When I was an undergraduate at an evangelical college in the Pacific Northwest, I encountered a unique imperative, “Down with the Pinecone Curtain!” For my classmates who resonated with this battle cry, the towering evergreens on campus were a metaphor for the college’s cultural isolation. While the Pinecone Curtain wasn’t exactly the Berlin Wall, my classmates’ discontent was real nonetheless. They were dissatisfied with the school’s evangelical identity, if not with evangelicalism itself.
In my experience, evangelical schools are particularly deft at self-loathing. I say this as someone who has been in the academy for twenty years, as an undergraduate, graduate, and faculty member. In that time, I have learned or taught at an evangelical college, state university, and two Catholic universities (a Holy Cross institution and a Jesuit one). In two decades and four schoolsranging from conservative to liberal, private to public, pious to secularI have never encountered the sheer volume of self-loathing that I experienced as a student (and professor) at an evangelical college. While my experience is anecdotal, I doubt if it’s unique. Why do so many students at evangelical colleges look with disdain upon their own institutionand, in a sense, upon themselves?
Looking back at my undergraduate classmates, it’s clear that their sources of discontent were complex. But one source seemed clear enough: Some of our own faculty actually fostered this dissatisfaction. Quite a few students arrived on campus at age eighteen vaguely aware of evangelicalism’s odd position, in which American culture sometimes respects the movement while also ridicules its sentimentality, defensiveness, and kitsch. This low-level worry increased considerably over four years of college as students sat under select professors who made plain their disdain or indifference towards conservative Christianity. Sometimes these criticisms were theological in nature and sometimes social or political. “Those conservatives” was a phrase not too different from “those evangelicals,” and just as unflattering.
Unsurprisingly, such faculty wanted students to adopt a more ‘enlightened’ vantage. Some administrators supported the goal, too. As one confided to me, “Part of my goal is to push evangelical students out from their views.” In a limited way, I agree: All students ought to be exposed to a range of perspectives and given freedom to refine their own beliefs. But this administrator uncritically partnered with a faculty member who compartmentalized faith and scholarship and also accepted a materialistic form of determinism. An enlightened view indeed!
All told, a number of students who had nascent worries about evangelicalism as freshmen became convinced over four years that evangelicalism was simply not respectable intellectually, socially, politically, aesthetically, or historically. Key faculty had cultivated these students’ initial worry into a clear and distinct truth. I wondered how many well-meaning evangelical parents had sent their sons and daughters off to a college which advertised itself as evangelical and then found to their dismay that their kids gradually became reactionary and stand-offish toward their parents’ faith.
The problem is complex, of course. College students naturally individuate from their parents and must be given latitude to do so. Additionally, some colleges have an evangelical feel (especially in their student body) but are not officially evangelical, and so professors and administrators may feel no need to accommodate this expression of Christianity. Yet I’ve observed that a number of these colleges present themselveswhether in pitches to donors, presidential invocations, or campus toursin an evangelical light. Colleges that portray themselves as evangelical, even implicitly, have an obligation to follow through in concrete ways in the classroom.
How can this be done? There is no single solution, but I offer an initial suggestion. Administrators should incentivize qualified professors to teach a class (or unit) on the history and legacy of evangelicalism. Top flight material is readily available. In terms of history, the magisterial scholarship of the late William Reginald Ward demonstrated that evangelicalism is not a shallow Anglo-American “trend.” Instead, it is a powerful religious movement intricately tied to seventeenth century German, French, English, and American history, which traces its inspiration directly from the Reformation. In this time, evangelicalism has broad-mindedly drawn on everyone from Catholic mystics to Protestant pietists. It also has a long history of attending to the social, political, and spiritual well-being of individuals in the face of imposing nation-states or state-churches.
In terms of evangelicalism’s legacy, sociologist Robert Woodberry has shown the crucial role of nineteenth and twentieth century non-state Protestant proselytizing missionariesmany of whom were evangelicalsin the establishment of modern liberal democracies. Areas in which these missionaries had a significant presence in the past are more likely today to have lower infant mortality, better overall health, more economic development, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), lower corruption, and more robust membership in NGOs.
Of course, professors ought to help students understand the weaknesses of evangelicalism as well. But a full picture of the complexities of evangelicalism can only emerge from engaging its rich social and theological legacy. Not only would evangelical students benefit from this approach, but non-evangelical students would also. They would hear a balanced view and, at the least, gain a better understanding of an influential demographic of America’s past and present. If they chose to criticize evangelicalism, they would be able to do so in an informed way instead of relying on the usual caricatures.
To be ignorant of evangelicalism is to be ignorant of a powerful strain of American culture, among other things. There are few things more damaging to a college student’s faith than spending years in the company of professors who are dismissive of the tradition that formed it. Conversely, there are few things more inspiring to a college evangelical than a like-minded professor who is winsome, wise, and unapologetic. Colleges that that portray themselvesto students, parents, and donorsas having an ‘evangelical feel’ ought to take seriously their own message. It’s a matter of integrity.
Stephen Dilley is associate professor of philosophy at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.
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