Christian Colleges in the Negative World

A Response to Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman did me the honor of responding to my recent article in First Things, where I questioned whether a “mere Christian” ethos is sufficient to keep Christian colleges orthodox today. Further, he proves himself a good man to defend his adopted institution, Grove City College (GCC), from what he perceived as an unjust criticism on my part. Trueman, however, misunderstood me on certain critical points such that I feel compelled to vindicate and clarify my argument.

In his response, Trueman claims a) that I asserted “without proof” that GCC promotes a mere Christian culture, b) that I speculate “without argument” that such promotion was a cause of recent accusations that the school was advancing Critical Race Theory (CRT), and c) that I conflate the purpose of the Christian college with that of the Church. For my part, I consider that (a), rightly understood, is self-evident; that my whole article was an argument to prove the plausibility of (b), again, rightly understood; and that (c) misunderstands my argument and misses the forest for the trees by conflating moral formation with sanctifying discipleship.

In this article, I will (i) restate my thesis; (ii) note the ways in which Trueman misunderstood my argument; (iii) clarify my points; and (iv) point out the direction we must go in order to consider well what I believe Trueman and I both see as an important issue, viz., the means by which Christian colleges can best order themselves to maximize fidelity to their constitutive missions as parachurch institutions in the Negative World.

I. The insufficiency of Mere Christianity today as a governing ethos

It is unfortunate that my example of GCC received oversized importance in Trueman’s response—for understandable reasons—because it detracted from my intention, which was to make urgent my thesis. I did not intend to make my original article all about GCC, and in this response, it will again take on an undue significance but only because I do not want the points Trueman raised in defense of his college to distort the perspective on my larger argument. That said, it remains true that even if GCC is not a good example to support my thesis, my thesis may still hold.

Of course, a conclusion will be undermined in most readers’ minds if the particular evidence brought to prove it is thought faulty, so I beg my readers’ patience here and direct them to my original thesis: the Negative World introduces a new set of hostile circumstances that many Christian institutions are ill-equipped to face because they maintain a “mere Christian” culture as their dominant ethos for student formation. I contend that the move from a denominationally distinctive ethos to a mere Christian one was a prudential decision most colleges made in circumstances in which society generally embraced traditional Christian ethics. Now, however, most institutions that hold to that same position out of principle misunderstand our times, distort Lewis himself, and render themselves vulnerable to mission drift.

Perhaps it would be helpful to say something about the particular perspective I have on this issue. I am not a theologian; my field is political and moral philosophy. When I consider the question of how best to keep a college true to its mission, I think about it in terms of prudence and therefore see it in the realm of statesmanship. Winston Churchill ably described the task of the statesman, “in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course,” as one who “may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other” in order to maintain “the truest consistency.” In just this way, I view the question of how tightly defined the Christian ethos of a Christian college ought to be and articulated and reinforced through its customs and culture. In what way and to what degree that articulation and reinforcement are accomplished is, in the end, a matter of prudence; the content of those customs and that culture, e.g., doctrinal positions, are matters of principle. I say that our times call for leaning hard on the other side of the ship opposite from which we have been leaning comfortably for many years. 

II. Trueman’s Response

Trueman seems to have misunderstood my argument in four key ways. First, he seems to have thought that I was accusing GCC of an evil thing when I described it as a “mere Christian” college; I meant no such thing. Perhaps he assumed I meant that phrase to mean something akin to “barely Christian.” I thought, though, my quoting directly from C. S. Lewis made it fairly clear that I meant by that phrase only what we today call “non-denominational.”

No doubt GCC is home to many students and faculty who are strong believers in Jesus Christ as the son of God and worship Him as the same. Nonetheless, I thought the thirty-six words I “plucked” from the GCC website were more than was necessary to prove what is patently obvious already, viz., that GCC understands itself to be a non-denominational school and is in fact quite proud of that stance (see the whole webpage “Diversity at Grove City College”).[2. See specifically the line on the webpage “We celebrate our diverse backgrounds, regardless of ethnic origin or denominational affiliation, as a reflection of our oneness in Christ.” I take this in good faith to mean simply that GCC does not hold to any specific denomination.] So when Trueman claims that I “speculate” about a “putative ‘mere Christianity’” at GCC, he must misunderstand me to mean something I did not intend.

