“What then was the aim of the academy? What was the proper goal of education? For Franklin, it was to impress upon the students the desire ‘to serve mankind,’ to serve one’s country, friends, and family. Franklin knew that some potential supporters would balk at such human-centered vision. Thus in an extended footnote, he insisted that the aim of service to mankind was just another way of saying the glory and service of God. Okay. So here Franklin was restating his notion of true religion: doing good to men is the only service of God in our power, and to imitate his beneficence is to glorify him.” — Thomas Kidd
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- The Hidden Curriculum of Higher Education
- A Conversation with Historian Thomas Kidd on the Religious Life of Benjamin Franklin
- Why Ben Franklin Called for Prayer at the Constitutional Convention
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Thomas Kidd: I have a bit of an odd task in this talk. When TGC asked me to speak about the future of Christian higher education, I told them, “I’m a historian. We don’t care about the future.” So, what I proposed…and that’s actually not true. That’s just a little joke.
So what I proposed is…and what I’m proposing to you is I wanna focus in the first part of my talk today on my religious biography of Ben Franklin from Yale Press that came out in 2017 to set some of the context. And then I wanna zero in on a debate between Ben Franklin and the great evangelist, George Whitefield about the purposes of education and about the role of Christianity in education in particular.
And then finally, I wanna use that debate as a springboard to talk about what Christian higher education, especially in research and teaching, should be doing now in modern America. So we’re gonna look broadly at Franklin’s type of religion, which is a code of spirituality, which actually, I think has become pervasive in American culture today, and including in American higher education. And then we’re gonna zoom in on that debate between Whitefield and Franklin, and then we’ll conclude with a few thoughts on how to maintain Christian commitment in institutions of higher education.
So, to Franklin. In 1787, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, time dragged as delegates bickered about representation in Congress. And Virginia’s James Madison insisted that states with more power or with more people should possess more power. And the small states at the convention knew that under the Articles of Confederation, America’s existing national government, all states had equal authority regardless of population, and they wondered why should the small states give up that power under a new constitution.
And we forget about this, but the convention might have actually failed at this point. And if it had, the country would have continued to struggle under the inefficient and some said feckless Articles of Confederation government, or the new American nation might have simply disintegrated. And it was at this critical moment that the octogenarian, Ben Franklin, took the floor, and calling for unity, he asked delegates to open sessions with prayer. As they were “groping” as it were in the dark to find political truth, he queried, “How has it happened that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?” If they continue to ignore God, “Our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and byword down to future ages.”
This man who called himself a deist now insisted that delegates should ask God for wisdom. Well, this was strange because classic deists didn’t believe that God intervened in human affairs. Even more strange, and sometimes when you hear this story in Christian circles, you don’t get this part of the story, Franklin was one of the few delegates who thought that opening sessions with prayer was a good idea, and his motion was tabled. So, they did not, in fact, open meetings with prayer.
So what kind of deist is this elderly man, dressed in his signature Quaker garb, calling on America’s greatest political minds to humble themselves before God? Franklin’s work at the Constitutional Convention was the culmination of his spectacular career. There seemed little doubt that George Washington, the imposing Virginia general, would become president of the convention. But if there was any competitor for chair, it was the venerable Franklin.
The son of Boston Puritans had come a long way to get to that Philadelphia meeting hall. Franklin made his proposal for prayer on June 28. And he had lived a long time, he reminded delegates, and he had become ever more certain that God oversaw human affairs. And Franklin was convinced that providence had shepherded Americans through the revolutionary crisis. “And it was foolish,” he said, “not to call on God again.”
He reminded them at the early days of the war when the Patriots prayed often in that same room in Philadelphia for God’s help. At its best, he thought faith inculcated public spiritedness, and it suffocated selfishness. God had led them to the point where they could now frame the best possible government. “And have we now forgotten that powerful friend?” he asked. Citing Psalm 127, Franklin said that, “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.”
Furthermore, he declared, “I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without God’s concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.” He cited by Babel multiple times in convention speeches. “A prideful strife,” he said, “would confound their work and turn their proceedings into a farce.” This was the most remarkable religious episode of Ben Franklin’s life. It was stunning, and not just because of the stage on which he was proposing prayer. As I said, Franklin was nearly alone among the delegates in wishing to bring prayer into the convention’s proceedings.
Connecticut’s, Roger Sherman, who was one of the most devout Christians in attendance, seconded Franklin’s motion. And Virginia’s Edmund Randolph proposed that they hire a pastor to preach on Independence Day less than a week later, and that minister could then open subsequent meetings with prayer. I think this is one of the reasons, by the way, that they’re not interested in doing this, because to them, you don’t just up and pray. You have to hire a chaplain to pray, and then, you know, you have to pay the chaplain, and then what denomination is the chaplain. It gets complicated, so they didn’t wanna get involved with that.
Someone did in the debate point out that they had not budgeted funds to hire a chaplain, and Alexander Hamilton worried that calling in a pastor might signal that the convention was truly becoming desperate. There’s a story that he reported…Hamilton reportedly also questioned the propriety of calling in foreign aid. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it’s a good story.
And so the motion fizzled, and Franklin was exasperated, and he jotted a note, handwritten note, at the bottom of his prayer speech that, “The Convention, except three or four persons, thought prayer is unnecessary!!” He was really mad about this, but Franklin and the convention moved on. And perhaps his prayer speech did remind delegates of the need for compromise, even if it prompted no formal recourse to God. And in an address two days after proposing prayer, Franklin explained the root of the tension between the large and the small states. “Both sides were gonna have to give up some demands to ensure a successful outcome,” he said.
