Christians in Academe: a Reply

If many evangelicals aren't comfortable in mainstream higher education, they should consider their own responsibility for the divide, writes Adam Kotsko.

August 9, 2010

Recently, Timothy Larsen of Wheaton College published an essay on this site entitled "No Christianity Please, We’re Academics,” in which he presented anecdotal evidence of discrimination against Christians and called for more thorough study to determine whether they represented isolated incidents or were part of a broader trend. Larsen concluded on a note of despair, believing that his call would fall on deaf ears — and the comments he has received so far mostly confirm his prediction.

I am among those who would view such research as questionable — not because I think Christians have it coming or because there are "bigger problems" (there always are), but because I believe the question is ill-posed. First of all, by using the term "Christian," Larsen casts much too broad a net. I find it difficult to believe, for instance, that average Roman Catholics or mainline Protestants face any significant opposition in the classroom. It is clear from both his institutional affiliation and his article that he is using the term “Christian” to refer essentially to conservative evangelical Christians (which is in itself a very evangelical thing to do). Second, I believe the use of the term "discrimination" is overblown and misleading, inviting inappropriate comparisons to sexism and racism — including rhetorical appeals to discrimination against (conservative evangelical) Christians as "the last acceptable prejudice," falsely implying that the others have been eradicated.

I would propose instead that we need to acknowledge that conservative evangelical Christians, as a cultural group, often have difficulty assimilating to the culture of secular colleges and universities. Such difficulties are faced by many groups, including first-generation college students, lower- and working-class students, and members of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. It seems to me, however, that conservative evangelical Christians represent a special case in this regard. In the other cases, we are dealing with people who have historically been excluded from academe and are therefore simply unfamiliar with its culture and expectations — a relatively straightforward problem to solve, though not always an easy one. In the case of conservative evangelical Christianity, however, we are dealing with a group whose leaders have encouraged its members to define themselves over against the secular world and particularly secular academe.

It is important to be clear here: I am not making a general statement that religion as such is incompatible with intellectual inquiry. The university system as we know it grows out of the rich tradition of Christian intellectual inquiry, and Roman Catholic universities in particular remain some of the most rigorous institutions of higher learning. Instead I am pointing out a peculiar aspect of conservative evangelical Christian culture, as represented by prominent leaders such as James Dobson. I should also clarify that I am not making this assessment completely as an outsider looking in — although I am no longer affiliated with the church of my upbringing, I was raised in a conservative evangelical environment and graduated from a conservative evangelical school, Olivet Nazarene University. I am speaking from long, hard experience, therefore, when I say that there is something toxic about conservative evangelicals’ stance toward academe.

This stance is informed by what can only be called a thorough-going persecution complex. In the rhetoric of prominent conservative evangelical leaders, the secular world is not merely a realm that exists alongside Christianity. Instead, it is in active opposition to Christianity, seeking its destruction. The theory of evolution, for example, is not simply a scientific theory that happens to reach conclusions at odds with a literal reading of Genesis — it is a conspiracy aimed at discrediting belief in God.

On every front, the conservative evangelical community perceives itself to be under siege, particularly its children, since indoctrinating children in secular ideology is the most effective means of undercutting Christianity. Education has therefore always been a particular flashpoint, as the recurring debates over school prayer and the teaching of evolution illustrate. Believing that evangelical students are under continual attack, conservative evangelical leaders encourage them to boldly defend themselves whenever possible. Overall, the attitude their most prominent leaders promote in conservative evangelical students is a combination of extreme paranoia and defiance (conceived as self-defense).

Conservative evangelicals as a group, therefore, are not just one among many excluded groups. Rather, they are sui generis insofar as they have constantly been encouraged, from a very young age, to expect and create conflict in the classroom.

I should say immediately that not all conservative evangelicals take such extreme views seriously. My own parents, pastors, and youth leaders, for example, had fairly sensible views — certainly they were more conservative than I have wound up being, but they were fundamentally reasonable. However, in their desire to provide young people with wholesome, Christian edification, they gave credence to leaders and, much more insidiously in my opinion, to "Christian contemporary" pop groups whose members espoused views much more extreme and militant than they themselves would have been comfortable teaching their children.

