piece at Religion and Politics, Schmalzbauer puts the entire Larycia Hawkins affair in the larger context of Wheaton’s history with non-Christian religions and the history of Midwestern fundamentalism.  It’s a great piece–the best thing I have read so far on this controversy.

Here is a taste:

In November 2007 Wheaton’s president, provost, and chaplain signed a major statement on Christian-Muslim understanding that appeared in The New York Times. Calling for peace between the two religions, the document affirmed “our common love for God and for one another.” The 300 signatories included megachurch Pastor Rick Warren, Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw, and the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. In January 2008, the statement drew strong rebukes from Minnesota Pastor John Piper and Southern Baptist educator Albert Mohler. Though Wheaton’s leaders later retracted their signatures, they continued to embrace the goal of peacemaking. 

Schmalzbauer’s appeal to the administration of his alma mater may be too late.  The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Wheaton and Hawkins have been unable to reconcile.  Hawkins may be terminated if she does not agree to give up her tenure.