What The Fiascos At Liberty University And Wheaton College Reveal About The State Of American Christianity

(Credit: Stevan Sheets, Flickr Creative Commons)

This week, Wheaton College placed associate professor Larycia Hawkins on leave after she posted a picture of herself wearing a hijab on Facebook, explaining that she was doing so because she wanted to “stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay. She also said, “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.”

It was the latter comment that, according to Wheaton, got her suspended.

The backlash to Hawkins’ suspension was immediate, both on social media, but also and more importantly, from the Wheaton community.

At lot of the debate about Wheaton’s response centers around the issue of academic freedom and the question of whether or not Christians and Muslims do, indeed, worship the same God.

While those are both tremendously important issues to debate, there is more going on here than meets the eye because Wheaton College is not the only Christian university experiencing a crisis of faith in recent weeks.

As you no doubt are aware, shortly after the tragic shooting in San Bernardino, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. preached an impromptu homily at the end of chapel extolling the virtues of gun violence and imploring his students to acquire their concealed carry permit so they would be ready to teach “those Muslims” a lesson if they ever showed up on campus.

The outcries over Falwell’s comments were even louder than the response so far to the Wheaton fiasco, reaching almost deafening levels.

When seen in isolation from each other, these two events may not appear to have much in common beyond their Christian university setting and the not so inconspicuous anti-Muslim thread running from Lynchburg, VA to Wheaton, IL.

But together they speak volumes about the state of Christianity in America.

Namely, that we seem to be more concerned about maintaining ideological purity than following the way of Jesus.

In the case of Wheaton College, Prof. Hawkins was trying to practice the way of Jesus through solidarity with the marginalized, by finding good in people of other faiths, and by going out of her way to love her neighbors.

By placing Hawkins on leave for her claim about God, Wheaton (or at least its president) demonstrated that it is more concerned with dogma than discipleship. For if living like Jesus, rather than affirming a list of right ideas, was at the heart of Wheaton’s understanding of Christianity, then Hawkins attempt at strengthening interfaith relations through theological dialogue would be of no threat to either the university or its students, no matter how debatable or unorthodox her theological claim might seem. For by letting her light shine before others, they would see her good works and give glory to her Father in heaven.

In the case of Liberty University, the reverse situation is taking place. Instead of making potentially unorthodox theological claims, President Falwell abandoned the way of Jesus by picking up the sword and calling for the death of his enemies. However, as was the case at Wheaton, the university (or at least its president and board members) aren’t concerned with Falwell’s practice. For them, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not his actions are antithetical to the way of Jesus because his ideological purity has already been firmly established, thus providing him with that all important Get Out Of Following Jesus Free Card™.

While two incidents alone do not determine the state of Christianity in America, they do speak to a disturbing trend.

From our unholy lust for violence and detesting of our Muslim neighbors, to our callousness towards refugees and marginalization of the LGBT community, we have becoming increasingly comfortable with abandoning the way of Jesus, so long as we maintain our ideological purity.

That is to say, we don’t really care all that much about actually living like Jesus.

As long as we affirm the right ideas, that’s enough to call ourselves Christians.

Unfortunately for us, Jesus is far more concerned with what we do, than what we say.