Hillsdale, Michigan. Readers may recall the dustup earlier in the summer when Peter Conn prompted pious gasps for suggesting that institutions like Wheaton College (the evangelical one) should not be accredited. His reasoning was based in part on the belief requirements that institutions like Wheaton make, doctrinal standards that are at odds with reason.

The responses to Conn provided one glimpse of what makes evangelical colleges tick. Defenders responded that evangelical colleges provided the kind of academic freedom that secular or public universities could not, namely, places where scholars were free to consider their own disciplines in the light of Christian teaching and practice.

Later this summer another window opened on the evangelical academy. Gordon College president, Michael Lindsay, co-signed a letter with other evangelical leaders (do I need to add “servant”) to ask the Obama administration for an exemption from an executive order forbiding federal contractors from discriminating against gays, bi-sexuals, and transgender persons. I was not sure how many federal contracts a school like Gordon might have. But in the era of faith-based initiatives, you never know.

This incident turned out to be revealing because of the way the letter to Obama stressed the service that evangelical institutions provide for the common good:

Our identity as individuals is based first and foremost in our faith, and religious beliefs are at the foundation of some of America’s greatest charities and service organizations that do incredible good for our nation and for the world. In fact, serving the common good is one of the highest expressions of one’s religious liberty outside of worship. The hiring policies of these organizations—Christians, Jewish, Muslim and others—extend from their religious beliefs and values: the same values that motivate them to serve their neighbors in the first place.

Often, in American history–and, indeed, in partnership with your Administration–government and religious organizations have worked together to better serve the nation.
An executive order that does not include a religious exemption will significantly and substantively hamper the work of some religious organizations that are best equipped to serve in common purpose with the federal government. In a concrete way, religious organizations will lose financial funding that allows them to serve others in the national interest due to their organizational identity. When the capacity of religious organizations is limited, the common good suffers.

For those familiar with the long history of Roman Catholic objections to American public schools, this is an arresting twist. Roman Catholics used to argue that parochial schools served the common good by educating students in the same subjects that public schools provided except that they did it under the auspices of the church and its teachings. Protestants were unmoved and viewed parochial schools as sectarian. Protestant insistence on the separation of church and state, in fact, was the kind of logic that eventually led the Supreme Court to disentangle not only any public support to parochial schools for buses or school books but also to rule prayer and Bible reading in public schools as unconstitutional. In contending that Wheaton College should not be accredited, Peter Conn may have merely been echoing a view of religiously informed education that Protestants and the Courts had well established.

Whether Protestants wound up shooting themselves in the foot by construing church-state relations in such a potentially damaging way, the curious aspect of this letter is that evangelicals now find themselves having to justify their institutions in ways that Roman Catholic bishops in the United States used to employ — we are religious but this is the basis for serving the common good.

Now put this together with some other recent estimates of the evangelical academy. One comes from Robert Tracy McKenzie at Wheaton College who describes the work of a Christian scholar in — let’s be frank — a rather parochial way. He quotes former Wheaton president, Duane Litfin:

I am highly motivated to be about the business of cultivating our minds and our learning, but it seems to me that our first motives must be intrinsic rather than instrumental. In other words, we must learn to love God with our minds, to use our artistic gifts for Christ, to embody him in serving our neighbor and our society. But our primary motive for doing so must not be the transformation of our culture. Our prime motive must be obedience to Jesus Christ. Then, if the living Christ graciously chooses to use our efforts to mold our culture into more of what he wants it to be, we will be grateful. On the other hand, if he does not so choose–and let us be clear about it, he does not always so choose–and the culture remains resistant, even hostile, to our Christian influence, we must not be cast down. Our motivation is not dependent on the acceptance and approval of our culture; in the end we care preeminently about the approval of Jesus Christ. Our goal is to love God with our minds, whether the culture comes to appreciate our efforts or not.

To be clear, I am not singling McKenzie out. This is standard fare in the halls of the evangelical academy, the idea that all learning — the integration of faith and learning no less — is teaming with implications for Christian faculty and their students. That may be, but then how common a mission does this give the evangelical historian, for instance? If I as an evangelical college professor am trying to figure out God’s designs for planet earth in the U.S. 1828 presidential election, how am I sharing a common enterprise with the gal who teaches Jacksonian America across town at Prairie State University? One could possibly say that both scholars are covering the same material and that the Christian scholar simply adds Christian value to the subject — maybe at the end of class, perhaps at the conclusion of the semester. But if evangelical colleges are going to say that the Christian faith affects everything — as born-again Protestants are fond of saying about everything from aerobics to urban planning — then how much do they share in common with other educators?

