When Larycia Hawkins, the first black woman to receive tenure at Wheaton College, made a symbolic gesture of support for Muslims, the evangelical college became divided over what intellectual freedom on its campus really meant.
Three days after Larycia Hawkins agreed to step down from her job at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Wheaton, Ill., she joined her former colleagues and students for what was billed as a private service of reconciliation. It was a frigid Tuesday evening last February, and attendance was optional, but Wheaton’s largest chapel was nearly full by the time the event began. A large cross had been placed on the stage, surrounded by tea lights that snaked across the blond floorboards in glowing trails.
“We break, we hurt, we wound, we lament,” the school’s chaplain began. He led a prayer from the Book of Psalms, and the crowd sang a somber hymn to the tune of “Amazing Grace”:
God raised me from a miry pit,
from mud and sinking sand,
and set my feet upon a rock
where I can firmly stand.
Philip Ryken, the college’s president of six years, spoke next. His father had been an English professor at Wheaton for 44 years, and he grew up in town, receiving his undergraduate degree from the college. “I believe in our fundamental unity in Jesus Christ, even in a time of profound difficulty that is dividing us and threatening to destroy us,” he told the crowd. “These recent weeks have been, I think, the saddest days of my life.” It was the night before the first day of Lent, the 40-day season of repentance in the Christian calendar.
Wheaton had spent the previous two months embroiled in what was arguably the most public and contentious trial of its 156-year history. In December, Hawkins wrote a theologically complex Facebook post announcing her intention to wear a hijab during Advent, in solidarity with Muslims; the college placed her on leave within days and soon moved to fire her. Jesse Jackson had compared Hawkins with Rosa Parks, while Franklin Graham, an evangelist and Billy Graham’s son, declared, “Shame on her!” Students protested, fasted and tweeted. Donors, parents and alumni were in an uproar. On this winter evening, the first black female professor to achieve tenure at the country’s most prominent evangelical college was now unemployed and preparing to address the community to which she had devoted the past nine years of her life. As a Wheaton anthropology professor, Brian Howell, wrote in January, the episode had become “something of a Rorschach test for those wondering about the state of Wheaton College, evangelicalism and even U.S. Christianity.”
As Hawkins climbed the stairs to the stage that night, a few dozen students stood up in the front rows. They were wearing all black and had planned this quiet bit of theater as a show of solidarity. For a long beat, they stood together between Hawkins and the seated crowd. Then, one by one, others in the audience began to rise. The silence held for a full minute, as a majority of the room stood.
Then Hawkins began to speak. She told the hushed crowd that they should see Jesus in the oppressed, that Christianity is inherently political and that “bubbles are made to burst.” And she read the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, a blistering prophecy for the rebellious nation of Israel spoken in the voice of an angry God. “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you,” she read, her voice growing steadier with every line. “Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. … The strong man will become tinder, his work also a spark. Thus they shall both burn together.”
When Hawkins began teaching politics at Wheaton College in 2007, she wanted to be known as a professor who challenged her students’ preconceptions. Her classes included “Race and the Politics of Welfare” and “Race and the Obama Presidency.” She talked about how Obama had to appear to “transcend” race in order to get elected, about why he spoke differently to black and white audiences, about how polling data suggested that he would have won by an even larger margin were he white. At the end of her upper-level classes, she would cook a big meal at her apartment, and students presented their final research over dessert. She found her students to be smart and engaged, and she was pleasantly surprised by their open-mindedness and the diversity of their views. “It was like any other amazing liberal-arts institution,” she said. “It just happened to be an evangelical Christian context.”
I grew up in the town of Wheaton, with the white cupola of the college’s Billy Graham Center visible from my bedroom window. I entered the college as a freshman in 1998, following my parents and my grandfather, an Orthodox Presbyterian minister who graduated in 1928. Students at Wheaton attend mandatory chapel services three mornings a week, drinking is mostly forbidden, many dorms are sex-segregated and many class sessions open with prayer. Every year, faculty, staff and trustees affirm the college’s Statement of Faith, a list of 12 theological commitments that aim to capture the essence of evangelical faith. It opens with a declaration of belief in a trinitarian God — “We believe in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons” — and proceeds to cover concepts including original sin, the existence of Satan and the resurrection of Jesus. “Theological checkups,” as one politics professor described them, are not unheard-of. Leah Anderson, Hawkins’s last department chairwoman, told me that she has been interrogated twice after parents complained about her. Once, a straightforward discussion of family policy in an Introduction to Comparative Politics class led to an accusation that Anderson was “anti-family.”
But unlike, say, Bob Jones University or Liberty University, Wheaton is not a de facto training ground for the Christian Right. My professors included feminists, libertarians and Sanders-style socialists, and they conducted scholarly work on seemingly anything they were interested in. No Wheaton professors I spoke with, including sharp critics and those who have left the school, said they were ever afraid to do their own research. Indeed, from its founding in 1860, Wheaton defined itself as much by its intellectualism as by its Christian character. Wheaton is both “pervasively Christ-centered” and “academically rigorous,” Ryken, the school’s president, told me. “We are very serious about our academic mission.”
Like Hawkins, I was both a dutiful evangelical teenager and a stubborn skeptic. Wheaton, with its unusual combination of high academic standards and devout culture, seemed like a good place to learn how to think. Its graduates include politicians, chief executives, influential scholars and spiritual leaders like Billy Graham, an anthropology major in the class of ’43. (Our families are not related.) It places alumni at top graduate schools and draws faculty from other elite institutions.
