Donate to RNS

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

(RNS) What Hawkins really violated were the implicit but very real political preferences of Wheaton’s constituency, not the school’s explicit theological standards.

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

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)