In treatment of professor, Wheaton shows split among US Evangelicals

NEW YORK — When a tenured political science professor at Wheaton College, one of the preeminent evangelical institutions of higher learning in the United States, stated that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, the college said it had a decision to make.

This week the Illinois college began to make that decision, recommending the termination of Larycia Hawkins's professorship, saying that a post on her Facebook page last month violated the college’s statement of faith. Professor Hawkins's post announced that she would wear hijab as an act of Advent devotion: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book," she posted on Dec. 10. "And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Wheaton's handling of Hawkins, the college's first tenured black woman in its 156-year history, has caused a furor within evangelical circles over the past month, and is a reminder of this American subculture's ongoing grappling with the parameters of its Christian identity – and the ways it responds to changes within US society.

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Indeed, led by a younger and more diverse generation, American Evangelicals, which, as a whole, remain one of the most socially conservative groups in the nation, have been changing. From college students embracing Black Lives Matter to influential ethicists embracing same-sex marriage, the evangelical subculture itself has been simmering with new ways of thinking – and even challenging the generally exclusive theology it shares with other conservative, monotheistic faiths, including many forms of Islam and Judaism.

Scholars have maintained that, while Wheaton should certainly defend the integrity of its conservative theology, it has moved even further to the theological right of the spectrum. And like the country as a whole, Evangelicals may be becoming bifurcated by the country’s stormy political winds.

“I’m certain that Dr. Hawkins is well within the boundaries of American evangelicalism,” wrote John Schmalzbauer, a Wheaton alum and sociologist of religion at Missouri State University in Springfield, in Religion & Politics.

The recommendation to terminate Hawkins professorship was made by the college's provost, and it follows an earlier decision to suspend her. The recommendation is by no means final.

Hawkins is scheduled to appear before a committee of nine tenured faculty members within 30 days. The committee will then weigh evidence from both sides and make its recommendation to the college president, Philip Ryken. Dr. Ryken will then will forward his decision to Wheaton's board of trustees, which will make the final call.

The college has said it was Hawkins's affirmation that Muslims and Christians share the same God, and not her decision to wear the hijab, that seemed to violate the college’s statement of faith, which all members of the Wheaton community, including faculty and students, must sign and affirm.

“While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation, and the life of prayer,” the college explained in a statement defending its recommendation to terminate Hawkins. “As an institution of distinctively evangelical Christian identity ... [we] affirm that salvation is through Christ alone.”

More and more, however, such exclusive claims have run headlong into the growing diversity of American society – and Evangelicalism itself.

“In this process Wheaton College has managed to especially offend women, African-Americans, Muslims, Christians who do not agree with a narrow and questionable interpretation of the college’s statement of faith, Wheaton students who have been positively served by Dr. Hawkins’ work, and every academic who thinks tenure protections and academic freedom exist precisely for these situations,” wrote David Gushee, an evangelical professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, in a post for Religious News Service.

In 2014, Professor Gushee, widely considered a leading evangelical ethicist, came out in favor of full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians in the book “Changing Our Mind,” a biblical defense of gay relationships from an evangelical perspective.

The upheaval caused by the theological and academic issues surrounding the school’s suspension and recommendation for Hawkins’s termination has prompted many to question whether her statements could be considered a violation of the college’s statement of faith, which does not address the question of Islam directly.

Mr. Schmalzbauer pointed out a statement made by Wheaton College’s most famous alum, Billy Graham, on national TV decades ago:

He’s calling people out of the world for His name. Whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God,” Mr. Graham told the televangelist Robert Schuller. “They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.”

Last month, Hawkins responded to the college’s inquiries, saying, “It is because of my love for Jesus that I have affirmed wholeheartedly the Wheaton College statement of faith all nine years I have been at the College, and I continue to do so.”

On Wednesday, however, Hawkins said she was “flummoxed and flabbergasted” that Wheaton would begin proceedings to dismiss her. “Wheaton College cannot scare me into walking away from the truth (that) all humans – Muslims, the vulnerable, the oppressed of any ilk ­– are all my sisters and brothers, and I am called by Jesus to walk with them,” she said.

Last month, a number of Wheaton students, some carrying signs saying “Reinstate Doc Hawk” and “Black Profs Matter,” protested and brought a letter to the Wheaton administration.

"We believe there is nothing in Dr. Hawkins' public statements that goes against the belief in the power and nature of God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit that the Statement of Faith deems as a necessary requirement for affiliation with Wheaton College," the letter said.

In full disclosure, this reporter is a graduate of Wheaton College.