Second, from the false assumption that I intended “mere Christian” to mean something I did not, Trueman then extends his misunderstanding of my argument to include an inference that I did not mean to imply. He seems to have thought I made a judgment about the Christian quality of the whole culture of the school (i.e., that it is insufficiently Christian) and then that I “speculated” that the recently alleged instances of Critical Race Theory (CRT) at GCC were caused by that culture. This logic is backward from what I intended to convey.

 I do not claim to judge the overall quality of the culture of the school. In fact, I am fairly certain it is quite a good culture, one in which Christ is generally honored and in which CRT is regarded as a foreign influence. My criticism is thus aimed not at the culture of GCC per se, but at the leadership of the school that is tasked with shaping and maintaining that culture in accord with the mission established by the board of trustees. Accordingly, in regard to particular “actual practices,” I argue that the GCC leadership is responsible for endangering GCC’s culture by allowing certain actions (detailed by The Daily Wire’s Megan Basham here and ably defended here) that can fairly be described as politically progressive and aberrant from GCC’s explicitly conservative mission.[1. GCC’s website dubs the school’s subtitle, as it were, “a conservative Christian college in PA.”]

This charge is no mere “speculation” since I claim no more than what GCC’s own board of trustees found to be true in their special committee’s report on the accusation of creeping wokeism at GCC. The report reflects genuine concern on behalf of the board for the direction and health of the culture, while it also communicates full faith in the administration’s ability to course-correct and maintain GCC’s traditional mission. Whether that faith is well-founded, we will have to see. One thing is certain: the concern of the parents and alumni whose petition about CRT prompted the board to convene the “extraordinary” committee in the first place certainly was well-founded.

It seems worth noting that Trueman does not mention the GCC board report at all in his response to me. He suggests that his readers simply dismiss the accusations of instances of CRT on the basis that GCC also received a petition from Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists in the heated summer of 2020. Thus Trueman would have us conclude that the college must be sufficiently conservative if BLM finds it insufficiently anti-racist. But where is the report confirming all the “systemic racism” that GCC (and every other college) was charged with in 2020 by BLM activists? Are we to think the two petitions really are equally legitimate expressions of moral outrage? Does the board’s report not suggest there is a substantive difference between the two? And what institution did BLM not find insufficiently anti-racist in 2020?

Third, Trueman brings up an interesting and important point in the second half of his essay, viz., the problem of potentially conflating the purposes of the Church with those of a Christian college. I admit that I see a degree of overlap here insofar as both institutions are involved with care for the human soul. In truth, though, the purposes of the Church and the Christian college appear perfectly distinct to me when I consider their natures. The Church exists to proclaim the Gospel by facilitating God’s grace to His people for the saving of souls, and the Christian college exists to promote the advancement of learning for the shaping and improving of souls through the cultivation of moral and intellectual virtues according to a Christian conception of excellence. If anyone doubts that colleges of all kinds shape the souls of students, that person simply has not spent enough time on college campuses. The question is not if or should but how colleges shape students’ souls.

Though it is possible for a school to assume to itself the role of the Church, I would understand that to be an abuse: colleges do not save souls; but they do—like parents, friends, soccer coaches, and work environments—shape our souls. This point is not one I am confused on. Nor do I think that colleges that have chapel services and employ chaplains are in any way a conflation of the purposes of the Church with those of the college. Clearly, GCC does not think so either since the school has mandatory chapel attendance. Further, in his response to me, Trueman calls college chapel services “a useful thing” for Christian colleges. One wonders: useful for what? Moreover, is chapel service merely a useful thing, or does a form of worship happen there that has no immediate utility but that does not usurp the purposes of the Church? GCC’s website describes its chapel services as not a “substitute for church” but rather a place for “the common expression of our Christian faith.” Would a denominational college not be able to have chapel services for similar reasons without overstepping the bounds of the Church?

I contend that chapel, like the rest of a college, is meant to help conform students to the ideal ethos that the college promotes. Were not the “handful of chapel services” mentioned in GCC’s board’s report that “included divisive racial themes” meant to shape the students’ souls in a certain ethical way that its proponents designed to combat alleged racism? Perhaps they were just meant to be informative, but if that were the case, why not leave such instruction to the classroom? Why bring it into a chapel service?

