No one expects the Evangelical Inquisition! (part 1)

In the early years of the 21st century, to combat the rising tide of religious unorthodoxy, the subculture gave white evangelical gatekeepers leave to move without let or hindrance throughout the land, in a reign of violence, terror and torture that makes a smashing film. This was the Evangelical Inquisition …

Here are some brief highlights of a few examples of the Inquisition at work at evangelical colleges and seminaries, where gatekeepers have pursued their ends with fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to inerrancy.

Shorter University

Shorter is a small liberal arts college in Rome, Georgia, affiliated with the state Baptist convention.

Last year, Shorter purged 36 of about 100 full-time faculty members when it adopted a new “statement of faith” as well as a “personal lifestyle statement.” The latter said:

I reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality.

President Donald Dowless said the purge was necessary:

“Our University was at a crossroads to either take steps to regain an authentic Christian identity in policy and practice or we would become a Christian University in name only,” he said.

For more, see SaveOurShorter — a website for students, faculty and alumni worried about the future of the university.

Emmanuel Christian Seminary

Emmanuel is (was?) a small seminary near Johnson City, Tenn., affiliated with the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.

Last summer Dr. Christopher Rollston, professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at Emmanuel, wrote a column for the Huffington Post titled, “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About.” While anyone who has actually read the Bible won’t find anything alarming or controversial in that column, it apparently offended some conservative donors at Emmanuel — people, ironically, who fervently believe that the Bible marginalizes women, but see this as a feature, not a bug.

The seminary’s ensuing actions were a clear example of how “inerrancy” and other slogans about the “authority of scripture” are almost always a pretext for culture-war issues. It seemed to involve an attempt by the school’s executives to fire a tenured professor without cause because some conservative culture-warrior donors promised big bucks if they got rid of him. It did not seem that the seminary’s president, Michael Sweeney, was attempting to get away with something unethical as much as that Sweeney had no idea what was or wasn’t ethical behavior.

Robert Cargill has the best summary of the whole sordid affair, which has to be scored as a big defeat for the Inquisition. Rollston landed on his feet with a new gig at George Washington University. And Emmanuel Seminary is attempting a crash landing in which it will be dissolved and/or absorbed into Milligan College.

Most inquisitorial purges wind up destroying schools, but unlike most of those ruined schools, Emmanuel may actually cease to exist.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Al Mohler’s early 1990s purge of non-fundies, non-Calvinists and women at the flagship Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville is the stuff of legend. People telling those stories always sound like Robert Shaw describing the sinking of the Indianapolis in Jaws. “A hundred professors went into the water …”

Mohler created the template: Attack, attack, attack. Always claim to be more orthodox than anyone else, forcing them to play defense. Don’t demonstrate orthodoxy, just assert it as a given until everyone accepts that you must be the foremost authority on what is or is not biblical.

It worked for him, and it transformed the seminary. Someone who graduated from Southern in 1991 has a completely different education from someone who received a diploma from Southern in 2001.

Michael Westmoreland-White’s reminiscences capture some of the atmosphere of Mohler’s purge, although on the whole his description is more cheerful and less frightening than what one usually hears:

I do not want to relive these memories – but they flood through anyway. The students who were paid by fundamentalist trustees to secretly record faculty lectures and see if quotations could be snipped apart from context and run in denominational presses as “proof” of the “rank liberalism” of the seminary! Of the illegal copying of Molly Marshall’s doctoral dissertation for ignoramuses to use as “proof” of her supposed “universalism” in soteriology. The manipulations to try to get her denied tenure — and, when that failed, Mohler’s eventual forcing of her resignation because “we have the votes” on the trustee board – regardless of her defense and before any such defense were possible. The similar fate of Paul Simmons — whom the fundamentalists had hounded for years because he holds a mildly pro-choice view in the ethics of abortion — a matter on which the seminary’s Abstract of Principles (which all faculty sign) is completely silent.


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  • Andrew K.

    A small note in relation to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary purge…

    Dr. Molly Marshall, I am proud and humbled to say, is one of my professors. She is also the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas. I am currently taking Constructive Theology II with her, having completed Constructive Theology I last fall. She is a wonderful teacher, and encourages tough questions. At the same time, she is welcoming to those who hold radically different views. The very fact that the class is called Constructive Theology, instead of “Systematic Theology,” is a sign of just what kind of place Central Baptist Theological Seminary has become under her leadership. 

