What's So Odd About Religious Colleges?


It's tough to run a college these days. It's tougher still when you set high standards. And it's toughest of all when those standards reflect an Ozzie and Harriet morality in a Sarah Jessica Parker world.

Just ask the folks at Wheaton College.

Wheaton is a Christian college that takes its beliefs seriously. These beliefs are embodied in a "Community Covenant" that all must sign and live by if they hope to teach or study there. The provisions include a biblically based view of marriage, and the understanding that the only acceptable grounds for divorce in this community are those found in Scripture — namely, adultery or abandonment.

Which brings us to two unhappy events. The first is the failed marriage of Kent Gramm, a popular English professor who has taught at Wheaton for two decades. The Gramms recently filed for divorce after 30 years together.

The second unhappy development flows from that filing. Mr. Gramm chose to resign from the school rather than discuss the reasons for his breakup with the requisite members of the Wheaton community. Because he has told his story to the media, his plight has received national attention. And because of that attention, a small evangelical school outside Chicago now finds itself derided as a group of pinched old authoritarians out of touch with the realities of 21st century America.

Then again, you might say that being out of touch is the point. Or at least the point of Wheaton. Back in H.L. Mencken's day, a Midwestern Christian college that frowned upon alcohol and tobacco and dancing might have thought itself as reflecting the conventional morality of middle class America. That day has long passed. Today Wheaton is the counterculture. And the men and women who teach and study there know it.

Being different is nothing new for Wheaton. The most famous building on campus was once a way station on the Underground Railroad. That was a time when abolitionist evangelicals were out of touch with the reality of slavery in a nation whose claim to liberty rested on God-given truths about human dignity. Today Wheaton advances a proposition that may be equally radical, at least in the groves of modern academe: That character is as important as chemistry — and that teachers have some obligations as role models for their students.

Wheaton's ways are not my ways. Yet there is something refreshing about an institution willing to stand up for its convictions rather than trim its sails to the prevailing winds.

This commitment can make for awkward headlines when people stray outside the boundaries, as people inevitably do. Several years back, for example, one Wheaton faculty member was forced to leave the school after he converted to Roman Catholicism. The professor argued that even as a Catholic, he could assent to the school's statement of faith in good conscience. Wheaton took a different view. Its officials argued, not unreasonably, that as an evangelical Protestant school, maintaining the integrity of their mission required professors who shared their interpretation. So they gave him a year to find another job.

That was the same offer given to Mr. Gramm. Wheaton does not impose its beliefs on anyone. Its president says that the school works hard at making sure that its principles are "clear, explicit and public." Mr. Gramm freely signed that covenant when he came to Wheaton. And it does not appear from the public record that he ever found it limiting or unfair until it was applied to him.

Now, whenever an institution or community applies its standards, it will likely be the heavy in the public eye. This is true whether the institution is a church, a school, a local government or even the Boy Scouts. Mostly this is because an institution is by nature more impersonal and hence less sympathetic than a human being. Partly it is because the rest of us, conscious of our own weaknesses, will tend to empathize with good people who come up short. And when the institution in question is an evangelical college, the champions of diversity go silent, and ridicule and caricature become the rule.

Wheaton understands this, and in point of fact, it makes room on its faculty for several members who are divorced. At the same time, it proposes that people who freely join a community that is honest and upfront about its beliefs can reasonably be asked to abide by them. Wheaton's ways are not my ways. Yet there is something refreshing about an institution willing to stand up for its convictions rather than trim its sails to the prevailing winds.

I wish Mr. Gramm and his wife only the best, and hope that they find good jobs and can get on with their lives. But I also find myself wondering how much richer our nation's university life would be with a few more Wheatons willing to be out of touch for the sake of their deepest beliefs.


William McGurn. "What's So Odd About Religious Colleges?" The Wall Street Journal (May 13, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


William McGurn was the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush until February 8, 2008. Formerly an executive with Newscorp, McGurn also served as the chief editorial writer with The Wall Street Journal. From 1992 to 1998 McGurn served as the senior editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Prior to this he was the Washington bureau chief of National Review. McGurn is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Boston University. He is the author, with Rebecca Blank, of Is the Market Moral?.

Copyright © 2008 Wall Street Journal

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