And drawing on earlier discussions regarding a two-house legislature, Franklin suggested that the convention…you know this solution create a house of representatives with proportional representation and a Senate with equal representation between the states, and this became the great or the Connecticut compromise, arguably the key settlement of the whole convention. And according to an oft-repeated story, when someone asked Franklin after the convention whether they had created a monarchy or a republic, he replied, “A republic if you can keep it.”
So, to return to the question of Franklin and faith, who was this Franklin of Philadelphia, and what did he believe? In our mind’s eye, the man seems ingenious, mischievous, and enigmatic. His journalistic, scientific, and diplomatic achievements are clear. But what of Ben Franklin’s religion? Was Franklin defined by his youthful embrace of deism? His longtime friendship with George Whitefield, the most influential evangelist of 18th century? His work with Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and its invocation of the Creator and of nature, and nature’s God or his solitary insistence on prayer at the convention?
And when you add Franklin’s propensity for joking about serious matters, which he did all the time, he becomes even more difficult to pin down. Regarding Franklin’s chameleon-like religion, John Adams once remarked that, “The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic, the Church of England claimed him as one of them, the Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends or the Quakers believed him a wet Quaker.” I had to look that up. That means a Quaker who drinks.
I think that the key to understanding Franklin’s ambivalent faith is the contrast between the skepticism of his adult life and the indelible imprint of Franklin’s childhood Calvinism. The intense piety of Franklin’s parents, I think, acted as a kind of tether restraining Franklin’s skepticism. So, it’s true that as a teenager, he abandoned his parents Puritan beliefs, but that same traditional faith kept him from getting too far away. And he would stretch his moral and doctrinal tether to the breaking point by the end of a youthful sojourn that he made to London as a teenager.
And when he returned to Philadelphia in 1726, he resolved to conform more closely to his parents’ ethical code, and so he steered away from extreme deism. Could he craft a Christianity, he wondered, centered on virtue, rather than on traditional doctrine and avoid alienating his parents at the same time? And that was a big deal for Franklin. We forget…you know, we think of these Titanic, you know, statues of the founding fathers, but they’re like they had parents and stuff. You know, they had to think about that.
More importantly and more endearingly, could he convince the evangelical figures in his life? His sister, Jane Mecom, who was an evangelical and the sibling that he had the closest relationship with in their adult years and the revivalist George Whitefield, could he convince them that all was well with his soul? He would have more success convincing his sister than convincing George Whitefield.
When he ran away from Boston as a teenager, Franklin also ran away from the city’s Calvinism, but many factors, his Puritan tether, the pressure of relationships with Christian friends and family, disappointments with his own integrity, repeated illnesses, and the growing weight of political responsibility, all kept Franklin from going too deep into the dark woods of radical skepticism. So, Franklin explored a number of religious opinions. And even at the end of his life, he remained non-committal about all but a very few points of belief. And that elusiveness has made Franklin susceptible to many religious interpretations.
Some devout Christians, beginning with the celebrated 19-century biographer, Parson Mason Weems, this is George Washington, the cherry tree guy, have found ways to mold Franklin into a faithful believer. Other Christian writers could not overlook Franklin’s skeptical statements. For instance, the English Baptist minister John Foster wrote in 1818 that, “Love of the useful was the cornerstone of Franklin’s thought,” and that Franklin “substantially rejected Christianity.”
One of the most influential interpretations of Franklin’s religion appeared in Max Weber’s classic study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in 1905, very famous book about how Protestantism formed the Protestant work ethic. And for Weber, Franklin was a near perfect example of how Protestantism drained of its doctrinal particularity fostered modern capitalism.
And Franklin’s, “The Way to Wealth,” 1758, which was probably his most popular writing in his time, even more so than the autobiography, which distilled his best thoughts on frugality and industry, illustrated to Weber the spirit of capitalism, “In near classical purity, and simultaneously offers the advantage of being detached from all direct connection to religious belief.” That’s what Weber wrote. And so for Weber, Franklin’s virtues were no longer a matter of just obeying God, but virtue was also useful and profitable.
Many recent scholars have taken Franklin at his word by describing him as a deist. That’s what Franklin said he was in his autobiography. That’s a pretty good place to start. Others have called him everything from a “stone-cold atheist” (which is ridiculous, he wasn’t an atheist), to a man who believed in the “active God of the Israelites, the prophets, and the apostles,” which I’m not too sure about that either.
Deism stands at the center of this interpretive continuum between atheism and Christian devotion. But other than indicating skepticism about traditional Christian doctrine, deism could mean a lot of different things in 18th century America and Europe. And the beliefs of different deists didn’t always sync up. Some said that they believed in the Bible as originally written. Others doubted the Bible’s reliability. Some deists believed that God remained involved with life on Earth, and then Franklin at least in his later life fit into that category.
Other deists saw God, yes, as the cosmic watchmaker and winding up the world and then, you know, letting it run on its own. Deism meant different things to Franklin over the course of his long career, too, and he didn’t always explain those variant meanings. So, I’m not opposed to calling Franklin a deist, and I do so in my book, but deist doesn’t quite capture, I think, the texture trajectory of Franklin’s beliefs. So instead of focusing on Franklin’s writings in isolation, I try to show how much Franklin’s personal experiences shaped his religious beliefs.
