What Liberty University can teach Elite Colleges and Universities

What Liberty University can teach Elite Colleges and Universities October 1, 2015

A few weeks ago my facebook feed was somewhat abuzz with the fact that Senator Bernie Sanders was speaking at Liberty University. Yes, that Bernie Sanders, self-described socialist, speaking at that Liberty University, the education institution founded by the man who started the Moral Majority. It was not a news event I ever anticipated occurring. Even though I am a Christian, like many people I had stereotypes about the narrowmindedness of Christian colleges and did not consider that one as conservative as Liberty University would require its students to listen to a socialist.

I will spend the bulk of this blog discussing the implications of Liberty University’s decision. However, I first want to compliment the senator. It is not easy to speak in front of an audience who deeply disagrees with you. He probably did not gain one extra vote from a Liberty student by his talk. But he is committed to his vision of a better society and willing to go places where he does not have an admiring crowd. I give sincere kudos to Senator Sanders and if more of us would be willing to try to communicate with those we disagree with, then we would have a better society.

However, the senator would not be able to speak before the students if Liberty had not invited him to do so. Furthermore, the actions of the students were commendable. Most of them disagreed with most of what the Senator had to say. But they let him say it, and they treated him with respect. There was no protest. There was no attempt to shout the Senator down. No, they did not give him enthusiastic applause. But we do not have to agree with someone to give him/her the right to tell us his/her ideas. He was allowed to inform them of his ideas, and they did not interrupt him.

I cannot help but compare this event to what happens so often when unpopular speakers come to many of our state and elite campuses. There are a wide variety of incidents that illustrates the unwillingness of students and faculty on those campuses to allow for such free speech. Perhaps a striking example is when students at the University of California at Berkeley protested the commencement speech by Bill Maher. The political distance between Senator Sanders and the average Liberty University student has to be much greater than between Maher and these progressive students. However, Maher has been highly critical of Islam and in doing so, broke one of the tenets embedded in Education Dogma. For certain students this meant that he should not be allowed to address other students, even though he likely agreed with them on most other subjects. Contrast this reaction to the politeness shown the Senator by the students at Liberty. Consideration and tolerance was found at the Christian school instead of the place where the modern free speech movement originated.

At least in this situation, the University of California stood by Maher and let him give his speech. Christine Lagarde, Robert Birgeneau and Condoleessa Rice were all invited to speak and then later disinvited, or withdrew due to pressure, from delivering their commencement address. The reasons given may vary, but essentially students and faculty members protested these speakers and the administration caved to their demands. Colleges and university are supposed to be places where we encounter different ideas. But influential segments on many campuses do not want graduating students, who should be fully prepared for dealing with different ideas, to hear alternative opinions. This type of censoring is not even including the type of silencing that comes from mechanisms such as safe spaces and trigger warnings. Whereas Liberty University brought different ideas directly to their campus, it seems that many of our highly esteemed colleges and universities work hard to keep them out.

What is ironic is that Christian schools such as Liberty University are typically stereotyped as being unwilling to consider alternate points of view. As I stated earlier, I have bought into those stereotypes. One blogger argues that Christian colleges should not be accredited because they do not allow for intellectual freedom. I am certain that this blogger would put Liberty University squarely in the “do not accreditate” category even though Liberty appears to better prepare its students to hear opposing opinions than the University of California. Accreditation is important for helping an institution of higher education serve its students, and this stereotype can have important implications for the freedom of Christian colleges.

While I have heard this stereotype many times, the incident at Liberty helped me realize that I have yet to see any empirical evidence that supports it. I know in theory nonreligious colleges and universities should be free to pursue whatever ideas academics come up with. In reality, there is a culture of conformity that inhibits the freedom of academics to pursue all ideas. Sociology of science is a subset of epistemology exploring how science is not an objective search for truth, but that search is influenced by the social and psychological pressures placed on the scientist. For example, Thomas Kuhn’s work suggests that scholars operate in an ideological paradigm that provides them the answers to the questions they study before they even analyze the data. In a similar way, there are paradigms on our non-sectarian campuses that provide answers to questions before we have even fully asked the question. This type of social, and sometimes even institutional, pressure can be just as limiting to academic freedom as the theological doctrines commonly found at Christian educational institutions.

I am starting to believe that non-Christian colleges are at least as narrow-minded in their epistemological approach as Christian schools. When I did research on academic bias, I found that about half of all academics are willing to discriminate against conservative Protestants when they apply for an academic position. Clearly, limiting the ability of individuals from a given social group to participate in academia can serve to limit the scholarly ideas from that group. This is a clear violation of the academic freedom allegedly not found at Christian colleges. When I went back to my data and looked to see if those at Christian colleges are more unwilling to exclude non-Christians from their jobs, I found that the degree of exclusion was about the same as their non-religious counterparts. I did not see evidence that Christian educational institutions were more restrictive in their willingness to hire than non-Christians, despite the doctrine requirements that undoubtedly are part of their hiring process. Looking at who academics are willing to hire, I do not have empirical reasons to think that there is more academic freedom at non-sectarian educational institutions than sectarian ones.

To be fair, I have heard some students complain that they are not free to start progressive political or sexual minority student organizations on Christian campuses. I take them at their word and am willing to believe that some Christian educational institutions restrict the type of student organizations allowed on campus. A few years ago, this would have been a killer argument for pronouncing Christian colleges and universities as intolerant. But lately some non-sectarian educational institutions have found a way to deregister Christian groups from their campuses. If Christian groups do not open up their leadership to non-Christians, then they are not allowed to be official student organizations. It is not only Christian schools that unfairly restrict student organizations, and I suspect that we will see more non-sectarian schools employ these tactics in the coming years. Ironically, many who attempt to defend such “all-comers” policy would be quick to argue that prohibiting progressive students at Christian colleges to start their own organizations is evidence of intolerance.

I am not arguing that Christian colleges are more open to alternate ideas than other educational institutions. I am arguing that we do not have any empirical evidence to state that this is not the case. The perception that religious institutions value intellectual diversity less than other types of institutions is based more upon prejudices and confirmation bias than actual systematic research. I am certain that individuals will produce personal stories about the intolerance they have experienced at the hands of Christians at sectarian educational institutions. But such anecdotal accounts are not the sort of scientific evidence needed to justify removal of accreditation or the stereotypes that I have, until recently, accepted myself. There are many Christians who can also tell stories of intolerance experiences at elite and/or state schools as well. What is needed is the type of academic research where we can properly test the degree of ideological intolerance that we may find on both types of campuses. Without such scientific research to document that there are higher levels of intolerance at Christian campuses, we run the risk of supporting one type of intolerance while ignoring other manifestations of this problem.

When I heard of Senator Sanders speaking at Liberty University and the way students treated him, one of my first reactions was that students in many of our elite institutions have something to learn from Liberty students. Our progressive open-minded liberal students from elite schools have something to learn about political tolerance from the “intolerant” Christians at Liberty. Soon afterward I became acquainted with a professor who works at Liberty. She informed me that the university has a tradition of inviting progressive speakers to the campus. She told me that, when he was alive, Ted Kennedy had spoken on campus more than once. She informed me that the philosophy at Liberty is to foster a politically conservative environment, but one where their students are exposed to ideas from a variety of sources. Oh that we would see this at non-sectarian schools with a more progressive agenda. Despite the common stereotype that colleges like Liberty are a cocoon protecting students from non-Christian, non-conservative ideas, it seems plausible that their philosophy does the opposite. In light of the actions of Liberty University in regards to Sanders and University of California in regards to Maher, perhaps it is time to retire this stereotype – at least until we gain empirical evidence supporting it.

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