So what should Wheaton College have done?
Let’s start with the situation, as described by (Wheaton alum) Elizabeth Dias in her Time magazine report:
The Wheaton College provost overseeing an expulsion trial against a tenured professor who said Christians and Muslims worship the same God wrote in a private email last month that her comments were “innocuous” but that they had created a public relations disaster for the Illinois college.
“Articles are already being written in a variety of news sources, and the media are pounding on our door asking for comments about our faculty who are endorsing Islam,” wrote Provost Stanton Jones, in a December 11 email obtained by Time to Wheaton Psychology professor Michael Mangis. “We are being asked to defend why we have faculty openly rejecting with (sic) the institution stands for.”
Set aside that bit about the expulsion trial for the professor — that’s what Wheaton should never have done.
But let’s accept, for the sake of argument, the rest of Jones’ characterization of this situation as a potential “public relations disaster.” A professor’s laudable actions and “innocuous” comments are being distorted in some media reports, twisted into “faculty … endorsing Islam” and “openly rejecting what the institution stands for.” Now the school is getting angry and worried emails and phone calls about this supposed Islamic fever from dozens of people who are either: A) honestly misinformed by those distorted media reports, or B) intent on deliberately spreading misinformation in a nasty, dishonest attack on the school.
The good news here is that the response to both A and B can be much the same — tell them the truth. Whether these folks are worried due to their naive* acceptance of a twisted misrepresentation of the professor’s remarks and actions, or whether they are merely pretending to be angry because they’re a bunch of culture-warriors seeking to consolidate money and power by deliberately lying for Jesus doesn’t change the obligation to respond to falsehood by speaking truth, or the educational duty to correct misinformation with the facts.
You’re getting emails and phone calls from people who — honestly or dishonestly — are claiming that they’re worried because they heard a professor is advocating some syncretistic merging of Christianity and Islam or is saying that there’s no meaningful difference between the two religions. Happily,** you can reassure them that this is not the case — that no Wheaton professor is saying anything at all like that.
So, you look at your overflowing email inbox and you pull out a yellow legal pad where you start sketching the following notes to yourself:
1. Quickly put together a succinct, four-five graf response correcting the misinformation about this specific incident and make sure this is sent in reply to all of those “concerned” emails.
2. Track down the specific media reports spreading misinformation about the school and demand corrections and/or retractions where necessary.
3. It seems like a lot of white evangelicals are prone to freaking out over the fact that Christians and Muslims are all children of Abraham. It seems like they need some help sorting out how to think about that. Fortunately, we’re an educational institution with a host of top-notch theologians and religious scholars. And we’ve also got some good design and layout people, a variety of print and online platforms, etc. Let’s put all that together and do our job.
4. Get in touch with Miroslav Volf, who came to lecture on Christianity and Islam at Wheaton a few years ago. See if we can get him back to do it again, and let’s do a better job publicizing the event this time.
5. It seems that a dismaying number of Wheaton students are among the white evangelicals susceptible to freaking out about this. Start putting together a chapel or convocation or forum with a panel discussion on the topic. Invite somebody from the Islamic Center of Wheaton to participate (they’ll help reassure such students that nobody is suggesting Christianity and Islam are identical).
6. Wheaton College is home to the archives of Billy Graham. It’s sad to think about the contrast between Billy’s longing to share the good news with Muslims and his son Franklin’s new message of eliminationist hate toward them. Given that we’re Billy’s alma mater, we should know just who could address and correct that sad contrast in a chapel service. Set that up.
7. Reading through these various angry emails, it seems a lot of white evangelicals are also deeply confused — or blatantly heretical — in their thinking about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. This ranges from various strains of supercessionism to outright anti-Semitism. Maybe time to invite a rabbi to speak in chapel? Oh, and let’s add a trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum as part of that freshman orientation class.
8. The president’s office says that some of our wealthiest donors are among the worst-informed and most hysterically ignorant. Sigh. Sometimes wonder why people like that have any interest in contributing to education when they have so little regard for educating themselves. Still, maybe we can entice them to do that. Let’s get one of our decent, non-idiot big donors to sponsor all of the above steps under a single yearlong academic umbrella. Call it an honors series or a symposium or some such. Glossy brochures on big-donor cardstock, etc. Make the Volf lecture some kind of fancy banquet and invite these donors to come and sit in a place of honor. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not too late for them to learn something.
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* Largely naive, but never wholly so. One can be mostly innocent when one has been deceived into believing the worst about someone else. But there’s still the problem of the willingness or the inclination to accept the very worst about someone else, particularly on the basis of sketchy, implausible, second-hand claims that one then doesn’t feel any obligation to further interrogate. That willingness to accept slanderous falsehood, and that reluctance to treat such accusations skeptically, reflects a host of motives that are anything but innocent.
** That word “happily” shows why, I suspect, very very few of the people claiming to be upset are acting in good faith. If some Christian, in good faith, is worried that a Wheaton professor is preaching some syncretistic “Chrislam,” then the assurance that this is not happening should be met with great joy and relief.
When this assurance is met, instead, with disappointment, then we have evidence — proof — that these folks were not really worried about, but rather hoping for, an instance of apostasy or heresy that they could self-righteously condemn. They claim to be angry that a professor is saying heretical things, but then they seem to get even angrier when they’re shown that’s not the case. This disappointment and anger proves that these people are full of it. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, that they have chosen to become “devils” who are “fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”