An Open Letter to a New Evangelical College President

Dear President Pearsall:

The time has come to fight back against the fundamentalists who are destroying the mind--not to mention the heart and soul--of American evangelical Christianity, including your university.

You have just assumed the presidency of Northwest Nazarene University (NNU) under a dark cloud. Your predecessor, David Alexander, resigned in disgrace amidst a scandal that seems to be growing, and you unexpectedly found yourself in an office that you did not seek, confronted with problems that you did not create. The greatest of these problems was your predecessor's termination of Tom Oord, a popular professor and your school's leading scholar.

In terminating Oord, Alexander caved in to pressure from Christian fundamentalists who wanted Oord's ideas--like evolution--removed from the classrooms of NNU. And this happened despite longstanding commitments to intellectual diversity and openness in colleges and universities. As you begin your presidency, you will find yourself surrounded by these same fundamentalists. Oord may leave but they will remain. And they will pressure you to remove other scholars who promote ideas they don't like. Please don't listen to them.

We live in a time when the fundamentalist fear of new ideas--always a defining characteristic of extreme movements--seems to be on the rise. This fear is often expressed in the form of "witch-hunts" in which scholars are targeted and pressure is applied to institutions to have them removed. Even tenure, which is supposed to provide space for intellectual exploration, seems powerless to protect evangelical scholars from their fundamentalist oppressors.

Tom Oord's story is just the latest in a long series of similar incidents. In an earlier piece on his termination I wrote:
The controversy at NNU is, tragically, just one of many related incidents that have plagued the Church of the Nazarene. In 2007 biologist Richard Colling was forced out of another Nazarene university for his book arguing that evolution was true and should be understood as God's way of creating. In 2010 I left Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) after years of being attacked by fundamentalists as a heretic for my views on science.
A few years earlier a colleague had been forced out of ENC for refusing to condemn gay marriage in his social work classes. Two months ago the chaplain at another Nazarene university was demoted for a sermon questioning whether enthusiastic warmongering was compatible with Jesus' command to love our enemies. An entire college could be staffed with the victims of fundamentalist witchhunts in the Church of the Nazarene. And, if we add the victims of witchhunts in other evangelical traditions, we could staff a major research university.
These are just the examples from your own denomination, President Pearsall--a small denomination increasingly controlled by fundamentalists, despite being part of a theologically moderate tradition that, at least officially, accepts controversial ideas like evolution, the big bang, and biblical criticism. For years I endured harassment from the same fundamentalists who wanted me gone from Eastern Nazarene College and rejoiced when that happened. The story is even worse in traditions that have never accepted evolution, or that are committed to extreme views of Biblical inerrancy. Bryan College just underwent a major purge of scholars who were insufficiently fundamentalist; Westminster Theological Seminary has run off many scholars, including my good friend Pete Enns. Fundamentalist pressures at Calvin College led to the departures of my friends Howard Van Till and John Schneider.

This is not a minor issue and it will not go away.

In a few weeks the first incoming freshmen of your administration will come onto your campus, President Pearsall. Most of them will be evangelical Christians looking for your university to prepare them for careers and help them think through their religious commitments as they transition into adulthood. Surveys by Pew and Barna indicate, however, that many of them--maybe most--will disengage with their religion by the time they graduate, if they have not already. The same surveys reveal that they will be driven off by dogmatism, especially religiously motivated opposition to well-established science, like evolution and the Big Bang theory. The Church of the Nazarene, like every other evangelical denomination, is witnessing this phenomenon right now in churches across the country. Some of your graduates who received diplomas this past May will probably never set foot in an evangelical church again because of how your university treated Tom Oord. You now lead that university and are in a position to change that.

I encourage you, President Pearsall, to push back against the fundamentalist tyranny that is destroying the careers of Christian scholars. Overturn the unfair and dishonest decision to terminate Oord, as Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers who inserted their interests into the synagogues of his day. Begin your administration with the strength that is lacking in so many of your peers. Tell the fundamentalists that you preside over a Christian community that takes community seriously. Tell them that you embrace scholars with provocative ideas; that accept modern science; that aren't afraid of tough questions. Tell the fundamentalists that students at your university deserve to study under faculty like Tom Oord who respect their questions and don't just parrot the party line.

Let this be the issue that defines who you are and what kind of liberal arts college you lead. Come onto campus each day with your head held high knowing that you work at a university, with all that entails.

It is the right thing to do.