Are There Trustworthy Protestant Universities?

April 6, 2023

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

This essay was originally published by American Reformer on April 4, 2023.

The Battle for Christian Higher Education Rages

The decline of Protestant higher education is manifest. At the time of their founding, most Protestant colleges and universities had a strong sense of mission, connected to preparing Christians for ministry, missions, and trades.

As James Tunstead Burtchaell documents in his meticulous Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches, school after school, in tradition after tradition, chose American respectability over fidelity to a distinctly Christian mission. This tome details how Congregationalists lost Dartmouth and Beloit; how the Presbyterians lost Lafayette and Davidson; how Baptists lost Wake Forest and Linfield; how Lutherans lost Gettysburg, St. Olaf, and Concordia; how Catholics lost Boston College and Saint Mary’s College of California; and how Evangelicals lost Azusa Pacific.

What emerges is a science of higher education apostasy. Schools worry about being perceived as “sectarian,” as it is defined at different times. University programs multiply, necessitating departmental hiring. Faculty become beholden to professional standards over school missions. The administration wants prestigious faculty and progressively sheds faithfulness and piety from job descriptions. Faculty statements of faith “devolve from active membership in the sponsoring church or denomination to nominal membership, to acceptance of the college’s own faith statement, to silent toleration of the ill-specified purposes of the institution.” Chapels, vestiges of old missions, become the only “sectarian” event on campus—and then they fade, becoming optional or inclusively non-sectarian. Once controversies swirl about chapel, their light is already dying out.

Soon Christian colleges begin speaking the language of intellectual freedom and diversity of opinion while they water down and then drop distinctively Christian mission statements. New monies from alumni and government replace old denominational money. Governance moves from the denomination to the alumni or to those who know the college president. Eventually, Protestant schools, as Burtchaell writes, end up “judging the church by the academy and the gospel by the culture.”

As American culture shifts, so do Christian colleges. While it was possible, earlier, to entertain the idea that American culture was not anti-Christian, that is no longer the case with the ideology of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), which is presently conquering Christian universities. Universities are now “welcoming” but not faithful to the truth; they embrace “diversity” but not the Savior of the nations. Christian schools commonly defile themselves in conforming to transgender ideology, same-sex marriage, queer theory, and perpetual singleness.

Burtchaell’s Dying tells much the same story as George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and as does James F. Keating’s “Who Killed the Catholic University?” Every school’s decline is different in the specifics, but every such story is also broadly the same. The mechanisms of prestige and government money absorb Christian universities into Americanism. Maintaining Christian distinctives requires a deep, abiding commitment to tradition and a jealous guarding of mission against imperial Americanism. Protestant higher education hardly specializes in these traits, and neither do Catholic schools.

A list of apostate universities is much longer than any list of holdouts. David Goodwin, President of the K-12 Association of Classical Christian Schools, which now boasts more than 500 schools, tells me that “the number one question he hears is ‘where should I send my graduate to college?’” Are there universities that Christian parents can still trust?

A complete answer to this question demands a deeper dive into the character of individual schools. Three questions capture the direction of each institution. 1) What faith commitments do universities demand of faculty? 2) Does the university embrace the contemporary understanding of DEI through the establishment of a DEI office at the university level? and 3) Does it recognize an LGBTQ Center or such clubs on campus? Regime-aligned universities have no real teeth behind faith commitments for faculty and they have bought into American DEI ideology at the expense of Christian faith. Those “teetering” are moving toward regime-alignment on these issues. “Holdouts” have maintained steadfastness to the Christian faith in hiring and mission.

