It has been widely hypothesized that the type of identity politics nurtured on elite secular campuses helped produce the backlash that swept Donald Trump into office as president. “Fox News and other conservative media outlets,” wrote Mark Lilla in The New York Times, “make great sport of mocking ‘campus craziness’ that surrounds such [identity] issues … [but] this only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus.”
Also writing in the Times, Nicholas Kristof warned that campuses today are in danger of doubling down on liberal groupthink: “I fear that liberal outrage at Trump’s presidency will exacerbate the problem of liberal echo chambers, by creating a more hostile environment for conservatives and evangelicals. Already, the lack of ideological diversity on campuses is a disservice to the students … with liberalism on some campuses collapsing into self-parody.”
Yet challenging circumstances create remarkable opportunities and surprising protagonists. That is the case for America’s Christian colleges and universities after the 2016 elections. They are now well positioned to save not only liberalism from self-parody but also conservatism from the maw of populist demagoguery. “Christian colleges and universities may be the best educational institutions today for fostering real political diversity,” according to the Baylor historian Thomas Kidd -- a view that rings true in my own experience, having spent time at both secular and Christian schools.
Unfortunately, this diversity was not heard from during the election, in part due to excessive focus on Liberty University in Virginia when its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., endorsed Trump. The Washington Post even described Liberty as “the epicenter of evangelical education in the United States.” But nothing could be farther from the truth, and Liberty’s own students -- who lean heavily rightward compared to those at other colleges -- protested their president’s actions.
To get a fuller picture of the Christian academic landscape, one would need to visit institutions such as Bethel University in Minnesota, Calvin College in Michigan, Dordt College in Iowa or East Texas Baptist University, among hundreds of others. They “represent a slice of America that most secular liberals don’t know anything about,” according Molly Worthen, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of a much-discussed book on evangelical higher education.
As institutions that host many first-generation college students and are also replete with Ph.D.s from major universities, Christian colleges can provide a bridge between elite opinion and “red-state” America. How might they rise to the occasion?
First, they must practice what they preach. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In an age when conservative intellectuals often find themselves “disinvited” to speak on prominent campuses, Christian colleges should make certain that they invite articulate and diverse voices, including liberals and secularists, to their own campuses. When I oversaw a center at my former (evangelical) institution, Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., our lecture series included the well-known atheist Bart Ehrman as well as Cornel West, John Kerry and Susannah Heschel -- hardly icons of the right. We also regularly hosted Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim speakers. Charity begins by hearing what another is actually saying, not encountering it secondhand in caricature.
Second, Christian colleges can contribute to the common good by continuing to teach and even expand curricular offerings in the conservative intellectual tradition, perhaps one of the biggest causalities of the recent anti-intellectual insurgence. Authors whom one would find neither by Trump’s bedside nor trumpeted in the curricula of most elite colleges deserve a robust hearing: Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, C. S. Lewis, Adam Smith and Richard Weaver, among others. Liberals should welcome thoughtful young conservatives lest their own identity become deformed in obsessions against Trump. Beware, Nietzsche once warned, for you can easily become the monsters you seek to slay.
Third, in what some have dubbed our “postsecular age,” Christian colleges should point the way by teaching, through empathy and analysis, how religion functions as a dynamic and complex phenomenon in human affairs. At elite colleges and universities, too often religion is viewed strictly through the lenses of race, gender and class -- or else through some of the grand explanatory schemes of the academy, including that of Karl Marx (religion as ideological superstructure), Sigmund Freud (religion as coping mechanism or neurosis) and Michel Foucault (religion as a mask for power). Some of these schemes have yielded valuable insights, to be sure. Nonetheless, as Brad S. Gregory, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, has argued, they often come with the presumption “that religion is not something that can be or ought to be understood in its own terms.” As such, explaining subtly and sometimes readily yields to a more reductionist explaining away, denying students insights wrought by the messier, more difficult process of empathetic engagement.
Finally, permit me to offer a modest proposal -- one that would require no small dose of philanthropic support and administrative imagination. Christian colleges and elite secular institutions should seek out one another to promote student exchanges, either for a short visit or a semester of study, similar to one suggested by David J. Smith in a previous article in Inside Higher Ed. A Bay Area student at the University of California, Berkeley, would have much to learn from spending time with peers at, say, Goshen College, a Mennonite school in northern Indiana. A top-notch conservative Lutheran student at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., would greatly benefit from a stint at Williams College in Massachusetts. Stereotypes might well erode, exposing leftist, rightist, secular and religious groupthink in the process.
To be sure, Christian colleges have their own problems. With all educational institutions, they bear some of the blame for a society capable of such an uninspiring election that sent a ruthless vulgarian to the White House. For years, they, too, have followed trends of raising tuition costs even while relying on cheap adjunct faculty labor. And many have far to go on racial and ethnic diversity.
Still, coastal, educated elites should pay greater heed to these institutions, a remarkable legacy of America’s First Amendment and voluntary institution building. Hundreds of such colleges populate the “flyover” states -- and the coastal states, too -- and they come in numerous denominational varieties. Their faculties, I would hazard, could hold their own in tongue-lashing Trumpian nationalism with is racist undertones, while also pinpointing the liberal blind spots that led so many people to underestimate Trump’s appeal.
In our current moment, then, these colleges might well validate, if nothing else, the maxim that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. But what begins in necessity or convenience often ends on higher, and sometimes even common, ground.
Thomas Albert Howard holds the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics and is professor of humanities and history at Valparaiso University. His most recent books are Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry Into the Meanings of Protestantism (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Protestantism After 500 Years (edited with Mark A. Noll and published by Oxford).
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