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Racial Justice & Academic Freedom: What's Going on at Christian Colleges?
And what can you do about it?
It’s been fascinating to watch the latest backlash against racial justice in white evangelical spaces manifest in real time. As a historian, I’m accustomed to tracing such developments after the fact. But I’m old enough to remember a time when addressing racial inequities and prejudices was not only acceptable but often actively encouraged in white evangelical churches and organizations. Yes, it was often called “racial reconciliation” rather than “racial justice” and it tended to focus on individual heart change rather than systemic inequalities, but not always, and even then, there was at least space to contend that reconciliation required acknowledging both personal and structural sin, and restoring what was broken interpersonally and societally.
How things have changed.
This week, news broke of Taylor University firing professor Julie Moore. Her offense was teaching a writing course around themes of racial justice and including a quote from Jemar Tisby on her syllabus. The offending quote?
The refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression. History and Scripture teach us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.
Moore wasn’t the first Christian college professor to lose a job for teaching about racial justice. A couple months back, Palm Beach Atlantic professor Samuel Joeckel learned that his contract wouldn’t be renewed. He, too, had transgressed by including issues of racial justice in his course content.
What is striking about both of these cases is that neither Joeckel nor Moore was doing anything substantially differently from what they’d done for years. Decades, even. Moore, who taught at two Christian colleges before coming to Taylor (the historically Black Wilberforce University and Cedarville University), had been structuring her writing courses around the theme of racial justice since she began teaching composition in the 1990s. (For those who don’t know, college composition courses are frequently topic-based, and the topics are left up to each instructor.)
Here’s how she describes what happened:
At Taylor, therefore, I continued what I’d been doing for decades in teaching my College Composition course: Using the theme of racial justice, challenging my students to read and write about texts written by multicultural authors who share their life stories and points of view. Depending on the semester, I’d assign such texts as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Frederick Douglass’s "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?", Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Letter to My Son,” Claudia Rankine’s “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning,” and Marlena Graves’ article, “The Trayvon Martin Case: A Moment for Evangelical Reflection,” published in Christianity Today in 2012.
I’d avoid political discussions about policy debates, allowing students to choose such topics for their research papers later, if they were interested in doing so.
Furthermore, after Dr. Willie James Jennings had spoken on campus in my first year at Taylor and challenged us professors to teach our students about local history, I started teaching about the 1930 lynchings that happened in Marion, Indiana, just minutes from our campus.
After all, my own church’s mission included working for racial justice in Marion, and the Equal Justice Initiative had come to town to discuss erecting a monument for the victims, Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith. I ended up assigning Syreeta McFadden's Buzzfeed article about the victims and the lone survivor, James Cameron, as well as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” I invited local residents to come to my class to answer questions and address the Christian response to racial injustice.
Most students were engaging deeply in the materials, and students of color kept telling me, “I feel seen in your class.” Students who’d lived locally their whole lives all told me something striking, too: “No one ever told me about this. I can’t believe this happened in my backyard.”
Indeed, as James Madison’s book A Lynching in the Heartland (2003) and Timothy Egan’s astounding new book A Fever in the Heartland (2023) both show, Indiana was the headquarters for the KKK and boasted the highest membership roles in the nation in the 1920s. KKK members were elected to the governorship and state legislature; they were policemen and businessmen and educators. They were members of myriad Protestant churches. As Egan says, “[T]he Klan infested Indiana. All but two of the ninety-two counties had a chapter—the only state with such saturation. One in three native-born white males wore the sheets.”
As Egan also explains, the corrupt leader of the KKK at the time, Hoosier David C. Stephenson, said, he “did not sell the Klan in Indiana on hatreds” but rather “on Americanism.”
But none of my students knew this history. Using it as a springboard for writing assignments is an effective and relevant way for them to learn about rhetorical contexts: diverse genres for diverse purposes for diverse readers. Rhetorical context is key, after all, and that’s at the heart of any College Composition class worth its salt.
Throughout all of it, I always told my students--and even put in my syllabus--that the class was a safe and welcoming space, that they were free to express their views, and that the course’s materials were not about guilt or shame. But I did tell them that as a writing class, they needed to learn how to express their views in respectful and sensitive ways. They also had to make sure their writing was informed. In short, I asked all my students to read as listeners—to read in order to understand—then respond in writing.
Moore then recounts how, under new president D. Michael Lindsay and new provost Jewerl Maxwell, she was informed that her position would be “re-evaluated.” The problem, it seems, was that teaching a writing course around the theme of racial justice was suddenly deemed “inappropriate.”
