Tag: Huffington Post

Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges: Responding to the Conn Articles

Coens
This is not the Conns.

This week a pair of opinion pieces concerning Christian Higher Education burst onto my social media feeds. Since I had been on the road, the second one caught my eye first. Steven Conn, professor of history at Ohio State, wrote a piece in the Huffington Post titled “Is ‘Christian College’ an Oxymoron?“.  While trying to get my head around his very incomplete argument, I started seeing responses to a Conn article that had appeared in the Chronicle the beginning of the week. This one, titled “The Great Accreditation Farce“, was written by Peter Conn, professor of english and education at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m not sure how Steve and Peter are connected but I did find at least one piece that they co-wrote, so I’m assuming that they are brothers. (This is not a picture of them but every time I think of the idea of Conn brothers, these guys come to mind.)

I’ll try to summarize their arguments (using first names for brevity). Steven’s argument is that a school with an a priori faith commitment, especially one with a formal faith statement faculty must adhere to, is incompatible with academic freedom. Using examples of Bryan College (which he initially placed in Dayton, OH instead of Dayton, TN), Cedarville University, and Wheaton College (IL), he explores actions taken by administrators that have caused faculty members to leave (or been fired). He suggests that taxpayers might be unaware that “we subsidize religion through our system of support for higher education”. His complaints about Bryan come primarily from New York Times stories on the Bryan controversies and Cedarville’s from an 18 year old story from Harpers. He rightly looks at the religious history of American universities and says that their religious groundings shifted at places like Cornell and Harvard late in the 19th century. He goes on:

And for good reason. Higher education is dedicated to untrammeled inquiry rather than faithful submission. It starts with questions and explores them to their limits, not with answers that are then back-filled. It cultivates skepticism rather than insisting on credulity. Christian colleges pursue the opposite agenda. Questions already have answers …

Peter’s argument begins with a standard recitation of concerns about regional accreditation: too much focus on inputs, not enough attention to quality concerns, too tradition bound. He suggests that the primary motivation for schools to be accredited is for their students to gain access to Title IV funds (Pell Grants, Work Study, and Subsidized Loans). He cites two reports from the past decade that suggest accreditation needs attention. He also mentions his experience in overseeing a self-study and serving on an evaluation team at another school. Then he turns to his real agenda. Christian colleges should not be accredited because “they erect religious tests for truth”. He cites a faculty member at Bryan (from the New York Times) and critiques Wheaton for having its faculty sign faith statements. He says:

Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.

There have been some wonderful responses written in the last few days. Baylor Humanities professor Alan Jacobs and Wheaton Provost Stanton Jones provided excellent rebuttals. Jacobs focuses on the actual dynamics of accreditation (as opposed to those suggested by Peter). Jones writes eloquently about the moral foundations of all scholarly inquiry.

My responses to the Conns is based on my unique career path. I have been in Christian Higher Ed for 33 years, serving as faculty member and as senior academic administrator. I’ve been in five different Christian institutions and know quite a bit about a score of others. I have served as an evaluator in two of the six accreditation regions and been trained for the Higher Learning Commission. I’ve written a self-study, dealt with academic freedom questions from my faculty colleagues, and teach sociology in Christian institutions (which needs academic freedom protections from time to time!).

I’ll respond to Peter’s claims first. From everything I learned in my years working with accreditors (I’ve done three full-scale visits, four follow-up visits, and served on a program review panel) the central theme has always been about the primacy of institutional mission. What does it mean for Wheaton College to pursue its unique role? That must be clearly defined and give direction to all other aspects of the life of the College. Academic Freedom is seen within the context of mission. The same is true at the University of Pennsylvania. For the record, the last ten years has seen the regional accreditors moving rapidly to student outcome measures, increased focus on issues of alignment, and the significant role of faculty governance as part of protecting that alignment of mission, program, and policy. Boards of Trustees must be independent bodies that, while perhaps representing a sponsoring denomination, cannot be answering to the denomination. The schools are expected to be independent and protecting the educational mission at it impacts students. (That’s another distinction one could explore: academic freedom should find its expression in student learning and not simply in faculty statements.) I would wager that our impact on students at Christian institutions, especially on controversial issues, is greater that than of the University of Pennsylvania.

Steven’s argument about academic freedom is hard to fathom. He focuses on two somewhat rogue institutions (even by Christian college standards). I’ve written before about both Bryan and Cedarville. In both cases (as with Shorter), the situation was one where the administration violated principles of shared governance and forced changes upon existing faculty. They did have their academic freedom limited by dominant positions on Adam and Eve or the role of women in ministry.

