In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several Christian colleges were founded as a response to the leftward drift of the American liberal arts colleges. These new institutions sought to provide a uniquely Christian and conservative higher education.
Most of these schools were founded as Bible or training institutes (e.g., Moody Bible Institute, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, Missionary Training Institute in New York). Their curriculum was different: more focused on the Bible and less on professional training or aristocratic grooming. Their goals were different: rather than developing standard degree programs and academic accreditation, they focused on training a generation of missionaries, pastors, and Sunday school teachers to spread the gospel message.
Yet during the 20th century, those Bible institutes turned into Bible colleges, which then turned into Universities. For example, The Bible Institute of Los Angeles became Biola University. Nearly all of them are now regionally accredited, the gold standard of academic higher accreditation, and offer a slew of liberal-arts and vocational majors similar to their secular counterparts.
One hundred years later, how distinctively Christian and evangelical are these schools? In many ways, unfortunately, perhaps not as distinctive as one would think. They’re still very religious, with all the trappings of evangelicalism, but in some areas traditional Christianity is in the crosshairs, especially in matters of sexuality and politics.
Opposition to Pence Because He’s Not Woke
Concrete examples risk unfair tarnishing, but for one example consider Taylor University, a fairly representative evangelical college and a member of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. They’re conventional enough that they chose the most prominent national evangelical politician to be their 2019 graduation speaker: Vice President Mike Pence, former congressman and governor of Taylor’s home state of Indiana.
Pence is an outspoken evangelical both in public and private life. Long before he was Donald Trump’s vice president, he was the Indiana evangelical. That’s what he’s been known for since he entered politics in 2000. So the pick was conventional and in many ways a coup. How many small, Christian schools could nab the country’s vice president for their graduation speaker?
What a surprise, then, that the Pence invitation stirred up a backlash. Students loudly complained that his visit would make them feel “unsafe,” that Pence did not represent the values of the institution, that he was too closely associated with President Trump.
In spite of his evangelical credentials he was a bad choice because his presence made the college “complicit in the Trump-Pence Administration’s policies, which we believe are not consistent with the Christian ethic of love we hold dear.” So, here is an unlikely spectacle—students at an ostensibly conservative evangelical university protesting over having a mainstream conservative evangelical speaker at graduation.
Student activism around the country is often encouraged and abetted by university faculty and staff. The recent $40 million lawsuit against Oberlin College, for example, happened because an administrator helped students spread libel, accusing a local bakery of “long-term racism” without any evidence. This administrator helped students distribute pamphlets and host rallies, all based on a baseless accusation. Student energy drove the protests, but college staff played a part.
The lawsuit will cost Oberlin a lot of money. At Taylor, the faculty may be even farther left than the students. Several joined with students and walked out of Pence’s graduation speech. Even before Pence’s arrival, the faculty debated whether to support bringing him in as commencement speaker. They voted 61-49 against having him speak. The administration brought him in anyway, of course, but it was a strong expression of the left-leaning position of the faculty.
This Isn’t About Trump, It’s About Dissipating Theology
If opposition to Pence were the only evidence, you might wonder whether Taylor’s faculty is simply being consistently conservative: perhaps they are Never-Trumpers concerned about Trump’s less-than-ideal behavior? Some evangelicals certainly seem to be defending the indefensible for Trump; were Taylor faculty simply resisting that trend? Unfortunately, no. The resistance came from the left.
Back in 2018 a small group of faculty and staff tried to start a “conservative underground” newsletter around Taylor’s campus, not because they were pro-Trump, but because standard evangelical viewpoints on issues such as marriage, creation, abortion, and racial equality were being systematically suppressed in favor of leftist opinions on these issues. These “underground” conservative faculty claimed there was a growing acceptance of “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).” They felt that a separate publication was necessary to argue for “conservative stances boldly, extensively, and without fear of editorial filter.”
