Can debate over Muslim God "undo" Wheaton College?

Professor's firing sparks debate about future of evangelicalism

  • Wheaton College Professor Larycia Hawkins, in yellow, stands next to the Rev. Jesse Jackson as she prepares to speak during a Chicago news conference earlier this month.

      Wheaton College Professor Larycia Hawkins, in yellow, stands next to the Rev. Jesse Jackson as she prepares to speak during a Chicago news conference earlier this month. White | Staff Photographer

  • The debate about Professor Larycia Hawkins' comments about God has divided Wheaton College staff, students and alumni.

      The debate about Professor Larycia Hawkins' comments about God has divided Wheaton College staff, students and alumni. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

By Sarah Pulliam Bailey
Washington Post
Updated 1/26/2016 6:40 AM

First of two parts

When Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins stands before a group of her peers next month for their judgment, at stake will be not only Hawkins but the future of evangelicalism.


Or that's how it can feel these days on the campus of the college sometimes dubbed "the evangelical Harvard." Evangelical debate has been intense about whether the hijab-wearing political science professor went too far in saying Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The debate has raised larger questions: How large is the evangelical tent, and who decides who is included?

The debate is splitting those affiliated with the college, the alma mater of evangelist Billy Graham and considered one of the standard-bearers of U.S. evangelicalism.

Alumni have flooded the college with letters, and the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, without picking a side, warned the issue "threatens to undo" the college.

Last week, Wheaton's faculty council, which represents the college's 211 faculty members, unanimously voted to recommend the administration withdraw its efforts to fire Hawkins, citing "grave concerns" about the process.

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On the other side, many students and professors support the college's actions.

While debates have been largely civil, there have been exceptions. Wheaton junior Maryam Bighash told police that another student smashed her face with a door while she was wearing the hijab in support of Hawkins.

Someone also created a fake website for the Islamic Center of Wheaton, attempting to connect the center, Hawkins and her supporters to ISIS. Two Wheaton professors who were photographed at the Islamic center while extending a hand of friendship were contacted by police and the FBI about their families' safety after photos of their families were posted on the website.

Taken together, the incidents are symbolic of just how fraught the issue has become for the campus.

Hawkins posted on Facebook in December that she would wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women during Advent, and her comment -- Christians and Muslims worship the same God -- set off a slew of reactions.

The school announced this month that it has begun a termination process for Hawkins after it reached an "impasse." Hawkins will have a hearing in front of a faculty personnel committee on Feb. 11, she said, after which the provost will make a recommendation to the president. The president will then make a recommendation to the board of trustees, which will ultimately decide whether Hawkins goes.


The Hawkins case exploded in the thick of a national conversation about the place of Islam, and about race and privilege. Hawkins is one of Wheaton's five black tenured professors, who make up 2 percent of the faculty, and its only full-time black female professor.

Some saw Hawkins' comments as a betrayal of Middle Eastern Christians who have been persecuted by Muslims, while others believe that her comments reflect their relationship with Islam.

And some have criticized Hawkins for standing alongside more theologically liberal leaders during her news conferences while others criticize the college for taking it to the press first.

The underlying theological debate is complex. It centers on how the Christian belief in a Trinitarian God -- God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit -- differs from the God of Islam and Judaism.

Theologians have debated whether Christians and Muslims understand God in the same way, and if so, whether they worship the same "one God." Do they define the word "worship" in the same way? The Evangelical Missiological Society published a collection of essays on the matter showing a range of views.

The Catholic Church has taught since the Second Vatican Council that Muslims and Christians worship one God, though they view Jesus differently.

Wheaton does not decide who is an evangelical, but it does decide who fits within its statement of faith, which faculty members are required to sign annually. The statement is crucial for the nondenominational school where beliefs and employment are tied together.

The college's statement of faith includes 12 statements, including its views on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

The statement does not specifically mention whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but the college has the authority to define how the statement applies to theology.

Wheaton Provost Stan Jones told students Thursday the college does not have an explicit stance on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

The initial question was whether Hawkins's Facebook post violates the statement of faith. The provost requested that she clarify her views.

In a statement from December on its website, Wheaton College officials said Hawkins's post was an "unqualified assertion of religious solidarity with Muslims and Jews." "We believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths," they said.

Hawkins provided the college a theological statement in which she affirms the doctrine of the Trinity and acknowledges differences between the religions.

After she submitted a follow-up theological statement, Jones requested more conversations.

"While her statement was thoughtful, well-written and would probably be acceptable as part of a new faculty application, given the particular issues raised, he felt that further conversation was indeed needed," a statement from the college said.

Hawkins declined, saying, "I don't want to be subjected to a theological inquisition."

In her last exchange with the provost, she said she was encouraged to hire a lawyer.

"The issue is not that Hawkins' statements were all definitively unorthodox, but that the college wanted and needed to better understand her thinking," the college said in a statement. "The administration had several questions that needed to be answered, which could have led to a different outcome, but when asked to participate in further dialogue about the issues, Dr. Hawkins declined to participate, bringing the process to an impasse."

Wednesday: Hawkins' future poses dilemma for Wheaton College

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