Richard Mouw, the former president of Fuller Seminary, felt precisely this tension and decided favorably that evangelical academics are now even more self-consciously Christian than those at Jesuit universities. In response to a question about why evangelicals can’t employ some non-evangelicals at their seminaries or colleges, Mouw replied:

Just before I finished my studies at the University of Chicago to join the Philosophy faculty at Calvin College, I received a letter from a veteran professor at Calvin, an accomplished scholar in “middle English” literature. Welcoming me to the Calvin faculty, he also wrote that I was making an important commitment in this assignment. “Many of us can be at other places, at excellent secular schools,” he said. “But we are at Calvin because we have taken special vows—it is sort of like becoming a monk”—but he added, “without the celibacy!” He went on: “To teach at this school is to respond to a special calling—to take this community, this theological tradition, with utmost seriousness, and working to make it a healthy tradition by a shared commitment to creative teaching and scholarship.”

That was immensely important counsel for me then, and it still influences the way I see academic institutions that claim an evangelical identity. We are something like a religious order. And our “special vows” compel us to organize our academic life-together in certain ways, which—like the Jesuits—establishes some boundaries to the beliefs and practices that will shape the patterns of our communal callings.

That may be a good way of accounting for the mission of evangelical colleges, but again it doesn’t exactly fit the rhetoric of common ground. It’s like saying “we’re special but ordinary.” Folks like Peter Conn may not know the “all of life” rhetoric that pervades the evangelical ideal of liberal arts colleges or seminaries. He may simply have been replaying the tired trope of church dogma vs. intellectual freedom. But whatever Conn understands, I wonder if evangelical scholars and administrators understand that they are sending mixed messages.

I for one think the recent discussions have clarified why a Christian institution may be valuable. I used to wonder about them because I didn’t think that you needed faith or conversion in order to teach history or physics. Since I learned plenty of truth from non-believing historians and physicians, the idea of housing a group of Christians who could provide a liberal arts education did not not necessarily make sense. In the subject of Bible or theology, the religious commitment of a scholar could certainly be decisive. And so hiring only evangelicals to teach in a Bible or theology department at an evangelical college made perfect sense. But math? Or only hiring evangelical janitors?

The problem of hiring non-believing academics at a Christian institution, however, may be even more glaring than the gauzy ideals that cloud evangelical higher education. And this is one that Mouw addressed in the case of Jesuit universities. Why a Jewish biologist or an evangelical historian or a Mormon English professor is “on mission” with Roman Catholic higher education may be above my Protestant pay grade. But it is hardly clear that a non-Roman Catholic can support the aims of a Roman Catholic university unless that institution has lost some of its religious identity (thus provoking the rise of schools like Christendom or Thomas More).

So perhaps the best reason for an evangelical or Roman Catholic school is not the quality of the education. If you have to limit your pool of candidates to those only who can affirm a certain set of doctrines or even be “on mission” with a diosecan or religious order university, you are not necessarily getting the best professors. But if you are providing a wholesome environment for persons who are at a crucial period in their lives, when they are trying to figure out some kind of personal identity and autonomy, and may even be meeting a spouse, but they want to do so at a place where all of their previous associations will not be in jeopardy, then a college or univerity in which students are surrounded by supportive and relatively like-minded faculty, staff, and administrators makes a lot of sense. That’s not exactly going to be an institution that hires scholars who can win the Pulitzer Prize. In fact, it sounds a lot like the kind of Protestant and Roman Catholic colleges that were available to the Greatest Generation. But even if parochial and inferior academically, it provides quite a valuable service.

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  1. I don’t have a comment that would contribute to the discussion at this time, but your web insists that I put something here if I want to be notified of other comments.

  2. My wife graduated from an evangelical university and I have a friend who was a professor at the same institution.

    As they tell it, the doctrines the faculty and students were required to sign were window dressing, appeasement, for the school’s large donors, and this was common knowledge… wink, wink. These donors had especially strong aversion to sinful activities like dancing, alcohol… and the questioning of predestination. My wife and friend found the professors to be in general more open minded than the students — though they weren’t very forthright about it lest they not get tenure, or get asked to leave if they had it. I’m not sure if all the students were grateful to have their education steeped in the daily lesson of hypocrisy as they were daily witnesses to evangelicals chasing mammon, oh so piously.

