Sarah Pulliam Bailey dives deep into Wheaton wars and conflicts inside evangelicalism

So have you been waiting for someone who knows "evangelical" stuff to write the "big picture" of what is going on in the Wheaton College wars?

That is precisely what veteran Washington Post religion-beat pro Michaelle Boorstein asked former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey to do the other day. I especially appreciated that this journalistic view from 5,000 feet (or higher) involved the angle that GetReligion has been talking about from Day 1 -- the "who gets to define what 'evangelical' means, especially when jobs are at stake?"

As always, it's hard to critique the work of a former colleague. Thus, I wrote Sarah and asked if she would write a short introduction, when I pointed our readers toward a few key parts of her long, long news feature. Here it is:

I was actually on vacation when the news first broke, so I came back to the story trying to sort out what actually happened, who said what when, why it had turned into such a nightmare for the college. I saw a lot of people posting really simplistic reactions, like the college is racist or the professor equates Islam with Christianity, so clearly people didn't understand the complexities.

And there was, of course, one other interesting question linked to Sarah reporting this story (a question longtime GetReligion readers will have already thought about):

I asked our higher education reporter if I should disclose that I went (to Wheaton College). She said no, unless I'm on some alumni association or something. We have UVA grads report on UVA, etc. It's pretty easy to find through Facebook or Linked In or pretty much anywhere that I went there, but we didn't feel like it was necessary to stamp on the story itself.

So what are the real issues in this doctrinal skirmish?

It’s not the first time Wheaton has wrestled with theology and identity. But the Hawkins case exploded in the thick of a national conversation about the place of Islam, and about race and privilege. Hawkins is one of Wheaton’s five black tenured professors, who make up 2 percent of the faculty, and its only full-time black woman professor. The optics of the debate have also caused controversy, including images of Hawkins in a hijab (though the college has repeatedly said her wearing the hijab was not a problem).
Some saw Hawkins’s comments as a betrayal of Middle Eastern Christians who have been persecuted by Muslims, while others believe that her comments reflect their relationship with Islam. And some have criticized Hawkins for standing alongside more theologically liberal leaders during her press conferences while others criticize the college for taking it to the press first.
The underlying theological debate taking place among evangelicals is complex, and accusations of Islamophobic bigotry or a betrayal of the Christian gospel are not uncommon. The debate has centered on how the Christian belief in a Trinitarian God -- God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit -- differs from the God of Islam and Judaism.
Theologians have debated whether Christians and Muslims understand God in the same way, and if so, whether they worship the same “one God.” Do they define the word “worship” in the same way?

So here is a question that I have been waiting for someone to ask. What are the relevant passages in the Wheaton College doctrinal statement? Might someone at least offer readers a description -- with a relevant URL -- of what is in there?

Bailey's story provides this background:

Wheaton does not decide who is an evangelical, but it does decide who fits within its statement of faith, which faculty are required to sign annually. The statement is crucial for the non-denominational school where beliefs and employment are tied together.
The college’s statement of faith includes 12 statements, including its views on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The statement does not specifically mention whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but the college has the authority to define how the statement applies to theological questions.
Wheaton Provost Stan Jones told students Thursday that the college does not have an explicit stance on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. (Wheaton did not respond to a question about whether faculty can say Jews and Christians worship the same God.)
The initial question was whether Hawkins’s Facebook post violates the statement of faith. The provost requested that she clarify her views.
In a statement from December on its website, Wheaton officials said Hawkins’s post was an “unqualified assertion of religious solidarity with Muslims and Jews.” “We believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths,” they said.
Hawkins released a theological statement she provided to the college in which she affirms the doctrine of the Trinity and acknowledges differences between the two religions.

To state the obvious: I have not taught at Wheaton College. However, I have taught at two other Christian liberal arts colleges and it's pretty easy to see that this story is unfolding on multiple levels.

Like what? Bailey's story notes that this conflict truly became dangerous when it got personal and, in particular, when Hawkins decided that she was being asked to defend her own beliefs to a greater degree than previous professors who have clashed with the school. Thus, she has gone silent. Trenches are being dug.

It doesn't help that questions have been raised about where Hawkins stands on other hot-button moral and doctrinal issues. As Bailey's story makes clear, these are tense times at Wheaton when it comes to culture wars of all kinds.

My hunch is that -- looming in the background -- is the fact that Wheaton Provost Stanton L. Jones had already announced that he would step down from that post at the end of this academic year. So do you think there are divisions inside the Wheaton faculty on a host of issues, doctrinal and moral, and that it is crucial who becomes the next provost (the chief academic officer) in these tense times? You think?

So what are you waiting for? Read it all.

Please respect our Commenting Policy