As a member of the academic community, I have been struggling to understand the current conflict raging within the walls of Wheaton College. The conflict centers on Associate Professor Larycia Hawkins, a tenured African American political scientist, and a simple statement she made on her personal Facebook page. She explained on Facebook her intention to don a hijab during the season of Advent as an expression of symbolic solidarity with her Muslim friends and colleagues. She noted, almost in passing, that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” Wheaton College administrators have gone ballistic over that statement, arguing that it (not her wearing the hijab) violates the college’s statement of faith and gives them cause for termination of Dr. Hawkins’ employment.

            As a Christian college, Wheaton takes its theological convictions seriously, for which it might be commended by people of faith. Prospective faculty must undergo an intensive period of theological and doctrinal scrutiny before being hired. Once hired, a faculty member continues to undergo such scrutiny, which includes signing Wheaton’s statement of faith every year.

            Given the college’s evangelical religious identity, I am not surprised by Wheaton’s raising an eyebrow at this “same God” statement. Her assertion can be interpreted in several ways, not all of which are generally considered to fall with the mainstream of evangelical Christian thought. Was she equating Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as isomorphic paths to God? Or was she merely suggesting that the three religious traditions are branches that spring from the same trunk, in contrast to other major world religions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism?

            Hawkins is not the first American evangelical to utter such words, as she has noted in interviews. In addition to prominent figures such as Yale theologian Miroslav Volf (whom Wheaton invited to speak on campus not long ago), mainstream evangelicals have made similar statements over the years, including Wheaton alum and favorite son Billy Graham, as well as Timothy George (an emeritus member of Wheaton’s board of trustees), and even C.S. Lewis. The Reverend Graham even made a parallel statement regarding Jews, so no one can claim that he simply misspoke about Muslims or was misunderstood. Is it just a coincidence that Wheaton appears to have interpreted similar assertions by these white males in non-threatening, non-heretical ways?

            Hawkins’ simple assertion might be in conflict with Wheaton’s statement of faith, but it might not be, depending on what she meant. What she meant can only be determined by asking her. But that is not what Wheaton did.

            Rather than first sitting down with Dr. Hawkins to clarify her statement and consider her meaning carefully, Wheaton immediately placed her on academic leave before the school adjourned for the Christmas break. When Wheaton students learned of the college’s move, many protested—Hawkins is an award-winning teacher well loved by her students. Certain alumni, as well as some current students, however, supported the college’s decision, concluding that her statement could only be understood one way, and that her beliefs must be heretical. Some alums, it should be noted, did the opposite, returning their Wheaton diplomas in protest of the school’s actions. Most white evangelical leaders around the country, however, seemed to be too busy with Christmas festivities to weigh in on the matter, with the exception of a few, such as Franklin Graham (the son of Billy Graham), who was quick to condemn Hawkins’ words and actions.

            Wheaton demanded that Hawkins write a clarifying thesis on her understanding of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, among other things. The school gave Hawkins 48 hours to do so, in the midst of her grading papers and administering final exams. Remarkably, she fulfilled this demand by the school’s deadline. In her meeting with Wheaton Provost Stanton Jones, Hawkins was assured that her paper had passed muster and would have been sufficient for any prospective hire applying to teach at Wheaton. Nevertheless, the school did not remove her academic suspension and has now initiated the formal process of firing her.

            So, again, what should the academic community make of how Wheaton has comported itself in this matter? The school acknowledged in a memo to faculty that it recognizes this conflict is complex, incorporating a diverse array of important values, including academic freedom, personal politics, and freedom of speech. And yet, its protestations notwithstanding, Wheaton has clearly not given Hawkins the benefit of the doubt throughout this disagreement, making assumptions about meaning and motive, taking the internal conflict to the public sphere on multiple occasions in an attempt to control the spin of the story (spin being the operative word in the way Wheaton's representatives have described how these events have unfolded). At one point during negotiations, Wheaton gave Dr. Hawkins the option either to quit or remain with her tenure revoked until she can be reviewed again in two years. Really? Isn’t this type of situation exactly what tenure is for? That option is no longer on the table.

