evangelicalism and the uneasy relationship with academic freedom–more thoughts from Molly Worthen

evangelicalism and the uneasy relationship with academic freedom–more thoughts from Molly Worthen November 8, 2013

In chapter 5 (“The Marks of Campus Conversion”) of her recently released book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press), Molly Worthen looks at the founding of faith-based colleges in the early decades of evangelicalism, and the resulting uneasy relationship between the evangelical quest for academic respectability and the academic freedom that is normally considered part and parcel of that quest. (All italics below are mine.)

“The one thing most crucial to professional higher education was the one thing that most stymied conservative Protestant educators: academic freedom. Behind their hand-wringing over the liberal arts [vs. a Bible-based education] and their resentment of meddling accreditors was the fear that these reforms would encourage teachers and students to prize intellectual exploration over evangelism and prefer the scientific method to proof texts. They would ask questions–and venture answers–that might place their salvation at risk” (p. 109).

“The inductive method [in general and particularly of Bible study] appeared to repair the fracture between faith and reason. It restored the Bible to its rightful authority while assimilating–yet restraining–human rationalism. Over the years, conservative Protestants would use it to hold at bay a range of ideas, condemning everything from Darwin’s evolution to inborn homosexual orientation as mere ‘theories,’ speculative hypotheses without basis in inductive study of facts. By this standard, academic freedom as understood in the modern secular university–the liberty to follow scientific observation to its conclusions even if those conclusions flout received wisdom, and the liberty to answer to no other authority than one’s colleagues–was not freedom at all, but slavery to human pride that would lead young Christians from the narrow path” (p. 110)

“Yet Christian colleges could not win the approval of secular accrediting bodies without raising faculty salaries…, standardizing tenure, and codifying operating procedures in a way that checked executive power and gave the faculty some voice and opportunity for professional development. Capricious tenure policies and unfair dismissal sometimes continued, but now that their schools were part of interstate associations that included public, Roman Catholic, and mainline Protestant colleges and universities, faculty began to think of themselves as professional scholars responsible not only to their college and church, but to a community of intellectual peers …[which led to the formation of various evangelical academic societies for those seeking] to balance standards of professional scholarship with the demands of faith….Through the 1950s and 1960s, however, many of the most talented evangelical scholars spent their careers at Christian colleges that did not encourage them to think of themselves as citizens of a broader intellectual community” (p. 111).

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  • Brian P.

    Alas. What are you expecting to change? At times, I think this is as absurd as critiquing that these institutions don’t give, say, Hinduism a fair shot. Lack of academic freedom is elemental to the foundations of what we have here. It is oppositional to the (God given) mission. Now, exactly who these graduations are well positioned to minister to in the 21st century, that’s a different matter. In my experience, my pastors are very under-exposed. They are under-exposed to broader Christian tradition. They are under-exposed to Christian history. They are under-exposed to other faith traditions. They are under-exposed to other disciplines ranging from the very basics of physical sciences, social sciences, and literature. I wonder if so much apologetic defensive posturing and hang-wringing needs to be undertaken that there’s little time or energy for anything else. And given the faith is packaged as a bypass of world’s hardship and escape into a magical eternal bliss (not a generous way of living a cruciformly authentic life for others), saved-but-needy congregants are always pressing in, expecting the promised goods. This is the career and lifestyle these organizations prepare young men for. To me, it sounds like anything but a spiritual freedom, neither gained nor offered. Be patient Pete. The branch will be cut off. The vine will wither. Yes, you have been harmed, but be patient. Blessed are you when people insult you, shame you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Christ.

    • Where is the virtue in being quiet about bad Christian practice? I’m reminded of the following:

      If I say, “I will not mention him,
          or speak any more in his name,”
      there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
          shut up in my bones,
      and I am weary with holding it in,
          and I cannot. (Jer 20:9)

  • I blogged about this several weeks ago:


    However I must point out that Conservative Evangelicals REJECT the inductive methods when it is applied to Biblical studies.

    For example, it can be clearly shown (inductively) that John’s gospel contains non-historical stories, and yet they say that because it is LOGICALLY possible they are genuine, it also plausibly the case.

    • Sort of. The inductive studies I have seen from more conservative evangelicals argue from a presuppositionalist perspective in which the empirical-rational precision of the narrative is presupposed. So any inductive conclusion like non-historical content is rejected on the grounds of presupposition. It works, logically, but it isn’t very satisfying for many (and sort of undercuts the empirical-rational demands they place on the text, but that is a big ball of yarn to unravel).

  • JenellYB

    I’ve had several occasions to encounter young people attending evangelical and charismatic Christian associated colleges, and see something of their textbooks and course materials. Most of those young people had also graduated private Christian high schools, or had been Christian home schooled. The low academic level of those textbooks and materials was really seriously disturbing, as in just reading skills levels alone, they seemed prepared for at most maybe 8th grade level students. I could not even imagine those kids trying to even begin to read any of even the freshman text level college courses I had taken in recent years. Most o those situations were quite awkward, for they involved some related to a branch of my family, and having any relationship with them at all had always been something of a delicate egg-shell walk. But what was honestly heartbreaking, and at the same time made me furious and frustrated these people were actually paying for such totally inadequate ‘college educations’ was that most of those kids were bright and starry eyed about getting to go to college, and it was hard to think of how it would be reality eventually came down, they weren’t getting anything worthwhile.