Of course, not every conservative evangelical student consciously adopts such extreme attitudes. I am always amused at secular liberals’ voyeuristic horror at something like the film Jesus Camp because I know too many people who have left evangelical churches to take their efforts at brain-washing seriously. Even among those who remain devout evangelicals, relatively few fit the stereotypical profile of the brash crusader for the faith who dominates classroom discussion yet feels ignored nonetheless. Yet the constant stream of extreme rhetoric does have a significant cumulative effect, so that there is bound to be at least some underlying tendency toward defensiveness, and instructors need to learn how to deal with that the best they can.

Part of that is simply for professors to recognize the persecution complex and do their best not to set it off. Part of it might also be to avoid assignments about evangelical hobbyhorses. For instance, if the professor Larsen describes in his opening paragraphs didn’t realize that he would get a paper like Larsen’s student handed in when he assigned an opinion piece on "traditional marriage," then he or she was incredibly naïve. Personally, I would never assign a paper on abortion or evolution in an intro-level class, because I know doing so would basically mean condemning conservative evangelical students to do poorly. Many of them would simply parrot the stock arguments they’d heard from their leaders with very little reflection or fresh argumentation of their own — and the inevitable bad grade would only feed the persecution complex, turning me into yet another "secular indoctrinator."

If faced with a student who insists on citing scriptural authority in an inappropriate way, a professor might do well to point to the long tradition of apologetics, where Christians argue for their faith positions using widely agreed-upon ideas rather than biblical authority — a practice that originated in the early centuries of the faith and is also very familiar among contemporary evangelicals. More generally, I believe that I have faced fewer difficulties in this regard simply because I am very conversant with the Bible and the history of theology. Although obviously not every professor should be expected to achieve the level of someone with a theology Ph.D., avoiding the kinds of boneheaded errors that Larsen flags throughout his article is a great way for a professor to show that he or she has some baseline of respect for the religion.

At the end of the day, however, there is only so much accommodation academe can do unilaterally in this case. For the extreme leaders who dominate the conversation within conservative evangelical circles, no degree of accommodation aside from outright mass conversion is ever going to be enough. If there is to be peace between conservative evangelical Christians and academe, some change has to occur in evangelical culture. Above all, parents and pastors need to stop giving a blank check to anything that professes to be "Christian." Conservative evangelicals have long been skilled at sniffing out what they consider to be pseudo-Christian liberals — developing some discernment on the other end of the scale would be a welcome shift. Yet that will be difficult unless conservative evangelicals give up on their persecution complex and their misguided fear of the secular world, which is ultimately what produces the dynamic where anyone even slightly liberal is an apostate but it’s virtually impossible to be too conservative or militant.

Rejecting the more radical leaders must also mean rejecting their paranoid and frankly made-up ideas. For instance, evangelicals need to reject the fantasy of America as a "Christian nation" and recognize that it is precisely America’s secular state and prohibition of an established church that has allowed American Christianity to be such a dynamic, grassroots-powered religion instead of the empty formality it often is in European countries. Even if conforming to secular culture seems disadvantageous or constraining in the short term, treating it as an enemy is amazingly shortsighted. Evangelicals should be American secularism’s biggest supporters!

Similarly with evolution: Christians have always absorbed the best of worldly knowledge and literature. If Christians in the past have found it acceptable to learn about the carousing of pagan gods through studying the classical literature, surely learning about the theory of evolution can’t be a huge problem. Just as previous generations could study classical literature to learn grammar and rhetoric without thereby worshiping pagan gods, so too can contemporary evangelicals benefit from the practical medical knowledge that has resulted from evolutionary theory without denying their belief in God. And in fact I have never met an evangelical who would reject medical treatment from a doctor who believed in evolution — if modern biology, founded as it is on evolutionary theory, can be relied on in a life or death situation, objecting to its use in the low-stakes environment of the classroom seems misguided.

More immediately, though, if conservative evangelicals are not willing to abandon their siege mentality, I would urge them to at least adopt the practices that the New Testament authors recommended to persecuted communities: live quietly, seek to be at peace with all, respect authority, work hard — in short, keep the moral high ground. The sober advice of the Apostles has stood the test of time and will endure long after whatever radical preacher is in the ascendant now is forgotten.

If conservative evangelical parents and pastors focused on encouraging their children to simply get as much as they can out of their education and had the courage to speak up against leaders whose extreme views only bring their community into disrepute, no one would have the occasion to ask if conservative evangelicals are discriminated against and no one would need to develop strategies to cope with the unique pedagogical challenges they represent — instead, they’d be among the most sought-after students. Professors can and should do more to work toward that future, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the conservative evangelical community itself.


Adam Kotsko is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College.


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