Righting America

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A “Culture of Silencing, Denial, and Psychological Manipulation”: The Stories from Cedarville University Just Keep Piling Up | Righting America

Introduced by William Trollinger

Photo of university president Thomas White with a yellow and blue striped bowtie, blue button down shirt and black sports jacket in front of a lectern.
Image for Dr. Thomas White’s Chapel Podcast. Image via Cedarville University.

Here’s the very short version of what has been going down at Cedarville: Southern Baptist fundamentalist and Paige Patterson protégé Thomas White knowingly – and with the knowledge of at least of his top administrators and Board members– hired an individual fired from his Fort Worth megachurch for videotaping (on multiple occasions) his male youth pastor taking a shower. This person’s role kept expanding at Cedarville – advisor to the president, member of the Biblical and Theological Studies Department, assistant basketball coach – until the news came out about his sexual predation, and about the fact that White and colleagues knew all about this and yet made the hire without informing the campus community. White has been placed “on leave” but still retains his job (how is this possible?), his complicit colleagues remain at their posts (how is this possible?), the school has hired a firm to engage in what appears to be an internal investigation while also hiring a public relations “guru” experienced in rehabilitating tarnished evangelical brands

As all this has been going on, former Cedarville students and faculty have begun telling their painful stories about what life has been like at Cedarville with Thomas White as president. Here are four more. Thanks to Ashley, Samuel, Ariana, and Phil for sharing their experiences. Oh, and there are more to come.

Ashley Moore, Class of 2014:

I experienced two major shifts in my faith during my time at Cedarville–one marked by expansion, the other, exploitation. The professors I had during my first two years at CU–particularly in my Bible and Honors Program classes–challenged my narrow-minded, rule-oriented ideas about God by introducing me to new theological and philosophical concepts, encouraging me to think critically, and, most importantly, celebrating ambiguity in the Bible because, as one professor put it, if Scripture were a literal “how-to” manuscript prescribing every choice in the day as “godly” or “ungodly,” we’d suddenly have no need for a relationship with God. So this is how my faith expanded and deepened–I embraced the uncomfortable uncertainty of “what if I’m wrong?,”, let go of following rules for the sake of my ego, rested in the truth that I am already pleasing to God just as I am, and began enjoying an actual back-and-forth relationship with the One who made me. 

Enter Dr. White. Following a year of tumult in which certain administrators who most embodied the above principles were forced to resign, Dr. White announced during one of his first introductory chapels that he was there to “shake some trees.” Sure enough, by the time I graduated, nearly all the professors who had most enriched my academic and spiritual life were gone. Without their daily support and mentorship, the only voices I heard talking about God during my last two years were those championing a patriarchal, rules-driven, sin-focused theology, abusively infused with racist and sexist comments as well as White’s horrific enthusiasm for using gun violence to “correct injustice.” (“I just like to joke around,” he’d say. “You can’t be offended by anything I say.”)

Under this regime of exploitation, my faith shriveled. After all, how could I be certain God wasn’t actually exactly as this monolith of angry-faced, white-Southern Baptist men portrayed him in chapel? But even if the freedom and love I’d found was a farce, there was no way I could return to the fundamentalism White espoused–he’d already declared from one of his weekly Monday bully pulpit chapels that all feminists were anti-God. 

Two specific chapel statements stand out to me as representative of why I felt increasingly unsafe the longer Dr. White ruled CU (though there are far more examples than these). The first was the day White made his only mention of “helping” victims of sexual assault–that he expected the boys to pick up their guns and go after the guy who did it. The second statement made my skin crawl when I heard the president of my university announce from the pulpit, “I like long hair on a woman.” I liked my long hair, too, but I instantly felt unsafe from his male gaze, afraid that if I ran into him on the sidewalk, he’d make another such harassing comment about my hair. I even went to a professor to ask if I had grounds to file a Title IX complaint, but I was informed that given the nature of his role during chapel at a private college, he could pretty much say whatever he wanted. I skipped chapel every Monday I could from then on. 

