Why Wheaton College Could Face a Long-Term Fallout Over Hijab-Wearing Professor Controversy

Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on Dec. 22, 2015. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on Dec. 22, 2015. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

The controversy over a tenured Wheaton College professor who said Christians and Muslims worship the same God has many former students concerned that the episode dealt lasting damage to the reputation of evangelical Christianity’s flagship college.

The Tribune spoke with many Wheaton College alumni who said the school’s handling of the dispute raised questions about what their alma mater represents and teaches.

“I think that any time an executive action is taken against a faculty member for beliefs or practices, the majority of people will see that as problematic regarding its reputation,” said John Higgins, 31, a 2007 graduate. “Does it have an effect? Yes. Is it as big as people think? No.”

Larycia Hawkins donned a hijab last December to show solidarity with Muslims during a rising tide of anti-Islamic sentiment following the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. She posted on Facebook a photograph of herself in a hijab with the message, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book.

“And as Pope Francis stated,” she continued in the posting, “we worship the same God.”

Within days, the college placed Hawkins on paid administrative leave and by the first of the year, they took steps to fire her. College officials said that not clarifying what makes Christianity distinct from Islam put Hawkins in conflict with Wheaton‘s statement of faith. Earlier this month, the college announced it had reconciled with Hawkins, but she would not return to teach.

Many alumni say they weren’t surprised by the controversy. Energy drink entrepreneur David Vanderveen remembers a tour he took of his alma mater six years ago when he was being courted as a donor.

As the college president, the Rev. Philip Ryken, showed off the west suburban Chicago school’s cutting-edge science labs to Vanderveen, the former Wheaton student recalled Ryken saying that students were expected to accept the belief that mankind descended from Adam and Eve — one of the college’s core tenets found in its statement of faith.

As a result of what he perceived to be the school’s conservative bent, Vanderveen never gave the college another dime.

“What it smelled like to me was there was this right-wing Republican ideology permeating the school that didn’t seem healthy to me,” said Vanderveen who had reconciled with Wheaton after the college threatened to expel him in 1990 for publishing a lewd poem in the school newspaper. He left the school on his own.

Ryken acknowledged that the Hawkins dispute raised “a number of significant issues within the Wheaton College community.” But he said it also has created an opportunity for the school to restore and strengthen its connection with the world outside the campus.

“As I’ve said before, these challenges have threatened our unity in carrying out our mission,” Ryken said. “My hope is that prioritizing the healing that needs to take place within the Wheaton family will have a positive effect on the relationships that need to be restored beyond our campus.”

The conflict also stoked an emerging conversation in the American evangelical movement about who can claim the evangelical label, what they believe and how that should be conveyed to people of other faiths in an increasingly globalized society.

“We used to send missionaries off to Arabia. Today … (Muslims) are dating our kids,” said Richard Mouw, a theologian and former longtime president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. “They’re our neighbors. We owe it to this generation to be very clear, much clearer than we have been. I think this conversation at Wheaton is a wonderful opportunity for us to maybe get into the question of how do we dialogue with people of faiths.”

Research shows that there is a disconnect between white evangelicals and the Muslim community, as well as people of other faiths or no faith.

A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 27 percent of white evangelicals know someone who is Muslim, and even fewer know someone Hindu or Buddhist. Meanwhile, 49 percent of black Protestants, largely evangelical, said they know a Muslim. When asked to rate their feelings about people of another faith or no faith, black Protestants gave Muslims higher ratings than Mormons, atheists, Hindus or Buddhists. White evangelicals gave atheists and Muslims the lowest rating.

Along with alumni, some evangelical scholars were disheartened by Wheaton College’s handling of the Hawkins controversy.

Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass., said he was not as surprised as he was saddened by the events that unfolded at Wheaton. He has been urging Wheaton’s board of trustees to encourage and create opportunities for students to interact with — and find common ground with — people of other faiths for several years. He said religious diversity in America is “nothing but good news for evangelicals.”

“Living in a pluralistic context and learning hospitality, practicing hospitality — the evangelical tradition has great promise in those areas,” he said.

But that evolution has been a slow process for some American evangelicals, Johnson said, and unfortunately, Wheaton did not fully embrace Johnson’s advice and build bridges with the Muslim community before Hawkins stepped out to show that hospitality in her own way.

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SOURCE: Chicago Tribune – Manya Brachear Pashman