Bob Jones University

Evangelical colleges have much to say about the Billy Graham epoch and its aftermath

Evangelical colleges have much to say about the Billy Graham epoch and its aftermath

Pundits say evangelical Protestantism, so long led by the late Billy Graham, is faltering in the United States (though not overseas) and split over Donald Trump-ism in politics and morals as well as certain religious differences.

Upon Graham’s passing, by handy coincidence, journalists can obtain fresh insight from the new “Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education” (Oxford University Press) by Adam Laats, professor of educational history at Binghamton University. Unlike many scholars not personally part of  this subculture, Laats takes these believers seriously on their own terms, minus scholarly condescension.

Laats thinks dozens of Christian colleges undergird the movement’s cultural impact and political conservatism in the U.S. They also demonstrate the interrelations between militant “fundamentalists” and the somewhat more open “evangelicals.” His book and its very title apply those two tricky terms confusingly and interchangeably, but the details provide writers valuable context on the historical definitions.

He spent endless hours in archives at six non-denominational campuses to document their achievements and conflicts. (Laats largely bypasses theologically similar denominational colleges, seminaries, and ministries on secular campuses.) The findings would enrich a journalistic visit to profile one of these six. Fresh reporting will be essential because the book’s narrative largely trails off  before recent developments.

Here are the campuses, listed in order of founding.

* Wheaton College (of Illinois, not the Massachusetts Wheaton):  Graham’s alma mater has been a liberal-arts college throughout history that traces to 1853 with re-founding by slavery foes in Lincoln’s 1860. Selective and often dubbed the movement’s equivalent of Harvard, it leads evangelicalism’s elite vs. fundamentalism. But it remains staunchly conservative, recently forcing out a tenured professor over affinity with Islam, and winning federal court exemption from Obamacare’s contraception mandate.

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Billy Graham reaped a media harvest through artless charm, more than promotional gambits

Billy Graham reaped a media harvest through artless charm, more than promotional gambits

As a flood of obits is proclaiming, Billy Graham had remarkable impact. He brought revival meetings from the margins back into the cultural mainstream with unprecedented audiences at home and abroad, changed Protestantism’s dynamics by turning much of fighting “fundamentalism” into the palatable and vastly successful “evangelical” movement and, along the way, befriended and counseled an incredible lineup of politicos and celebrities.

Not least among the accomplishments was winning “good press” for his meetings and his movement. Coverage was not only vast but fond -- even from journalists with little regard for his old-fashioned, unwavering beliefs that that personal faith in Jesus Christ is the “one way” to salvation and that the Bible is God’s unique and infallible word to modern humanity.

How did he do it?

Graham’s well-chosen media team certainly knew how to manage all the usual promotional tactics. Its most spectacular feat of organizational moxie occurred in 1995, when his meetings in Puerto Rico were beamed by satellite TV to sites in 175 countries.

However, The Religion Guy would maintain the secret to media appeal was not such benign artifice but the artless charm of the man himself, his evident sincerity, and, above all, his humility. In these times of political narcissism, it is remarkable to reflect that one of the most famous men on the planet managed to carefully leash his ego, not to mention remain free of scandal. Perhaps only prayer could have accomplished such a thing.  

The Guy reported on the preacher’s last revival meeting (New York City, 2005) for The Associated Press, and 39 years before that had first joined the Graham beat for one of his most interesting forays, covering it for Christianity Today (the evangelical magazine made possible by Graham’s connections).

It was his “crusade” in Greenville, S.C., the home of his harshest critics, the leaders at arch-fundamentalist Bob Jones University, which the young Graham had briefly attended.

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Indiana newspaper relies on one-sided HuffPost report on school vouchers program

Indiana newspaper relies on one-sided HuffPost report on school vouchers program

I'm just not sure where the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette newspaper comes out on moral, cultural and religious issues. That is relevant, I believe, because knowing that might explain just how an Indiana newspaper would come to work with New York City-based website HuffPost (neé The Huffington Post) to cover a major story in the Hoosier state.

While it's not unusual for news organizations to sometimes work together, the HuffPost takes a far more strident stance on many topics -- especially those linked to religion and culture -- than most dailies would. My journalistic question, first of all, is, "Why? Why buddy up like this? What do the readers gain?"

Headlined "Far-right, faith-based views rule in textbooks," the piece, bearing the byline of a HuffPost reporter, takes a decided viewpoint on issues that are probably very important to many in the state: school vouchers, faith-based education and, yes, the free exercise of religion. From the story:

Taxpayers in Indiana are footing the bill for student scholarships to schools that push ultraconservative and sometimes bigoted viewpoints.
More than 30 private schools participating in Indiana's school voucher program use textbooks from companies that teach homosexuality as immoral, environmentalism as spiritually bankrupt and evolution as an evil idea.
Of the 318 private schools participating in Indiana's Choice Scholarship Program -- a voucher program that uses public funding to help students afford private schools -- 36 use at least one textbook or piece of curriculum created by either Abeka or Bob Jones University Press. That's part of the findings of a HuffPost analysis, in conjunction with an in-depth look at vouchers with The Journal Gazette. ...