And here I think there’s an important comparison to be made to Abraham Lincoln. They have very similar family backgrounds, though separated by a number of decades. And like Lincoln, Franklin’s early exposure to skeptical writings undermines his confidence in Christianity. But books alone could not erase Franklin’s childhood immersion in Puritan piety. And his ongoing relationships with evangelical Christians made it difficult for him to jettison the vocabulary and precepts of traditional faith all together. And although his view of providence vacillated through time, the weight of the American Revolution fostered in him a renewed belief that history had divine purposes.
Franklin and Lincoln, both self-educated sons of Calvinist parents, both of whom had much of the Bible committed to memory, gravitated toward, both of them toward a revitalized sense of God’s role over history as war and constitutional crises wracked America in the 1770s and ’80s for Franklin and the 1860s for Lincoln. And neither man’s beliefs could escape the influence of their daily relationships and stressful experiences. Because they’re human.
It is difficult to overstate just how deep an imprint the Bible itself were made on Franklin’s or on Lincoln’s mind or on their ways of speaking and writing. You all know that even many devout Christians today are unfamiliar with large sections of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, and they don’t know much about current theological debates. Ben Franklin knew the Bible backward and forward. Okay. This is one of the ways that we get mixed up, is because a lot of times today, people will pick out biblical quotes and they say, “Ah, see, here’s evidence that Franklin was devout.” Now, I think it has much more to do with the situation he grew up in. You know, Puritans children knew the Bible. Okay. And Franklin’s the epitome of that.
So the Bible frames the way that Franklin speaks and thinks, and biblical phrases are ubiquitous in Franklin’s vast body of writings. And even as he embraced religious doubts, the King James Bible colored his ideas about morality and human nature and the purpose of life. The Bible served as his most common source of similes and anecdotes. And Franklin even enjoyed preying on friends’ ignorance of Scripture to play jokes on them. He would do this all the time. He would show them a passage, some Bible sounding story, and he would say, “Don’t you remember this from Genesis?” And they would say, “Yeah, right.” And he’d laugh at them because it wasn’t from the Bible. This is Franklin. He would make these kinds of things up. He’s a funny guy.
So anyway, Franklin’s Puritan background and cheerful skepticism, I think, formed him into a pioneer of a distinctly American kind of religion. I’m tempted to call this religion, early form of what we call Sheilaism. That’s a term that comes from Robert Bellah’s celebrated book, Habits of the Heart, in 1985. This is extreme individualistic religion. And in Bella, “Sheilaism”. . .this is based on a woman who said basically, “I make up my own religion. I’m the religion of Sheila.” In this kind of religion, the individual conscience is the standard for religious truth, not any external authority.
But I think that Franklin’s protégé, Tom Paine, might be a better choice as a founder of Sheilaism with his declaration in “The Age of Reason,” in 1794 that, “My own mind is my own church.” That’s what Paine said. So, I think that Franklin is too tethered to external Christian ethics and institutions to be a forerunner fully of Sheilaism. Instead, I suggest that Franklin was a pioneer of a related kind of faith, what I call doctrinalist moralized Christianity, doctrinalist moralized Christianity. I do call it Christianity, by the way, not because I think it is a satisfactory kind of Christianity, but because that’s how Franklin saw what he was doing. And that’s what we have to start with as historians. What did Franklin think that he was doing? And he saw his religion as a form of Christianity. Okay.
And Franklin was an experimenter at heart, and here he’s tinkering with a novel form of Christianity, in which virtually, all beliefs become non-essential, except maybe for theism. And the Puritans of his childhood, he thought, focused too much on doctrine. And he wearied of Philadelphia Presbyterian zeal for expelling the heterodox and their lack of interest as he perceived it in the mandates of love and charity. So, for Franklin, Christianity remained a preeminent resource for virtue, but he had no exclusive attachment of Christianity as a religious system or a source of salvation.
In Franklin’s estimation, we cannot know for certain whether doctrines, such as God’s Trinitarian nature, are true. But we do know that Christians and the devout of all faiths are called to benevolence and selfless service. God calls us all to do good. This is Franklin’s idea. So doctrinal strife he thought is not only futile, but it undermines the mandate of virtue. Now, if you haven’t noticed, doctrinalist Christianity and doctrinalist religion is utterly pervasive in America today. Have you noticed this? And we see it most commonly in major media figures of self-help spirituality and success, such as Oprah Winfrey, such as Houston megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, and the late Stephen Covey, author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective of People,” in 1999, which is one of the best-selling books of the past 20 years or so in America.
And although they might differ on specifics, the common message of these authors and their countless followers is that a life of love, service, and significance is the best life of all. God will help you to live that kind of life, but they say, these people say, your faith should be empowering and tolerant, rather than fractious and nitpicking. Sociologists Christian Smith at Notre Dame says that these characteristically American beliefs amount to moralistic therapeutic deism, which isn’t exactly what Franklin believed, but today it’s a good term for it.
Many of its most prominent exponents, such as Joel Osteen, live out their faith in particular congregations and traditions. Even Oprah Winfrey has testified that, “I am a Christian. That is my faith. However,’ she says, ‘I am not asking you to be a Christian. If you want to be one, I can show you how, but it is not required.”‘ That’s what Oprah Winfrey says. Doctrinalist Christians agree that people may need to believe in some doctrines, or a personal understanding God can help us. We may need particular beliefs to enable our “best life now” in Joel Osteen’s phrase. But ultimately, the focus of doctrinalist Christianity is a life of good works, resiliency, and generosity now. Faith helps us to embody discipline, benevolence, success in this life, and that’s what God wants for us. That’s what the doctrinalist Christians say.
