By / Feb 6

Everywhere we look, it seems that many of our long-held freedoms are being challenged. Whether it’s a preborn child’s right to life, an employee’s right to receive religious accommodations at work, or the right of everyone to exercise free speech, new lawsuits are filed daily that threaten to chip away, or eliminate altogether, a subset of American freedoms. 

In March 2021, another such lawsuit was filed, threatening to jeopardize the rights of religious schools to operate according to their deeply held beliefs. 

In Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), filed a class action lawsuit seeking “to nullify the religious exemption to Title IX that,” according to the plaintiffs, “allows widespread discrimination against LGBTQI students at faith-based colleges and universities.” 

After almost two years, the district court recently dismissed the case.

What was the case about?

On March 30, 2021, REAP filed a class-action lawsuit “representing 33 LGBTQ students and alumni from religious colleges demanding that the U.S. Department of Education stop granting religious exemptions to taxpayer-funded religious colleges and universities that,” in their words, “discriminate against and abuse their LGBTQ students.” Virtual public hearings began in early June 2021.

Kristen Waggoner of Alliance Defending Freedom argued that at its core this lawsuit was an effort by activists “to strip all students at private religious colleges of federal financial aid” and “prevent any student from using tuition grants, student loans, and any other federal financial assistance at schools that operate according to biblical views about human sexuality.” 

Likewise, the lawsuit—were it to be decided in the plaintiffs’ favor—would force religious schools “to either abandon their beliefs or lose the many students who rely on federal financial assistance.” It was an obvious attempt by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project to roll back some of our country’s longstanding legal protections for people of faith and religious institutions.

Responding to REAP’s lawsuit, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) requested that the court “allow three Christian colleges—representative of more than 1,000 others across the country—to intervene in the lawsuit and defend Title IX,” a U.S. Department of Education statute targeted by the lawsuit. The motion was granted in October 2021, and ADF proceeded to represent these three institutions (Corban University, William Jessup University, and Phoenix Seminary).

How was the case decided?

On Jan. 12, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon ruled to dismiss Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education outright and continue to allow students to receive financial aid at schools that share their religious beliefs.” 

Responding to the plaintiffs’ claims of discrimination and abuse, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken stated that “Plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged that the regulatory changes have led or contributed to the harm they have experienced.” 

Though the opinion affirmed that Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, it affirmed the legality of the religious exemption and rejected arguments that the schools’ actions were in violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause. On all points, the plaintiffs’ arguments were deemed insufficient and implausible, leading to the court’s dismissal of the case. 

In response to the multitude of angles REAP took to accomplish its goal of ending the so-called “abuses perpetrated under the religious exemption to Title IX,” the court delivered a definitive statement of support for religious liberty by dismissing this case. 

While Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education was dismissed by the U.S. District Court, it will likely be appealed in the coming days. 

What’s the ERLC’s response?

The ERLC applauds the court’s decision to dismiss this case. As others have argued, the lawsuit which precipitated the Hunter court case was an unfounded attempt to eliminate an essential freedom afforded to religious educational institutions and their students. No student of any faith should be deprived of their right “to attend a school that shares their beliefs” and no educational institution should be stripped of its freedom to “live out their deeply and sincerely held convictions.”

Religious liberty is a core conviction and key distinctive of the ERLC and the Southern Baptist Convention, and we heartily agree with the court’s dismissal. The ERLC will be tracking this case as it moves forward closely, and should the case be appealed, the ERLC will continue to stand firmly for the constitutional right of religious freedom. 

What is Title IX?

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex-based discrimination in education, stating: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title IX law is intended to provide equal opportunities for both men and women seeking to participate in educational institutions and extracurricular activities that receive federal funding.

Title IX and its implementing regulations contain several exemptions and exceptions from its coverage,” including substantial religious exemptions, which is what REAP’s lawsuit sought to target. The ERLC has long been involved in protecting these vital religious exemptions, even as Title IX has been expanded and adapted.

By / Sep 22

We’re celebrating our bicentennial at Union. For 200 years, Union University has stood as a model of excellence in Christian higher education. A place where learning is integrated with our faith in Christ, where it is infused with the hope of Christ, and where it is transformed by the love of Christ.

