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Wheaton College OKs Dancing But Won't Get Swept Off Its Feet

The 'flagship' of evangelical colleges says that by dropping some of its prohibitions, its standards are strengthened.

March 08, 2003|Richard N. Ostling | Associated Press

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

Fulop is an alumnus of the school. So, too, are the Rev. Billy Graham, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), 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. This year's freshmen include 28 National Merit Scholarship finalists.

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 indulge only during vacations -- are present.

Regardless of 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."

He said they also realize 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 sent an 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, said 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."

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

Though outsiders may smirk, Eapen said 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 billiard ban quickly vanished. Opposition to secret societies, which lasted until 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 revised rules further distinguish Wheaton-style evangelicals from fundamentalists, who share conservative theology but require stricter lifestyles.

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 said 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 said, has now "distilled what is important to the tradition and what is not."

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