    A real highlight of my semester were reading her comments on my final paper, my credo, for my first semester.

    I thank God for Dr. Marshall, and I am grateful to be her student.

  • There is some controversial material in that column-see

  • Daughter

    Question for Slacktivites: how appropriate is the term “Inquisition” here? I’m not  comfortable with it. I think of the frequency in which conservatives describe themselves as being “lynched” when they’re being criticized, a wholly inappropriate term and one that is offensive in light of the actual terror and violence that lynching entailed.

    “Inquisition” has some relevance here, in the determination to weed out orthodoxy, but still, what the victims of these type of purity purges go through doesn’t compare to the “reign of violence, terror and torture” that actual Inquisition victims experienced. So I think the term is too extreme and shouldn’t be used here.

  • Daughter

     “weed out unorthodoxy


  • Andrew K.

    This is more Monty Python than Torquemada, but I can understand “tensing up” because of that word. However, in light of what i know happened at Southern Baptist, “inquisition” is actually too mild a word.

  • Eamon Knight

    More recently (and in a way that’s rich in Schadenfreude for some of us), William Dembski — Prophet of Intelligent Design — was forced by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to recant his belief in a local Flood, and affirm a global one:

  • Lori

    Controversy that basically proves Rollston’s point. Michael Pakaluk mansplains the meaning of misogynist, conveniently parsing it such that almost no one could ever be called misogynist.How convenient. He then goes on to make a cultural relativist argument for why it’s fine that the Bible, the supposedly timeless word of God, supports treatment of women that most of us (thank FSM) now consider unacceptable.

    Of course, according to Pakaluk we’re all possibly wrong about that any way.

    Clearly the essay takes a viewpoint or ideology which has been held, with doubtful consistency, by a relatively small number of people in developed countries in the last fifty years (“gender equality”)–an ideology which actually has not yet been shown to be capable of serving as the foundation of any kind of lasting society– and judges “biblical values,” and presumably anyone who departs from pure “gender equality,” to be immoral, as departing from it. 

    And then Pakaluk gives us this gem:

    Obviously it is possible to portray 1 Timothy 2 in an unflattering light.

    At that point I stopped reading because I’m fighting off a cold and getting my blood pressure up is probably not a good idea while I’m on cold meds.

  • Given the rather widespread colloquial usage of “inquisition” to mean a purge to weed out supposed opponents of orthodoxy, I suspect you may not get much traction on that.

  • Darkrose

    I read far more of that than I should have. The scare quotes around “gender equality” should have clued me in more quickly.

  • Leo_k_lyons

    I… hate to be a dick here, but you’re making Daughter’s point for her. The Spanish Inquisition had people being rounded up, tortured until they confessed to heresy and put to death. Unless Southern Baptist was a lot more dangerous than I’m thinking, I doubt that sounds mild at all.

    I don’t mind the word inquisition too much, just because the spirit of what people do now seems similar to what happened then. The church still harasses people to the extent of their power, it’s just that the extent of their power doesn’t count for as much these days. But I can see why it’d bother people. If we’re going to have that conversation, let’s add witch-hunt to the topic.

  • Halcyon

    As someone who attended Shorter College (it was and will always be Shorter College in my mind) during the time in which these troubles started, the story is actually much more fascinatingly awful than that.  The fact that Shorter is controlled by the Georgia Baptist Convention was basically the result of a hostile takeover.  For years, the GBC had provided part of our funding (something like 5%, iirc) in exchange for the college offering them a nod at approving the people selected for the Board of Trustees.  This was always, in my understanding, a formality, as the GBC had never actually opposed anyone Shorter had put forth.  Until around 2005.  Then, the GBC wanted to appoint their own hand picked members to the Board.

      In retrospect, this was obviously because the student groups were being far too, ahem, unorthodox; most of the drama and music departments (the best parts of the school, known internationally) had no problem with homosexuality, and a fair number of the faculty in those departments were obviously gay, if not exactly out of the closet at that time.  Some of us were trying to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school.  Our professors were much more concerned with educating us rather than toeing the line.  So I can see how this upset the keepers of the orthodoxy.

