Faculty speak out to defend teacher
The Wheaton College provost overseeing an expulsion trial against a tenured professor who said Christians and Muslims worship the same God wrote in a private email last month that her comments were “innocuous” but that they had created a public relations disaster for the Illinois college.
“Articles are already being written in a variety of news sources, and the media are pounding on our door asking for comments about our faculty who are endorsing Islam,” wrote Provost Stanton Jones, in a December 11 email obtained by TIME to Wheaton Psychology professor Michael Mangis. “We are being asked to defend why we have faculty openly rejecting with (sic) the institution stands for.”
The scandal, which has engulfed the evangelical college in Illinois, began a day earlier, when the school’s first-ever tenured black female professor, Larycia Hawkins, wrote a Facebook post declaring solidarity with Muslims following the San Bernardino terrorist attacks. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” Hawkins wrote on Facebook. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
Since then the campus has divided, as many fellow professors begin to defend her comments while the administration has begun a proceeding that could lead to her termination for reasons that include her Facebook post. In interviews this week with TIME, several of her fellow faculty spoke out against the administrative proceeding against her. “I have seen no theological argument from the college that would deem her commitments unacceptable,” Gary Burge, professor of New Testament, tells TIME. “[Hers] is a clear, compelling affirmation of what we believe in Wheaton’s Statement of Faith.”
Professors and students at Wheaton sign the school’s “Statement of Faith,” a doctrinal statement that draws on historic Christian creeds and summarizes biblical principles of evangelical Christianity. The statement does not define a relationship between evangelical Christianity and Islam, and there is longstanding division within the evangelical community about the variations of belief that should be allowed. (Note: This Wheaton is different from and unaffiliated with the Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., which is not a religious institution.)
In the comment section under Hawkins’ original Facebook post, Mangis, the psychology professor, had written to defend Hawkins’ statement in early December. “If you get any grief at work give me a heads-up because I’ll be leading my spring psychology of religion class in Muslim prayers,” he wrote.
Hawkins was not contacted by the administration with concern about her post until Dec. 15. But four days earlier, Provost Jones wrote to Mangis, giving him an opportunity to withdraw and apologize for his Facebook post. “I cannot tell you what a disaster this brief comment from you on Facebook is shaping up to be,” wrote Jones. “Larycia Hawkins also meant something similarly innocuous, but her theological comments are being taken up as an endorsement of Islam and a clear and emphatic statement that Islam and Christianity are approximately the same.”
In the emails obtained by TIME, Mangis initially pushed back. “I personally don’t usually give much thought to how someone’s paranoia might lead them to draw inappropriate conclusions from simple statements,” he wrote to Jones, saying he respected what Hawkins was doing. In the same email, he said he understood the college was vulnerable and he wanted to help.
Jones offered Mangis language for a suggested clarification statement, which explained that he only wanted students to experiment with different postures of prayer. “I am not a syncretist,” the statement that Jones crafted says. “I do not teach students to pray to Allah or consider Islamic spirituality equivalent to Christian faith.” Meanwhile, a friend told Hawkins that Mangis’ comment was causing questions, and she deleted Mangis’ comment from her Facebook wall. Mangis and Jones closed their emails exchanging “Salaam alaykum”—Arabic for “Peace be upon you”—and Mangis faced no further theological scrutiny.
Wheaton administration responded on Saturday to TIME’s questions about why it treated Mangis’ and Hawkins’ Facebook posts differently. “Dr. Jones was similarly concerned about the theological implications of Dr. Hawkins’ December 10 Facebook post regarding Christianity and Islam, despite viewing her intention as presumably innocuous,” Wheaton told TIME in a statement. “Dr. Jones hoped that once the issues regarding the theological content of her post were brought to her attention, Dr. Hawkins would offer a retraction or a satisfactory clarification.”
Instead of contacting Hawkins directly, Jones had asked another faculty member to approach Hawkins about her post, and Hawkins wrote a second post on Dec. 13, clarifying her initial words. “Unlike Dr. Mangis’ immediate apology, retraction, and collaboration in preparing a public statement, Dr. Hawkins’ second Facebook post did not adequately clarify the theological issues raised in the first post, and instead created significant concerns about her alignment with the college’s Statement of Faith,” Wheaton tells TIME.
On Dec. 15 Jones summoned Hawkins to a meeting, where he presented Hawkins with a two-page document outlining “areas of significant concern” over her theological views and asked her to respond in two days. At the same meeting, he placed Hawkins on paid administrative leave. Hawkins submitted a four-page theological statement on Dec. 17 as requested, and has repeatedly maintained that her comments emerged from her evangelical conviction of solidarity with Muslims. The college requested additional theological explanation. Hawkins says she then declined the college’s proposal to let her teach in the fall but undergo a two-year review of her theology, during which her tenure would be revoked.
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