What the Larycia Hawkins case means for evangelical colleges (COMMENTARY)

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Larycia Hawkins speaks on Jan. 6, 2016, at First United Methodist Church in Chicago. Religion News Service photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Larycia Hawkins speaks on Jan. 6, 2016, at First United Methodist Church in Chicago. Religion News Service photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

(RNS) Wheaton College, arguably the premier evangelical Christian school in the country, is now out to fire its first-ever tenured black female professor, purportedly for violating its doctrinal statement.

Her alleged sin: She posted on her Facebook page that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God” — and purportedly did not satisfy the administration’s follow-up theological questioning.

In this process Wheaton College has managed to offend women, African-Americans, Muslims, Christians who do not agree with a narrow and questionable interpretation of the college’s statement of faith, Wheaton students who have been positively served by Larycia Hawkins’ work, and every academic who thinks tenure protections and academic freedom exist precisely for these situations.

My theory, based on many years of being a part of the evangelical higher education world, including many visits as a speaker at Wheaton College, is that it’s about fear.

RELATED STORY: Larycia Hawkins ‘flabbergasted’ by Wheaton’s move to fire her

It’s about the world of conservative white American evangelicals, who feel embattled in America today. Increasingly, they are hunkering down in a reactionary posture.

It’s visible in the difference between the public persona of Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham, who now, sadly, speaks for him. It’s visible in all the legal actions being taken by evangelical schools to protect themselves against government mandates.

Conservative evangelical institutions such as Wheaton are governed and supported by people who are not only theologically conservative but also politically conservative.

I would wager that the boards, top administrators, and biggest donors of most self-identified evangelical schools vote Republican 95 percent of the time. Recall that in every recent presidential election, 75 to 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for the GOP candidate.

Evangelical Christian universities walk a tightrope. They are precariously balanced between the need to build a faculty that is academically respected and the need to satisfy the demands of very conservative donors, trustees, and parents.

They have to pluck graduates from mainly liberal research universities and find or develop enough of them who can toe an explicit conservative theological line and an implicit conservative political line. This is no mean feat.

Like every evangelical school, Wheaton has a conservative doctrinal statement, and seeks to hire faculty who believe it.

Hawkins read and signed that statement, and to this moment says that she remains in compliance with it. My theory is that what Hawkins really violated were the implicit but very real political preferences of Wheaton’s constituency, not the school’s explicit theological standards.

And that’s the nub of the problem. A doctrinal statement cannot protect a school from accidentally hiring someone who will sometimes offend a 95-percent politically conservative constituency.

Such troublesome faculty — I was once one of them — repeatedly force administrators to have to explain to trustees and donors that academic freedom protects professors who offer unwelcome political views, as long as they do not violate the school’s doctrinal statement.

Recall that what first caught everyone’s attention at Wheaton was Hawkins’ decision to wear a hijab on campus in solidarity with Muslims. Sources at Wheaton tell me it was not the first time that she had irritated the Wheaton administration by taking public, politically uncomfortable positions.

But in this political climate, I am sure protests from key people in the Wheaton constituency went through the roof. All of a sudden, there was a problem with the professor’s adherence to the doctrinal statement.

Nowhere in that doctrinal statement does it say explicitly that to believe Muslims and Christians “worship the same God” is out of bounds. It is certainly quite possible to argue either side of the issue today, from an explicitly evangelical perspective.

Consider evangelical theologian Miroslav Volf, who defended Hawkins in a recent response to the Wheaton controversy and has long argued for the exact point that got her in trouble.

So Wheaton is essentially saying this: Tenure will not protect you if you too visibly offend the conservative political views of our constituency. Whatever conservative politics looks like right now, that also is mandatory for faculty. The same is true in many other evangelical colleges and universities.

That’s another victory for culture wars polarization and another loss for higher education — not to mention Christian witness in American culture.

(David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. His RNS blog is titled Christians, Conflict and Change)

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  • By saying that Christians & Muslims worship the same God, Ms Hawkins in effect denied the Trinity, the Nicene Creed, and the deity of Jesus Christ. In defending herself she appealed to Roman Catholicism in that the RCC has held the same doctrine for centuries, thereby denying the Reformation. Her dismissal had ZERO to do with “white conservative politics”. It was clear that because of her race and gender that she was not vetted properly. A “wolf in sheep’s clothing” was accidentally hired, and once she was discovered Wheaton College has done what was absolutely necessary. They fired her, and not a minute too soon. She is not a Christian. Wheaton College does not want to join the long list of colleges started by Christians (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc…) that are now openly hostile to the Christian Faith. Weeding out frauds, liars, and pretenders such a Ms. Hawkins is a wise policy.

  • m r

    It seems to me that Dr. Hawkins merely extended John 10:16 and the concept of an immortal Jesus. If Jesus is immortal, then it is possible for the fact that Jesus is quoted in the Koran to be a fulfillment of the prophecy in John 10:16. However, this may disturb many Christians and Muslims who have not conquered their impulse to hatred.

  • Ted

    Have female students at Wheaton begun to wear hijabs in support of Professor Hawkins? That could be embarrassing for Wheaton.

