Trump’s Gift to His Fundamentalist Base
Adam Laats is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University (SUNY). He is the author of Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, coming soon from Oxford University Press.
In these days of ever-more-controversial proclamations emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one recent announcement might not get much attention. Yet it signifies an historic shake-up in the landscape of American higher education. According to recent news reports, Jerry Falwell Jr. will head up a task force for President Trump. Its mission? To “pare . . . back” the federal role in regulating colleges and universities.
Falwell, the second-generation president of Liberty University in Virginia, is more than just another conservative Trump appointee. His school is a leader in a unique school network, one founded in the 1920s as a reaction to the academic revolutions that had modernized mainstream higher education in the United States.
A century ago, conservative evangelical Protestants and fundamentalists fretted that mainstream schools had gone to the secular dogs. A fundamentalist task force in 1919 warned that many college students were in “grave danger,” due to the overwhelmingly “skeptical atmosphere” on most campuses. In response, fundamentalists started a new network of dissenting schools. These religious colleges and universities promised a very different type of higher education. As school founder Bob Jones described it in 1928, his new college offered a safer educational environment. If they sent their kids to Bob Jones College, Jones promised, “Fathers and mothers . . . can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teachers will steal the faith of their precious children.”
Along with Bob Jones’s new college (now Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina), a handful of other schools joined in the revolt. Among others, Wheaton College in Illinois, Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and Bryan University in Tennessee (now Bryan College) all committed to a distinctly fundamentalist vision of proper higher education.
Like all religious movements, they disagreed with one another on a number of details. But they agreed that their sort of higher education must remain profoundly different from trends at mainstream schools. Unlike teachers in mainstream colleges, for example, who fought for more and more academic freedom, faculty at fundamentalist schools agreed to guide their research according to strict religious creeds. And students at fundamentalist schools had long lists of behavioral rules to abide by. Until 1964, for example, students at Wheaton College were not allowed to put on plays or even study drama. As one Wheaton president explained, it seemed like common sense to fundamentalists that “theatricals . . . lead young people . . . into a worldly life of sin.”
In addition to these intellectual restrictions and lifestyle rules, the family of fundamentalist schools distinguished itself from mainstream higher education in an even more profound way. Instead of encouraging faculty and students to push the boundaries of knowledge, fundamentalist schools clung to an older vision of higher education. Faculty hoped to pass along a set of stable, eternal truths. Roughly speaking, the goal of fundamentalist higher education was to wrestle with an existing Truth, to decode and understand, not to invent or challenge.
The distinctive elements of fundamentalist and evangelical higher education still remain powerful. Recently, for instance, Wheaton College tried to fire a tenured professor for her theological statements. And Bryan College was sued by two faculty members when Bryan tightened its definition of acceptable creationist beliefs. Among evangelical and fundamentalist schools, violations of religious orthodoxy are still a big deal. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University may have been a latecomer to this dissenting network of religious higher education, but it quickly became the 900-pound gorilla in the room. By investing early and wisely in online education, Liberty has moved closer and closer to its initial goals. As President Pierre Guillermin put it in 1982, Liberty wanted to be the “Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.”
Such ambitions might still be far off, but Falwell’s appointment to a Trump task force has brought Liberty one step closer to the dominant role it has always coveted. And Liberty is not alone. All of the schools that began in the 1920s fundamentalist revolt have yearned to reclaim their place as leaders in American higher ed. Throughout the twentieth century, this never seemed possible. As the preeminent historian of American fundamentalism George Marsden put it, when fundamentalists looked at the landscape of American higher education in the middle of the twentieth century, they saw an “empire in ruins.” Schools such as Yale, Harvard, and Princeton—universities founded by hard-nosed evangelicals—had abandoned their religious roots. Like most mainstream schools, America’s elite institutions embraced a secular, pluralist worldview. They no longer hoped to nurture the evangelical faith of their students and faculty.
When fundamentalists opened their own schools, it was beyond their wildest dreams that someday one of their progeny would get an invitation like Falwell’s. In significant ways, putting a leader of an evangelical college in charge of a federal higher-ed task force represents a major repudiation of the central storyline of twentieth-century higher education. Instead of standing outside the circle of respectable higher education looking in, evangelical universities can now claim to be back on top.