My relationship with Taylor University, an evangelical Christian college in rural Indiana, goes back 25 years. I am an alumnus, a donor, and recently the parent of a prospective student. And on Friday, April 12, I was scheduled to deliver the message in Taylor’s chapel service.
We made a family trip of it, because most of my kids had never seen the place where their mom and dad fell in love. As we rolled across Ohio the day before my big moment on campus, my wife gasped. “I just got an email from Taylor: Mike Pence is going to be this year’s commencement speaker.”
My first reaction was, A sitting VP? What a coup for little old Taylor University! My second thought was, This school cannot get out of its own way. My last thought was, Is the Vice President of the United States about to personally ruin my weekend? And did I really just think that?
You need to understand the significance of chapel at Taylor. Some Christian colleges make on-campus worship services optional, and few students show up. Some schools make them mandatory and take attendance; everyone shows up, and a significant fraction does something on their phones during the proceedings.
Taylor is unique in that it mandates chapel but does not take attendance. Still, students throng thrice weekly to Rediger Chapel/Auditorium. The structure—an old basketball arena (think Hoosiers) repurposed in the 1970s—is now encased in a beautiful new student center, complete with Chick-Fil-A (the evangelical’s fast food of choice). The architecture symbolizes a reality: chapel is the beating heart of community life at Taylor.
That reality makes chapel a touchy social thermometer—or, the administration hopes, a thermostat—when controversy arises at the college. That’s what I expected as my minivan coasted into Upland, Indiana, population 3,845, half of whom are Taylor students.
Right away I went to greet the campus pastor. Jon and I lived together as students two decades earlier; his job now is a mixture of giving spiritual counsel to students and balancing the preferences of all constituencies in the sensitive task of administering the chapel program. Jon invited me to speak because he loves me and trusts me and also (though he never hinted as much) because I don’t command the honorarium of, say, Tim Tebow, who spoke there last fall. (Cash flow must always be carefully managed at a Christian college.)
He greeted me with a hug and a beleaguered look. “When I played hockey in high school, we had this trainer who used to patch us up when we got busted in the face,” he recalled. “When he was working on us he got a kick out of asking, ‘So, do you like hockey?’ Today I’m waiting for somebody to ask me, ‘So, do you like working in Christian higher education?’”
I learned that Lowell Haines, Taylor’s president, announced Pence’s visit at the faculty meeting that morning. The faculty promptly took a vote to express their dissent at the administration’s decision; the vote of disapproval passed 61 to 49. The following day, one adjunct professor managed to express her displeasure through an unusual channel, the Washington Post, which in Upland is a little like going on Anderson Cooper to complain about your neighbor’s dog. Other stories followed, and the brouhaha became national news. At the time of this writing, over 6,000 have signed a Change.org petition in protest, though it is unclear how many signatories are “a member of the Taylor family” as opposed to “an ally letting the Taylor administration know how you feel.”
Pastor Jon spent the day of my arrival privately listening to students with their hair on fire. He and his boss were trying to gauge whether the next day’s chapel service would be disrupted by chanting protesters. President Haines considered announcing the news of Pence’s invitation to the student body personally just before I took the stage, but fortunately for the survival of my message, he was dissuaded.
The sizable and strenuous opposition to Pence’s commencement invitation might justifiably strike many readers as odd. If Mike Pence has any friendly speaking gig on earth, an evangelical school with conservative bona fides in his home state ought to be it.
Yet the controversy at Taylor is not isolated to Mike Pence just as Taylor itself is not isolated from the rest of the country. As foreign as the small, Midwestern Christian college is to many, the unease playing out there mirrors the polarized panic afflicting us all.
If you live in a major metropolis or even in a medium-sized city, your first impression when approaching Taylor University is that it feels remote. You cannot fly there without a car ride of at least an hour awaiting you from Indianapolis or Fort Wayne across miles of impossibly flat, scalped farmland. (Muncie, home of Ball State University, is a half hour away along frighteningly narrow country roads.) Your second impression, however, is the vivacious communal life that you feel like a pulse the moment you enter campus.