Moore drew on Scripture to explain her focus and included Taylor’s Multicultural Philosophy statement in her syllabus. On occasion a student would complain about the antiracist themes in the course, but those of us who teach college-level courses know that friction of this sort is inevitable when teaching on topics deemed political or controversial (and not uncommon when teaching on more mundane topics, too), and consider it part of our jobs to help students learn how to listen to other perspectives in order that they can more carefully articulate their own in thoughtful, well-evidenced, and effective ways. These skills are foundational to college-level writing instruction, and in fact a key part of many courses in the humanities.
When a new president and provost came to town, however, Moore learned that she would be losing her job. Because Moore had the presence of mind to record the conversation, her account is verifiable.
Her provost faulted her for teaching a “sociology of race” class rather than a writing course. She responded by describing her course content and assignments. Maxwell would not be dissuaded by such details. In fact, he seemed rather uninterested in details generally:
At one point, I pressed Maxwell for specific details, asking him what materials I’d assigned that he found objectionable. He wouldn’t name any. I pressed him more. He finally blurted, “Jemar Tisby is the main focus.”
I immediately responded that I actually don't assign any of Tisby’s texts to my students. Maxwell insisted I did. He claimed he saw such assignments on Blackboard, so he didn’t believe me. I again corrected him. I told him that I had one quotation from Tisby on my syllabus and that was it. But I insisted the quotation is biblical and consistent with what Taylor purports to teach.
None of this mattered, and Moore was purged from the faculty. Maxwell did, however, assure Moore that he’d keep her in his prayers.
In Moore’s case as well as Joeckel’s, administrators were angered when the targeted faculty members went public with their accounts. But for those interested in Christian higher education, transparency on such matters is crucial. Both of these cases reveal a dramatic shift in what can and can’t be said on the issue of race; in both cases, what was until very recently deemed acceptable or even exemplary has now become a fireable offense. What’s happening at Christian colleges reflects a similar shift in the broader white evangelical community.
Recall that as recently as 2018, the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition hosted MLK50, a conference reflecting “on the state of racial unity in the church and the culture on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of King’s death. The event featured speakers such as Mika Edmondson, Christina Edmondson, Russell Moore, Justin Giboney, Charlie Dates, and Jackie Hill Perry. Yet a mere five years later, discussions of racial justice are dismissed as evidence of “wokeness,” as anti-biblical, as destructive to Christianity itself.
No one has had a better vantage point from which to observe this shift than Jemar Tisby himself.
In 2019, Tisby published The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. I had the honor of endorsing Tisby’s book, and here’s what I said at the time:
The Color of Compromise is essential reading for American Christians. By telling the brutal history of white Christians' deliberate complicity in racial oppression, Jemar Tisby confronts the church with its own past. But his is not simply a story of condemnation. If racism can be made, it can be unmade, he reminds us. 'There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love,' Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote. Tisby's book is a labor of love and, ultimately, a work of hope.
I wasn’t the only one who liked Tisby’s book. It received positive reviews from fellow historians, and from many white evangelicals. Tisby was invited to Christian colleges around the country, where he was enthusiastically received. This doesn’t mean that everyone in attendance agreed with every point he made, but that is rarely the case for any speaker, and in fact shouldn’t be in any community formed around seeking truth. At my own school, Calvin University, Tisby was very warmly received by members of the faculty, staff, and student body. I know, because I was there.
Tisby was invited to more conservative Christian college campuses, too. In 2020, he gave a chapel address at Grove City College. His appearance stirred some pushback but was warmly received by others. Colleges are meant to be spaces where ideas are presented, challenged, and defended. Christian colleges, too, are designed to be places of learning, of discernment, of seeking truth in community. By design, colleges are not meant to be places of indoctrination. Most faculty I know laugh at the notion that we have much power to teach students what to think. We focus our efforts on teaching students how to think—how to weigh various viewpoints, assess evidence, consider alternative interpretations, and articulate their own well-formed values with precision and charity, equipping them to bring those values into conversation with others in their families, churches, communities, and countries.
Yet the next year, Tisby suddenly found himself in the crosshairs. A group of conservatives accused Grove City College of going “woke,” and Tisby’s appearance became the center of a firestorm. Tisby—an esteemed historian and devout Christian—someone who visited campus briefly a year earlier—was suddenly a threat to the institution, and to some, to Christianity itself. Grove City, it turns out, was a harbinger of things to come.