But this was not inherent in all Christian Colleges. it  was the result of failure of alignment of mission and educational process in two specific institutions. Here’s a recent piece on on a Calvin College faculty member’s academic freedom regarding the study of human origins. The schools I’ve served carefully wrestle with the need for considering alternative viewpoint in ways that are accessible by students. It’s true that one needs to be more nuanced about how to present those viewpoints and that a capable academic administrator (I pray I was one) is able to deflect external attacks by pointing back to the centrality of institutional mission.

As I’ve written, our commitment as Christian institutions and as Christian scholars is not to some rigid dogma that constrains our free thinking. It is a belief that we are doing important work in preparing our students to live in the Kingdom of God. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit and the hard work of community, we model what real inquiry looks like. I would love for Steven (who thinks he couldn’t be invited to Cedarville) to spend a few days with the faculty at Spring Arbor. He’d learn quite a bit.

One more thing: My friend George Yancey has written on anti-religious bias in the academy. While he and I disagree on the extent of that, these articles seem to demonstrate his point. I cannot imagine either the Chronicle of Higher Education or the Huffington Post publishing a takedown of research universities as sloppily argued as the pieces by the Conns. We’d have a much higher standard to meet in terms of structure of argument and evidentiary support. The bias comes out in how easy it is for critics to cherry-pick egregious cases.

This is why the rest of us have got to find a way of changing the media narrative about Christian Higher Education.

 

 

Conservative Protestants, Divorce, and Culture: Durkheim would be proud

Red State MarriageSociologists made the news this week. Mostly we just do our research and our teaching, wondering if anybody notices. Then word comes out that a study will appear in this month’s American Journal of Sociology that raises questions about the connections between religious affiliation and divorce. The article, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates” by Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak, examines patterns in county divorce rates as they were correlated with other factors.

Religion news outlets got on the story. The Religion News Service story by Sarah Pulliam Bailey did a very good job. The Huffington Post summarized the story, while seeming to gloat a little on red-state problems or support of abstinence programs. One of the clearest summaries is in a press release from the Council on Contemporary Families (operated by Stephanie Coontz, one of the best marriage experts in the country).

There was some spirited dialogue about the study on Facebook and Twitter and I shared what I could. But I realized that it was hard to evaluate the argument without seeing the actual article, which isn’t out yet. But the intrepid Director of the White Library at Spring Arbor, Robbie Bolton, found me a copy of a conference paper Glass and Levchak had done three years ago that looks to be a similar argument and is likely the initial version of what became the AJS paper.

It’s a very interesting paper (if you like ordinary least squares regression). It does a very nice review of the literature, looking at the dynamics impacting divorce decisions, conservative protestantism, early marriage, attitudes toward cohabitation, and so on.

Curiously, it seems that much of the push-back on the internet comes from observations in the lit review. At least one article states, “as the authors wrote in the paper“, which while technically true isn’t the point of their analysis. They site what Mark Regnerus calls the “evangelical anomaly”, in which conservative attitudes against premarital sex don’t impact sexual behavior, resulting in higher than average rates of both teen pregnancy and early marriage. They summarize research that posits a Southern Culture. They discuss the relationships between educational level, economic structure, and divorce. All of these are in their paper but the real focus in on how county patterns co-vary.

This is important sociologically — we must pay attention to units of analysis. You can’t use county level data to explain individual divorces or attitudes of local conservative protestant congregations. Anyone who has done either is using the study in ways that aren’t appropriate.

What Glass and Levchak are doing has a sociological history running back to Durkheim. In his classic study Suicide (1897), he examined how suicide rates vary by region in ways that co-varied with characteristics within the region (protestant vs catholic provinces in the classic example). Obviously, individual suicides don’t vary in the same way (he was quite dismissive of theories of abnormality to explain collective behavior). He suggested that what happens is that there is a general “social current” within a culture that intersects with individuals considering suicide. The result is a tremendous stability in suicide rates over time (not for individuals, of course, they don’t have an “over time”!).

It’s in this context that the Red State-Divorce connection should be read. Their results suggest that counties with higher percentages of the population affiliated with conservative protestant churches contrasted with mainline churches have higher rates of divorce than those counties with lower percentages of the same. (When unaffiliated percentages are compared to mainline, the impact on divorce is three times as high). They then control for standard variables like race, social class, and age of first marriage to see if the initial relationship was an artifact of something else. It persists throughout the analysis.

They had already demonstrated in the literature review that attendance in an evangelical church appears to operate as inoculation against divorce. This maybe be due to the social supports provided by the congregation and/or the social opprobrium against divorce. So they aren’t really arguing that conservative protestants are contributing to divorce. Their argument is more subtle than that.