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An old-now-new question: Should churches and other religious non-profits be tax-exempt?

An old-now-new question: Should churches and other religious non-profits be tax-exempt?

RACHAEL’S QUESTION:

Once in a while I’ll see someone comment online about how taxing churches could help with some of the nation’s financial problems. Would taxing churches help or hurt? How do other countries handle their churches and taxes?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Governments always want more cash. However, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court warned in 1819 (in McCulloch v. Maryland) that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy,” so policy-makers need to weigh societal benefits churches provide, often not available otherwise (more on this below).

Those are political and economic calculations. But there’s the far more fundamental issue of fairness.

The United States has always recognized the natural and inherent right to exemption for groups that operate on a not-for-profit basis, whether schools, hospitals, and secular charities or -- treated equally -- churches (or synagogues, mosques, ashrams) and religious charities and organizations.

However, a 2016 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated that all sorts of religious exemptions should be designed “narrowly” so they do not “unduly burden non-discrimination laws and policies” for instance on gay matters. (Religious groups through history have hired employees who share their beliefs and moral tenets.) Weeks after that, a petition from Christian conservatives declared that tactics such as removal of tax exemption due to gay and transgender policies “threaten basic freedoms of religion, conscience, speech, and association.”

One reason for such concerns was the oral arguments prior to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

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Year-beginner for 2017: Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and moi, see more battles over religious liberty

Year-beginner for 2017: Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and moi, see more battles over religious liberty

Ever since the 1980s, I have been telling editors and journalists that conflicts about religious liberty were going cause some of the biggest news stories on the American horizon.

Anyone who has been reading GetReligion since 2004 knows that I've been saying that, over and over. Amen If you listen to this week's "Crossroads" podcast, looking ahead into 2017, you're going to hear more about that. No apologies.

The roots of this concern run back to my graduate-school work in Baylor University's church-state studies program, where -- in 1977-78 -- we could hear the early rumblings of what would become Bob Jones University vs. United States case.

Why is that important? Do you remember this crucial moment in the U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell debates about same-sex marriage?

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­ exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­-sex marriage?
GENERAL VERRILLI: You know, I, I don't think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it's certainly going to be an issue. I, I don't deny that. I don't deny that, Justice Alito. It is, it is going to be an issue.

That's why religion-beat patriarch Richard Ostling, in his recent pair of memos looking ahead to 2017, stressed that religious-liberty cases -- linked to LGBTQ issues, again -- would remain on the front burner for major American newsrooms. Click here and then here for those two Ostling posts.

You can see the same themes again, over and over, in the recent "Acts of Faith" year-beginner piece at The Washington Post by religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey (yes, a former member of the GetReligion team). The headline: "Here’s what we think will be the major religion stories of 2017." Here is the overture:

The new year could be turbulent for religion in America.

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Reporters should ponder what religious left is telling the Supreme Court about marriage

Reporters should ponder what religious left is telling the Supreme Court about marriage

On April 28, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear those same-sex marriage cases from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. Proponents of redefining marriage are confident they’ll win in June. If so, that will be a decisive -- and divisive -- juncture for organized religion in America and frame competing religious liberty claims the media will be covering in coming years.

A previous Religion Guy Memo advised journalists to examine  the “friend of the court” briefs in these historic cases. The religious arguments for traditional marriage are familiar,  perhaps especially for GetReligion readers. But now that all the briefs are filed, newswriters should consider the somewhat less publicized religious argument on the opposite side.

The key brief comes from the Episcopal Church’s bishops in these four states (.pdf here) with the president of the Episcopal House of Deputies, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, Judaism’s three non-Orthodox branches, a dozen pro-gay caucuses and 1,900 individuals.

Though there’s strong religious support for marriage traditionalism, these gay-marriage proponents insist they’re also part of the religious “mainstream,” noting that the United Church and Unitarians stem directly from New England’s Puritans and Pilgrims. The Episcopalians likewise have colonial roots. The brief also cites recent ideological support from the large Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Presbyterian Church (USA), though they didn’t join the brief.

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Seeking the sympathetic critics of Bob Jones University

As any journalist knows, institutions — secular or religious — do not like to talk about their failures, let alone their sins. Often this is caused by their lawyers who are anxious to head off lawsuits or to protect their client’s rights when conflicts take place. When this approach is applied to media relations, the result is either total silence or a bullet-proof form of public relations that seeks to protect the mother ship — period.

We talk about this all the time in classes at the Washington Journalism Center, where my students come from a variety of different kinds of Christian college and university campuses, most of them linked to evangelical Protestantism. Sometimes it’s hard to separate legitimate legal concerns from a faith-lingo-soaked “do not hurt your Christian brother” brand of public relations that rejects all attempts to do journalistic work in times of pain, crisis or scandal.

Trust me. This is not a conservative vs. liberal situation. As a reporter, I have faced toxic denial among liberal faith leaders as well as conservative. As I have said many times here at GetReligion, the hellish sins in the clergy sexual abuse crisis touched liberal Catholic heroes as well as conservatives. There were devils on both sides, as well as heroes.

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