The co-author of a major ex-gay study is a key figure in the controversy over the direction of Wheaton College, Illinois.
In the article Whither Wheaton?, appearing in the SOMA Review, Andrew Chignell names Dr Stanton L Jones, Provost of Wheaton College, as a force in the increasingly authoritarian approach to doctrine at the flagship evangelical school:
Still, when one spends time talking with Wheaton faculty, students, and supporters, alongside real appreciation one is also likely to hear expressions of deep concern about the unusually pro-active roles that [President] Litfin and his provost, Stanton Jones, have assumed as the definers and defenders of orthodoxy across the college.
Chignell notes how under Liftin the school has come to adopt a “magisterial” model, where firm doctrinal positions are imposed from the top down. So, for example, any member of faculty who took a less-than-literal view of Adam and Eve was deemed unfit for employment. Those who were not sure would be given a year to bring their doctrine in line or leave. The President eventually softened, allowing those in the second category to remain.
It appears that Stanton Jones, with responsibility for all undergraduate and postgraduate studies, was Liftin’s second-in-command when it came to implementing these changes. Chignell recounts the following episode involving Jones:
A few years later, Alex Bolyanatz, a tenure-track anthropologist who taught about human origins, decided that it might be wise to invite the new provost to sit in on his lectures: “I had no doubt that hearing my version of a Christian view of integrating the evolutionary model with a faith perspective would make anyone say, ‘This guy is just fine; does exactly what we want here.’ I now know, of course, that this was somewhere between stupid and naïve. I invited Provost Stan Jones to attend my class and he did for six sessions. I believed that I was ensuring that I would spend a long and satisfying career there. Wrong! I was, in fact, digging my own professional grave at Wheaton.”
He also relates the story of Christina Van Dyke, now a member of the philosophy faculty at Calvin College, whose appointment process was abruptly halted because of her hardly remarkable views on homosexuality and Scripture. Van Dyke signed the Wheaton Statement of Faith and its “Community Covenant,” but added the proviso that “it isn’t clear to me that the Bible unambiguously condemns monogamous same-sex relationships.”
She did not deny the traditional teaching, but expressed a view about interpretation of Scripture a little more nuanced than that of many evangelicals. Again, Jones intervened. Van Dyke recalls:
I got a call from Stan Jones, asking me a number of questions about my reservations. I kept saying that I was not claiming to have figured this out, but that it was not at all clear to me from my own research and study that the Bible’s position on homosexual behavior was unambiguous. We talked about how I would handle students who came to me to talk about questioning their own sexuality, and I said I would be willing to send them elsewhere. He sent me a whole stack of reading material (much of which he’d written) arguing that the Bible’s position on homosexual behavior was, in fact, clear. I read it all. . . . I didn’t change my mind. … [At] about 5 pm the day before my interview was scheduled, [the chair] called in tears to tell me that he’d just finished talking to the provost, and that I was no longer a candidate for their position.
Stanton Jones and the Jones-Yarhouse Study
It is unsurprising to find Jones coming in for criticism for toeing such a hard line on conservative evangelical doctrine, especially homosexuality. With Dr Mark Yarhouse of Regents University, Virginia, he authored the 2007 study Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation. The study was severely limited, with questionable methodology and negligible results – even when judged generously. Dr Patrick Chapman critiqued Jones-Yarhouse for Ex-Gay Watch here.
Ironically, it has been observed that Jones was the more outspoken of the two in trumpeting the results of the study, despite Yarhouse coming from a traditionally more conservative college. For an essentially academic work, the book is notable for its evangelistic flavour. Chignell’s revelations about Wheaton College confirm that Jones in particular has a partisan interest in the homosexuality debate.
Someone didn’t want the Wheaton story published
This website is the author’s own account of his difficult battle to get the piece published. It was written to coincide with the eve of the appointment of a new president for Wheaton College, and was originally commissioned by John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, an often-thoughtful evangelical publication under the Christianity Today banner. It was accepted “enthusiastically,” Chignell says, in mid-September 2009.
It was due to be published last year, but was unexpectedly pulled by Harold Smith, CEO of Christianity Today International, a day or two before it was to go to press. Wilson told Chignall that “this sort of editorial control had never been exercised in the fourteen-year history of Books and Culture.”
Smith insisted that several issues with the article be addressed before it could be published. It was taken away and revised, and a few meetings later it was again scheduled to run. Just a few days after this confirmation, however, the piece was pulled for a last time. Chignell writes:
The following Monday, Smith called Wilson in and told him that the piece was irrevocably dead. In a note to me, Smith expressed sympathy but gave no explanation, except to say that “new hurdles” had arisen. He did promise that no one from Wheaton College had directly intervened.
Evangelicalism’s battle of the generations
At the heart of Chignell’s piece is a conflict between generations of evangelicals. He graduated from Wheaton himself, and recalls the effect on the school of Bill Clinton’s election as US President in 1992:
At Wheaton in the fall of 1992 (my freshman year), there was intense soul-searching about why God had denied the victory just as change on key issues like abortion seemed within reach. The night after the election, students held a massive vigil, heads bowed and leaders speaking anxiously about the coming liberal onslaught.
He compares that to the reaction to Obama in 2008:
At Wheaton in the fall of 2008, by contrast, the predominantly African American Gospel Choir took the chapel stage the morning after Obama’s election and gave a rousing performance of “God Bless America.” That night there was a panel discussion in which Litfin, too, emphasized that future evangelicals “cannot afford to be seen as in the hip pocket of any particular polity or political entity.”
These are changing times. Many younger evangelicals identify with the political progressives and liberals of the Democratic Party, rather than the social and moral conservatives of the Republicans and their evangelical forebears. In 1993, Wheaton was a place where “the culture wars were hot, with many students (presciently) advocating a hard-right turn as the path to Republican recovery,” Chignell tells us. At Wheaton in 2010, party politics has waned, with students “far more concerned with the relationship between their faith and social justice than with political affiliation,” according to Juliana Wilhoit, the head of what she calls “the most anemic College Democrats organization north of Bob Jones.”
The Jones-Yarhouse study was a valiant attempt to rescue an ex-gay movement whose once-popular claims are fading. Likewise, the attempts of the outgoing Wheaton President Duane Liftin and his number two to instill by force on Wheaton a hardline “orthodoxy” seem to be last-ditch efforts to salvage the remnants of an increasingly threatened socially conservative evangelicalism.