by William Trollinger
In our recent Q/A with Adam Laats about his newly-released book, Fundamentalist U, he pointed out that
In order to survive, [evangelical] schools have had to maintain reputations as both guardians and teachers of a necessarily vague dream of eternal and unchanging orthodoxy, even as ideas about proper orthodoxy changed over time. The only reason for evangelical colleges to exist – the only way they could continue to attract students and maintain the good will of alumni – was to remain absolutely committed to truths that derived their power from their eternal, unchanging source, yet were in practice always changing.
Is it possible to thread that needle? As Adam documents in Fundamentalist U, it has been quite difficult. But in 2018 the challenge may be becoming downright hazardous for evangelical colleges.
Recent polling data reveals that the percentage of Americans who are white evangelicals is shrinking, from 23% only one decade ago to 17% in 2017. More startling, the median age of white evangelicals is 55; 30% of white evangelicals are over the age of 65 while only 11% are between the ages of 18 and 29; and, only 8% of American adults under the age of 30 are white evangelicals. millennials identify as evangelical. Reasons for alienation from evangelicalism include outrage over white evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump and Roy Moore, the sense among many millennials that Christianity is anti-intellectual and anti-science, and, perhaps most striking, the much greater openness on the part of young evangelicals regarding matters of sexuality and same-sex relationships.
In short, evangelical colleges must appeal to parents and donors on the basis of theological, cultural, and political orthodoxies that are losing their appeal, particularly among the young. Can evangelical colleges successfully appeal to both young and old by gradually and subtly moderating their “orthodoxy” without appearing to change at all? Can they moderate their positions without producing the sort of backlash that overwhelmed Cedarville University when conservative constituents (and fundamentalist faculty) concluded that the changes taking place at the school were actually violations of orthodoxy? (Righting America, 210-214)
Or, to the contrary, will there be evangelical colleges that look at the declining numbers of white evangelicals and conclude that being “safe” is a losing strategy? Could there even be the bold evangelical college that decides to pull down the theological and cultural walls?
P.S. In an event sponsored by the Ohio Humanities Council, this Saturday afternoon (Feb. 03) Bill is giving a talk on the 1920s Ku Klux Klan as part of the series, “Legacy of Race and Ethnicity in Ohio.” The talk will be at 2 PM at the Sandusky (OH) Library.