Righting America

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Mike Pence, Taylor University, and the Political Realities of White Evangelicalism | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Conservatives at Taylor University can breathe a sigh of relief. Mike Pence is on his way. The leftist assault has been thwarted.

Just 14 months ago the alarm was sounded at the evangelical school of 1900 undergraduates in Upland, Indiana. A newsletter — portentously entitled Excalibur — suddenly appeared throughout campus,  in which the authors (who did not reveal themselves, fearful of the “current cultural climate” as well as “leftist trends” on campus) charged that Taylor was awash in

permissivist views of human sexuality, hostility toward creationist perspectives, . . . and uncritical endorsement of liberal-progressive ideals (e.g., in the form of Marxist-inspired critical race theory).

Adjunct professor Amy Peterson reports that, disturbingly but tellingly, “in some dorms, [Excalibur] was only distributed to the rooms of students of color and sexual minorities.”

Controversy erupted immediately, as many in the Taylor community resented and rejected the anonymous attacks. Within 48 hours, college president Paul Howell Haines had issued a “community letter,” in which he regretted that “the unsanctioned, anonymous, and suspect distribution of the publication sewed discord and distrust, hurting members of our community.”

The four white male Excalibur authors – two professors (biblical studies, and philosophy/religion), a soccer coach, and the university marketing director – felt compelled to reveal their identities. But they were not finished, as they renamed Excalibur as (the slightly less pretentious) ResPublica, while continuing to press the trope of white male victimhood (the newsletter’s subtitle now reading, “The Conservative Voice You Are Free to Ignore”). More significant, just two weeks after sending his letter expressing concern for those who were hurt by Excalibur, President Haines backtracked, issuing a second statement in which he said that “those who believe he stood against the content of Excalibur misread his statement”; instead, what he had really wanted to communicate was that “Taylor is a place where we wrestle with ideas of all kinds.”

So much for standing with those who were hurt by “the unsanctioned, anonymous, and suspect distribution” of Excalibur. But then again, Haines may well have been – as is common among evangelical college administrators – looking over his “right shoulder” to the conservatives in Taylor’s constituency who were alarmed by the claims made by the Excalibur quartet.

And now, one year later, Haines has found a way to reassure conservatives that Taylor is the Right kind of school. As Haines announced last Thursday:

Taylor University is pleased and honored to welcome to our campus and its 2019 Commencement exercises, Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Pence has been a good friend to the University over many years, and is a Christian brother whose life and values have exemplified what we strive to instill in our graduates. We welcome the Vice President and his wife, Karen Pence . . . and thank them for their love and service for our nation, our state, and our institution.

Once again, controversy has erupted at Taylor. The faculty voted 61-49 to register their dissent. One of the dissenters noted that, upon hearing the news, he “immediately became angry and cynical, thinking . . . that the administration was [betting] they could turn graduation into a political statement, and, furthermore, a revenue stream . . . pleas[ing] people with deep pockets with whom the administration would like to partner.” Many students – particularly students of color and LGBTQ students (the sorts of students targeted by Excalibur) – are quite upset; as one Puerto Rican student observed, “I was excited for graduation, since neither of my parents have a degree, [but now they have] to sit and listen to a man who is part of an administration that doesn’t care for our people.” Alumni responded with a petition calling on the university to rescind its invitation, a petition that, as I write, has approximately 5,000 signatures.

The administration has responded by asserting, in the words of the school’s provost, that “there is always something to be gained from listening” and “working through our opinions.” Last year students “worked through their opinions” by listening to the CEO of Interstate Batteries; two years ago, it was Butler University’s head basketball coach.

Some students and faculty are quite supportive of bringing Pence to campus. Pro-Pence alumni have themselves drafted a petition that has secured more than 2,000 signatures. Oddly written – e.g., “Taylor is by no means aligning themselves with the alleged controversial views of the Trump administration, they are simply giving a voice to all opinions and planes of thought” – the petition concludes with Romans 13:1-2 as the clinching argument:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.   

It is not clear how these verses apply to Mike Pence delivering a commencement address, but among evangelicals it is a commonplace to trot out these verses in behalf of – and only in behalf of – conservative politicians and conservative policies.

Taylor alumnus C. Christopher Smith has responded to the controversy by calling for his alma mater and other evangelical institutions to abandon its allegiance to the Trump administration, and instead embrace “a new brand of evangelical politics” marked by “transparency, hospitality, and empathy.” As Smith sees it, not only is this alternative evangelicalism possible, but it “is quietly being cultivated by the Spirit outside the reach of the limelight.” Amy Peterson shares Smith’s hopefulness:

Since the 2016 presidential election, young evangelicals have had to rethink everything we’d been taught about what it means to be faithful Christians engaged in politics. If the uproar at Taylor this week is any indication, white evangelicals may not be such a monolithic voting bloc the next time around.

I wish I could share their optimism that the Taylor controversy is evidence that white evangelicals are rejecting the racist misogyny of the Trump administration and embracing an alternative, empathetic, hospitable politics. But polling data indicates otherwise: after two years, white evangelicals support Trump at approximately the same levels that they did in the 2016 election.

As Adam Laats has rightly noted, “faculty lounge” evangelicals simply do not represent evangelicalism as a whole. While many Taylor faculty and some Taylor students “might reel in dismay at the university’s decision to honor Mike Pence,” some faculty and many students are thrilled that Pence will be on campus. As Laats continues, the administration, “as always desperate to reassure students and families [and donors] that they represent ‘real’ evangelical values, decided that Pence embodied these values.”

Nevertheless, Smith and Peterson are right that something is happening. That something is the shrinking of white evangelicalism. Between 2007 and 2017, the percentage of American adults who are white evangelicals dropped from 23% to 17%. The median age of white evangelicals is 55; only 11% of white evangelicals are between the ages of 18 and 29. More than this, only 8% of white American adults under the age of 30 identify as evangelical. And a good deal of evidence suggests that much of the disaffection with evangelicalism has to do with the fact that it is so tightly identified with the Christian Right.

Despite these demographic realities, and to quote from an earlier post,

Evangelical schools [like Taylor] hold the course, in the process competing with each other for a rapidly shrinking demographic. And all the while their “evangelical” brand becomes increasingly tarnished as “judgmental and hypocritical and hateful.”