Two separate educational movements exist within the evangelical world, one old and one new, and they are clearly on a collision course. One thing does lead to another, and he who says A must say B. The widespread parental challenge to the tax-financed secularism of the government school system is by now common knowledge. By the thousands, parents are saying, “Not with my kid, you don’t,” and have enrolled their children in private academies, have started to homeschool, have taken advantage of tutorial services, and so forth. However, this growing challenge to secular education will have some ramifications in the years to come, ramifications for which established evangelical colleges are singularly unprepared. The reasons for this are legion, but all reduce to the embarrassing fact that there is far too much “jelly” in “evangelical.”

Parents are not about to spend years sacrificing themselves to provide a private Christian education, only to give it all away when an “evangelical” college offers to undo all they accomplished in the previous 12 years. A graduate of an evangelical establishment like Wheaton has a far better chance of receiving a diploma in trendy leftism than his counterpart down the road at Leviathan State U. Colleges like Westmont, Cordon, and Bethel all have a fine reputation to uphold; unfortunately, upholding it these days can mean schmoozing it up with the spirit of the age. And even when nothing overfly objectionable is done as a result, the college has to remain bland enough not to cross accrediting agencies with anything like a distinctively Christian view of the world. Brer evangelical, he lay low.

But studied neutrality is impossible, and obnoxious examples are cropping up more and more frequently, in fulfillment of a collegial application of the dictum that a man who doesn’t stand for something will fall for anything. We now find the zeitgeist appearing in raunchy requirements for classes, “revivals” that resemble group therapy confessionals, and urbane professorial muddling about with postmodern relativism.

At Leviathan U, the Christian students are wary, knowing that the faculty are largely in the employ of old slewfoot. But at Wheaton, the Billy Graham Center is right across the street, the jargon is full of all the right God-words, and revivals that don’t change a damn thing still appear with some regularity.

But parents who have spent years educating themselves on educational issues are not going to forget what they have learned simply because their children are now in 13th grade. Nor will they look the other way just because the charade is appropriately baptized. Such parents will beware of wolves in sheepskins, and this leads us to consider why many of them will come to the conclusion that evangelical colleges . . . aren’t.

For the most part, these colleges were established before the cultural fruit of the antithesis between secularism and Christianity was quite as apparent as it is now. These colleges were founded over a century ago, and the Christian school movement has only developed within the last 20. The Christian school movement was formed in self-conscious reaction to the regnant foolishness, while the Christian colleges, proudly part of the establishment, are a significant part of that foolishness. These two movements are already looking at one another across a great divide.

According to popular mythology in conservative circles, the 19th century was a time of strong traditional values, when it was actually a monkey house of radicalism. The traditional values, such as they were, were the harvest of what had been planted in previous centuries—vestiges of Christendom. But the crop that was sown in that era is the one we are harvesting now. That this was occurring was apparent at that time to foresighted individuals, but there were not many of them. Apostate Utopias were still at the blueprint stage, or, to change the metaphor drastically, the pudding that proves had not yet been eaten.

Now in the 19th century, when most of these evangelical colleges were being established, they were themselves a leading manifestation of this democratizing spirit, this Utopian pragmatism. Our nation was young, full of beans and democratic zeal, and American evangelicals were industrious in making the democratization of religion one of their central distinctives. Among many other things, this was reflected in the colleges they built. The principles institutionalized in the evangelical colleges at that time have now borne fruit, which contemporary evangelical parents are refusing to eat.

A great deal of energy could be preserved if, before attempting reform, we would spend more time trying to identify the genuine point of departure. True, prayer was banished from the government school system in the 1960’s, but the roots of our disorder go much deeper than this: they stem from the American abandonment of the idea of Christendom. This abandonment did not come all at once, but by the time of the establishment of most denominational and interdenominational evangelical colleges, the divorce had been finalized.

We like to think of the church as victim, but on our continent, the church has largely played the role of instigator. The good intentions involved did nothing more than make the church a blind instigator. Like it or not, the church necessarily has a position of leadership. The declension of culture in America is comparable to well-meaning but naive parents who raise a child without discipline, without instilling self-control, and who are then shocked at the extent of the rebellion apparent when that child gets away from home. The extent of our current rebellion can be seen in our cultural parade of sodomites, cotqueans, health nazis, and feminists. But the nature of this rebellion was established long before. There were women in pulpits and standing at altars long before they were seated in the cockpits of F-16s.

Cultures come to resemble their gods. “They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them” (Ps. 115:8). The new society, following evangelicalism, emphasized personal choice. This meant that the confessional approach to higher education had to be abandoned, and the elective system was brought in to replace it. Churches were disestablished, and began to compete for customers, just like Sears & Roebuck. St. Paul used to travel around the ancient Roman world, preaching the word and seeking disciples. Our churches began to hustle around the block, looking for clients and customers. Religious colleges were operating in the same strange world, and began to compete for students with even less of a confessional interest than the churches now had. For everyone was now in pursuit of customers, and, as the world of business teaches us, the customer is always right.

The market system works just fine when we are seeking the kind of toothpaste that suits us best. But when the true, the good, and the beautiful are made into elective courses, no one should be surprised when freshmen consistently sign up for the far more popular courses promoting the false, the wrong, and the ugly. When colleges ceased to pass on an inherited body of knowledge and began catering to the interests and desires of the public, the destruction was complete. The fact that many of the colleges which ceased to pass on the tradition were called “evangelical” mattered not in the slightest.

But the appearance of market freedom is just an appearance. Elitism is inescapable; the dominance of egalitarianism simply means that the established elite must deck themselves out in the name of supposedly neutral standards. Evangelical colleges have agreed to burn their incense to the emperor, and now regularly come before secular accrediting agencies and boards, hat in hand. “Please, sir, may we teach some scratch ‘n’ sniff form of the Christian faith?” Well, all right . . . for now.

This hunger for approval in disreputable places has had a predictable effect. “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?” (John 5:44). The pecking order has been established, and those institutions which are hungry for academic respectability must respect the pecking order. This means that colleges which want accreditation must get their faculty from previously approved institutions, and must vow never to do anything which seriously challenges the existing order. They must determine to be the very model of kennel-fed Christianity.

Complaints about the bizarre fruit of all this are common because they are too easy. Postmodern whim-wham presents an easy target. But we have spent several centuries getting here, and a stern letter to the denominational magazine will accomplish nothing. Our only real hope is that the parents currently showing such zeal in the sound education of their younger children will not be too tired, when the time comes, to turn their attention to the establishment of small but genuine colleges.