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.