Well, it would be easy to dismiss this kind of pop faith as peddled today by wealthy media superstars, but it is America’s most common code of spirituality, most common. And for Franklin, doctrinalist moralized Christianity was serious intellectual business. It was born out of contemporary religious debates and dissatisfaction with his family’s Puritanism. And like many skeptics in 18th century, Franklin was tired of 300 years of fighting over the implications of the Reformation. And much of that fighting, yes, concerned church authority and particular doctrines, and Franklin was tired of it.
He grew up in a world of intractable conflict between Catholics and Protestants but also between and within Protestant denominations themselves. So what good was Christianity, he thought, if all it did was precipitate pettiness, persecution, and violence? Unlike some self-help celebrities today, Franklin and his cohort of European and American deists reckoned that in promoting a doctrinalist ethics-focused Christianity, they were redeeming Christianity itself. And how successful that redemptive effort was, you all will just have to decide for yourselves.
Could you really have a non-exclusive doctrinally-minimal morality-centered Christianity or did the effort fatally compromise Christianity itself? Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and many of their friends in America, Britain, and France say they wanted to give it a try. And 13 years after Franklin’s death, Jefferson wrote that he considered himself “a Christian” in the only sense Jesus wished anyone to be. He admired Jesus’s “moral doctrine” as more pure and perfect than any other philosophers.
But to Jefferson, Jesus’s excellence was only human. “Jesus never claimed to be anything else,” Jefferson said. “Christians, including authors of the New Testament books, impose claims of divinity on Jesus after he’d gone to His grave and not risen again,” Jefferson concluded. And so the Jefferson Bible ends with them rolling the stone in front of the grave and going away, no resurrection. Franklin did not go as far as Jefferson. Franklin preferred not to dogmatize one way or the other on matters such as Jesus’s divinity.
And in a classic tension that still marks American religion today, Franklin’s devout parents, his sister Jane, and the Reverend George Whitefield, they all found doctrinalist Christianity to be dangerous. Yes, they agreed that morality was essential and, yes, it was better not to fight over minor theological issues. But of course, they believe that true belief in Jesus was necessary for salvation. You all know this, but to the Puritans and evangelicals, Jesus was fully God, fully man, and the unique Savior. And doubting that put your soul in jeopardy.
It wasn’t enough to just imitate Jesus’s life as important as that was. “Jesus is Lord and Savior, and honoring Christ required belief in doctrinal truth,” they said. And so Franklin was constantly getting evangelical pushback on his beliefs, but Franklin just wasn’t sure that his parents were right. Perhaps the Puritans and Presbyterians of his youth had gotten it wrong, he thought. Perhaps he was the one who’s getting back to Jesus’s core and original teaching, but he was sure that doing good was the grand point.
So, Franklin and Whitefield’s clashing ideas about religion also became an issue to zero in on our topic for today in the founding of the Academy of Philadelphia, a predecessor to the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin’s hyperactive mind, and he did have…you know, he’s always thinking of new things to do and wants to think of new ways to do good. And by the early 1740s, he had begun to toy with the concept of an academy or a college for Philadelphia. And after some failed earlier attempts in 1749, he published a note in the Pennsylvania Gazette, his newspaper, explaining the need for a school where the colonies youths could receive “polite and learned education.”
Evangelical Presbyterians, allies of Whitefield, had founded the College of New Jersey or what became Princeton in 1746. But that school was originally located some 80 miles from Philadelphia. And Franklin hardly envisioned the Academy as a sectarian seminary anyway, so he liked the idea of a school in Philadelphia. And drawing on John Locke’s “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” 1693, Franklin drew up his proposals relating to the education of youth in Pennsylvania, 1749, and it laid out plans for the academy with educational goals of virtue and practical service.
Theology and ancient languages, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin were deemphasized. And English grammar was going to be a primary emphasis at Franklin school. Because it was more useful, he said than, “foreign and dead languages.” And Franklin proposed a new canon of what he called English classics. That was a weird term at that time because classics had usually meant the great texts of Greek and Roman antiquity. But Franklin’s students would learn to express themselves best in their everyday language.
Historical studies, however, remained at the center of the curriculum, hooray. And history, Franklin believed, unlike Greek and Latin, inculcated practical values. History inculcates practical values, love it. And students could read English translations of the ancient Greek and Roman histories, and among history’s chief benefits he said were lessons in morality and the value of religion.
Quoting John Milton’s “Of education,” 1644, Franklin noted that students would find, for instance, a historical basis of law, “delivered first and with best warrant by Moses in the Pentateuch.” Reading about moral exemplars in the past will remind students of the “advantages” of temperance, order, frugality, industry, perseverance, and other virtues. It would also reveal…to Franklin, it would reveal “necessity of a public religion,” he argued. Franklin even noted that peoples would learn of the “excellency of the Christian religion above all others, ancient or modern.” But on that subject, Franklin was terse.
So, for explanation of Christianity’s value, he footnoted Scottish moral philosopher and Anglican minister George Turnbull’s “Observations upon Liberal Education,” 1742. Franklin restated Turnbull’s view regarding “excellence of true Christianity above all other religions.” Turnbull had contended that Christianity was the best-known source of virtue. He said that the persuasion of a divine providence and a future state of rewards and punishments is one of the strongest incitements to virtue, and one of the most forcible restraints from vice can hardly be doubted. Turnbull’s view of Christianity’s practical benefits track closely with Franklin’s.
