Culture Friday – Academia’s new McCarthyism

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Friday the 4th of September, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: Culture Friday.

What is going on in the world of academia?

Columbia University professor John McWhorter seems on a one-man crusade to rescue academic freedom: that is, save it from the clutches of “progressive orthodoxies,” as he puts it.

McWhorter is a liberal who plans to vote for Joe Biden. But he’s an open-minded liberal and he’s very concerned that the collective academic mind may be closing.

In a recent column in The Atlantic, he spoke of the frightened messages he receives from colleagues afraid publicly to speak their minds.

BROWN: McWhorter pointed to a survey of nearly 500 academic professionals, which posed this question: Imagine expressing your views about a controversial issue while at work with faculty, staff, or other colleagues present. 

To what extent do you fear your reputation being tarnished? One third said “very concerned,” more than a fourth said “extremely concerned.” 

To what extent do you fear your career would be threatened by speaking your mind: 25 percent “very concerned,” 29 percent “extremely concerned.” 

In both instances, a majority feared for their reputation and for their career.

EICHER: One professor he heard from said he’d given a lecture on America’s founders and found himself accused of “privileging the white male perspective.” The administration’s proposed remedy: for the professor to sit in a “listening circle” and remain silent while students explained how he’d hurt them.

BROWN: McWhorter commented: This sounds like it comes straight out of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

EICHER: Katie McCoy is here. She’s assistant professor of theology in women’s studies at Southwestern Seminary. Good morning, Katie!

KATIE MCCOY, GUEST: Good morning, Nick and Myrna! How are you guys?

EICHER: Great, thanks for asking. 

So, you hear Professor McWhorter painting a pretty frightening picture of academic freedom slipping away. Now, you’re a young professor working in Christian academics—do you hear any signals, however faint, that it’s coming to Christian academics, or do you think this whole thing might be a little overblown?

MCCOY: Oh, I wish it was all overblown, Nick. Sadly, it’s not. It really is the new McCarthyism and cancel culture has come to the academy, which is entirely ironic when you consider that some of these ideas started in the academy. So it’s a little like they’re being eaten by their young. Thankfully, I have not seen or heard this in the Christian academic community. At the same time, I am very fortunate to work at a confessional religious institution, where I’m expected to teach and uphold that which is in keeping with sound doctrine. So, in my academic community, thankfully, no. 

Now, at the same time, at Southwestern Seminary we don’t accept federal funding. So, we’re not required to follow some of these cultural rules. But, I’ll tell you what, if upcoming legislation—like the Equality Act—passes, it’s just one more step towards seeing the free exercise of religion absolutely erode before our eyes. If that bill were to pass—and, unfortunately, not many people know about it—it would protect people like me who teach at a religious institution, but it would not protect my students when they hold their Christian convictions on gender out in the public square. In fact, it actually stipulates that your religion cannot protect you if you violate the terms of the equality act. 

So, I think we’re just seeing one more step—whether it’s culture or legislative—to where soon we may be facing some of those very issues in Christian academia as well.

EICHER: So, does the analysis of academic freedom even really apply in a seminary context? I mean, as you say, it’s a confessional institution. You’re there to teach a doctrine and it seems that in academia what folks are kicking against is losing their freedom of academic inquiry. 

Is it possible we’re talking apples and oranges here where seminary’s concerned?

MCCOY: Well, so, at Southwestern Seminary we have our confessional documents that guide us—the primary one being the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. It’s actually a very broad document stating sound doctrine in the Baptist faith and with that there is room for differences. Now, these differences are on secondary issues. In fact, my president of my school, Adam Greenway, talks about how we are the big tent seminary. We want to welcome as many people with varying views on these secondary issues as possible. So, it’s healthy. It’s necessary. It’s sharpening. But it’s also, within the safety of affirming that which is biblical and theologically sound. So, it provides for our students really the boundaries in which there is opportunity for free thought, for exploration, even for wrestling with questions that they are dealing with in their culture. Something that we prepare our students for is actual ministry and behind all of these issues are people. And these people are in our schools, our communities, our churches, and our families. So, it’s not apples and oranges. It’s actually some of the best preparation you can get to dealing with these cultural matters that we’re all facing today.