Regime-Aligned Christian Universities

Southern Methodist University

Faculty Faith – No Requirement
DEI – Yes
LGBTQ – Center

Calvin University

Faculty Faith – Church membership, Affirm Creedal Statement of Faith, and DEI character tests.
DEI – Yes

Baylor University

Faculty Faith – Faculty operate within “Christian-oriented” goals. Decentralized evaluation as individual departments evaluate faith and practice.
DEI – Yes
LGBTQ – Club

Wheaton College, IL

Faculty Faith – Reaffirm Creedal Statement of Faith
DEI – Yes and Yes
LGBTQ – Center

Grand Canyon University

Faculty Faith – No Requirement is evident.
DEI – Yes
LGBTQ – Club

Teetering Universities

Samford University

Faculty Faith – Affirm Creedal Statement of Faith and “engage with Jesus.”
DEI – Yes
LGBTQ – Unrecognized Club

Biola University

Faculty Faith – Affirm Creedal Statement of Faith with Protestant Social Teaching (requirement is in faculty handbook unavailable to the public).
DEI – Yes

Grove City College

Faculty Faith – Adherence to the “Christian Principles” of the school.
DEI – Maybe

Hold Out Universities

Liberty University

Faculty Faith – Affirm Creedal Statement of Faith, Protestant Social Teaching and active church membership.
DEI – Yes

Cairn University

Faculty Faith – Affirm Creedal Statement of Faith.
DEI – No

Cedarville University

Faculty Faith – Affirm Creedal Statement of Faith and Protestant Social Teaching.
DEI – No

Arizona Christian University

Faculty Faith – Affirm Creedal Statement of Faith and Protestant Social Teaching.
DEI – No

Regent University

Faculty Faith – Affirm Creedal Statement of Faith and Protestant Social Teaching and faculty must be anointed with oil to minister to students.
DEI – No

Houston Christian University

Faculty Faith – Share Creedal Statement of Faith and Protestant Social Teaching. Courses are taught in conjunction with position statement.
DEI – No

One university, SMU, hits the bad trifecta, with thin or nonexistent faith requirements, DEI offices, and LGBTQ commitments. Calvin College requires church membership, though its statements of faith are laden with DEI commitments. Calvin College has an LGBTQ club and it hires and retains gay faculty, which effectively nullifies its commitment to Reformed theology among faculty. Grand Canyon University mostly resembles a secular university—no faith statements, DEI office, recognizing a club.

Baylor is a special case. Faculty faith commitments are mostly evaluated from department to department. Political science, English, the Honor’s College, and Philosophy take faith commitments seriously (I am told), while other departments may not. About a third of Baylor’s faculty is interested in its Christian mission, but its administration is increasingly embarrassed by it. Baylor’s acceptance of a gay club and its central DEI commitments are worrisome. Wheaton lacks Baylor’s oases of faithfulness, and it has embraced LGBTQ ideology more than Baylor. Perhaps Baylor and Wheaton could return to faithfulness with determined orthodox leadership, but neither shows much interest in doing so.

Samford has resisted recognizing gay campus groups, though its DEI efforts are as radical as any in the regime-aligned category. “SAFE Samford,” the gay group agitating for recognition, claims faculty as members. If faculty can participate in such groups without repercussions, then Samford would be in the regime-aligned category. BIOLA appears to allow for gay students and to assist transitioning students in practice, though not in policy, and has a hate reporting system akin to radical DEI programs around the country. Expect BIOLA to become more regime-aligned in the near future. The other teetering schools have weaker commitments to Americanism—and they could pull back with strong, directional leadership.

Schools that aim for prestige and “excellence” as the current American regime defines it are most likely to accommodate our culture’s presuppositions. Fewer “prestige” schools embrace a conservative Protestant social teaching that emphasizes marriage, recommends different roles for men and women, and shuns same-sex sex and same-sex marriage. Students interested in becoming doctors or lawyers might choose Baylor, SMU, or Wheaton. On the other hand, schools without signs of American decadence are less descript, their chief virtue being that they fail to promote vice.

There seems to be a market for more Protestant universities strong in mission and prestigious among Protestants. New Saint Andrews is thriving in its niche, for instance. CedarvilleRegentArizona Christian, and Colorado Christian are growing while offering a variety of major options. A board of regents interested in serving the kingdom would, it seems, be rewarded with great prospects if it rose to meet the clear market demand for broad-based, conservative Protestant colleges. Pressure for conformity from the world will be immense, but so will the rewards.

*Clarification: The original version of this article claimed that Biola University did not make its statement of faith for faculty evident. This has been updated to indicate that there is a faith requirement in the faculty handbook, which is not available for public viewing.