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Bigotry and Academic Freedom at Wheaton College

By John K. Wilson

Wheaton College officials took action to fire tenured professor Larycia Hawkins because she made comments deemed too pro-Muslim by the administration. Although Hawkins and reached an agreement to part ways (and Hawkins took a job at the University of Virginia), the case raises serious questions about academic freedom at conservative religious colleges such as Wheaton.

Hawkins' trouble began when she announced that she would be wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslims in the wake of Donald Trump's call for banning Muslim immigrants.

She declared, "I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity." But she added a further argument for why Christians should defend the rights of Muslims: "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."

This was not the first conflict Hawkins has had with Wheaton officials, and the previous examples indicate how precarious academic freedom is at the fundamentalist Christian college in the western suburbs of Chicago.

The Chicago Tribune reported that she was "admonished for writing an academic paper about what Christians could learn from black liberation theology" and required to re-affirm the college's statement of faith. According to the Tribune, she was again forced to affirm her faith because of "a photograph someone posted on Facebook showing her at a party inside a home on Halsted Street the same day as Chicago's Pride Parade." Yes, Wheaton College is so deeply homophobic that geographical proximity to gay people is deemed a crime.

Homophobia also motivated last spring's reaction when Hawkins "was asked to affirm the statement again after suggesting that diversifying the college curriculum should include diplomatic vocabulary for conversations around sexuality."

Wheaton's Statement of Faith is a lengthy document of fundamentalist doctrines demanded of all faculty and staff. However, it doesn't say anything about Islam or the necessity to deny basic facts about other religions. Students at Wheaton have protested the suspension of Hawkins, and those students may also face the threat of expulsion from the orthodoxy being imposed by Wheaton officials.

Wheaton's administration has declared, "On the part of the College, further theological clarification is necessary before such reconciliation can take place, and unfortunately Dr. Hawkins has stated clearly her unwillingness to participate in such further clarifying conversations. This represents an impasse on our efforts toward reconciliation." There's one major problem with this argument: nothing in the Statement of Faith or Wheaton's rules requires "reconciliation" by faculty with the administration. Hawkins doesn't need to clarify anything; she has already said that agrees with the Statement of Faith. It's up to the Wheaton administration to prove that Hawkins is lying, but so far they haven't pointed to any specific part of the Statement of Faith that she is accused of violating, despite a requirement to do so in the Faculty Handbook.

According to Wheaton administrators, "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." I think we all already knew that. Hawkins herself has said this. No one doubts that Islam and Christianity are different.

The question is whether Muslims worship God or not. Virtually every religious scholar says that as a historic fact, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism share common origins. Unless Wheaton College is prepared to declare that Jews and Catholics don't worship God because of their theological differences with fundamentalists, and that anyone who disputes this absurd claim must be fired or expelled, then they don't have a case to make against Hawkins and her accurate views about Islam.

Actually, the weakness of Wheaton's argument goes even further than this. Even if Hawkins were incorrect to claim that Muslims worship God, it still would not be a firing offense unless Wheaton's Statement of Faith actually prohibits such assertions. And there is nothing in the Statement of Faith banning comments about who Muslims worship. The Statement of Faith is all about what you believe, not what you think other religions believe. That's why it's a Statement of Faith and not a Statement of Religious Scholarship.

The Wheaton administration is simply distorting the Statement of Faith in order to fire a professor who offends conservatives by defending Muslims. And that's a good reason why no college (not even a religious one) should impose a statement of faith: it simply provides an easy excuse for firing controversial faculty.

For almost half a century now, the AAUP (and the AAC&U) has rejected the imposition of statements of faith. The 1940 Statement of Principles included a provision that "Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment" (which Wheaton is clearly violating because it gave no warning that opinions about Muslims were banned). The 1970 Interpretive Comments revoked that religious exception: "Most church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 ‘Statement,' and we do not now endorse such a departure."

Some people argue that we need to respect diversity by allowing religious colleges to impose theological dogma on faculty and students. They are wrong. Eliminating enforcement of statements of faith does not destroy the diversity of institutions. To the contrary, true religious understanding comes from freedom, not the threat of firing or expulsion. What makes a college religious are the questions it asks and the values it models, not the repression it imposes.

Wheaton's Faculty Handbook includes no provision for suspending faculty, so the arbitrary suspension of Hawkins without any due process has already violated Wheaton's own rules and AAUP standards. It is a punishment imposed without evidence for a thoughtcrime that Hawkins never committed.

There can be no doubt that Wheaton's attempt to fire a professor for expressing support for Muslims is an attack on academic freedom. But what few have realized is that this bigotry also an attack on the Christian values of loving thy neighbor that Wheaton pretends to embrace.

The administration at Wheaton is not just betraying the values of freedom that every true college must stand for, they are also betraying the values of Wheaton College itself.