            Wheaton’s handling of this faculty member leaves me perplexed about its true motives. Why elevate what was essentially an internal employment matter at every turn by issuing constant public statements? Why jump to the worst possible conclusions without pursuing dialogue or seeking clarity before deciding what to do? Is this really how mature, fair-minded Christians ought to deal with disagreements?

            I must admit to feeling confused by Wheaton’s response. The only explanation for how Wheaton has handled Dr. Hawkins that makes any sense to me, apart from simple political pressure from wealthy donors, is that school administrators are masking personal prejudices under a veil of theological devotion. I am not suggesting that any individual at Wheaton is overtly prejudiced against Dr. Hawkins because of the color of her skin. However, prejudice can take many forms, frequently subtle ones capable of escaping even honest self-reflection or serious external examination. That’s the feature of prejudice that makes it so difficult to eradicate from the fabric of society.        

            Social science research has demonstrated the subtle power of prejudice to infect our social judgments. In one classic study, for instance, white participants evaluated job candidates—one white, the other black. Participants displayed very little bias as long as the candidates were equivalent in both academic credentials and relevant prior experience. However, when the candidates were not equivalent on one of these dimensions, white participants consistently favored the white applicant by shifting their standards for evaluation. Specifically, when the white job candidate had superior test scores, participants cited the importance of test scores (indeed, objective tests can’t really lie, can they?) as their reason for choosing the white job candidate. But when the black candidate had better test scores, the white participants pivoted and cited the greater importance of prior experience over academic credentials (what do paper tests really show, after all?). Thus, participants displayed “strategic flexibility” in order to rationalize their prejudicial preferences. I have little doubt that they did all of this unconsciously. If so, they would be unable to correct their judgments for the influence of their biases. We can’t counter-punch an enemy that we cannot see, especially when that enemy lies within us.

            It is worth considering whether this is what’s going on at Wheaton. Dr. Hawkins revealed in an interview with NPR that this is the fourth time in nine years that she has been under administrative review at Wheaton. One of those times, she was accused of being a Marxist, a charge she denied just as she has refuted Wheaton’s current accusation that she has violated their statement of faith. I have known Dr. Hawkins for 25 years now, and I can confirm that she is not a Marxist, and her theological beliefs are both orthodox and genuine. The extra level of review she has experienced at Wheaton, though, reminds me of what my black friends have long told me—that everywhere they go, they are treated with suspicion and heightened scrutiny.

            On Dr. Hawkins’ fourth visit to the principal’s office at Wheaton, is it perhaps time that administrators at this Christian college begin to question their own practices with the same vigor they’ve shown in questioning hers? Maybe they would be wise to scrutinize their own motives in jumping so quickly to the conclusion that there was only one way to view Hawkins’ “same God” statement, but that there are multiple (innocent and acceptable) ways to interpret similar statements made by white insiders such as Billy Graham. Does Wheaton’s posture toward Dr. Hawkins help to explain why she is one of only about a half-dozen African American faculty members at the school and the first (!) tenured black female at the college? Is there only one way to understand these inconvenient truths? Shall the rest of us follow Wheaton’s lead and interpret the homogeneity of its faculty in only the most negative possible light, as a reflection of systematic, pervasive institutional racism?

            Wheaton’s actions appear to reflect a shift in the cultural alignments of the college, from the broad evangelicalism of Billy Graham and Jim Elliot to the narrow fundamentalism of Bob Jones and Jerry Falwell. Current faculty at Wheaton, as well as prospective faculty and students, ought to consider this realignment carefully as they think about their employment at or their application to this school. As an institution of higher education, Wheaton is certainly taking this opportunity to educate America about how it thinks evangelical Christians ought to approach conflict, diversity, and questions of doctrinal orthodoxy. The question now is whether Wheaton’s apparent shift toward fundamentalism reflects a broader cultural sea change for American evangelicals. 

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AuthorRyan Brown