Remembering the past 

From a small-town academy to one of the nation’s premier Christian universities —the story of Union University is one of faith, Christian commitment, and dedication to excellence. And, it is the story of how faithful people in faithful churches help sustain God’s ongoing work of educating our young people.

Union stands as a testimony to God’s faithfulness, and we remain committed to our mission of providing Christ-centered education that promotes excellence and character development in service to Church and society. That’s what Union University has been about for 200 years. Many schools have come and gone. Other schools have lost their biblical bearings and drifted to the siren’s song of the wisdom of the age.

But Union remains as resolute and committed to its biblical foundation as ever. At Union, we believe God has spoken to us through the Scriptures. We believe the Bible is trustworthy, reliable, and true. We believe Jesus Christ is our only hope for salvation. And we believe that pursuing him and loving him with our hearts, souls, minds, and strength is what God has called us to do. 

Union traces its origins to Jackson Male Academy, the forerunner of West Tennessee College, which opened on Feb. 3, 1823. Madison County had been chartered by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1821, and its county seat, Jackson, was created in 1822. As with other frontier communities, its people immediately began to establish the types of institutions that they had left. The good people of Jackson wanted the best education possible for their children. To obtain that objective, they established “a College of high standing and extensive usefulness,” relying on the “cooperation and patronage of the citizens of West Tennessee.”

The story of Union is the story of how two institutions—West Tennessee College and Union University at Murfreesboro—merged into one college, Southwestern Baptist University, and then Southwestern Baptist University changed its name to Union University and incorporated a third college, Hall-Moody Junior College of Martin, Tennessee.

God has proven himself faithful to Union University, time and time again. Through war and peace. Through fire and storm. Through prosperity and want. Through blessing and trial.

Looking forward to the future

As we celebrate our bicentennial this academic year, Union University stands on the brink of its third century. At the same time, we find ourselves in an increasingly secular, post-Christian society that disdains many of the beliefs and convictions Union holds dear. The higher education environment has never been more competitive, and institutions like Union must be equipped with the resources necessary to successfully navigate the cultural waters in which we sail.

Despite the challenges before us, we are confident that God has great things in store for Union. As we look to the future, we see the ways God has used the university over the past 200 years, and we dream of what he will do in the days ahead.

We dream of a campus that continues to attract students from all over the world—students who come to be taught and mentored by world-class professors who are skilled at instructing their students in how to think about their subject matter through a biblical lens. We dream of providing students with state-of-the-art facilities that will equip them to be excellent in their fields. We dream of being a campus, based in West Tennessee, that is a beacon to the world and that showcases the glory and the beauty of Christ.

We dream of Union alumni who will be the hands and feet of Jesus in every context imaginable: pastors, nurses, teachers, business owners, doctors, social workers, scientists, parents, community leaders, missionaries, musicians, engineers, coaches, accountants, artists, church members, and on and on the list goes. They will join the Union alumni around the world—now 21,000 strong—who are serving the Church and society and making a difference for the kingdom of God.

Ultimately, we dream of how God will use Union University to send out an army of alumni to be salt and light to a lost and dying world—alumni who will take the gospel with them to every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.

Let us never say that we failed to dream big about what God can do through Union. Let us never say that we doubted the urgency or the importance of our mission. From now until Christ’s return, the mission of Union University will be vital and necessary in making disciples, in equipping students to serve, in supporting churches, and in reflecting and proclaiming the glory of the Lord to the world around us.

As we celebrate, we look back to what God has done in Union’s past, and we look forward with anticipation to what he will do in Union’s future.

Psalm 16:6 says, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Union University does indeed have a beautiful inheritance. The Lord in his kindness has richly poured out blessing after blessing upon Union over the last two centuries. As we reflect upon God’s goodness to us, and as we dream about what God can and will do through Union in the days ahead, we pray that he will move the hearts of people during this pivotal moment in Union’s history to pray for us, to partner with us, and to help us sustain the mission of Union in the days to come.

In December 1874, a committee of Tennessee Baptists reported, “Thus far the School has more than realized our highest expectations and the future is hopeful.” Almost 150 years after that report and 200 years since our founding, we can say the same.

The minutes from that meeting go on to say something important to emphasize today, “but let us not forget that in building up the University we are laboring not for our own selves alone but for the whole Baptist denomination . . . and let us hope that we are laying the foundation of an institution which we hope by the blessings of God to continue for the ages to come.”

