Daniel Williams

The Five Emerging Factions in Evangelical Higher Education

Two plenary keynotes at the CFH (one from Kristin Du Mez and the other from Jemar Tisby) encouraged Christian historians to embrace activism on behalf of justice, but I suspect that competing evangelical interpretations of what constitutes justice will lead some Christian academics to embrace some causes that are directly opposed to those that other Christian academics embrace.  This is not the first time, of course, that American Protestantism – or American Protestant higher education – has experienced a fissure on an issue of theology, social justice, or politics.  

This question was on my mind in the days leading up to the 2022 Conference on Faith and History that met at Baylor University last week, and now that I have returned from the conference, the question continues to concern me.  Two plenary keynotes at the CFH (one from Kristin Du Mez and the other from Jemar Tisby) encouraged Christian historians to embrace activism on behalf of justice, but I suspect that competing evangelical interpretations of what constitutes justice will lead some Christian academics to embrace some causes that are directly opposed to those that other Christian academics embrace.  This is not the first time, of course, that American Protestantism – or American Protestant higher education – has experienced a fissure on an issue of theology, social justice, or politics.  But this time, when evangelical higher education fragments over issues of social justice, I expect that there will not be merely two separate factions, as there were in the modernist-fundamentalist debates of the 1920s.  Instead, there will be at least five.

Faction 1: Conservative Culture Warriors
The most politically conservative evangelical faction to emerge from this split will be the culture warriors.  Staunchly opposed to critical race theory, feminism, and so-called “socialism,” culture warrior colleges and universities (and faculty that identify with this view) see their Christian mission primarily in terms of training a new generation of Christians to resist cultural liberalism through a Christian faith that is inextricably connected with conservative political principles.  Some of these institutions, such as Liberty University and Patrick Henry College, have developed close relationships with the Republican Party or conservative elected officials in recent years.  Others, such as New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, may not be election campaign stops for conservative Republican presidential contenders but are just as politically conservative and are closely connected with a Christian homeschooling movement that attempts to reject cultural liberalism in all its forms.

Culture warrior institutions are a leading segment of Christian higher education today.  Liberty University enrolled 15,000 residential students and 80,000 online students in 2020.  (By comparison, Wheaton College enrolls slightly less than 3,000 students; Calvin University has about 3,300 students; Azusa Pacific enrolls just over 10,000; and Baylor has an enrollment of slightly more than 20,000.  Messiah University, the academic home of the current CFH president, has 2,338 students).  Liberty University’s history department has two chairs – one for its residential program and the other for its online classes – and it offers a Ph.D. program.  But at the CFH, the nation’s leading culture warrior institutions are barely represented at all.  This year’s conference did not include any papers from faculty or students at Bob Jones University, Regent University (the university in Virginia Beach that Pat Robertson founded – and that hosted the 2016 CFH), or Patrick Henry College.  There were two panelists from Liberty University, but neither one was a member of that university’s history faculty.  So, if one looks only at the CFH, one might not know that culture warrior institutions are attracting tens of thousands of new evangelical undergraduate students every year.

Not every faculty member at these institutions fully embraces the Christian nationalist ideology of their school, but those who do necessarily become activists – but activists for a cause that is diametrically opposed to the social justice mission that Kristin Du Mez and Jemar Tisby encouraged historians to embrace.  The chair of Liberty University’s residential history program teaches a graduate course, for instance, on “American Christian Heritage.”  He is a member of the university’s Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty University.  Other members of the department teach courses such as the upper-level undergraduate course “Reagan’s America.”  In addition to classes such as “Reagan’s America” and “American Christian Heritage,” Liberty University’s online catalog offers classes on Jacksonian America, “The World of Jonathan Edwards,” “History of American Entrepreneurship,” and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, but not a single class on the civil rights movement, African American history, the history of American women, or any aspect of gender studies.  Instead of activism on behalf of minority groups, this Christian nationalist version of Christian higher education features an activism for a particular brand of conservatism – the conservatism that holds the American military and free enterprise in high regard and that celebrates the only two American presidents whose names headline a Liberty University history course: Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan.

