Three days after Larycia Hawkins agreed to step down from her job at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Wheaton, Ill., she joined her former colleagues and students for what was billed as a private service of reconciliation. It was a frigid Tuesday evening last February, and attendance was optional, but Wheaton’s largest chapel was nearly full by the time the event began. A large cross had been placed on the stage, surrounded by tea lights that snaked across the blond floorboards in glowing trails.
“We break, we hurt, we wound, we lament,” the school’s chaplain began. He led a prayer from the Book of Psalms, and the crowd sang a somber hymn to the tune of “Amazing Grace”:
God raised me from a miry pit,
from mud and sinking sand,
and set my feet upon a rock
where I can firmly stand.
Philip Ryken, the college’s president of six years, spoke next. His father had been an English professor at Wheaton for 44 years, and he grew up in town, receiving his undergraduate degree from the college. “I believe in our fundamental unity in Jesus Christ, even in a time of profound difficulty that is dividing us and threatening to destroy us,” he told the crowd. “These recent weeks have been, I think, the saddest days of my life.” It was the night before the first day of Lent, the 40-day season of repentance in the Christian calendar.
Wheaton had spent the previous two months embroiled in what was arguably the most public and contentious trial of its 156-year history. In December, Hawkins wrote a theologically complex Facebook post announcing her intention to wear a hijab during Advent, in solidarity with Muslims; the college placed her on leave within days and soon moved to fire her. Jesse Jackson had compared Hawkins with Rosa Parks, while Franklin Graham, an evangelist and Billy Graham’s son, declared, “Shame on her!” Students protested, fasted and tweeted. Donors, parents and alumni were in an uproar. On this winter evening, the first black female professor to achieve tenure at the country’s most prominent evangelical college was now unemployed and preparing to address the community to which she had devoted the past nine years of her life. As a Wheaton anthropology professor, Brian Howell, wrote in January, the episode had become “something of a Rorschach test for those wondering about the state of Wheaton College, evangelicalism and even U.S. Christianity.”
As Hawkins climbed the stairs to the stage that night, a few dozen students stood up in the front rows. They were wearing all black and had planned this quiet bit of theater as a show of solidarity. For a long beat, they stood together between Hawkins and the seated crowd. Then, one by one, others in the audience began to rise. The silence held for a full minute, as a majority of the room stood.
Then Hawkins began to speak. She told the hushed crowd that they should see Jesus in the oppressed, that Christianity is inherently political and that “bubbles are made to burst.” And she read the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, a blistering prophecy for the rebellious nation of Israel spoken in the voice of an angry God. “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you,” she read, her voice growing steadier with every line. “Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. ... The strong man will become tinder, his work also a spark. Thus they shall both burn together.”
When Hawkins began teaching politics at Wheaton College in 2007, she wanted to be known as a professor who challenged her students’ preconceptions. Her classes included “Race and the Politics of Welfare” and “Race and the Obama Presidency.” She talked about how Obama had to appear to “transcend” race in order to get elected, about why he spoke differently to black and white audiences, about how polling data suggested that he would have won by an even larger margin were he white. At the end of her upper-level classes, she would cook a big meal at her apartment, and students presented their final research over dessert. She found her students to be smart and engaged, and she was pleasantly surprised by their open-mindedness and the diversity of their views. “It was like any other amazing liberal-arts institution,” she said. “It just happened to be an evangelical Christian context.”
I grew up in the town of Wheaton, with the white cupola of the college’s Billy Graham Center visible from my bedroom window. I entered the college as a freshman in 1998, following my parents and my grandfather, an Orthodox Presbyterian minister who graduated in 1928. Students at Wheaton attend mandatory chapel services three mornings a week, drinking is mostly forbidden, many dorms are sex-segregated and many class sessions open with prayer. Every year, faculty, staff and trustees affirm the college’s Statement of Faith, a list of 12 theological commitments that aim to capture the essence of evangelical faith. It opens with a declaration of belief in a trinitarian God — “We believe in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons” — and proceeds to cover concepts including original sin, the existence of Satan and the resurrection of Jesus. “Theological checkups,” as one politics professor described them, are not unheard-of. Leah Anderson, Hawkins’s last department chairwoman, told me that she has been interrogated twice after parents complained about her. Once, a straightforward discussion of family policy in an Introduction to Comparative Politics class led to an accusation that Anderson was “anti-family.”