May we never forget how important it is to continue to build up this institution for the glory of God and the good of mankind.

By / Jan 14

Graduate students are like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. That was the claim made by one of my literature professors. What does a graduate student in engineering or a person studying law or medicine have in common with a fictional, deformed creature known for his skulking behavior? They both are staring down. Gandalf describes Smeagol (Gollum’s previous name) to Frodo in this way,

“The most inquisitive and curious-minded of that family was called Smeagol. He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunneled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on the trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.”

Inquisitive. Curious-minded. Interested in beginnings and the “roots” of things. These are the characteristics of a good graduate student one would hope. But hidden inside of that positive description is a warning as well: “his head and his eyes were downward.” And it was not just looking down at the roots, but also looking down on all those who did not share his obsession. Gollum’s obsession with knowledge and the promise that it would bring power is what caused him to look with antipathy toward all others. Thus, when we meet Gollum he is alone in a subterranean cavern playing riddle games with himself, seeing other people only as a meal. 

The problem of anti-anti-intellectualism

While graduate students may not live alone in caves obsessing over elven rings capable of making you invisible—although pouring over tomes in a library or staring at measurements in a science lab may be just as appealing to the rest of the world as an underground cave filled with goblins—they share a temptation: To allow knowledge, or formal education, to cause them to look down on their peers. 

Speaking for myself as a graduate student, I’m certain that my family and friends would prefer to have a game of riddles in the dark than listen to me engage in a description of my interest in the history of evangelicals and labor activism at the turn of the 20th century. Why? Because, so often, my eyes and head are turned downward just like Gollum when I engage in those conversations. 

And this is not unique to graduate students. Harvard professor Michael Sandel notes that this kind of bias against those without a college degree or formal education is more prevalent than other forms of contempt, and that unlike other forms of bigotry such as racism or sexism, educational elites are often “unapologetic” about their views of the less educated. In a culture where education is a marker of upward (economic) mobility, and success often the result of educational attainment, then it is unsurprising that we would value individuals and their contributions more because of the institution on their diploma. However, Christians should be the first to reject such a demeaning view of individuals, recognizing that just as worth is not defined by race or sex, neither is it defined by the number of letters after your name, whether J.D., M.D., or Ph.D. 

Education to encourage love of God

Now, I am not advocating for a lack of education. It would be disingenuous since I have completed one graduate degree and am currently pursuing another in history. Further, I think that Christians have a unique responsibility to pursue education because we are convinced that truth exists and can be known. Part of the creation mandate to take dominion over creation includes cultivating and stewarding the world, which can only be done with proper knowledge. And colleges and universities are often a mission field in need of cultivation by Christians who can speak truth and the gospel message to people asking questions about identity, the future, and purpose. 

The purpose of education is to cause you to look up, metaphorically speaking, rather than down. The scientist who probes the workings of the cosmos should exult with the psalmist that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psa. 19:1-4). The jurist studying the law should be confronted with the justice and perfection of the lawgiver (Psa. 19:7-8). And the student of history should look back and see the providence of God at work in the most minute details and events (Psa. 136). Contemplation of God’s created order should be the beginning of worship, not its end. And those who have studied the inner depths of particular aspects of creation should be those most loudly proclaiming the glories of God.

Education to encourage love of neighbor

Just as important is the way that education should be a method for loving our neighbor, or looking to our right and left rather than down. On a practical level, we can see how this plays out. It is scientists and medical professionals (all, we hope, with years of training and experience) who have developed a vaccine for the pandemic, a service to their neighbor for sure. In a similar way, the lawyer may provide their services pro bono in a legal clinic for the poor, and teachers use their training to educate the next generation as a form of public service.

 Contemplation of God’s created order should be the beginning of worship, not its end. And those who have studied the inner depths of particular aspects of creation should be those most loudly proclaiming the glories of God. 

We know what it means to use our skills to serve our neighbor. But just as education leads the Christian to worship more fully, it should also be a means for enriching the worship of others. And this is the beauty of the church—others benefit from your effort and exertion. Thus, the pastor who has learned Greek and Hebrew need not teach a course on Sunday mornings for his congregation to benefit from his study (though if congregants wanted to learn the original languages, that would not be a bad thing). In fact, it should be the opposite. Those around you should benefit from the work that you have produced and enjoy the fruits of your intellectual labor. For example:

The pastor who studies Greek or Hebrew can convey to the congregation the meaning of the text without subjecting them to a grammar lesson. Paul’s pleading can come through in the way that you explain the text rather than in your diagramming of articles, verbs, and participles. 