Taylor’s biggest claim to fame these days is a tradition known as Silent Night. Featured on ESPN and other media outlets, Silent Night is the last men’s basketball game before Christmas break each year. Students dress up in garish costumes, pack the gym, and make no noise until Taylor scores its tenth point, when the crowd goes berserk and storms the court. As the game winds down students put their arms around each other and sway back and forth singing “Silent Night” (all three verses from memory) before bundling off to the dining commons for hot chocolate and listening to the school’s president read “’Twas the Night before Christmas.” When you put a couple thousand 18- to 22-year-olds, few of whom drink, in the middle of a cornfield, they have to invent their own fun. Silent Night is the magnificent result.
Taylor attracts a certain kind of gregarious, relationally adept student who draws in others of the same type. As a high school senior I was headed to Wheaton College in Illinois, generally considered the most prestigious among Christian colleges. (Alumni include Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and an obscure preacher named Billy Graham.) Wheaton was like me: cerebral, ambitious, disciplined. Taylor was like the girl I wanted to marry: warm, convivial, joyful. I ultimately chose Taylor because it had what I craved.
It is de rigueur for small private colleges to attract students by touting their “community.” Taylor’s walk matches its talk like no place else. For the continued existence of the institution, it must. Its academics are good, but they are not its unique selling proposition. The university sincerely employs other slogans such as “faith and learning” and “servant leadership,” but community pays the bills. Without community, Taylor is merely a decent school in the middle of nowhere.
For this reason, Taylor is grappling with profound, possibly existential dangers because of the disintegration of community in wider American society. When I was a student, Taylor felt like a bubble, but a transparent, semi-permeable one. We lived a quasi-monastic life, but professors equipped us to think critically and encouraged us to engage the world outside the dome. Now, however, the world has breached the bubble as never before, threatening the sanctity of the community within.
Enemy at the gates
The furor over Mike Pence’s impending arrival was presaged one year ago by a controversy reported in the evangelical press. A group of concerned, conservative Taylorites conspired to craft an anonymously written periodical to challenge mounting liberalism at the school. Especial worries included a series of left-wing speakers in recent chapel services and the growing prominence of Marxist-inspired critical race theory in campus dialogue. The writers called their underground newsletter Excalibur.
Several students went to distribute the newsletter in dormitories late at night to greet their denizens the next morning. What happened next varies depending on whom you talk to, and the truth will never be known. What is certain is that some nonwhite students had reason to believe that they were specially targeted in the newsletter’s delivery, which they took as an act of intimidation. To make matters worse, the chapel speaker being welcomed that day was a prominent Christian voice on the topic of racism, which made Excalibur appear to be a direct protest against her and the university employees who invited her.
President Haines, in his second year on the job, sprang into action with a memo that denounced both the harassment of minority students and Excalibur’s anonymity. In response the publishers disavowed and condemned any attempt to single out minority students, but more importantly they revealed their identities. They were not students after all: they were staff members (including the marketing director, about to be hit with a public relations nightmare of his own making) and professors. The latter included longtime philosophy professor Jim Spiegel, one of Taylor’s most honored faculty members and coach of the country’s only Ethics Bowl squad to make the national tournament nine years in a row, bringing home the championship in 2015.
It is nothing short of bizarre for Haines and Spiegel to represent the two sides of a controversy over whether Taylor is sufficiently conservative. The picture of comfortably tenured, conservative faculty writing an underground magazine to protest a conservative administration that reports to a conservative board of trustees for not being conservative enough is just laughable. But to the Excalibur writers it makes sense, and they felt compelled to speak up (sort of).
When you talk to Excalibur’s authors (who have since created an online journal dubbed Res Publica), they first stress their commitment to historic Christian doctrine—a significant rhetorical move, as it implies that their opponents have become lax in their commitment to core religious principles. Then they affirm their strong support of racial justice; their problem is with the assumption that social concern is identical to leftist ideology. (They favor what they call a “conservative-libertarian approach” to ameliorating racism.) Finally, they sketch a slippery-slope argument: critical race theory is kissing cousins with progressive views on sexuality and also with socialism, which results in totalitarianism, and these are what Taylor faculty of questionable orthodoxy are mouthpieces for.
