Dwight L. Moody

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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Regarding Trump, Ike, Billy and that handy journalistic planning device called the 'tickler'

Regarding Trump, Ike, Billy and that handy journalistic planning device called the 'tickler'

From the invaluable Merriam-Webster dictionary:  

Tickler  noun

1: a person or device that tickles. 

2: a device for jogging the memory; specifically: a file that serves as a reminder and is arranged to bring matters to timely attention.

Most scribes employ No. 2 to some extent, whether with old-style manila folders or in electronic form. Attention to the calendar paid off with a Feb. 19 feature by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s well-respected Peter Smith on the 50th anniversary of the local “Duquesne Weekend,” which inaugurated the Catholic Charismatic movement.

Further examples: 

Political reporters’ datebooks will mark the 100th day of President Donald Trump’s presidency, or perhaps the July 20 half-year point, as useful points to assess the new administration. Another peg comes June 14 when history’s oldest president turns 71 (while refusing to provide full medical data, as with his tax returns).

Religion beat specialists could use those same calendar pegs to examine  pro and con reactions to how the new president is handling questions of keen religious interest, overtures to this or that religious faction, or whether he ever attends church services, if so where, and if not why. Or this: Is the liberal Christian Century correct that Trump has obliterated the “civil religion” preached by prior presidents?

Speaking of presidents, ticklers will list the National Prayer Breakfast the first Thursday of each February. The 2017 version roused great expectations after a religiously and morally bizarre campaign, and President Trump’s first outing did not disappoint. He recalled childhood “in a churched home,” suggested prayer might help Arnold Schwarzenegger achieve his own “tremendous success” on TV, and remarked “the hell with it” during a fond mention of the Senate chaplain.  

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