“Students study the politics of Ronald Reagan and the literature of C.S. Lewis as well as the Bible.”
I read that sentence several days ago and I’ve been poking at it and allowing it to poke at me ever since. It’s a fantastic sentence. What’s remarkable about it, I think, is that it manages to perfectly capture the character of the thing it attempts to describe while, simultaneously, being almost entirely inaccurate. That’s a rare feat.
The sentence comes from an op-ed piece published in The New York Times. It was written by a young student, a junior at a white evangelical college, who gets bonus points for degree of difficulty here. The piece is an attempt to defend the reflexive Republican partisanship that this student and the institution she attends regard as the right and proper and mandatory foundation of white evangelical identity, while at the same time exempting herself, her school, and white evangelicalism as a whole, from any responsibility or culpability for Donald Trump. That is, alas, an impossible feat. Trump is not an aberration from this white evangelical redefinition of faith as Republicanism. He is the culmination of it — the inevitable outcome of 40 years of an aggressive, deliberate, and often cynically transparent campaign that has transformed Billy Graham people into Franklin Graham people.
Christopher Stroop focuses on that aspect of this little essay, and on its inadvertent confirmation of the very thing it attempts to deny.
That’s a worthy discussion, but I’m still stuck on this one sentence: “Students study the politics of Ronald Reagan and the literature of C.S. Lewis as well as the Bible.”
That reads like a caricature — a fantasy stereotype concocted by someone who has recently been told about the existence of white evangelical colleges, but who has never actually seen one. What do you suppose students learn at such a school? Who knows? Ronald Reagan, probably. And maybe C.S. Lewis? Oh, and the Bible, of course.
That last item is the only accurate one. Students at this particular college, like at most evangelical universities, are required to take two semesters of biblical studies (plus mandatory attendance at weekly chapel services, although that’s not the same thing as academic study of the Bible). But “the politics of Ronald Reagan” is not a course of study pursued, or even available, to students there. Nor is “the literature of C.S. Lewis.”
We can imagine useful upper-class electives on either of those subjects, and both would be enormously constructive for young American students from the white evangelical subculture and tribe. Actual study of the Reagan years, and of Reagan’s actual politics, might be a revelatory bit of myth-busting for such students. Such a course would necessarily touch on, among other things: Reagan’s 1976 primary campaign, his “states’ rights” speech in Neshoba County, the Southern Strategy, Jesse Helms and the conversion of the Dixiecrats, the retreat from Lebanon, Grenada, David Stockman and Voodoo economics, the payroll tax hike, the creation of modern deficits, the air-traffic controller strike and the destruction of organized labor, The Day After, Gorbachev and SALT II, AIDS and ACT UP and Ryan White, Thatcherism, Sandra Day O’Connor, the Iran/Iraq War, Star Wars, the creation of a database (or “qaida”) of Mujahideen, Robert Bork, Contras and death squads, and at least a week’s worth of reading and lectures on the Iran/Contra debacle.
Something tells me that students graduating from this school won’t know much of anything about any of that. Mention “the politics of Ronald Reagan” and they’ll think mostly one thing: abortion. And by “abortion” they’ll mean mostly one thing: the unquestionable and unquestioned obligation always and forever to vote Republican.
The bit about studying “the literature of C.S. Lewis” is even less plausible. Lewis was, himself, a college professor, and I think he would have found this idea disturbing. His students read Beowulf and Chaucer and Spenser, and he would have been mortified to think that some college was having students read his books instead of those. What even counts as “the literature of C.S. Lewis”? His fiction includes the seven Narnia books, the sci-fi allegories of his space trilogy, and Till We Have Faces — the retelling of Cupid and Psyche which was his most ambitious literary work.
What this more likely refers to are Lewis’ essays and, especially, his popular works of “apologetics.” Those books are beloved among white evangelicals, who tend to regard Mere Christianity, especially, as a kind of classic. And it is a classic, in the Mark Twain sense of it being a book that everyone admires but no one has actually read. Studying that book, or Lewis’ other “classics,” would likely be unsettling for students coming from the Reaganized tribe of white evangelicalism. It would lead to the sort of strange sensation I had as a child when I realized that all the adults allowing and encouraging me to read Prince Caspian had no clue who the Telmarines were in that book.
What this invocation of “the literature of C.S. Lewis” actually shows, I think, is how frightfully short and stunted the list of “acceptable” literature is for the real audience of this essay. The writer might have name-checked Eliot or Dostoevsky or any of a host of other devout, conservative, and devoutly conservative literary lights, but none of those would have been as recognizable or as obviously “non-controversial” for the controversy-fearing primary audience for whom this essay was written — i.e., the timid, fiercely Republican, parents of white evangelical college students.
I don’t know how much input the administration and marketing offices had in contributing to or altering this student’s essay, but it bears all the hallmarks of having been submitted to their oversight and approval. That may have been explicit — requiring formal approval before its submission, or implicit and less direct. But it carries the unmistakable whiff of a white evangelical college administration that is desperate, above all, to reassure worried parents that their children won’t actually learn anything troubling or disturbing or “liberal” that might lead them to lose their faith or, heaven forfend, question their divine obligation to always vote Republican.
This is one of the most pernicious problems afflicting evangelical colleges. They often seem far more focused on mollifying such fearful parents than they are on educating students. And wherever those objectives may come into conflict, they tend to value the former above the latter.
That’s the worst-case scenario — one in which the desperate need to reassure twitchy evangelical parents winds up distorting the actual content of the education provided to students. The more common outcome is something more muddled — a disingenuous bit of play-acting in which such parents (and ultra-conservative donors) are told one thing while students are taught another. The quality and the content of what students are actually learning has to be hidden from those parents and donors, and students are taught — implicitly and sometimes explicitly — to participate in that deception.
“The earth is 4.5 billion years old,” the professor whispers. “Don’t mention this to anyone when you go home for Thanksgiving break or we’ll all get in trouble.”
Or: “I’ve graded your papers on the Synoptic Problem. Excellent work, class. But again, please just keep this between us. I’ve got a family to feed.”
Or: “Don’t worry, Mom & Dad, we’re not studying anything you wouldn’t approve of. Nothing dangerous or controversial. Just, you know, stuff like Ronald Reagan. And C.S. Lewis. Oh, and the Bible.”