William Jennings Bryan earned a permanent place in American history nearly nine decades ago in the Scopes trial, when he stood in a courtroom here and successfully prosecuted a teacher who broke the law by teaching evolution in a public school.
While not quite “the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war,” as Time magazine put it, that captivated the nation in 1925, a similar debate is again playing out in Dayton, this time at an evangelical Christian college named for Bryan, which is being sued as part of a controversy over its own stance on the origin of humans.
The continuing debate at Bryan College and beyond is a reminder of how divisive the issues of the Scopes trial still are, even splitting an institution whose motto is “Christ Above All.” Playing out at a time when the teaching of evolution remains a cultural hot spot to a degree that might have stunned its proponents in Bryan’s era, the debate also reflects the problems many Christian colleges face as they try to balance religious beliefs with secular education.
Since Bryan College’s founding in 1930, its statement of belief, which professors have to sign as part of their employment contracts, included a 41-word section summing up the institution’s conservative views on creation and evolution, including the statement: “The origin of man was by fiat of God.” But in February, college officials decided that professors had to agree to an additional clarification declaring that Adam and Eve “are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms.”
For administrators and many members of the governing board at Bryan, the new language is a buffer against what they see as a marked erosion of Christian values and beliefs across the country. But for critics, the clarification amounts to an assault on personal religious views, as well as on the college’s history and sense of community.
“It makes Bryan a different place,” said Allison Baker, who graduated this month and was the vice president of the student government, which raised questions about the clarification’s swift enactment. “I would argue it makes it a more narrow place.”
The consequences so far have been stark at a college where about one-quarter of incoming students were home-schooled and whose alumni routinely earn spots in graduate programs at secular institutions. Two longtime faculty members this month sued the college, arguing that the Board of Trustees was powerless under the college’s charter to change the statement of belief. Brian Eisenback, a biology professor and a Bryan graduate whose parents met on campus, decided to move to another Christian college.
Faculty members, spurred in part by the clarification, said they had no confidence in Bryan’s president, Stephen D. Livesay. And before the academic year ended this month, hundreds of students, on a campus with an enrollment of more than 700, petitioned trustees in opposition to the plan.
Dr. Livesay said the clarification, which will not change the curriculum in any way, was intended to reaffirm, not alter, the institution’s traditional position. He said concerns had been building for years that some employees had perhaps moved “away from the historical and current position of the college.”
“We want to remain faithful to the historical charter of the school and what we have always practiced through the years,” Dr. Livesay said. “There has never been a need, up until today, to truly clarify and make explicit what has been part of the school for 84 years.”
He added, “We want to make certain that we view culture through the eyes of faith, that we don’t view our faith through the eyes of culture.”
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SOURCE: The New York Times