The Depoliticization of Conservative Christian Colleges?

Are evangelical colleges and universities becoming more cautious about identifying themselves with political (not theological) conservatism?

This month’s issue of Christianity Today features a brief story following up on the recent resignation of conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza from the presidency of The King’s College (TKC), a conservative Christian school in New York City. Reporter Melissa Steffan tells of a TKC student asking interim president Andy Mills if the school would continue to associate itself so closely with D’Souza’s politics:

Logo of The King's College (NY)“[TKC] is a Christian college. Period,” Mills said. He reiterated the point in an interview with CT. “We are reaffirming the reason students came here. Students come here for the [Christian] mission and vision.”

In the presidential search that led to D’Souza’s hiring, TKC published a list of “‘true ideas’ that distinguish King’s within … higher education,” including “biblical competition” and the right to “seek prosperity and risk bankruptcy.” TKC no longer lists these on its website.

TKC was not the only Christian school to include economic and political theory among its core commitments. But changes have been afoot at similar schools that have positioned themselves as conservative in more than just theology.

Steffan notes Patrick Henry College provost Gene Veith’s claim that conservatism at that Virginia school has become “more sophisticated” after a faculty-administration struggle six years ago, and a spokesman for Colorado Christian University contacted for the story seemed to duck a question about pro-life, free-market, family-value language in CCU’s strategic objectives: “[CCU wants] to be known as a Christian university first and foremost.”

David Dockery, president of Union University
David S. Dockery – Creative Commons (Mrelhak4)

I tend to sympathize strongly with the position of Union University president David Dockery, whose words closed the CT story:

We have to be reminded that our calling is to serve the kingdom of God and the church through Christian higher education, first and foremost. When the focus is only in the cultural sphere, we run the risk of missing our calling.

So I wonder if those of you who work in the Christian college world have noticed a depoliticizing trend of the sort described by Steffan.

As one way of checking on this for myself, I browsed through the websites of King’s, Colorado Christian, and then the three members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) that were among the nation’s top 10 “most conservative” according to the College Prowler student-generated rankings that featured in an earlier post of mine on the political identities of evangelical colleges: Biola University (6), Grove City College (9), and Geneva College (10). (Note: King’s doesn’t get ranked because it hasn’t had enough student responses. Colorado Christian is #16 on the list.)

A couple remain rather up-front about their embrace of political, as well as theological, points of doctrine. Start with The King’s College…

If it is stepping back from its historic connection with political conservatism (which certainly didn’t begin under D’Souza… From August 2007 to January 2011, TKC’s provost was conservative journalist Marvin Olasky), I’m not sure you’d know it from its website. This morning its home page linked to an article by TKC politics professor David Innes in World magazine (edited by Olasky), extolling the virtues of the free market and defending his earlier argument (during the gas shortage brought about by superstorm Sandy) that price gouging “might just as well be called ‘crisis market pricing’ or even ‘neighbor love.'” The press release about Innes’ article is followed by this piece of King’s boilerplate: “The King’s College educates students in the ideas upon which nations rise and fall. With a focused curriculum in the liberal arts tradition, students are prepared to help shape, and eventually to lead, the institutions of government, civil society, media, law, business, education, the arts, and the church.”

Next on the page was a link to an article by King’s professors David Corbin and Matthew Parks in First Things, in which they criticize Mitt Romney for abandoning the arguments that won Republicans congressional and gubernatorial gains in the 2010 midterm election, choosing instead “to run a non-ideological campaign—with disastrous electoral results.”

I don’t mean to imply of course, that such arguments are indefensible or out of place on a college campus. On the contrary, it’s good to see them expressed in an academy that is too easily pegged at the other end of the spectrum.

But in the absence of links to alternative points of view from the Christian faculty of King’s (the other faculty publication link on today’s homepage features David Tubbs’ argument, written with Robert George, in The National Review that the Supreme Court should stay out of the same-sex marriage debate and defer to state governments), I think it’s fair to ask whether King’s still has an implicit list of “true ideas” that shapes its curriculum, teaching, and hiring decisions.

It’s also suggestive that the “Letter from the President” now signed by the interim president, Andy Mills, is (as far as I can tell from a quick comparison) identical to the one written by Dinesh D’Souza that appeared on the King’s website in 2011 (still available through archiving engines like the one known as The Wayback Machine. Here’s the letter from D’Souza’s predecessor, J. Stanley Oakes, which concludes that “For all of the sophistication and prestige of elite colleges, too many of their professors teach spent ideas – ideas that had ill consequences in our generation. Why is this? The intelligentsia in America are wrong about God, human nature, wealth, power, marriage, poverty, family, sex, America, liberty, peace, and many other decisive issues.”)

Grove City College central quad
Grove City College – Wikimedia

Of the four other reputedly conservative CCCU schools whose websites I perused, one is — if anything — even more open and less apologetic about its politics than King’s: Grove City College of Pennsylvania. It’s not clear from the homepage, but click the “About” page for GCC and you’ll learn that it “operates on a balanced budget, refuses federal aid and remains virtually debt-free, proving that higher education can operate responsibly by providing an affordable, first-rate education without government funding or mandates.” It elaborates on this philosophy on a page entitled “Benefits of Independence“:

Grove City College teaches, advocates and operates under the principles of free market economic theory….Grove City College exemplifies the American ideals of individual liberty and responsibility—Grove City College practices what it preaches.

