m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.

O C T O B E R  2 0 0 0 

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part two, or part three.)

The Loyalty-Oath Problem

STANLEY Fish, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has recently concluded that there is no such thing as academic freedom. Fish is not against the idea that academics should protect their interests; all guilds, he points out, try to do that. It is the arguments used to defend the idea that set his teeth gnashing. "Academic freedom," he writes, "rather than being open to all points of view, is open to all points of view only so long as they offer themselves with the reserve and diffidence appropriate to Enlightenment decorums, only so long as they offer themselves for correction." Adherents of academic freedom claim to be liberals, Fish argues -- but confront them with an extreme idea, such as the idea that God exists and his truths are real, and liberals try to drive it out of their world. Liberalism is not neutral and above the fray but active, taking one side in a battle over what should or should not be taught in the university.

Fish's attack on what is generally thought of as academic freedom -- indeed, his general hostility toward liberalism -- plays well in the evangelical world. Too well. For whereas Fish has spent his entire career in institutions that permit a wide variety of points of view, most evangelical scholars have not. It is this proclivity toward illiberalism that best explains why so many evangelical institutions insist on statements of faith. Contrary to what some evangelicals will say in moments of anger, liberals are not always hostile to faith. But they do tend to be hostile to oaths. The revivalist tradition in conservative Protestantism was built on the willingness of people to stand up in public and proclaim their sins -- and the joy that followed when they let Jesus into their life. A requirement that students and faculty members sign a declaration is a legacy of that tradition -- one that is bound to make a modern liberal uncomfortable. The mere existence of any such statement, let alone insisting on its periodic affirmation, would be rightly considered hostile to academic freedom, no different from forcing a student like Deborah Weisman to attend compulsory prayer.

From the archives:

"Reverse Racism, or How the Pot Got to Call the Kettle Black," (November 1993)
In America "whites once set themselves apart from blacks and claimed privileges for themselves while denying them to others," the author writes. "Now, on the basis of race, blacks are claiming special status and reserving for themselves privileges they deny to others. Isn't one as bad as the other? The answer is no."

Evangelicals have a ready set of arguments in defense of their practice. "We in Christian higher education," Duane Litfin, Wheaton's president, wrote in 1998, "... believe that a healthy academic marketplace of ideas will view academic freedom as the right not only of individuals, but also of those institutions [made up] of voluntary groups or communities of individuals." Pluralism, in Litfin's view, requires the existence of diverse institutions committed to diverse objectives. If there is a threat to academic freedom, it comes from what he calls "dogmatic rationalism." Naturalism, the belief that everything that exists in the world has a natural origin and can be explained by laws of nature, "becomes dangerous when, like the dogmatists of old, it declares its way of knowing to be the only legitimate one and then seeks to disenfranchise other voices." Implicit in Litfin's argument is the idea that the best way to pursue knowledge and to form the character of students is, as Antonin Scalia emphasized in Lee v. Weisman, to work with traditions rather than against them.

These arguments contain some truth. There are political-science departments at elite universities that will not hire anyone unwilling to subscribe to rational-choice theory, just as analytically trained philosophers do not like to hire Continental philosophers and vice versa. To be sure, no formal statements of faith have to be signed, but there are all kinds of ways -- from the jargon applicants use to the journals in which they publish -- in which commitment to a particular orthodoxy can be established, and hiring committees will look with suspicion on any deviation from whatever happens to be prescribed. But such pluralism as does not exist within academic institutions can still be found among them. America's system of higher education includes women's colleges, historically African-American colleges, public and private schools, large and small schools, elite and non-elite, Catholic and Jewish; surely it ought to include Christian colleges, with their own distinctive identity.

Yet there are still reasons to shudder at the whole idea of statements of faith. When careers are at stake, it is hard to take seriously Litfin's insistence that signing Wheaton's declaration is a purely voluntary act. And once such a statement exists, so will the temptation to wield it punitively.

Another argument against credal statements grows out of the nature of evangelical Christianity itself. Last year the U.S. Catholic bishops approved Ex Corde Ecclesiae, requiring mandates from members of theology departments, so now Catholic colleges are having oath problems of their own. But unlike the Catholic Church, which is large enough to include many different theological perspectives as well as many different theologians, evangelical sects are small and tend to proliferate. When it comes to statements of faith, they therefore have two choices. One is to confine their requirements to membership in a particular denomination. Calvin College attempts this by asking its faculty members to belong to the Christian Reformed Church; they are all also expected to sign three confessional creeds of the Church: the Heidelberg Confession, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt. Because there are only just so many members of the Christian Reformed Church in America, however, it is unlikely that Calvin could ever fill all its faculty positions under these requirements. It therefore adds a clause allowing faculty members to belong to any church in ecclesiastical communion with the Christian Reformed Church.