But unlike, say, Bob Jones University or Liberty University, Wheaton is not a de facto training ground for the Christian Right. My professors included feminists, libertarians and Sanders-style socialists, and they conducted scholarly work on seemingly anything they were interested in. No Wheaton professors I spoke with, including sharp critics and those who have left the school, said they were ever afraid to do their own research. Indeed, from its founding in 1860, Wheaton defined itself as much by its intellectualism as by its Christian character. Wheaton is both “pervasively Christ-centered” and “academically rigorous,” Ryken, the school’s president, told me. “We are very serious about our academic mission.”
Like Hawkins, I was both a dutiful evangelical teenager and a stubborn skeptic. Wheaton, with its unusual combination of high academic standards and devout culture, seemed like a good place to learn how to think. Its graduates include politicians, chief executives, influential scholars and spiritual leaders like Billy Graham, an anthropology major in the class of ’43. (Our families are not related.) It places alumni at top graduate schools and draws faculty from other elite institutions.
Though the school never uses the phrase itself, students and alumni often archly refer to Wheaton as “the Harvard of Christian schools.” The phrase is self-deprecating, because in today’s academic culture, there is an obvious tension in the idea of a Christian Harvard. It wasn’t always so. In the first decades of Wheaton’s history, almost every other American institution of higher learning paid at least nominal deference to Christianity. Yale was the scene of several revivals led by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody in the late 19th century; Wellesley was among those that mandated considerable Bible study. At the turn of the 20th century, many state universities required students to attend church on Sunday in addition to campus chapel services, and about half of all American undergraduates attended a church-related school.
Over the course of the 20th century, the academy sloughed off the cultural trappings of Christianity, not to mention the theological commitments. But at distinctly Christian schools like Wheaton, parents expect their children’s religious faith to be stretched but not broken, and they take an active role in the college’s direction. Alumni are unusually devoted, too, not just with the typical fits of nostalgic school spirit but with an abiding interest in the institution’s ideological and spiritual mission. George Marsden, a historian whose books include “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship,” told me that Wheaton is something like a church denomination, in that its constituents “are invested in it not just as their alma mater but as part of a much larger cause that they are participating in.”
During my four years at Wheaton, I drifted away from evangelicalism. But I never contemplated transferring to another school. I was reading Foucault and Judith Butler (Shakespeare and Milton too); my professors were brilliant and kind and I found plenty of kindred spirits. When the religion scholar Alan Wolfe visited Wheaton for a cover article about evangelical intellectualism in The Atlantic in 2000, halfway through my time there, he found a campus whose earnestness was both endearing and impressive: “In its own way, campus life at Wheaton College resembles that of the 1960s, when students and a few professors, convinced that they had embarked on a mission of eternal importance, debated ideas as if life really depended on the answers they came up with.” At a suburban dive bar on the edge of a marsh, we drank illicit Pabst on Saturday night and talked about politics, music and philosophy like undergraduates anywhere. Then we got up on Sunday morning and went to church.
As Hawkins settled in at Wheaton, she struggled. Though she loved her students, the heavy teaching load was stressful, especially for a self-described perfectionist. As a black woman in a predominantly white community, she was asked to serve on many committees and participate frequently in public events like panel discussions. Those commitments left little time for research and writing, though she still received tenure on schedule in 2013. Her health and social life suffered. She rarely had time for exercise or her book club anymore, dating was difficult, and she battled chronic sinus infections, migraines and high blood pressure, which she attributed to stress.
The Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, where the Bible-and-theology department is located. Credit Charlie Simokaitis for The New York Times
Photo by: Charlie Simokaitis for The New York Times
Much of that stress seemed to derive from her almost bodily awareness of the world’s problems. In one of our half-dozen conversations over eight months, she described seeing people look happy and knowing she was different because she felt so weighed down by the injustices she saw and read about. She quotes Old Testament prophets from memory; several people described her to me as prophetic herself. As we spoke, her concerns veered from the Syrian refugee crisis to Rwandan genocide to gun violence to income inequality. Those worries are a burden she bears as a political scientist and as a Christian, she told me.