The Christian historian spends hours in the archives to tell the story of former slave and Baptist missionary George Liele, illustrating to the church the role that he played in the spread of the gospel after gaining his freedom. 

The theologian studies the work of the fathers and mothers of the church during the early church period to bring renewed interest in ancient methods of devotion and catechesis all to encourage spiritual piety. 

The ethcist asks the deep questions about technology, sex, or politics in an effort to help their church think not only about this immediate social issue but about the one coming down the road for the next generation of the church. 

And the Christian sociologist studies patterns of behavior and statistical analysis of transmission of values to teach parents how to better disciple their children. 

None of these examples require that the recipient be an expert in ethics, sociology, history, or ancient languages. The Christian scholar, who has been gifted the responsibility to study and serve, brings to the church the fruits of their labor and says “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa. 34:8)

In Acts 2, the early church met the needs of the community by those who had much providing for those who had less. Each brought as they were able, each received what they needed, and neither looked with contempt on the other; they all “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts (Acts 2:44-46). In the same way, the act of service of the scholar is not to puff up themselves with knowledge, but to recognize that they have been blessed with the opportunity for formal education and to bring the result of their studies to others, who for any number of reasons have not been able to devote themselves to formal training in the same way (1 Cor. 8:1; 1 Tim. 6:3-6; 2 Tim. 3:6-7). But neither is more dignified or performs more godly work. Rather, each encourages and supports the other in their specific calling, spurring one another on to greater worship of God and love of neighbor. 

Conclusion

When we first meet Gollum in The Hobbit, he is alone, muttering to himself and his precious ring. He is twisted and deformed by his quest to know the ring and use it for his own power, always at the expense of others. In contrast, the church is the picture of a community where those with college degrees and those without are gathered together to worship God and serve one another. The Christian scholar is called to use that knowledge to serve their church and proclaim the gospel message to the world, not their own prestige and importance. It is the recognition that scholastic activity should have relevance for the church, sanctification, and love of God. The Christian scholar should be humbled by the ability to list the order of salvation in Latin or Greek and remember that, Latin or not, all of us are called to the foot of the cross in repentance, and all of us will one day cast our crowns and all accolades at the feet of the only one worthy of praise (Rev. 4:10).  That is a calling better than any riddle game in the dark. 

By / Sep 9

WASHINGTON, D.C., Sept. 9, 2020—A coalition of national student ministries and religious freedom advocates commended the new final rule from the U.S. Department of Education today that ensures federal protection for the First Amendment rights of free religious exercise and assembly for students on public college and university campuses.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Christian Legal Society, The Navigators, the National Association of Evangelicals, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship have long advocated for the necessity for these regulations to protect the Constitutional rights of students. Today, they are partnered together to publicly support the significance of these protections.

ERLC President Russell Moore, responded to these new regulations: 

“A shared commitment to certain core beliefs is fundamental to the very purpose of a Christian student group. This new regulation recognizes that. The freedom of students to hold such beliefs is not a malleable aspect of their assembly that is up for debate by college administrators. The state has no authority to determine the qualifications of a religious group’s membership or leadership. A government allowed to impede the consciences of college students is a government that can do so anywhere.”

In addition to Moore, other coalition leaders commented on the new regulations.

Gary Cantwell, The Navigators: “A university campus should be a place where students are free to explore new ideas, perspectives and worldviews. With this guidance, the Department of Education provides for a diversity of thought and spiritual expression on campus that will help students as they prepare for an increasingly complex world.”

David Nammo, Christian Legal Society: “Christian Legal Society welcomes this common-sense protection for religious student groups’ right to choose leaders who share their religious beliefs and mission. For nearly forty years, religious students have been discriminated against because of their religious beliefs and speech. This new protection will deter future discrimination against religious students.”

Walter Kim, National Association of Evangelicals: “The right to assemble together based on religiously informed beliefs is foundational to a tolerant and truly pluralistic society. This right includes the ability to choose leaders who support the distinctive religious tenets of our groups.”

