Campus Free Speech

College Suspends Professor for Urging Solidarity Between Christians and Muslims

Wheaton College wants professors to explain differences between Christianity, Islam.

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Hawkins
Hawkins / Facebook

Wheaton College administrators suspended a professor for affirming that Muslims worship the same deity as Christians and urging greater friendship between practitioners of the two religions.

Wheaton is an evangelical Christian college in Illinois; the professor who got herself in trouble, Larycia Alaine Hawkins, identifies as a Christian but is concerned about anti-Muslim bigotry. A week ago, she posted on Facebook that she would be wearing a hijab to class in order to show solidarity with her "Muslim neighbors." She wrote:

I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind–a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014.

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

Wheaton's administration was displeased by the statement, which falsely suggested that Christianity and Islam are compatible, according to the college's response:

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. …

Some recent faculty statements have generated confusion about complex theological matters, and could be interpreted as failing to reflect the distinctively Christian theological identity of Wheaton College. We will be in dialogue with our faculty, staff and students in the days ahead to ensure that we articulate our love for our Muslim neighbors in ways that are consistent with our distinctive theological convictions.

Wheaton placed Hawkins on leave, "pending the full review to which she is entitled as a tenured faculty member."

The college stressed that it is an evangelical Protestant institution, and staff members are required to conduct themselves in accordance with Wheaton's Statement of Faith. As a private school, Wheaton is within its rights to punish a professor for a breach of dogma—to put adherence to specific religious believe first, and free speech second.

I don't think Wheaton is correct to do so, however. I imagine the climate for intellectual discussion on campus must be quite toxic if professors are punished for imperfectly representing the faith. And when faculty members are afraid to speak their minds, students are deprived of a rewarding educational experience.

In the specific case of Professor Hawkins, the college seems particularly misguided. Different Christian sects believe different things about whether Muslims, Christians, and Jews worship the same God; I attended Catholic school for 12 years, and my teachers always stressed the commonalities of the faiths. Wheaton College, it seems, takes the view that professors must emphasize the distinctions between Christianity and other religions when they speak on matters of faith. Still, Hawkins' statement hardly seems like an egregious breach of doctrine, considering the spirit in which it was written.

I would note also that Hawkins was a tenured professor—the only tenured black professor at the college. Tenure obviously means very little at Wheaton.