A year or two after arriving on campus, she developed a distaste for performances of patriotism and decided to stop saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. “I feel very strongly that my first allegiance is to a different kingdom than an earthly kingdom,” she told me. “It’s to a heavenly kingdom, and it’s to the principles of that kingdom.” Evangelicals tend to emphasize righteousness on an individual scale, but Hawkins was becoming attracted to theological traditions that emphasize systemic sin and repentance.
In particular, she was reading a lot of black liberation theology, a strain of thinking that emerged from the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Jesus’ central mission was to liberate the oppressed, the philosophy argues, but mainstream American Christianity is beholden to irredeemably corrupt “white theology.” The tone of black liberation is often angry — think of Jeremiah Wright’s infamous “God damn America” sermon — and conservative evangelicals are wary of it because of its theological pessimism and its politically radical roots. But Hawkins was beginning to view many of the Bible’s commands through a lens of race and class. “Theology is always contextual,” she told me, a core idea of black liberation theology. She said that evangelicals have trouble confronting “an ontological blackness of Christ.” Responding to Wheaton’s charge for professors to “integrate faith and learning,” she took these ideas into the classroom.
She also began to work out an idea she calls “embodied solidarity.” The concept starts with inspiration from Catholic social teaching, the labor movement, the Eucharist (in which Christians consume bread as “the body of Christ”) and the imago Dei — the idea that humans are created in the image of God. But she wanted to take “solidarity” past its popular use by do-gooders. Tweeting and check-writing are cheap gestures; short-term aid vacations to developing countries are “poverty porn.”
For Christians, a central fact about Jesus Christ is that, unlike God the Father or the Holy Spirit, he had a body, which experienced physical suffering and pleasure; his first miracle was transforming water into wine to keep a wedding party going. He cried out in pain while being crucified — the ultimate act of “embodied solidarity.” But Western Christianity also has a long tradition of treating the physical realm (sex, food, beauty) with suspicion (lust, gluttony, vanity). So Hawkins’s idea of “embodied solidarity” can read as a rebuke to American Protestantism, particularly the white intellectual strain that Wheaton represents. “I was taught to think of those who emphasize the body as secular or carnal or somehow off the mark,” she said, explaining that she now sees that perspective as a “defunct view of the body.”
True solidarity, Hawkins was coming to believe, involves physical risk and sustained labor. It also involves recognizing that structural inequality is a kind of violence, with physical effects on its victims. She referred to a passage in the book of Luke in which Jesus’ followers fail to recognize him after his resurrection. “My question is who do we not have the eyes to see?” Hawkins said. “That’s the question that plagues my soul: Who am I not seeing in their suffering? What entire groups of people, humans, do I not see suffering?”
Hawkins’s grandfather was the founder and pastor of the family’s church in Oklahoma City, which belonged to a historically African-American denomination that arose during a wave of Southern black institution-building in the wake of the Civil War. Growing up she was taught that the Bible was a direct guidebook that any Christian could interpret on her own with the help of the Holy Spirit.
She remembers sitting in front of the family’s house in Oklahoma City at around age 6, looking up at the sky and thinking, There must be a God. For a while, she carried around a small green Gideon Bible in a little purse everywhere she went. But she also pushed back against Sunday-school simplicity. She was the kind of child who asked a vacation Bible schoolteacher one summer, “If Adam and Eve sinned, why did we get punished?” It’s a question that suggests both theological acuity and a touch of self-righteousness. The teacher, flummoxed, told her to ask her grandfather.
He died suddenly when she was 11, two days after baptizing her at the front of the church sanctuary on a Sunday evening. Soon afterward, the Hawkins family began attending a Southern Baptist church in nearby Shawnee, a small city with a much smaller black population. Their new church was overwhelmingly white, but Hawkins felt comfortable there, and her faith deepened. At home, she was such a dutiful daughter that when she went out with her friends, she could joke about planning to get drunk, and her parents would tease her back, “Have fun!”
When she arrived at Rice University, a prestigious liberal-arts school in Houston, she joined a local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical ministry founded for college students (and now rebranded as “Cru”). In class, she read Catholic thinkers for the first time and reformers like Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli. Majoring in history and sociology, she began to see religion as a force not just in her own heart but also in human history.
In graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, Hawkins studied under Allen Hertzke, a political scientist whose work has made a case for the value of religious freedom. He helped her shape a dissertation on the George W. Bush administration’s faith-based initiative and the disjuncture between the Congressional Black Caucus, which largely opposed it on partisan grounds, and the black population as a whole, which overwhelmingly supported it. Though academics and activists typically hail legislators that reflect the demographics of their constituencies, she wrote, this was a case “where black faces fail to represent black interests.”
She was recruited by Wheaton before she completed her dissertation. It’s easy to imagine what Wheaton thought they were getting by hiring her: A political scientist who was sympathetic to faith-friendly public policy and also willing to pick at the seams of liberal orthodoxy and contemporary racial politics. It’s very likely that the school also valued the fact that she would help bolster the diversity of its faculty. Wheaton admitted an African-American college student in 1866, believed to be the first in the state. Today about a fifth or so of the undergraduate population are minorities, along with about 25 of 200 full-time faculty members. (Wheaton’s minority student population is comparable to other elite Midwestern liberal-arts colleges, including Oberlin and Kenyon.) The goals of its current $175 million capital campaign include deepening racial and ethnic diversity on campus, and the school has reason for optimism. As Ryken pointed out to me, black and Latino Christians are arguably more theologically conservative as a group than white American Christians, and evangelicalism is booming in the global South.
But Hawkins was also interested in progressive ideas of justice, entering a department that housed a public-policy center named for, until his recent sex-abuse scandal, Dennis Hastert, the conservative former speaker of the House of Representatives. She imagined herself “pushing back against the broader current of evangelicalism” in a town that has been called the evangelical Vatican. She was a single woman in a religious culture that reveres the nuclear family. And she was black, on a historically white campus that has made sincere but spotty recent efforts to address racial issues. As she told me in January, “For whatever reason, since I came to Wheaton, I’ve been a lightning rod.”
Hawkins’s relationship with Wheaton’s administration, particularly the provost, Stanton Jones, began to fray within just a few years. Her experiences as a black woman on campus were never hostile, but she was occasionally uncomfortable. Early on, a “hip-hop chapel,” meant to celebrate black styles of worship, read to her more like a minstrel show, an offensive attempt to “check off the diversity box.” She complained and was rebuffed. She felt “spiritually dry,” a term Christians use to describe the feeling of being far from God. “It’s quite a paradox that being in this thoroughly Christian place has been a very difficult time for me faith-wise,” she told me in February. “At Wheaton, unity always trumps diversity.”
Like all tenure-track faculty members at Wheaton, Hawkins was required to participate in a two-year program on the integration of “faith and learning,” culminating in the production of a 30-to-50-page paper that lays out how each faculty member relates his or her faith to academic work. Hawkins described the program as an “assimilation project.” (Another black former faculty member described it to me as “oppressive” and an “indoctrination.”) Jones asked her to defend her paper in writing, because it described black liberation theology without making clear that she did not endorse it. The paper included an apparently insufficiently critical analysis of a father of the movement, James Cone, who has argued in books like “God of the Oppressed” that “any interpretation of God that ignores black oppression cannot be Christian theology.” According to Hawkins, Jones said her paper seemed to promote Marxism. (Jones, whom I knew as a child because he attended my family’s church, and other administrators at Wheaton declined to discuss Hawkins, as did a Wheaton College spokeswoman.)
Over the years, according to Hawkins, Jones called her into his office several more times to affirm her commitment to the college’s theological and behavioral strictures. At one point, when she attended a party in Chicago on the same day as the city’s pride parade, she was asked to answer for a photo that ended up on Facebook. The tension escalated in the spring of 2015, when Hawkins pushed the college to expand its language around diversity to include L.G.B.T.Q. students, a fraught mission on a campus where gay students are forbidden to date. Again, Jones asked her to confirm the Statement of Faith. (He is a psychologist by training, and a key theme of his own academic work centers on the idea that homosexuality is mutable.)