What then was the aim of the academy? What was the proper goal of education? For Franklin, it was to impress upon the students the desire “to serve mankind,” to serve one’s country, friends and family. Franklin knew that some potential supporters would balk at such human-centered vision. Thus in an extended footnote, he insisted that the aim of service to mankind was just another way of saying the glory and service of God. Okay. So here Franklin was restating his notion of true religion, “Doing good to men is the only service of God in our power, and to imitate His beneficence is to glorify Him.” That’s what Franklin said.
Franklin quoted Milton to bolster his point even though I think Milton seems to have shared the older Christian view of education, that students should first learn about and glorify God. Okay. Milton wrote famously, maybe a line you’ve heard before that “the end of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God or right.” Okay, to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God or right. “Knowing God or right” in Milton’s formula would lead us to love God and to imitate Him, and that would produce virtue, but you don’t get to just skip to the step of virtue. Locke and Turnbull were closer to Franklin’s view on this matter. For them, virtue was learning’s primary aim, not a secondary result.
Now, here’s where Whitefield comes in. Franklin arranged for the underutilized new building, a preaching venue supporters had built for the itinerating Whitefield in Philadelphia, to become the Academy’s home. And Franklin knew that using the new building required Whitefield’s permission. And so he sent the itinerant a copy of his educational plan.
Whitefield loved the idea of the school, but he did not love the absence of Jesus in the proposals. Okay. And so he wrote Franklin back, the school, “is certainly calculated to promote polite literature,” Whitefield told Franklin, “But I think there wants a liquid Christi, something of Christ, in it.” And the itinerant appreciated the proposal’s recognition, brief though it was, of Christianity’s superior merit. But Franklin mentioned the topic too late and moved on from it too quickly, Whitefield thought. Virtue in this life was not the main point of education according to Whitefield. In the context of eternity, this life would pass in a blink. Thus the great focus of Christianity. Christian education was not this world but the next.
Every Christian school should seek to convince students “of their natural depravity, of the means of recovering out of it, and of the necessity of preparing for the enjoyment of the Supreme Being in a future state.” These are the grand points in which Christianity centers. Arts and sciences may be built on this and serve to embellish and set off the superstructure, but without this, Whitfield said, “I think there cannot be any good foundation.” In case Franklin had not gotten the point, Whitefield circled back at the end of a very long letter, saying that he would pray for God to show Franklin how “to promote the best, and I mean the glory of God and the welfare of your fellow creatures.”
Unsurprisingly, the preacher also suggested that each student practice oratory for a couple hours each day. And so with this, Franklin took this under advisement but didn’t make many changes. And Franklin’s plans for the academy stumbled along until 1755 when the “College Academy” and charitable schools of Philadelphia formerly received its charter and later became the University of Pennsylvania, Ivy League and all that stuff.
So, that’s the Franklin project and the Franklin Whitefield debate, and I’d be happy to expand upon it if we have time during Q&A. But now I’d like to jump to looking ahead and looking at the state of Christian higher education, partly informed by that debate between Franklin and Whitefield in my perspective as a faculty member at a Christian university. Some of these issues are quite specific to the life of a college or university, so, forgive me if some of these points don’t directly apply to you.
A few observations. My first observation is that those of us who are believers teaching at Christian institutions are especially well-positioned to address issues of belief and spirituality. And that may seem obvious, but sometimes I think that we almost are embarrassed by this or apologize for this. I don’t think we should be embarrassed about this at all. Our students obviously need some good shepherding on these kinds of matters, but the watching world also needs lots of believing scholars to be able to represent the promise and pitfalls, be honest about the pitfalls, too, of faith across the disciplines.
Of course, there’s always room for strong Christian scholarship that makes no direct connection to faith, in a field like math, for instance. It doesn’t come up like every day about, you know, what my faith has to do with this equation. But it should be no surprise or embarrassment that many believing scholars and teachers will gravitate toward matters related to religion, virtue, and related topics.
And my hope is that Christian scholars indeed will have a winsome explicit testimony by producing some of the highest quality, most incisive, and critical work on religion, theology, whatever. And I think of examples like the late Jean Bethke Elshtain in political philosophy, Alvin Plantinga in philosophy, and George Marsden, my doctoral advisor at Notre Dame in history, as people who have what garnered the highest recognition within their disciplines as people of open Christian profession. Christian schools should aspire to do that.
And aspiring to that status and actually doing it, you know are not the same thing, but it can be done. It can be done. And if we don’t do our part as Christian scholars, speaking as a Christian scholar, the gap will be filled. It will be filled by Christian popular writers on history and philosophy and apologetics and other topics. Some of those writers may be responsible. We can be certain some of them will not be responsible, but they will almost always have no presence whatsoever in high ranking academic discussions, no presence.
But we need to testify that there is a long tradition of the Christian life of the mind that is able to traffic in highest level of academic discussions. People like Jonathan Edwards did that, and we can do that. In this generation, we are modeling that tradition for our students who will go on to be the next generation of parents, pastors, and teachers passing on that tradition to the next generation. So, we’re really well-positioned to address issues of belief and spirituality and religion at a very high level.
Second point I would emphasize is that Christian educators need to see themselves as called to outreach for the sake of that Christian mind, outreach, outreach. And the primary point of outreach is always our students, always our students. So this is something that every single Christian faculty member can do whatever his or her other audiences because this starts with our students. But there will be some of us who also reach out to broader popular audiences or in broader intellectual debates.
