Most American colleges were founded as Christian institutions, and the mix of religious faith and morality with scholarly learning was a given in American higher education until the middle of the nineteenth century. In the 50 years after the Civil War, however, the nature of American higher education was transformed, as colleges experienced what historian George Marsden has called, “revolutionary secularization.”
Of course, not all of America’s colleges succumbed to modern secularism. The network of Catholic colleges and universities, in particular, are well known for their religiously rooted distinctiveness. Less noticed—in part because of their absence from big-time college athletics—is the network of Protestant evangelical colleges.
The Christian College Coalition, the national association that represents most evangelical colleges, has a membership of 85 colleges, representing 7,000 faculty and nearly 100,000 students. While these colleges differ in their location, size, and church affiliation, they are committed to the same purpose: to “equip… faculty, students and administrative leadership with a biblical worldview,” and to maintain “the highest academic standards in an environment which fosters spiritual growth.”
To those outside of the evangelical world, and especially among secular elites, the raison d’etre of evangelical higher education must seem odd, indeed, an old-fashioned curiosity at best, and a reactionary threat to modern liberal learning at worst. Regardless of outsiders’ perceptions, however, evangelical colleges have been successful—some of them for over a century—in their pursuit of academic excellence within the context of a distinctively Christian, i.e., theologically conservative, worldview.
Or, to state it in language that those associated with evangelical colleges would understand very well: Christian colleges have done a good job of “integrating faith and learning.” Institutions such as Wheaton College, Houghton College, Gordon College, and Calvin College—to name only a few—have placed their best students in top-flight graduate and professional schools, trained several generations of evangelical leaders, and sent countless other alumni into the “world” in vocations of all sorts.
In doing this, evangelical colleges have made a unique and distinctive contribution to American higher education, and to American society generally. Unlike the secular academy, evangelical colleges have remained committed to the idea of transcendent, universal Truth. They have served as havens for the intellectual defense of orthodox Christianity while teaching a world-affirming Christian worldview.
All of this has been accomplished with a keen sense of the unique nature of evangelical higher education. In other words, evangelical colleges have had a clear sense of what they are all about—until recently. For within the past few years, many of America’s evangelical colleges have experienced a crisis of identity that threatens to undermine their historic distinctiveness.
In large measure, this uncertainty springs from the erosion of the theological and cultural boundaries that previously defined evangelicalism so clearly in this century. Simply stated, there no longer is a consensus about what evangelicalism is. And, because the defining boundaries of evangelicalism are fuzzy, there is uncertainty, particularly among faculty and administrators, about the evangelical college.
This CRISIS of identity erupted in controversy on a number of evangelical campuses earlier this year. At Wheaton College, the board of trustees ignited a firestorm of protest from faculty and alumni after the appointment of Duane Liftin as the college’s new president. Many in the Wheaton community viewed the selection of Liftin, a Tennessee minister who has written critically of evangelical feminism, as an attempt by the Wheaton trustees to impose a narrow theological and cultural conservatism on the college community.
At Eastern Nazarene College, its new president, Kent R. Hill, sparked a protest by students and faculty when he announced that he would hire only committed Christians. In Hill’s case, his error—in the eyes of his critics who ostensibly are evangelicals themselves—was to reaffirm his college’s longstanding policy that all faculty members be evangelical Christians.
Another kind of controversy took place at Nyack College, traditionally one of the more conservative of the evangelical colleges. There, an English professor, again ostensibly evangelical, was fired for wearing a button that advocated tolerance of homosexuality. The college president was also removed—for supporting the professor.
Though each of these incidents arose out of different circumstances, their source is a shared uncertainty about the boundaries of evangelicalism. Historically speaking, evangelicalism has been defined by clear-cut commitments of belief. Today, however, large numbers of faculty at evangelical colleges are uncomfortable with these traditional boundaries, viewing them as too narrow or too conservative. Appealing to popular academic shibboleths such as excellence, diversity, openness, and inclusiveness, they advocate that boundaries be widened—or abandoned.
Unfortunately, the history of higher education is itself quite clear in what it teaches: Without explicit, clearly defined theological boundaries, commitments, and expectations, it is difficult to maintain the religious distinctiveness of a Christian college. Sadly, evangelical Christian colleges are in danger of succumbing to the same secularizing forces that have destroyed countless other Christian institutions.