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Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Hank Reichman and Karen Swallow Prior’s dialogue originally printed in the Academe Blog (an AAUP publication).  We have reprinted a portion of it with permission. 

HR: In my Understanding Academic Freedom (p. 102-03), I discussed a professor’s refusal to write a letter of reference for a student seeking to study in Israel solely because of the professor’s support for the BDS movement. I quoted a 1970 AAUP statement entitled Freedom and Responsibility, which declared that “most faculty members face no insoluble conflicts between the claims of politics, social action, and conscience, on the one hand, and the claims and expectations of their students, colleagues, and institutions, on the other. If such conflicts become acute, and attention to obligations as a citizen and moral agent precludes an instructor from fulfilling substantial academic obligations, the instructor cannot escape the responsibility of that choice.” I think this tension between two kinds of obligations, professional and moral, must certainly apply in religiously based institutions. Is there tension, even conflict, between the obligations faculty members at Liberty or elsewhere have to their faith and those they owe to their profession? If so, how have you dealt with this?

KSP: In the case of choosing to work for a religious institution for which agreement with its doctrinal and moral commitments is a prerequisite for employment, then the professional and moral obligations are met institutionally. The tension would emerge if one’s views or beliefs changed and were no longer in alignment with what one previously professed. The example you cite seems like more of a political tension, and that certainly does come into play as politics (in both the narrow and broad definitions) and political situations shift. These shift much more than religious or moral principles do.

It’s important to understand that religious institutions—even within the smaller category of evangelical Christian colleges and universities—vary widely in commitments and approaches. So even to discuss “religious” institutions of higher learning is to discuss a very broad category. But in answering your question, one potential point of tension I experienced at Liberty early on was dealing with a complaint from a parent about a reading assignment. The parent was not easily convinced and went through every level of administration, every level of which backed me. The final resolution was a recommendation to the parent that the family consider another Christian college more likely to be aligned with their concerns.

HR: Also, I’m a tad surprised that you’ve suggested there may be more Democrats among the faculty at Liberty today than in 2016, before Trump. My assumption, based in part on our conversations, was that Liberty has become more, shall we say, rigid in its enforcement of official positions since its leadership entered the MAGA camp, but that previously there might have been greater tolerance of dissenting voices.

KSP: Some, like me, are supporting third parties, too. (I serve as an advisor to the American Solidarity Party.) The shift is likely small and is anecdotal, to be sure. But at Liberty and everywhere there are people who once aligned with the Republican party because it stood for conservative economic and moral principles. Some don’t see that as the case anymore. It’s one thing to vote GOP on the issue of abortion, another altogether to vote with a party that minimizes and excuses January 6 or the mishandling of classified documents. But you are correct that the leadership of the institution seems to have gone all in for MAGA.

HR: You told the Post, “I thought politics was the way to change abortion.” To what extent have you reconsidered that position? And what are your thoughts on the relationship between politics, morality, religion, and scholarship? (Big question, I know, but one that agitates people from many often opposing perspectives).

KSP: Well, at one time, I thought politics was the way to change everything. I was very interested in politics: I attended the inauguration of Bill Clinton (I was already in D.C. for the March for Life), ran for Lt. Governor on the Right-to-Life Party ticket in New York, and used to actively campaign for candidates. Like many in recent years, even many within my conservative Christian community, I’ve grown disillusioned with politics, the two major parties, and an over-emphasis on political solutions to deep-seated cultural conflicts. Of course, being an educator for three decades has helped me better understand how much begins in the mind and understanding and flows upstream from there. I certainly still believe that the laws of our land ought to fulfill the ultimate purpose of the law (to protect human life, safety, and dignity, first and foremost), but when we can’t even agree on what constitutes a human life, that leaves a lot of foundational work to do. We cannot do without laws enforcing civil rights, for example. But I’m much more interested in investing my energy and resources personally into educating people and helping them recognize the injustices that continue even after the laws have been changed to become more just.

This all might seem a far cry from teaching literature in the college classroom (although I do teach seminarians in ethics and cultural engagement as well), but it’s not. I love literature—reading it, teaching it, and writing about it—because it is one of the humanities. Literature shows humanity in all its complexities, and in so doing it shows us ourselves, too. I can’t separate my respect for human life, the human condition, and the competing ethical claims we inevitably experience from living with other human creatures from the timeless works that teach us so much about all of these things. For me, loving literature well teaches me to love human beings well, and, hopefully, how to live well.

HR: But the word “politics” can have various meanings. I certainly understand your growing skepticism of “politics” in the strict sense of the formal political system, although in today’s environment, given the grave threats that our democratic and pluralist system itself now faces, abstinence from political engagement can represent a kind of political stance that may be irresponsible, even dangerous. Moreover, there is a broader sense in which even the study of literature can be “political” in the same way, as you acknowledge, it can—even must—be imbued with ethical and even religious concerns. The historian Joan Wallach Scott, responding to the recent tempest among historians about “presentism,” argued that the discipline of history necessarily has its own “politics.” Not the “politics of party” but a politics “understood as struggles for power, not always overt or acknowledged” and which concerns itself with “an implicit operation of power (hegemonic belief systems, disciplinary orthodoxies).”