BROWN: Katie, I notice in one of your classes this Fall one of the books you’re discussing is When Harry Became Sally. 

This is a book by a Catholic writer, Ryan Anderson. And he really takes on this subject of transgenderism. I can only imagine this being precisely the sort of book a modern academic wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. 

Yet here you go!

But I’m curious about it: I know you’re talking about it in a high-level academic class. I’d like to bring this down a level for the person in the pew: Why is this an important issue to be talking about at a seminary as well as a Wednesday night Bible class?

MCCOY: Yes. Well, this book represents some of the best scholarly and well-researched arguments that presents the cultural ideas that are now mainstream. And not just mainstream, but uncontested. And that’s something that we have to prepare our students for is that these ideas are not just common, it’s that they’re common and if you even question them, you’re cancelled. And we want them to get the best reasoned defense for a biblical worldview about those issues. 

Speaking of cancel culture, by the way, and transgenderism, Ryan Anderson describes a psychologist in Toronto. He was a leading voice on gender therapy and treating people with gender dysphoria and he was abruptly fired for—get this—claiming that children should not automatically go through gender transitioning just because they express some sort of sign of gender dysphoria. And for that he was cancelled. He was abruptly fired from his job. And this is a professional. Part of why it is so important is that we need well-informed Christians who are not only in our churches but show up to the PTA meetings, to the school board meetings, to local government, to be informed about legislation that is happening in their communities, to be informed about what their children are reading, and so we do talk about this at the academic level. But all of those things are to prepare people, to prepare our students to go not only be witnesses, but resources for the church so that they can be training people to make not only an impact for Christ in their community, but be able to give a reasoned defense of the faith.

EICHER: Katie, Myrna did us a real service by bringing this down to the people at the pew level and we started this conversation by talking about the issue of academic freedom, talking about professors being able to speak their minds and so forth. How does that actually filter down to the people at the pew? Why should they be concerned about it? All apart from—and I don’t say that this is a small thing—all apart from having solid academics so that you get a good education, but is there any sense that this academic controversy is leaking into the rest of society’s sectors?

MCCOY: Oh, very much. It’s becoming so much a part of society, it’s becoming so mainstream that we’re coming to expect it more and more. I think about Bari Weiss, the New York Times op-ed editor who resigned. And here she was a woman—a woman—in a high position of influence and she was cancelled. I think about everyday Americans like a small business owner who wouldn’t bake a cake for a same-sex wedding and entered a long, litigious battle. I’ll tell you, there’s a young scholar I was talking to just recently about this issue and he made the point that in any community, when you replace teaching people how to think with teaching people what to think, this is part of what happens. And so much of what we’re seeing is these views that go unquestioned, these values that are just imbibed into society. And one of the very dangerous things I think we’re seeing, too, is that there are some churches who, perhaps in an attempt to make the gospel palatable, are beginning to adopt some of these views. I mean, you hear churches recommending to Christians that loving your neighbor looks like reading White Fragility and adopting some of those views into your own worldview and cultural engagement. So, these are things that we cannot fall asleep at the wheel on. I’m concerned that we already have. And we won’t really know just how much trouble we’re in until we wake up and now all of a sudden it’s us. It’s our beliefs. It’s our voice that is being censored and cancelled.

What begins in the academy always goes mainstream. So, some of what we’re seeing is just the natural rhythm of society that what begins in the academy eventually goes mainstream. And that’s really what we’re just seeing writ large in our culture today.

EICHER: Katie McCoy is assistant professor of theology in women’s studies at Southwestern Seminary in Texas. Thank you so much. Good to talk with you.

MCCOY: Always great to talk with y’all.


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