Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Safety Schools, Part 2 | Righting America

by Adam Laats

Today’s post is a continuation 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.

All conservative-evangelical colleges promise to keep students safe. But there has never been agreement on what student safety means. They have all emphasized different parts of the promise to keep students safe. Not because they are wishy-washy, but because there has never been a once-for-all definition of a single, unbreachable orthodoxy among conservative evangelicals.

There can’t be.

For conservative evangelicals, the very concept of central authority has been suspect. There can be no pope, no Vatican councils. True, some denominations friendly to the traditions of American evangelicalism have a variety of ways to settle disputes: presbyteries, synods, and so on. Most evangelical institutions, however, insist on a more diffuse set of authorities, on non-binding conventions or coalitions of independent churches.

At colleges and universities like Cedarville, authority has always been vested in a dizzying variety of sometimes-competing sources, such as accrediting groups, dictatorial leaders, alumni, trustees, and outside celebrities.

Who decides what it takes to keep students safe? Who lays down the rules about student drinking or dramatic productions? Who can insist that certain theological doctrines are dangerous, while others are merely suspicious?

At most evangelical colleges and universities, such questions have been answered in different ways at different times, with different leaders and groups asserting authority in different ways.

Some schools—Bob Jones University springs to mind—have rested all authority in dynastic leaders. Others—such as Wheaton College or Moody Bible Institute—have long been addicted to an opaque and muddled process by which the swirling currents of evangelical rumor and innuendo are negotiated by a fractious group of trustees, alumni, administrators, and outside celebrity voices.

The story has always been the same: Student safety is paramount, but the details are devilishly difficult to determine. When one group manages to assert its authority to insist on some particular idea as absolutely necessary, anyone who disagrees will be on the outs. And there is plenty of room to disagree.

To keep students safe, do evangelical schools need to insist on young-earth creationism? On dispensationalism? On conservative political activism? On racial segregationism? On “purity culture?” The questions have changed in different decades and at different schools, but the underlying tension has always remained the same.

And it is this perennial tension that is driving events in Cedarville. The details are unique, but they fit into the same pattern that has always forced difficult decisions in evangelical higher education.

P.S. Check out Adam’s recent post on giving creationists access to rocks at the Grand Canyon.