I would be very surprised if Trueman were not in agreement with me on this point, and so I believe he misunderstood me: I do not believe a Christian college education can bring salvation, but I do believe it can and does shape the souls of students in various ways by teaching them to love and to hate what that particular community holds up as either honorable or shameful, noble or ugly. I take Trueman to hold that GCC is a mere Christian (i.e., non-denominational) college and that that is a good thing, but does he think it should be so according to a principle that all Christian colleges in all times and places should eschew denominational affiliation lest they usurp the role of the Church?

Trueman expresses concern that Christian colleges can “co-opt or even take over” the “task of discipleship” from local churches. So as to help distinguish the college from the Church in this regard, Trueman urges that colleges should prioritize “encouraging their students to be well-grounded in a local congregation.” While I agree that Christian colleges should encourage students in this way, the idea that the local church should be an institution wholly distinct from the Christian university with regard to moral formation is analogous to the claim that religion should be completely separate from the political or public sphere. This view depends upon what I believe is a false dichotomy, which assumes you can have a morally naked public square or a college that is a kind of “mere Christian marketplace of theological ideas” that are actually lived out in ecclesial communities wholly outside of the college. Accordingly, this question is similar to the liberalism debate in vogue.

Similarly, if it is true that soul formation must happen exclusively at the local church, then any attempt by the college to form the souls of students would be, presumably, an overreach of the college into the realm of the Church. But surely this is a false choice. In a way this question is similar to the question about the prudence of embracing Christian nationalism: its critics say our choices are either complete theocratic rule of the state by the Church or a complete separation, a “contestulocracy” as it has been called, in the public square, in which no morality ever gains an effective dominance.

Is it not possible for a nation’s rulers to make laws that keep with Christian precepts from natural and revealed truth without the state being turned into some Handmaid’s Tale caricature? Likewise, is it not possible for a college to be aligned with the doctrine and morals of a certain denomination without the college being subsumed into a local church? Students on a college campus will be formed in some way by the ethos of the community there; the question is whether that formation will be one established and maintained by leadership and oriented to a Christian tradition that is specific, robust, stable, and—one hopes—true, or one oriented to whatever the current leadership thinks the current thing demands, blown about by every wind of culture.

Related to this issue, the fourth and final way Trueman misunderstood my reasoning is by failing to see the importance for my argument of the new circumstances presented by the Negative World. Trueman never mentions this point. By not recognizing the significance for how new circumstances require a reevaluation of the current strategy, Trueman—and others who read my article—might also misunderstand my larger point, mentioned above, regarding the difference between principle and prudence. Allow me then to clarify my position in the remainder of this article. 

III. Clarifying my argument

I do not hold it to be a principle that all Christian colleges in all times and in all places ought to be strictly defined by a pre-existing denominational identity and set of practices. I do hold that they ought always to have a clear ethos that is originally defined by the governing board, carefully established and maintained by the administration, embraced by the faculty, and actively forming the student body into an institutionally recognizable thing. Obviously, I am not talking about a cultural straightjacket that produces just one kind of thinking person; I mean the kind of thing by which people can speak about the character of Hillsdale College students and we have a reasonable estimation of what they mean. The ethos of the school generally attracts and then produces an identifiably distinct student. The same holds as much for UC Berkeley and Yale as it does for Pensacola Christian College and Bob Jones University generally. This point seems uncontroversial to me.

Hillsdale College (where I received a Ph.D. in 2020) is an apt example because, like GCC, it is a “mere Christian” college insofar as it does not claim any denominational affiliation, and yet it shows no signs at all of mission drift. Does the example of Hillsdale, then, disprove my thesis? To the contrary. The singular praise I hear for Hillsdale from people all over the country persuades me that Hillsdale is the exception that proves the rule. It is true that some people–as Aaron Renn recently demonstrated–do not think of Hillsdale as an “explicitly” or “genuinely” Christian college, but that confusion is a marketing problem, not a substantive one. Most people who know about Hillsdale know what it stands for and what its general mission is, succinctly summarized in its slogan: Pursue truth, defend liberty. Hillsdale’s national prestige is due to several causes but primarily to the leadership of President Larry Arnn.

