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Taylor University Still Shaken by Unsanctioned Conservative Newspaper

Controversy over the anonymous handout, “Excalibur,” has the campus pushing for public dialogue.
Taylor University Still Shaken by Unsanctioned Conservative Newspaper
Image: Wikimedia

A month later, Taylor University is still buzzing about an underground publication, Excalibur, which claimed the evangelical college was becoming more liberal on sex, immigration, and race.

True to its namesake, the controversial newsletter sliced through campus conversation, drawing students and staff to take sides in classroom discussions, op-eds, and official communications since its February 21 release.

Weeks after Taylor president Paul Lowell Haines condemned the anonymous publishers for “sow[ing] discord and distrust, hurting members of our community,” four members of the faculty and staff came forward online as its creators: Jim Spiegel, professor of philosophy and religion; Richard Smith, professor of biblical studies; Gary Ross, men’s soccer coach; and Ben Wehling, marketing director.

They apologized for the uproar, but even their website was pulled due to the controversy.

“The newsletter aimed to fill a growing conservative void” on the Upland, Indiana, campus, Spiegel explained in an email to CT.

Organizers came up with the idea in the fall, naming their project after King Arthur’s sword—a reference to the biblical imagery of the sword as a symbol of truth and justice. They thought if their publication were anonymous, they could focus on ideas rather than personalities.

In their debut newsletter, Excalibur promoted the conservative and orthodox Christian values its writers believed were being replaced by more politically and theologically liberal views among Taylor’s student body, campus speakers, and faculty publications.

The anonymous articles decried “permissive views of human sexuality, hostility toward creationist perspectives, rejection of the rule of law (especially on the immigration issue) and uncritical endorsement of liberal-progressive ideas.”

Excalibur advocated for a “conservative-libertarian approach to race relations” over “incessant calls for social justice, diversity, and equality,” likening the push for social justice to the false prophets warned about in Scripture (John 10 and 2 Peter 2).

“It felt very targeted and unprofessional and not representative of the Christian community that we value so much,” Halie Owens, co-president of Taylor’s Black Student Union, told CT, noting that the handout turned up taped to the doors of certain students and campus leaders.

Owens is among those who have penned responses to Excalibur in the school newspaper, The Echo. She wrote:

Despite the many offenses around the distribution and publication of Excalibur, the thing that most troubled me was the apparent failure of the writers to admit their culpability. In their apology letter, they neither took credit for the pain and suffering they caused nor owned the discord they have sown. Because we’re a Christian collective, we’re expected to extend grace to them, yet grace is given by too many of us on a daily basis ….

Students shouldn’t have to educate grown men with doctorates on the origin of our shared faith.

Excalibur’s release happened to coincide with the Black Student Union’s “Woke Week,” celebrating Black History Month, as well as an event featuring a World Relief speaker addressing her experience as a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Spiegel said the publication wasn’t timed around either, though he has ongoing concerns about liberal-leaning speakers that led him to believe the campus was endorsing progressive ideas.

“We have noticed a subtle but distinct lurch to the left over the last few years when it comes to campus programs and invited speakers,” Spiegel said, citing Willie Jennings, author and Yale Divinity School professor, as one example.

Spiegel and Ross apologized to critics in a statement posted online March 5.

“While we included no racist content in the newsletter, we understand how people may have read into our communication intent that was not there,” they wrote. “To be perfectly clear: we believe in racial justice! What we oppose is the prevailing leftist conception of social justice, which, in our humble opinion, seems to monopolize racial justice issues.”

While Spiegel said there were opportunities for public dialogue about differences in ideas, he and his co-founders did not believe the university was taking initiative to invite conservative speakers to campus.

In some ways, the existence of Excalibur and the surrounding fallout offers a glimpse at a larger struggle for passionate evangelicals with differing perspectives to find common ground in public dialogue.

The newsletter’s creators felt their conservative views were sidelined on campus and believed that the best way to raise their concerns was through an anonymous newsletter, distributed without campus approval. “This forum allows us to articulate our conservative stances boldly, extensively and without editorial filter,” they had written.

Taylor’s campus policy, called the Life Together Covenant (LTC), provost Jeff Moshier said, “calls us to care for one another, calls us to speak truth to one another, calls us to work toward reconciliation towards one another, and if you don’t know where to take your hurt or your concern or your questions or your suspicions, to directly address each other.”

“If you can’t apply when your brother offends you, go to them, well, then we’ve circumvented a very important Christian principle,” he said.

The student newspaper concluded in an editorial: “We as Taylor University faculty, staff, and students must continually strive to foster a community in which groups and individuals don’t need to revert to anonymity to share their deepest views.”

Taylor has offered several occasions for dialogue around social issues, including a panel discussing DACA and one on the NFL national anthem protests, which Spiegel and Ross participated in last fall. When roughly 50 students took a knee during a basketball game in December to protest incidents of racial injustice on campus, the move spurred conversation about harassment and campus diversity.

Once Excalibur went online and went public, organizers had to disable the comment section and eventually take down the whole website. Many critics have expressed frustration, anger, and hurt over the views in Excalibur, eager to push back on their arguments and offer counterpoint.

A number of Taylor alumni also reacted strongly to Excalibur’s message.

Eric Moore, a 2006 graduate, wrote a letter to the founders of Excalibur with the help of several other Taylor alumni disputing several points in the publication and called the writers, “to meaningfully engage with those that are disabled, of lower income, of different ethnicity, and LGBTQ, and to be more willing to listen to those who take a more progressive stance on difficult or controversial subjects.” Nearly 130 Taylor alumni signed the letter in support.

Another group of alumni wrote to President Haines challenging his “overly harsh” response to Excalibur’s conservative views, which has also received signed support from dozens of Taylor graduates.

“The President makes it seem as though we have something to fear from differing viewpoints, that a voice can and should be silenced, or at least made to apologize, merely because some find what it expresses offensive,” they said.

In its response, the administration has emphasized the importance feeling safe, loved, and trusted within the Taylor community, acknowledging that students of color in particular were hurt by Excalibur’s message on “several serious issues,” including race.

As a black student on a campus where racial minorities make up 16 percent of the 1,900 undergrads, Owens sees Excalibur’s criticism of certain racial justice movements in light of other incidents on campus, including reports of a Confederate flag on display after President Donald Trump’s election.

President Haines wrote, “I was struck by and concur with a tweet broadcasted in response to this incident: ‘Anonymous commentary can create chaos in a community without assuming any of its risk. The real value of dialogue is the opportunity to seek to understand one another and to avoid reducing one another to an incomplex label. Human complexity requires more of us…so does love.’”

In Taylor’s Friday chapel, campus pastor Jon Cavanagh addressed the division.

“Recent weeks have heightened our focus on many differences within our community,” he said.

“This struggle is clarified by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 6 when he reminds us ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ We are in the midst of circumstances that demand our continued prayers for unity within our community as followers of Christ.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story indicated that 20 students participated in the “take a knee” protest, as confirmed by university officials. It has been updated to reflect the larger number of participants.

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