I find this line of reasoning perplexing; Taylor taught me to think better than that. But it exemplifies how any intelligent person’s reasoning can be overrun when group anxiety reaches the red zone, which appears to be happening in America more every day.
Spiegel and company see themselves as an embattled minority, a righteous remnant with the enemy at the gates. In both the formal and informal power structures of Taylor University, that is completely untrue. It is more true to say that Taylor’s conservatives have complacently dominated the institution for a long time but now smell serious threats to their hold on the university’s mainstream.
When I was a student twenty years ago, Taylor was home to a tiny fraction of students who vented their liberal spleens in self-published, provocative opinion pieces that nobody agreed with and few cared about. Meanwhile, some social science professors propounded progressive views on issues like economic policy, but their religious orthodoxy was not in doubt. The intercultural office occasionally hosted speakers who castigated us whites for racism for reasons we could not understand and then returned to its quarters dissatisfied while we forgot about it the next day. The bugbear of old Protestant fundamentalism, evolution, was virtually passé; the science departments were dominated by “evolutionary creationists” while most religion professors held more traditional views of cosmic and human origins, but everybody got along. In short, conservatives at Taylor could allow liberal students and semi-liberal faculty to have their fun while holding onto power and congratulating themselves for being irenic and broad-minded.
Now, however, a number of these conservatives feel their grip slipping and see themselves imminently threatened with marginalization. And though they vastly underestimate their continued dominance in the institution, they are reacting to something real. Things have changed.
It starts with incoming students. As one Taylor professional told me, “Our finish line—where a student is at graduation—is the same as it ever was. But our starting line—where they are as freshmen—has moved backwards. We have further to take them in the same four years.”
He wasn’t referring to students’ academic skills (which have probably risen on average since my day) but to their emotional and spiritual maturity and their grasp of Christian teaching. In addition to the phenomena of “helicopter” and “snowplow” parents, many Taylor students have been more thoroughly indoctrinated by the world in what sociologists Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton call “moralistic therapeutic deism” than they’ve learned historic Christian theology and ethics from their churches and homes.
At the same time, racism—an infected wound never far below the surface in American life—has surged as a topic of discussion. The nonwhite portion of Taylor’s student body has gradually grown to one in six. (It isn’t easy to persuade black students from Chicago to pay private school tuition to live in rural Indiana.) The increase is universally pleasing, but it comes at a time when racial discord has erupted anew in the U.S. The KKK lingers surreptitiously in that part of Indiana; increasingly the school sees white supremacy rearing its head outside the walls while wokeness rises within.
But the most menacing danger to Taylor’s conservatives is society’s sea-change on sexuality, particularly same-sex relationships. In its core documents and behavioral standards, Taylor, like Christian colleges generally, holds to two millennia of teaching that sexual activity between members of the same sex is wrong for Christians in its community.
Taylor’s board hired President Haines, an attorney who specializes in higher education law, because it believes that the government’s posture toward schools like Taylor is its number-one institutional threat. When the government concludes that Taylor’s policy on sexuality constitutes unlawful discrimination, federal financial aid will vanish. California’s state government has already rattled its saber toward Christian colleges there, and evangelical Gordon College has had close calls in Massachusetts. Taylor’s endowment has grown respectably, but it is still a massively tuition-driven school whose students are middle-class. If Pell Grants and Stafford loans disappear, it’s game over.
Thus the friendliness of Taylor’s administration toward Mike Pence, whose wife recently achieved infamy for taking a job at a Christian K-12 school with policies similar to Taylor’s (though Karen Pence’s school is willing to decline a student based on his or her parents’ behavior). It’s unclear how many votes Donald Trump won from the Taylor community. (A faculty member considered one of Taylor’s “liberals” told me that “campus went big for Trump” in 2016, but I don’t know how the prof can be certain.) But those who did support Trump didn’t do it to make America great again. They did it because, between two unconscionable presidential candidates, only one would put justices on the Supreme Court likely to favor the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment over the Establishment Clause. Between a pagan and a heretic, the pagan seemed more reliable to hold the barbarians back from the gates.
