Grace College, leopards, faces, and life under Trump

Grace College, leopards, faces, and life under Trump May 9, 2024

“It feels like it’s only a matter of time before I or anyone else cross an invisible line we didn’t know was there, and are determined to not be ‘missionally aligned.'”

That’s an unnamed employee at Grace College, a white evangelical “Christian college” in Winona Lake, Indiana, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal or retaliation or Inquisition or whatever it was that just happened to Prof. Matthew Warner.

What does “missionally aligned” mean? No one knows. No one is able to know, because it could change at any moment. And when it changes, you must change — while pretending that nothing has changed — or else you, too, will be found out of alignment with the mission of The Party.

Grace College professor ousted after online commentators flag ‘woke’ social media posts,” the headline at RNS says. The subhed explains why this story — these stories, plural — is/are so unnerving: “It’s the latest in a string professor terminations at Christian colleges seemingly tied to clashes over narrowing and often unspoken political and theological criteria.”

Kathryn Post puts the sudden, vaguely explained firing of Grace’s well-like communications professor into the context of several other similar recent stories:

As Christian colleges vie for a dwindling number of incoming students, many are struggling to navigate the chasm between the convictions of conservative stakeholders and those of their more theologically, politically and racially diverse faculty and student bodies. In many cases, precarious finances have led schools to prioritize the former. Last year, English professors at Taylor University and Palm Beach Atlantic University were dismissed after receiving alumni, donor and parental criticism for their teachings on racial justice, though both had been teaching on that topic for over a decade.

OK, but why I am talking about this like it’s a big national story?

Because this is a big national story, even if it may seem like a minor incident that only needs to be covered by niche publications like Religion News and maybe the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Because this is how it works. And this is what the Heritage Foundation’s “Project 2025” and all the other groups planning a second Trump administration are planning for all of America if the former guy pulls a Grover Cleveland and wins the election in November.

Maybe you’ve never heard of Grace College (or Taylor University, or Palm Beach Atlantic). Maybe you’re thinking, “So what? Conservative schools have conservative rules and faculty who can’t follow them should expect to get fired.”

But the thing about those rules, as Post reports, is that they are unspoken, unwritten, and ever-changing. You take a job teaching computer science at some white evangelical college and you think you know what the rules are, where the lines are. The school is white evangelical, so you have a general idea what that means — abortion-is-murder-ism, LGBT people are expected to embrace lifelong singleness and chastity, young-Earth creationism. Maybe you sign a doctrinal statement or a community standards statement that includes a few curiously elastic phrases, but you imagine you’ll generally be OK because, after all, you’re just teaching computer science. As long as nobody asks where the rare earth elements in the semiconductors come from, you should be able to navigate all of that without any obvious problems.

But then the rules change. There’s no official announcement of this, but suddenly everyone just kind of realizes that a new unwritten rule exists and a new invisible line has been drawn. Some trustee or big donor gets a bee in their bonnet about Obamacare and suddenly opposition to contraception is a new mandatory stance. Vaccination is now “controversial.” Climate change has become such a third rail that you’re not sure if you can safely talk about energy efficiency. A student asks you if you think that Black lives matter and rather than saying what any decent person would obviously and always say — “Of course!” — you worry it’s a trap. You realize you can’t be sure what the new rules are today and you have no way of knowing what new rules might arise tomorrow.

And the people creating and enforcing these wild, arbitrary new rules are exactly the people doing it in this RNS story about Grace College.  Right-wing “activist Moms” on Facebook riled up by professional online activists working for sloppy right-wing groups like Turning Point USA.

Those awful characters think they have a handle on life under authoritarianism. They like the idea of Wilhoitian conservatism, under which there is an in-group whom the law protects but does not bind and an out-group whom the law binds but does not protect. They’re confident that they can live safely under such a regime because they are certain that they are, and always will be, secure in their position as members of that in-group.

They are sure, in other words, that the leopards will never eat their face.

Well, they are mostly sure of that. So just to be extra safe, they busy themselves directing the leopards’ attention to other peoples faces. They become informers, suck-ups, toadies, narcs. They collaborate, spy, investigate, fabricate, and accuse. They will scour the social media accounts of every teacher and professor and librarian looking for anything that can be twisted into evidence of heterodoxy in violation of the new rules, calling for any violators to be defunded and defenestrated.

Authoritarian Republicans are already formalizing the work of these vigilante collaborateurs. This is the enforcement mechanism built into Texas’ draconian anti-abortion laws. And it’s why groups like “Moms for Liberty” are being bankrolled and elevated by Republican officials.

The rules are vague, unwritten, and ever-changing. And the worst people you can imagine will be empowered to create them, to change them, and to enforce them.

If you want to know what a second Trump administration will look like, that’s the plan. That’s the plan as written and advertised. And if you’re thinking it might not be so bad for you because you’ve got money, or whiteness, or maleness, just remember that the best case scenario under such an administration is that you will be like a communications professor at Grace College, constantly monitored by right-wing activists and permitted to work only at the whim of deranged wealthy trustees.

Even if you imagine you’re “missionally aligned” with conservative authoritarians it’s only a matter of time before you cross an invisible line that you didn’t even know was there.

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