This has not been a good 12 months for Wheaton College, the would-be shining evangelical city on a hill in Illinois.
Last May, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Dennis Hastert, the college’s most exalted alumnus among the powers and principalities, was accused of withdrawing large amounts of cash to pay off a young man he had sexually molested as his wrestling coach years earlier. The problem for Wheaton was that back in 2008 it honored Hastert by establishing the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Faith, Politics and Economics (FPE).
So the college acted quickly to wash its hands of the matter. In a succession of public statements, it expressed its sadness over the accusation; accepted Hastert’s resignation from the Hastert Center’s advisory board; and then, after his federal indictment, announced that it had “redesignated” the center to remove the Hastert name. Lest anyone think otherwise, it declared that “[t]he College has not been implicated in or associated with any of the allegations in this matter.”
After that embarrassment, in December along came the L’Affaire Hawkins, wherein political science professor Larycia Hawkins, the sole tenured black woman on the faculty, was suspended for updating her Facebook status to the effect that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The outside world heaped heaped obloquy on the college while students and faculty demanded her reinstatement, until in February the parties settled on a parting of the ways.
Now we are back to the Hastert business. As reported by my RNS colleagues David Gibson and Emily Miller, OneWheaton, an organization of gay students, alumni, and supporters, has written an open letter to the administration criticizing it for failing to denounce Hastert and calling out three members of the FPE board for writing letters to the judge asking him to treat Hastert leniently.
In the wake of the Dennis Hastert’s admission of guilt and subsequent sentencing, with the details of his abuse now public, we call upon Wheaton College to issue an unequivocal statement strongly condemning Hastert’s abusive and deceptive behavior and expressing solidarity and support for Hastert’s victims.
That’s the least the college should do. Wheaton claims that it “serves Jesus Christ and advances His Kingdom.” The mission of the center that bore Hastert’s name is to promote understanding of the “redeeming effects of the Christian worldview on the practice of business, government and politics.”
I’d say that key part of the Christian worldview, as enunciated by Jesus in Matthew 23:28, is to renounce “whited sepulchers” — those who “outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” And that goes in particular for someone who causes harm to children. As Jesus says in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, “Better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
“I really know nothing of the details of this case but know that today, Dennis Hastert is a man devoted to others,” Floyd Kvamme, the California venture capitalist who funded the chair of the FPE’s director,” wrote to the judge. “While his current situation may reflect mistakes in how he structured his withdrawals from his bank accounts, he is not a deceitful person,” wrote C. William Pollard, another wealthy member of the FPE’s advisory board.
Dennis Hastert not only did terrible harm to children decades ago but in recent years did what he could to keep his past behavior covered up, paying $1.7 million to one of his victims and lying to federal authorities when asked about it. He is the personification of a whited sepulcher. The moral indifference to this on the part of the advisory board members entitles them to be relieved of their positions.
“Mr. Hastert’s legacy and legend are gone,” said U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon after the former Speaker was sentenced to 15 months in prison. “In its place are (sic) a broken, humiliated man. That is as it should be.” Wheaton needs to figure out ways to show the world that it too understands that this is as is should be.
Update: Today, Wheaton issued a statement on the Hastert sentencing that begins:
Because Wheaton College houses a center formerly named The J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy, the College has received a number of requests for comment on the sentencing of former U.S. Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert.
It proceeds to state: “Sexual abuse is clearly and fundamentally incompatible with Christian ethics.” Good to know.