Greg Jao, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship: “This regulation was unfortunately necessary because some universities would give official recognition only to certain faith-based groups, while rejecting others. What made the student groups who were denied recognition different? They expected their student leaders to agree with their religious beliefs. The recognized groups did not. Universities should welcome all religious groups equally, in order to encourage tolerance, pluralism and religious diversity.” 
The Department of Education regulations are available here.

Mark Gauthier, Cru“We applaud this decision which provides the option for every student on campus to equally participate in the life of the academy.  We look forward to the continued opportunity of helping students explore and nurture a relationship with Jesus Christ and to take their next steps with Him.”

By / Apr 2

The Monthly “Research Institute Forum” is an initiative of the Research Institute of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Learn more about the Research Institute.

Given that many students are narrowing down decisions on which college to attend during this time of the year, I am wondering if you all would each answer the question:

As professors, what would you tell parents and students are the most important criteria for selecting a college?

Nathan Finn

As an academic dean in a small Christian university, I regularly talk with prospective students and their parents about this very issue. I think certain criteria always apply, and others apply in only some situations. I’ll put them in the form of questions that prospective students and parents need to be asking.

First, what is the student’s sense of vocation, and which academic programs are best suited to that calling? This question presumes that you are thinking in terms of God’s calling more than less-important questions such as compensation, prestige, etc. It’s important for believers to think about the vocation(s) God might be leading them toward based upon a combination of desire, giftedness, wise counsel, opportunity for kingdom influence, etc. I believe the answer to this question is more important than questions about institutions and even majors, since more than one pathway might lead to vocational flourishing. (Side note: pastors and youth ministers need to be equipping the church to think vocationally rather than simply occupationally, but that is another topic for another day.)

Second, which institutions offer combinations of a solid foundation in the liberal arts and strong major opportunities? The liberal arts help to form students into particular types of people, while in many cases one’s major(s) helps prepare them for certain types of occupations. So is there a sufficient grounding in the arts, humanities, and sciences that can enable students to flourish in their chosen major, whether the latter is in the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, a STEM-related field, a health profession, or business?

Third, if you are considering Christian colleges and universities, which ones seem consistently Christ-centered, and what is the their academic reputation? The best Christian institutions are guided by a strong commitment to a Christian worldview, engagement with the Christian intellectual tradition, and the intentional integration of faith and learning across the academic disciplines and professions. Some Christian schools aren’t that different from the regional state school down the road, other than offering a couple of Bible classes and chapel services. Many nominally Christian schools don’t take seriously the implications of the gospel for all of life. Avoid institutions that either downplay the role of faith or settle for academic mediocrity.

Fourth, if you are considering secular institutions, what opportunities are available through campus ministries and area churches to help a student grow in his or her faith? This question applies to Christian schools as well, but it’s especially relevant when looking at secular schools. If you believe God is leading you to attend an institution that is non-committal or even hostile toward Christianity, make sure you maintain meaningful connections to a healthy local church and the wider body of Christ. Know in advance that you will be able to thrive spiritually, perhaps in spite of the worldview(s) you are immersed in on campus.

Finally, what options make the most sense from a financial standpoint? Every school wants you to believe their education is worth the cost—and in some cases, this is undoubtedly true. But the fact is, families are in the driver’s seat: schools need your money more than you need their programs. Few students attend college for free, so for most folks, it’s a significant financial investment. Make sure you are making a wise investment, that you are incurring as little debt as possible, and that you have a plan to pay down any debt as soon as reasonably possible after you are finished with your formal education.

Andrew Lewis

I have now spent the majority of my academic and professional career in public universities, but I have also spent time at selective private universities and an evangelical seminary with an undergraduate college. From my experience and observation, finding the right college is more about what you do when you arrive on campus than what sort of institution you choose. A variety of colleges can provide paths to educational and career development, while aiding personal and spiritual growth. But it is primarily up to the student to pursue these goals, hopefully with excitement and discipline.

When selecting a college, you certainly want a quality institution, a dedicated faculty, career resources, and the presence of a supportive Christian community. Yet, colleges cannot force their students to attend class, study, develop professional skills, build mature friendships, and cultivate real Christian maturity. Individual students must seize these opportunities.