I wonder whether we academics, even if we decide to eschew overt political activity, can avoid “politics” in this sense.

KSP: Oh, I don’t believe we can ignore it. I appreciate your saying all this because as much as I am dismayed by and turned off of politics proper these days, I still feel at heart sometimes very political. Power, influence, and authority are precious gifts that I think all of us must steward well, wherever we wield them. It’s interesting, too, that you point out that importance of acknowledgement of such things because my forthcoming book, The Evangelical Imagination, is very much about the unacknowledged influences in evangelicalism, both in history and in the present. No, we cannot eschew politics in this broader sense, nor ought we even pretend we can do so.

HR:  One sphere of human life in which concerns about power, influence, and authority are especially critical is that of gender relations. You’ve been prominent in efforts to hold accountable evangelical leaders credibly charged with sexual harassment or abuse or with tolerating such misogynistic behavior. This is a major problem, of course, throughout higher education and many institutions, secular and religious, private and public, have rightfully come under fire for their failures, even well after the “me too moment.” What has been your experience dealing with this issue? Are there unique or unusual aspects to the problem of sexual harassment and abuse in evangelical institutions?

KSP: As you point out, sexual abuse and harassment are everywhere. Sadly, the church is no exception. The aspect of the problem that makes it different in a religious context is not so much that abuse occurs but that it is too often tolerated, overlooked, and even covered up, all in the name of protecting the mission—which, of course, is ridiculous because such things go against the gospel mission. There is also another aspect of sexual abuse in a religious context and that is that it often entails spiritual abuse, which adds many complicating layers, not only for those who experience the abuse, but for those who are unwittingly used to prop up abusive systems and people.

I suppose my awakening on this issue, and my stepping into it, began when I spoke out against Christians excusing or tolerating Trump’s admissions of sexual assault. Then, in 2018, I helped lead a petition signed by thousands of Southern Baptist women calling for accountability of one of our convention’s leaders for a history of misogyny and failure to hold abusers accountable. I’ve been continuing to listen and learn from abuse survivors to this day and using my platform to support them.

The Southern Baptist Convention has been undergoing its own #metoo (we sometimes call it #churchtoo or #sbctoo) over the past few years, and it is painful and hard.  But what gives me hope is that with every opportunity that congregants have had to vote and lead on these issues in the national body, they have overwhelmingly and emphatically chosen the path toward justice.

HR: After reading the Post article and especially after we spoke, I recognized that in addition to us both being scholars and teachers we share the common experience—I decades ago, you more recently—of seeing a movement to which we’d dedicated much of our energy and even to some extent our lives turn out not to be quite what we had wished for. For me, this was a process with no “road to Damascus” moment but involving considerable and protracted rethinking and soul-searching. I was especially concerned not to become a stereotypical apostate (I know that I’m consciously employing theological terms to describe what was an explicitly materialist and secular “faith”), but instead to try to recover what had motivated me in the first place and to take what was best from the movement in which I had played a big part but from which I knew I had to depart ways. I wonder what your experience has been like in this regard.

KSP: Hoo boy. This is a big, important question. Thank you for seeing it and asking it—and for seeing how it is a process that is not limited to political or religious categories but transcends those. It is helpful for me to hear you share your own experience because for many of us within conservative evangelicalism—not just me, by any means—this moment feels very much like a reckoning that has been building for a very long time. Some of us even describe it as apocalyptic—veils are being ripped away that allow us to see things that have been there, covered, all along. Or maybe we have just been blind to them. It is painful and hard, but necessary. Because for those of us who are true believers—not in human movements or cultures—but in the foundation of our faith, Jesus Christ and his church, it is good for us to strip away all the cultural, political, and temporary trappings so that we can be reconciled with the essentials of the faith that are eternal. Now that’s a lot of religious language! But somehow I trust that not only will you forgive me, but you will understand me, too.

HR: I forgive you, of course, and I think I do understand. For many of us from many perspectives this extraordinary and highly fraught historical moment has been an occasion to rethink ideas and beliefs but also to rediscover and recommit to what is most important.

Thank you once again, Karen, for engaging in this dialogue. I hope we will be able to continue our conversation in other ways. But let me give you the final word.

KSP: Thank you for initiating this conversation. Circling back to an earlier part of our discussion, it is true that I have occasionally encountered hostility and prejudice within the academic context.  But conversations like these, thankfully, remind me why I entered academia to begin with: to pursue knowledge, understanding, and shared humanity.

Karen Swallow Prior

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Karen Swallow Prior is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, 2018). Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Books and Culture and other places.

Hank Reichman

Hank Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay; former AAUP vice-president and president of the AAUP Foundation; and from 2012-2021 Chair of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. His book, The Future of Academic Freedom, based in part on posts to this blog, was published in 2019. His Understanding Academic Freedom has recently been published.