Jun 09 2009

The Left At Christian Universities, Part 12: Revisiting the Evangelical Mind

Category: affirmative action,diversity,higher education,Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 9:48 am

The previous post in this series is here.

At the Carnegie Foundation, we find an article regarding the issue of diversity at Christian universities and colleges:

Rallies sponsored by Promise Keepers, the parachurch movement that appeals to men to renounce their sins, are more racially integrated than faculty meetings at Stanford or MIT, and multiculturalism is as likely to be celebrated at a typical evangelical megachurch as it is at Wesleyan or UC–Santa Cruz. The reason is simple: contemporary American evangelicalism is extraordinarily diverse. African Americans are strongly attracted to Pentecostal and evangelical forms of worship; increasing numbers of Hispanics have left their Catholicism behind to be born again; and Asian immigrants, primarily from Korea and China, have fueled evangelical growth from California to Massachusetts.

Yet despite all this ferment, America’s evangelical colleges are not diverse institutions by any stretch of the imagination. Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, which trains more evangelical clergy than any other institution in the United States, is stunningly multicultural, but its success in this area has not been matched by undergraduate institutions. Only about 2 percent of Wheaton students are African American, for example, compared to 8 percent at Earlham and 7 percent at Oberlin, similar but non-evangelical Midwestern institutions. Among universities, Baylor has a relatively robust African-American percentage (6 percent), but it is still lower than at nearby public universities such as the University of Houston (15 percent) or the University of Tulsa (8 percent).

One reason why evangelical colleges lag behind secular ones in their ability to attract a racially diverse student body may be because of their relative lack of religious diversity.

Here the article spends several paragraphs singing the praises of “religious diversity” and praising the choice, where it has occurred, to sacrifice “communal understandings” for the sake of “diversity,” at institutions like Baylor, Boston College, and Brandeis.   And then:

…Does the lack of religious diversity at evangelical colleges contribute to the lack of racial diversity? In theory, it should not. Faith statements say nothing about race and in that sense should attract anyone who subscribes to the faith in question, irrespective of skin color. But in practice, faith statements reinforce a history of appealing to particular communities, particular high schools, and particular churches, which is not the way to bring to campus those who might offer fresh perspectives shaped by backgrounds and upbringings different from those of the Christian students typically attracted to these schools. Diversity, unlike tap water, cannot easily be turned on or have its temperature adjusted.

Boy, ain’t THAT the truth.  As I’ve pointed out in other posts, diversity seems always to come with a giant slice of Left-progressive cake, whether or not it’s iced with God talk and scripture quotations.

But this is what evangelical colleges and universities are trying to do. They want students from many racial backgrounds to attend so they learn to speak in the language of diversity, but they also want to preserve their particular religious identity so they also speak in the language of uniformity. Because evangelical Christianity is itself so multiracial, colleges that speak in its name ought to be more diverse than secular ones. But because they lack sufficient appreciation for diversity in all its aspects—religious and intellectual, as well as racial and ethnic—they fall behind secular institutions in their ability to bring together students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

The writer of this article is nibbling at some truth, but seems reluctant to bite into the gooey center. Yes, it’s true that once a Christian university begins to “diversify” in a certain way, it often brings with it some issues that challenge the mission of the university as it may have been previously understood.  The problem is simple:  Christian universities who want to be diverse have too often selected representatives for diversity who are from the Left.  After awhile, somebody notices this, identifies it as a problem, and is then at risk of being labeled “anti-diversity” or even “racist” when instead they are merely anti-Left and pro-traditional-Christian understandings about faith and values.  The faster a Christian university tries to “diversify,” the more likely it is to have these problems.

There’s really only one solution for Christian universities that want to “diversify” and still maintain their traditional Christian focus.  The solution is to go slow.  Don’t be stampeded by strident activism on the part of anyone, faculty, students, trustees, administration, or whoever.  Carefully consider each step, each new hire (not just minorities, but everyone), each new policy, each new position, from the standpoint that asks, “How will this affect our traditional understandings of ourselves, our Christian mission, and our institutional heritage?”  Be aware of the danger in bringing to campus as your “diversity representatives, speakers and role models” people whose orientations are not consistent with those of your institution.  That doesn’t mean you should never bring them.  It does mean there is danger in a steady diet of them, and they should be balanced, at a minimum, by speakers who support your institution’s traditional perspectives on major issues, but who also see value in gradual “diversification.”

Either there are plenty of “minority” people who basically agree with an institution’s heritage and traditional perspectives on Christianity, faith and values, or there aren’t such people.  If there are, the institution will be well advised to find them, instead of simply bringing as many “people of color” to campus as possible, from whatever perspective, and hoping that everything turns out well.  On the other hand, if there aren’t many “people of color” that can be identified who will support an institution’s traditions, a choice is required:  either diversify, or maintain the traditional identity.

What a Christian university or college must not do is to pretend that there is no issue here, and that diversity is an intrinsic good that transcends all other considerations.  In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss the issue of “white diversity activists” who frequently seem to be a greater danger to the traditional ethos of Christian institutions than the minority ones.  These white activists, in a spasm of white guilt, seem to believe that their commitment to diversity will only appear genuine if they full-throatedly embrace the agenda of the Left.  But whether from whites or minorities, it is the connection of diversity to the Left that is the problem.  “People of color” who see this problem are at risk of being labeled “Uncle Toms.”

Unstated by the author of the article quoted above is this:  all the institutions that have embraced diversity at the cost of theological community have moved farther Left in the last couple of decades, or were reasonably Left to start with.   It is an open question whether they will identify with any religious roots they may have had, over the next couple of decades.  Even now, a quick visit to their web portals does not reveal any immediate evidence of religious heritage or religious intent, unless a person really digs around a bit to find it.

Christian universities have a choice to make, in the end.  They can please the world, look good in US News and World Report (and on Carnegie websites), make their accrediting agencies smile and dance, and try to look respectable to secular, “progressively” oriented universities (which is to say, most of them), or they can understand that by their mere presence and identity, they ARE the diversity in higher education already, and do not need to make themselves “look like” other institutions for the sake of a soundbite, a photo op, or a bit of statistical data.

The next post in this series is here.