    Anyway, around that time, the GBC tried to use its clout to say that the terms of the contract were that it got final approval over our Board, and not merely a consideration that had until then been a formality.  To make a long story short, they tried to enforce this legally, and it went to the state supreme court, who decided (in a stunning display of ignoring precedent AND absurd legal reasoning) that the 5% or so support the GBC had been providing did, in fact, entitle them to be able to approve all appointed board members.  Since then, obviously, because they controlled the board, it has been straight downhill since, culminating with this abominable statement the faculty were expected to sign.  (It goes beyond the ridiculousness about homosexuality, as well.  There are provisions about not drinking in public and more, the usual litany of insane repressed Baptist tribal freakouts.)

    There’s probably a lesson here about making deals with Baptists, but I imagine it’s not the one the GBC would like to think it is.   And I wish Save Our Shorter the best of luck, but at this point most of the people who would be affected by saving it have already fled.  Ah well, time to toss one back for good things gone, I guess.  (And even though I’m an atheist these days, due in no small part to the time I spent at Shorter, I can still regret the loss of the sort of institution that encouraged thought and exploration even within the Baptist culture.)  This is what happens to institutions that try and exercise that evangelical mind, Fred.  The school was, honestly, something even I, a non-believer alumnus, could be proud of, until the GBC took over.

    (I apologize if this is all ramble-y, but it’s still something I get upset about.)

  • Erp

    I wonder whether the situation at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford fitted within this.   Evangelical, associated with but not directly controlled by the University, accusations of free-riding on the university, of mis-management, and, from this post’s POV the most important, theological narrowing.

  • Foelhe

    Two things. 1 Also there have been multiple inquisitions, so the word seems a bit more transitive to me, I swear I wrote that down. 2 This was me. Why, Patheos, why?

  • Foelhe


  • Foelhe

    Hi, name’s Foelhe, nice to meet you, been posting here for about a week, Patheos hates me. If you’re going to kill me with sheep, might want to do it before this system takes me out.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Question for Slacktivites: how appropriate is the term “Inquisition” here?

    Personally, I’m fine with it. It’s rhetoric. But I lean towards the liberal end of the language policing debate in general.

  • connorboone

    I think that the people at Shorter should google the term Christian Identity before using it in a public statement.

  •  *Very* good point…

  • Alethea

    I think Fred has mentioned this before, but Oklahoma Baptist University (my alma mater) is doing the same things: purging…I mean, “letting go” moderate professors, forcing faculty members to sign very conservative faith statements in exchange for tenure, hiring YEC science professors, and so on.

    (Bonus: the most recent entry is about J. Edgar Hoover speaking at OBU)

  • I think the reason “Inquisition” does not bother me but that “lynching” does, is because lynching is one of those “too soon” things.  Lynchings are something that has happened in living memory.  The Inquisition was long enough ago that it has passed into the realm of legend and hyperbole.

  • badJim

    If Fred uses “Inquisition”, then it’s acceptable ;-) Anything invoking a Monty Python skit is also acceptable. Moreover, in any discussion that involves the rooting out of heresy, everybody expects the Inquisition to be mentioned.

    The bloodiness of the original Inquisition was pretty typical of its time. Its procedures weren’t drastically different than those of the civil authorities. It still exists as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and it still gets people kicked out of jobs, if I recall aright.

  • Daughter

     Perhaps. But there are many who object to the term “Crusade” because of its historical connotations, even though that happened even longer ago in history than the Inquisition.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The bloodiness of the original Inquisition was pretty typical of its time.

    Actually, as far as oppressions go the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t all that bloody. Estimates are that a few thousand people died as a result–a few thousand too many, but also several orders of magnitude less than many other oppressive actions we could name, including in the 20th century.

    If the word inquisition should be off limits for rhetorical purposes because it was just too horrific, then we should also not use the words purge, revolution or terror.

    I wouldn’t use the word ‘lynching’ unless I was talking about extrajudicial execution–which criticising someone is not, even at a stretch. I wouldn’t use the term ‘inquisition’ in relation to criticising someone, unless it was the circumstances described by Fred here–examining someone’s statements to see if they conform to a strict doctrine, and demanding recantation or punishment if they do not.

  • MaryKaye

    For something more proportionate, one might compare them to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Deeply odious and directly threatening to peoples’ careers, but not actually murderous.

    It’s good that at least some of the professors involved have found new jobs elsewhere–academic jobs are not easy to come by lately–but a damned shame for the students.  I lost a high school professor to what were almost surely trumped-up charges, and I still rue it bitterly.  Losing your whole school must be even more bitter, and it doesn’t sound like there’s much left at some of these institutions.