So, I’ve published books like this Franklin biography with Yale University Press, but I also blog at the Gospel Coalition, as I said, and I’m active in outreach on Facebook and Twitter @ThomasSKidd, if you’re into that sort of thing. Thinking, again, about my previous point about the pop Christian experts, Christian academics, I think, have spent too much time wringing their hands about the work of popularizers but not actually reaching out themselves. This is a serious besetting problem for Christian academics and other academics, too.
The good news is that social media and blogging have narrowed the distance and dramatically lowered the expense of reaching out to that elusive “popular audience” that academics supposedly want to reach but so often don’t. But some of us have to be willing to engage in that kind of outreach outside of the academy. And department…this is very granular, I know, but I know some of you think about these issues. Department chairs and other administrators have to be okay with or even to reward, for goodness sake, can you imagine this with, such outreach activities. And that is not in the system for Christian higher education or regular secular education.
In an era when the value of college education, in general, is very much in question, scholars having an active public presence, I think, is one obvious way to make the case for relevance and value of college education. In higher education, of course, popular outreach can never substitute…and don’t hear me saying this. It can’t substitute for outstanding teaching and scholarly expertise. And you’ve gotta get those rights before you do pop outreach.
And I can certainly understand discouraging faculty from blogging in similar activities if they’re on tenure track or early career or if they need to work on their teaching or their research. But I also find it strange that my blogging, usually, you know, 52 posts a year, each post garnering thousands of page views much more than say an academic journal article, has no category in which to fit in annual performance reviews. And this is hardly just a Baylor thing. This is the way it is everywhere, everywhere. It just doesn’t count. It counts for nothing.
Obviously, tweets don’t count either. You know, how would you count tweets, although I will say that “Baylor Magazine” did do a nice write up about Baylor faculty who are engaged in social media, and I was part of that article. I mean, I see the value of it everywhere I go here in the halls and stuff, people I’m connected with on Twitter, right? So like half of you I probably know through Twitter, right? I mean, we see the value of this, but it’s not…there’s no way to reward this. And so at least there’s gotta be some kind of acceptance of this, if not, active rewarding. And if we don’t do that, how are we gonna reach a general audience if we’re not engaged in some kind of intentional outreach work?
The final point I wanna make regarding the future of Christian higher education, and this gets down pretty directly to Whitefield’s point, is that we likely won’t have much of a future in Christian higher education if we are not intentionally, overtly Christian, not sort of in the background, like intentionally overtly Christian. And I don’t have to remind you, especially those of you who are in the business, that there are enormous cultural and bureaucratic pressures coming against us not to be intentionally and overtly Christian in lots of different ways.
But even if all we care about is student recruitment and tuition dollars, it’s hard to imagine why parents would send their kids to a Christian college or university that isn’t all that Christian anymore. Why would you send your kids there? And I’ve certainly visited Christian colleges…sort of formerly Christian colleges that have functionally dropped any overt Christian commitment. And some of those are about ready to close their doors. And I know that subject is much more complicated because there are really faithful schools that are also struggling financially and so forth. But for our discussion today, we have to think about, “What in particular makes our Christian college distinct from the public school or secular private school down the road?”
For me, I certainly found robust Christian student groups, the Navigators, in particular for me at college at Clemson, which is my alma mater and a public university and the reigning national football champions. If you hadn’t heard of that, that was just for free, by the way, the national football champions. But anyway, my point is, is that it’s not enough to have a generically Christian ethos of being caring and kind. What liberal arts college would not profess to have that kind of ethos? That’s not enough. Of course, we should be caring and kind, but it’s not enough.
It’s also not enough to Christianize the educational philosophy developed by our friends at secular institutions. And even just having Christian content in student life, not enough, because if all I want is Christian student life options, I can find unofficial but powerful versions of that at public universities everywhere in the country. And I definitely found that at Clemson, my alma mater.
We just don’t have time, but we could examine any number of ways that overt Christian commitment might manifest itself at Christian schools, from required chapel to mission’s oriented administrative decision making. And I know some of you have given a great deal of thought, more thought than me to these kinds of questions. But from my perspective on the faculty, on the faculty of a Christian university, though, the number one issue in maintaining an intentional Christian commitment is in faculty hiring. That’s number one.
A lot of schools are in different situations about this. Some schools have a denominational commitment that they have to uphold. Some have a statement of faith, some don’t, on and on and on. But whether or not you fit into any of these categories, whether or not you have a statement of faith or not, Christian schools simply have to go to the next level with prospective faculty candidates, and at least ask probing questions about their involvement with and their service in the church. If you don’t do that, I think you’re just missing the basic, minimal requirement.
If we expect faculty candidates to represent the Christian life in the mind before our students, they have to be articulate about a Christian life in the mind in their job interview. Again, for someone like me, religious history, it’s a little easier than somebody in math. And sorry to be cracking on math people, but you know what I’m saying. I mean, it’s easier for me to talk about the history of theology. But if you can’t articulate your faith in the job interview, that’s a problem.
Here’s maybe one way to put this in a nutshell. Are any faculty candidates being turned down because of lack of mission fit, in spite of their other appealing qualifications? If that’s never happening, it would be ideal if your departments were doing that for you. I know that can be tough in some situations, but if that’s never happening, it’s time to revisit how we’re handling our hiring practices in order to maintain that intentional Christian mission.
