Anti-Muslim Bigotry or Principled Stand for Belief at Wheaton College?

Larycia Hawkins, a Christian who is wearing a hijab over Advent in solidarity with Muslims, attends service at St. Martin Epi
Larycia Hawkins, a Christian who is wearing a hijab over Advent in solidarity with Muslims, attends service at St. Martin Episcopal Church in Chicago on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

It's been several weeks since news broke that Wheaton College, an explicitly Christian liberal arts institution in Illinois whose motto is "For Christ and His Kingdom," suspended a tenured professor for her actions in taking a stand in solidarity with American Muslims, and yet the case remains unresolved and continues to spark heated discussion.

The facts are not in dispute. Dr. Larycia Hawkins pledged to wear a hijab, the headscarf worn by many Muslim women, throughout the pre-Christmas season of advent. She explained her position on Facebook including the statement "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."

The case has drawn national attention, and in progressive circles was widely seen as evidence of Christian intolerance and hostility toward Islam, and further proof that evangelical Christianity today is quick to stand for religious liberty for itself but not so eager to extend that liberty to other faiths.

One of the voices advancing that position was Huffington Post reporter Willa Frej who posted "A Christian College Placed a Professor on Leave for Wearing a Hijab" and a flurry of commenters piled on, slamming the college for hypocrisy and bigotry.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that the professor is an African-American woman. Although there is no clear evidence race or gender played a role in the college's decision, the history of conservative Christianity's comfort with patriarchy and spotty record on issues like slavery and civil rights raised even more antipathy toward Wheaton. Indeed, the college's website features a photo of the college's Board of Trustees which appears to show 14 white males, three women, and only two people of color. Clearly, Wheaton is not a beacon of the multi-cultural reality that is global Christianity today.

So it is easy to conclude that Wheaton's decision is another reason to be disdainful of what evangelical Christianity has often become in America, a self-righteous and intolerant force out of step with our increasingly pluralistic society.

But, not so fast! Let's take a deeper look at this case, beyond headlines like "A Christian College Placed a Professor on Leave for Wearing a Hijab." It turns out an official statement from Wheaton actually affirmed her right to wear the hijab "as a gesture of care and compassion."

In fact, it was the lines quoted above in her Facebook post that troubled Wheaton's leadership. In their view, her statement was in contradiction to the "Statement of Faith" that Wheaton's faculty is required to sign as a condition of employment.

Let's return to Professor Hawkins's own words.

"I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."

So here is the rub, not that she chose to wear a hijab but that her expressed theology was deemed inconsistent with the college's Statement of Faith. Reference to the Pope's statement may score points as a celebrity endorsement, though not necessarily a persuasive one in Protestantism, but it is hardly relevant to Wheaton's statement of faith that Professor Hawkins signed.

Ruth Graham wrote an incisive article in the Atlantic, "The Professor Suspended for Saying Muslims and Christians Worship One God" that clarifies the real issue in this case. The subtitle of Graham's article reads, "It was her theology--not her hijab--that got her in trouble with the evangelical college."

The question of whether Muslims, or for that matter Jews, worship the same monotheistic God, separated by different understandings of who God is and how we are to respond is a complex subject. People in each of what are known as the "Abrahamic faiths" have varying views on those questions.

Many of us, myself included, find compelling evidence that adherents of each faith are united in worshiping a common creator and deity. We are, in effect, members of the same broader faith family. Those holding this position believe it is an important starting point in reducing the hostility and tension that separates us, and at worst has led to violence and war.

Others disagree, and point to critical differences such as differing beliefs about the divinity of Jesus, the need for salvation, or even the very nature of God.

These are important questions for those of us who identify with the three Abrahamic faiths, though admittedly irrelevant to those who don't, and they complicate the case of Wheaton College and Professor Hawkins.

On that matter, one important question is whether Professor Hawkins statement is in line with the college's required Statement of Faith for her continued employment.

Many of us are rooting for Professor Hawkins to prevail, believing her compassion toward our Muslim brothers and sisters is not only our Christian duty but critical in today's polarized and distrustful environment.

But we need to get beyond the lazy and inaccurate analyses that accuse Wheaton of anti-Islamic bigotry, and understand that private colleges have every right to require their employees adhere to the core beliefs and values of that institution.

Here Wheaton's leadership is within their rights, but also in the wrong. A vibrant and dynamic faith institution should acknowledge that whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is a legitimate and unsettled question for many faithful Christian believers. This discussion might be threatening to the college's current Statement of Faith, but it would be in line with the model of a Christ who challenged the prevailing religious authorities by speaking to a Samaritan woman and breaking down barriers of race and class wherever He went.

This is a moment that could transform Wheaton, demonstrating a courageous Christian witness of embracing "the other" while boldly exploring a challenging theological question. Professor Hawkins has provided Wheaton an opportunity to do just that.

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