Wheaton College: Conduct Unbecoming an Evangelical

Wheaton College has recently disciplined a political science professor for saying something that embarrassed them. Since the handiest charge is that she has violated her doctrinal commitments, that is the charge they used, but that is not what she has done.

Here’s what the College says she has done:

“Contrary to some media reports, social media activity and subsequent public perception, Dr. Hawkins’ administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions…”

Now THAT is correct. You just have to read it carefully. This might be the place to identify myself as a Wheaton College alumnus (Class of 1959) [1] and I did learn to read carefully at Wheaton.

Political science professor Larycia Hawkins said she had planned to wear the hijab until hijab 6Christmas “…in solidarity with my neighbor, who is Muslim. That’s what this is about.” Professor Hawkins also said that she believes that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. That was when the College put her on administrative leave.

I’ve thought a lot about this little spot of friction at Wheaton. I have written three previous versions of this essay, all of which are on their way to electronic oblivion. But finally, I worked out what I wanted to say. Professor Hawkins is guilty of “conduct unbecoming.” [2] Professor Hawkins’ actions and her remarks lack decorum.

Let’s leave that there and start at another place. How about the National Football League? The NFL doesn’t have any doctrinal requirements at all, but they do have a sense that the players ought not to be allowed to embarrass the League. Here’s how they attend to that business.

Discipline may be imposed in any of the following circumstances: Conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players. [3]

hijab 8
This is my proposed solution for Wheaton College. Notice that in the case of the NFL, you don’t have to do anything wrong or say anything wrong. The question is whether what you did or said causes other people to think less of the organization. So let’s ask this: Did anything that Professor Hawkins said or did “undermine…the reputation…of the College?”

Yes. She did. We could ask whether this particular aspect of the College’s reputation needed to be undermined. We might supply a word more favorable to our case; we might ask whether the College really needed to be freed from the burden of some particular aspect of their reputation. We shouldn’t expect the College to look at it that way, of course.

Now if Wheaton had a “conduct unbecoming” policy, like the NFL’s, they could simply say that Professor Hawkins is guilty of “that” and fine her…oh…$50,000 and it would all be over. But Wheaton doesn’t have a policy like that. Wheaton needs to say that Larycia Hawkins is guilty of a doctrinal offense, which at Wheaton, is a contractual violation as well. The College smacked Professor Hawkins with the weapon they had available and they did not have “conduct unbecoming” available. Only heterodoxy. [4]

And it turns out not to be a good weapon. Here is Miroslav Volf, writing in the Washington Post on December 17:

Appealing in part to arguments in my book “Allah: A Christian Response,” Hawkins asserted that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She did not insist that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about that one God. She did not state that Islam and Christianity are the same religion under a different name, or even that Islam is equally as true as Christianity. She did not deny that God was incarnate in Christ. Neither did she contest that the one God is the Holy Trinity. In fact, by having signed Wheaton’s Statement of Faith, she affirmed her belief in God as the Trinity and Jesus Christ as God and man, fundamental Christian convictions which, among other things, distinguish Christian faith from Islam.

In this paragraph, Volf, Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture,  takes the trouble to list a lot of positions that actually would violate Hawkins commitment to uphold Wheaton’s Statement of Faith and to note that Hawkins did not take any of those positions.

hijab 10That brings us to the dilemma Wheaton is facing. Here’s the way I see it. Professor Hawkins has committed an offense related to the image, the “brand” of the college. Serious people who love Wheaton are offended by what she did and said. These serious people have communicated their unhappiness to the President of the College, who has taken a halfway measure of some sort, hoping that will work, at least in the short run. [5] That’s the one horn of the dilemma.

The other horn is that Professor Hawkins is an attractive black women and a professor who has signed the Statement of Faith and has not violated it and is taking a stand that will be approved of by religious organizations from the middle to the left end of the spectrum and by most secular media. She simply can’t be ignored. And given the way she is handling this, I imagine that she will be a very hot commodity, sought after by religious organizations of all sorts.  Notre Dame has recently been providing a happy home for people like her, for instance.

Here’s my favorite resolution of that dilemma. I’m not making any predictions about what will actually happen. All the knowledge I have about this issue I have gained from public media and from my very old memories of having been there in a more conservative time—more conservative for me as well as for the College. But this is what I would like.

President Ryken meets with the Board and with the V. P. for Finance. [6] He apologizes to the Board and to the donors—they will hear about that through the V.P.—for allowing a situation so embarrassing to the College to occur during his presidency. But then he will take a bold step. He will say that the reason Wheaton has a Statement of Faith and the reason the College takes it so seriously is that it is what binds us all together.

“Some of us,” he would say, “are political and cultural moderates and some political and cultural conservatives.” He might even say “liberals and conservatives” just to get a chuckle. We encourage all kinds of diversity because we know it makes the College stronger—all kinds EXCEPT doctrinal diversity. We have made our Statement of Faith the touchstone of our common work together and our common community together. Now is a time for us to reaffirm our unity and—especially in this difficult matter of Professor Hawkins—to affirm our appetite for diversity as well.”

Ladies and gentlemen,” he continues, “there is nothing about our common faith  that hijab 11precludes one of our own from standing up for our neighbors who are being actively persecuted or who are under special scrutiny. Wearing a hijab as a way to dramatize that is…well…a little unusual, but the prophets we revere did unusual things too and did it for the purpose of calling attention to God’s word for their time. What Professor Hawkins did pushes the boundary of our comfort, which is fine, but it does not cross the line of her faith commitment, the same commitment we hold as our common treasure.”

“So I say it is time to ‘man up,’ [7] all of the men and women in this room, and to affirm the unity of our faith and also the flexibility we grant to our faculty in expressing it. If that doesn’t sound good to you, see me afterwards. We are adjourned.”

That’s my fantasy. I’m not a fan of Wheaton’s Statement of Faith, but I still have some affection for the school: it was a very good school for me when I was there. And I still wish her well and I will express that wish with these words from the Alma Mater.

We’ll keep they old traditions, pledge love and honor too,
For Wheaton and her colors The Orange and the Blue

[1] Fifty-nine…”in all things we really shine” in the words of the class song. I am not supposing anyone would doubt my being a part of that class at Wheaton, but if anyone did, my knowing the second line of the class song should put all fears to rest.
[2] We all know uses of becoming that are temporal. It is nearly dawn and the sky is becoming lighter. We have been meeting only in class but now we are becoming friends. This isn’t that. In this use, becoming is just a synonym for “that which is befitting and proper; decorum.” So says the Oxford English Dictionary, giving this as an example: 1598   Shakespeare Love’s Labour’s Lost ii. i. 67   Within the limit of becomming mirth.
3] This is only one of six bulleted items, but it is the one I need for this piece.
[4] Everyone knows orthodoxy. This is what a position is if it is not orthdox.
[5] Not to cast any unnecessary aspersions on President Ryken, but I am currently studying the narrative of Jesus’s trial and sentence and because of that I am reminded that in John’s account, Jesus was publically flogged as Pilate’s way to find a “halfway measure of some sort…that would work in the short run.” He was, in John’s account, trying to find a way to get Jesus off. But, of course, Pilate had Trustees, too, and you need to know what they want.
[6] I am assuming here that the major donors to the College and the members of the Board are angry for the same reasons and that they differ mostly in the tools they have available to express their displeasure. So I won’t speculate about which group might be angry about which part of the charge.
[7] I don’t know the President’s academic background, but if in includes classics, he might slip in a reference to all the “virtue” words in English derive from vir-, the Latin root meaning “man.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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