  3. Paul,

    Yes, of course it does… except when it serves the common bad. Ascertaining the difference requires informed discernment as a sometimes disobedient (independent) moral agent.

  4. As an alumnus of a flagship public university, who now has 2 daughters at a top-tier Christian liberal arts college, I concur with the author’s conclusion that a distinctly religious institution “provides quite a valuable service.”

    I would propose that the primary purpose of higher education is not to produce leading researchers and Pulitzer prize winners nor to increase the probability of a highly compensated career, but instead to simultaneously develop the intellectual capacity AND the ethical/moral compass of the next generation of scientists, teachers, professionals, managers, and political leaders. A Christian college is able to address this mission more holistically than any secular institution committed to pluralism and moral relativism. While some critics see a doctrinal “litmus test” for professors as a negative, these faith commitments help ensure the integrity of a college’s religious commitment. As exemplars of wisdom and knowledge, professors play a critical role in their student’s moral development.

    By faithfully integrating a moral sensibility into the process of higher education, these institutions, through their committed Christian professors, help build a society of human flourishing. All of great ivy league colleges clearly understood the importance of this when they were originally chartered as religious institutions, but abandoned the mission and have left the Christian colleges of today to carry the torch.

    • Steven,

      I like torches; they provide light and warmth. But sadly, throughout history they have often torched people, especially when they purport to be the only torch.

      “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”
      -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789

      “The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. To make this a living force and bring it to clear consciousness is perhaps the foremost task of education. The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action.” -Albert Einstein

      “And the animistic interpretations of the religions of nature are in principle not annulled by monopolization. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.”
      -Albert Einstein

      “God is a mystery. But a comprehensible mystery. I have nothing but awe when I observe the laws of nature. There are not laws without a lawgiver, but how does this lawgiver look? Certainly not like a man magnified… some centuries ago I would have been burned or hanged. Nonetheless, I would have been in good company.”
      -Albert Einstein

  5. Ed,
    I think it unfair to compare the worst of Christianity (“throughout history they have often torched people”), with a couple of the best and brightest agnostics/deists. However, I believe you actually strengthen my proposition by quoting Jefferson and Einstein, both of whom confirmed the importance of a morality in their thought process and as a basis for their actions. They were from an earlier time when considerations of morality were commonplace in the great centers of learning. While Jefferson, Einstein and the average Christian college professor might disagree on the basis of morality, they are likely in agreement of the need to seriously contemplate morality as part of truly liberal education. I suspect that deep discussions of objective truth and a moral basis for life (other than the postmodern orthodoxy of diversity and nonjudgmental-ism) are much less common, if not anathema in the halls of our secular universities.

  6. Hello, Steven-

    I welcome deep “discussions of objective truth and a moral basis for life”, in all universities. What troubles me about inflexible doctrines in evangelical universities is that it closes the door on “discussions of objective truth”. The fuel for the flames of the burning you call “the worst of Christianity” is inherent in the evangelical view: If there is one true way, the others must be the wrong way. No?

    Why are predominant scientific views about sexual preference ignored (in general) by evangelicals? (If I were gay, I’d certainly feel the flames.) Do we honestly think the burning in Iraq unleashed by the Bush administration would have happened were it another “Christian” nation? (The “born again” President Bush even used the word “Crusade”.)

    You are against diversity? Against non-judgmentalism? What about the nonjudgmental-ism at the heart of Jesus’ theology of Love? (Though Jesus was not following his own teaching when casting out the money changers.)

    “The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.” – 1823 April 11. (Jefferson to John Adams)

    Back to where this began, should a university dis-allowing a rigorous discussion of the above statement be accredited? Would a doctrine prohibiting such discussion serve the student? Would it serve the world?

  7. Ed,
    Your comments presume that the religious commitments of a professor proscribe a rigorous discussion of a controversial issue. Every professor, (theist or atheist) comes into the classroom with a prior set of philosophical commitments and presuppositions that form their worldview. If they are intellectually honest, they will be forthcoming about those commitments when discussing a controversial issue, but will also seek to honestly present the opposing views and encourage a thoughtful discussion on the topic. In a religiously chartered institution, those worldview commitments are made explicit and are rightfully assumed to be in alignment with the doctrines of the particular faith perspective.