As Tisby put it, we are now witnessing a “race to the right,” with certain Christian colleges falling over themselves to appease donors and constituents on the Right. Yet it must also be acknowledged that on the issue of race, what constitutes “the Right” keeps shifting to more extreme positions.
But why? What happened? What explains this recent and dramatic change? Because Tisby isn’t saying anything now that he wasn’t saying back in 2019.
Let’s take a closer look at this history.
But let’s go back a bit further than 2019. Recall that back in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, many white evangelicals openly embraced efforts of racial reconciliation. They understood that, as Tisby attested, “History and Scripture teach us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.” This was not deemed “woke,” it was deemed Christian.
And then a few things happened.
Barack Obama was elected president, and thinly-veiled racism started making a comeback in our political discourse.
Trayvon Martin was killed. So was Michael Brown. And Eric Garner.
The Black Lives Matter movement emerged in response, and many conservative white Christians joined in. Tisby’s The Color of Compromise—a work of history published by a Christian publisher, written by a Christian to fellow Christians—became a New York Times bestseller. Many white Christians felt compelled to learn about this history because they understood that reckoning with this past was necessary in order to forge a better future. Christians have a framework for understanding such things: sin (we all fall short), confession, restoration.
It wasn’t long, however, before other white Christians began to denounce Black Lives Matter as Marxist, as anti-white, as anti-Christian. And then, attention shifted quite suddenly, or so it seemed, from anti-BLM to anti-CRT.
I first heard about Critical Race Theory not from legal scholars, nor from fellow historians, but from right-wing Christians on social media calling out the nefarious influences of CRT. Almost overnight, I went from having to Google “CRT” to having an invited talk at a Christian college cancelled because of allegations that I was a CRT activist. (The president assured me that he knew the allegations were utter nonsense, but he felt it necessary to bow to the pressure.)
How did this happen, so uniformly and so quickly?*
Remember that 2018 MLK50 conference organized by the SBC’s ERLC and The Gospel Coalition? Two months later, in June of that year, a number of conservative evangelical men (including John MacArthur, Phil Johnson, Josh Buice, Tom Buck, Voddie Baucham, James White, Tom Ascol, and Darrell Harrison) drafted The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. Warning of “questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories presently permeating our culture and making inroads into Christ’s church,” the authors of the letter expressed concern over “values borrowed from secular culture” in the areas of race and gender. Instead, they denied both “that systemic racism is in any way compatible with the core principles of historic evangelical convictions” and “that the contemporary evangelical movement has any deliberate agenda to elevate one ethnic group and subjugate another.”
By 2019, “cultural marxism” became the favored term used to discredit anyone talking about racial justice in evangelical spaces. (This is reminiscent of earlier eras of American history, when expressing concern over racial inequality could get one labeled a Marxist.)
Groups like Founders Ministries, Sovereign Nations, and G3 have worked to keep up the battle against “social justice,” CRT, and “wokeness,” all ill-defined and largely interchangeable categories. This is an all-or-nothing game, as “social justice” and CRT were depicted as a “Trojan Horse” that will be used to destroy the church from within.
This battle has not been contained within the church. It’s also a battle for the soul of the nation. In 2019, the New York Times published 1619 Project, an effort to place race and anti-Black racism at the center of the American story. Critics claimed this was anti-American, and in response, President Trump established the 1776 Commission to offer a counter-narrative. Historians disagree every day about such things, and these disagreements drive our scholarship. Now, however, the fate of the nation was at stake. And it was political.
In the summer of 2020, two weeks after George Floyd was killed by police, Claremont fellow Chris Rufo denounced BLM, antiracism, DEI, CRT, and “wokeness,” and Claremont’s chair and president quickly follow with a memo “Stand Up, Republicans,” urging Republicans not to “kneel before their captors,” but to challenge “the central goal” of Black Lives Matter: “the destruction of the American way of life.”
Within weeks, Sen. Tom Cotton introduced the “Saving America History Act of 2020” (S. 4292) to ban federal funds from being used to teach 1619 Project curriculum in elementary and secondary schools. Now books are being removed from libraries, teachers are being muzzled, and university professors are being stripped of academic freedom—the freedom to do the jobs for which they are hired.
In just a few short years, we have seen conservative evangelicals, conservative pundits, and members of the Republican Party engage in a deliberate campaign to demonize anti-racism efforts. Which brings us back to Christian colleges.
It is no surprise that Christian colleges would become a battlefield in this new war.
