Down here in Nashville (I live just outside the city in beautiful Columbia, Tennessee, home of the world-famous “Mule Day“), the local news has been dominated by Belmont University’s battle with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. In what is becoming an old story, Belmont — after receiving more than $50 million and untold thousands of students because of its formal affiliation with the Tennessee Baptists — wants to declare its independence. It seems that a bit of local prestige and financial stability is all that is required to cause a school to wave goodbye to its heritage and join the dysfunctional academic mainstream.
While the story is interesting on its own terms, I was particularly struck by a quote in this article about the controversy. Commenting on Belmont’s efforts, the good Rev. David W. Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University said, “I think fundamentalism and higher education are not compatible and that’s what’s going on here.”
This statement is simultaneously ludicrous and correct . . . both in ways that Key does not intend. It is simply ludicrous to suggest that fundamentalism (in the sense that Key surely defines it) is incompatible with higher education. In fact, it was “fundamentalists” who brought higher education to this country, founding little-known schools like Harvard, Yale, and literally hundreds of other colleges and universities across the country.
But there is a sense in which Key is correct. Fundamentalism is destroying American higher education, but it is the secular fundamentalism of the radical left. I went to two functionally religious schools, one Christian, the other not. Yet dissent and debate were far more welcome and encouraged at my Christian undergrad than they were at law school. In fact, at law school, dissenters were shouted down, threatened, and sometimes punished. I received written messages like, “I want you to die you f***ing fascist” simply for adopting pro-life positions. Others who dissented from the leftist orthodoxy on homosexual issues found their faces pasted on gay porn and then posted in the hallways. Satirical law review parodies led to calls for speech codes.
As my friend (and ADF colleague) Jordan Lorence often says, our secular universities are really the church schools of the left. To borrow his analogy, mission statements are the new Apostle’s Creed, diversity training (and increasingly the courses themselves) functions much like Sunday School, and speech codes are the equivalent of anti-blasphemy laws. In general, an outspoken atheist at a conservative Christian college is far more likely to enjoy stimulating, civil debate than is an outspoken conservative Christian at one of our elite secular colleges.