If the campus were so right-leaning that they couldn’t stomach Trump, there would have been no need for this alternative publication. The reality is simply this: at an ostensibly conservative Christian university, a minority of faculty and staff felt compelled to draw attention to the silencing of ordinary conservative evangelical viewpoints.
Heavy Pressure on Christian Institutions to Sell Out
Taylor should not be unfairly singled out. Wheaton College, a flagship Christian institution, recently made news after a faculty member said Christians and Muslims worship the same god. NPR wrote last year about how evangelical institutions are grappling with the culture’s press for affirming LGBT sexuality. Pushes for colleges to abandon Christian teachings on identity politics topics are strengthening.
Christian higher education, like many other parts of Christian culture and church life, follows broader cultural trends. Unless institutions take extremely strong steps to maintain fidelity to core intellectual and religious commitments, they will eventually follow the trends. Just as students come from the culture of their home churches, so also the faculty and staff come through years (often many years) of higher education. In very left-leaning environments, people will drift leftwards unless they position themselves as a resistant minority.
The People Training Christian Academics Are Biased
While you might not need convincing that higher education as a whole is left-leaning, the statistics may be worse than you might think. An organization called Heterodox Academy has been systematically documenting and arguing against the increased ideological uniformity present on college campuses, although it seems to itself be a part of the problem.
Jonathan Haidt, a New York University sociologist and one of the founders of Heterodox Academy, once asked a ballroom full of 1,000 psychologists whether any were conservatives. Only three raised their hands. There’s lopsided, and then there’s that. Psychology, along with sociology, comparative literature, and education, is one of the most ideologically monolithic disciplines, but even the most “conservative” academic disciplines have five Democrats for every one Republican.
Even seemingly innocuous academic majors are not immune from the now-dominant leftward drift. Consider classics, for instance, a rigorous discipline based on the study of Greek, Latin, and ancient civilizations. One would expect classics departments to eschew politicization in favor of a pure study of the great civilizations of the past.
Yet earlier this year the Society for Classical Studies hosted a panel at their annual meeting on “The Future of Classics.” Under this innocuous title, the panelists proposed all manner of leftist ideas, including publishing academic articles on the basis of race and sex rather than academic merit, accusing classicists in general of a conspiracy of silence about injustices, and proposing that classicists stop working on Greek and Latin literature to focus on such things as indigenous writing in the Americas.
An independent scholar with a Ph.D. in classics from The University of Texas at Austin was thrown out of that meeting because she raised concerns. Sticking up for the study of the great classics of the Greek and Roman world got her expelled.
For another unlikely example of how far the leftward drift has taken us on matters of sexuality and politics, consider a recent dustup at an annual meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. The world-renowned British philosopher Richard Swinburne gave a talk arguing, among many other things, that homosexuality could be thought of as a kind of “disability” since, for example, it prevents people from being able to have children with the person they romantically love.
Whether you agree with that argument or not, it doesn’t seem like the sort that would cause a monumental stir in Christian circles. Yet Swinburne’s talk was roundly denounced by the organization’s leadership for being insensitive and not representing their views.
Don’t Assume ‘Christian’ Means Trustworthy
Christian colleges face a broad array of pressures from students, parents, alumni, professors, board members, staff, donors, states, and the federal government. Their Christian heritage clashes with cultural movements, both on the extreme left and the extreme right. What students want might not match up with what donors want. Proposed legislation threatens their financial viability.
Yet despite these problems, parents shouldn’t necessarily just pull the plug. Christian education today is still in many ways excellent and the deeply religious culture of these institutions, Taylor certainly included, can be a wonderful place for spiritual growth. But on matters related to sex, gender, and politics, it is “buyer beware” and “trust, but verify.”
Parents and donors who care about Christian higher education remaining Christian for the long-term need to ask pointed questions of the institutions to which they entrust both their children and their donation dollars. We can no longer assume that everything is okay simply because the school has always been Christian and conservative.
After all, Harvard University was founded to train Christian ministers. Schools have drifted before and they can do so again. Based on the available evidence, it’s already happening.