Similar principles are expressed on a “Faith and Freedom” page.

Likewise, among Colorado Christian’s other strategic objectives (posted on its website), one finds the bullet point quoted in the CT story: “Colorado Christian University shall… Impact our culture in support of traditional family values, sanctity of life, compassion for the poor, Biblical view of human nature, limited government, personal freedom, free markets, natural law, original intent of the Constitution and Western civilization.”

But such language doesn’t show up on CCU’s home page, nor in its Vision and Mission, an “Essence of the University” statement, or in a lengthy discussion of “The CCU Difference.” Indeed, that last page doesn’t even mention “politics” or “business,” though it does proclaim that the university “emphasizes the development of compassion, social concern, and a sense of social justice in the lives of its students.”

But is this evidence of depoliticization? Using Wayback Machine, it seems that CCU “About” pages going back to 2004 are similarly devoid of explicit reference to political ideals (though I could be easily convinced that there’s plenty of coded language, or phrases that non-evangelicals would view askance).

Logo of Geneva CollegeGeneva and Biola, by contrast, include nothing now (or in recent history) that strikes me as being especially wedded to any 21st century American political ideology on their About pages. For example, while the explanation of Geneva’s Mission Statement acknowledges that the college’s motto “might be thought to be a conservative political motto,” it situates that slogan in the history of a political movement that, in its day, was viewed as radical or progressive:

We believe that there is no such thing as a neutral theory or neutral societal institution. They are either for Christ or, by virtue of their failure to confess and obey Him, against Christ.

Historically, Geneva College applied this theology to the political life of the United States by the recognition that our Republic has a fundamental flaw: the framers of the Constitution failed to confess God or Christ. Therefore, the founders of Geneva College adopted a protest position that declared that wherever Christ is not confessed, believers must dissent. Moreover, they believed that this failure to confess Christ resulted in the institution of slavery-that slavery was inimical to biblical faith. Therefore, they acted in reasoned, non-violent civil disobedience. In the 1860s Geneva College was a station on the Underground Railroad, which sought, against the law of the land, to hide and transport freed slaves. The College motto, Pro Christo et Patria (Latin for “For Christ and Country”), which might be thought to be a conservative political motto, meant, in that historic context, to be for Christ in such a way as to call the nation to repentance.

Geneva’s “Foundational Concepts” (adopted in 1967 and modified in 1996) are strongly flavored by Reformed theology, but make no obvious reference to political conservatism. Here too, neither the Concepts nor Mission Statement page seem to have been drastically changed in the years archived by the Wayback Machine (2007 to the present).

So let me come back to my question and solicit some comments: Do you see evidence that evangelical colleges and universities are stepping back from identifying so publicly with political conservatism?

Postscript: I’m sure that at least one reader has mentally objected that Geneva and Biola (like Colorado Christian, other CCCU members, and several Roman Catholic schools) have filed lawsuits against the Obama administration in the wake of the Department of Health and Human Services mandating that faith-based organizations (exempting churches) provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraception. I’m not sure this issue fits so neatly into partisan cubbyholes: one of the signatories of a June 2012 letter to HHS secretary Kathleen Sibelius urging a broader exemption was Ron Sider, a leading progressive evangelical and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, and he was joined by evangelical leaders like Leith Anderson, Richard Mouw, and David Neff — none of whom comes to mind as a knee-jerk Republican culture warrior.

2 thoughts on “The Depoliticization of Conservative Christian Colleges?

  1. While some might call it “depoliticization,” others might say it is a retreat from more conservative or libertarian political identifications to more centrist or neutral identifications. Are there any conservative christian colleges who in mission or vision or doctrinal statements that identify them with political liberalism, perhaps (and here I may step on someone’s toes) identifying with active social justice outlook? George Fox? Calvin? Berea? Goshen?

    1. It’s a good question, Eric. Using the same set of rankings from my earlier post… The only CCCU schools that are perceived (by students in the College Prowler system) as being more liberal than conservative are Eastern University, Eastern Mennonite University, and Trinity Christian College (the one in Palos Heights). I think EMU would be tricky, since while “justice and peace” shows up right away on its homepage, that’s so closely bound up with the Mennonite heritage (that overlaps or intersects with contemporary American politics but has its own distinctives) that I’m not sure if it ought to be viewed as a mirror image of a non- or interdenominational evangelical school that trumpets free markets, property rights, etc. At least when I checked this morning, Eastern’s website features a story about an upcoming event called “The Justice Conference” and the mission statement elaborates on a particular concern to “work with and for the poor, oppressed, and suffering persons as part of our Christian discipleship”… but as I noted in the original post, Colorado Christian also uses “social justice” language in its mission documents. Trinity… At first glance, I think what would most stand out to an outside observer is all the “Reformed tradition” language, including a statement that would be unlikely to be read outside the tradition as left-leaning: “…those who teach and learn are called to be coworkers with Christ in subjecting all cultural activities to the reign of God.”

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