Fundamentalist U: Keeping Faith in American Higher Education, Adam Laats. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Summary: Traces the ways eight institutions that developed with the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920’s responded to the changing fundamentalist/evangelical movement and wider trends in higher education and American society up to the present time.
Adam Laats attended public universities and teaches in one, and does not share fundamentalist/evangelical beliefs. Neither does he share any animus toward these this movement nor the schools that arose during the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920’s. What he does is give us a fascinating and even-handed account of eight flagship fundamentalist/evangelical institutions and how they negotiated the pressures exerted by this complicated and diverse movement and the wider landscape of American higher education and culture.
The schools he studies are Biola, Bob Jones University, Gordon College, Liberty University, Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Westminster Seminary. Each of these were chosen as non-denominational institutions that were aligned with the fundamentalist movement during it rise.
He begins with a brief history of American higher education and the disenchantment of those associated with the fundamentalist movement who increasingly recognized the need for their “own” schools who would adhere to strict interpretations of scripture and prepare young men and women for Christian service. Much of this was a reaction to a perceived Darwinism and theological and cultural liberalism that many felt increasingly characterized not only public institutions but even the church affiliated schools founded in earlier generations.
Succeeding chapters chronicle how administrations, often in authoritarian fashion in early days, attempted to forge institutions that reflected these concerns, and persuaded parents and donors that they were not going soft on biblical fundamentals. This was a challenge as the fundamentalist movement struggled with its own identity and the development of neo-evangelicalism post World War II. Because of the lack of a coherent theological or ethical core, these schools ended up having to negotiate their way between conflicting factions, some more conservative, some more progressive, and some more concerned by the quality of education, or even toward what end these institutions were preparing young people. Were they missionary and ministry training institutions, a place to meet one’s mate, or simply a Christian alternative preparing students for careers in competition with their peers at secular institutions? In truth, they have functioned in all these roles, often with both academic and moral excellence.
Laats describes the different courses schools took. Bob Jones University remained rigorously fundamentalist, separatist, and segregationist. Liberty University also trumpeted the fundamentals, but was on the vanguard of conservative political engagement. Schools like Moody wrestled with their original purpose of simply training Christian workers, offering certificates of completion rather than degrees. Wheaton, Gordon, and Biola had more interesting journeys, trying to satisfy both more fundamentalist and more evangelical constituencies, often being attacked as “soft” by their peers, and more importantly, by an onlooking religious community obsessed with signs of “softness.” There was less said about Dallas and Westminster, although the portrait of J. G. Machen as both sympathetic with fundamentalist concerns, and yet distinctive in his Calvinist confessional stance makes him an intriguing outlier in his time.
Meanwhile cultural forces like the G.I. Bill and accrediting agencies were imposing pressures. Schools had to raise curricular standards so that their degrees were competitive with those of other institutions. Yet they had to do so while maintaining theological purity, particularly on the litmus test issue of their stance on evolution. Some doubled-down on young earth, six day creation stances. Others endorsed creationist stances while conceding the growing evidence for evolution in some form, what was called “progressive creation.”
On race, schools like Wheaton had begun as radically abolitionist, only to adopt a de facto segregationism. Others like Bob Jones, were belligerently segregationist and anti-miscegenationist. With the rise of the civil rights movements and student activism schools had to face their complicity with racist practices while facing pressures not to change.
These pressures extended to the social revolution of the Sixties. Students had always to some extent pressed against behavior codes and the legalism around practices like smoking, dress, and movies that reigned on these campuses. Laats does a good job showing how administrators successfully or unsuccessfully negotiated these pressures and the tug of war between students, funders, and parents.
Not all was controversy. Laats recounts the narratives of students like Betty Howard who met Jim Eliot at Wheaton, and found the ideals of evangelical romantic love “nothing short of a ‘revelation!’ ” Eliot and many did not rebel against but embraced the behavioral strictures of their schools and found them freeing in the formation of their character and faith and missionary calling.
Two things struck me about this account. One is the incredible “fishbowl” within which these institutions have operated. Laats chronicles how various groups thought of these schools as “our” schools and looked for signs of “softness” — deviations from their particular groups definition of orthodox belief and practice. This not only reveals the faultlines of varying and conflicting interpretations of what was “biblical” but what has always felt to me gossip run rampant. I cancelled my subscription to Christianity Today for many years because of what I sensed was an over-preoccupation with this “sanctified” form of gossip (you can see that I’m probably far less dispassionate about this than the author!). Administrators at these schools had an unenviable task in this regard.
The other is the incredible staying power that the creation-evolution struggle has had in its sway over these institutions. Even as science faculty have sought ways to affirm the findings of science and not present them at war with faith, external pressures often have required them to confess adherence to particular creationist interpretations on threat of termination. Laats seems to intimate that there often is a kind of double-speak going on, where what is discussed in the classroom may be at variance with what is promoted among certain constituencies. It raises the question of what academic freedom means on these campuses, a question Laats observed when doing research at Wheaton during the controversy that resulted in the termination of Larycia Hawkins, a tenured faculty member.
These schools and others like them that have emerged in more recent years have had an out-sized influence on the American landscape–in politics, in the media, and other areas. It is fascinating to see how despite the various pressures these schools have faced, the excellent and passionate graduates they have produced. It might be tempting to marginalize these schools on the higher ed landscape. Adam Laats helps us understand both their distinctive history, the subculture within which they have operated, and their significance within our wider culture.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.