In March 2019, I received a text from a friend who’s a faculty member at Azusa Pacific University, a conservative, Christian college in a suburb of Los Angeles. She wanted to know if I’d seen the Christianity Today report that her institution, founded in 1899 with the motto “God First,” had updated its student handbook to allow “romanticized relationships” between students of the same sex.
About a year later, I heard from another Azusa friend that the administration had sent out a school-wide notice to teachers asking them to make a “commitment to read, watch, or listen” to resources on “Allyship and Anti-racism.” The recommendations read like an enthusiastic endorsement of Critical Race Theory (CRT), including everything from Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” to the New York Times’ “1619 Project” to Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be Anti-Racist.”
As Rod Dreher noted at the time in The American Conservative, “If this were a list at a secular university, it would still be startlingly unbalanced.”
Azusa is hardly the only private, Christian institution bowing to the prevailing winds of left-wing culture. The Baptist university Baylor in Waco, Texas, too, has changed its policies. While the administration insists it remains committed to biblical sexual ethics, in June, the board of regents nevertheless opened the door to officially recognizing an LGBT student group.
And last year, Baylor President Linda Livingstone issued a letter commending “5 Tips to Cultivate Cultural Humility and Antiracism” from the school’s diversity initiative chair, a woman who has argued that societal efforts to become less racist must never end. If one were setting out to create a parody of CRT propaganda, her suggestions wouldn’t look much different, linking to a list of “white supremacist” characteristics that include individualism, logical thinking, and, for some inexplicable reason, memo writing.
Biola University followed suit with new “diversity initiatives” and a clarion call for the school to get involved in the business of racial “advocacy.” Not to be outdone, Billy Graham’s alma mater, the Evangelical Wheaton, held a “Racialized Minority Recognition Ceremony” for students of color during graduation week this past spring. It also removed a nearly 70-year-old plaque honoring one of its most famous sons, Jim Elliot, a 1950s missionary who was martyred while witnessing to an Ecuadorean tribe, because the inscription described his murderers as “savage.”
Even the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University, widely viewed by progressives as the most belligerently right-wing of religious higher ed, has launched a department christened with those ubiquitous corporate buzzwords that cover a multitude of agendas — Equity and Inclusion.
It was with this background in mind that parents, students, and alumni at Grove City College became so alarmed last year when they begin to see what they describe as evidence of Critical Race Theory and LGBT activism creeping into their conservative Christian institution.
It Started With a Petition
Outside of perhaps, Hillsdale, to which it is often compared, if there was one college in the country that might have seemed immune to wokeness, it was Grove City. The school is famous for refusing to accept any form of federal funding — a policy born of fierce independence that has allowed it to escape the fate of so many other religious schools that wriggle under the rainbow thumb of ever-shifting discrimination regulations. In fact, it was after Grove City College (GCC) won a 1984 Supreme Court case regarding Title IX law that requires government-funded schools to treat gender, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. as protected classes, that Hillsdale, too, decided to shake off Uncle Sam’s purse strings.
Even more iconoclastic, GCC declines to offer tenure to faculty, not even to revered conservative intellectuals like Reagan biographer Paul Kengor or best-selling historian Carl Trueman.
And yet, parent Scott Klusendorf tells me that what government pressure failed to accomplish, social pressure from within and without is quietly managing. The same tactics used to smuggle left-wing ideology into other Christian institutions, he says, have recently been at work at Grove City. That was why he and a group of fellow parents, alumni, and students launched a petition in November to ask the school’s administration to “save GCC from CRT.”
“Many of us first wrote to [GCC President Paul] McNulty privately about our concerns and did not get a response,” shares Klusendorf. “That’s when we knew we were going to have to go public.”
Klusendorf, who is no stranger to dissecting and debating worldviews as the president of the Life Training Institute and author of “The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture,” says he and other parents first began to feel that an issue was developing in the Summer of 2020.
As riots sparked by the death of George Floyd decimated cities across the country, a group of Black Lives Matter activists demanded, among other things, that GCC institute “anti-racist-based bias trainings,” create a new “office of diversity and inclusion,” invite more black speakers to chapel to teach about minority issues, and establish education courses that “require anti-racist pedagogies.”
All of it was, of course, to be done under the auspices of the Gospel’s command to “love one another.”
Yet for all its references to the New Testament and the imago dei, the BLM petition was led by a former student actively opposed to biblically orthodox beliefs. Eve Ettinger, who identifies as queer and goes by they/them pronouns, today hosts a podcast dedicated to deconstructing Christian “fundamentalism.”
It’s hard to imagine that Ettinger (or her pronoun-posting collaborators) have much respect for GCC’s 150-year-old ideological commitments (especially as an early draft of their letter, later amended, demanded that the college fire Kengor and shut down the Faith and Freedom think tank he leads). Nevertheless, their major demands were eventually met.
Two months after they issued their letter, the school, like so many others, announced the formation of a new president’s council on diversity. Its aim, McNulty told the student newspaper, was to help him understand, “what obstacles may be impeding our success with regard to racial and ethnic diversity.”