  8. I would like to think that a rigorous discussion would take place in the classroom, even with the professors “commitments”.

    I doubt and wonder.

    If that commitment (doctrine) is a result of “faith”, it comes from a realm of the human mind that finds meaning and solace in belief, often over reason. Rational discussion is usually over, “proscribed” as you say. This usually results in discussions that are not an inquiry seeking truth , but a show trial with a forgone conclusion. When evidence has no purchase, truth is in trouble.

    Thus, we have the elderly Galileo locked up, and professors asked to resign because they they question predestination, the historical accuracy of Adam and Eve, of when a human life begins, the age of the earth…

    This is the double edged sword of finding meaning in a faith that is threatened by reason and science. One may find certitude and even be motivated towards some moral behavior and selective fellowship (tribalism?), yet obediently and fervently follow ideologies (religious, political, economic, etc.) despite ample evidence they are causing great suffering. Thus, we have very “nice” people, so-called “Christians”, volunteering in a homeless shelter while supporting ideologies and policies that cause millions of homeless, or in the case of war, dead.

    Look at the news. It ain’t good. Neither is the dialogue — or lack thereof.

  9. Ed, I’m curious about that Galileo type argument. I’ve come across that a few times and I’ve always had problems with it. Not that it is inaccurate, because these things all happened, but I’ve never been convinced of the causal piece of the argument.

    The way I think about it is to use the same argument for some other group and see how it fits – I’m part Irish, so let’s say Brits. Because of Cromwell, the Potato Famine, Colonialism, dealing opium at the point of a gun and the slave trade just off the top of my head it seems rather obvious that being British is cause of being violent. Or Nanking implicating the Japanese, or the killing fields and the Cambodians. Or, since I’m a citizen of the U.S., my tribe. I could make an argument that this country was founded on violence and ethnic cleansing and slavery – quote Jefferson all you want, as a slave owner his words are forfeit. And any public discussion these days among my fellow citizens will always have an undercurrent of privilege and power and sublimated violence. We are violent, and have a need to categorically deny legitimacy to some group or another so that we can attack them. Someone is getting it, it’s just a matter of who. And the point of any of these polite, rational discussions is never what it appears on the surface – no one is really interested in some mutual regard and understanding. It’s all about legitimizing violence. It might not be explicit, most likely will not be – it will be discrimination, ridicule, redlining and other more subtle means of exerting force.

    Anyway, this sort of argument just seems too convenient for me, or too easy or something like that. I think it’s hard to establish collective guilt, and very difficult to assign causality to specific aspect of a culture. That is, while all those things happened and may have been foundational to the U.S., I don’t know they are specifically attributable to being American. I am aware there are people in the world who make this sort of argument, and I think it false.

    I’m a poor religious, pushed out some time ago, but all the same seems to me the way forward, the most transformational way, is inherently religious. Not looking back, but ahead. I don’t see the secular way as ever being able to overcome our tendency towards violence. And I don’t mean an ignorant or closed-minded faith; in fact, I take those to be signs of a lack of faith. So just to bring things back around, I would expect religious universities to be critical to preparing the young for the tasks at hand. I am not certain the institutions all possess the faith their vocation, in my opinion, requires. Then again, I’m pretty much an apostate, so you know. Grain of salt.

  10. Hello, Dave-

    So much to think about and discuss!

    Causality is rarely easy to identify, and in this complex world there is rarely one cause for an effect, seems to me. But connections can often be recognized. Where this discussion began was recognizing (or not) that academic commitments to religious doctrines, while in some ways simplifying the life of the mind and soul, can have a detrimental effects, such as squelching the search for truth in any discipline and causing divisions, usually leading to unjust acts. Inevitably, when evidence shows somethin’ ain’t so, and one is “committed” to saying it is so, this will cause friction and problems — both in each particular instance and in how one sees, and lives in, the world.

    I probably agree in a general sense that a rich life of the spirit is perhaps our greatest hope for the future. If we could all experience Einstein’s sense of wonder and awe — “cosmic religious feeling” he called it — if individuals could understand in a visceral way the interconnectedness of all things, I’m confident humans would not be so violent, there would not be so many chasms, so much excess and scarcity.

