When Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins stands before a group of her peers next month for their judgment, at stake will be not only Hawkins but the future of evangelicalism.
Or that’s how it can feel these days on the campus of the Illinois college sometimes dubbed “the evangelical Harvard.” Evangelical debate has been intense about whether the hijab-wearing political science professor went too far in saying Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The debate has raised larger questions: How large is the evangelical tent, and who decides who is included?
There is no official hierarchy for one of the country’s largest faith communities, and the debate over whom can be labeled an evangelical is particularly relevant as presidential candidates clamor for the “evangelical vote.”
This week, Wheaton’s faculty council, which represents the college’s 211 faculty, unanimously voted to recommend the administration withdraw its efforts to fire Hawkins and to end her administrative leave, citing “grave concerns” about the process.
The dispute is splitting those affiliated with the college, the alma mater of evangelist Billy Graham and considered one of the standard-bearers of U.S. evangelicalism. Alumni have flooded the college with letters and the evangelical magazine Christianity Today — without picking a side — warned that the issue “threatens to undo” the college.
When a new semester of college classes began last week, about 60 students protested in front of the school’s chapel and about a dozen professors wore full graduation regalia in support of Hawkins, including her department chair. On the other side, many students and professors have also supported the college’s actions.
While protests and debates have been largely civil, there have been exceptions. Wheaton junior Maryam Bighash told Wheaton police that another student smashed her face with a door while she was wearing the hijab in support of Hawkins.
Someone also created a fake website for the Islamic Center of Wheaton, attempting to connect the center, Hawkins and her supporters to ISIS. Two Wheaton professors who were photographed at the Islamic center while extending a hand of friendship were contacted by police and the FBI about their families’ safety after photos of their families were posted on the website. Taken together, the incidents are symbolic of just how fraught the issue has become for the campus.
How the debate unfolded
Hawkins posted on Facebook in December that she would wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women during Advent, and her comment — Christians and Muslims worship the same God — set off a slew of reactions.
The school announced earlier this month that it has begun a termination process for Hawkins after it reached an “impasse.” Hawkins will have a hearing in front of a faculty personnel committee on Feb. 11, she said, which will with the provost make a recommendation to the president. The president will then make a recommendation to the college’s board of trustees, which will ultimately decide whether Hawkins stays or goes.
It’s not the first time Wheaton has wrestled with theology and identity. But the Hawkins case exploded in the thick of a national conversation about the place of Islam, and about race and privilege. Hawkins is one of Wheaton’s five black tenured professors, who make up 2 percent of the faculty, and its only full-time black woman professor. The optics of the debate have also caused controversy, including images of Hawkins in a hijab (though the college has repeatedly said her wearing the hijab was not a problem).
Some saw Hawkins’s comments as a betrayal of Middle Eastern Christians who have been persecuted by Muslims, while others believe that her comments reflect their relationship with Islam. And some have criticized Hawkins for standing alongside more theologically liberal leaders during her press conferences while others criticize the college for taking it to the press first.
The underlying theological debate taking place among evangelicals is complex, and accusations of Islamophobic bigotry or a betrayal of the Christian gospel are not uncommon. The debate has centered on how the Christian belief in a Trinitarian God — God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit — differs from the God of Islam and Judaism.
Theologians have debated whether Christians and Muslims understand God in the same way, and if so, whether they worship the same “one God.” Do they define the word “worship” in the same way? The Evangelical Missiological Society published a collection of essays on the matter showing a range of views on these questions.
The Catholic Church has taught since the Second Vatican Council that Muslims and Christians worship one God, though they view Jesus differently. The debate has been ongoing in other evangelical circles elsewhere. For instance, the same question was raised at a 2013 general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative evangelical denomination where Hawkins and Wheaton president Phil Ryken have a shared history of membership.
What will happen next
Wheaton does not decide who is an evangelical, but it does decide who fits within its statement of faith, which faculty are required to sign annually. The statement is crucial for the non-denominational school where beliefs and employment are tied together.
The college’s statement of faith includes 12 statements, including its views on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The statement does not specifically mention whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but the college has the authority to define how the statement applies to theological questions.
Wheaton Provost Stan Jones told students Thursday that the college does not have an explicit stance on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. (Wheaton did not respond to a question about whether faculty can say Jews and Christians worship the same God.)
