Last month, Denny Burk, a Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky., tweeted a thread that caused an uproar in my particular Twitter circle of Christian college alumni. The thread warns Christian parents about the dangers of sending their children to colleges that are, “theologically liberal, trending left, or only nominally Christian.” Most importantly, the thread closes with a note about how Boyce College isn’t on a wayward path but is up to the standards of Christian orthodoxy.
Some accused Burk of not wanting college students to learn “critical thinking skills.” Others told Burk that the joke’s on him: they went to a conservative Christian college, and now they’re atheists. There’s merit in both responses, but Burk’s tweet isn’t just an annoying expression of conservative Christianity; it’s a strategy that Christian colleges have used since their inception to establish themselves as true protectors of the faith.
Because the key marketing demographic for a Christian college is parents rather than students, the success of a Christian college hinges on the promise to protect a student’s inherited faith. What is at stake with Christian higher education here are claims to a safe reputation and a supposed orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is tricky for evangelical schools, however, because what counts as fundamental to conservative Christianity has, ironically, always been a subject of debate. The movements and makings of evangelicalism as we know it today are anything but uniform, and the history of Christian higher education shows the receipts of these power struggles over definitions and orthodoxy.
Christianity and higher education in the United States have a deeply interconnected history. Harvard, Yale, and many other prestigious and top-tier universities began as schools with explicitly religious agendas, teaching Christian religious and social values. But by the 1920s, an internal push for secularization won out, and conservative Christians found themselves at odds with these formerly Christian institutions. Rather than try to gain control of these apostate institutions, conservative Christians built their own network of schools to mirror and counter the intellectual power of liberal Christian and secular schools.
As this revolution in higher education was underway, conservative Christians doubled down on their insistence that liberalism had set Christianity off in the wrong direction. They responded by working out a theological reaction to solidify a pure Christianity. For example, Lyman Stewart, the founder of Union Oil and cofounder of the school that would later be Biola University, funded the publication and dissemination of a collection of essays called The Fundamentals. Outlining a series of basic and non-negotiable beliefs, The Fundamentals helped shape a generational movement of Christians. Many other influential Christians wrote their own lists of fundamentals, including notable figures like J. Frank Norris, William Bell Riley, and others.
The specific fundamentals one might find in these articulations of faith differ between their iterations. Usually, though, they express the belief in the inerrancy of scripture, the virgin birth, Christ’s atoning death, Jesus’ bodily resurrection, Christ’s divinity, and Jesus’s return, imminently and physically.
Of course, defining an absolute orthodoxy is sure to breed dissent and difference. Historian Adam Laat, in his book Fundamentalism U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, explains, “... fundamentalist theology was eclectic and stubbornly imprecise ... They didn’t agree on the specifics, but fundamentalists generally were in accord that there were a few fundamental beliefs that signified real religion.” Most importantly, however, the fundamentals (whatever they are) weren’t just a list of beliefs. They created an ideology that must be spread, lest liberalism would overtake Christianity.
These idiosyncratic fundamentals were the grounding for the first fundamentalist Christian colleges in the United States. Despite the disagreements that would arise between institutions, fundamentalist parents would send their children to these institutions to safeguard their souls without sacrificing a modern education. And wrapped up in these theological comforts was the assurance that these schools would fight to preserve the white supremacist social life that sustained their constituencies. Laats’ historical research, for instance, highlights the way fundamentalist Christianity incorporated “southern pride” into the oppositional spirit that squared fundamentalism off against liberalism.
Because the rhetoric of fundamentalist Christianity takes up an offensive position against secular culture, many of the leaders of the early fundamentalist schools were bombastic speakers who would often stump on behalf of their organizations. Perhaps the most ostentatious among them was Bob Jones Sr. In an often repeated speech, Jones relates a story of a poor family who went to great lengths to send their daughter to college, only to have her faith destroyed. She ultimately takes her own life. Jones puts it all in far more vulgar terms, but the point is clear: liberal education that pushes un-Christian ideas, like evolution, would destroy the lives of Christians and lead to overall moral decay.
In a different case, the Baptist evangelist T.T. Martin, an active figure in the anti-evolution movement of the 1920s, sought to rein in a Baptist-affiliated, but not fundamentalist college, Wake Forest College in North Carolina. Martin charged the president, William Louis Poteat, with supporting a corrupt and liberal Christianity. Poteat didn’t back down. While Martin’s criticism didn’t destroy Wake Forest (the university still exists today) it did tarnish its reputation for fundamentalist Christians.
There’s a century between these examples and Denny Burk’s twitter thread, but the same pattern and rhetoric are there. Conservative Christianity, whether fundamentalist or evangelical, is set up as an orthodoxy against encroaching impurities and decay. Amid all the diversity of basic beliefs or theological opinions, this rhetorical structure provides a way for conservative Christian institutions to formulate their own identities. While the fundamentalists of the 1920s had a hard time agreeing on a definitive set of fundamentals, they were able to agree on an even simpler identity, one that is not based on a group of affirmative beliefs but is distinctly against liberalism.
The conservatism of Christian higher education is essential for its identification as an arbiter of a true faith against liberalism or “trending leftward.” A safe and biblical Christian college might be a useful marketing tool for Christian parents, but it’s a bad pedagogical policy for students. In Arthur F. Holme’s The Idea of a Christian College, he puts this “against” approach to Christian higher education to rest rather quickly. An overprotective and parental institution can “stifle faith, hope, and love and trigger opposite excesses of thought and conduct.” Christian colleges are places, for better or worse, where young people of faith come to be formed, but this formation cannot be against the world, but instead it ought to be a critical interaction with the world.