Corporate Republicans and Expanding Power
What bothers Klusendorf is that while McNulty’s office immediately issued a defensive response to the petition he and his group published in November, no such public refutations to the charges of racism were offered to the BLM petitioners. Instead, he speculates, fear seemed to spur the college to appeasement.
“The thing is, once you have a diversity council, they get institutional power. They expand,” one GCC professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me. “And then, at a certain point, it becomes an issue of not wanting to admit that things got out of control.”
Multiple faculty members I spoke to described McNulty and some GCC board members as CEO-style Republicans. They come from the corporate and political establishment, worlds where compromise with activist movements are common. “They’re good people, you know, many of them are very solidly conservative,” one professor tells me. “Many of them say that they’re against CRT, but they fall for the repackaging and renaming of it. That makes it kind of easy to lie to yourself about what’s really happening.”
Shortly after the launch of the diversity council, the school hosted a chapel talk by anti-racist scholar and Kendi protégé Jemar Tisby as part of a series on racial justice. The administration has said it didn’t know that Tisby had a reputation for BLM-style rhetoric, despite the fact he had, by then, very publicly contended in The New York Times that “White Christians have to face the possibility that everything they have learned about [their] faith has been designed to explicitly or implicitly reinforce a racist structure.” His chapel speech followed much the same theme — he insisted that “freedom, justice, and democracy, especially for black people and other people of color, are in imminent danger,” and he implicitly labeled students who “refuse to get involved in the struggle” racists.
This view was echoed, to a milder degree, by other chapel speakers in the series, including a bizarre panel in which the greatest incident of racial aggression an Asian student could bring to mind was when a woman not affiliated with GCC asked her at a Chinese New Year event how to say “thank you” in Chinese. The co-ed breathily explains in the video that she is Korean. “It made me pretty uncomfortable due to the insensitivity and carelessness of the question,” she says. “It was a little degrading and patronizing, like I was a child answering this for her entertainment.”
Evidently lost on the student was her own churlishness at reading racism into the woman’s very reasonable mistake of assuming that an Asian student volunteering at a Chinese-themed event might actually be Chinese and attempt to make polite conversation with her on that basis.
To be clear, these chapel ideas were not presented in the classroom context of cross-examination to test their soundness, but with the imperative of religious instruction. In a separate chapel, the school chaplain and senior director of Christian formation himself implored students in the context of racial reconciliation to be part of the “resistance.” The fact that resistance is needed was taken as a given. Proof of this is the fact that GCC has yet to invite any critics of the idea that America and American Christianity are in the grip of unrepentant racism to share their views in the chapel setting.
Other items on the BLM petition’s list were also soon checked off.
In the Spring of 2021, the college introduced a new class in the education department titled “Cultural Diversity and Advocacy” that promised to teach students “multi-cultural awareness” and “how to become actively anti-racist.” The course, advertised around campus with a poster showing raised fists in varying skin tones, featured only four texts, all from racial activists — Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be Anti-Racist,” and David W. Swanson’s “Rediscipling the White Church.”
The issue with the course, professors critical of it told me, was not just that it represented advocacy rather than scholarship (the final, described in the student paper, required students to create a community project toward “racial reconciliation with the expressed hope that they would be carried out), but that it failed to adhere to the high academic and intellectual standards for which Grove City is known.
“Those are kind of pop texts, rather than scholarly argumentative texts,” a faculty member told me. “But if you look at Grove City’s mission, it talks about ‘examining texts of enduring values.’ Well, a New York Times bestseller, published in 2019 does not fit that bill to me.”
In the meantime, a host of parents began hearing from their kids in resident assistant (RA) training that the program had begun including “racial struggle sessions,” with the director and his wife encouraging students to admit their inner racism, as well as their white guilt and privilege.
Diversity by Any Other Name
McNulty has said that the purpose of the diversity council is to assist him in “determining how the College can be more successful in attracting and retaining minority students.”
That’s an aim Professor Carl Trueman, who defended the college against charges of wokeness in a recent essay at Patriot Post, can get behind.
Trueman, whose conservative bona fides need no burnishing, tells me he has no qualms saying that “wokeness in general is destroying higher education in the United States of America.” But he worries that one extreme view may be provoking another. And he believes that diversity, as a goal, can still be a laudable thing.
A Cambridge-educated Brit, Trueman has had the assimilation experience himself. “I’m not an American. And when I moved to America, I appreciated that the institution I was working for made some efforts to make me feel welcome,” he says. “I also think it’s great for students to mix with people from different backgrounds. When I was at college I met people from wealthy backgrounds, I met people from humble backgrounds, and I developed a range of friends across a variety of different experiences of the world. I actually think a diverse student body can help broaden the minds and the experiences of students if we detach it from the identity politics idea.”
The problem is, from most of the evidence, the diversity council’s activities, to date, haven’t been outwardly focused on recruiting a varied student body nearly as much as they’ve been inwardly focused on culture change — the same problem cropping up at Christian campuses across the nation.
And when Trueman describes what he thinks is causing that phenomenon at other institutions — faculty members that lack commitment to the school’s confessional position, bad hires by the administration, welcoming left-wing lecturers whose ideas go unchallenged — he’s describing exactly what the parent petitioners believe is happening at Grove City.