If these are the worries of Taylor’s conservatives, what are the views of its progressives? There is no clear answer because it isn’t easy to identify precisely who they are or learn what they really think, even in private conversation. Taylor’s climate, like that of the U.S. generally, encourages many to play the odd role of vague zealots—people who express vehement offense yet keep their opinions mysterious.
Take for example the faculty’s vote to criticize Pence’s invitation to commencement. It was widely reported that 61 professors approved the motion, but their reasons for doing so are murky. How many dissented because of Pence’s record on gay rights? How many agree with Pence’s positions but want nothing to do with the Trump administration? How many vote Republican but believe the university should steer clear of any hint of political alignment? How many knew the campus was too fractured from Excalibur to handle another bombshell? How many predicted the P.R. debacle bound to result? And how many simply wanted to avoid a circus that would compromise a long-awaited day of celebration for graduates and their families?
We’ll never know. But depending on how you slice up the dissenting coalition, when you add parts of it to the 49 who voted not to dissent, Taylor’s faculty may yet be conservative indeed.
Taylor employees’ reluctance to be forthright about their views exhibits a classic division over what unity means. To some staff members, unity means we accept all who want to be here. For a social liberal that includes openly LGBT faculty, staff, and students. For some moderates it means maintaining binding ties with liberals in the Taylor community despite disagreement on contentious issues.
To other moderates and conservatives, however, unity means we are who we say we are. Taylor has four core documents that articulate its identity. Two are long-standing: a brief statement of theological doctrine and a behavioral standard called the Life Together Covenant. It is generally understood that employees who do not abide by them are not welcome. (Students are bound primarily by the LTC.) The two other statements, products of the culture war, are of more recent vintage: a statement on the sanctity of life and another on sexuality and marriage.
The unresolved question is whether the two more recent statements, especially the one on sexuality, are tests of orthodoxy that could be used to force professors from their jobs. Those who view unity as acceptance are cautiously willing to concede that the statements express the view of Taylor as a whole but fear them being used on individual employees as a litmus test. Conversely, those who view unity as conformity see it as a lack of integrity for a professor to harbor disgust at Mike Pence’s record on gay rights but willingly take a paycheck from an institution with the very same position.
Taylor’s authentic communal life raises the stakes higher, because to be forced out isn’t just to lose a job but to lose something like a family, especially for faculty members who have been at the school for many years while their opinions have quietly shifted. Ironically, that fear converts authentic community into inauthentic community, because it is too dangerous to risk social and religious disapproval if not termination of employment by speaking one’s thoughts honestly.
When I was a student at Taylor, I learned what it meant to debate vigorously while maintaining respect and love for those who disagreed with me. I may have been naive; I certainly did not grasp the difference in liberty between my position as a paying customer and the position of a paid employee. But it is clear that many at Taylor today are playing with cards close to the vest, with the result that messages are delivered in code for others to try to interpret.
For instance, when Pastor Jon prayed in chapel the day after the Pence announcement, he thanked God for giving us a place where we could grow and learn from one another. (Message: Talk and listen in the flesh instead of retreating or bombarding social media.) When he introduced me, he graciously (and somewhat inaccurately) lauded how as a student I asked friends to clarify what they meant and listened thoughtfully to them. (Message: Be like this guy was.)
Code words also appear in adjunct professor Amy Peterson’s Washington Post op-ed. She claimed that last year Excalibur “was only distributed to the rooms of students of color and sexual minorities” in some dorms. The term sexual minorities is the code phrase. First, it was not previously reported in the press that LGBTQ individuals were singled out, nor did I hear this from anyone I spoke to at Taylor on diverse sides of the controversy. Second, Peterson’s nomenclature, implying a group that deserves special protection, is not standard lingo at Taylor.
This is the sort of language that causes conservatives’ antennae to quiver. Does it mean that if Peterson had her druthers she would repeal Taylor’s statement on sexuality? Who knows?
