The Fundamentalist Witch Hunt’s New Prey

The Daily Beast/April 21, 2015

By Karl W. Giberson

A beloved professor forced from a Nazarene university this month is the latest casualty in a war that’s being waged against thinking evangelical Christians.

Evangelicals have just voted another intellectual off their island.

On the eve of April Fools’ Day, while on vacation in Hawaii with his wife, Professor Tom Oord got an email from the president of Northwest Nazarene University (NNU) notifying him that he was being terminated. NNU is one of eight schools sponsored by the evangelical denomination Church of the Nazarene. 

Oord was a tenured full professor—the highest rank in academia—who had been on the NNU faculty for 13 years, after several years as my colleague at Eastern Nazarene College. Oord was the university’s leading scholar, with 20 books on his CV; by most measures he was also the denomination’s leading scholar and one of a tiny number of Nazarene theologians whose reputations reached beyond evangelicalism. Oord had won multiple teaching awards and was wildly popular with students and respected by his colleagues. He had brought over a million dollars of grant money to the university—a remarkable accomplishment for a professor at a small, unsung liberal arts college.

Oord, however, was controversial.

He strongly supported evolution and had long been a target of creationists in the denomination. He embraced “open theism,” the view that God does not know the future but responds in love—rather than coercive control—to events as they occur, rather than foreordaining everything. Fundamentalist critics called him a heretic and had been vying for his termination for years. But Oord was also gentle and pastoral, especially with students.

As I write these words hundreds of dismayed NNU students are wearing bright-red shirts on campus, emblazoned with Oord’s motto: “I choose to live a life of love.” Almost 2,000 people, many of them current and former students, have joined a Facebook group called “Support Tom Oord” (just renamed “Support Tom Oord & NNU) in the past two weeks.

Getting rid of tenured faculty requires administrative creativity. In Oord’s case a small downturn in graduate enrollment cracked open a legal door that allowed the president to declare a financial problem. Curiously, this financial problem required the termination of only one faculty member. Even more curious, this financial problem came in a year of record overall enrollment when NNU was celebrating its great financial health in press releases.

NNU’s president, David Alexander, has denied on several occasions that Oord was targeted. In an April 15 letter to “NNU alumni and supports” he “assured” readers that his wildly unpopular decision was “not focused on any single individual.”

Alexander and Oord, however, have been at odds for years. As recently as last year Alexander informed Oord that he would not be returning because a theological review board was investigating him and was about, in so many words, to declare him a heretic. Such a declaration would remove Oord’s status as an “Ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene” and make him unsuitable to serve as a professor of religion in a Nazarene college. Prior to that, Oord’s courseload had been restricted by President Alexander to quiet the concerns of fundamentalists. 

I asked on the “Support Tom Oord” Facebook page if anyone believed Alexander was telling the truth in his claims that he was not targeting Oord. No one does. Apparently on April 14 NNU faculty met and overwhelmingly voted “no-confidence” in the president. The trustees have now launched an investigation into the entire affair; the president has apologized in writing to the faculty for losing their trust; and Oord's termination is "on hold" although not rescinded.

The controversy at NNU is, tragically, just one of many related incidents that have plagued the Church of the Nazarene. In 2007 biologist Richard Colling was forced out of another Nazarene university for his book arguing that evolution was true and should be understood as God’s way of creating. In 2010 I left Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) after years of being attacked by fundamentalists as a heretic for my views on science.

A few years earlier a colleague had been forced out of ENC for refusing to condemn gay marriage in his social work classes. Two months ago the chaplain at another Nazarene university was demoted for a sermon questioning whether enthusiastic warmongering was compatible with Jesus’ command to love our enemies. An entire college could be staffed with the victims of fundamentalist witchhunts in the Church of the Nazarene. And, if we add the victims of witchhunts in other evangelical traditions, we could staff a major research university.

The controversy at NNU is one battle in the long war that is being waged—and slowly won—against thinking evangelical Christians. Battles at the various institutions are eerily similar and unfold along the following lines: Progressive, educated scholars push their traditions to make peace with new ideas, to be open to reconsidering historical positions on human origins, the nature of God, the morality of homosexuality, the meaning of Bible stories, the status of other religions. Such conversations have long been part of religious traditions that, in earlier centuries, managed to make peace with troubling notions like the motion of the Earth. Fundamentalists threatened by new ideas push back but they typically lose when the war is waged on the field of ideas. Evolution, alas, is true and most educated people understand that.

So, the battles are fought instead with political and financial weapons. Fundamentalist pastors, youth ministers, and concerned lay leaders apply pressure to college presidents behind the scenes to get rid of progressive faculty. During my years at ENC, a few irate fundamentalist pastors withdrew their churches’ financial support of the college because of me. Youth pastors would tell the enrollment office not to send recruiters to their churches because they did not want their young people going to a college that taught evolution. This was exactly what happened at Olivet Nazarene University when Richard Colling was forced out. And few doubt that Oord’s termination is anything other than President Alexander’s surrender to similar pressures.  

In the short run, silencing controversial voices does quiet things down and probably creates space for college administrators to think about other things. But this peace is an illusion. American evangelicalism’s failure to make peace with the progressive scholars within its ranks—or even keep the conversation going—has alienated it from a broad range of scholarship. In The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, historian Randall Stephens and I lament that most evangelicals now get their science from young earth creationist Ken Ham, their history from the discredited revisionist David Barton, their social science from the homophobic James Dobson.  

Evangelicalism’s greatest scholar is probably historian Mark Noll who, ironically, now teaches at the University of Notre Dame. Noll coined the term “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” to describe the intellectual crisis of his religious tradition—a crisis created by that tradition’s inability to break free of the fundamentalism out of which it arose. 

In a few weeks we will know if Professor Oord’s pastoral, controversial voice will still be heard in classrooms at Northwest Nazarene University, encouraging students to think and to follow evidence and reason wherever it leads. Many suspect it will not. And that, once again, the fundamentalists will have won.

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