Dancing and drinking: Evangelical Wheaton College liberalizes its venerable behavior pledge

Posted: Friday, March 07, 2003

In the world of evangelical colleges, it was a moment to remember a shift on roughly the same level as a single-sex school turning into a coed institution.

Wheaton College in Illinois announced that, henceforth, faculty members may drink and smoke in private and students may dance off-campus and at regulated college events.

The decision highlights both the challenges faced by conservative, Protestant schools in staking out their identity in the 21st century, and Wheaton's prominence in evangelical America.

Wheaton is the flagship,'' says the Rev. Timothy Fulop, academic vice president of Tennessee's King College. Wheaton really does set the tone.''

Alumni of the school include Fulop, the Rev. Billy Graham, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, chief presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson and the late businessman Todd Beamer, the let's roll'' hero of Sept. 11.

Located in a county seat west of Chicago, Wheaton is a place where SAT scores exceed the national average by 300 points, and this year's freshmen include 28 National Merit finalists. The school ranked 11th in a survey of the undergraduate schools for Americans who earned doctorates between 1920 and 1990.

 

Wheaton College student body president Paily Eapen stands in front of the campus chapel in Wheaton, Ill., March 3, 2003. Eapen says a recent loosening of the college's rules on drinking and smoking for faculty may broaden the availability of teachers for the small evangelical college west of Chicago.

AP Photo/Aynsley Floyd

The school's new Community Covenant,'' announced two weeks ago, still forbids alcohol and tobacco use on campus, and graduate students and professors are directed to abstain if undergraduates who may only indulge during vacations are present.

Whatever dancing students do off campus, on campus they will attend only official college dances.

Why the shift? Fulop, who has researched Wheaton's history, thinks the trustees understand their faith as part of a larger world movement'' and know these are uniquely American controversies.''

They also realize, he says, that the tide shifted 10 or 20 years ago'' among U.S. evangelicals, making drinking or dancing matters of personal discretion.

The college mailed explanations of the changes to 35,000 alumni this week. College President Duane Litfin issued a defensive e-mail Monday asserting that Wheaton's standards are not weakened; they are strengthened.''

The mailing notes that a 1991 Illinois law forbids discrimination against employees who drink or smoke off the job unless that violates a sincerely held religious belief.'' Wheaton acknowledges the Bible nowhere requires abstinence'' and the bans were only traditions.

Like its previous code of conduct known as the Statement of Responsibilities'' the new covenant commits teachers and students to a sweeping list of biblical virtues (love, humility, honesty, sexual propriety). A new clause says human life must be protected from conception to death.''

The long-standing ban on gambling has vanished, though it's no problem on campus, says Lisa Nudd, editor of the campus newspaper. Nudd said the school's 2,400 undergraduates mostly wanted to drop what they considered an outdated ban on most forms of social dancing.''

The alcohol shift is important among some older alumni for whom this is wrapped up in what it means to be a Christian,'' says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton's Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.

Student body president Paily Eapen expects allowing private drinking will broaden the faculty talent pool, but doubts Wheaton's rules harm student recruitment.

Though outsiders may smirk, Eapen says students favor a dry campus because we don't have to deal with issues that almost plague other campuses.''

Wheaton's code is known as the pledge'' because staff and students assent in writing each year. The original 1867 campus code forbade alcohol, tobacco, billiards, cards and other games of chance'' and involvement in any secret society.''

The billiards ban quickly vanished. Opposition to secret societies, which lasted till the 1970s, was once part of the evangelical reform agenda, alongside abolition of slavery and alcohol prohibition.

In 1967, Wheaton dropped its rule against movies and theatergoing, which had been made obsolete by television. The Covenant'' simply directs Wheatonians to choose wisely, shunning entertainment that's immodest, sinfully erotic or harmfully violent.''

The revised rules further distinguish Wheaton-style evangelicals from fundamentalists, who share conservative theology but require stricter lifestyles.

For instance, prohibitions at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute include dancing, movies, taverns, night clubs and rock music concerts. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia, a bit more liberal, allows movies except those rated R, NC-17 or X. Both schools have elaborate dress codes (for example, no shorts, no body piercing, no long hair for men).

James Davison Hunter, sociology chairman at the University of Virginia, has observed campus behavior since his days at evangelical Gordon College in Massachusetts (no alcohol and tobacco on campus).

He says the conservative, Protestant college world was a safe and unbesieged enclave until the 1960s'' but almost everything around them is challenging those boundaries.''

Wheaton, he says, has now distilled what is important to the tradition and what is not.''

On the Net:

Wheaton College Covenant'': http://www.wheaton.edu/welcome/cov



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