Dr. White quite literally came in on a wrecking ball to dismantle anything deemed “too liberal” until all that remains of a “higher power” on campus is a petty, violent god who loves America, speaks only through men, covers up sexual harassment/abuse, seems oblivious to racial injustice as well as anyone with a mental illness, hates the LGBTQ community, and will under no circumstances tolerate anybody who dares point out the spiritual abuse inherent in slapping God’s name onto principles that dehumanize His creatures. Fortunately, after six years removed from Dr. White’s toxicity, I have managed to start healing and crawling my way back towards the justice-loving, patient, forgiving, and nurturing God-who-can-handle-all-doubts-and-questions who I’m pretty sure exists. And thanks to Rachel Held Evan’s book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, I’ve been able to finally tentatively approach God’s Word, and trust it won’t come with a beating.

Samuel Franklin, Class of 2016

When Dr. White first started, in one particular chapel service, he gave an infamous warning regarding sexual assault on campus: “I have guns, and I know how to use them.” At the time we assumed he meant this as a threat to perpetrators. His actions, however, suggest that the warning was meant for the victims who dared speak up against their abusers.

(Note: White’s love of guns and gun violence was most apparent in the school’s 2013 decision to build a $6 million gun range on campus (Righting America 292 36n) – not what one generally expects from a university, but, hey, this is a fundamentalist institution thoroughly enmeshed in the Christian Right. As Cedarville alumna and critic Sarah Jones observed at the time, “Cedarville’s culture warriors aren’t merely content to arm themselves with the Scriptures. Now they carry AR-15s.”)

Ariana Cheng, Class of 2015:

It is time for the current students of Cedarville, their parents, and others who remain complicit to the ongoing abuse of Dr. White and his administration to wake up. 

I saw the warning signs early on, but unfortunately, my opinion and those of my like-minded peers were unable to reach a critical mass, and were quickly quashed. Dr. White became the President during the spring of my sophomore year (2013). Much of the systemic changes he made were documented by journalists and other truth-speakers, so I will not rehash those details. But it became almost immediately apparent from Dr. White’s early days that he is a man who sees everything as black and white and refuses to acknowledge nuance. His sermons were aggressive, demeaning, and employed language to shame students for not conforming to what he viewed Christianity to be. For example, when speaking about his views on a liberal arts education at Cedarville, he said something along the lines of “in our classes, we want to teach you the conservative and the liberal side of things so that you will end up on the right side, which is the conservative side.” This is such a pedagogically irresponsible way to view a liberal arts education, where students should be encouraged to deeply engage in a marketplace of ideas.

Along with Dr. White came a large network of faculty he brought to take over the Bible department. To complete my Bible minor, I took a Worldview Integration class with Dr. Billy Marsh. This professor often had students do in-class hypotheticals that lined up with our assigned readings. One such hypothetical involved a couple who wanted to raise their child without rigid gender roles. Instead of having a thoughtful debate analyzing the benefits and drawbacks to this parental approach, Professor Marsh mocked the hypothetical couple, retorting “what are they going to name their kid, a gender neutral name like Storm?” The pervasive toxic masculinity only continued when he went on a tirade about how he would never let his son play with dolls. My friend and I pushed back against the assigned text, Think Biblically!: Recovering a Christian Worldview, pointing out that the editor of the chapter on gender roles was a woman who had a master’s degree in Home Economics. What made her qualified to write this chapter on a Christian worldview of gender? The professor quickly dismissed us. 

Therein lies the problem – the culture of silencing, denial, and psychological manipulation was not limited to one professor, but was a strategic move by the entire new administration.

When I was quoted in an article criticizing the administration for placing restraints on women being able to lead, Dr. White sent a faculty-wide email painting me as a liar. I only found out because I was friends with a few faculty members who attended my church. I was essentially placed on a blacklist, and he was probably looking for a reason to get me kicked out. The problem with that is that in the end, the truth always wins out. I graduated in 2015, though I know others were not so lucky to survive the administration’s bullying and manipulation. My hope is that the critical mass of stories will open people’s eyes to what has been a rotting system for a long, long time.

Phil Jarvis, Class of 2006:

“My Experience in Happier Times” @ https://thouarttheman.org/2020/06/05/my-cedarville-experience-in-happier-times/