May 30 2024

Wheaton College, Larycia Hawkins, and Our Academic Life Together

by Dena S. Davis, Lehigh University

Concrete and stone sign for Wheaton College on campus. It reads "Wheaton College" and "For Christ and His Kingdom"

Editor's note (3/5/2016): Since publication of this essay, Larycia Hawkins has accepted a position at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture as the Abd el-Kader Visiting Faculty Fellow.

The case of Larycia Hawkins has brought much gnashing of teeth in many areas of academe. Hawkins, a tenured professor of political science at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college, was placed on administrative leave with a recommendation for the initiation of termination proceedings. On February 9, 2016, Hawkins and Wheaton agreed to part ways, with the settlement terms remaining private. According to the College, Professor Hawkins was in trouble for her public declaration (outside the classroom) that Christians and Muslims worship the same god. Some commentators suspect that Wheaton was using the theological issue as a pretext for firing someone who is female and African American, on a mostly white campus, or that she was really under attack for her act of wearing the hijab as a statement of solidarity with Muslim women. But I am going to take Wheaton at its word here, the better to explore some of the academic implications.

Wheaton can perhaps be faulted for a lack of clarity in the lines it draws. But in general, Wheaton and similar colleges go out of their way to make clear to students and faculty what the expectations are for belief and behavior, and what the consequences can be for crossing those lines. (It is also possible that Hawkins and Wheaton are engaged in a genuine hermeneutical debate about aspects of evangelical doctrine, a debate in which I am not qualified to engage.)  Although I cannot imagine teaching in such a college or sending a child of mine there, I acknowledge that as long as Wheaton is clear and upfront about its requirements, it has the right to enter into a contractual agreement with faculty in which they give up certain areas of academic freedom as a condition of employment. As Wheaton says on its website, “members of [the] faculty, who have voluntarily signed our Statement of Faith and the Community Covenant, commit to accept and model these foundational documents with integrity, compassion and theological clarity inside and outside of the classroom.” For clarity, I am going to call these institutions “faith-circumscribed.”

Although Hawkins is a political scientist, she works on questions of religion, and while we have never met, I think of her as a colleague. I received my doctorate in religion and currently teach in a religion studies department.  Professor Hawkins’s case rekindles for me a concern I have had since graduate school, a concern for which there is no comfortable forum.

From the time I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa, I have been a member of the American Academy of Religion.  I served for two terms on the Board of Directors and was a cochair of the AAR’s Religion and Politics Section. Some scholars participating in AAR and its sister society, the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL), come from colleges such as Wheaton, which have faith-based requirements for hiring and retention. The same is true in other organizations, such as the American Historical Association, the American Society for Church History, the Law and Society Association, and others. Our annual meetings are in many ways the backbone of the disciplines; they are where we try out new ideas, network with other scholars, and build scholarly fellowship with people outside our subdisciplines.

At its conferences, AAR and SBL have panels on every conceivable topic, many of which—gay rights, reproductive ethics, ecumenical relations, the historicity of the Bible, and so on—are guaranteed to run afoul of some institution’s statement of faith. My problem is this: when a panel includes scholars from faith-circumscribed institutions, are we all playing by the same academic rules? When I give a paper, I am giving it my best shot at that moment. It may be wrongheaded or just plain stupid, and I may change my mind tomorrow—perhaps in response to a persuasive argument from some other scholar on the panel—but at that moment, it is sincerely my best scholarly understanding of the question.

The same cannot necessarily be said for faculty at faith-circumscribed institutions. My concern is not that the scholar’s faith leads her to certain conclusions; that’s what we want, and that’s true for all of us, religious or secular.  My concern is that the scholar may be led to conclusions that she is not free to voice publicly, for fear of dismissal.  Imagine a panel discussion, “Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God?”—a timely topic in view of Pope Francis’s recent remarks on the subject.  Someone who teaches at Wheaton, who is driven by her scholarly investigation to decide that the answer is Yes, must either withdraw from the panel or be less than forthright in her presentation.  

To sum up, I have no idea if Hawkins is right, from an evangelical perspective, that Christian and Muslims worship the same god. And I accept that Wheaton was within its rights to fire Hawkins. But, that forces me to the conclusion that Wheaton and similar schools are not engaged in the same academic enterprise as noncircumscribed schools. The AAR’s mission statement includes the following: Within a context of free inquiry and critical examination, the Academy welcomes all disciplined reflection on religion—both from within and outside of communities of belief and practice—and seeks to enhance its broad public understanding. What can it mean for “free inquiry” if some of us are not free to inquire?

Dena S. Davis, JD, PhD, is professor of bioethics in the Department of Religion Studies and Presidential Chair in Health at Lehigh University.


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