Though the school never uses the phrase itself, students and alumni often archly refer to Wheaton as “the Harvard of Christian schools.” The phrase is self-deprecating, because in today’s academic culture, there is an obvious tension in the idea of a Christian Harvard. It wasn’t always so. In the first decades of Wheaton’s history, almost every other American institution of higher learning paid at least nominal deference to Christianity. Yale was the scene of several revivals led by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody in the late 19th century; Wellesley was among those that mandated considerable Bible study. At the turn of the 20th century, many state universities required students to attend church on Sunday in addition to campus chapel services, and about half of all American undergraduates attended a church-related school.
Over the course of the 20th century, the academy sloughed off the cultural trappings of Christianity, not to mention the theological commitments. But at distinctly Christian schools like Wheaton, parents expect their children’s religious faith to be stretched but not broken, and they take an active role in the college’s direction. Alumni are unusually devoted, too, not just with the typical fits of nostalgic school spirit but with an abiding interest in the institution’s ideological and spiritual mission. George Marsden, a historian whose books include “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship,” told me that Wheaton is something like a church denomination, in that its constituents “are invested in it not just as their alma mater but as part of a much larger cause that they are participating in.”
During my four years at Wheaton, I drifted away from evangelicalism. But I never contemplated transferring to another school. I was reading Foucault and Judith Butler (Shakespeare and Milton too); my professors were brilliant and kind and I found plenty of kindred spirits. When the religion scholar Alan Wolfe visited Wheaton for a cover article about evangelical intellectualism in The Atlantic in 2000, halfway through my time there, he found a campus whose earnestness was both endearing and impressive: “In its own way, campus life at Wheaton College resembles that of the 1960s, when students and a few professors, convinced that they had embarked on a mission of eternal importance, debated ideas as if life really depended on the answers they came up with.” At a suburban dive bar on the edge of a marsh, we drank illicit Pabst on Saturday night and talked about politics, music and philosophy like undergraduates anywhere. Then we got up on Sunday morning and went to church.
As Hawkins settled in at Wheaton, she struggled. Though she loved her students, the heavy teaching load was stressful, especially for a self-described perfectionist. As a black woman in a predominantly white community, she was asked to serve on many committees and participate frequently in public events like panel discussions. Those commitments left little time for research and writing, though she still received tenure on schedule in 2013. Her health and social life suffered. She rarely had time for exercise or her book club anymore, dating was difficult, and she battled chronic sinus infections, migraines and high blood pressure, which she attributed to stress.
Much of that stress seemed to derive from her almost bodily awareness of the world’s problems. In one of our half-dozen conversations over eight months, she described seeing people look happy and knowing she was different because she felt so weighed down by the injustices she saw and read about. She quotes Old Testament prophets from memory; several people described her to me as prophetic herself. As we spoke, her concerns veered from the Syrian refugee crisis to Rwandan genocide to gun violence to income inequality. Those worries are a burden she bears as a political scientist and as a Christian, she told me.
A year or two after arriving on campus, she developed a distaste for performances of patriotism and decided to stop saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. “I feel very strongly that my first allegiance is to a different kingdom than an earthly kingdom,” she told me. “It’s to a heavenly kingdom, and it’s to the principles of that kingdom.” Evangelicals tend to emphasize righteousness on an individual scale, but Hawkins was becoming attracted to theological traditions that emphasize systemic sin and repentance.
In particular, she was reading a lot of black liberation theology, a strain of thinking that emerged from the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Jesus’ central mission was to liberate the oppressed, the philosophy argues, but mainstream American Christianity is beholden to irredeemably corrupt “white theology.” The tone of black liberation is often angry — think of Jeremiah Wright’s infamous “God damn America” sermon — and conservative evangelicals are wary of it because of its theological pessimism and its politically radical roots. But Hawkins was beginning to view many of the Bible’s commands through a lens of race and class. “Theology is always contextual,” she told me, a core idea of black liberation theology. She said that evangelicals have trouble confronting “an ontological blackness of Christ.” Responding to Wheaton’s charge for professors to “integrate faith and learning,” she took these ideas into the classroom.
She also began to work out an idea she calls “embodied solidarity.” The concept starts with inspiration from Catholic social teaching, the labor movement, the Eucharist (in which Christians consume bread as “the body of Christ”) and the imago Dei — the idea that humans are created in the image of God. But she wanted to take “solidarity” past its popular use by do-gooders. Tweeting and check-writing are cheap gestures; short-term aid vacations to developing countries are “poverty porn.”
For Christians, a central fact about Jesus Christ is that, unlike God the Father or the Holy Spirit, he had a body, which experienced physical suffering and pleasure; his first miracle was transforming water into wine to keep a wedding party going. He cried out in pain while being crucified — the ultimate act of “embodied solidarity.” But Western Christianity also has a long tradition of treating the physical realm (sex, food, beauty) with suspicion (lust, gluttony, vanity). So Hawkins’s idea of “embodied solidarity” can read as a rebuke to American Protestantism, particularly the white intellectual strain that Wheaton represents. “I was taught to think of those who emphasize the body as secular or carnal or somehow off the mark,” she said, explaining that she now sees that perspective as a “defunct view of the body.”
True solidarity, Hawkins was coming to believe, involves physical risk and sustained labor. It also involves recognizing that structural inequality is a kind of violence, with physical effects on its victims. She referred to a passage in the book of Luke in which Jesus’ followers fail to recognize him after his resurrection. “My question is who do we not have the eyes to see?” Hawkins said. “That’s the question that plagues my soul: Who am I not seeing in their suffering? What entire groups of people, humans, do I not see suffering?”
Hawkins’s grandfather was the founder and pastor of the family’s church in Oklahoma City, which belonged to a historically African-American denomination that arose during a wave of Southern black institution-building in the wake of the Civil War. Growing up she was taught that the Bible was a direct guidebook that any Christian could interpret on her own with the help of the Holy Spirit.
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SOURCE: The New York Times – Ruth Graham