Why Hundreds of Christian Faculty Members Have Signed a ‘Statement of Confession’

March 30, 2017

Westmont College
Lisa DeBoer, an art professor at Westmont College, is among hundreds of Christian faculty members who have signed a statement of support for "vulnerable populations."

A week after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, faculty and staff of North Park Theological Seminary, in Chicago, posted a statement on an internal online forum declaring their support for "vulnerable populations" in the United States.

"The political climate reveals longstanding national sins of racism, elevation of whiteness, misogyny, nativism, and economic disparity," wrote the authors, who were led by a theology and ethics professor, Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, and an assistant professor of church history, Hauna Ondrey. The statement continued: "Many people of color, women, and other marginalized groups feel increasingly alienated not only in the political context but in much of the white evangelical culture as well."

Meanwhile, at Westmont College, a Christian liberal-arts college in Santa Barbara, Calif., some faculty had been seeking "institutional clarity about how we should think and talk about the kind of polarization that has resulted from the election cycle," said Sameer Yadav, an assistant professor of religious studies. They found the North Park statement and decided to adapt it for their purposes.

About 40 people from at least 11 departments and programs contributed to the statement, which was then posted online. It soon moved beyond the walls of Westmont. George Hunsinger, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, saw the statement and reached out to Mr. Yadav, saying he thought it would resonate with Christian faculty at many types of institutions. Mr. Hunsinger, Mr. Yadav, and G. (Tommy) Givens, an assistant professor of New Testament studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, launched a website last week that would allow people to sign the document, called "A Statement of Confession and Commitment," under the name of their institution.

Since the site went live, Mr. Yadav said, he’s gotten requests to add new institutions and signators every day. The site has been viewed about 1,000 times daily, and it now has more than 450 signatures, he said.

Lisa DeBoer, a Westmont art professor who is Protestant, helped revise the document, and she is among the signatories. She spoke to The Chronicle about why she signed it and how she views her role as a professor at a Christian institution. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q. What is the purpose of this statement?

A. This is an important moment for all of us who are in education, especially as we seem to be having a different conversation about what counts as evidence and argument from what we have had in previous years.

Q. By "this moment," do you mean the political climate since the election, or something else?

A. To pin it on the election would be too facile. These are dynamics that have been in play for a long time, and they’ve just surfaced in a way that’s been smacking us in the face. We’d been aware of these cultural dynamics and thought we were speaking to them.

Q. What do you mean by "these cultural dynamics"?

A. The statement here emphasizes our call to speak as truthfully as we can, given the knowledge and patterns of evidence that are available to us. We are finite as human beings. We "see through a glass darkly" [as the statement reads], so there’s a certain amount of humility there.

Scripture is unambiguous on our call to care for the widow, the orphan, the alien, those who are disenfranchised, vulnerable, and poor. There’s no argument about that.

"As members of Christ’s body [the statement reads], we strive to consider others above ourselves; to speak the truth in love; to serve one another in humility; and to honor and steward God’s good creation." While we all agree on these commitments and responsibilities, we might still discuss what that calls us to do.

For example, we all acknowledge our responsibility to care for creation — ecology, the earth, the environment — but the statement doesn’t declare exactly how we are supposed to do that. We’re still going to have to discuss that.

Q. What have you experienced on your campus since the election?

A. Speaking personally, I’m hesitant to answer that question. I have exposure to just a small sliver of campus. I know certainly among faculty there’s been a lot of conversation.

This was a political coming of age for a lot of students. This was the first election they saw in full. We can all agree that this was not like other elections.

Q. How does your faith inform your role as a faculty member? How is it different from that of a faculty member at a nonreligious institution?

A. I’ll speak personally again. There were some statistics that were floated after the election about how various kinds of Christians voted. [For example, eight in 10 self-identified white, born-again/evangelical Christians voted for Trump, according to the Pew Research Center.]

We as a faculty have a special responsibility and a special opportunity to be constructively present in a national conversation that we need to have. There may be ways in which people who don’t practice a religious faith need to learn a little more about those who do. We have a role in that. We also have a role in speaking to our own religious communities.

Q. Do you worry that your voice is drowned out?

A. I worry that we aren’t heard or aren’t trusted because we’re academics. The way in which expertise and authority are now framed can make it difficult even for us as Christian academics to be heard by our co-religionists.

Q. Why is the statement’s URL "confessingfaculty.org"? Is that a reference to the Confessing Church ?

A. I hope we are not in as dire a situation as the German church in the 1930s. I’ve talked with colleagues of color at other institutions who think that we are. I’m white. It doesn’t occur to me that I might be rounded up and harassed. Our Christian call to be on guard to the vulnerable means I have to listen to my colleagues who say, "You can say that because you’re white."

Q. Now that you’ve signed the statement, what does that mean on the ground? Will it change your behavior?

A. I don’t think the content is anything new to those who’ve signed it. This is what we’ve been doing all along. … It seems that maybe some folks beyond the walls of our institution don’t know what we do. It might be interesting to them to see this is what we’ve been doing. This is what we hold ourselves accountable to.

Nell Gluckman writes about faculty issues and other topics in higher education. You can follow her on Twitter @nellgluckman, or email her at nell.gluckman@chronicle.com.