Every Christian college is part school and part Bible camp; its purpose falls somewhere between education and indoctrination. Even the most well-intentioned ones exist, to some extent, to impart certain religious values to their students. Ideally, there is no conflict between good scholarship and the doctrines professed by Christians, but in practice that isn’t always the case. Of course, this tension is seen to a certain degree in all institutions of higher learning—education is never completely free of bias.
There are some Christian schools that do reach toward impartiality, allowing students “freedom within a framework of faith”—as a popular tagline of Gordon College, my alma mater, has it. At the other end of the spectrum, however, are those that aspire to turn out a certain kind of student, with certain political leanings and a mission to remake the world according to a certain conception of Christianity. The King’s College is among the most flagrant among them. I know because I taught there, at its “campus” spread across a few floors—mainly in the basement—of the Empire State Building.
I first heard of The King’s College in the winter of 2008, when my wife and I were preparing to move from the Boston area to New York City. I was looking for a job. King’s had an opening at the time, not academic in nature, but rather some kind of campus activities coordinator. I applied even though I was nowhere near qualified, and I didn’t get the job, which is probably for the best; I would have been awful at it. But I had been teaching writing at Gordon and was eager to work at another Christian college. Over the course of the next year I regularly checked TKC’s website in hopes of seeing a faculty position posted.
All that time spent on the website, though, led me to question whether I wanted to be there in the first place. From everything I read, it seemed extremely conservative, and much more self-consciously so than many of the other evangelical Christian colleges with which I had experience—Wheaton, Westmont, and Calvin, to name a few. It wasn’t just that the culture of the school appeared to favor right-wing politics; conservatism seemed to be ingrained into its very character. Take, for example, this excerpt from the college’s website in response to the question “What is Economics?”:
The Bible affirms private property, supports entrepreneurial activity, and calls us as Christians to be honest, hard-working, thrifty, just, and generous in exercising stewardship with our talents and resources. We believe that a market economy characterized by substantial individual freedom and a limited role for government best promotes these values and virtues.
There’s a pretty gaping distance between King’s professed ideology and my own, and that should have discouraged any further interest—but it didn’t. I became even more determined to experience the school from the inside. Thus, in the fall of 2009, when an adjunct position finally appeared on the employment page of the website, I hesitated ever so slightly before satiating my curiosity and applying.
Within weeks, I was interviewed and ultimately offered the position. In addition to the superficial appeal of working in the Empire State Building and the more substantial desire to get back in front of a classroom full of students interested in religion, King’s paid better than the public university where I had been teaching. I went into the job thinking that I could be a kind of counterweight, showing that one can be both a Christian and left-leaning. But, the more I learned about King’s, the more obvious it became that as an institution it is less interested in imparting a well-rounded education to its students, and much more concerned with graduating a particular kind of politically conservative Christian, cast in the image of its prominent administrators.
It didn’t take long to see that my initial impression of the college was accurate. During new faculty orientation, as I was being introduced to the online system that professors use to track grades and communicate with students, my fellow new hire—a full-time writing instructor whom I had just met—scoffed at the “The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act” screen we had to accept each time we signed in. More government interference, he sneered.
A week later, on the first day of classes, I was underdressed. My “cool professor” outfit consisted of an untucked Oxford shirt, khakis, and a tie. My students wore ties, too. And suits. Dresses, heels, makeup. This was a 9 a.m. class—where were the sweatpants and pajamas? King’s students conform to a dress code, which is meant to declare that they are serious about their education and, particularly, about the plans the college has for them after they graduate. Every TKC student knows that he is expected to infiltrate society and, as the mission statement says, “to shape and eventually to lead strategic public and private institutions.”
At this point it is unclear what impact King’s graduates are actually having—some pop up occasionally in minor conservative think tanks or pro-life organizations, while others’ names appear in the bylines of articles defending marriage or on books about job creation. It is primarily the faculty and administration that make headlines—appearing on Glenn Beck to discuss race, on Huckabee talking about compassionate conservatism, or in op-eds in The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal deriding socialism or Obama.
Though The King’s College is a relative newcomer to New York City, it dates back to 1938, in New Jersey. The college moved to upstate New York, but eventually closed its doors in 1994 when it went bankrupt. The King’s of today, and its towering location, is the result of a 1997 amendment to the college charter that handed sole ownership over to Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical organization that primarily ministers to students in secular universities. In 2003, J. Stanley Oakes, Jr. became the college’s fourth president.
Among faculty and staff, at least while I was at King’s, Oakes was most famous for instituting the tagline “God Money Power” as an encapsulation of the college’s vision. Though there has been some confusion about what Oakes’ originally meant by the phrase, the most common interpretation is that God, money, and power should be the most important things to a Christian college student. It also appears several times in the King’s faculty handbook, linking God, money, and power to the “ruling disciplines” of politics, philosophy, economics, and theology—these are the areas of society that graduates should penetrate.
