Carol Swain, a former professor at Princeton and Vanderbilt, recently weighed in on a controversy at The King’s College regarding the continued use of Ronald Reagan’s name to designate one of the campus residential communities. The controversy escalated because tapes were recently released revealing that during a phone call with President Nixon in 1971, Reagan had referred to “monkeys from those African countries.” Swain’s attempt to “call out” King’s shows what happens when ignorance of an institution’s internal discussions meets fallacious reasoning and a piety directed more toward political figures of the past than Christ our Lord.
King’s assigns students to residential “houses” with namesakes, which include C. S. Lewis, Clara Barton, and Ronald Reagan. Swain’s essay refers to an ongoing discussion at King’s regarding the relationship between Ronald Reagan’s legacy and the college’s Christian mission. Citing the college’s statement about the Reagan/Nixon recordings, Swain writes that all of the residential namesakes “are now being reviewed.” Because Swain knows little about The King’s College and has never, to my knowledge, set foot on our campus, she did not realize that the decision to use Reagan as a namesake was already under review before the tapes were released. The college is currently reviewing all of the namesakes to ensure that each person’s work and legacy aligns with the school’s mission. Swain assumes that “now” implies that because of the tapes, all of the namesakes are being reviewed. This is not true.
Swain’s most troubling comments include further errors. After quoting from an internal working document on theological diversity at King’s, she writes, “This line is from a Theological Commitment to Diversity the college adopted in spring 2019.” This is false. The Theological Commitment to Diversity has not been adopted by the college; it has merely been used to aid reflections on the intersection of faith and practice.
In a textbook example of a non sequitur, Swain continues, “Remember when evangelical Christians talked about their commitment to Christ? The statement concludes by affirming the college’s commitment to building a Christ-centered community that ‘celebrates ethnic and cultural differences.’” Swain wrongly maligns the spirit of this celebration of ethnic difference. Christ-centered evangelicals, from kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing Scottish Presbyterians to gospel-music-singing black churches, have always celebrated cultural differences—something that goes back to the New Testament. If you want an example of celebrating difference, attend a Wednesday potluck dinner at a multi-ethnic evangelical church. Or read Acts 2.
Swain writes, “What is missing from this official response is any reference to the gospel, the evangel. A properly evangelical response would start with what Jesus said about forgiveness.” What does this have to do with The King’s College assessing whether or not a particular house namesake’s life and work is consistent with the school’s mission? We can forgive Reagan for his racist comments and still find him inconsistent with the mission of a Christian college, especially since there is limited evidence Reagan was a convicted follower of Jesus Christ. A Christian institution is not ignoring the command to forgive because it decides that a person’s legacy is not aligned with the institution’s values. In the end, racism may have nothing to do with King’s decision about whether or not Reagan should remain a namesake for one of the residential houses.
Swain, I fear, ends up making Christian mission secondary to a political agenda—the very thing she accuses King’s of doing. Her piece claims the school is not “properly evangelical” and has given in “to the voices of the loudest and most strident activists.” In truth, students’ choice of Ronald Reagan as a namesake, back when the house system was instituted in 2004, likely reflected the religious syncretism of many 1980s-era conservative Christians. Swain’s claim that not paying homage to Reagan constitutes abandoning the gospel of Jesus Christ suggests an ongoing syncretism. We need not venerate Reagan in order to honor our Lord.
The King’s College is a private Christian college. What matters to us is that the college’s policies are consistent with our religious mission statement. We are not motivated by the external idols of politically syncretistic American religion, whether the right-tilting, “honor-the-political-heroes” version or the left-tilting, politically correct version. The “come to Jesus” moment Swain calls for should be about Christ and his kingdom, not politicians and tribal virtue signaling (Psalm 146:3-7).
Anthony B. Bradley is professor and chair of Religious and Theological Studies at The King’s College in New York City.