Monday, February 8, 2016

Christian College Culture

Wheaton Chapel

Christian Colleges - know before you go

Wheaton College was in the news because questions about statements by a professor were questioned. The communication became public. Since then I've hear that professors are being cautious or have been cautioned about what they may say.

Christian colleges declare their beliefs and values. Freedom of speech is restricted as is the freedom to pursue some research. That's why I say, "know before you go." Know what you are committing to as a student, faculty, or staff member.

Seven Facts About Christian Campus Cultures

1. The Statement of Faith is taken seriously.

Read the statement of faith and decide if you believe the words. Life's too short to put on an act. If possible, it's obviously best to learn or work at a place where your beliefs and values mesh with those of the organization. If your views or values change, move on. Organizations change slowly, so working for change may not happen during your time at the school. The Wheaton College controversy is one example of a conservative Christian college where specific professions of faith matter. Although Wheaton is characterized as evangelical, it is not close to the fundamentalism espoused by other Christian schools (i.e., colleges or universities).

Of course there are closet agnostics, atheists, and liberals at Christian schools and organizations. As in any culture, survival often requires they remain closeted until graduation. Some didn't take the statement of faith seriously when they came. Some students attend under pressure from parents. Some people (students, faculty, staff) discover their different beliefs and values while at school.

Living amongst people holding conservative values and beliefs helps define identities for those who share the beliefs and those who do not. And some schools (and organizations) change their policies to become more restrictive in response to constituent complaints.

2. Behavior codes must be followed.

The behavior code of Christian schools is a plus for those who want a setting that emphasizes abstinence from alcohol and other drugs, modesty in clothing, polite language, and restrictive rules on clothing, art, film, music, gambling, and sexuality. In addition to these cultural elements, Christians enjoy the freedom to worship according to their faith tradition. Many students report favorable memories. Many faculty and staff enjoy their work at their school.

For some offenses students, staff, and faculty can be dismissed. Schools post their behavior codes online or in handbooks and expect students and faculty to comply. If you are not used to the rules, it can be naïve and risky to believe you can make some newly reformed behavioral changes last for several years. If you are used to drinking alcohol or smoking, what are the odds you will abstain for the years you are at the school? Limitations on sexual expression are often clearly stated. Check the prohibitions before you sign up.

Of course, some drink alcohol, use drugs, curse, watch porn, and gamble. But the official environment does not support those acts. There are various negative consequences for those who are caught.

1920s swimwear

3. Academic freedom is very restrictive.

Some would say you do not have academic freedom at a Christian school. If you agree with the doctrine and values of the school and the parent Christian group (e.g., Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal), you will likely find the school to be a good fit. In fact, you may feel quite free compared to how you might feel at a secular school where certain Christian worldviews are debunked or treated with derision.

Although not anything goes at secular schools, the contrast in what you can express at a secular school and a conservative Christian school is noticeable.

In addition to being careful to comply with the school’s theology, students, staff, and faculty must be careful about expressing views contrary to the policies and official positions of the school. Be careful to note the official position of the parent organization e.g., the specific church group linked to the school.

At conservative Christian schools, faculty get in trouble if they seem to openly support same-sex marriage, LGBT rights, evolution, alcohol, marijuana, and exceptions for abortion.

In the USA, you may be reprimanded or harassed for openly supporting Democrats and not supporting Republicans. You will be suspect if you criticize actions of the United States unless you are criticizing actions taken by a member of the Democratic Party. You must support the U.S. military. Pacifists are rare and have been harassed.

But, try being an Evangelical Christian at a major State University and expressing a conservative Christian worldview. Some examples below suggest limitations on free speech at public universities when that speech violates the values and beliefs commonly held at the secular institution.

4. Critical thinking is limited to safe topics.

If any of my colleagues read this, they might object. Christian schools are places where students and their parents can feel safe that they will not be exposed to a non-conservative Christian worldview (at least not as a viable alternative). The Christian school is a place where the teachings of their church will be upheld. A conservative Christian school is no place for liberal Christians, people of other faiths, or no faith at all.

Some Christian school faculty are proud of the critical thinking of their students and believe they teach critical thinking. But my point is, there are certain topics that are not permitted in public discussion. Students who come to the belief that human evolution is true, the universe happened as a result of a “big bang,” or believe any of a number of conservative theological positions or social values are not true need to be quiet in public settings. Because the faculty are not free to openly discuss many controversial views, they cannot help students fully explore thinking that is critical of core beliefs and values.

Here's the risk. Any bright student who learns critical thinking in their discipline might apply the same analyses to the religious or spiritual beliefs and values of their school, denomination, or even Christianity itself. Because they are not free to publicly express their emerging views, those views are not subject to vigorous critique.

5. Heterosexuality without sex is the rule

The official position of conservative Christian groups is that a Christian marriage is between one man and one woman. Conservative Christian schools are places to enjoy nonsexual relationships with the opposite sex.

Premarital sex is forbidden. The plea for explaining what is and is not "sex" often results in funny and graphic descriptions- some examples below.

There is no way same-sex relationships can be endorsed by a Christian college when leaders have publicly expressed their disapproval. Conservative Christian schools can be a challenging environment for sexual minorities. (For example, see Zavadski, 2015).

Some conservative schools have recently become more interested in providing a supportive environment for sexual minorities but that is a long-way from supporting romantic relationships and marriage. Messages can include condemnation of homosexuality (the old term is still in use), testimonies of conversion to heterosexuality, expressions of "love the sinner and hate the sin," and the importance of celibacy.

Of course, students of all sexual orientations attend conservative Christian colleges. Also, students, faculty, and staff have sexual relations outside of marriage. Single women become pregnant. Some must leave the school.

