It Is About the Hijab: Wheaton College and the Narrowing Criteria for Evangelical Belonging

Larycia Hawkins speaks about her recent suspension from Wheaton College

Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor at the evangelical stalwart Wheaton College, was placed on administrative leave this past week after donning a hijab to express solidarity with Muslims and publicly claiming that Muslims worship the “same God” as Christians.

Wheaton has maintained that the decision to place Hawkins on leave has nothing to do with her wearing of the headscarf. Dr. Philip Ryken, the college’s president, said in a statement that the “College has no stated position on the wearing of headscarves as a gesture of care and concern for those in Muslim or other religious communities that may face discrimination or persecution.” The issue is, rather, with the theological implications of Hawkins’ claim that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God.” The claim potentially violates Wheaton’s Statement of Faith, which faculty must not only adhere to personally but also represent faithfully as they engage in public issues.

That distinction, however, seems all too convenient and more than a little suspect. For one, it would be irresponsible not to read Wheaton’s actions in light of growing anti-Islamic sentiment and rhetoric in the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, especially when polls have shown that a substantial majority of evangelicals have negative perceptions of Islam.

It also demonstrates a deeper problem. The decision by Wheaton strikes me as part of a larger trend among evangelicals to isolate a person’s beliefs from other social, political, and cultural practices.

Last month the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), in partnership with LifeWay Research, released an “evangelical beliefs research definition” to identify evangelicals in research and polls. Rather than identify evangelicals by self-definition, denominational affiliation, or even political demographics, as is common in polling and research, the new NAE/LifeWay definition hinges evangelical identity on the confluence of four basic beliefs:

The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

These shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who knows anything about evangelicalism, and in this sense the research definition is unremarkable in terms of content.

What is remarkable is the upshot. The stated hope is that the definition will provide a better, more reliable standard for understanding evangelicalism in the United States. The definition makes it possible, for instance, to identify “evangelicals” across different, sometimes ignored spectrums. Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, has said of the definition, “Some people are living out the evangelical school of thought but may not embrace the label. And the opposite is also true.” According to Facts & Trends, which analyzes cultural trends for evangelical leaders, based on the proposed definition, “41 percent of self-identified evangelicals fall outside the new definition of evangelical belief, and 21 percent of those who disavow the evangelical label have beliefs that actually fall within the evangelical definition.”

But it does so by simplifying evangelicalism, casting what makes it ostensibly unique into the murky waters of belief. Evangelicals do, of course, have particular beliefs, and these are well captured in the research definition, albeit in condensed form. Nevertheless, I don’t think any contemporary scholar of religion would reduce religious identification to stated, or even non-stated, beliefs. Religion is a far more complicated affair, encompassing a convoluted mix of material practices, along with other identities as well.

It’s also not clear the extent to which the proposed research definition is biased, and this hinders its usefulness. One could argue that isolating particular beliefs from political demographics actually allows for a greater appreciation of the relationship between the two, but this is not at all the goal of the definition. It is, rather, assumed in advance that what constitutes evangelical belief in the United States ultimately has nothing to do with socio-political markers. Leith Anderson, president of the NAE, has said in relation to the definition, “Evangelicals are people of faith and should be defined by their beliefs, not by their politics or race.”  That “should” is important, since I would suggest that it evinces more a desire to outline what some evangelical leaders want evangelicalism to be rather than what it is.

The fact of the matter is that, according to other surveys, evangelical Christians in the United States tend, as a whole, to be overwhelmingly white and lean politically to the right.

Perhaps such overall trends can be chalked up at least partially to the problem of self-definition that the NAE’s research definition is meant to fix. Fair enough. But in isolating evangelical belief from socio-political forms of identity, we miss the connection between the two. Otherwise put, adopting the NAE’s research definition limits the extent to which particular beliefs might be related to certain sociological markers and political positions.

Case in point: Hawkins.

Hawkins’ wearing of the hijab as an act of solidarity with Muslims (a material, political act) is not distinct from her claim that Christians and Muslims believe in the “same God” (a statement of belief). The two are, rather, thoroughly intertwined and, in this case, reversible: to say that Christians and Muslims believe in the “same God” is also an act of solidarity, and wearing the headscarf is a material statement of that belief.

If that’s the case, then Wheaton’s suspension of Hawkins over theological problems is really about the hijab, and more broadly, it’s about solidarity with Muslims, even if so much isn’t stated. And that has everything to do with Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith, which largely agrees with the research definition offered by the NAE.

Certainly Wheaton College, and evangelicals in general, have the right to believe what they want. But let’s not pretend that the exclusivity and the way it’s articulated and represented in such statements and definitions are politically neutral. In the case of Wheaton College, such beliefs slide all-too-easily into a rejection of Christian solidarity with Muslims, even if the rhetoric doesn’t rise to that of a Falwell or a Graham. This, at a time when solidarity beyond specific differences is needed most.

Contra the NAE, it pays to cast a wider net when seeking to understand evangelicalism—and, I would add, all religions. It especially pays to do so right now.