by William Trollinger
As Adam Laats convincingly demonstrates in his wonderful Fundamentalist U, evangelical and fundamentalist colleges are all about presenting themselves – to donors and parents – as “safe” educational havens for their students. What constitutes “safe” is different from institution to institution; more than this, what is understood as keeping students safe changes over time (e.g., at most of these schools today dancing is not seen as the great threat to student morality that it was a few decades ago). That said, and as I wrote years ago in an essay on evangelical/fundamentalist higher education, the obsession at all of these institutions with being intellectually and culturally “safe” for their students is evidence that
evangelical and fundamentalist schools are not as different as individuals in both sorts of schools might assert. For one thing, the faith statements at both sorts of schools are often quite similar; while the statements at fundamentalist schools are typically longer and much more detailed, the fact is that, even at many evangelical schools faculty are required to sign on to inerrancy and premillennialism statements. Moreover, both sorts of schools engage in a good amount of “boundary maintenance.” While fundamentalist schools are much more concerned with strict, impermeable boundaries, and while a good number of faculty members at evangelical schools would not be allowed to teach at a fundamentalist school, the fact is that evangelical colleges can also be quite restrictive, and, on occasion, engage in a purge [of “unsafe” faculty members].
In fact, I am hard-pressed to identify an evangelical school that has not, at some point in its history, purged its ranks of “dangerous” professors.
For the most recent example of a purge, see Asbury University of Wilmore, Kentucky (which, coincidentally, happens to be one of the schools I discussed in the aforementioned essay). As reported by Linda Blackford at the Lexington Herald-Leader, “two popular and beloved faculty – Jon Roller [Worship Arts program] and Jill Campbell [music education] – were told their contracts would not be renewed,” the reason being that “they were supportive of Asbury’s LGBTQ students.”
What does this mean? Did Roller and Campbell fail to properly condemn LGBTQ students for their sin? Did they have the audacity to suggest to these students that God loves them as they are?
Whatever the specific offense, Blackford details that discrimination against LGBTQ students at Asbury has a long history (to the point that, according to one graduate, LGBTQ students at Asbury Seminary were forced to receive psychiatric treatment). And when the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage in 2015, Asbury secured a waiver on the basis of religion, thus ensuring that the school and its students can receive federal loans even though Asbury discriminates against LGBTQ students (and, apparently, faculty and staff who are too kind to those who are LGBTQ).
But the Asbury administration may not have adequately reckoned with the fact that many of their students would find the firings of Roller and Campbell to be appalling, and unChristian:
On Tuesday, several hundred students gathered with administrators, and according to an audio recording of the event [embedded in this article], numerous students expressed anger, frustration and confusion over the firings. Several cried as they recounted how much the two professors had helped them through their time at Asbury, and others asked why their compassion and caring would be punished in this way.
Here is the conundrum for evangelical colleges and universities. Donors and parents want these schools to be “safe” from the LGBTQ “menace.” But many of the evangelical students who attend these schools simply do not share and cannot understand their elders’ views on human sexuality.
How are these schools to negotiate this generation gap? Can these schools really ride it out until the youth become adults, at which time they can end their anti-LGBTQ discrimination?
And are evangelical and fundamentalist colleges simply doomed to playing it “safe,” always looking over the right shoulder to the most conservative segment of their constituency?