That same spring, Hawkins was asked to deliver a “Tower Talk,” the college’s version of TED Talks. She wrote a speech that used zombies as an extended metaphor for the way black men have been dehumanized in American political culture. (The talk she later gave at the reconciliation service after she left Wheaton would draw from this text.) The prepared speech praised the Black Lives Matter movement and condemned the “tepid response” of evangelical elites to Ferguson, Mo. And she made a sweeping case that Christian justice requires recognizing the different bodily experiences of various identity groups and demanding that economic and political institutions start “prioritizing the vulnerable and the least”:
A politics of difference requires, in short, a radical shift in the body politic — and in the body of Christ. It requires a body politic that sees bodies, gendered bodies, colored bodies, disabled bodies, L.G.B.T.Q. bodies, and declares that bodies matter. Black lives matter should not be a controversial statement where there is recognition that bodies and groups of bodies have received disparate treatment in our past and in our present. Black bodies matter. And because those bodies matter, a politics of difference is paramount.
After seeing the full text, Jones asked her to revise it; she said he was particularly concerned with her reference to “L.G.B.T.Q. bodies.” When she declined, he canceled the talk. Then he reversed his decision after an episode in which several Wheaton football players jokingly dressed in K.K.K. robes for a skit in a variety show, prompting a campus uproar and unflattering news coverage. Hawkins said no, telling him that she didn’t have confidence he would defend her if the talk proved controversial.
Larycia Hawkins, center, at a news conference in Chicago on Dec. 16, 2015, the day after she was put on leave from Wheaton College. Credit Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Photo by: Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
On Dec. 10, 2015, Hawkins wrote a Facebook post that would set in motion the end of her employment at Wheaton. The post was 11 paragraphs, and it announced her intention to wear a hijab throughout the season of Advent, as a show of “embodied solidarity” with Muslims. Donald Trump had recently called for a total ban on Muslims entering the United States, and the Liberty University president, Jerry Falwell Jr., had mused publicly about how looser concealed-carry laws could help “end those Muslims.” “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” Hawkins wrote in response. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” The post ended with the words “Shalom friends.”
Almost immediately, administrators began to hear from concerned alumni, donors and parents of students and prospective students. One home-schooling mother of seven left an indignant message for Anderson, Hawkins’s department chairwoman, saying the family made great sacrifices to send their daughter to Wheaton, and they expected her to receive a Christian worldview there. December is a month in which many donors make significant end-of-year gifts and when high-school seniors are making their final decisions about where to apply to college. Jones would later describe the response from prospective students’ parents as a “tidal wave”; at the time the post appeared, he characterized the financial threat as one that would imperil 15 to 20 faculty jobs. Five days after her post appeared, Jones called Hawkins into a meeting, asked her to respond in writing to several “Areas of Significant Concern” and placed her on paid administrative leave.
It seemed odd to outsiders that Hawkins’s apparently straightforward and empathetic post could cause such turmoil in an intellectual environment, even a religious one. But conservative Wheaton alumni and parents found a litany of troubling political, cultural and theological implications in her post. There were Hawkins’s references to “primordial clay” and the “cradle of humankind” in South Africa — subtle nods to evolutionary theory. There was the implication that the pope is a definitive theological authority as well as her deference to the judgment of the Council on American Islamic Relations, whose advice and blessing Hawkins sought before donning the hijab. And then there were the photos themselves, showing Hawkins in a patterned purple head scarf, which may have been the most incendiary aspect of all.
On Dec. 17, Hawkins submitted a four-page theological statement to Jones. Her document begins by affirming her faith in the triune God and the divinity of Jesus and goes on to cite respected evangelical theologians, including Timothy George. It explores various interpretations of the Eucharist, human origins and the concept of imago Dei. It delves into the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, which emerged as the most contentious point in public. Hawkins’s defenders pointed out that Jones and Wheaton’s previous president had signed an interfaith statement in 2007 implying that same thing. Each later removed his signature, but the president said at the time that no one had pressured him to do so — a fact that suggests the “same God” language might not bother Wheaton’s constituents when it comes from the college’s white male leaders.
Wheaton does not require all its professors to be trained theologians, but it considers them to be “ministers” of a kind and requires a certain level of theological sophistication from them. Even so, Hawkins’s statement is a remarkable document for a political scientist to be asked to produce within 48 hours. Christians understand God as “a tri-Personal, perichoretic unity,” she wrote. “My statement is not a statement on soteriology or trinitarian theology, but one of embodied piety.” Her reference to Muslims as her “brothers and sisters” — another point of contention — was in part “a reflection of my African-American cultural heritage.”
