The King's College surprised many higher education observers by choosing Dinesh D'Souza, widely identified as a Roman Catholic, as president of the New York City school. As a best-selling author and Christian apologist, D'Souza brings prominence and a network of influential leaders to the position. But King's decision to put a Catholic at the helm could create tension within a historically evangelical institution.
"I'm quite happy to acknowledge my Catholic background; at the same time, I'm very comfortable with Reformation theology," D'Souza told Christianity Today. "I'm comfortable with the evangelical world. In a sense, I'm part of it."
D'Souza's wife, Dixie, is an evangelical, and the family has attended Calvary Chapel, a nondenominational evangelical church in San Diego, for the past 10 years. He has been invited to speak in several churches and colleges, including Rick Warren's Saddleback Church and Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
"I do not describe myself as Catholic today. But I don't want to renounce it either because it's an important part of my background. I'm an American citizen, but I wouldn't reject the Indian label because it's part of my heritage," D'Souza said. "I say I have a Catholic origin or background. I say I'm a nondenominational Christian, and I'm comfortable with born-again."
He said that his views align with the Apostles' Creed and C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity.
"A lot of times, Christians spend a lot of time in intramural type debates and squabbles: Are you a Catholic or Protestant; if you are Protestant, what type are you; are you pre-millennial or post-millennial; what position do you take on Genesis 1?" D'Souza said. "I would comfortably describe myself as a born-again Christian, but I don't feel it is necessary to renounce anything. I am not doing Catholic apologetics, that's for sure."
Meeting in rented space in the Empire State Building, King's describes itself on its frequently asked questions page as a nondenominational school whose "roots are in the Protestant evangelical tradition." King's closed in 1994 after financial troubles but reopened in 1998 under Campus Crusade for Christ's ownership. It has about 450 students.
King's, which is not among the 110 members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, seems to be using a different leadership model than other Christian colleges, said David Dockery, president of Union University.
"Dr. D'Souza is a wonderful apologist for historic Trinitarian faith. It is an appointment that surprised many people," said Dockery, who authored The Future of Christian Higher Education. "It sends a signal that King's wants to function within the framework of historic Trinitarian Christianity, but I'm not sure what it says about its evangelical identity. They're redefining The King's College within a broader umbrella of theistic commitments and conservative social and worldview commitments."
Most major Christian colleges hire only evangelical Protestant faculty and administrators, Dockery said.
"There are differences theologically about questions related to justification, the meaning of baptism, the Lord's Supper," Dockery said. "As one's teaching would touch on those matters, it would raise complex questions."
Marvin Olasky, provost at The King's College, said that D'Souza brings a particular set of gifts that impressed the board.
"I don't think the board was making any general statement. It was a particular hire, a specific hire," said Olasky, a Presbyterian Church in America elder who is a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. "A president of a college who can reach out and speak to new audiences for King's and help to give us a financial footing is doing a very good job of what these days is the key role of the president. I think that's the logic of it."
Olasky, who is also editor-in-chief of World Magazine, said that out of 21 full-time faculty, one professor is Roman Catholic.
"I know there's some concern on the part of some evangelicals about the direction of King's because of Dinesh's background. But he, in my view, is certainly heading in the right direction. What I can do is work to make sure that the academic program remains firmly in the Protestant, evangelical tradition."
From an institutional perspective, D'Souza said that he has not seen anything in the literature at King's that says "Protestant."
"Being a Protestant is a term defined in opposition to Catholicism and refers to a set of historical battles over denominational issues," he said. "As far as I can tell, those denominational issues are not the center of what's being argued today. I do think evangelicals and Christians generally need to be more competitive in the secular marketplace of ideas."
Relations between evangelicals and Catholics have been getting better for quite some time, said Francis Beckwith, who stirred debate in 2007 when he returned to Catholicism during his term as president of the Evangelical Theological Society.
"Because of the relative newness of The King's College, I don't see D'Souza's appointment as a landmark hire, as it would have been if he had been named president of Wheaton, Calvin, or even Baylor," Beckwith said in an e-mail. "Having said that, however, I think that King's geographical location in the heart of America's media and financial capital does draw greater attention to the question. It is a bold move, but a shrewd one as well: by appointing D'Souza as president, the university instantly nationalizes itself in the wider cultural conversation."
What would Bill do?
Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, might have been concerned about D'Souza's appointment in the earlier part of his life but not in his later years, said John Turner, a history professor at the University of South Alabama.
