While many Christian individuals and institutions were swept up by the nationalist politics of the Trump administration, many Christian colleges resisted the political pressure because of their Christian values.
By Mike Nietzel, author and senior contributor at Forbes. Editorial Disclaimer: The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of Inflection, Academic Influence, or Influence Networks.
A group of Christian Colleges is pursuing an agenda of pressing social issues, including immigration reform, criminal justice, and racial/ethnic diversity. It’s an ambitious set of policies, and it’s noteworthy because the stance of these colleges is in marked contrast to the ultra-conservative narrative associated with the evangelical church’s recent embrace of the right-wing, nationalist politics of Donald Trump.
The colleges are members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), an organization composed of about 180 member institutions worldwide, with approximately 140 in the U.S. The schools represent 37 different Protestant denominations.
CCCU schools are accredited, comprehensive colleges and universities whose missions are Christ-centered and rooted in the historic Christian faith. Although many self-identify as evangelical, the defining doctrines for all member institutions are that they:
Many of the nation’s leading private colleges and universities had their origins as religious institutions affiliated with a specific denomination within the broad Christian tradition. Duke is an example, as are Emory, Yale, and Wesleyan University. And while some private schools still accept funding from the church of their founding, many no longer hold any religious expectations for their students, nor do they align their curricular or extracurricular offerings with particular religious beliefs or practices.
In contrast, CCCU colleges are devoted to fostering Christian virtues in their graduates. They develop their curricula, their expectations for student behavior, their hiring of faculty and staff, and their co-curricular programs with that goal in mind. Most do so within the context of a liberal arts framework.
These colleges are also tackling some of the major social issues of our times, many of which lead to sharp policy differences between political progressives and conservatives, especially those associated with more fundamentalist and evangelical churches and leaders. So it’s newsworthy when CCCU colleges adopt policies that contradict those held by politically-inclined evangelical ministers, as well as when they align with secular institutions and Catholic colleges and universities in official advocacy.
Take immigration for example. The Christian Broadcast Network, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, has frequently stoked fears about the dangers of immigrants pouring across the southern border of the U.S. A 2018 Washington Post/ABC poll found that 75% of white evangelicals in the U.S. described “the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants” as a positive thing, compared to just 46% of Americans overall. And a Pew Research Center poll that same year found that 68% of white evangelicals believed America had no responsibility to house refugees, 25 percentage points more than the national average.
What’s the CCCU position? Through its work with the Evangelical Immigration Table, it supports bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform. It has also advocated for Dreamers and DACA recipients and supports a permanent solution for these young people and their communities. The CCCU has praised last year’s Supreme Court decision allowing DACA to continue. Here’s a recent statement in support of the Dream Act:
“We believe a bipartisan, permanent legislative solution for Dreamers from Congress is the best means to provide a long-term solution for these young people and their communities.
Many of these young people in our country who were brought to the United States as children are now students on college and university campuses, and we feel the urgency of this issue for our students, along with their families, employers, churches, and communities. We also feel a moral imperative to support stability over insecurity for these vulnerable young people.
As Christians, we are called to care for those who are most vulnerable. Jesus says in Matthew 25:40, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” There is hardly a population who better fits this description than young people without a legal home who face an uncertain future.”
Many evangelicals express support for various prison reforms, grounded in a belief that spiritual redemption is possible for anyone. However, at the level of specific practices, their strongest support has been for faith-based prison ministries that emphasize evangelical proselytizing and conversion.
Although CCCU schools also embrace faith-based ministries, they also back other secular efforts.
CCCU institutions have confronted other hot-button issues dividing today’s America, often taking positions that do not hew to the conservative line. Just a few weeks ago the organization is hosting a virtual event, entitled, “Faithful Leadership: Race, Politics and Evangelicalism in America.” It seeks to address “the deep divides that not only exist in our nation, but also in the Church. Political divisions, racial strife, and deep polarization mark both the Church within the United States and the republic in which it exists.” The conference includes a roster of well-known church leaders and Christian intellectuals who will speak on “topics like critical race theory, Christian nationalism, systemic racism, and how to move forward in truth and grace.”
No specific example illustrates the willingness of CCCU colleges to challenge the accepted evangelical political orthodoxy better than the recent statement, signed by hundreds of staff and faculty at Wheaton College , rebuking former President Donald Trump for his role in the deadly insurrection at the nation’s capitol on January 6. (Full disclosure: I’m an alum of Wheaton.)
The statement specifically criticized President Trump for what it called “wicked leadership.”
“The January 6 attack on the Capitol was characterized not only by vicious lies, deplorable violence, white supremacy, white nationalism, and wicked leadership—especially by President Trump—but also by idolatrous and blasphemous abuses of Christian symbols. The behaviors that many participants celebrated in Jesus’ name bear absolutely no resemblance to the Christian teachings or ethics that we submit to as faculty and staff of Wheaton College. Furthermore, the differential treatment displayed by those with a duty to protect in their engagement with rioters who trespassed on the Capitol grounds illegally, when compared to recent protests over police brutality in D.C. last summer, illustrates the ongoing reality that systemic racism in our country is tragically and undeniably alive and well. These realities are reprehensible. Our Christian faith demands shining a light on these evils and the simultaneous commitment to take appropriate action.”
This was not the first time Wheaton faculty have voiced sharp objection to Trump and the role evangelical leaders have played in championing his policies.
Ed Stetzer , Executive Director of Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center, called for a “reckoning” on Trump in a recent NPR interview with Rachel Martin: In response to one question, Stetzer said, “I’ve been one for years who was saying we need to see more clearly who Donald Trump is and has often not been listened to. But I would say that for many people, the storming of the Capitol, the desecration of our halls of democracy, has shocked and stunned a lot of people and how President Trump has engaged in riling up crowds to accomplish these things.”
Who speaks for today’s evangelical church? Highly political figures like Jerry Falwell Jr. ., Ralph Reed, Robert Jeffress , and Franklin Graham offer one option - what some have called a “radicalized Christian nationalism.” But there’s an alternative, one that does not subordinate basic Christian beliefs to a political ideology or a polarizing leader. The CCCU institutions have lifted a strong voice for that alternative.