    How do we get there? I certainly don’t know. But it is deeply troubling when institutionalized religion divides us rather than unites us, when it becomes us vs. them, both within sects of a religion and between religions with different names. The figures who inspire religions were attempting to make people “experience” the interconnectedness, not become attached to the specific doctrines of a “faith” attached like barnacles by followers.

    P.S. While Jefferson wrote against it and tried to legislate for the end of slavery his entire life, his inability to free his slaves shows how even the best of us are hypocrits. It would have probably necessitated the selling of most of Monticello. Like the issue of Climate Change, economies were and are interwined like a malignant cancer; it is easy to say everyone must do it or it won’t accomplish much. I agree this is an unwise and tragic approach.

  11. Ed,
    You and I agree on the need for rigorous discussion and intellectual honesty in the pursuit of truth. The root of where we disagree is that I believe an agnostic professor at a secular university is also limited by philosophical commitments and presuppositions, while you imply that this is only the case at religious institutions.

    Having attended a large public university in the secular Northeast, I can attest that there are many discussions that are “not an inquiry seeking truth , but a show trial with a forgone conclusion.” Scholars of all stripes are limited by a priori commitments. Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, explores this issue at length in his book “Reason within the Bounds of Religion”.

  12. Steven,

    We agree on many things.

    I agree, there are closed minds entrenched in secular as well as evangelical universities. To institutionalize closed mindedness as official policy, enforced by an irrational doctrinal agreement, endangers truth and justice to a greater degree than the individual professor with his/her biases, if you ask me. In the later cases one can at least call attention to it and engage in rational discussion. The doctrinal agreement closes the door to discussion, at least within that institution.

    I’m slightly familiar with Wolterstroff. I’ll take a look at the book you suggest. Thanks.
    It is interesting that he earned his undergraduate education at Calvin College and then taught there for decades before moving to Yale. Perhaps you know Calvin has been at the center of some of these debates:


    The author of the article, Karl Giberson, has written an interesting book about the dominant evangelical culture:


  13. Steven,

    A quick correction. In my last comment I wrote: “The doctrinal agreement closes the door to discussion, at least within that institution.” I meant to write: The doctrinal agreement sometimes closes the door to discussion.

    It really depends where and when it seems.

  14. thanks Ed for the thoughtful reply – my apologies to you and Steven for interrupting the conversation. One thing – I’m not Jefferson’s judge, just using an argument I heard to make the point.

    Always been more interested in the judgment rather than the verdict; some say Jefferson did all he could in his time, others say he ought to have done more. My opinion is we need to clear ourselves of the questions we face in our time before we apply the standard to the dead. And no, I’m not clear.

  15. Evangelical Christianity is part of American life, and human experience. It exists. A significant fraction of the population pursue it. It would be foolish to wish that it would go away. Our constitution recognizes that The State is incompetent to rule on what is real or rational or valid in the field of religious belief. Thus, the presence of evangelical Christianity should not, per se, be a bar to accreditation, nor should it be a requirement.

    If a college is teaching Young Earth Creationism as straight science, then bachelor’s degrees from that college should not be accredited in the fields of biology, geology, astronomy, for starters, although some basic areas of botany and acquatic management might be accommodated.

    For the most part, accreditation should set a floor. A degree from an accredited institution means that the degree holder has received education in certain knowledge deemed sufficient for accreditation, and demonstrated a certain minimum of competence in applying same, or at least a consistent ability to regurgitate it. An institution based upon a specific set of values or common interests should be free to add to that. E.g., if you want to go to class and hang out in the dorms with fellow evangelical Christians, and surround yourselves with people who believe in saving themselves for marriage and refraining from homosexual liaisons, that option is available. Part of that option being available is that people who don’t conform to that vision will be asked to go elsewhere. What’s the big deal?

    For the most part, attitudes toward homosexuality should be irrelevant to accreditation. It might be a bit more contentious in fields like psychology, because leading peer bodies have been taking rather audacious positions that we know as scientific fact what is in fact rather obscure and difficult to pin down empirically.

    The premise that homosexuality is either unnatural, or that God wishes us to refrain from acting upon any desires we may entertain for such acts, is entitled to no more and no less deference by civil society than the premises that God calls upon us to refrain from drinking alcohol, eating crabs, lobseters, oysters, or allowing dogs in the house or yard, or that we should fast on Friday, or during Lent, or Ramadan. Whether it is a medical disorder is a separate question, one that the relevant professional fields may attempt to answer, with sound reason or rashly, or may have the good sense to be agnostic about.

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