Some colleges might be better at promoting these qualities and channeling students toward making positive choices. The right kind of programs, curricular and extra-curricular demands, and campus culture can incentivize students to diligence and reflective engagement in the process of becoming educated and building good character.

Unfortunately, special curricula and an overtly Christian culture can often carry a hefty financial price tag. Basically, there are trade-offs. Some are financial on the front-end (tuition), some financial on the back-end (earnings), and some less measurable character qualities (e.g., intellectual, spiritual, personal, etc.).

So what should parents and students do? I suggest that they assess their personal situation with honesty. What are the student’s realistic career goals? What does the family’s financial picture look like to achieve these goals? How disciplined and mature is the student, and where could he or she use help? What type of resources, curriculum, and culture would be most helpful for sustained educational success, while also protecting and bolstering the student’s spiritual and personal life?

I recommend visiting a variety of colleges to get a feel for how the campus resources and cultures fit with the student’s needs and wants. (And while you are on these campus visits, also investigate local churches and Christian ministries.) Getting comfortable with institutional resources and culture prior to enrolling will make it easier to make the transition.

In my view, across the U.S. today, a student can generally obtain a quality education while finding a spiritually supportive community at a variety of educational institutions. A successful college experience is mostly about what happens after a student arrives on campus. Students and parents can help make those more important choices easier by considering in advance how different colleges fit with the needs of particular individuals.

Jonathan Pennington

My wife and I have six children with ages ranging from 21 down to 13. We have one who is about to graduate from a private Christian college, one who is a sophomore at a state university, another one who will be a university freshman in the Fall, plus three more teenagers still at home. College has been a big topic of discussion and stress in our household for some time and will continue to be for some years to come!

I’m quite hesitant to give overly specific advice about college decisions because so many factors are person-specific—vocation, calling, financial situation, intellectual abilities, etc. But I can offer a few thoughts of a general and visionary nature.

First, a college degree can and should give job-related skills, but this is not the ultimate goal of education. Education is first and last about forming us to be a certain kind of people. From the ancient Greek tradition of paideia, down to the American vision of an educated populace necessary for democracy, education has rightly been understood as shaping people’s sensibilities, loves, and vision toward individual and societal human flourishing through a broad, liberal arts curriculum. Christians, of all people, should value highly the formation of the individual, not just the acquisition of skills.

The practical import of this for making college decisions is that various colleges should be valued accordingly as to what they offer beyond pragmatic skills. For many, this may mean the decision to attend a Christian college, but not necessarily. I would prefer a well-rounded and balanced university educational curriculum and experience over a narrow skill-set and limited-scope education, whether Christian or not.

Second, one of the greatest factors in higher education decisions like never before is the exorbitant cost relative to average household incomes. Again, so many factors are at play with this issue that it is impossible to be dogmatic. I would generally encourage incurring minimal debt (both parents and students), though I don’t think it is necessarily a mistake to take loans for education if one considers education as a financial investment in one’s future earning potential as well as life-satisfaction.

At the same time, none of us should buy a house we can’t afford to live in. So we must seek a wise decision about the costs incurred in private versus public education in conjunction with the degree earned and its potential in enabling a return on investment. Of our three kids who are of college age, different decisions have been made on the financial side—decisions that included the major chosen, scholarships earned, and individual desires.

Finally, it is life-giving to remember that God’s will is nearly always a circle not a dot. That is, God is inviting us to be wise but we need not live in anxiety about accidentally making the wrong college choice. There are pros and cons for every situation, and the Father gladly provides and blesses his children without reluctance. Consider the many factors, pray for wisdom, and then step toward what seems best with confidence that God is at work in us for our good.

The views represented in this post belong only to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ERLC.

By / Mar 11

Americans are certainly not strangers to controversies surrounding our political figures. From John Adams’s Alien and Sedition acts to Thomas Jefferson’s slaves to Bill Clinton’s carnal escapades, our political leadership history is filled with more than its fair share of crimes and misdemeanors. Incumbent upon citizens is the election of wise and righteous leaders, not perfect ones. Which imperfections are more serious than others, though, is too often a case of what a gallon of gasoline costs when the scandal breaks.