The initial question was whether Hawkins’s Facebook post violates the statement of faith. The provost requested that she clarify her views.
In a statement from December on its website, Wheaton officials said Hawkins’s post was an “unqualified assertion of religious solidarity with Muslims and Jews.” “We believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths,” they said.
Hawkins released a theological statement she provided to the college in which she affirms the doctrine of the Trinity and acknowledges differences between the two religions.
After she submitted a follow-up theological statement, Jones requested more conversations. “While her statement was thoughtful, well-written, and would probably be acceptable as part of a new faculty application, given the particular issues raised, he felt that further conversation was indeed needed,” a statement from the college said.
Hawkins declined to answer any more theological questions to the provost, saying, “I don’t want to be subjected to a theological inquisition.” In the last exchange she had with the provost, she said she was encouraged to hire a lawyer.
“The issue is not that Hawkins’ statements were all definitively unorthodox, but that the college wanted and needed to better understand her thinking,” the college said in a statement. “The administration had several questions that needed to be answered, which could have led to a different outcome, but when asked to participate in further dialogue about the issues, Dr. Hawkins declined to participate, bringing the process to an impasse.”
The college did not answer a question about what specifically the college was looking for her to clarify in follow-up conversations.
Darrell Bock, a theology professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who sits on Wheaton’s 17-member board of trustees, said that Hawkins’s refusal to speak further about theological issues has made it “very, very difficult.” He declined to speak on the theological issues at stake, saying it had turned into a personnel matter.
“What really tied the school’s hands was she stopped talking,” Bock said. “It was unfortunate in many ways because I think they were in a process that could’ve made progress.”
What led to the debate
Hawkins, 43, was raised in the Oklahoma City area in a Baptist church that was part of the National Baptist Convention, a black denomination. In seventh grade, she began attending a youth group in an evangelical church, and when she was getting her bachelor’s from Rice University, she was involved in the popular evangelical ministry Campus Crusade (now called Cru).
She joined Wheaton in 2007, becoming the college’s first black, female tenured professor in 2014. Hawkins was a member of a Presbyterian Church in America congregation in Hyde Park in Chicago for seven years before she resigned her membership in November to attend church with family. Now she splits her church attendance between the non-denominational church Soul City and St. Martins, a predominantly black Episcopal Church.
When news first emerged about her administrative leave, media outlets descended on Wheaton and television trucks parked outside of Hawkins’s house. Initially she declined most media requests. But since the college began releasing statements to the media, she has spoken openly to media.
“I don’t have any regrets about what I’ve said or done or how I’ve carried myself in response to what Wheaton has done,” she said. “The kind of culture that Wheaton is creating on campus is a culture where people are going to be afraid to do what academics do.”
Hawkins said that members of Wheaton’s own theology department are divided over the theological question. What would happen to them if the college maintains her statement does not adhere to the statement of faith?
“Unless the provost lines up everyone else up at the college and asks the same question, I’m being held to a different standard,” she said.
Hawkins said she doesn’t believe that Wheaton will move in a direction that add more specifics to its statement of faith, but faculty are watching this process closely.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s a turning point in evangelicalism more broadly and at Wheaton,” Hawkins said. “The question is, is Wheaton going to hang its hat on this issue and go down the very difficult road of making all kinds of theological clarification?”
Hawkins was asked to affirm the college’s statement of faith on three other occasions before she received tenure.
After she wrote an academic paper about what Christians could learn from black liberation theology, according to Hawkins, Provost Jones said it seemed to endorse a kind of Marxism. She said she submitted a follow-up theological statement, they had lunch, and they moved on. Jones did not return requests for comment on this meeting.
She was also called in to defend a photograph someone else posted on Facebook tagging her at a party inside a home on Halsted Street the same day as Chicago’s Pride Parade. She said she was attending at the invitation of a friend.
Last spring she was asked to affirm the statement again after she suggested that the college curriculum should include sexuality as a facet of diversity. She said a number of alumni have told her that they did not feel prepared to consider sexuality as part of a diverse workforce.
A larger theological debate turns personal
The story has also evolved into one of personality conflicts and questions over how the school has handled a personnel issue. Hawkins said her initial Facebook post wasn’t supposed to start a theological debate.
