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The Perilous Challenge of Keeping Evangelical Colleges Safely Orthodox | 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.

Here at rightingamerica we love this quote from the conclusion to Fundamentalist U:

There has never been a clear definition of the boundaries of fundamentalism or evangelicalism and the campuses of colleges, universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes have often been the places at which those boundaries were endlessly debated. . . .At many schools, administrators hoped to keep the boundaries as wide and as fuzzy as possible, in order to attract as many students as possible and to keep their reputations as ‘safe’ schools for fundamentalist and evangelical students.

Could you elaborate?

Like anyone studying evangelicalism or evangelical higher education, I was influenced significantly by Tim Gloege’s study of Moody Bible Institute. Tim was kind enough to read and comment on my manuscript and our conversations helped me to see that the endless talk about orthodoxy at evangelical institutions can’t be confused with actual theological orthodoxy. As Tim argued in his book and right here at RACM, building a brand based on the performance of orthodoxy is not the same as orthodoxy.

The mission of evangelical educational institutions has been doubly difficult. In order simply to survive as institutions, they have had to safeguard their reputations as trustworthy guardians of true evangelical belief. But what is “true evangelical belief”? Everyone agrees that it ought to include a reverence for the Bible and a yearning to save souls. But does it include confidence in a premillennial return of Jesus? Can it include rigid ideas about predestination? Even more troubling for leaders of evangelical institutions, must it include a ban on things such as drinking alcohol? On interracial dating?

In order to survive, schools have had to maintain reputations as both guardians and teachers of a necessarily vague dream of eternal and unchanging orthodoxy, even as ideas about proper orthodoxy changed over time. The only reason for evangelical colleges to exist—the only way they could continue to attract students and maintain the good will of alumni—was to remain absolutely committed to truths that derived their power from their eternal, unchanging source, yet were in practice always changing. In a situation like that, school leaders hoped to maintain and promote a big-tent vision of conservative evangelicalism, because their ability to maintain the confidence of the evangelical public was only possible if leaders had a little wiggle room.

A couple of examples might help illustrate the ways this dilemma played out. By the middle of the twentieth century, ideas about race and racism were changing for all Americans. More and more white Americans were abandoning white-supremacist rhetoric, even if they didn’t do too much to challenge the deeper structures of racism. White evangelicals participated in this nebulous cultural shift, and it meant a change in the segregatory practices of their schools. While several older evangelical colleges originally had authentically anti-racist policies on the books, often leftovers from nineteenth-century evangelical abolitionism, between the 1930s and the 1950s evangelical colleges generally enacted and enforced segregatory policies. In this evangelical school leaders were following trends in mainstream higher education to increase racial segregation. Even evangelical institutions that kept older anti-racist language on the books adopted in practice the white-supremacist notions of the wider American culture.

But as these notions changed again in the late 1950s and 1960s, most evangelical colleges changed, too. But not all. Famously, Bob Jones University clung for decades to its older policy of strict racial segregation and white supremacy. Why? Mostly because founder Bob Jones Sr. publicly argued in 1960 that racial segregation was part and parcel of true fundamentalist religion. Once Jones established the idea of racial segregation as part of his vision of fundamentalist orthodoxy, it was nearly impossible for the institution to change it.

Schools that had not enshrined their white-supremacist segregatory policies as part of their religious commitment had an easier time changing those rules. Importantly, leaders of these schools did not talk as if they were changing to keep up with changing mainstream trends. Rather, they agreed with faculty and student reformers who argued with great historical justification that real evangelical religion had always been anti-racist. In other words, schools had to make changes, but did not want to be seen as changeable. 

It wasn’t only fundamentalist stalwarts like Bob Jones U that experienced the tension between the need to change outdated rules and the need to maintain an image as unchanging adherents of eternal truths. At Wheaton College, for example, keeping up with shifting orthodoxies always represented intense institutional dilemmas. In the early 1960s, earnest students pushed for greater student freedom. Two students in particular pushed the limits by publishing and distributing a newsletter that challenged Wheaton’s strict student rules. Even though they had broken no official rules, the students were suspended for a full year. Why such a harsh punishment? As some sympathetic faculty members pointed out, students who drank alcohol or broke sexual rules often received far milder penalties. In this case, the student rebels received such a shocking punishment because they had threatened Wheaton’s image and reputation as a safe evangelical institution. As one rebel reported, then-President V. Raymond Edman had told him, “This college will be a place Christian parents can send their children to with the confidence that their faith will be established and not shaken.”

Privately, Edman and other leaders might have agreed with the student rebels. But when it came to running their schools, administrators recognized the need for caution and the value of vagary. They needed to be able to look parents in the eye and tell them that their school would “establish” their children’s faiths, whatever that meant to evangelical parents at the time.

For Wheaton’s leaders as much as for Bob Jones’s, survival as evangelical institutions meant ruthless protection of the schools’ reputations for unflinching and eternal orthodoxy, even when the rules kept changing. It played out in different ways for different issues at different schools, but all evangelical colleges and universities languished in the same difficult position when it came to defining and defending “true” evangelical religion.