Peterson’s linkage of race and sexuality is telling. As historian Mark Noll notes in his book God and Race in American Politics, the breakthrough of the Civil Rights Movement energized other movements, including the gay rights movement, to employ civil rights rhetoric to advance different social objectives which for progressives comprise a single broad crusade. This puts left-leaning provocateurs about race at Taylor in a delicate position. It is possible that a Christian may sympathize with a progressive critique of structural racism but not endorse same-sex marriage. (I’ll come clean: I’m one of them.) But it brings with it plausible guilt-by-association to conservatives with slippery-slope suspicions. Traditionally at Taylor, good people can disagree on the best way to understand and end racism, but they must not disagree on sex.
It’s not as though conservatives don’t use their own code words, however. Based on the explosive reaction to the first issue of Excalibur, one might expect it to be a blistering, Trumpian screed against blacks, immigrants, gays, Muslims, and maybe climatologists. In fact, it’s nothing of the sort—it’s almost tame. One article is about how Christians are to care for the weak at all stages of life because God created humanity in his image. The other warns against being distracted from Jesus’ voice by a dangerous “Marxist social justice worldview.”
The fighting words in Excalibur are summed up in this sentence: “While the [conservative] values expressed here warrant consistent and explicit expression in the Taylor community, in recent times this has been done inadequately across campus, whether in classrooms, the chapel program, faculty publications, or by invited speakers.” Mean-spirited, isn’t it?
Like the rest of America, Taylor is struggling not to devolve completely into a society where the slightest choice of words, turn of phrase, or even verbal lacuna sends people to the barricades, where all sides engage in a perpetual inquisition of others’ beliefs and motives that only drives them deeper into the shadows. In a setting where saying anything risks condemnation, those with the boldness to make a claim—even if the claim itself is not particularly bold—set the terms of debate. They also assume qualities of a caricature to skeptics while the rest stay underground. As in American society generally, there may not be a vast excluded middle of nuanced opinion at Taylor University, but if there is, no one would know.
The most remarkable thing about my arrival at Taylor the day the Pence controversy blew up is that, without assistance, I would have had no idea a controversy had blown up. It was a beautiful, warm spring day, and campus was blooming in bucolic splendor. Students peacefully traversed between buildings, smiling and greeting passersby known and unknown, per Taylor tradition. When the campus pastor and his boss told me they were investigating whether students would mount the stage in protest the next day, they were partly joking (I think). Sit-ins and chanting aren’t done at Taylor. After all, this is Middle America, where the most admired virtues are unpretentiousness and niceness.
Heated argument at Taylor is not only uncomfortable, it is almost sinful. So, as in America as a whole, social discourse operates on two planes simultaneously. One is the plane of face-to-face talking; the other is the plane of disembodied writing. Since the stakes of inclusion and exclusion are so high in the former, anger is funneled into the latter.
It is no accident that Prof. Peterson files a grievance against her employer in an online op-ed that relies on students’ sub rosa expressions of distress by text and email, or that rage is erupting among Taylorites on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. One reason, of course, is that this is how we communicate today, and another is that it allows distant alumni like myself to wade into the fray. But a more important reason is that systemic emotional anxiety drives us to respond to perceived threats indirectly, which ironically makes us more strident.
Excalibur itself is a perfect example. Keep in mind that the newsletter was primarily the creation of staff to admonish other staff. But to get their message across to their colleagues, they put the newsletter in the hands of students to deliver to other students. They also did so anonymously, citing their wish to express themselves “boldly, extensively and without editorial filter.” (Some of its publishers told me they hoped anonymity would generate buzz instead of a shrug—as a former student I sympathize with this—and were totally shocked by the blowback.)
Notwithstanding Taylorites’ concerns for minority students’ personal safety, such fears were truthfully not the main reason that many took offense at Excalibur. Staff especially were up in arms chiefly because anonymous actors vaguely criticized unnamed Taylor employees for being unfaithful to their vocational and spiritual obligations.
Taylor’s behavioral code, the Life Together Covenant, is no joke at the university; it is considered a central plank in the platform of the school’s community life. The LTC doesn’t just proscribe vices like drinking and premarital sex. It also contains passages like this one: “A community such as ours can be strengthened by speaking the truth to each other with love. Problems in relationships and behavior can be resolved constructively by confronting one another in an appropriate spirit. If the welfare of the one being confronted is paramount and if the confronter is motivated by and acting in love, the process can produce growth.”