So, in summary, let’s make sure amidst all our other plans, and it’s getting harder all the time because a lot of schools are in desperate straits about recruitment and enrollment, and we’ve got a million things we’re trying to do, let’s make sure that our Christian college or university does not lack a “liquid Christi,” something of Christ. Or even better, to put it even more strongly than Whitefield, let’s seek to have our schools manifest the fullness of Christ, the fullness of Christ.
I’m optimistic. I believe that if we’re outreach-oriented, we’re intentionally overtly Christian, and if we focus on areas of strength, we’re likely to make the biggest impact. There can be a vibrant future for Christian higher education. Thank you very much. I think we have a few minutes for Q&A, so if you wanna raise your hand and say your question real loud. Yes.
Man 1: [inaudible 00:53:51] talk about.
Tommy: Okay. So the question is, you know, you have a faculty or faculty candidates that they’re active, but they’re not necessarily theologically articulated or sophisticated or committed in ways that you would want them to be. I think it depends a lot on what school we’re talking about. I mean, because for some schools, there is a doctrinal standard that you’re trying to uphold. And then there’s other schools where there’s, you know, latitude for a lot of different kinds of Christians.
Baylor is in that category. We don’t have a statement of faith. You know, we are looking for people who their faith seems to be significantly meaningful for them. And we also find that…you know, if you’ve been practicing through a doctoral program, that often tends to be small or orthodox Christians. You know, we do sometimes see people who are pretty liberal theologically.
But that issue in our case…you know, for me as a more conservative Christian, I mean, I see that issue tends to kind of sort itself out in a lot of cases. But I’m not saying we don’t ever…we do deal with this question about, okay, like how liberal is too liberal if we’re basing this on just practice.
But, you know, in a lot of cases, you know, who are we looking? I mean, remember we had a candidate at one time, and she, you know, was from a tradition that wasn’t super articulate about her faith. She didn’t work on religious history. And so we’re kind of trying, you know, what does this mean? And she said, “You know, I play piano at church.” And I said, “Okay, perfect.” At some point, I’m great with that because, you know, that suggests to me that this is not just a nominal deal.
And I think some faculty members, especially in fields where they’re not ever asked to be articulate about their faith and so forth. You know, if you have a big faculty…I mean, we have more than 1,000 faculty members. You know, I’m great with that in a lot of cases. You know, it’s a different deal when you’re trying to uphold a statement of faith that is, you know, particular.
So, there, you know,…I mean, if you’re trying to uphold that, then you can’t hire that sort of person. And I just think you’ve gotta figure out what you’re trying to do, what the tradeoff is, and, you know, be real clear about it, and make sure that department heads know what will get kicked back down the line. But I think there’s some room across the spectrum of Christian higher ed, you know, to answer that question in different ways.
Man 2: [inaudible 00:57:02] I’m thinking that.
Tommy: Well, it can be tough. I mean, when you have…because I think, especially in large schools, you all can tell me about small schools if you want, but there’s usually really basic disagreements on the faculty about how these things should be handled.
And there’s routinely…at those sorts of schools, there’s faculty who do not think that faith questions should be asked and don’t like bringing up that topic. And then usually, administrators have some departments who are working the program and some who are not, you know, in some cases where they’re trying to coach candidates to get them through the administrative. Can we just be honest? I mean, you know, who are trying…
They want this sort of position, or maybe they’re in a situation where this position has been really hard to hire. I mean, I understand that. I mean, there’s not so much in history, but some other disciplines, it can be hard to fill certain positions, and you need the courses covered, and you don’t have that many candidates. So there’s a lot of dynamics here.
You know, I think that if the administration can be gentle but firm in making clear that, you know, if you don’t want a failed search, that these are the parameters that we need. I find that, you know, in my experience, it’s been over time as sort of willingness to just say, “Well, I mean, why would…we’re spending a lot of time on this. Let’s try to do this right.” And I think that’s where 90% of faculty members will be.
You know, as far as practices and so forth, it’s…you know, to me, the main thing that comes to mind is just consistency from the administration and candor, transparency, and lots of communication. And so if you do get into a situation, which I would think inevitable you’re going to where a candidate is not gonna be…I mean, no surprises, you’ve been told, this is why real tangible, real predictable…faculty always like those sorts of things. But it’s hard.
I mean, when…in this kind of system, you’re just gonna end up with situations where department recommends, “Candidate X and candidate X doesn’t meet the faith mission.” That’s just gonna be hard.
Man 3: Yeah. I wonder if you’ve come across Christians study centers or fellowship programs. Could you talk about how they might be able to augment or use, you know, within bounds or whatever Christian faculty in higher education.
Tommy: Yeah. I mean, I’m familiar with, for instance, the McLaren Institute. The University of Minnesota is an example of this sort of thing. I think it’s even more common in the UK. You know, it’s different for me being at a Christian university where a lot of these kinds of training and, you know, book discussion groups and so forth can be run internally. But I just think, you know, in a public university, there’s gotta be, you know…I mean, it could be used…we have things like this at Baylor, too, but for slightly different purposes than, say, faculty fellowship type of…and training and resources. But it seems to me that at public universities, it’s an outstanding opportunity for that sort of thing.
I had Christian faculty members who identified as Christians for me at Clemson, but I was never aware that they had those kinds of outlets. You know, I don’t know what they did. Yeah. What other questions we have? Pastor Piper, yes. Yeah. So the question is, you know, isn’t it inherently problematic to seek sort of top-flight academic recognition, especially given the current academic environment, which often reflects kind of implicit or explicit anti-Christian bigotry?