During the six years I was a graduate student at Hillsdale, I saw President Arnn regularly direct the attention of the students, faculty, and staff to the school’s founding purposes and spirit.  For example, he often reminds the whole college of Article 6 of the college’s Articles of Association from its founding: “Religious culture in particular shall be conserved by the College, and by the selection of instructors and other practicable expedients, it shall be a conspicuous aim to teach by precept and example the essentials of the Christian faith and religion.” Arnn has placed special emphasis on this point during his tenure probably to course-correct for many decades in the 20th century in which the school’s Christian identity was de-emphasized. His direction of the college toward things such as this has produced an ethos that is now recognizable nationwide in the character of most of its graduates.

To the world outside of the college, the Hillsdale brand stands for commitment to academic excellence, reverence for the principles of the American founding, and tolerance for all students who wish to learn “irrespective of nationality, color, or sex.” To the students inside the college, the ethos of Hillsdale may be described in terms of the Honor Code students commit to that represents a standard by which certain things are known as honorable and other things known as shameful. The students embrace and enforce the standard by complying with it to an overwhelming degree such that the outliers know themselves to be so. For example, students regularly leave laptop computers out on tables in the library for hours on end, with complete confidence they will be there when they return. More to the point, at Hillsdale the ideal of excellence assumed in conversations in and outside of class is that of a morally and religiously serious student. The college holds up such a student as beautiful and worthy of honor, and most students strive toward that ideal. Submitting for four years to a community’s standards of honor and shame will shape your choices, habits, and eventually your character, for better or for worse, and Hillsdale’s reputation (and sub 25% acceptance rate) speaks for itself.

As I demonstrated in my original article, many Christian schools do not have such a clearly defined, established ethos that is distinct from the zeitgeist of the broader culture. Though some may try to distinguish themselves with cleverly worded, Christian-sounding mission statements, often these amount to nothing more than seemingly noble gibberish. Hillsdale stands out in people’s minds today because it is bravely counter-cultural, and people respect it for the boldness with which it maintains its purposes.

An instructive example lies in the last ten minutes of the podcast hyperlinked above (here) in which Megan Basham compares Hillsdale’s response to the tumultuous summer of 2020 with that of GCC. After the George Floyd riots, people all over the country were calling on colleges and universities to join the frenzy, claiming that “silence is violence.” On one hand, GCC responded by quickly establishing an Advisory Council on Diversity and hosting a chapel series on race which included a talk by Jemar Tisby (these responses and more are listed in GCC’s board of trustee’s report). Hillsdale, on the other hand, refused to bend to demands  for the college to “say something” about the injustice of “systemic racism.” Instead, in a press release in June 2020, the college leadership boldly asserted that Hillsdale had no duty whatsoever to respond to demands to say something about racism since denouncing prejudice “is precisely what the College has always said” since 1844 through the specific activity and mission of the college. When a mob demanded that Hillsdale change, the school maintained confidence in what it stood for and did not budge. When the mob descended on GCC, however, the college buckled under overwhelming pressure and accommodated its demands. It is important to all of us who are concerned about the health of Christian institutions to understand why.

In the Negative World, Christian institutions experience greater pressure and temptation to qualify and redefine their missions in ways both great and small that will eventually alter the formative ethos that shapes the culture and people in those institutions. Such pressure can come on one hand from the broader culture—such as what occurred in the summer of 2020—to cave to the demands of the supporters of “the current thing.” On the other hand, such pressure can also come from governmental administrative agencies in the form of threatening regulatory dictates such as the Obama administration’s 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter regarding university policies for handling accusations of sexual assault on campus.

I disagree with Trueman that choosing GCC as an example for my argument was “odd” because GCC, like Hillsdale, famously does not take any governmental money and is therefore immune to pressure that comes from the government. So why was GCC so sensitive to the social pressure to respond to the George Floyd riots? Would having a denominational affiliation have made any difference?