“I found the response shocking because it missed the point,” she said. “My call was really toward human solidarity. It’s about being in solidarity with anyone who is in suffering and pain.
“If people want to extrapolate that I’m affirming Islamic theology, they can extrapolate that. But I’m saying I view this as a non-controversial statement. What I’m saying is that Jews’, Christians’ and Muslims’ object of affection and devotion is the God of Abraham.”
Hawkins said she first heard that the college had publicized her administrative leave to media outlets from a Chicago Tribune reporter before she had time to notify friends and family.
Time magazine first reported that Jones treated Hawkins differently than other professors. Jones coached other faculty on what to say to avoid punishment, but the college confirmed that he initially communicated with Hawkins by having another faculty member approach her.
Hawkins said she rejected multiple proposals by Jones, including revoking her tenure during two years of ongoing theological discussions or remaining on paid leave until June 30 before moving on quietly.
The college faces a conundrum. If it fires Hawkins, it will upset many who feel the college is unnecessarily narrowing its boundaries. If the college reinstates Hawkins, it risks backlash from those who feel that boundaries should be outlined and protected.
Earlier this week, professors say the president and provost hosted a meeting where they encouraged those gathered to enter a time of confession and encouraged a focus on humility, and some professors walked out of the meeting. Several Wheaton professors have openly questioned whether Hawkins should have to continue defending herself after submitting a theological statement.
“I think there needs to be a point at which the college has to say, ‘Yes, your theological statement is approved,’ or ‘No, it isn’t and you’re fired,’” said anthropology professor Brian Howell. “There can’t be something like, ‘Say it another way.’ If tenure is something real, then there is a trust.”
Many Wheaton professors have felt a lot of freedom under its current president, said theology professor Vincent Bacote, but this latest case has some professors wondering whether the school is narrowing its theological boundaries.
“A question about this entire case and process is, is this is an anomaly or is this an indicator of some shift?” Bacote said. “Some would say there’s been a rightward turn. I don’t see it that way. That would be massive speculation.”
So can Wheaton survive?
When Wheaton adds or removes standards, other Christian schools take notice. When in 2003 it removed a prohibition against dancing on campus and eased a ban on alcohol and smoking for faculty and staff, it made national news.
Wheaton has faced cycles of theological controversy before, including its 2004 decision to not renew the contract of a professor who converted to Catholicism, maintaining that its professors’ Protestant identities were core to the college’s identity. At that time, philosophy professor Joshua Hochschild said he could affirm the college’s statement of faith, but college administrators said he could not.
Many observers have simplified the debate: Some are worried that Wheaton would allow a professor to say that Islam and Christianity are the same. Others are worried that Wheaton regularly bows to its conservative alumni who donate, ones who hold both the purse strings and theological direction of the college.
The debate created a public relations nightmare for the college, one that protects its image very carefully. The student newspaper is only allowed to publish some articles online each week after vetting by a public relations professional. College officials will only speak with the media about this matter through statements and e-mail interviews and declined to answer some of the questions from the Washington Post. But through social media, news travels quickly among its constituents, including alumni, many of whom have written letters of protest or support.
The college had a particularly difficult year in the news in 2015. In August, the college dropped student health insurance after it could not win court battles over the White House’s Obamacare mandate on contraception.
Wheaton alumnus Dennis Hastert, the former Speaker of the House, resigned from the board of advisers of the school’s center named after him after he was indicted and later pled guilty to federal charges over evading bank reporting requirements. The school changed the name of the center, which was a $10 million project.
In early 2015, a student was charged for videotaping another student in the shower. Some football players stirred up controversy after performing a skit involving Ku Klux Klan robes. The college’s academic probation list was accidentally e-mailed to the student body.
None of those stories, however, drew the enormous attention Wheaton faced when it put Hawkins on administrative leave in December. For a school that was ranked 8th in “Best Undergraduate Teaching” by the U.S. News & World Report for national liberal arts colleges in 2016, the slew of negative stories in one year was particularly unusual.
Many eyes are planted on the campus to see how the theological and personnel issues will play out in the coming weeks. What happens at Wheaton doesn’t stay at Wheaton, a school carefully watched by evangelical institutions across the country.
Kirkland An contributed to this report.
This article has been updated to reflect when Hawkins joined Wheaton in 2007.