As Christmas break began, Jones and Hawkins met again, this time off campus. According to a person with intimate knowledge of the meeting, Jones described staying at Wheaton as a path that would be “very, very difficult.” Hawkins would be required to suspend her tenure, undergo a two-year review process and submit to “ongoing conversation” about theology with administrators and members of the board. Her four-page statement was not enough, in other words; she was so radioactive that she would require indefinite oversight. At the end of the meeting, he advised her to retain a lawyer.
After that meeting, Hawkins declined to further justify the theology behind her Facebook post to the administration. Later, some white Wheaton alumni and parents couldn’t understand why Hawkins stopped talking with administrators. But several black current and former faculty members were sympathetic. “I use the example of being pulled over,” said Shawn Okpebholo, a composer and professor in Wheaton’s conservatory. “You keep getting challenged over and over to explain yourself and then forced to explain yourself more. You say, ‘No, I can’t do this anymore.’ What they may see as insubordination is something we in the black community think is about integrity.”
On Jan. 4, Jones formally recommended to the president that Hawkins be fired, on the grounds of Hawkins’s “failure to accept and model the Statement of Faith of the College and/or the Community Covenant.” His memo to Ryken emphasized that he was concerned with both Hawkins’s individual statements and the “overall narrative” they suggested. “Mere passive affirmation of the Statement of Faith is not enough,” he wrote. “One’s actions in the classroom and beyond — such as statements in academic publications and more general public statements — should manifest the faculty member’s full identification with the Statement of Faith.” In other words, Hawkins violated the spirit of the Statement of Faith without contradicting any of its explicit claims.
Through my conversations with more than 20 current and former faculty members before and after Jones recommended Hawkins be fired, the portrait that emerged was of a campus splitting along just about every internal seam and along its outer borders, too. In January, some faculty members wore their academic regalia to class as a show of solidarity with Hawkins, while others quietly circulated a statement that was critical of her theology. A planned prayer meeting for Wheaton parents who supported the administration grew so large that it had to be moved from a local home to a spare lecture hall on campus. In early February, 78 faculty members signed a statement urging Jones to reinstate Hawkins. The press had descended on campus and were covering every meeting and memo. Various private Facebook groups, which alumni on all sides of the issue had used to spread news and rumors for months, were devolving into self-reinforcing pools of sanctimony and even rage. (Ryken’s sisters were active participants on a page set up to support the administration.)
This is how an evangelical academic community expresses outrage: sternly worded statements, meetings and prayer. There were also flashes of real ugliness on campus. One student wearing a hijab in solidarity with Hawkins said that a classmate slammed a door in her face so hard that she was left with cuts and bruises. And the F.B.I. looked into a vicious satirical website smearing a local Islamic center where several faculty members had made friendly overtures; some of its barbs were so specific that many assumed it had to have come from within the college community.
On Feb. 6, a Saturday evening, Jones seemed to have a change of heart. He emailed the entire faculty telling them that he had apologized to Hawkins earlier that week and revoked his recommendation that she be fired. Two hours later, though, the college issued a news release announcing that the two parties “found a mutual place of resolution and reconciliation,” and that Hawkins would be leaving the school. Hawkins’s lawyer, Robert Bloch, and Wheaton’s legal teams had been in communication since December; Hawkins also had the strategic support of an interfaith labor organization based in Chicago. “A lot of healing would have to happen” in order for her to stay, she told me warily in January. Instead, she agreed to leave, appearing alongside college officials upon her departure after accepting terms that are subject to a confidentiality agreement. Bloch confirmed that the settlement included financial compensation.
The ensuing silence opened up even more room for speculation. Over the years, Wheaton has taken great pains to maintain its institutional identity — to avoid following broader academic winds to the left, or the lure of fundamentalism on the right. “There are always people who think that Wheaton has become this really draconian, oppressive, fundamentalist place, and there are always people who think that it’s just given up on its evangelical moorings and its Christianity,” said Timothy Larsen, a Wheaton professor of Christian thought. The Hawkins episode, he said, was “a controversy where whatever people fear is what they are really convinced is happening.”
