Controversy over Wheaton professor’s hijab captures evangelical rift in new film

'Same God' premiered late last month at the LA Film Festival in Los Angeles, selling out so quickly the festival added a second screening. Several more screenings are planned, including showings this month in New Orleans and Chicago.

Wheaton College students protest the firing of Larycia Hawkins on the school’s campus west of Chicago.  Photo courtesy of

(RNS) — Larycia Hawkins never questioned what she should do.

It was days after the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, in which 14 people were killed at a center for people with developmental disabilities. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump seized upon the religion of the two shooters and declared he’d ban all Muslims from entering the country, and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. encouraged students at his evangelical Christian school to get concealed-carry permits because “good people” with guns could “end those Muslims.”

RELATED: Filmmaker crowdfunding documentary about ‘Same God’ flap

Larycia Hawkins wears a hijab in a Facebook post. Photo courtesy of “Same God”

Hawkins wanted to send a different message.

So Hawkins — then a political science professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in the Chicago suburbs — posted a photo on Facebook of herself in a hijab and announced plans to wear it through the Christian season of Advent as an act of “embodied solidarity” with Muslim women.

“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God,” she wrote.

The pushback was immediate. Within a few months, the first black, female tenured professor at Wheaton had lost her job.

Hawkins’ story is detailed in “Same God,” a documentary that premiered late last month at the LA Film Festival.

To filmmaker Linda Midgett, responses to the professor’s act revealed the polarization within both evangelical Christianity and the country as a whole.

The documentary tells Hawkins’ story through interviews with student and faculty supporters who were at Wheaton at the time and with the interfaith leaders who rallied to her side. Several more screenings are planned, including showings this month in New Orleans and Chicago.

So far, audiences’ reactions show the importance of Hawkins’ story and its resonance beyond Wheaton, Midgett said.

“In some ways, I felt like she got her voice back,” she said, “because she lost her voice when she lost her job and she just was kind of shuttled out of the evangelical community.”

What happened at Wheaton was the perfect storm, according to the filmmaker, touching on hot-button issues of theology, race, gender, academic freedom, religious freedom, Islamophobia. Some evangelicals thought that Hawkins was a heretic. Others believed she was doing the things Jesus had told his followers to do.

Promotional poster for “Same God” film. Image courtesy of “Same God”

In February 2016, Hawkins and the college announced they’d reached a confidential agreement and would part ways. 

Initially, the filmmaker also wanted to include in the documentary voices that disagreed with Hawkins’ actions. But officials at Wheaton turned down her requests to participate, she said, and the only people Midgett found willing to talk came from outside the community. That didn’t feel right, she said — she wanted to include people who knew and loved the school the same way she did as an alumna.

In a written statement, Wheaton College said it was aware of the film.

“Wheaton College sincerely appreciates Dr. Hawkins’ contributions to the College during her nine years of service,” it said.

RELATED: Whither Wheaton? An evangelical college ponders its future

In addition to Hawkins, Michael Mangis, a former Wheaton psychology professor, is featured in the film. When the school began termination proceedings against Hawkins, Mangis wore his academic regalia to school along with other faculty in their own act of embodied solidarity for a fellow professor. He also released an email exchange with Wheaton Provost Stan Jones — in which the provost called Hawkins’ statement “innocuous.”

The following spring, Mangis’ contract wasn’t renewed.

Mangis said it was important for him to stand in solidarity with Hawkins. Otherwise, he said, “I’m just complicit and essentially giving my approval to treating people badly because of being  female, being black, being Muslim.”

The documentary “Same God” follows the story Larycia Hawkins, Wheaton College and polarization within the U.S. Photo courtesy of “Same God”

The film also travels to Oklahoma to interview Hawkins’ family and trace her journey of faith and upbringing in the black church where her grandfather was a minister.

Some detractors have claimed Hawkins isn’t Christian because of her actions and the belief she expressed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. But Hawkins said she was motivated by her faith. 

“I think what I really want people to know is that — this sounds strange, but — I’m just a little black girl from Oklahoma City who loves Jesus,” she told Religion News Service. 

Linda Midgett, left, and Larycia Hawkins on the red carpet at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Sept. 24, 2018. Photo courtesy of “Same God”

After a yearlong fellowship at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Hawkins now teaches seminars in the school’s religious studies and politics departments.

At the film’s premiere in Los Angeles, the audience gave Hawkins a long and emotional standing ovation, according to the filmmaker. The moderator of a panel discussion that followed the screening described herself as a lapsed Christian and said Hawkins had reminded her of all the things she had loved about the church.

Muslim women wearing hijabs posed with the movie poster and expressed to Midgett they were glad this had happened so that they could have this important conversation.

Hawkins said she’s been humbled by the response.

“It’s just a joy to meet people who have walked alongside me and embodied solidarity with me from a distance in very poignant ways,” she said. “So this is a love letter to them, as well: People who are Christian and Muslim and no faith.” 

She drew on a familiar verse from the New Testament book of Hebrews, saying she feels she’s been surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses.”

“The cloud of witnesses from Hebrews has taken on a different meaning to me because it’s not just the hall of faith for Christians, it’s a hall of embodied solidarity.”

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