When I headed to graduate school in the summer of 1980, my aspiration was someday to teach at a Christian liberal arts school. With recent developments at several evangelical colleges, I see now how precarious that path would have been.
I had been profoundly shaped by my undergraduate education at Trinity College, in Deerfield, Illinois, from 1972 to 1976. Trinity functioned for me as a kind of halfway house between the fundamentalism of my childhood and the larger world. The intellectual atmosphere was bracing, and it was there I discovered the delights of the life of the mind.
Because my college record was hardly distinguished — I found my intellectual footing late in my college career — I had no assurance whatsoever that I would be admitted for doctoral study. But I aspired to have the same formative influence on students that my mentors at Trinity College had on me.
It didn’t work out that way.
After four years of graduate school, I entered the job market. Over the ensuing two years, I applied for 55 jobs and fellowships and managed to secure only two interviews. My hopes of teaching at a Christian liberal arts college began to fade.
One interview was at Columbia University, the other at Calvin College (now University). Columbia offered me a job. I’m still waiting to hear from Calvin; to the best of my knowledge nearly four decades later, I’m still being considered for appointment as assistant professor of history.
Whenever I’ve received an invitation to give a lecture or speak in chapel at an evangelical school, I’ve jumped at the chance. I’ve done gigs at Wheaton, Houghton, Bethel, Westmont, Eastern Nazarene, Grove City, Greenville, Whitworth, Messiah, Gordon, Calvin, as well as several Baptist schools — although never at Trinity, my alma mater.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had an immensely rewarding, perhaps even borderline distinguished career. But the allure of teaching at a Christian liberal arts college has never faded for me — until recently. (I even applied for positions at several of these schools, but I failed to snag even an interview, though I did receive a lovely rejection letter from the president of Wheaton.)
Recent events at three of these schools — Houghton University, Taylor University and Trinity College — illustrate the perils of teaching there.
At Houghton, where I’ve lectured several times and a former dean remains one of my closest friends, the administration has sacked two staff members apparently for the sin of specifying their preferred pronouns — he/his, she/hers — in their email signatures. I hasten to mention that I believe the listing of pronouns is not only silly, but also that it violates one of the tenets of the feminist movement: resistance to gendered essentialism.
But to dismiss staff members for such a trivial matter strikes me as equally silly, if not downright churlish.
At Taylor University, the administration elected to cancel the contract of Julie Moore, an associate professor of English and director of the writing center. Apparently, Moore had assigned some readings about racial justice, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Although Moore was by most accounts an excellent teacher, a few students had complained that she was teaching the dreaded critical race theory; so the new president, Michael Lindsay, and provost, Jewerl Maxwell, terminated her contract.
One of the stated reasons, according to Moore, was her admiration for the work of Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise, which explores the collusion between Christianity and racism throughout American history.
Tisby himself, who teaches at Simmons College in Kentucky, sees the situation as a part of a “race to the right” in evangelical higher education. “My disappointment is for the professors who are the casualties of these cancel culture models,” he told Religion News Service.
Casualties, indeed. Had I been able to pursue my dream of teaching at an evangelical school, would my status as a “jilted lover” of evangelicalism, someone critical of its dramatic turn to the political right, have jettisoned my academic career? Very likely.
And so, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to pursue my scholarship without fear of censure. When I exposed the abortion myth, for example, the fiction that the Religious Right mobilized in response to Roe v. Wade, should I have expected a summons from my dean at a Christian college? Probably so.
I don’t know the president of Houghton University, and (to my knowledge) I’ve met Michael Lindsay only once, when I spoke at Gordon College while he was president there. I’m confident he does not want my advice, but I’ll offer it anyway.
The pandering to right-wing interests — and donors — is a Faustian bargain, and I’ll cite the third school, my Trinity College, as an example. Trinity was an extraordinary place in the 1970s. The president, Harry Evans, was an intellectually curious man who gave his dean, J. Edward Hakes, and the faculty a very long leash to pursue their intellectual interests and to challenge their students.
Trinity College in those years was an exciting place, a place where students could navigate the shoals of intellectual inquiry without losing their theological moorings. Fundamentalists within the constituency, however, forced the ouster of the president on specious grounds and replaced him with a president willing to pander to conservatives.
The new president embarked on an imprudent, unsustainable expansion program, creating a colossus he grandly renamed Trinity International University. Sadly, Trinity College closed its doors in May 2023.
That’s the danger of allowing monied interests to dictate educational policy. I think Jesus himself said something about God and mammon.
Call me naïve, but I still believe that an evangelical college committed to both theological orthodoxy and intellectual inquiry, even honest conversations about race, could survive, even flourish, in these parlous times.
An Episcopal priest, Balmer is John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, with commentaries appearing in newspapers across the country. He is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.