Nondenominational institutions such as Fuller and Wheaton, in contrast, draw up statements of faith meant to be inclusive of all evangelicals. Assembled through negotiation and compromise, they are, in the language of today's academy, social constructions. This means that they can change over time; until the early 1990s Wheaton asked its faculty to endorse a commitment to a pre-millennial understanding of Jesus Christ's return to earth -- a doctrinal point on which it no longer insists. Such flexibility, though admirable in many ways, undermines the very rationale for the statements, which is that these institutions are guided by unwavering truths established by God.

No one can ever be sure, moreover, which denominations are rightfully part of the negotiations. The Christian Reformed Church's pietistic intellectualism never had much in common with the revivalism of Southern Baptists. Mennonites, Brethren, and Anabaptists were long looked on with suspicion by nativist fundamentalists, if for no other reason than their pacifism. Pentecostalism comes in both black and white versions; white Pentecostalists are more likely than black Pentecostalists to identify with evangelical movements.

Evangelical Christianity has porous boundaries, and thus signing a statement of faith regarding its tenets inherently presents problems. For if the meaning of "evangelicalism" can be expanded to include denominations that were once excluded, why, in the name of Christian scholarship, can it not be expanded to include Catholics? But this is a particularly sensitive question, because the term "evangelicalism," if it ever meant anything in American history, meant opposition to the Church of Rome. Evangelical institutions continued to wage the Protestant Reformation throughout the twentieth century -- and they represent the side that won. "Catholicism," Harold Lindsell, one of Fuller's founders, wrote in 1949, is among the "arch enemies of America and our way of life and of the true faith" -- a statement with which nearly all evangelical leaders of his era would have agreed. Many of the evangelical scholars I met at Fuller and Wheaton told me that their grandparents and parents were convinced that "Romanists" were the anti-Christ. Nevertheless, Notre Dame, the quintessential American Catholic university, has many evangelicals on its faculty, including its provost, whereas Wheaton has no Catholics. No Fish-inspired talk of liberalism's blind spots can excuse away an oath that excludes the largest single denomination of Christians in America.

Lingering anti-Catholicism harms the mission of evangelical institutions. For all its talk of God, fundamentalism left those institutions with a distaste for theology; if the Bible contains God's revealed truth, then who needs an academic department devoted to the mysteries and paradoxes of Christian doctrine? Consider the case of Pepperdine University, which is affiliated with the Churches of Christ. (It was Kenneth Starr's upbringing in this church, seemingly, that made him the ideal candidate for the deanship of Pepperdine Law School.) The Churches of Christ deny that they are a denomination founded by human beings, as if having a historical tradition would detract from a direct and personal relationship with God. As a result, they have no doctrine. "Churches of Christ claimed to have developed no theology except the message of the Bible, defined in the Bible's own terms," writes Richard Hughes, a member of the Churches of Christ who teaches at Pepperdine. What, then, does Pepperdine do, I asked, when it wants to teach its students theology? Hughes told me, "We borrow from the whole history of Christian theology, including Catholic theology." Unlike Wheaton, Pepperdine has a small but significant number of Catholic faculty members, including Douglas Kmiec, of the law school.

Even at Wheaton professors borrow from Catholicism to make up for the gaps in their own traditions. Wheaton's English department has a love affair with Catholic -- and Anglo-Catholic -- writers, including Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy. Wheaton boasts of having important papers of C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers. Without a literature that is in one way or another a product of Catholicism, Wheaton could not aspire to a life of the mind. A college that would not allow on its faculty authors whose letters are welcome in its archives has a problem it needs to resolve.

When I spoke to Joel Carpenter, who at the Pew Charitable Trusts funded so much of the new evangelical scholarship, about the prospects for the future, he pointed out that "the old tensions are still there; the same old grassroots controversies still keep coming back." He was referring to periodic struggles over Darwinism, but he might as well have been making a larger point. As long as they have alumni and boards of trustees that tend to romanticize the good old days, evangelical scholars will find it difficult to sever the connection to their fundamentalist roots. And as long as evangelical scholars insist on drawing up statements of faith that shut them off from genuine intellectual exchange, they will find it difficult to become the kind of intellectually exciting institutions they hope to be.

