What the Fight over Allah says about the Future of Evangelical Christianity

When Professor Larycia Hawkins of Wheaton College publicly announced her solidarity with Muslims by wearing a hijab through the holiday season—and stated that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God”—the school put her on “paid administrative leave.”

And now comes the news that Wheaton is moving to terminate her employment.

Beyond the issue of theology, Hawkins’ story reveals that signaling human solidarity with people of other religions is the latest in the long line of perceived threats to evangelical America. Placing Wheaton’s response to Hawkins’ words and actions within the history of those threats helps observers to understand how evangelicalism has evolved over the last 100+ years, and what that might mean for the future of Christianity in America.

Wheaton and other evangelical colleges and seminaries serve as central organizations within the evangelical ecosystem. They both reflect and model evangelical theology, various social-moral expectations, and in general, the correct evangelical social, political and cultural perspective. Further, theology for evangelicals is only partly about belief.

In reality, theology functions to set evangelicals apart from any sort of belief, ideology, cultural expression, political movement, etc., that doesn’t fit into the way that evangelical leaders and their constituents want the world to work.

Through their many rules and guidelines, evangelical schools embody the codification of all of the fundamental fears and desires of the evangelical world. Tracking schools’ responses to what they perceive as threats—not only to their evangelical beliefs, but to their understanding of what American culture should be—reveals the history of how evangelicals view themselves and American culture.

Evangelicalism knows what it is by fighting against what it is not. Take away the threats and enemies, and evangelicalism loses its identity and reason for being.”

In the early 20th century, evangelical fears tended to revolve around keeping the “fundamentals of the faith” distinct from an emerging “modernist” Christianity, which centered around a more “scientific” approach to faith.

One of the main reasons that evangelical Bible Schools and colleges were established was to fight against this new form of rational Christianity—one that subjected biblical and theological claims to scientific inquiry rather than to literal interpretation. Thus, for example, evangelicals rejected claims of the evolutionary origins of the world, or that humans were not special creations of God. One step on the slippery slope of this sort of theological reflection would ultimately lead not only to the end of Christianity but also the end of American culture—or at least the American culture that the mostly white, middle class evangelical world preferred.

By World War II, the concern had broadened to the control of gender and sexuality. New rules were created, governing how and where men and women could interact and dress. Women were required to “cover up” so as to not tempt men with their sexuality, a force that apparently rendered men helpless.

By the 1970s, what we now call LGBT issues were listed in all the school rule books—homosexuality was simply not an acceptable identity for evangelicals, or for anybody else. Also in the 1970s, rules governing the presentation of self were significantly extended to exclude any form of dress that was considered “counter-cultural.” No hippies were allowed: with their long hair, beach flip-flops, jeans and beards.

By the 1990s, “postmodernism” was the primary enemy, with entire evangelical academic careers dedicated to fighting against the relativistic threat to Christianity and American culture. And by the early 2000s, as some faculty members and students began to convert to rival Christian traditions such as Orthodoxy and Catholicism, these were deemed officially incompatible with “true” evangelical Christianity.

These kinds of rules have come and gone over the years, some added, others removed as the tide of time and custom has ebbed and flowed. Long hair and beards became acceptable. Women were allowed to wear pants (even shorts!) instead of dresses, and to teach religion-themed courses (not theology, it must be noted, but Christian education, which was presumably more closely linked to their role in the home as mothers and teachers of children).

As these rules have changed over time, we can see which threats were deemed less important than other, emerging threats. For example, Talbot Seminary in Southern California has long held a prohibition against women being trained to be church pastors. Recently however, with the rise of a new threat related to Title IX and LGBT rights, faculty members are now rethinking the prohibition against women pastors in order to regroup and mount a defense against inclusion of LGBT individuals. They argue for being able to discriminate against anybody and anything that doesn’t meet up to how they think the world should work. And this argument, of course, is always framed as a theological issue.

Make no mistake, many lives have been ruined in the name of theological purity. Professor Hawkins is just the latest casualty.”

Professor Hawkins represents a threat not only to evangelical theological claims about God, but also to Wheaton’s organizational authority. As such, she represents a threat to Wheaton’s existence.

Not only is she not a member of the theology faculty—always the preferred and dominant voice at evangelical schools—but she is also, as Wil Gafney has noted here in RD, an African American woman making a theological claim in a predominantly white and male religious system. Her statements threaten the theological and cultural status quo: she embodies “the other,” both ethnically and now, religiously, despite her eloquent arguments to the contrary.

In sum, the threats that evangelical schools perceive have shifted somewhat over the last 100 years, but the pattern remains: evangelicalism knows what it is by fighting against what it is not.

Take its enemies away, and evangelicalism loses its identity and reason for being.

In my view, focusing narrowly on the purported theological issues that are being raised in the Wheaton College/Professor Hawkins case misses the bigger picture of what the response means for evangelicalism more broadly. Of course, this doesn’t help the many individual faculty and staff members who have been fired, or students who have been kicked out of school for expressing thoughts that may appear to contradict the accepted orthodoxy. And make no mistake, many lives have been ruined in the name of theological purity. Professor Hawkins is just the latest casualty.

But things are changing within evangelicalism. Evangelical schools are facing decreasing enrollments and a declining pool of religiously acceptable students. Other evangelical institutions (such as megachurches) appear to be carrying on as usual, but they are showing signs of stress. Memberships have plateaued over the last several years, and some megachurches are seeking new ways to appeal to younger people—yet younger people continue to leave evangelicalism in large numbers. (Younger folk don’t generally switch traditions within Christianity, but instead they often adopt “no religion in particular.”)

These changes are as much demographic and cultural as they are theological. For many younger evangelicals, the diverse world they inhabit is simply not the monochromatic world that evangelicalism tries to maintain, making the entire evangelical world less inviting for them.

If I were to predict a future for these schools, and evangelicalism more broadly, it would look something like this:

1) Evangelical schools will continue to find threats that provide a foil against which they can define themselves and their view of Christianity and America. Expressing solidarity with people of another religious tradition—Islam in this case—is only the latest in a very long list.

2) Owing to a shrinking pool of “true believers” who can support and attend these schools, many will go out of business over the next 20 years.

3) The reduced number of evangelical colleges and seminaries will retrench and become more aware of policing their cultural/theological boundaries, doubling down on their more restrictive impulses.

4) Because of a general lack of hospitality and care and concern for “the other”— whether theological, gender, class or ethnic—evangelicalism overall will become even more white, straight and politically and religiously reactionary…

5) …which will result, in turn, in even greater numbers of young people defecting from the religion they grew up in. Most will then claim no religious identity (even though they may still believe in God), while a few will move on to other Christian traditions, and fewer still will seek out other religious expressions.

But, this future is yet to be written. If evangelicals want an alternate future, they might take seriously something that Professor Hawkins has written in her “theological response” to the leadership at Wheaton College. As she reaffirmed her fidelity with Wheaton’s doctrinal statement, she maintains that it is because of her commitment to its ideals that she is “compelled to address all human beings as my ‘brothers and sisters.’”

Not a bad application of Christian theology, and one that evangelical institutions at their best have done. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the trend at these important evangelical institutions.