The data seems to suggest that increased rates of divorce in the counties with higher percentages in conservative churches is due to the behaviors of the non-attending crowd. Theoretically, this would suggest that the churches were helping to shape the norms and values of the local culture (as they might have hoped). However, for those without social supports, the result of premarital sex and cohabitation is to push people into early marriage and early childbirth and avoiding higher education. This, in turn, contributes to one parent working at lower wage jobs. That, finally, contributes to marital dissolution.

Durkheim would love this on both counts — the congregation provides value reinforcement and the social currents impact individual behaviors, regardless of religious preference. The result of these social patterns is a divorce rate that is consistently different from those counties that have a lower percentage of adherents to evangelical religious groups.

But therein is a cautionary tale for the evangelical church. For all our desire to impact the broader culture so that Biblical values are represented, there is a probability that those attitudes will impact that culture in unanticipated ways. They may provide rationales for beliefs or behaviors that actually run counter to what we were trying to promote. As the values espoused become a part of the social currents, they impact behavior but with little theological content whatsoever. Perversely, the religious values get subsumed into the general civil religion of the society (Durkheim saw that one coming as well).

There’s also a cautionary tale for Christian universities here. While on the one hand, we’ve (thankfully) moved well beyond the old jokes about getting one’s MRS degree, the culture of a Christian university celebrates relationship. We teach courses in marriage and family, in relationship building, and have lots of social activities to bring people together. Of course the 60-40 gender split means that a significant number of individuals won’t be in relationship. For those that are, the lessons about abstinence are taken to heart but run up against lots of close interaction, plenty of free time, and freedom from supervision. It’s been a long-term fear of mine that we encourage young people to pair up and plan weddings long before they are ready. Better to marry than burn. Better to stay together than explain to everybody what went wrong. As emerging adults continue to delay marriage in general, our lessons on premarital sex may have more troubling consequences down the road.

We need to be aware of how our values are experienced by individuals. When we don’t provide the social support involving honest communication, we can become complicit in broader trends without intending to. In Moral Education (published in 1922 after his death), Durkheim suggested that morality involved discipline, attachment, and autonomy. The first keeps ego in check. The second connects us to the group. The third allows us to make moral choices.

While Glass and Levchak can’t get at these factors from their county-level demographic data, it’s good to keep in mind. All three factors are necessary to shape both individual and collective behavior.

Two Modes of Evangelicalism: Industry Evangelicalism

This is a follow-up piece on last week’s post that connected Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions to the changing nature of American Evangelicalism. It also builds off of the post I wrote for the Respectful Conversations dialogue on the future of evangelicalism. Finally, it’s informed by my reading of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason on the early years of evangelical establishment.

To be fair, this is still a work in progress (isn’t that what blogs are for?). I’m trying to wrestle with some distinctions that can align with some of what we’re seeing in a number of areas in both the sociology of religion and contemporary evangelicalism. I want to contrast two forms of evangelical expression: Industry Evangelicalism and Testimonial Evangelicalism.

WeberFrom a purely sociological perspective, I’m using what Max Weber called “ideal types”. These are ideal only in the sense that they don’t exist in real life. In fact, the differentiation between the forms may exaggerate characteristics in ways that border on caricature. But that’s still useful from a theoretical standpoint. Weber was able to contrast real-world situations with his ideal types to understand the social dynamics in operation. Two of his most famous analyses based on idea types are his examination of economic systems (the Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and his church-sect typology.

As I’m conceptualizing it, Industry Evangelicalism is concerned with maintaining a following. This requires a media platform, organizational structure, and easily identifiable leadership (with an equally identifiable set of followers and defenders). Its power is dependent upon separation from other organizations, a sense of being persecuted and misunderstood, and a publishing or broadcasting infrastructure.

On the other hand, Testimonial Evangelicalism is based on the authentic sharing of story. It is based on interpersonal relationships. Any power that is involved is the social psychological power of personal story. The story is authentic because it rings true. It avoids pat answers and mischaracterization. It is willing to risk holding contradictory positions and tolerating ambiguity. In short, it is best expressed in John 9:25: when asked how Jesus had healed him, the blind man said “I don’t know: what I do know is that once I was blind and now I see.

What I am suggesting is that we’re seeing a shift from Industry Evangelicalism to Testimonial Evangelicalism. This is an important distinction. What many see as a decline in Christian commitment within society is not a decline but is a transformation. This is always the way God’s church has remained fresh and vital in the midst of a society prone to the syncretism of combining religious perspectives and affirmation of distinctive cultural values.