A Question of Self-Confidence

WHY are there in mainstream academia," George Marsden asks, "almost no identifiable Christian schools of thought to compare with various Marxist, feminist, gay, postmodern, African-American, conservative, or liberal schools of thought?" For Marsden, the answer lies in the imperial pretensions of the scientific revolution; the extension of its positivism into all corners of academia, he believes, is the triumph not of reason but of prejudice. Marsden, like many other evangelical scholars, thinks that the secular research university is determined to keep conservative Christians outside its gates.

I believe that Marsden is off base, for two reasons. First, evangelicals are trying to create a life of the mind at a time when secular America is questioning whether a life of the mind is worth having. Marsden's comment presupposes that the academic world, falsely committed to scientific objectivity in all its disciplines, will be hostile to anything it defines as unreason. Yet conservative Christians are entering the academy at a time when secular academics are experiencing their own crisis of faith. American academic culture, as riven by sectarian warfare as any religious movement, is no longer capable of insisting on one "hegemonic" truth to which all must adhere. When academic life is organized by subcultures, room can be made for any group, including conservative Christians.

The second reason to challenge Marsden's formulation is that many evangelicals prefer to stay out of mainstream universities. It is an article of faith among conservative-Christian academics that liberal Protestants (and most Catholics) have made the wrong decisions when it comes to religion and academic life. Marsden's influential book The Soul of the American University (1994) is, among other things, a passionate plea to Christians to save their schools from the fate of Duke or the University of Chicago. If the price of academic respectability is the modern research university and what Marsden calls its establishment of nonbelief, most evangelical scholars would rather not pay it.

It is because so many evangelicals heeded Marsden's warning that their scholarship, rather than storming the gates of elite academia, with its culture of peer review and demanding standards for tenure, has taken its place as its own subculture, complete with journals, conferences, and publishing houses. Even in their best work evangelical scholars cite one another far too often. Their conclusions win more applause among fellow believers than among the unconvinced.

So long as they continue to marginalize themselves, evangelicals will be unable to equal the accomplishments of the generation that brought us Marsden, Noll, Plantinga, and Wolterstorff. That would be the true scandal of the evangelical mind. In the course of my travels through evangelical higher learning, I visited three institutions with strong undergraduate programs: Wheaton, Baylor, and Pepperdine. If their undergraduates are any indication, young people brought up in evangelical homes are desperate to engage in serious intellectual inquiry. The students at Wheaton, for example, as one would expect from those who took Anthony Kennedy's side in Lee v. Weisman, are uncomfortable with the anti-Catholicism of their institution. (Interestingly, they also do not share their professors' fascination with postmodernism.) These students, make no mistake, are dedicated Christians; one of them was close to tears as she talked about the efforts of student government at Tufts University to defund a conservative-Christian organization because it excluded gays and lesbians from leadership positions. Unlike those Tufts students -- and, indeed, unlike Wheaton's own president -- she and other students like her are genuine pluralists; in their view, evangelicals ought to be able to stand the competition of coexisting with other faiths.

Evangelical faculty members could learn from their students. Had they a greater confidence in their own convictions, evangelical scholars would not retreat from the secular academy so much as demand that it use its authority wisely. To be true to the life of the mind, they would say, we ought to insist on reading the great books in our tradition seriously, interpreting them in ways faithful to their meaning, and being prepared to defend those interpretations -- as did Saint Augustine and Jonathan Edwards -- with all the powers of persuasion and logic at our command. There would no doubt be dangers along that road for evangelicals, because the whole project might strike them as too close to either Catholicism or high-church Protestantism for their taste.

But consider the rewards. Fundamentalist Christians did neither themselves nor America a favor by fencing themselves off from the rest of the country. Withdrawal encouraged fanaticism and paranoia in them and confirmed to others a sense that if this was religion, they were better off without it. Evangelical Christians who take ideas seriously can combat both tendencies. One need not agree with their view of the role that religion ought to play in the public square to consider it a credible, even necessary, view for Americans to ponder. And they bring to their advocacy an enthusiasm for ideas, and a commitment to debating them, that belies any stereotypes of sectarian fanaticism. To succeed in the university and therefore in America, evangelicals will have to put their defensiveness to one side. They will also have to learn to practice their faith as they see best while treating people of other faiths -- and, indeed, people of no faith -- with respect. The least they can be offered is respect in return.

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part two, or part three.)


Alan Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, at Boston College. His next book, Moral Freedom: The Impossible Idea That Defines the Way We Live Now, will be published in the spring.

Illustrations by Theo Rudnak.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; The Opening of the Evangelical Mind - 00.10 (Part Four); Volume 286, No. 4; page 55-76.