Klusendorf says that if the diversity council were simply devoted to fostering a greater mix of students from different ethnic and economic backgrounds, rather than imputing systemic and generational guilt to one group, he would have no issue with its activities. “If the council is simply wanting to figure out how to help minority students feel welcome on campus, you can do that without the campus embracing critical race theory like staging viewings of the documentary ‘White People,'” he says. “You don’t have to talk about white privilege and intrinsic racism. You can, in a targeted way within a biblical worldview, help minority students feel welcome.”
He then points to the trajectory diversity councils at other Christians campuses have taken in recent years, becoming more boldly engaged in progressive activism. For that reason, he believes that if a Christian college or university truly wants to establish a sanctioned body to bring about a more varied student body, it should name itself something else.
“Anytime you name something diversity council, that should set off red flags in any biblically grounded Christian,” Klusendorf says, “because that means something in the corporate world. And it means something in the education world. Diversity councils are not about diversity. They’re about promoting a worldview that is hostile to the Christian one. And you know, people lose their jobs when they violate the diversity council in a corporate structure.”
Where he and the other parent-petitioners agree with Trueman and the administration, however, is that reports of GCC’s death to rampant wokeism have been wildly exaggerated.
Trueman says he received a note from one parent after the anti-CRT petition went live in November describing GCC as a “woke nightmare.” Klusendorf admits that there have been overreactions, but contends it has never been the group’s aim to convey that impression. The letter, he says, was intended to lay out the creeping wokeness they have seen so far with the goal of arresting it before it goes any further.
And there are other professors on campus who took it that way. As one told me, “I clearly saw the petition as them saying, ‘Hey, you know, we see the camel’s nose in the tent. And we would like the college to take actions to ensure that the rest of the camel does not enter the tent.’”
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Race-based activism isn’t the only way that leftist ideology sneaks in the tent, however, and two different professors I spoke with said they don’t want the role LGBT activism has played in bringing wokeness to GCC to go unnoticed in the midst of the CRT debate. Especially as they’ve experienced first-hand the manipulative tactics such groups sometimes use.
Both tell me that LGBT students and their “allies” have been pushing to transform Grove City into an “affirming” campus for years, choosing to enroll at the school despite knowing that its views conflict with their own. That, indeed, is the point.
The faculty members describe gay activists commandeering the College Democrat student group as a front for an LGBT club to pursue an agenda of bringing in gay speakers and recruiting new LGBT members.
All of it became much more open a couple of years ago during a battle over rainbow stickers.
One of the few left-leaning professors on campus, Warren Throckmorton, had placed a rainbow decal on his door, ostensibly to let LGBT students know that his office was a safe place to “dialogue.” A few other teachers followed suit at the request of students who were pressuring faculty to “care” for gay students.
“The way that they had framed it was to say, ‘Hey, would you be willing to put this sticker on your door as a, as a signal to students who might be struggling with these issues, that you are someone whose door is open to dialogue?” one professor tells me. “And I think to many of us, that was a bit of a frustrating way to frame that, because 100% of Grove City College professors are, by definition, open to dialogue with students on these questions.”
He points out that the undertone of the pressure was that the students were trying to identify professors willing to show them Christ-like love, but were demanding it play out through the symbolism of total acceptance. “By implication,” the teacher tells me “if a professor does not have this sticker on his or her door, then that professor is not someone who actually loves you if you’re struggling with this particular issue, right? And so there was a little bit of like a moral guilt trip, in my view, in the way that the group who asked people to put the stickers on the door were framing this. Because to the rest of the whole planet, that’s not what that sticker means, right?”
He points out that in the popular culture and with their philosophical proponents, LGBT capitulation and the introduction of CRT ideology often go hand-in-hand, as, in fact, it did with Eve Ettinger and several of her fellow BLM activists.
Quietly Righting the Ship
I questioned McNulty, who was deputy attorney general under the George W. Bush administration, about concerns over creeping wokeness, and, true to the establishment observation of the anonymous professor, his answers were short and safely corporate. He conceded only that it is “reasonable for parents to be concerned about what is happening in higher education and to seek information and clarification.”
But his actions may be speaking louder than his responses. Two alumni posted a message (a copy of which was shared with The Daily Wire) to a closed Facebook group, saying that they had spoken with McNulty and were assured he was taking steps to address their concerns.
He promised that “more consideration” would be given to future chapel topics and speakers, and admitted that texts in the new education class did promote CRT. To that aim, McNulty told the alums that the class is being revised to add additional books and materials for balance and that the initial process for the course’s approval, as well as the poster created to promote it, are “under review.”
Finally, the alums reported that accusations about the RA program that have already been found to have merit have been “addressed” and the training materials are “under review.”
It may not be the forthright answer the parent-petitioners were looking for, but it does suggest that their actions have had an impact.
So perhaps Grove City should hold lesson for the parents, teachers, students and alumni at other Christian colleges and universities, despairing over the wokeness they see infiltrating once-faithful institutions. Perhaps it takes a little activism to combat activism. Perhaps its more productive to light a candle than curse the dark.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.