Today’s post comes from our colleague Adam LaatsAssociate Professor of Education and History (by courtesy) at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He is the author most recently of Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). He blogs about school and society at I Love You but You’re Going to Hell.

The purges and purifications at Cedarville University might seem messy and anomalous. In fact, however, they follow a simple and predictable pattern, a pattern as old as evangelical higher education itself.

As reported by Kate Shellnutt in Christianity Today, Cedarville’s administration has insisted on a new tightening of classroom requirements. New purity rules will edge out any books, films, poems, websites, or anything that seems “pornographic, erotic, obscene, or graphic.”

The details are new and unique. To my knowledge, no other evangelical school has insisted on a purity doctrine based explicitly on Philippians 4:8.* The script, though, is anything but surprising. Since their beginning in the 1920s, as I argue in my upcoming book about the history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education, the network of self-consciously dissident conservative evangelical colleges and universities has been governed by a few simple, inexorable realities.

First, schools such as Cedarville absolutely must maintain their reputation as “safe” spaces for their students. Safe from liberal theology and mainstream science, safe from sex, safe from booze, safe from every possible spiritual danger. Second, it has never been clear what real safety looks like. More important, it has never been clear who has the authority to decide. As a result, evangelical schools—ALL evangelical schools—have been wracked from time to time by purges and purification campaigns.

Different authorities will insist on different ways to guarantee true evangelical safety. The authority in each case may be different—it might include powerful trustees, dictatorial presidents, student protesters, influential celebrity outsiders, or wealthy alumni. In each case, however, whoever manages to finagle control will insist on their own idea of proper student safety. And, in many cases, those who don’t agree are shown the door.

We might put it in this simple equation:

Unclear definition of “safety” + Unclear structure of authority = Periodic purges

Of course, evangelical colleges are not the only ones to obsess over student safety. Indeed, our current mainstream higher-ed bubble is the result, in large part, of intense social anxiety among students and parents. Why would students pay tens of thousands of dollars for a college degree from Princeton, for instance, instead of spending much less for the same degree from a state school? In large part, elite students and schools are driven by their yearning for safety—for entrée into an elite social circle with an elite college credential that can keep students safe from uncertain futures in the economy and society.

The rules of safety on evangelical campuses have included those mainstream anxieties and added their own nervousness about theological and cultural traditionalism. Evangelical and fundamentalist schools have existed, in large part, to provide evangelical students with high-quality higher education without exposing them to the presumed moral and spiritual dangers of secular or liberal schools.

Beyond a vague yearning for safely orthodox schools, however, there has been no agreement on what student safety would look like at conservative evangelical schools. Even the most basic assumptions always fall apart.

For example, we might conclude that no conservative-evangelical college would consider it safe for students to perform in dramatic theater celebrating homosexuality. We’d be wrong. Throughout its existence, the very conservative Bob Jones University has mandated student participation in plays, including relatively risqué works such as those of Oscar Wilde.

We might at least assume that all conservative-evangelical campuses would ban the use of alcohol among students. Wrong again. To the chagrin of many of his fellow conservatives, J. Gresham Machen did not ban drinking at his new orthodox seminary when he opened it in 1929.

At the very least, it might seem fair to think that conservative-evangelical schools would insist on orthodox theology among faculty members. And yes, all schools have insisted that they have only orthodox teachers. However, in practice it has been impossible for interdenominational evangelicals to agree on any particular orthodoxy. For example, when Bryan University (now Bryan College) opened its doors in the 1920s, it had to eliminate the doctrine of premillennialism from its faculty creed. Many leading fundamentalists of the era assumed premillennialism was the very definition of true fundamentalism, as Bill Trollinger’s first book demonstrated, but Bryan’s leaders disagreed. Their namesake, after all, William Jennings Bryan, hadn’t been a premillennialist.

These examples are not mere exceptions; they are the rule. The non-negotiable insistence on student safety has been universal, but the boundaries of true safety have always been impossible to agree upon. Even the most basic rules of faculty belief and student life have been open to dispute and disagreement.

And why this is the case is the subject of the next post.

*“Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.” FWIW, my sinful, secularized, formerly-evangelical alma mater also has this verse as its school motto.