The New Inquisition: Illiberalism in the Modern Academy

Most college students are taught that, in the pre-Enlightenment world, religious zealots persecuted enlightened astronomers for daring to challenge deeply held but ignorant religious beliefs on the basis of early modern science. Whether that story is true as told is immaterial. That is is widely accepted as historical fact is quite material because, however much they suffered in the premodern world, the enlightened scientists are now the power structure and the guardians of the status quo and some of them are now being charged with being heresy hunters in their own right.

Dr. C. Martin Gaskell, PhD., is an astronomer who has taught at the University of Nebraska and the University of Texas. He applied for a position at the University of Kentucky and, even though the chairman of the search committee found him to be far more qualified than the person hired for the position, Gaskell was denied the position. He alleges that he was denied because some on the search committee (and others whom they consulted) feared that he might be an “evangelical.”

The ACLJ is representing Gaskell against the University of Kentucky. They charge, among other things, that UK violated his Title VII protections. There is clear evidence that a staff member did online research about Gaskell’s religious beliefs and that the interpretation of what they found played an essential role in the decision to deny the position to Gaskell. The chairman of the search committee even complained about the inequity of the committee’s decision:

It has become clear to me that there is virtually no way Gaskell will be offered the job despite his qualifications that stand far above those of any other applicant. Other reasons will be given for this choice when we meet Tuesday. In the end, however, the real reason why we will not offer him the job is because of his religious beliefs in matters that are unrelated to astronomy or to any of the duties specified for this position. (For example, the job does not involve outreach in biology.). . . If Martin were not so superbly qualified, so breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience, then our decision would be much simpler. We could easily choose another applicant, and we could content ourselves with the idea that Martin’s religious beliefs played little role in our decision. However, this is not the case. As it is, no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin on any basis other than religious. . . .

The court found this statement, later partially retracted, to be evidence of religious discrimination. The decision to move the case to trial gives other evidences of potential religious discrimination including a memo which expressed concern that Gaskell was “potentially evangelical.” The (US District Court) decision notes that there’s no evidence that Gaskell asked the UK to accommodate his religious beliefs. Gaskell’s stated view is that evolutionary theory is correct. The problem, for some members of the UK faculty, is that Gaskell did not hold evolutionary orthodoxy in the right way.

And modernists complain about the intolerance of the pre-modern inquisition!

The reader might (or might not) be a little surprised at the apparently illiberal attitudes found in a bastion of the liberal arts. My experience in state-funded schools, particularly state-funded schools in the middle part of the country, is quite like that of David French, who writes about this case,

In fact, in my experience, conservative-state professors can be among the most aggressive, feeling that they must act as beacons of (self-described) reason in dark places such as Kentucky. Whereas professors at Berkeley feel secure — as if the battle has been won — Kentucky professors look a few miles north to the Creation Museum and feel the call to become ideological warriors.

What we have here is partly a case of over-compensation. As French notes, academics on the coasts might actually be more tolerant (contra expectations) because they don’t feel the same need to demonstrate to watching colleagues that they are academically and intellectually orthodox whereas academics in fly over country feel the need to demonstrate their orthodoxy by being fearfully intolerant. These scholars were so afraid of giving aid and comfort to the creationists up the road from them that they became the sort of intolerant fundamentalists they feared.

Finally, there’s a brief note in the NYT coverage of this case. The reporter, Mark Oppenheimer, notes that the ACLU has no reports of similar cases. That’s remarkable. One wonders how aggressively the civil libertarians have pursued this question. One of the great points of tension for young Christian scholars seeking employment in state-funded schools is their faith. Should they admit to it or should they hide it? There is significant pressure in academic circles to conform to the accepted, critical, Enlightenment-sponsored view of things. If the ACLU has no cases it is not because they do not exist but because to file a case against a potential employer would mark a young scholar with a scarlet “C” for the rest of his career.

It is remarkable that anything approaching historic Christianity seems to be the one thing about which the ostensibly most tolerant and liberal institutions in our culture are most intolerant and illiberal. Whatever the outcome of this case, academic administrators in state-funded schools, to which religious people contribute via taxes, should read the search committee chairman’s note. You say that you are worried about tolerance on campus? Well, perhaps you should add the C. Martin Gaskell’s of the academic world to your list of victims to be protected?

The point here isn’t really the “victim card” at all but true tolerance and liberality. Notice that the one thing that goes unquestioned in this whole case is the orthodoxy of evolutionary theory. Any theory that cannot be questioned is not a theory but dogma and dogma and of such a kind that to question it places on in social and professional jeopardy. Is the existence of unquestioned and unquestionable dogma in keeping with the spirit of free enquiry? I think not. To the degree that scholars are not allowed to question the dogma of evolution, on pain of exclusion, the modern academy is a white-washed sepulcher—No it is the new inquisition.