    I’m a Gordon grad, and I find this affair strangely similar to the stand against same-sex marriage that President Lindsay took last year. I think both moves—or the circling of wagons afterward—were politically and financially based, and not necessary to have been taken for the sake of Christian education.

  • Doc Anthony

    Both the Bible and the Koran prove that Dr. Hawkins’ theological position is flat-out WRONG. Compare:

    The Bible, Matt. 1:21 — “She (Mary) will give birth to a Son, and you are to call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

    Matt. 1:23 — “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means ‘God with us’).”

    John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. ”


    The Koran, Sura 5:72 — “Pagans indeed are those who say that God is the Messiah, son of Mary. The Messiah himself said, “O Children of Israel, you shall worship God; my Lord and your Lord.” Anyone who sets up any idol besides God, God has forbidden Paradise for Him, and his destiny is Hell…”

    The Koran, Sura 5:75 — “The Messiah, son of Mary, is no more than a messenger like the messengers before him…”

    Hawkins really IS…

  • Doc Anthony

    … really IS wrong. If she won’t withdraw her statement, then Wheaton just needs to fire her. Drop Hawkins if necessary, but do NOT drop the Bible!!

  • Ben in oakland

    If I had to make a guess, Ted, this is what I’d say.

    Prop. 1: it should be of no surprise to anyone that this isn’t about sincere religious belief, not really, but about an ancient and durable prejudice which has long been disguised as belief.

    Prop. 2: in the last 35-40 years, conservative Christianity has defined itself by anti-gay, making being antigay central to being a True Christian (TM). You see it here all of the time. How did this little sin become The One Sin? There was a lot of power, money, self-righteousness, and good ol’ prejudice, plus a lot of self-hating homosexuals anxious to deflect attention.

    Having staked everything on the antigay, having made it central to Christianity, and failing to understand that the closet is failing as an enforcement mechanism, they are in danger of losing everything, as they are losing even young evangelicals today on this subject.

    Power, money, influence, wholly imaginary superiority, and camouflage– all lost.

  • PhD.unce

    I think you are wrong. I have been following the press coverage of this situation and Larycia has consistently been defiant. She has not done a single contrite thing.

    Now TIME is reporting that the provost bopped two professors over the Facebook posts that got Larycia into trouble. The other professor immediately deleted the offending posts; Larycia doubled down on hers.

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  • Leonard

    Jews don’t accept Christ as the Messiah. So the God of Israel cannot be the God of Christ. Yes, I guess that’s just as logical as the argument that the God of Christians is not the God of Muslims, and indeed was the conclusion of some ancient Gnostic groups.

  • Leonard

    I don’t think Dr. Gushee is suggesting that Dr. Hawkins should make statements of contrition, as neither Drs. Gushee nor Hawkins believe that she has done anything wrong. So in what sense is Dr. Gushee “wrong” because Dr. Hawkins has not expressed contrition?

  • David Gushee points out an inconvenient truth that evangelical institutions are frightened and bullied by the influential and wealthy.
    At the root of Professor Hawkins inquisition is not a purported theological heresy but rather her solidarity with Muslims when they are under attack by by fear-mongering demagogic media pundits and political candidates.
    As for theology, the parable of the Good Samaritan points out that the one who is merciful is commended while the religious circumspect are not. And let’s face it, Samaritans were a heretical offshoot of Judaism. As an Abrahamic faith analogy, one could say that Samaritans to Jews is comparable to Muslims and Christians.
    Question. Do non-Trinitarian Jews pray to the same God as Christians?
    Evangelical scholar Chris Wright points out, no religion saves. The Christian religion does not save anyone anymore that Islam. Jesus saves. The Christian faith witnesses to Jesus as Savior. Islam does NOT carry that witness. But Muslims pray…

  • JohnJay60

    You did not actually read her response, did you?

    “I am guided by evangelical theologians like Timothy George, John Stackhouse, Scot McKinght, and Miroslav Volf, as well as the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic tradition, as expressed in both encyclical form (e.g. Nostra Aetate 3.1) and Pontifical writings (e.g. John Paul II, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”). Like them I acknowledge that the statement “we worship the same God” is a simultaneous “yes” and “no” to the question of whether Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) turn to the same object of worship, namely, the “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6). On the “yes” side, both Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) confess that God is One (Deut. 6:4). So, yes, Christians and Muslims (and Jews) affirm fully that “that God is the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”

  • Phil Hoover

    Professor Hawkins violated the terms of her tenure and her contract. She violated them with a publicly-stated heresy. She should be terminated.

  • George Nixon Shuler

    I recall from John Killinger’s “Ten Wrong Things I Learned From A Conservative Church” this comment he made about statements faculty have to sign at these places in order to be politically correct: “I have no doubt most signed this fiction in order to remain gainfully employed.” Cultural landmarks like this just seem to continue to signal the fear of the future so prominent in our culture war dead enders. And why not? When love and peace rule, their power and control is over, and they know it.

  • George Nixon Shuler

    Oh, and I think you made a typographical error at the end: you meant “Christian whiteness” not “witness,” right?

  • Great article