"He was really worried about John F. Kennedy's election," said Turner, who authored Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ. But Bright was also one of the most prominent Protestant signers of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," a 1994 document on Christian mission. "He got a lot of flak for it and he backed away from it a little bit," Turner said. "I think this would be right up his alley for the later years of his life when he became a bridge builder."
It appears that Campus Crusade and King's will soon cut formal ties. King's and Campus Crusade's board of directors recently voted to begin a process toward granting The King's College independence. A King's spokesperson said they are in the early stages and must take some legal steps first. A date has not been set for when King's will be completely independent.
"With full ownership and new leadership, The King's College has the opportunity to focus exclusively on its mission of educating biblically based thinkers poised to produce change throughout society," Steve Douglass, president of Campus Crusade, said in a press release. Douglass was unavailable for an interview on Monday.
Campus Crusade is a ministry that promotes evangelism and is known mostly for its presence at non-Christian colleges and universities. Turner said that Bright considered building a university in the 1980s, but never executed the idea.
"A lot of evangelical leaders are genuinely unhappy about the state of American higher education and can't resist trying to do something about it as part of their legacy," he said, referring to Regent University founder Pat Robertson and Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell. "King's was a way for Bill Bright to have a crack at that again."
Catholics in evangelical higher education
In 2006, Wheaton generated a discussion about Catholics in evangelical institutions when its administrators did not renew the contract of philosophy professor Joshua Hochschild after he converted to Catholicism.
Duane Litfin, who was president of Wheaton when Hochschild left the college, concluded that Catholics could not sign Wheaton's statement of faith because of its emphasis on Scripture as the "supreme and final" authority.
Stanley Oakes, then serving as president of The King's College, wrote a column for National Review suggesting that Hochschild would, "despite losing his job over it, stand behind Wheaton for courageously affirming its commitment to its own founding principles." (Oakes is on sabbatical and was unavailable for comment, according to a King's spokesperson.)
The president of The Kings College must agree to a statement of faith that similarly calls Scripture "the sole basis of our beliefs" and "the supreme and final authority in all matters on which it speaks."
"This is an evangelical position. It is not a position, for example, espousing papal supremacy," Olasky said. "Dinesh has grown in faith over the past decade, and I hope and pray that that will continue."
The King's College statement of faith similarly emphasizes the Protestant (even Reformed) understanding of salvation, righteousness, and justification.
"The salvation of man is wholly a work of God's free grace and is not the work, in whole or in part, of human works or goodness or religious ceremony," it states. "God imputes His righteousness to those who put their faith in Christ alone for their salvation, and thereby justified them in His sight."
Catholic theology, by contrast, describes God's righteousness as being infused in believers rather than imputed.
But the King's College doctrinal statement also puts emphasis on free interpretation: "We accept those areas of doctrinal teaching on which, historically, there has been general agreement among all true Christians. Because of the specialized calling of our movement, we desire to allow for freedom of conviction on other doctrinal matters, provided that any interpretation is based upon the Bible alone, and that no such interpretation shall become an issue which hinders the ministry to which God has called us."
The mission statement doesn't distinguish between Catholics and Protestants, D'Souza said.
"If someone says, I'm Catholic and as a result I will not agree that the Bible is the sole source of religious truth, then we can't hire them because they don't agree with our mission statement," he said. "If someone happens to be Catholic and agrees with the statement 100 percent, we would not remove that person from consideration."
Gene Edward Veith, provost at Patrick Henry College near Washington, D.C., said that he is intrigued by the "experiment" that a Christian college could appeal to conservative evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics, but he thinks it will be difficult to pull off.
"In some ways it would be easier to have a 'conservative' college, focusing on a common political and cultural agenda, which would then attract students from many different religious persuasions," Veith wrote in an e-mail. "It will be a much harder task to bring evangelicals and Catholics together around a common Christian identity, since the two groups have different notions as to what it means to be Christian. (Catholics would be likely to question if the evangelicals are really part of the Church, while evangelicals would be likely to question if the Catholics have faith in the gospel.)"
Veith said he has the highest respect for D'Souza as a thinker, writer, and debater. "Running a college will be a new vocation for him," he said. "It's not an easy task, especially for someone without extensive experience in academic administration, but he will have some good help with the other leaders who are in place. "
Who's convincing whom?
Last month, a former King's adjunct professor wrote that The King's College was "ripe breeding ground" for evangelicals converting to Catholicism.
"Indeed, The King's College is a microcosm of the larger community of young believers whose frustration with the lack of authority, structure, and intellectualism in many evangelical churches is leading them in great numbers to the Roman Catholic Church," Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote in an article for ReligionDispatches.org.
