You may have missed it but over the holidays a professor at Wheaton College publicly announced her solidarity with Muslims by saying that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God” all while wearing a hijab. The school retaliated quickly by putting Professor Larycia Hawkins on “paid administrative leave.” Last week, it was announced that Wheaton is recommending her termination.
The story of Professor Hawkins is the latest example that a public showing of human solidarity with those of other religions is perceived as a threat to evangelicals in our country.
Wheaton – along with seminaries and other evangelical institutions of higher learning – are central organizations within the evangelical world. They are models for evangelical theology, social and moral expectations, and the “correct” social, political and cultural perspective.
The dirty little secret is that theology for most evangelicals is only partly about belief. In reality, it creates a chasm between evangelicals and beliefs, ideologies, cultural expressions, political movements, etc. that don’t mesh with the way evangelical leaders want the world to work.
The rules and guidelines of these institutions more or less codify the fundamental fears and desires of the evangelical world. By examining schools’ responses to things they perceive to be threats is an eye opening insight into how they view themselves and American culture.
Early in the 20th century, the fears were focused on keeping the fundamentals of the faith separate from the emerging “modernist” Christianity that centered on a more scientific approach to faith. Bible schools and colleges were created, in part, to fight against against a new form of Christianity that subjected biblical and theological claims to scientific questioning rather than to literal interpretation. As a result, evangelicals rejected all theories of evolution or any notion that humans weren’t special creations from God. Buying into evolution – they thought – was a slippery slope that would lead to the end of Christianity and the preferred American culture of the white, middle class.
By the Second World War, the fear expanded to the control of gender and sexuality. Rules were made up to determine how and where men and women could interact and how they should dress. Women needed to “cover up” so they wouldn’t tempt men with their sexuality because men are helpless creatures with absolutely no self control.
LGBT “issues” emerged in the 1970s. Homosexuality was not an acceptable identity for evangelicals – or anyone for that matter. Dress codes were implemented to avoid the acceptance of hippies. One should not present oneself with long hair, flip-flips, jeans and beards.
The 90s introduced the primary enemy of a perceived national threat to Christianity and American culture as a whole. By the early 2000s, the fear was shifted to Christian traditions such as Orthodoxy and Catholicism as they were all of a sudden deemed to be incompatible with “true” Christianity.
The rules of evangelicalism have come and gone over the years – which makes it easy to infer what “threats” were found to be less important than others. Long hair and beards are fine now. Women can wear pants.
However, these schools continue to argue for their right to discriminate against anybody and anything that doesn’t line up with their world view.
I don’t necessarily object to private Christian schools being allowed to make up whatever rules they desire regarding what is acceptable behavior on their campuses and what is not. However, the situation with Professor Hawkins is provides insight to the thinking of the authority figures at these institutions which ultimately shapes the thinking of most evangelicals. That’s what concerns me.
Professor Hawkins’ actions and statements aren’t only a threat to evangelical theology about God, but also to the existence of colleges and seminaries rooted in that theology. She is the embodiment of what they aren’t – both ethnically and religiously – despite her eloquent response in which she stated her actions fall directly in line with Wheaton’s doctrinal statement because she is “compelled to address all human beings as [her] ‘brothers and sisters.'”
Seems like like a solid application of Christian theology to me. Unfortunately, it isn’t the trend at many of these revered evangelical institutions.
The sad reality is that evangelicalism continues to define what it is by what it’s fighting against at the particular moment. Without its enemies, it loses its reason for being. This is no more evident in that the successful strategy for politicians seeking the evangelical vote is to preach fear rather than love. I think the struggle with being a Christian in America today is knowing the right balance between the two.