As I wrote in my First Things article, there are no silver bullets for maintaining institutional fidelity to a constituting mission. The best you can do is stack the deck in your favor with three things: 1) the right basis for an ethos, often articulated in an institution’s founding documents, providing the moral form for the culture; 2) the right faculty, staff, and students, the very matter of the college; and 3) courageous leadership that prudently directs the college by orienting the matter according to the form, thereby keeping the ship on the right course whenever the winds and waves beat upon it. All three of these things are interdependent, each affecting the other two. A mere Christian ethos—one defined loosely by the broadest tenets of the Christian faith—is akin to Thomas Aquinas’s primary precepts, which are general truths about proper ends but which lack specificity for effective instruction. Even today’s accident, without strong leadership, will become tomorrow’s precedent, and thus a loosely defined ethos all-too-easily can lead the leadership of a college toward mission drift.

For many Christian schools, adopting a denominational identity would be prudent because, like secondary precepts, it could help them craft a more precise, robust, and stable Christian ethos in the Negative World in which the culture generally is hostile to Christian beliefs. Clearly, denominational schools can fall away into heterodoxy, but at least in those circumstances there exists a tradition that judges them for departing from it. Mere Christian schools, however, without a robust ethos and courageous leadership like that of Hillsdale College can easily accommodate their missions to cultural pieties without anyone ever noticing.

Trueman’s point regarding the variety of expressions in Anglicanism in response to my suggestion of an Anglican college is well-taken. And I say touché on the recent and regular moral squishiness of the Church of England. On the variety of opinions within orthodox Anglicanism, Trueman here helps prove my point about the need for definition and clarity in an ethos, even for a “mere Anglican” one. Further, it was on the very basis of appeal to traditional Anglican beliefs and doctrines that the Anglican Church in North America was able to condemn the abuses in the Episcopal Church and justify establishing a parallel Anglican province in North America, just as the African bishops today are able to condemn the Church of England for its recent decision to bless same-sex unions.

For the same reason, after the American Revolution, the Americans decided to assume the English Common Law as a legitimate precedent for judging new cases because they knew that to abandon that millennia-old tradition would leave them at the mercy of the opinions of the judges then living. The choice to keep it, though, was a prudential one; the Americans were not obliged by principle to import it into their legal system. 

Likewise, many Christian schools dropped their denominational affiliations in the early 1900s, not from a religious principle, as Trueman seems to defend, but because the Carnegie Foundation conditioned acceptance onto its list of acceptable colleges on schools having no denominational affiliation.[4. There seems to be a history worth researching and a story worth telling here. “Among the more embarrassing consequences of the Carnegie list was the phenomenon of denominational colleges rushing out of their religious affiliations in order to get on it” (Frederick Rudolph, Curriculum: A History of the American Undergraduate Course of Study since 1636 (Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, Washington, London, 1977), 222-226).] Rightly or wrongly, Christian colleges found such a change in policy to be prudent at that time. The inescapable question remains: what is prudent for us in our times? 

IV. Where we go from here

The question of the fate of Christian colleges in the Negative World is of too great importance for us to ignore and of too great a depth for me to answer in this already long essay. I pray others will join in and continue this conversation.

To help guide where I believe the discussion ought to go, I want to make explicit the two claims I make in this response: first, the question of the denominational or non-denominational status of Christian colleges is one of prudence, not principle; and second, the circumstances of the Negative World suggest that it is generally more prudent for such colleges to have a more strictly defined ethos, not a loosely defined one. For many colleges, they will find much of what they need for a more strictly defined ethos in the early doctrines, liturgy, hymns, feasts, and ways of being of existing denominations.

In closing, I want to point people back to Lewis for guidance on the above points. To prove that he was writing in the midst of what we are calling the Positive World, note how in the Preface to Mere Christianity Lewis defends his authoritative use of the word Christian. He writes that he does not claim to have insight into who is really a Christian in an ultimate sense, but that he uses the term in the way “unbelievers” mean it to say of a man “that they think him a good man.”[5. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc: New York, 1981), xliii.] The Negative World is marked by exactly the opposite judgment: a Christian today is judged in the eyes of unbelievers to be generally a bad man, whose beliefs are not only backward but socially harmful.

The Negative World calls for a vastly different strategy for the survival and flourishing of Christian institutions. We must expect the greatest temptations and pressure to stretch the meaning of the term Christian to include all manner of things our ancestors had no difficulty calling evil. How ought we then to order institutions tasked with the moral formation of our young people and the potential new class of civic and Church leaders?

*Photo Credit: Unsplash