  • MaryKaye

    It’s really interesting that the one negative response to Westmoreland-White’s article accuses him of believing in ghosts (which apparently Christians aren’t allowed to do)–the commentator did not realize that the ghosts were metaphorical, a literary device.  The literal-mindedness is really pervasive.

  • Ouch. I can think of several colloquialisms that are just as bad, but not many.

  • badJim

     I agree. Disagreement and criticism shouldn’t be regarded as threats, yet there are those who complain of persecution if someone dares to disagree with them in public.

    Anyone who actually tries to get someone fired just for their opinions deserves comparison to the Inquisition. Nothing short of a mob that killed someone should be called a lynching.

  • badJim

     HUAC was just part of the anticommunist moral panic. At least one Berkeley professor lost his job because he refused to sign a loyalty oath. A certain amount of the antipathy to atheism dates to that time, as well as the intrusion of “under God” into the Pledge.

    (One might suppose that a Unitarian would actually favor “God, indivisible” but that’s not the way it goes.)

  • MaryKaye

    When I was a graduate student at Berkeley in 1986-1991 the loyalty oath was still required.  If I had refused to sign it I wouldn’t have been allowed to teach (a degree requirement for my PhD).

    Here in Washington State we had the Canwell Committee, which aspired to be HUAC but didn’t manage to do quite as much damage.  Still a nasty business.  No loyalty oaths today, though.

  • badJim

     “Crusade” is a wonderful thing to bring up, because for most of us it’s an innocuous term. It wouldn’t raise anyone’s hackles to state that Margaret Sanger* was a crusader for women’s reproductive rights, for example. We take it to mean any sort of heroic struggle, or really any sort of virtuous effort. I think a near Arabic equivalent might be “jihad”.

    To us, the primary meaning of “crusade” doesn’t involve invading another country thousands of miles away. If I’ve got it right, that isn’t the primary meaning of “jihad”, either. My ignorance of Islam is profound, so feel free to correct me, and don’t take my word for anything.

    The original Crusades involved protracted warfare between Christians and Muslims, as well as occasional slaughtering of Jews and heretics. To anyone with a taste for historical fiction I’d recommend “Deus Lo Volt!”, by the recently deceased Evan S. Connell. The only figure in that blood-drenched mess that exhibited even a shred of integrity or competence was the Kurdish leader Saladin.

    * Sanger was convicted of obscenity and jailed for publishing information about contraception. Now that’s persecution!

  • badJim

    Tolman was one of the professors who refused to sign the oath — the guy whose name is on the Psychology building, who taught that rats had maps. He won in court. I don’t know whether I forgot that or never knew it.

    Too often heroes disappoint us. They’ll accomplish one surprising thing but fold in the face of the next challenge. It’s wonderful to find someone strong enough to keep it up again and again.

    It’s also possible that I’m not saying this just because I went to Berkeley and also happen to be fond of rats.

  •  The trouble with policing language is language tends to do what it wants so even if you’re successful the fallout can be unexpected.

  • Wonder

    Well, now, see, they probably don’t want to make any more of you; or even worse, liberal-minded Christians:
    Hence the purge.

  • fraser

    So if I follow him, women couldn’t possibly be property because John Locke!

  • Hexep

    Seconded, or thirded, or whatever. A lynching is an extrajudicial murder; it involves killing someone by definition – that is to say, by definition it involves killing people (you can’t kill people by definition the way you can kill people by firing squad). Also, I suppose it shades my opinion because my people have been on the giving end of some lynchings but the receiving end of an Inquisition? But that’s not really the question on offer here.

    As for Inquisition, I also agree. Calling people down on their opinions and demanding they’d recant or else they’d be punished, that’s what they did. And that’s what’s happening here. No, this guy isn’t getting killed at the end, but not everybody who got Inquisited did.

    As for the Crusades, that’s different. The people on the giving and receiving ends of the Crusades are not at parity today; the people on the giving and receiving ends of the Inquisition are, or have actually changed positions. It would be like taking issue with, to take something from the news, the Romanian GdF symbol – if you’ve been hurt by it, you’ve already been avenged many times over.

  • fraser

     And the privatized counterparts, Red Channels and Aware, inc. were worse. People in the entertainment industry paid them to confirm that nobody being hired was a Red, and both companies were notoriously sloppy about accuracy (and sometimes outright lied). 

