Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education

Oxford University Press, 2018

If you want to run for President as a Republican these days, there seems to be a new requirement. In addition to shaking hands, kissing babies, and eating barbecue, every GOP hopeful since Reagan has added a stop at a conservative evangelical college. Why? What do these schools mean in the fractious politics of culture-war America?Cover art final

In my new book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, I’m exploring the complex history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education. In many ways, these schools have functioned as institutional hubs in the kaleidoscopic world of conservative evangelicalism. From Reagan to Romney, from Cruz to (Jeb) Bush, politicians hoping to woo the conservative religious vote have visited conservative schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty University.

When the GOP contest kicked off for 2016, the tradition continued.  Texas Senator Ted Cruz jump-started the race in March, 2015.  Guess where he headed to make the announcement?  And when it came time for Liberty’s 2015 commencement address, was it any surprise that Liberty welcomed Governor Jeb Bush as a speaker? And today, the connections between the Trump White House and the Falwell mega-campus are tighter than ever. When it came time for President Trump’s first commencement address, there was little doubt where he’d go.


Cruz pays his dues, 2015.
Paying his dues…

It makes sense. Schools such as Bob Jones and Liberty, as well as Wheaton College, Biola, The King’s College, and a host of other institutions, have educated generations of evangelicals in the distinctive intellectual and cultural traditions of their faith. Students at these schools agree to more rigid lifestyle rules than they would on secular campuses. And they agree to have their educations shepherded by faculties who have signed on to detailed statements of faith. Just as alumni of the Ivy League might brag about their alma maters, so alumni of these schools feel a distinct connection to their colleges. Politicians hoping to prove their conservative credentials want to jump on that bandwagon.

But that does not mean that these colleges are somehow monolithic.  The differences between these schools often loom larger than their similarities, at least in the world of evangelical Protestantism.  What does it mean to be “creationist?”  What changes are healthy, and what are dangerously heterodox?  And what is the proper, Godly relationship between men and women?  There is no single “evangelical” answer to these questions.  Just as at pluralist campuses, evangelical campuses have been rocked by controversy on all these issues.

But there is a palpable sense of connection.  There is something that unites the fractious world of evangelical higher education.  And in this book, I’m asking questions about it:  What did such schools hope to teach each new generation of evangelical student?  How did they hope to raise up new generations of faithful young people in a country that was slipping farther and farther into secularism?  And, importantly, how did students respond to these efforts?

If we hope to understand America’s continuing culture wars, we must make sense of the many meanings of these institutions.  After all, our culture wars aren’t between one group of educated people and another group that has not been educated.  Rather, the fight is usually between two groups who have been educated in very different ways.

Cheapskate Corner: Want to read more, but nervous about coughing up twenty bucks for the book? You can read author interviews around the interwebs:

  1. Why is it so difficult to lead an evangelical college? Read my interview with the Trollingers at Righting America.
  2. Why Fundamentalist U? Read an author interview at Inside Higher Ed.
  3. Read more at Chronicle of Higher Education.
  4. Listen to an author interview at Phoenix’s KJZZ.
  5. Keeping the faith–read an author interview at Religion & Politics.
  6. Race, confessional theology, and Marilynne Robinson: A talk about Fundamentalist U (and other things) with Adam Holland of The Daily Brew.
  7. Can we ever get beyond our culture-war prejudices? Can studying schools help us understand religion? A talk about Fundamentalist U with Professor Andrea Turpin at Religion in American History.
  8. What do evangelical colleges mean to those of us who aren’t (at all) evangelical? Listen to my interview with Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta to find out.
  9. What are three reasons to read Fundamentalist U? Check out Justin Taylor’s recommendation at The Gospel Coalition.

The reviews are coming in:

  1. Professor John Compton pairs Fundamentalist U with R. Marie Griffith’s Moral Combat in the LA Review of Books. Compton’s verdict? Fundamentalist U “offers an invaluable introduction to the esoteric world of Christian higher education. Few existing studies offer this level of insight into the inner workings of schools like BJU and Liberty.”
  2. In the Wall Street Journal, Naomi Schaefer Riley had some nice things to say and some insightful reflections. For example, why do so many evangelical colleges love President Trump so much? As Riley puts it, “Caught between the vast changes in American higher education and the religious families they are supposed to serve, fundamentalist colleges have had to be especially attuned to which way the cultural winds are blowing. Which may occasionally get them some incongruous commencement speakers.” Riley’s overall take? “Mr. Laats . . .  takes a topic that could easily be treated with condescension and turns it into the occasion for a fascinating and careful history. His discussion of the racial policies of these schools is especially enlightening.”
  3. Professor Barry Hankins in Christianity Today: As Professor Hankins notes, the “family feud” between fundamentalists and evangelicals often took place on the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities. And, as Prof. Hankins puts it memorably, “With fundamentalism subject to such a fluid range of definitions, controversies often centered on the question of authority. In other words, who gets to define fundamentalism for the college? Is it the board, the president, the faculty, or the students (certainly not, unless you ask them)? This was not shared governance but something akin to WrestleMania.” . . . “Overall, Fundamentalist U is an exhaustively researched and well-written book, even when it dwells on episodes we might prefer to forget.”
  4. In Reading Religion, Andrew Gardner writes, “At its best, scholarship on religion and American higher education produces fascinating studies about the ways in which religion engages in a unique and complex network of educational institutions that, in many ways, is unparalleled in any other country. Adam Laats’s book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping Faith in American Higher Education, falls within [this] category.”
  5. In History of Education Quarterly, historian Andrea Turpin of Baylor University, the author of a fantastic, award-winning recent history of American higher education, had this to say: “As a sympathetic outsider to the institutions he studies, Laats pairs depth of research and analysis with a commitment to rigorous fairness to his subjects. In Fundamentalist U, Laats does not merely explain the internal logic of an interesting, but isolated, group of colleges and universities; he also raises critical questions about the nature of broader American higher education and culture in the twentieth century. . . . Laats is an engaging writer, and the book’s chapters are filled with fascinating stories cleverly told. . . . Fundamentalist U reshapes our mental landscape of twentieth-century American higher educational institutions and is essential reading for understanding both their history and their present.”
  6. Yes! Thanks to leading historian of evangelicalism Matthew Avery Sutton for a great review in American Historical Review. As Professor Sutton writes, Fundamentalist U is “an engaging, well-researched study of an important, understudied, and underappreciated aspect of American culture and life. The schools that he analyzes have produced generation after generation of students who have had a major impact on American society and politics. . . . Fundamentalist U is an excellent book.
  7. Another good one. From Harvard’s Andrew Jewett in the Journal of American History: Fundamentalist U is a superb book and a significant contribution to the histories of U.S. religion and politics as well as higher education.”
  8. A meaty, insightful review by Tim Gloege, author of Guaranteed Pure, in Church History: “essential reading for anyone interested in the history of modern evangelicalism. . . .Fundamentalist U further challenges three persistent myths that have also been targets of the new evangelical historiography. First, it demonstrates evangelical “orthodoxy” was an aspiration, a dream—and a fleeting one at that. . . . Second, Fundamentalist U. challenges the myth of fundamentalist “withdrawal from culture” between 1920 and 1970. . . .Finally, Laats demonstrates the utility of defining evangelicalism as a social network anchored by educational institutions. . . . Fundamentalist higher education may be an oxymoron to many outsiders, but Laats has convincingly demonstrated it has been central to American evangelicalism.”

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