Evangelicals Today: Whose Culture, which Diversity?

Readers of this journal know that institutions of higher learning are under siege by the advocates of political correctness. The former editor of Crisis, Dinesh D’Souza, alerted the general reading public in Illiberal Education to the dangers of multiculturalism at America’s colleges and universities. Readers also know that accreditors, funding agencies, state and federal governments, and professional academic organizations are pressuring Christian institutions of higher learning, evangelical and Roman Catholic, to conform to the sentiments and aims of political correctness. After all, evangelical liberal arts colleges have not historically been champions of diversity. Most of these institutions reflect the particular religious and cultural experience of northern, white, middle-class, Republican Protestants since the end of the Civil War.

Yet, the pressure to be more “affirming of diversity” has created an atmosphere, ironically, where it is almost impossible to question diversity. This coercion is all the more ironic because it is precisely by maintaining their so-called narrow or parochial identity that evangelical colleges will best contribute to genuine cultural diversity. For the dominant approach to diversity, which looks only at physical characteristics, actually breeds incredible uniformity. If evangelical colleges succumb to the pressures of multi-culturalism they will become just like any other mainstream private or public institution.

Few advocates of cultural diversity within higher education seem to recognize that what counts for culture in the world of hyphenated Americans is very thin indeed. To see how impoverished the multi-culturalist view of culture is, one need only observe what has happened to historic ethnic identities in the United States under the current regime of diversity. One perceptive critic recently noted that by making the Irish indistinguishable from the English — lumping them both together under the category “Anglo” — multi-culturalism has managed to accomplish what centuries of British imperial power could not. The same is true for the Japanese, Chinese, French, and Germans. In America’s current craze for diversity, each of these groups, with millennia of antagonism based on profound cultural differences, is homogenized: the Japanese and Chinese as “Asian,” and the French and Germans as, of all things, “Anglo.” Some culture. Some diversity.

A better approach to diversity is one where evangelical colleges would actually become more homogenous. By remaining evangelical, middle- class, and largely Republican, these colleges could actually encourage diversity. They would keep alive a particular slice of American culture, in the same way that a Korean Presbyterian college or an African Methodist Episcopal college preserve particular ethno-religious expressions. This path to diversity recognizes that culture is first and foremost rooted in the experience of a community at a particular time and place. Genuine culture is local, and the best way to achieve greater cultural diversity is to promote cultural homogeneity at the local level. Only when ethnic and religious communities flourish on their own terms will America have genuine culture and genuine diversity. But pressuring all institutions, from churches and families to schools and colleges, to absorb all cultural expressions eliminates any chance of cultural diversity, local or national.

This is not to deny that such an approach to diversity has important problems. How do middle-class evangelicals, for instance, cooperate with folks from different cultures, while also protecting what is unique to different groups? There is no easy answer, the myth of the melting pot to the contrary. But the multi-cultural approach only perpetuates the old ideal of America as melting pot. According to this myth, all different ethnic groups can be dumped together into a common pot, simmered in public schools, and somehow these distinct flavors will contribute to a savory stew. What many immigrant groups in America long ago figured out was that the food served from the melting pot was incredibly bland. Dominated by the dull seasonings of Yankee culture, each group lost its particular identity.

The melting-pot myth is perpetuated when administrators and faculty at evangelical colleges argue that their institutions should reflect the diversity of America, and even the world. Such thinking arises from the conceit that evangelicalism transcends or has no culture. This view of culture repeats the heresy of docetism, which denied that Jesus Christ had a real physical existence. When evangelicals think that their beliefs and piety — a particular expression of Christianity in modern history — can be poured wholesale into any cultural form, or that every culture can find genuine expression within the bounds of faith and practice of evangelicals, they deny the truth of the Incarnation that on this side of glory Christian faith is always mediated in particular cultures.

Does this mean that evangelical colleges should only admit and hire white middle-class folk? It certainly does not. But it does mean that evangelicals and other Christians who support religious colleges or universities should be more suspicious of contemporary shibboleths about diversity. The minority students who attend and the minority faculty who teach at evangelical colleges share in some meaningful way the religion, ideals, and aspirations (i.e., culture) of America’s entrepreneurial, middle-class Protestants. These caveats about diversity should also put an end to the practice of defining culture by biological traits. If evangelicals care at all about rich, vibrant, and genuine culture, they will weigh cautiously the assumptions made by proponents of diversity about what counts for culture.

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Darryl G. Hart is a religious and social historian. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. He previously served as dean of academic affairs at Westminster Seminary California from 2000 to 2004, taught church history and served as librarian at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, directed the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, and was Director of Partnered Projects, Academic Programs, and Faculty Development at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, Delaware. He is an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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