Olasky said that he doesn't see the trend. Out of the college's 450 students, he personally knows only three students who have converted to Catholicism. If anything, Olasky said, more Catholics are becoming evangelicals.
"I don't see any mass movement, even in the country as a whole," he said. "It's interesting that in Dinesh D'Souza we have someone who's moving the other way."
For some, the Catholic and evangelical distinctions are important to maintain in higher education leadership. Carl Trueman, a professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, called the D'Souza appointment "perplexing."
"[W]hen a college which plays on its Protestant, evangelical identity appoints a Roman Catholic as president, the theologically vague coalition that is evangelicalism is once again exposed in all of its basic theological incoherence and indifference," Trueman wrote in a post at Reformation21.org.
But the theological precision of a seminary often does not translate to colleges like King's, observers said.
"The questions at a seminary are different than the questions at a college or university," Union's Dockery said. "The more an institution is like a seminary, the sharper these distinctions become."
Trueman questioned whether D'Souza's appointment meant that his commitment to conservative economic and social policies is the really important worldview at King's, while disagreements over papal authority and justification are "mere sideshows."
"If so, we can see this appointment as a certain strand of evangelicalism definitively coming clean: it is not the theological issues listed above that are considered critical; it is rather the conservative political and social vision of thinkers such as Marvin Olasky," Trueman wrote.
Olasky said that King's academic program starts with theology.
"It's ironic that he's referring to me. My prime commitment is to sola scriptura. My most important commitments are theological," he said. "The political and economic commitments are secondary. They grow out of the Bible, and I think there's a connection. They're not arbitrary, individual choices."
In its profile, King's listed several commitments to "true ideas" that distinguish it in higher education, such as the desire to "foster biblical competition." One of the "true ideas" states, "We should all be free to buy, sell, and possess personal assets, to seek prosperity and risk bankruptcy within markets where all others are equally free."
Trueman asked whether D'Souza's distinctive offering to the college was his commitment to conservative economic and social policies.
"[W]hat is the one thing needful in evangelicalism and her future leaders?" he wrote. "Is it for many, perchance, not so much a good understanding of the Reformation but rather a commitment to right wing economic policies?"
Trueman's critique is based on a false dichotomy, D'Souza said.
"The Catholic label slapped on me is wrong because for more than a decade, I've been attending an evangelical church," he said. "I think what was attractive wasn't that I am a conservative but the fact that I have an independent reputation in secular culture. There are two types of Christian apologists. You might say that some are in the church subculture but have no mainstream reach. King's is all about that broader reach."
D'Souza is author of several books, including What's So Great About Christianity, Life After Death, and What's So Great About America. He was also a White House policy analyst under President Reagan and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
However, D'Souza has no significant experience in academic administration. "When I interviewed for the position, I said, 'If you're looking for an administrator, please do not look at me,'" he said. "My charge is to help to define the purpose of the institution, help to recruit and attract students, help to raise money, help to recruit high-level talent in speakers and faculty, and to raise the overall profile. Those are the things I know how to do."
He said that he wants the college to eventually expand from 450 students, currently housed within walking distance of the Empire State Building, to about 5,000 in various New York high-rise buildings. His stated goal is to compete with liberal arts schools like Dartmouth College, Oberlin College, and Williams College.
D'Souza arrived in New York City last weekend and will choose a church after his wife and daughter join him. "Lots of people have told me, 'You've got to check out Tim Keller's church at least to see him preach.'"
He will debate Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer at a New York event in September, and will speak at Saddleback Church in December.
Several other Christian colleges also appointed new presidents this year. Former solicitor general Ken Starr now heads Baylor University; former pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church Philip Ryken leads Wheaton; former executive vice president of Abilene Christian University Phil Schubert will preside over the school; and Beck Taylor, former dean of the Brock School of Business at Samford University, is heading Whitworth University.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today coverage of The King's College includes:
State Closes King's College (November 14, 1994)
New York City: King's College Resurrection Signals Big Apple's Renewal (February 9, 1998)
Sex, Lies, and Abortion | It's time to get to the bottom of the great national tragedy. (September 9, 2009)
The Clash of Stereotypes | A recent survey reveals what Muslims detest most about the West. (July 20, 2009)
Why We Need Earthquakes | Without them, the planet couldn't support creatures like us. (April 28, 2009)
Other coverage of The King's College has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, and National Review Online. The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier noted D'Souza's appointment.