I think it certainly can be problematic, and where I’ve seen it be problematic in particular is the impulse, not in my current institution, I don’t think, but I’ve seen it elsewhere where the desire to enhance one’s research profile leads you to hire people who are not sympathetic to the mission in order to get their research jobs. That’s one species of how this becomes problematic.
You know, your research aspirations at some point can conflict with the narrow range of people that you can hire to complement the Christian mission of the university. I mean, they’ve lived in a very different time, but as you all know, you know, Edwards and Lewis did this. And so there’s a species of it in certain cultures that can be done in a God-honoring way. You know, I think about Lewis that Lewis had…I mean, he in a way is the epitome of the kind of, you know, publishing regimen that I…I mean, not everybody can do what Lewis did, obviously.
But he’s publishing, you know, the Oxford Handbook of English literature, and he’s got a position at Oxford and Cambridge, and yet he’s writing for a popular audience, and he’s writing apologetics and all these things. Now, World War II Britain is a little different in terms of the reception of Christians, and I don’t think Edwards would be made the President of Princeton today, but nevertheless, in their place in time, part of what their…
I mean, Edwards, I think, is an excellent example of somebody who does what it takes in his time and place to be part of these discussions that are at the time, you know, the top level theological discussions about the will and…you know, you know about all this sort of stuff. And so Edwards is establishing an international academic reputation on these issues for the sake of the gospel. And so, again, it’s a different place and time, but I still think there are fields in which there are open opportunities to do this sort of thing.
My colleague, Byron Johnson at Baylor, for instance, is a sociologist who works on criminology and recidivism and faith-based programs in America’s prisons, and his work was considered to be so cutting edge because it was not about anti-social behavior. It was about pro-social behavior and, you know, redeeming convicts. How does this actually work? And he’s saying, “Here’s what works about faith-based programs and here’s what does definitely doesn’t work.” So it’s critical. I mean, it’s able to be critical about these sorts of things.
It’s not my field, so I can’t explain all the ins and outs of this, but his work was considered to be so cutting edge in the field of criminology that he got hired at the University of Pennsylvania, our friends at Penn, right? But then he ultimately left Penn to come to Baylor because he was excited about the prospects of, you know, having colleagues who cared about this sort of thing. So I think it can be alienating to be in that sort of position.
You know, Byron’s a dear friend of mine, but he’s a sort of person who has never checked his faith at the door, no way. Widely known as an evangelical in his field and was doing the kind of work that got that sort of recognition that he even got hired at an Ivy League school. That doesn’t happen every day, and it’s not for everybody. I would posit that in some fields, in some disciplines, it can still happen. And it happened with George Marsden. You know, many of you know his Jonathan Edwards biography, explicitly from a reformed perspective commends Edwards’s theology published with Yale University Press, and it wins the Bancroft prize in American history, which is like winning the Pulitzer Prize for historians. It’s awarded by the Columbia University history department.
I know, some Christians, you know, quibble with Marsden’s style and so forth. But read the conclusion to the Edwards biography if you haven’t. He explicitly says Edwards’s theology is right, and it’s right today, and it has things we need from Edwards today. And the Columbia University history department, that was a moment in time, too, but in 2003, he said, “This is one of the two or three best history books published in America this year.”
And again, not everybody’s George Marsden. That’s for sure. But I think it can be done, and if it can be done…I like this question that’s why I’m waxing eloquent about it. If it can be done then without checking your faith at the door, without cutting corners, then that is a species. I mean, there’s nothing special or magical about this, but that is a species of Christian cultural witness in this generation that I think it would be good to have some people avail themselves of that opportunity. So anyway, that’s lots of dangers. You’re absolutely right, but I still think it can be done in the right way.
Man 4: And what would he be disappointed about?
Tommy: That’s a great question. So, if Franklin popped up and was walking around Penn today, what would he think? I think Franklin would be perplexed at the Academy’s denial of the educated function of virtue inculcation because Franklin thinks that’s all education is for, right?
And as I said, it’s not explicitly Christian in Franklin’s formulation, but there’s all these things that are sort of a holdover for Franklin. And so, what do you get educated for except for the inculcation of virtue? Except that with the Academies, we’re so confused. So, the Academy is about virtue inculcation in, you know, radical left progressive politics. I mean, that’s the core of what, especially humanities and social sciences is about in so many contexts these days.
So, I think Franklin might realize after he observed for a while, “Oh, yeah, they still are inculcating virtue. It’s just not Christian virtue.” So, maybe he would at least fathom that part of it. I mean, Franklin is awfully pragmatic. There’s, you know, a deep kind of pragmatic strain in American education today, and increasingly so as American education sort of battles for survival. So I’m not sure he would have a problem with that, but I don’t think Franklin…
I mean, he totally means that because if you said, “Nah, our rights don’t come from the Creator,” he would say, “Well, what’s the other option?” I mean, they don’t even have to have this conversation, like what…this is, you know, pre-Darwinian. They live in a created universe. And so, you know, maybe…I don’t know, maybe Adam and Eve, maybe not for Jefferson.
Franklin just wouldn’t be able to recognize the kind of intellectual universe in which most colleges and universities and secondary schools inhabit today. And so I think he probably would be puzzled and perplexed in some kind of Christian or at least theistic ways. And he knows exactly what education is for. It’s for virtue and that, you know, we profess not to be about that anymore, even though as I said, I think we’re just as committed to the virtues. It’s just a different set of virtues today.