Some students live by the subversive mantra "oral is moral" or the belief that anal sex preserves virginity. When it comes to sex, students draw fine lines between guilty and not guilty. But administrators do not view sex as students do.

6. Women may have a lower status than men.

Evangelical Christians are divided when it comes to legitimate roles for women. Take a look at the administrators and board members- how many are women? Now take a look at the theology or Bible departments--how many faculty are women? Even if a school's theology embraces women as equals, the hiring practices of the school may not support their expressed views.

Of course, at some schools, women may not hold a position of authority over a man. This remains  a current issue (See Moon, 2014).

Other Christian schools are proud of their support of women in leadership (for example, Charisma, 2014).

The bottom line question: Can you support either the official or manifest attitude toward women at the school?

7. Racism is NOT in the distant past.

When I was considering a Christian college, I asked a friend about his recent experience. He told me some funny things he enjoyed doing with friends. We laughed. Then he told me that he was refused service at a local hangout. He is black. It's true, I am old. But take a look at the leadership on your campus. What percentage of board members, administrators, and faculty are ethnic minorities?

One of the subtext issues in the Wheaton College-Hawkins issue was the fact that Hawkins is an African American. News stories commented on the low percentage of African American faculty on the Wheaton campus.

The issue of race or ethnicity is not just an issue at Christian colleges. It is a problem for all humanity around the world. But race and ethnicity get highlighted in the U.S. when discrimination persists in the host culture.

Who should care?

  Students need to be careful to choose wisely because they are often bound to certain conditions for about four years.

  Parents need to be aware because the rules and expectations influence the 24-hour campus environment of their adult children as well as the content of what they will and will not learn.

  Faculty need to be aware of the rules and expectations because it is not always easy to move from one setting to another once a reputation has been established.

  Taxpayers have a stake in religious schools and organizations. The beliefs and values taught at religious schools influence society--especially when graduates become influential leaders. As a society, we support many, if not most, religious colleges and universities. Many students receive federal aid and many are on work-study programs. A tax exempt status obviously reduces revenues to the government. If we were to remove federal funds and tax exemptions, many religious schools would fall on hard times.

Tales of Christian Colleges

Some stories are funny. Others are not.

I was called by an administrator because a student thought I said something critical about President George W. Bush. In a later year, I was given an Obama cap when a student trip visited Kenya. There were no negative consequences but it is a reminder that Christian colleges are Republican strongholds.

As a student, I wrote an essay for a public forum that referred to William James' famous quote about the "bitch goddess success." When I saw the posting, the word "bitch" was removed by the censors.

Friends across the USA have shared their memories...

-Women report having their skirt lengths measured. Apparently the Christian battleground is the knees rather than the ankles of yesteryear or those of other faiths.

-A psychology professor was investigated about his expressed view that there is a biological basis for same-sex attraction.

-A mower complained about the skimpy clothes the female students wore (presumably, he was not cutting a straight path). I never heard a complaint from male students.Nod did I hear complaints about skimpy clothes on male students.

-A Christian college professor apologized to a Rabbi for the questions his students asked about her salvation. She responded that she is used to Christian students trying to convert her.

-An art professor complained that his students were deprived because he was not allowed to use nude models in art class. Conservative Christian colleges still vary on nudity in art issues.

-A woman complained about an empty bottle of alcohol used in a school play.

- A male Christian college professor angrily complained about the low cut tops on female students--apparently interfering with eye-contact during lectures.

- A Human Sexuality professor was not permitted to use textbooks that contained drawings of nude persons.

- A school's swimming pool was reportedly buried underground to avoid dealing with issues of mixed bathing.

-A woman opposed to gambling shut down a raffle fund raiser at her college. Rumors abound of students bragging that they lived off their winnings at casinos.

- Challenges about evolution are very common. I have known several professors who do not disclose their views to avoid dealing with angry students and their parents-- not to mention the administrators.

-A group of young graduates from a conservative Christian school, which teaches abstinence celebrated the event at a local bar and several came out as gay.

Old stories reflect changes in Christian campus cultures influenced by the changes in western host cultures. Past limitations are scarce if nonexistent such as limits on men's beards and hair length. Restrictions used to be in place for piercings and tattoos. Dancing is more common-- at least for cheerleaders and in theatrical plays. Midwestern Christians forbade mixed swimming. Curfews vary as do regulations on dating practices but most are more liberal than was true decades ago. But compared to the general culture, conservative Christian schools conserve values and traditions from the past.

And from the press...

> Bryan College takes a stand on creation.
> ORU professor appeared on Dr. Phil and lost his job.
> UNC professor’s Christian views cause trouble
> The God issue at Wheaton and professor Hawkins
> Professor Shea at Boston College
> CCCU member schools and Same-sex marriage policy
> Christian Bethel College professor resigns over creationism
> Nazarene University tenured professor gone
> Moody Bible Institute and the ban on alcohol and tobacco
> Indiana Wesleyan – heat over abortion views
> Azusa Pacific, Fuller, and the case of Ryan Bell
> Professor at Bucks County Community College mentions God- the letter online

Note: I use the word "school" or "college" to refer to institutions of Higher Education. Many of the comments also apply to the Christian cultures in conservative organizations.

Respectful comments are welcome.

My commercial for relevant books

A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures at Pickwick

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Christian Morality

1 comment:

  1. "I use the word "school" or "college" to refer to institutions of Higher Education. Many of the comments also apply to the Christian cultures in conservative organizations." Yes, the same holds true of many churches. Though I found my Pastor much more receptive to my thoughts than many members of the congregation. Sadly when one is only exposed to a limited or narrow perspective than confusion often comes when confronted by the world of other ideas.