Few other scholars, even at the most conservative Christian institutions, take this sort of Trumpist conservative partisanship seriously – which is why institutions in this category that once had some sort of connection to the CFH and the rest of the Christian scholarly world have become increasingly alienated in a faction of their own.  They might have a substantial part of the evangelical market share, but they’re no longer in conversation with the rest of Christian academia, which increasingly views them as engaged in a wholly different enterprise from their own educational mission.
Faction 2: Color-Blind (but anti-nationalist) Conservatives
The second most-conservative faction to emerge from the split will be color-blind conservatives who eschew Christian nationalism.  Like the culture warriors, institutions and individual academics who fall into this category are deeply concerned about the perceived moral decline of the United States, and they are also generally politically conservative and committed to free-market principles, but they don’t want to make their institutions adjuncts of the Republican Party.  Evangelical institutions that fall into this category are strongly committed to biblical inerrancy and gender complementarianism, and they are critical of critical race theory.  Among conservative intellectuals in the never-Trump crowd, faction 2 is attractive; it allows one to remain committed to all of the traditional principles of political conservatism while remaining critical of the Trump phenomenon, which has hardly any support among humanities faculty in colleges and universities, whether Christian or not.  But as conservative as faction 2 evangelicals might seem to outsiders, they sometimes face a difficult time navigating the politics of their highly conservative denominations and evangelical culture in general because of their unwillingness to support Donald Trump.

Despite issuing an official statement opposing CRT, Grove City College became the subject of a months-long uproar after the college allowed Jemar Tisby and Bryan Stevenson (founder of the Equal Justice Initiative) to speak on campus but then found itself caught in a bind between the criticism from parents who worried that the college was embracing CRT and faculty and students who identified as conservative but didn’t want the college to compromise academic freedom.  This week’s college conference on “The Limits of Government,” sponsored by the Institute for Faith and Freedom, presumably represents the type of activism that is more in line with Grove City College’s core constituency.  Instead of Jemar Tisby, the conference will feature Lenny McAllister, an African American Republican who is described on the conference announcement as a “civil rights advocate” who is promoting “equality” through “free market solutions” and “adherence to the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.”

Evangelicals who fall into faction 2 profess a genuine concern for racial justice, but they define it in individualistic terms and often deny the existence of structural racism – especially when it challenges the principles of the free market, which they believe offers the greatest hope for long-term poverty relief.  In doing this, they genuinely believe that they are upholding important principles of fairness; critical race theory, they think, is racist and therefore antithetical to Christian values.  While often criticizing Donald Trump and the evangelicals who support him, they are usually unwilling to vote for pro-choice Democrats, because they view the sexual revolution and abortion as the most urgent moral problems of our time.  So, for them, activism is much more likely to mean participating in a march against abortion or speaking out in defense of religious freedom when they feel that it is threatened by legislative initiatives such as the Equality Act than advocating for racial justice.

The historical scholarship of academics who endorse the beliefs of faction 2 is likely to be shaped by a conservative interpretation of American history that sees the decline of sexual morality or traditional religious practice (rather than debates over equality) as the most important trendline of the last few decades.  Carl Trueman’s (Westminster Theological Seminary) The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution, is a wonderful example of the type of scholarship that one can find from historians in this camp.  It’s certainly activist in the sense that it is attempting to diagnose and correct the perceived problems of the sexual revolution rather than present a dispassionate narrative in the mode of Leopold von Ranke.  And it’s unapologetically Christian and deeply theological.  But it’s not the sort of activism that Jemar Tisby highlighted.
So, evangelical academics who fall into faction 2 are caught in a bind.  They’re often critical of Christian nationalism in general (and may even view it as dangerously heretical idolatry), which separates them from evangelicals in faction 1.  Indeed, some evangelical historians teaching at faction 2 institutions have written thoughtful critiques of Christian nationalism, as CFHer John Wilsey (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) did in two separate books on civil religion and the idea of a Christian America.  But at the same time, their strong opposition to the sexual revolution and their general belief in limited government and the free market makes them wary of joining evangelicals to their left who believe that Christian politics should center on opposition to structural racism and gender inequities.  In the view of many members of their own highly conservative denominations who voted for Trump, these faction 2 academics may already be too progressive, but from the standpoint of most other Christian academics, their refusal to embrace anti-racist activism that is defined structurally rather than individually makes them far too conservative.  Outside of a small group of faction 1 and faction 2 institutions, the assumptions about race among faction 2 academics are diametrically opposed to the prevailing assumptions of the profession and of secular academia in general.  This will probably mean that faction 2 evangelical scholars will be increasingly intellectually marginalized in nearly all parts of academia, with the single exception of a small conservative academic subculture that only a few other historians are willing to engage with.

In the view of most of academia, faction 2 academics are on the wrong side of morality and history.  Despite their attempts to separate themselves from the pro-Trump evangelicals, they’re going to have a hard time convincing other academics in the age of DEI that their views are not politically dangerous and immoral.  I wish that were not the case, because I respect many scholars in faction 2 even if I don’t fully agree with them on every issue, but I think that my expectations that this faction will become increasingly marginalized and beleaguered are probably realistic.

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