    • SPH

      Here are three recent grads of an evangelical college I know: one is a diplomat who commands Arabic and Farsi, the other is an economist with a major financial institution who is also engaged in starting a university in Africa, and the third was selected as a Presidential Management Fellow after being fully funded for a masters in a distinguished program at Notre Dame. Neither of these people thought they were short-changed by their Christian college education–and there are a lot more of these.

      • Michael Miller

        There are a wide variety of “Christian” colleges out there. Some are very committed to preparing their students to be faithful Christians, launch rewarding careers and be conversant with the state of the world around them. Others are more concerned with indoctrinating a particular “worldview” that will ill serve their students after college. Unfortunately, a lot of it has to do with the teachers the students encounter in the institution and even within the same school different students can have very different experiences in that regard.

        • SPH

          Not a whole lot different than is the case in college, generally speaking.

          • Michael Miller

            no, it isn’t. Most of the significant challenges that “Christian” Higher Education face in the 21st Century are inherent in the underlying model of higher education that they have been emulating. Higher Education as a business will be radically transformed in the next 15 to 20 years (or sooner) by the same information revolution that has challenged the business models in journalism, publishing and music. The mission of educating Christians remains vital for the future of the Church, but the business of selling bachelors degrees needs to change.

          • SPH

            What’s the deal with “Christian” in quotes? And who’s “selling” degrees? Finally, I don’t know what makes you think CCCU institutions (for example) don’t pay any attention to developments in higher education.

          • Michael Miller

            Christian higher education is paying attention to trends inside higher education, the problem is that higher education as whole in the US is an unsustainable system. Their budgets are tuition-driven, meaning that there is a significant pressure to have a certain number of students enrolled in order to keep paying the bills. And there is increasing competition for a shrinking pool of potential students who can afford to pay for it. I don’t mean that Christian schools are diploma mills, but Higher Education is built around selling students a set of experiences that culminates in earning a degree. The individual pieces by themselves don’t really mean very much. No one puts the number of credit hours they earned in a subject on their resume. And the surrounding society is increasingly skeptical about the assumption that earning a degree serves as a useful proxy for measuring knowledge or ability. It’s a situation ripe for disruption in the same way that other parts of our society, like the news business, book selling, or music, were disrupted. There are some exciting innovations going on within higher education, but history teaches us that disruptive innovation doesn’t come from within established players.

      • Jeff Y

        This is certainly true. But, those examples are people educated in areas that are really not super controversial (languages; finance/investing; management). I know a lot of successful engineers and doctors who were first educated in evangelical schools. Is there really a problem with academic freedom in foreign languages? Math? Engineering? Where this is problematic is in areas of theology; philosophy; and scientific research. That’s the real point. And, there lies a deep tension there.

  • dangjin

    ‘academic freedom’ is nothing but allowing false teaching into the minds and hearts of the unwary and the deceived. those who support ‘academic freedom’ forget that christian colleges and seminaries already practice it by teaching biblical knowledge not secular.

    part of freedom is being allowed NOT to teach something they disagree with. in other words, it is a two way street thus secular institutions should be teaching biblical knowledge as truth if they want to practice true academic freedom.

    • I wonder about what fruit your attitudes would have provided pre-civil rights or pre-abolitionism.

    • Dangjunk

      Whenever I see a new dangjin post, I know it’s going to be entertaining.

      Thank you for bringing humor to the site.

      • Bryan

        I’m not sure this was meant to be humorous. If so, perhaps I missed something

    • Bryan

      Academic freedom means that one is allowed to push the problematic ‘evangelical boundaries’ that perhaps appeal to a fictitious ‘biblical knowledge’ in order to find a better explanation for theological/historical reconstructions which are currently unsatisfying.

    • Ha ha. I don’t hang out here much, but based on the comments below I guess you are being funny. It’s a really good parody of the utter lack of logical skills often lobbed by fundamentalists in an attempt to justify an anti-intellectual stance. Well done.

    • I think the following advice should be considered by all Christian colleges:


  • Mister Magoo

    Yes, it is as though the “traditionalists” ” pretend that they are still living in the insular provincial world prior to say the 1850’s.

    Meanwhile of course we now live in a Quantum world of instantaneous inter-connectedness in which everyone is effectively face-to-face and in which every Spiritual, religious and philosophical proposition ever made about the nature of Reality by human beings in all times and places is now freely available on the internet. As is everything about all the known Spiritual and religious traditions of humankind whether living or extinct. Everything about their beliefs, practice, and histories too, including all their inevitable blood-soaked histories (especially in the case of Christianity)