Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical school in Illinois, has placed a professor on administrative leave after she posted on Facebook that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”
The official school statement Tuesday about associate professor of political science Larycia Hawkins’s suspension said Wheaton professors should “engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College’s evangelical Statement of Faith.”
Following a protest and sit-in of about 100 people Wednesday afternoon on campus, President Philip Ryken and later Provost Stanton Jones said they would not be lifting the suspension. It wasn’t clear how long Hawkins was suspended for, but some of the student leaders who had been involved in talks with administrators said it was through the spring semester.
The school’s communications office on Wednesday declined to comment to The Washington Post.
Protesters chanted “Reinstate Doc Hawk,” “We love Wheaton!” and some evangelical women wore hijabs in solidarity.
In her Dec. 10 Facebook post, Hawkins was also wearing a hijab, explaining she planned to do so through the entire Christian season of Advent to show “human solidarity” with Muslims. She didn’t state why in her piece and did not return requests for comment to The Post, but this fall has seen anti-Islam rhetoric rise sharply in the public square, including by GOP presidential candidates. Hundreds of people liked her post and more praised her intensely in comments.
“I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind,” she wrote. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book … But as I tell my students, theoretical solidarity is not solidarity at all. Thus, beginning tonight, my solidarity has become embodied solidarity.”
She linked to a Christianity Today interview with Yale theologian Miroslav Volf on the topic. In the piece, Volf said that “all Christians don’t worship the same God, and all Muslims don’t worship the same God. But I think that Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The reference is the same. The description of God is partly different.”
About 40 students had drafted a letter Tuesday night asking Ryken to reconsider the suspension.
The letter quotes a coalition of concerned students and alumni. “We believe that there is nothing in Larycia Hawkins’ public statements that goes against the belief in the power of God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit that the Statement of Faith deems as a necessary component to Wheaton’s affiliation,” it reads. It had asked that she be reinstated.
Hawkins, according to students at the meeting, is the only tenured black female professor at Wheaton.
Students appeared split on Wednesday.
Luke Nelessen, a sophomore, said, “The Christian faith is fundamentally different from Islamic faith, and although it’s admirable what Prof. Hawkins said, I’m in no position to try to advocate for her.” Levi Soodsma, a senior, said, “I trust Ryken and what he decides to do. Student leaders don’t stand for all students.”
Even those who opposed Hawkins’s suspension said they felt she was misunderstood. Tramaine Kaleebu, a sophomore who studies international relations, wore a hijab to the protest to show solidarity with Muslims. She said Hawkins “has been a place of solace and solidarity” particularly for marginalized people, and is a support for black students like Kaleebu.
“I think she meant Islam and Christianity and Judaism all derive from a history and are all monotheistic, we come from the same Abrahamic history. Why are we comfortable with Catholics and Jews but remain quiet when Muslims are persecuted?” said Kaleebu, 19, who grew up in Uganda but now lives in the D.C. region. “I think people are saying she’s saying the religions are fundamentally the same but that’s not necessarily true. Muslims don’t believe Jesus is the son of God.”
At the meeting Tuesday night, the focus was on concern for free speech and thought.
Sophomore Connor Jenkins said the professor “opened up a conversation and was shut down.”
Others expressed concern about what the suspension implied for future faculty expressions of opinion on social media.
A Wheaton staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the suspension “sets a precedent for what professors can post on their Facebook page. If Dr. Hawkins is being used as a scapegoat, that will send a message to those of us who are employed full time.”
The suspension took place less than a week after Wheaton College student leaders published an open letter in their student newspaper denouncing recent controversial comments by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell. Speaking to thousands of students about terrorism, Falwell urged them to arm themselves, saying it would “end … those Muslims.” He later said he meant only violent radicals.
The Wheaton administration later issued a statement praising that open letter, saying school leaders agree with students’ effort to “address our nation’s challenges through respecting the dignity of all people, rejecting religious discrimination, and pursuing the peace that triumphs over hostility.”
Kirkland An is editor-in-chief of the Wheaton Record at Wheaton College