I’ll unpack the theoretical implications of Testimonial Evangelicalism in my next post. First, it’s necessary to explore Industry Evangelicalism.

In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell argued that one of the contributing factors for the growth of religious “nones” is the dogmatism and harsh stances of evangelical leaders. Younger generations found public comments and harsh tones to be a bridge too far, essentially saying “if this is what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.” This pattern is replicated in work on millennial questions about evangelicalism. I’d also suggest that the gulf between evangelical churches and mainline churches is as much this matter of tone and dogmatism as it is about theology.

There are a host of examples of Industry Evangelicalism. I’ll ignore the Duck Dynasty controversy here because I’ve already addressed it except to wonder who put out those Facebook pages about “standing with Phil Robertson“. Were these put up by some individual DD viewer? Probably not. It is far more likely that organizations that search for religious conflict put together these Facebook pages and asked Christians to “like” them. If I were really cynical, I’d think that “liking” got you on some mailing list. I’m sure that happens in the political arena and fear that the same models are being used in Industry Evangelicalism.

This week offered some concrete examples of the ideal type. I don’t have all the details behind these examples, which is where Weber’s approach is useful. They offer some indicators even if they aren’t perfect matches to the ideal type.

A group of Baptist college and seminary presidents raised concerns over the role of biblical inerrancy espoused (or not espoused) by their faculty. In the process, they raised concerns about academic freedom as generally understood within the academy. Peter Enns, reflecting on the article today, suggests “There is no hope here of reasoned, learned, discourse. Only circling the wagon and protecting turf.” Circling wagons and protecting the institutional turf reflects the prioritization of “our position” above all else.

Christianity Today had an interesting article this week on changing ties between Christian colleges and their sponsoring denominations. It’s a good piece and reflects the tensions present between attempting to build an inclusive enrollment (the article connects to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity) while the alumni and trustees are denominationally connected. The article observes that denominational giving is down compared to years past. While Union University president David Dockery does a good job of connecting these changes to non-denominationalism, he’s quoted at the end of the article expressing concern that loss of denominational structure “will likely lead to a weakening of the college’s Christian identity.” There is a presumption that it is organizational form and control that protects identity and that a college’s ethos (and the commitment of its faculty) is not strong enough to maintain identity. The impression this gives, while softer than the Baptist presidents above, still privileges institutional form above exploration and authentic dialogue.

Also this week Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and seen on thousands of television screens each week, released advanced information from his new book in which he says that President Obama is setting the stage for the Antichrist. It may be progress that he doesn’t think the president IS the antichrist but it still reflects a conflictual style that takes a legitimate disagreement (same-sex marriage) and puts it in the starkest possible context. It will sell books for sure. More importantly, to be called out in the Huffington Post is exactly what Industry Evangelicalism needs for success. The HP folks will ridicule the position taken by Pastor Jefress and he (and his folks) will take great solace in being disliked and misunderstood by HP. It’s good for the “brand”. (The similarity between this strategy and political structures is particularly disconcerting).

Yesterday Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle (and subject of lots of questions about the originality of his books) tweeted “If you aren’t a Christian, you’re going to hell. It’s not unkind to say that. It’s unkind not to say that.” I’m not really trying to explore the theology of universalism. I was really trying to figure out what prompted the tweet in the first place. Driscoll’s followers wouldn’t be surprised at the tweet. His detractors would be outraged. Was he hoping for push back on what he saw as unquestionably Christian orthodoxy? Or, as my friend Ryan Thomas Neace wondered, is it about the need to present a simply constructed worldview where answers are easy and uncomplicated?  Again, I’d argue that the tweet operates to keep the organizational position consistent in the face of complexity.

A consistent theme in Apostles of Reason is the development of evangelical infrastructures against supposed critics and pitfalls from outside. While there are major stories of accommodation to cultural changes (I just finished the chapter about Christian colleges pursing secular accreditation), those are always seen as pragmatic moves that must be watched closely to protect the institution from outside interference.

In short, then, I’d offer three keys to knowing if we’re dealing with Industry Evangelicalism: 1) is maintaining the status quo necessary to protect institutional power; 2) is there money to be made or followers to be developed through the immediate controversy; and 3) do the players hyperbolize their position and exaggerate their victimhood?

As I’ll argue in my next post, Testimonial Evangelicalism offers an entirely different set of characteristics that are more reflective of life in a complex, postmodern, messy, diverse culture. It’s not less Christian. It’s a different expression of the Truth of the Gospel.