Hundreds of students and faculty members at Hope College have held meetings and rallies this week over the resignation of a popular religion professor who had criticized many Christian leaders.
Miguel De La Torre is leaving Hope, a Michigan college where he has taught since 1999, to take a job at the Iliff School of Theology, in Denver. In addition to teaching and publishing while he has been at Hope, he has also been a prolific writer in local newspapers, offering his views on any number of religion-related topics, and frequently taking issue with the Christian right.
In an interview Wednesday night, De La Torre said that he quit -- giving up tenure he won a few months ago -- because of a letter from Hope's president, James E. Bultman, criticizing his writings and suggesting that they were making it difficult for the college to raise money. While De La Torre did not release the letter, he confirmed reports that it said that his writings had "irreparably damaged the reputation of Hope in our community" and that "when people are displeased with what we do, their only recourse is to exercise their options with regard to enrollment and gifting."
Hope is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America. And the letter particularly took issue with columns De La Torre wrote in The Holland Sentinel mocking some Christian leaders. One of the columns that angered the president was a piece mocking evangelicals who criticized the role of SpongeBob SquarePants in a video encouraging tolerance toward gay people.
In a column (free registration required) called "When the Bible Is Used for Hate," De La Torre wrote: "I always knew there was something fishy about a sponge who openly held hands with a pink starfish. God only knows what illicit acts are taking place at SpongeBob's neighborhood, appropriately named Bikini BOTTOM. Thanks to the vigilant eyes of James Dobson, who credits himself for bringing about the president's re-election, we can now shield our children from SpongeBob the sex fiend."
In the less satiric portion of the column, De La Torre asked, "Does not Christ call us to love our (white, black, Latino/a, Native American, and yes gay) neighbor as ourselves?"
De La Torre said that he knew he had no future at Hope after he was passed over for a merit raise this year, despite earning tenure, having books accepted for publication, and winning strong teaching reviews. "It was inappropriate for the president to connect my writing to his needs with the donor base," De La Torre said. "It was clear I would never get another raise or become a full professor so I looked for another job."
While De La Torre does not share the views of many religious leaders, he stressed that he is a "man of faith" who has devoted his career to religion. He is an ordained Southern Baptist minister and considers himself a liberation theologian. He recently finished three books that will be published in the next two years: Re-Imagining Christian Sexuality, Liberating Jonah: Toward a Christian Ethics of Reconciliation, and Rethinking Latino/a Religion and Ethnicity.
De La Torre said he wanted to "go quietly" but when students got hold of the president's letter and started distributing it, protests began.
Hope officials declined to comment on the specifics of the debate, but the college released a statement noting the "concern expressed within the Hope College community" about De La Torre's departure. "The college has accepted his resignation with regret knowing that he has a passionate voice for the marginalized in our society and a message that is a good one for all of us to hear."
President Bultman appeared before packed meetings of students and faculty members on Tuesday to discuss the controversy. The meetings were closed to the press, but The Grand Rapids Press reported that those who attended said that Bultman wouldn't talk about the letter he sent De La Torre, but that he did say that tuition would have to go up substantially if donors stopped making gifts to the college.