This was why President Haines condemned Excalibur’s anonymity as strongly as the perceived targeting of racial minorities. It’s also why the revelation of the authors was almost as damaging as the newsletter itself. It disclosed that two of them were departmental colleagues of a professor known for inviting speakers on critical race theory and that another author lived next door to the staff member responsible for the chapel program. But reproaches hadn’t been delivered privately before the newsletter went public.
Critics of Excalibur argued that if its authors were so concerned that the administration enforce its statement on sexuality, they should expect the president to enforce the Life Together Covenant just as firmly.
But apparently he did not. The controversy died down with nothing resolved, as campus imbroglios often do. A few faculty members on opposite sides of the divide cautiously met one on one to discuss it, but few apologies were offered and no mediated reconciliation is known to have happened. Everyone was back in the fall with their jobs and sore feelings intact.
Excalibur’s former publishers learned without realizing it that they not only escaped official punishment for triangulating their disgruntlement through students, they also became a useful means of triangulation for others. Whatever public rebuke they suffered, they were more than compensated by the flood of private encouragement they received from conservative faculty, alumni, parents, and donors—people unwilling to express displeasure themselves but happy to have someone else do it for them. The support only hardened their resolve as crusaders for the truth.
Paralysis by self-analysis
The resentment triangulated through public figures, the online warriors, and the general failure of offstage conflict to align with face-to-face community mirrors an America with little civil disorder but massive social distrust. But Taylor also mimics the country in opponents’ scramble to define group identity.
In his bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance observes that a huge number of Americans who poll as evangelicals, especially in the South, don’t go to church and have little that resembles an orthodox Christian faith. These are many of Donald Trump’s biggest fans (though a significant number of churchgoing evangelicals are as well).
The rest of the subculture painfully yearns to tell the world, “We’re the right kind of evangelicals—not the stupid, armed-to-the-teeth, jingoistic, quasi-pagan kind.” This is a big motive looming behind Amy Peterson’s op-ed, Michael Gerson’s searing piece in the April 2018 issue of The Atlantic, and arguably this post as well.
It’s unclear whether the rest of the world cares about our intramural distinctions. But it isn’t much different from Americans’ struggles to define our country’s identity and the contested meaning of the American creed of “liberty and justice for all.” In both cases, the pervasive fear is that the faction that succeeds in making its self-definition preeminent will wield its power to marginalize and even persecute all who disagree.
Our nation’s internal division makes us a sitting duck for external threats, whether from Russia, from China, or from the climate of the earth itself . . . which returns us yet again to Taylor’s invitation to Mike Pence.
Like many colleges, Taylor is fighting to overcome the financial perils of the birthrate dip that has fewer students entering college over the next ten years. As an administrator at another institution told me, “I can’t outrun the bear, but I can outrun you.” Colleges will collapse over the next decade, but those who outdistance their competitors may make it through the crisis.
Facing a smaller-than-hoped-for incoming freshman class this year and with an administrator with ties to Pence from his days as Indiana’s governor, it must have seemed like the right time to bring the VP onto campus with historic hoopla. It ought to elevate Taylor’s prestige among prospective evangelical students and their parents over that of its rivals.
Yet Taylor is too internally divided to support its administration’s efforts to confront a serious challenge outside the walls. The backlash may have done more harm to Taylor than the invitation did good by putting in jeopardy the college’s number-one strategic asset: its community.
My friend Jon need not have worried about how I would be received in chapel. The student body was warm, attentive, thoughtful, and appreciative—everything I expected Taylor students to be, everything they’ve always been.
If there is any hope for Taylor to resolve its internal divisions and navigate its external challenges, chapel might be the place to find it. It is a precious cultural resource—a meeting ground where the whole community gathers face to face and worships something greater than the self. Where the whole community is reminded three times a week that meaning comes from something beyond individual expression; that truth is revealed, not created; that the problem with the world is in one’s own soul, not in the demonized other; and that power to change is available to anyone who humbly looks upward for help.
This might be the one way that Taylor is not like America: it remains to be seen whether our country can recover a similar resource to heal our national community.
See my follow-up post about the controversy at Taylor.