What the Larycia Hawkins’ Case Means for Evangelical Colleges

Larycia Hawkins speaks on Jan. 6, 2016, at First United Methodist Church in Chicago. Religion News Service photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
Larycia Hawkins speaks on Jan. 6, 2016, at First United Methodist Church in Chicago. Religion News Service photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Wheaton College, arguably the premier evangelical Christian school in the country, is now out to fire its first-ever tenured black female professor, purportedly for violating its doctrinal statement.

Her alleged sin: She posted on her Facebook page that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God” — and purportedly did not satisfy the administration’s follow-up theological questioning.

In this process Wheaton College has managed to offend women, African-Americans, Muslims, Christians who do not agree with a narrow and questionable interpretation of the college’s statement of faith, Wheaton students who have been positively served by Larycia Hawkins’ work, and every academic who thinks tenure protections and academic freedom exist precisely for these situations.

My theory, based on many years of being a part of the evangelical higher education world, including many visits as a speaker at Wheaton College, is that it’s about fear.

It’s about the world of conservative white American evangelicals, who feel embattled in America today. Increasingly, they are hunkering down in a reactionary posture.

It’s visible in the difference between the public persona of Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham, who now, sadly, speaks for him. It’s visible in all the legal actions being taken by evangelical schools to protect themselves against government mandates.

Conservative evangelical institutions such as Wheaton are governed and supported by people who are not only theologically conservative but also politically conservative.

I would wager that the boards, top administrators, and biggest donors of most self-identified evangelical schools vote Republican 95 percent of the time. Recall that in every recent presidential election, 75 to 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for the GOP candidate.

Evangelical Christian universities walk a tightrope. They are precariously balanced between the need to build a faculty that is academically respected and the need to satisfy the demands of very conservative donors, trustees, and parents.

They have to pluck graduates from mainly liberal research universities and find or develop enough of them who can toe an explicit conservative theological line and an implicit conservative political line. This is no mean feat.

Like every evangelical school, Wheaton has a conservative doctrinal statement, and seeks to hire faculty who believe it.

Hawkins read and signed that statement, and to this moment says that she remains in compliance with it. My theory is that what Hawkins really violated were the implicit but very real political preferences of Wheaton’s constituency, not the school’s explicit theological standards.

And that’s the nub of the problem. A doctrinal statement cannot protect a school from accidentally hiring someone who will sometimes offend a 95-percent politically conservative constituency.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
David Gushee