I visit Christian colleges and universities across the country and I am consistently struck by the incredibly good work that faculty are doing—across the disciplines and across the political spectrum. Grounded in their faith and in their disciplinary expertise, Christian college professors tend not to be prone to rush into reactionary movements or do battle with ideological strawmen. They are able to hold together critique and complexity, and to help their students—and members of their larger communities—do the same. Which is why they are targeted by those who benefit from building strawmen and stoking reactionary sentiments.
What should Christian colleges do in our current climate? It is essential for Christian colleges to remain rooted in their core educational missions. This involves protecting intellectual spaces for Christians to wrestle with competing perspectives. It requires the preservation of due process, academic freedom, and fair play. It involves listening carefully to critics but also refusing to cave to pressures of select donors or constituents that would undermine their mission. Rather than censor or stifle their faculty, Christian colleges should look for ways to empower their faculty to speak to the most urgent matters of our day.
In fact, in this highly polarized climate, I’d suggest that Christian colleges—and Christian college professors—have a unique role to play, wherever they may land on the political spectrum. Faculty at Christian colleges are well positioned to move between secular and religious spaces, speaking on behalf of religious communities in the broader world, and bringing deeper understanding to contemporary debates both within and beyond their communities. But to do this work they require the support of their institutions.
I am a member of the Reformed tradition and I teach at Calvin University, a place that has always valued the liberal arts, and valued taking a distinctively Christian approach to liberal arts education. In my tradition, academic knowledge isn’t set against Christian faithfulness. Rather, knowledge is considered essential to the pursuit of wisdom—we must understand how the world works so that we can live well in the world, so that we can participate in the restoration of what is broken. In this tradition, disciplinary knowledge—history, sociology, biology, psychology—gives one more to be Christian with. To be sure, that knowledge is never presumed to be neutral, and discernment is always necessary, but that discernment is applied equally to what is deemed “religious” and “secular.” At its best, this discernment should guard against reactionary movements on all sides.
I was glad to see that Moore and Joeckel have sought to remind Christian colleges of their mission, and issuing a charge to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities to intervene in this moment:
A Charge to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities to Intervene
[We are] asking the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities to hold its member institutions like Palm Beach Atlantic University and Taylor University accountable for the injustices they are promoting.
When a member school like PBAU fires a professor at the same time it’s promoting a Republican candidate who opposes biblical convictions about racial justice, how can the CCCU merely say that it doesn’t comment on personnel decisions?
When a school like Taylor non-renews the contract of a professor for teaching truth about this country’s racist history as well as materials exhibiting beauty in writing by acclaimed authors of color, including Christian authors, how can the CCCU remain silent?
It’s time for the CCCU to declare that any institution wanting to remain in good standing in its Council must allow academic freedom and open discourse about all issues related to racial justice and in so doing, firmly resist all forms of white supremacy, no matter what “American” cloaks they appear to wear. BIPOC bodies are at stake, and if they are not safe at CCCUs, that is a travesty of the Gospel.
With respect to the backlash against racial justice and anti-racism, I think that it is past time for Christian colleges to confront this propaganda machine. There is certainly space for debate about the effectiveness of DEI trainings, about what we can learn from history, about the usefulness of various legal theories, and how best to confront racial injustice in society and in the church. But that’s not what is happening here. Instead, smear campaigns and pressure tactics have replaced careful scholarship and biblical reasoning.
I’ll close by noting that what’s happening at colleges like Taylor and Palm Beach Atlantic and Grove City stands in stark contrast to what I’ve observed and experienced at my own institution.
Just last week, we paid tribute to Michelle Loyd-Page, who helped steward anti-racist efforts at Calvin for 38 years. I urge you to watch this video. It doesn’t mince words and doesn’t hide that the Calvin community has fallen short, time and again, in doing justice and loving kindness. And yet, as Michelle pointed out to us at our recent faculty tribute dinner, we keep working in this direction while many Christian colleges right now are not even allowing staff to use the term “anti-racism.”
Given what Christian colleges and faculty members are up against right now, what can be done?
You can support Tisby by subscribing to his newsletter.
If you are an alum of a Christian college, pay attention to what’s happening there. Speak out when necessary, or ideally even before it’s necessary.
If you are a faculty member, stand strong and connect with other faculty doing this work. Have each other’s backs.
If you are an administrator at a Christian college, hold fast to your educational mission. Defend academic freedom. Protect and promote the work of your faculty.
Do the work you are called to do with honesty, charity, integrity, and courage.
*I’m grateful to Anna Caudill for sharing with me a timeline she’d compiled on the anti-CRT movement inside evangelical spaces.
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