Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Looking In From the Outside: Evangelical Colleges and Donald Trump | Righting America

by Adam Laats with William Trollinger

Adam Laats’ eagerly anticipated book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, comes out next week from Oxford University Press. We have posed a few questions for Adam about his book, and in this post and the next we will feature his responses.

Adam Laats is Professor of Education and History (by courtesy) at Binghamton University (State University of New York). His earlier books include The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Harvard UP, 2015) and, with co-author Harvey Siegel, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Adam blogs at the wonderfully named I Love You But You Are Going to Hell.

Cover of Fundamentalist U by Adam Laats

Image courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Read Part One of our interview here.

You did not grow up evangelical or fundamentalist, and yet you write Fundamentalist U. How did your “outsider” status affect your research and writing on this topic?

My status as a non-evangelical historian of evangelicalism gives me both benefits and drawbacks. I don’t have the same feel for the language and tones of evangelical culture that evangelical scholars have. When it comes right down to it, for example, I get skeeved when I hear Betsy DeVos talking about working in public schools to bring the “Kingdom of God.” That’s not language I grew up with and as I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s easy for secular people like me to misunderstand what some people mean by that kind of talk.

However, I also think that a non-evangelical perspective also gives me and other non-evangelical historians a boost in some ways. I don’t care personally about the scandal of the evangelical mind. I don’t feel any need to justify the intellectual respectability of early fundamentalism. Nor do I hope to deride fundamentalists as boorish and bigoted. I have no interest in defending one or another vision of “real” evangelicalism. I don’t have a dog in any of the fights I’m studying. I don’t feel influenced in any direction by the church I didn’t grow up in and the personal memories I don’t have of individual fundamentalists.

I’m certainly not denigrating the significance and importance of the work of historians who come from evangelical backgrounds. Like everyone else, I’ve been guided by the work of historians such as George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Joel Carpenter. But I don’t think one has to be evangelical to care about evangelicals. After all, I’m also not a Kennedy, but I think understanding the Kennedys is of great importance to anyone who wants to understand America’s twentieth century. The same can be said for institutions such as Liberty University, Moody Bible Institute, Bob Jones University, and Wheaton College. When every significant GOP presidential candidate for the past forty years has included campaign stops at evangelical colleges or universities, those institutions are of intense interest to all of us, not just to evangelicals themselves.

Given that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and given that white evangelicals (despite Trump’s declining approval numbers) remain among his staunchest supporters, what does this say about fundamentalist and evangelical colleges and their faculty and administrators?

This question is a good example of the ways writing about evangelical culture from the outside can be both a help and a hindrance. The twentieth-century history is pretty clear: many—not all!—white evangelicals share a sense that something bad has happened to America. Many white evangelicals feel as if they have been kicked out of their leading role in American society; they feel usurped, denied, ousted. This isn’t a theological thing, but a very powerful cultural one. For people who feel as if they’ve been unfairly treated—who feel as if the past was far superior to the present—a candidate who promises to “make America great again” can seem very attractive.

Though many white evangelicals have actively fought against this tendency, evangelical colleges and universities have always fueled feelings of usurped “Christian” social dominance; they have emphasized beleaguered, defiant white nationalism. In other words, evangelical colleges have always promoted a very Trump-ish vision of white “Christian” nationalism. In the twentieth century, even the more otherworldly schools such as Moody Bible Institute never hesitated to engage in down-and-dirty political fights along these lines, and all the evangelical institutions that I studied bragged about the fact that they actively taught a very this-worldly America Firstism. A while back, I made this argument briefly at History News Network.

John Fea, a historian I admire greatly, objected to my sketch. As an evangelical scholar teaching at an evangelical college, Fea wrote, he didn’t see faculty actively teaching any sort of Trump-friendly ideas. Quite the opposite. As Professor Fea put it, “If students at evangelical colleges voted for Trump–and there were many who did–it was not because they were fed pro-Trump rhetoric from their faculty.”

Fea made an important point. Evangelical colleges and universities may welcome many Trump-supporting white evangelical students. But they also provide institutional homes for evangelical intellectuals who have articulated strident critiques of both Trump and Trump’s evangelical fans.

Nevertheless, I stand by my earlier argument. Evangelical universities absolutely need to attract students from among the evangelical public. To survive, they need to be seen as safe homes for young evangelicals. Regardless of the sophisticated thinking that goes on among the evangelical faculty—what Fred Clark has so aptly called “faculty lounge” white evangelicalism—plenty of white evangelicals agree with Trump’s America-first image. And schools need to appeal to that. Anti-Trump ideas among faculty members are not the most powerful force driving the decisions of evangelical school leaders.

What are you working on now that you have finished Fundamentalist U

First, I’m finishing up a book manuscript about American creationism. In Why Is Jesus on a Dinosaur, I’m trying to explain creationism to other non-creationists like myself. Even people who generally know a good deal about creationism tend to make pretty basic goofs, like a “retro report” recently in the New York Times. Thanks to a fellowship from the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, I plan to finish the manuscript in the next couple of months and look for a publisher.

The second book is different. I’m researching the first major, multi-city urban school reform in United States history. Joseph Lancaster opened a school in London in the early 1800s for poor children. It worked, sort of. The Borough Road School attracted a lot of attention and the experience went right to Lancaster’s head. Like so many school reformers after him, Lancaster quickly believed his own hype and promised he could save American cities from the perils of poverty. It didn’t work. Lancaster ended up broke and bitter and his schools didn’t produce the dramatic results he had promised. I’m hoping to tell both Lancaster’s story and the broader story of school reform in America.