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Why a Christian college could fire a professor for expressing solidarity with Muslims

Can Christian college professors say Muslims and Christians "worship the same god"?
Can Christian college professors say Muslims and Christians "worship the same god"?
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science at Wheaton College in Illinois, recently made an unusual gesture to show solidarity with Muslims: She decided to cover her hair with a hijab.

Muslims "like me, a Christian, are people of the book," she wrote on Facebook, explaining her decision. "And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."

Now Hawkins is at risk of losing her job. Wheaton, an evangelical college that requires professors to agree with its interpretation of the Bible, has placed her on administrative leave.

With five words in her Facebook post — "we worship the same God" — the political science professor, whose academic expertise is on the intersection of the black church with American politics, ended up in a thorny theological debate. And according to her university, she took the wrong side.

This isn't just an academic controversy. Whether Christians and Muslims agree that they worship the same God has real-world ramifications for how American churches participate in increasingly Islamophobic politics — an issue that's confronting Christian colleges.

Hawkins asked permission to wear the hijab

The idea that non-Muslim women should wear hijabs to protest Islamophobia started in Australia, where a social media movement urged women to wear hijabs and post selfies amid a national debate about head and face coverings.

Hawkins liked the idea, and decided to cover her hair for the Christian season of Advent, which precedes Christmas. But before she did, she sought advice from the Council on American Islamic Relations to make sure she wouldn't offend Muslims. They were supportive, and she urged her friends wear hijabs alongside her:

I don't love my Muslim neighbor because s/he is American.I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by...

Posted by Larycia Alaine Hawkins on Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hawkins didn't seek approval from her employer, Wheaton College. Even if she had, the college says it wouldn't have stopped her from wearing the hijab: "The College has no stated position on the wearing of headscarves as a gesture of care and concern for those in Muslim or other religious communities that may face discrimination or persecution," its president, Philip Ryken, said in a statement Tuesday.

Essentially, Wheaton argues Hawkins went too far: that it's fine to call for respect for Muslims and their right to religious freedom, but that its professors should uphold Wheaton's "distinctively evangelical Christian identity."

"While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God's revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation and the life of prayer," the college wrote.

Why a theological debate at Wheaton matters

When Hawkins went to work at Wheaton, she had to agree to considerable theological and cultural requirements that Wheaton places on its faculty and staff.

Faculty and staff must agree with the college's faith statement, which includes the primary doctrines of Christianity, including that the Bible is "inerrant in the original writing" and that God created Adam and Eve "in his own image."

They must commit to its community covenant, which requires living by a set of principles, including opposing same-sex marriage and remaining chaste before heterosexual marriage. Undergraduate students must avoid alcohol, and faculty are not supposed to consume alcohol if they might encounter their students while doing so.

Wheaton takes this seriously: It has fired professors for converting to Catholicism and for getting divorced. When the college held its first-ever dance, in 2003, it was national news.

Like many Christian colleges, Wheaton is also grappling with the intersection of faith and cultural issues. Because Wheaton is the most prominent and elite evangelical Christian college — playing a similar role to Notre Dame's with Catholics — those tensions get a special amount of attention.

How Christian colleges, particularly more conservative places like Wheaton, should participate in interfaith efforts is a question that's drawing attention as American Islamophobia grows.

Why this isn't just an abstract theological question

This isn't a new argument. Theologians from different denominations and religions have been arguing for years about whether Muslims, Jews, and Christians — members of the three major world monotheistic faiths — worship the same god.

The question in Hawkins's case is whether she deviated from the Wheaton faith statement, and the evangelical college's theology, when she explained her reasoning for donning the hijab.

The questions of Islam and religious freedom are particularly salient at Wheaton, which often invokes religious freedom as the reason for its opposition to Obamacare's contraception mandate. And they're playing out against a broader debate about what Christian colleges can, and should, do to confront growing Islamophobia, and about how Christian colleges mix with conservative politics.

Because of the close ties between Republicans and the religious right, many Christian colleges are seen as de facto supporters of conservative policy, and not just on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

But this isn't always true for all students and professors at those colleges. Issues such as climate change have divided Christian colleges from Republican orthodoxy before. Islamophobia seems to be doing the same.

After the San Bernardino shooting, Jerry Falwell, the president of the fundamentalist Liberty University, called on his students to start carrying concealed weapons: "Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here," Falwell said at the university's convocation. "I've always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in."

In response, a coalition of student leaders at Wheaton wrote an open letter rejecting Falwell's comments and calling for evangelical Christianity to "pursue unity." The letter concluded:

Right now, there are two roads that we as Evangelical Christians can take. The first is that which prioritizes our own comfort and security, following the reactionary attitudes that stem from divisive fear. This leads to anger and hatred of our neighbor, and to the societal exclusion of those who are not exactly like us. The second road is the one where we actively reject the postures of discrimination and exclusion. Going down this path, we instead follow the voice of Jesus, calling us to love our neighbor and to pursue peace toward those hostile to us or our faith, and to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.

The college supported the students' letter: "We are grateful that our emerging leaders are encouraging other Christians to treat and to speak about our Muslim neighbors in loving and respectful ways," its statement read.

The question for Hawkins is whether her good intentions will be enough to overcome the colleges' strict theological requirements.

Go deeper:

  • The theological question here is far too complex to attempt to answer in a single article. The Yale Center for Faith and Culture has made available essays from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars on the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same god.
  • A 2002 Christianity Today article from Timothy George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, gives a good overview and concludes that the answer is "yes and no."
  • James Lewis, a professor at Wheaton, wrote in 2002, also in Christianity Today, that answer is "no," Christianity and Islam do not worship the same god, but that Christians and Muslims could still pray together.
  • Miroslav Volf, a professor at Yale Divinity School, argues in an interview with Christianity Today that answering the "same god" question in the affirmative is crucial to interfaith cooperation and peace.

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