But what about Scott Walker? The Wisconsin governor is a hopeful for the Republican nomination to the Presidency. He is popular with many conservatives and has a strong track record of effective leadership in his home state. Yet around Walker has developed a cloud of controversy, and suddenly his fitness for the Oval Office is in serious question. What is this new dilemma?

Scott Walker never finished college.

To some, that sentence and its preceding paragraph should feature prominently in an encyclopedia of the world’s most anti-climatic revelations. Many Americans are not only untroubled by Walker’s summa cum nil, they are actually enamored by it. For these Americans—predominantly conservative in politic and modest in means—Walker’s lack of a college degree bespeaks a man who isn’t merely the product of a system monopolized by nihilistic secularism. It also makes Walker a more relatable figure to the roughly two thirds of Americans who have no higher education. These Americans tend to prioritize experience and character over education in their own families and communities. A Presidential nominee who reflects these values, then, is a welcome sight for them.

To others, however, Walker’s incomplete career in university is a serious matter that casts doubts about his ability to lead at the highest level. These concerned Americans would object that while a college degree does not itself bestow the capacity to lead the free world, it is one of Western culture’s most reliable indicators of intellectual maturity and readiness. If, as research strongly suggests, a bachelor’s degree is often the difference between those with jobs and those with careers, it should certainly be the difference between those with the power of nuclear warfare and those without it.

One’s opinion about a potential President’s non-matriculation is indeed a combination of views about education, leadership, American culture, and even human nature. Among Americans who identify as conservative, you are likely to find a latent skepticism towards the elite bastions of higher education and an earnest belief that real political leadership would be better off learning America in a manufacturing plant or on a farm than in Harvard Yard. The merit of this perspective is that college education is indeed often abstract and theoretical in a way that can feed a student’s idle curiosities without bestowing real leadership training.

On the other hand, more progressive voters would likely look at a candidate’s empty diploma shelf and conclude either intellectual dullness or a naive insularity against the real world. This take also makes an important point, namely, that a university education is, at its best, an antidote to the human tendency to cling onto to cliches and mantras that most of us bring into contexts of intellectual exchange. A college degree is, in our current culture anyway, an endorsement by someone, somewhere that its holder has had their basic assumptions tested and has achieved, in whatever measure, an amount of personal triumph over ignorance.

So where does that leave us? Should a person who aspires to the highest office in the land be expected to have letters after his name? Or should future leaders be encouraged to invest their time away from the classroom? My answer to both questions is yes.

In Luke 7, Jesus perceives that many who are disbelieving in what He says are simply refusing to do anything else. After all, Jesus says, John the Baptist abstained from feasts and was an outsider, but the crowds dismissed him as insane. By contrast, the Lord says He came “eating and drinking,” but the same crowds quickly switched their standards to justify their unbelief: “You say, behold a gluttonous man and a drunkard; a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Jesus then gives us a crucial principle, not just for religion and theology but for all of life: “Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Wisdom is proved right by her deeds. In other words, talk is cheap, and the things people do evidence whether they have authentic wisdom. In the case of the people to whom Jesus delivered this truth, meaningless moral platitudes enabled evasion of the obligation to respond correctly to truth claims. The people thought what they were saying was wisdom, but since it led them to justify their end-around of truth, it was not wisdom at all.

What does that mean for the conversation about politicians and higher education? It means that leaders should be judged and elected if they demonstrate real wisdom, not just in talk but in deed. In the case of the missing college degree, this might cut both ways. A Bachelor of Arts does not magically infuse its owner with the wisdom and knowledge needed to lead a nation, but on the other hand, a lukewarm attitude towards learning and meaningful study might indicate a lack of wisdom about truth. Do a candidate’s actions (and not just words and media pull quotes) demonstrate wisdom consistently?

Jesus’s words also tell us that if we want to know whether a candidate has wisdom, we need to know where to look. The King James Version translates the phrase “wisdom is known by her deeds” as “wisdom is known by her children.” The idea there is that a persons life creates a legacy that will tell you important truth about them. This is a reminder to look beyond a politician’s academic credential or everyman charisma to understand whether or not they are or will be a wise leader.

Education and experience need not be rivals. Both are subservient to a greater virtue, Wisdom. Scripture reminds us that wisdom can be found in the righteousness—or lack thereof—that each of us leaves in our wake, whether our lives take us through the halls of higher learning or the farmlands of our forefathers.