As a political science professor at Belmont University, I have been privileged to watch two presidential debates come on our campus. In 2008, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain took the stage as candidates, and this week, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are in town for the final match of the campaign.
Both debates energized our university, with students getting the chance to interact with political and media luminaries and taking an active interest in engaging with the pressing issues of the day. Even with fewer in-person events due to COVID-19, students are as excited as they were in 2008.
My political science colleagues and I chuckle about a “Trump bump” in our enrollments. But the truth is that colorful politicians draw interest to our discipline in ways that are not easy to quantify. Love him or hate him, Trump is endlessly fascinating as a political figure, and my class discussions keep gravitating to him. This is both a blessing and a curse.
On the plus side, students are paying attention. When I approach the classroom, I know I had better be prepared to handle a number of issues connected to Trump’s latest tweet, as well as the Democratic response to it. Some of our conversations, like democracy itself, can get messy and chaotic, but they can usually be refined in ways that are academically productive. I find that my classic readings about presidential spectacle, executive power, and political rhetoric are infused with new life.
Additionally, comparatively newer topics, like the role of social media in campaigns, take on new intellectual wrinkles and meanings in a Trump era. Make no mistake about it—our students are bringing the intellectual heat from all corners of the internet, and this 51-year-old professor has to stay nimble if he wants to have critical conversations about memes, conspiracy theories, and online campaigns (think Gamergate, QAnon, #WalkAway). These are movements and ideas that many in my generation barely knew existed but that my undergraduates have been grappling with for months.
The downside is that our classrooms have not escaped the tribal nature of our politics. Conversations are often strident, and it is a challenge to rein in disputes before they turn into full-fledged shouting matches. Students find it harder to come to grips with what Jonathan Haidt labels the “moral matrices” that underpin our political commitments and are hesitant to recognize the sacred values that “bind and blind” political choices, both ours and those of our opponents. The same sources that spur these novel conversations can create inflexible ideological camps.
Friends often ask where my Christian students are on the political spectrum. I suspect that the broader data sets indicating that young evangelicals are gravitating leftward are accurate. Twenty years ago, I could pinpoint a student’s issue positions by referencing his or her religious denomination. It’s not so simple today. More and more of my evangelical students indicate an interest in “social justice,” and that term functions in the same manner as “pro-family values” did two decades ago—as an ideological identifier and catchall label for a number of political positions.
A clear majority of my students exhibit a visceral, reflexive dislike of President Trump, whom they view as immoral and unstable. It’s so pronounced that I find Trump’s student supporters to be quiet, apprehensive, and even apologetic. Whether this energy morphs into a broader indictment of conservatism or Republicanism remains to be seen.
How you see the student drift toward a social justice ethos depends on your ideological predisposition. Liberals will celebrate, and conservatives will despair. There is, however, a larger issue that I find worrisome and that Christian academics of all political stripes should be concerned with if they value liberal arts education. The generational replacement of students on the Christian Right by those on the Social Justice Left has not resulted in more reasonable, open-minded discourses. In fact, the opposite has occurred.
The political claims made by my left-leaning students exhibit a militancy and infallibility that would make a fundamental Baptist blush. Most troubling is when students conflate violence with legitimate political rhetoric or behavior. A recent editorial in our student newspaper made the case that Trump’s appearance on campus would jeopardize student safety. More and more of my undergraduates recite faddish phrases like “White silence is violence” or “Voting for Trump is an anti-LGBT act of violence” in our discussions without bothering to unpack the implications of their rhetoric.
Again, as a politics professor, I am excited to see my students eschew political apathy and take such a strong interest in the issues of the day. Politics means something to them, and they are aware that the decisions made in the White House and legislative halls do impact them. This is certainly better than the resigned fatalism that I have witnessed in some settings. But in the classroom, students are increasingly reluctant or unable to defend their positions or to explore broader data points that might conflict with their lived experiences.
Assignments that I have used for two decades are now suspect. One student expressed that she was “filled with fear” by having to read Breitbart as part of a paper dealing with hyperpartisan media. Another student chastised me in a paper for suggesting that women do not belong in Congress. Of course, I argued for nothing of the sort. I simply asked students to write about the significance of descriptive representation and to decide for themselves whether partisanship may outweigh gender in their own voting decisions. Academic nuance is lost among these activists.
I recently asked my students if they believed Trump supporters are racist, and a majority offered approving nods. I then inquired what academic measures might social scientists employ to detect this racism and was met with blank stares, puzzled looks, and an uncomfortable silence. This message was clear : Everyone knows this. Isn’t it enough that we declare it? Let’s move on.
These are not healthy developments. Secular universities have largely given in to these illiberal impulses, creating surveillance cultures and bias response teams. Instead of engaging with professors about perceived slights or insults, students are encouraged to report them. This will, of course, create a far more cramped space for discussion; only foolhardy faculty will tackle the sensitive and layered issues that compose our current events. This may not be a problem in organic chemistry, but it is disastrous for the social sciences.
Some of my colleagues at secular universities—politically progressive by any reasonable standard—have indicated they are fearful they won’t be politically “pure” enough for the leftists that dominate campus life. These emotions are especially pronounced among the untenured, who will be unlikely to introduce conversations that might land them on an administrator’s radar.
Where should Christian educators go from here? I would recommend that we theists follow the advice of self-defined “apatheist” Jonathan Rauch. In his wonderful book Kindly Inquisitors, Rauch advised that “we should all take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. That means we must place no one, including ourselves, beyond the reach of criticism (no final say); it means that we must allow people to err, even where the error offends and upsets, as if often will.”
Thankfully, Belmont has largely followed the logic of Rauch’s advice. But if a coalition of illiberal students and sympathetic faculty allies reach a critical mass on campus, all bets are off. What a mistake it would be to celebrate the arrival of a national debate at our university and then to diminish those conversations in our classrooms after the candidates have exited our buildings.
Vaughn May is the political science department chair at Belmont University in Nashville.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.