One of the nation’s premier evangelical educational institutions — Wheaton College — is under intense fire for its decision to begin termination proceedings against Larycia Hawkins after she publicly declared her belief that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” (I wrote about the controversy on the home page last year and outlined the traditional Protestant argument that Muslims do not, in fact, worship the God of the Bible.) Terminating a Christian professor — or any other employee of a Christian institution — for expressing beliefs out of line with the organization’s statement of faith is common and should be uncontroversial. Christian organizations have the same right to define their mission and message as any other expressive organization. Does anyone think it’s unjust that the Sierra Club won’t hire fracking advocates or that LGBT activist organizations aren’t open to Christian conservatives?
But this is Christian higher education, and the Left is taking direct aim at Christian academic freedom and institutional liberty. In 2014, it launched an ill-fated attack on Gordon College’s accreditation, and last month the LGBT Left issued a report loudly condemning Christian colleges for having the audacity to exercise their statutory and constitutional right to opt out of Title IX. So it should come as no surprise that the Left is rallying around Professor Hawkins, trying to pressure Wheaton into yielding on its statement of faith.
Writing at CNN, Wheaton professor Timothy Larsen eloquently defends his college:
Wheaton College is a covenant community. We faculty members all voluntarily allow our beliefs and practices to be held to account by the standards of this community. We annually affirm the college’s statement of faith and agree to abide by the manner of life in its covenant. Prayer, worship, study and work all exist side-by-side in the regular rhythms of our lives on campus. In most people’s minds, I think this makes us more like the Abbey of Monte Cassino than the University of Illinois.
Indeed, for some of our most thoroughgoing critics it means that we are not at all like the University of Illinois. A statement of faith, they assert, prohibits academic freedom and thus disqualifies us from being a genuine institution of higher education.
It feels differently from the inside. The vast majority of the professors Wheaton hires come either straight from a Ph.D. program at a major, secular school or from teaching at a secular university. Again and again they revel in the luxurious, newfound academic freedom that Wheaton has granted them: For the first time in their careers they can think aloud in the classroom about the meaning of life and the nature of the human condition without worrying about being accused of violating the separation of church and state or transgressing the taboo against allowing spiritual reflections to wander into a conversation about death or ethics or hope.
This is all true, but a radical academic leftist reads those paragraphs and merely sees something like, “Blah, blah, blah, I’m a bigot.” While Christian academics like Larsen see real value in the secular academy — even declaring that he “would not want every institution of higher education to be like Wheaton” — all too many members of the secular Left see no value at all in Wheaton. It’s merely another target in the culture wars, and it has to reform or die.
So far, the Left has merely used its powers of persuasion to try to move Wheaton from its statement of faith, but Gordon College’s recent ordeal shows that schools that don’t conform to leftist orthodoxy may soon face consequences far worse than a barrage of negative news coverage, and cases like Hawkins’s will be the pretext.