That message, apparently, is too strong for some. Robert Carle, the first full-time faculty member of the current iteration of King’s, has argued that “God Money Power” inappropriately limits TKC’s ideology. In a post at The Gadfly, an independent online magazine run by King’s students that is often critical of the college, Carle laments that the slogan “seemed to yoke Christianity to a narrow political and economic ideology, and at times it reinterpreted the Bible to conform to this ideology.”
And yet, in many ways, the slogan continues to summarize the priorities of the college. My classroom was located on the 15th floor of the Empire State Building, down a corridor from the executive offices where, above a receptionist’s desk, “God Money Power” remains emblazoned on the wall.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that sometime last March or April, midway through the spring semester at King’s, I finally accepted that the distance between my values and those of the institution would be insurmountable. And I’m not the only one that recognized this; I was not asked back to teach the following semester.
In the summer of 2010, TKC chose right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza as its new president. D’Souza’s resume is bursting with conservative credentials: he was a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a policy analyst for the Reagan administration. He has authored more than a dozen books, including Illiberal Education—published in 1991—which argues that an emphasis on political correctness and multiculturalism in American universities is really subversive political posturing by the left.
His bibliography since then has veered ever further rightward. In 1995 he wrote a book entitled The End of Racism, in which he sets out to “question and reject” a series of “widely shared premises that shape the conventional wisdom about racism.” These include the idea that “segregation was a system established by white racists for the purpose of oppressing blacks” and “the civil rights movement represented a triumph of justice and enlightenment over the forces of Southern racism and hate.”
Later works include The Virtue of Prosperity and The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. His most recent, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, attempts to substantiate the claim that “Barack Obama is the most antibusiness president in a generation, perhaps in American history” by tracing the President’s policies to his father’s anticolonialism. People on both sides of the political spectrum have panned it. R. R. Reno, writing for the blog of the right-leaning Christian journal First Things, said the book is “not just unpersuasive; it is positively misleading.”
Indeed, the choice of D’Souza by the college’s board of directors created a shockwave of controversy that rippled through the King’s community, and then through the broader Christian community as well. Some criticized the choice on the basis of D’Souza’s Roman Catholicism; how could a Catholic lead an evangelical school? Others took exception to his lack of academic credentials. Still others seized on the overwhelmingly negative buzz surrounding his Obama book.
In an article in Christianity Today shortly after the decision to hire D’Souza was announced, then-provost Marvin Olasky defended the choice based on D’Souza’s ability to “reach out and speak to new audiences,” particularly as it relates to fundraising. As for D’Souza’s theology, Olasky said he is “heading in the right direction.” D’Souza himself now downplays his Catholicism, choosing to emphasize, instead, his wife’s evangelicalism and his attendance at an evangelical church.
Since defending D’Souza in Christianity Today, Olasky has resigned his position as provost, suggesting—but not going into detail about—a link between his decision to resign and D’Souza’s hiring. This transition from Olasky to D’Souza seems to push the college’s focus ever more toward the fringes of conservatism, making it even less likely that King’s students will receive the kind of education that allows them to seriously consider a wide range of ideas.
Back in August, shortly after D’Souza’s selection as president, a current King’s student named Joshua Wright described his experience there in a comment at the blog I edit, Patrolmag.com. Under the former provost, he wrote, the college was “a laboratory for Marvin Olasky’s special concoction of philosophical traditionalism and political conservatism.” Wright was also disappointed by D’Souza’s hiring; he saw it as a theological compromise in favor of a political ideology. His comment continued, “I am at King’s because I was informed that we were a college that didn’t tell you what to think but how to think. Apparently, we’re supposed to think like Sean Hannity.”
Many at King’s share Wright’s concerns; feelings of uncertainty about the college’s future have settled over the community in the wake of D’Souza’s appointment. Most likely, the school’s profile will continue to grow, but at what cost to earnest education?
Undoubtedly, any institution of higher education is marked by a prevailing ideology, and Christian colleges in particular. But The King’s College—under Oakes, then Olasky, and now D’Souza—seems less like a college and more like an experiment in proselytizing as pedagogy, to the detriment of the intelligent, hard-working students that I came to know during my brief tenure there. D’Souza painted a vivid picture of the ideal King’s graduate in his convocation address to the class of 2014 back in August: “By the time you get out of here,” he said, “you are going to be so ready to change the world that even Obama may come running to you and say ‘Please stop! This is not the change I had in mind at all.’”
Twenty years ago, D’Souza was writing about illiberal education; today he is implementing it.