  • Naymlap

     I don’t get that either.  Crusade has been used in a lot of very specific historical settings including those that don’t involve knights in the Holy Land.  And the Inquisition, while decidedly Catholic, was an institution that fits what Fred’s describing above.  The Inquisition didn’t just torture Jews and Muslims, it attacked anyone questioning church orthodoxy, including Copernicus and Galileo.  I might, might, agree with you on lynching given the very racialized connotation it has taken up, but lynch mobs were not solely formed based on race.  Joseph Smith was lynched.  Though, the conservatives using describing themselves as being lynched may be trying to exploit the racialized context to make a case of reverse-racism.  The real trick is to understand and perhaps even embrace a words history, but don’t overuse it.  Calling anyone a Nazi is so overplayed now that it’s lost all meaning to me.

  • Carstonio

    Love the intro to this column!

    I’d like to see the exiled faculty from such colleges find financial backing to set up rival institutions. Perhaps there will be a schism among not just white evangelicals but white Southerners in general, where the Mohlers give up and create a separate society like the Amish. They already have the basis for it with their parallel culture.

  • reallyAimai

    Inquisition is perfectly fair use, here. Inquistions started with mere questions and attempted to ferret out “unorthodoxies.”  Seizure of property and torture and burning at the stake came later and not in all cases.  Besides, we can see from the vehemence of the language used of “devils” and danger and the brutality with which people were cast from their positions/jobs that if the leadership could have enforced their will by judicial means, up to and including torture, they probably would have.  Its just not a closed society with its own government and police. Its a tiny fragment of a larger society and the police power resides elsewhere.  Easier to expel the hated minority than torture them.

  • Carstonio

    Here’s Mohler whining about the marginalization of evangelicals who oppose homosexuality. He conveniently doesn’t mention that this wouldn’t happen through force, but by their own choice. I added my voice to the comments. So much material for Fred in Mohler’s lament.

  • lunch meat

    I think my alma mater was pretty sneaky about this. The bible professors taught us about alternate interpretations under the guise of challenging us to defend why A, B, or C doctrine was true, while making it clear–in class, anyway–that they did believe said doctrine. Many of us ended up changing our minds in this way. Problem was that when we went to start a GSA, we discovered that even if we knew they agreed, they couldn’t openly support it.

    Other departments were allowed to be much more lenient. We had physics professors who taughtan old earth, biology professors who taught evolution, and of course Richard Beck, the psychology prof whom Fred frequently links to.

  •  Stop oppressing the inquisitors, you meanies! Would Jesus oppress inquisitor? No, no he wouldn’t!

  • LorenHaas

    Thank you for sharing this. Now I am off to church this Sunday morning to try to repent of taking pleasure in this story.

  • DrKellyann

    Also, lynchings (of gay and especially transgender folks) still happen now.  The word “lynching” isn’t often used for them, but that’s what they are.

  • Lawguy1946

    I just looked up the definition of inquisition and the Spanish one is number 3 in Merriam Webster.  So yeah you are kind of wrong in insisting on the Spanish one being the only and even the most used definition.

  • brians

     “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences
    contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid
    them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ,
    but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of
    the simple.”

  •  At least try to follow his argument. Deliberate ignorance is befitting of creationists.

  • Inquisition is the correct term. There have been, and will be, different kinds of inquisitions.

    Lynching is the absolutely incorrect term. As is witch-hunt, another term right-wingers like to throw around when one of them does something awful and gets called out on it. 

    Yes, “inquisition” has a connotation of being horrifying, as it well should. Which is the point.

  • LoneWolf343

     It’s still used rightly because it really is an Inquisition, even if it isn’t a violent one (yet.) The difference between this and cons comparing themselves to lynching victims is that the cons are equating hated for being assholes as the same as being hated from being black. That’s why the latter comparison is offensive, not because lynchings were violent.

  • Daughter

     Wait, what? I never insisted on the Spanish Inquisition being the only or most used definition. Btw, it’s Fred making the comparison to the Spanish Inquisition, through the picture, the terms “reign of violence, terror and torture” and the use of a capital I. He wanted us to compare it, so it’s not strange that my mind would go there.

    Others have made the argument that the nature of these situations, in terms of rooting out unorthodoxy, make the comparison apt even if it doesn’t involve violence. I might not agree, but those are fair arguments.

    Certainly, the issues in this post don’t fit Merriam-Webster’s first two definitions of inquisition at all, so referring to the dictionary doesn’t strengthen your case:
    1: the act of inquiring : examination
    2: a judicial or official inquiry or examination usually before a jury; also : the finding of the jury