The God of Abraham Praise: Wheaton College Considers Its Muslim Neighbors

By John Schmalzbauer | December 22, 2015

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Few topics matter more to American evangelicals than religious identity. Who is my God? Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to follow Jesus? By answering such questions, evangelicals discover who they are.

Reverberating through history, these questions are at the heart of a recent dustup at my alma mater, Wheaton College. Swirling around the school’s relationship with American Muslims, they summon the ghosts of evangelicalism’s past, including some of my own.

Known as the Harvard of the evangelicals, Wheaton College has often struggled with the problem of who is in and who is out. From the pugnaciousness of the World Christian Fundamentals Association (the source of Wheaton’s 1926 statement of faith) to the irenic spirit of Billy Graham (an anthropology major from the class of 1943), the college has shaped the boundaries of modern evangelicalism. Far from static, these lines have shifted over the course of the past century.

So has the relationship between evangelicalism and other religious traditions. Once plagued by nativism and anti-Semitism (still a problem in some quarters), evangelicals have reached out to Catholics and Jews. Now some are befriending their Muslim neighbors, leading others to reassert the boundary between Christianity and Islam.

Such boundaries were called into question when Wheaton Political Science Professor Larycia Hawkins wore a hijab during the Christian season of Advent. Explaining her decision in a December 10 Facebook post, she declared, “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.”

Like the Pope, Hawkins hoped to heal the breach between Christianity and Islam. Locating the revival tent of evangelicalism within the tent of father Abraham, she extended the right hand of fellowship to American Muslims. In the process, Hawkins provoked vigorous debate among her conservative co-religionists.

Within 24 hours, a photograph of Wheaton’s first tenured African-American woman could be found on the site of the evangelical Christian Post. Within days, the image of the hijab-wearing professor had gone viral.

On December 15 Professor Hawkins was put on administrative leave by Wheaton College. According to the college’s official press release, her leave “resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions, and is in no way related to her race, gender or commitment to wear a hijab during Advent.”

Though Wheaton confined its response to theological matters, the same cannot be said for evangelicalism’s right flank. Two days after noting he was “sick of hearing about Islam,” evangelist Franklin Graham lambasted “this Wheaton College professor who says she’s going to wear a hijab for the holidays.” While Graham criticized her doctrine of God, he was also uncomfortable with her attire.

He was not alone. According to a 2011 survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, “Islamic practices such as the wearing of the burqa make many Americans viscerally uncomfortable.” This is especially true for older white evangelicals, only 38 percent of whom feel comfortable seeing a woman in a burqa (younger evangelicals are much more tolerant). The same survey found that 62 percent of all white evangelicals would be uncomfortable with a mosque being built near their home, the highest of any major religious group.

Others have embraced more virulent forms of religious bigotry. Here in the evangelical Ozarks, a mosque was defaced with profane graffiti. Another was burned to the ground (the arsonist also torched a local Planned Parenthood). These are not isolated incidents. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, 17 mosques suffered bias incidents in 2015.

Today’s Islamophobic climate resembles earlier waves of religious prejudice. For American evangelicals and for Wheaton College, it conjures up the ghosts of a darker era.

In 2010 I returned to campus to deal with some of these ghosts. In a lecture series commemorating Wheaton’s 150th anniversary, I lamented the history of Protestant bigotry in my native Twin Cities, focusing on two fundamentalist firebrands. Together, they led journalist Carey McWilliams to declare Minneapolis the “capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.”

Welcoming the paramilitary Silver Shirts to the First Baptist Church (“Why Shiver at the Sight of a Shirt?”), William Bell Riley actively promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion throughout the Upper Midwest. Preaching a similar message, Luke Rader’s River-Lake Gospel Tabernacle was deemed “the worst place, barring none in the Twin Cities, as far as anti-Semitic vitriol.”

Both men had ties to Wheaton College. While Riley preached the funeral sermon for Wheaton’s second President Charles Blanchard, Rader’s brother Paul was a college trustee.

As the grandson of a Minneapolis fundamentalist, I also have ties to these troubling figures. During the Great Depression, my grandmother attended Rader’s tabernacle for several years. Later she joined a Bible study led by Riley’s widow.

Thank goodness my grandmother left the orbit of these anti-Semitic preachers, joining the more moderate Swedish Covenant Church. Thank goodness Wheaton president J. Oliver Buswell condemned the “race prejudice recently manifesting itself among some of our Fundamentalist brethren.”

Responding to fears of a Jewish Communist conspiracy, Buswell wrote, “I do not feel that any race can be blamed for the evil propaganda of Communism.” At a time of virulent anti-Semitism, Wheaton’s president spoke out. So did Wheaton alumnus Carl F.H. Henry in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, condemning the “evils of racial hatred.” As Matthew Avery Sutton notes in American Apocalypse, Henry was “primarily referring to Hitler’s treatment of Jews.”

In the ensuing decades, evangelical scholars have reexamined their relationship with American Judaism. When Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith claimed that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” many evangelical theologians disagreed. So did presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, noting that “both the Christian and Judaic religions are based on the same God, the God of Moses.” In the year 2000, my grandmother’s denomination adopted a resolution on anti-Semitism, affirming that the God to whom Jesus prayed “and whose will he lived remains the God of Israel.” In 2006 Wheaton College historian Mark Noll noted that “questions of supersessionism have come onto the table.”

Ten years later, Wheaton has an opportunity to make a similar contribution to Muslim-Christian understanding. Until recently, there were signs that the college was moving in the right direction. Following the events of September 11, 2001, acting President Stanton Jones (now Wheaton’s provost) wrote a letter condemning Islamophobia.

In November 2007 Wheaton’s president, provost, and chaplain signed a major statement on Christian-Muslim understanding that appeared in The New York Times. Calling for peace between the two religions, the document affirmed “our common love for God and for one another.” The 300 signatories included megachurch Pastor Rick Warren, Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw, and the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. In January 2008, the statement drew strong rebukes from Minnesota Pastor John Piper and Southern Baptist educator Albert Mohler. Though Wheaton’s leaders later retracted their signatures, they continued to embrace the goal of peacemaking.

This same spirit of understanding could be seen in Wheaton’s response to recent comments by Jerry Falwell, Jr. When Falwell told Liberty University students to carry guns in order to “end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them,” a group of Wheaton students responded with disgust. In an open letter published in The Washington Post, they urged evangelicals to “stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters who share our human dignity.”

On December 10 a group of faculty visited the Islamic Center of Wheaton. As they noted in a handwritten card: “We were inspired by another to also bring these flowers as a sign of our love and friendship. Our Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus show us that everyone is a brother and sister created in the image of God. We are glad you are part of the community.” That evening Larycia Hawkins announced her decision to wear a hijab on Facebook.

As I type these words, the fate of Professor Hawkins remains uncertain. According to the Chicago Tribune, she has submitted a theological statement to the administration. I suspect it is quite similar to the document once endorsed by Wheaton’s provost.

As a Wheaton alumnus, I hope they can come to a meeting of the minds. Though I’m no theologian, I’m certain that Dr. Hawkins is well within the boundaries of American evangelicalism.

If Wheaton is going to suspend this tenured professor, they should take a serious look at the emeritus trustee who uttered these words on national television:

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. 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.

His name, of course, is Billy Graham.

As Graham’s comments demonstrate, evangelicals do not have one position on Christian-Muslim relations. Recognizing this ambiguity would help Wheaton have a better conversation about Islam. In a time of rampant Islamophobia, such conversation is desperately needed.

John Schmalzbauer is the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University.

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