Many of Hawkins’s supporters dismiss the idea that the confidential settlement was true reconciliation. It was an especially painful outcome for those on campus who see Wheaton’s progress on racial issues as promising, if complex. “We looked like something we’re not, a white fundamentalist college,” Okpebholo said. “That’s what we looked like to the outside.” The reconciliation service on campus, which began with prayer and ended with communion, was also galling to some who backed her. The communion service in particular “felt like spiritual manipulation,” said Ezer Kang, a psychology professor who left Wheaton for Howard University this year. “It wasn’t reconciliation.” He walked out before the breaking of the bread.
Wheaton is still feeling the reverberations from Hawkins’s departure. Jones retired as provost this spring, though he remains a faculty member at the college. The board of trustees appointed a review panel of primarily trustees and faculty to undertake a thorough post-mortem, examining issues like how race and gender influenced what happened and how the Statement of Faith might affect academic freedom. A public statement related to the report is expected later this year.
In August, six months after Hawkins left Wheaton, she met with me in her office at the University of Virginia, where she had accepted a research fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The week before, she loaded up her car and drove to Charlottesville from her home just outside Chicago. Two tall shelves in her new office were filling up with books and knickknacks: a Hello Kitty lunchbox, a shadow box with old campaign buttons, a small replica of a church window. A painting by a former student depicted Jesus as a black man with a gold halo, in the style of a Catholic icon. Hawkins said he reminded her of Tupac Shakur.
Since her controversial leave-taking from Wheaton, she had become something of a celebrity in the small world of interfaith media and nonprofits. In the spring, she began taking speaking engagements, and she traveled to accept awards from religious organizations in Michigan, New York and Washington. In June, she flew to Turkey with a Chicago-based Islamic nonprofit organization to meet with Syrian refugees. Strangers have recognized her on airplanes and on the street; she is wary of dating online, for fear she’ll be recognized there too. She recently worked out a deal with HarperOne to write a book about “embodied solidarity,” a concept she returned to over and over throughout the preceding months.
As a Wheaton alumnus, it was hard for me not to mourn the way things had turned out. I have always been sympathetic to Wheaton’s attempts to maintain its unusual institutional character, even when those attempts are clumsy or publicly embarrassing. The balance between orthodoxy and intellectualism is poignantly fragile. And the Hawkins episode was a painful reminder of why. That Wheaton couldn’t make room for a scholar like Hawkins raises questions about what real diversity might look like in a setting where a certain uniformity of belief is essential. And that so many of its constituents interpreted her actions so uncharitably, so swiftly, reflects poorly on evangelicalism as a whole. The difference between theological purity and cultural exclusion is not always as tidy as believers would like to think.
In her new office, we talked about Wheaton and about Jesus, about her evolving faith and about Donald Trump. Hawkins’s voice is both gentle and totally assured, and she speaks in long elliptical paragraphs that tend to eddy into generalities. If conservatives in Wheaton’s constituency were disturbed by her Facebook post, they would most likely not have been comforted by our conversation. The kind of politics and the kind of faith she wants to be a part of is the kind that’s about “liberating people’s bodies, not just their souls,” she said. “Jesus came to save bodies. ... Theology only matters to the extent that bodies matter.” She told me that she’s not going to church regularly right now, but she still values institutional religion as a keeper of rituals and milestones.
In Charlottesville, Hawkins planned to restart a few research projects she hadn’t had time to finish at Wheaton, and she was applying for permanent jobs too. Still skittish in white evangelical settings — she received mixed reactions at a summer conference in Colorado called Simply Jesus — she is reluctant to apply within the 13-member consortium of evangelical colleges to which Wheaton belongs. She has been seeing a psychotherapist and acupuncturist, but she still has nightmares that seem connected to her experience at Wheaton. She sometimes feels tired and sad, she said, but she is not a victim. “We’re all on a spiritual journey,” she told me earlier that year, “and mine points to Jesus.”
© 2016 The New York Times Company.
The content you have chosen to save (which may include videos, articles, images and other copyrighted materials) is intended for your personal, noncommercial use. Such content is owned or controlled by The New York Times Company or the party credited as the content provider. Please refer to nytimes.com and the Terms of Service available on its website for information and restrictions related to the content.
By RUTH GRAHAM, nytimes.com