12/8 Flashback: Synonyms

12/8 Flashback: Synonyms December 8, 2022

From December 8, 2016: “Christian colleges and ‘Christian’ nationalism (part 2)

Just after the 2016 election, two historians — John Fea and Adam Laats — got into a (very polite) argument over the extent to which “Christian nationalism” shapes Christian colleges and universities. They came at the subject from different angles because Fea teaches history at a Christian university (Messiah) while Laats studies the history of Christian higher education from a safe distance (he teaches at Binghamton University).

In an earlier post, I noted how Fea was focused mainly on the views of faculty and students at white evangelical colleges, most of whom, he argued (correctly, I think) were not inclined toward Christian nationalism. Laats was focused more on college administrators, trustees, and vindictive donors, most of whom he argued (correctly, I’m sure) were wholly on board with white Christian nationalism.

I found Laats’ argument persuasive — administrators/trustees/donors set the bounds for faculty and students, not the other way around. And I think he’s right about the overall dynamic in these schools: “Every school has certain poorly defined lines that no one is allowed to cross. Or, to be more precise, it means that the evangelical public needs to feel confident that the school as a whole is not crossing those lines, even if some students and teachers are.”

I’m summarizing all of that, rather than just reposting it, because that just sets the context for the main point of this 2016 post: That “Christian nationalism,” in America, has never existed in any form that was not also white nationalism. And, therefore, what “the [white] evangelical public needs to feel confident” of in such schools is that they will not produce students who question or challenge white supremacy in any way significant enough to threaten its continued survival.

… Laats discusses several examples to illustrate his point. We’ll get back to that in a bit, but first I want to redirect your attention to a piece I highlighted earlier this week as a “smart thing.” Jarvis Williams of the Reformed African American Network wrote about “5 Ways Christian Institutions of Higher Education Can Avoid White Supremacy.”

Williams offers a helpful parallel discussion that approaches similar concerns with a different framework — “white supremacy” rather than “Christian nationalism.” Or, perhaps, it’s the same framework with a different label. Here in America, after all, white supremacy and Christian nationalism have never been wholly distinct and cannot be wholly distinguished from one another. There’s maybe the thinnest old-moon crescent on either side of the Venn diagram of these two things, but for the most part they overlap as two different ways of describing the same ideology.*

It can be a fruitful exercise to go back and re-read the exchanges between Laats and Fea, substituting Williams’ term of “white supremacy” where they discuss “Christian nationalism.” Nothing else about their arguments would need to be changed and the dynamics of evangelical colleges they both describe would still be spot-on. Fea’s contention about the majority of faculty at [white] evangelical colleges would still stand. Laats’ argument that a total rejection of this ideology would jeopardize the perception of those schools as “safe [white] evangelical environments” is just as true.

“King Philip’s Head Is Still On That Pike Just Down the Road”

This parallel is vital to understanding the most prominent example Laats cites of the gatekeeping role that “Christian nationalism” broadly retains at mainstream white evangelical colleges and universities: the DocHawk fiasco at Wheaton.

Laats’ summary of this is worth quoting at length (click through for Laats’ many links to articles providing more documentation and background):

Don’t buy it?

Ask Professor Larycia Hawkins.

If you didn’t follow the case, here it is in a nutshell: Professor Hawkins was the first tenured female African American professor at Wheaton.  She was fired for wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women and for declaring that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worship the “same God.”

Professor Hawkins was defended by Wheaton students.  She was defended by Wheaton faculty.  Yet she was fired.  She and the administration went back and forth several times, eventually agreeing that she would leave without being fired.  Why?  It wasn’t because faculty members actively demanded her ouster.  It wasn’t because students gave her a Randy-Beckum-esque heave-ho.  Rather, it was because her widely publicized thoughts made influential members of the evangelical public wonder if Wheaton had crossed a line.

Does this have anything to do with race?  With a Trumpish anxiety about Islam?  With a sense that the country used to be a better place but progressive changes have ruined it?

Let’s look at the fact of the case again:  She was an African American woman, wearing a hijab, proclaiming the essential one-ness of Islam and Christianity.  And she was fired for it.  I have a difficult time imagining that Trumpish anxieties did not play a leading role.

The administration insisted that the issue was purely theological.  And no doubt it was for many members of the wider Wheaton community.  But we cannot escape the overwhelmingly obvious connection to questions of race, gender, and Trumpish nationalism.  It is not that Wheaton professors were teaching that evangelicalism was the province of white males.  It is not that Wheaton students were prejudiced against women professors or African American ones.  Rather, the anxious leadership of the school, including trustees and influential alumni, could not risk the perception among the wider white evangelical public that Wheaton had somehow crossed a line, had somehow touched that institutional third rail.  They had to act decisively to quash any rumors that Wheaton had turned its back once and for all on the sorts of make-America-great-again notions that have powered Wheaton since the 1920s.

We don’t need to speculate about a “Trumpish” connection in this case. Dr. Hawkins explicitly chose to demonstrate her support and solidarity with Muslim-American women in reaction to a specific threat against them — a threat made, repeated, and embodied by then-candidate Donald Trump. Hawkins wasn’t just raising supposed theological concerns — that was always disingenuous spin, as Wheaton’s provost admitted when he called her allegedly firing-worthy remarks “innocuous.” She was standing up for the specific victims of Donald Trump specifically.

And doing so, in the view of Wheaton’s president, donors, and perhaps parents, cast doubt on the school’s reputation as a “safe [white] evangelical environment.”

The issue here is not that Wheaton’s administrators made a bad decision. The issue was that they imagined there was any decision at all that needed to be made. Nothing Hawkins said or did could be construed as “controversial” or troubling unless one was viewing it from within a pre-existing ideological framework of Christian nationalism and/or white supremacy. Those are what shaped not just Wheaton’s actions, but the bizarre idea that Wheaton needed to act at all. (The school never took any such actions when white male professors said and did similar things.)

Wheaton College (Illinois) is considered a top-tier evangelical school — perhaps the flagship of the fleet. But it’s not just the place that forced out a black female professor for criticizing Donald Trump. It’s also the place that forced out a celibate lesbian chaplain. And it’s the place that sued the government arguing that a fake-science lie about how birth control works was an essential component of its religious doctrine. No, they’re not requiring history students to read David Barton’s horrific books, but that doesn’t change the fact that the school is shaped and governed by something an awful lot like Christian nationalism. (And, thus, by something an awful lot like white supremacy.)

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Does this mean, for example, that David Barton is a white supremacist? I wouldn’t put it quite that way. I would say, rather, that David Barton promotes an ideology that is steeped in, wholly compatible and comfortable with, and dependent upon, white supremacy. His ideology requires him to accept white supremacy, to never challenge it, to deny its existence and effects. Barton himself may not be driven by personal animus (black audiences still have green money, after all), and he might even object to some of the things advocated by self-proclaimed white supremacists. But white supremacists will not find much of anything to object to in the ideology of David Barton.

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