Evangelical colleges have much to say about the Billy Graham epoch and its aftermath

Pundits say evangelical Protestantism, so long led by the late Billy Graham, is faltering in the United States (though not overseas) and split over Donald Trump-ism in politics and morals as well as certain religious differences.

Upon Graham’s passing, by handy coincidence, journalists can obtain fresh insight from the new “Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education” (Oxford University Press) by Adam Laats, professor of educational history at Binghamton University. Unlike many scholars not personally part of  this subculture, Laats takes these believers seriously on their own terms, minus scholarly condescension.

Laats thinks dozens of Christian colleges undergird the movement’s cultural impact and political conservatism in the U.S. They also demonstrate the interrelations between militant “fundamentalists” and the somewhat more open “evangelicals.” His book and its very title apply those two tricky terms confusingly and interchangeably, but the details provide writers valuable context on the historical definitions.

He spent endless hours in archives at six non-denominational campuses to document their achievements and conflicts. (Laats largely bypasses theologically similar denominational colleges, seminaries, and ministries on secular campuses.) The findings would enrich a journalistic visit to profile one of these six. Fresh reporting will be essential because the book’s narrative largely trails off  before recent developments.

Here are the campuses, listed in order of founding.

* Wheaton College (of Illinois, not the Massachusetts Wheaton):  Graham’s alma mater has been a liberal-arts college throughout history that traces to 1853 with re-founding by slavery foes in Lincoln’s 1860. Selective and often dubbed the movement’s equivalent of Harvard, it leads evangelicalism’s elite vs. fundamentalism. But it remains staunchly conservative, recently forcing out a tenured professor over affinity with Islam, and winning federal court exemption from Obamacare’s contraception mandate.

(Of GetReligion note: Wheaton alums include columnist Michael Gerson, author of a big Atlantic cover story critiquing Trump-era evangelicalism, religion reporters Sarah Pulliam Bailey at The Washington Post and Elizabeth Dias at The New York Times.)

* Gordon College (Wenham, Massachusetts): This school, an anchor of Northeast evangelicalism, is named for a foreign missionary pioneer and was founded in 1889 as the Boston Missionary Training School. After several bids, it won regional accreditation for liberal arts in 1961. In 2014, Gordon escaped a challenge to accreditation, not over academic quality but its belief in Christianity’s traditional limitation of sex to heterosexual marriage. That’s the sort of threat that roused reluctant votes for President Trump. Note related NPR reportage on LGBTQ issues here. (Full disclosure: Gordon granted The Religion Guy an honorary doctorate in 1989.)

* Moody Bible Institute (Chicago, Illinois): In 1899, the correspondence and night schools of the Chicago Evangelization Society became this friendly though fundamentalistic urban campus named for evangelist Dwight L. Moody. It has always specialized in Bible and missions, but the four-year degree programs were granted regional accreditation in 1989. The Feb. 3 issue of World magazine detailed Moody’s current institutional tumult.

* Biola University (La Mirada, California): The school’s name stems from its origin as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. Founders in 1908 included Union Oil President Lyman Stewart, who helped bankroll “The Fundamentals” booklets from  which that movement took its name. But today’s school counts as evangelical. Biola won regional accreditation for liberal arts the same year as Gordon. Laats’s rundown on campus life and evolving rules for student conduct, typical for such campuses, is especially interesting.

* Bob Jones University (Greenville, South Carolina): Opened in 1926 and named for its founder, BJU is strongly “fundamentalist,” for instance affirming that God created the universe in “six literal days.” Graham, who eventually led more moderate “evangelicals,” was among students who quit the authoritarian reign of Bob, who was succeeded as leader by three descendants through 2014. A pivotal 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling stripped BJU of federal tax exemption over its  Dixiecrat ban on interracial dating. BJU rescinded that race rule in 2000 and regained tax exemption last year. In 2006 BJU won regional accreditation, something Bob spurned.  

* Liberty University (Lynchburg, Virginia): This school, launched in 1971, provided collegians a rival to Bob Jones, free of the Joneses. Founding Pastor Jerry Falwell was proudly “fundamentalist” and the school agrees with BJU on six-day creation. It won regional accreditation in 1980 and adopted the current name in 1984. Substantial development since features graduate programs in 55 subjects and massive online enrollment by which Liberty claims to be the world’s biggest Christian university. Among guest speakers: George H.W. Bush, Ted Kennedy, John McCain, Ronald Reagan, Mitt Romney, Bernie Sanders and, of course, Donald Trump (more than once). 

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