It’s a misconception that controversies like the one currently roiling the waters of Cedarville University have only limited relevance outside Evangelical circles. It’s certainly true that Evangelical culture, famous for its insularity, adheres to a code of conduct that is based on a framework not shared by others even within mainstream Christianity. To outsiders, the entire premise is absurd. A professor fired because he didn’t interpret Genesis literally enough? An entire philosophy program cut months after its professors voice opposition to Mitt Romney’s candidacy? The easy reaction is to deride Evangelicalism itself. Gawker’s coverage of the issue takes this angle. And it’s right, in a way. The events themselves are absurd. But they are not irrelevant.
Cedarville University is merely one of thousands of Christian colleges and universities in the United States. Among these institutions, it is prominent, and like many Christian colleges, it possesses strong political ties to the right wing on both the local and national levels. The typical Cedarville freshman has grown up in a culture dominated by a narrative defined by its oppositional nature. It pits conservative Christians against the moral depravity of secularism. Abortion is evil, contraception is suspect, women must be modest and men must lead their households. These beliefs are presented as foundational truths; compromise threatens the integrity of orthodoxy. In the political sphere, these beliefs are responsible for personhood amendments, campaigns against GLBT rights, and attacks on worker’s rights that are gender blind but still disproportionately affect working women.
Add the traditional Evangelical individualism and a fanatical obsession with Israel as the site of Armageddon, and you are presented with the platform of today’s Republican Party. Moderate voices at America’s Christian colleges and universities are therefore extraordinarily valuable. They introduce critical thought to this narrative and gently introduce students to alternative approaches to faith. At Cedarville, they created safe spaces for doubts and questions, and avoided the anti-gay, anti-woman rhetoric of their peers.
American Christianity is undergoing a seismic shift. Statistically, the Millennial generation is abandoning the church in droves, and the old guard finds itself facing an unprecedented identity crisis. At many Christian colleges, this is behind fundamentalist campaigns to reclaim Christian identity for themselves. Moderation is merely collateral damage. And that’s what the fight for academic freedom at Cedarville is really about: it’s a fight for moderation. It is a battle against fundamentalism. That deserves support and attention from the secular community, not derision, or even ignorance.