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Exclusive: Wheaton College Provost Called Suspended Professor’s Muslim Comments ‘Innocuous’

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The Wheaton College provost overseeing an expulsion trial against a tenured professor who said Christians and Muslims worship the same God wrote in a private email last month that her comments were “innocuous” but that they had created a public relations disaster for the Illinois college.

“Articles are already being written in a variety of news sources, and the media are pounding on our door asking for comments about our faculty who are endorsing Islam,” wrote Provost Stanton Jones, in a December 11 email obtained by TIME to Wheaton Psychology professor Michael Mangis. “We are being asked to defend why we have faculty openly rejecting with (sic) the institution stands for.”

The scandal, which has engulfed the evangelical college in Illinois, began a day earlier, when the school’s first-ever tenured black female professor, Larycia Hawkins, wrote a Facebook post declaring solidarity with Muslims following the San Bernardino terrorist attacks. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” Hawkins wrote on Facebook. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Since then the campus has divided, as many fellow professors begin to defend her comments while the administration has begun a proceeding that could lead to her termination for reasons that include her Facebook post. In interviews this week with TIME, several of her fellow faculty spoke out against the administrative proceeding against her. “I have seen no theological argument from the college that would deem her commitments unacceptable,” Gary Burge, professor of New Testament, tells TIME. “[Hers] is a clear, compelling affirmation of what we believe in Wheaton’s Statement of Faith.”

Professors and students at Wheaton sign the school’s “Statement of Faith,” a doctrinal statement that draws on historic Christian creeds and summarizes biblical principles of evangelical Christianity. The statement does not define a relationship between evangelical Christianity and Islam, and there is longstanding division within the evangelical community about the variations of belief that should be allowed. (Note: This Wheaton is different from and unaffiliated with the Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., which is not a religious institution.)

In the comment section under Hawkins’ original Facebook post, Mangis, the psychology professor, had written to defend Hawkins’ statement in early December. “If you get any grief at work give me a heads-up because I’ll be leading my spring psychology of religion class in Muslim prayers,” he wrote.

Hawkins was not contacted by the administration with concern about her post until Dec. 15. But four days earlier, Provost Jones wrote to Mangis, giving him an opportunity to withdraw and apologize for his Facebook post. “I cannot tell you what a disaster this brief comment from you on Facebook is shaping up to be,” wrote Jones. “Larycia Hawkins also meant something similarly innocuous, but her theological comments are being taken up as an endorsement of Islam and a clear and emphatic statement that Islam and Christianity are approximately the same.”

In the emails obtained by TIME, Mangis initially pushed back. “I personally don’t usually give much thought to how someone’s paranoia might lead them to draw inappropriate conclusions from simple statements,” he wrote to Jones, saying he respected what Hawkins was doing. In the same email, he said he understood the college was vulnerable and he wanted to help.

Jones offered Mangis language for a suggested clarification statement, which explained that he only wanted students to experiment with different postures of prayer. “I am not a syncretist,” the statement that Jones crafted says. “I do not teach students to pray to Allah or consider Islamic spirituality equivalent to Christian faith.” Meanwhile, a friend told Hawkins that Mangis’ comment was causing questions, and she deleted Mangis’ comment from her Facebook wall. Mangis and Jones closed their emails exchanging “Salaam alaykum”—Arabic for “Peace be upon you”—and Mangis faced no further theological scrutiny.

Wheaton administration responded on Saturday to TIME’s questions about why it treated Mangis’ and Hawkins’ Facebook posts differently. “Dr. Jones was similarly concerned about the theological implications of Dr. Hawkins’ December 10 Facebook post regarding Christianity and Islam, despite viewing her intention as presumably innocuous,” Wheaton told TIME in a statement. “Dr. Jones hoped that once the issues regarding the theological content of her post were brought to her attention, Dr. Hawkins would offer a retraction or a satisfactory clarification.”

Instead of contacting Hawkins directly, Jones had asked another faculty member to approach Hawkins about her post, and Hawkins wrote a second post on Dec. 13, clarifying her initial words. “Unlike Dr. Mangis’ immediate apology, retraction, and collaboration in preparing a public statement, Dr. Hawkins’ second Facebook post did not adequately clarify the theological issues raised in the first post, and instead created significant concerns about her alignment with the college’s Statement of Faith,” Wheaton tells TIME.

On Dec. 15 Jones summoned Hawkins to a meeting, where he presented Hawkins with a two-page document outlining “areas of significant concern” over her theological views and asked her to respond in two days. At the same meeting, he placed Hawkins on paid administrative leave. Hawkins submitted a four-page theological statement on Dec. 17 as requested, and has repeatedly maintained that her comments emerged from her evangelical conviction of solidarity with Muslims. The college requested additional theological explanation. Hawkins says she then declined the college’s proposal to let her teach in the fall but undergo a two-year review of her theology, during which her tenure would be revoked.

On January 4, Jones sent Hawkins a notice that the college was beginning the process of terminating her employment, and the college explained that “Dr. Hawkins declined to participate in further dialogue about the theological implications of her public statements and her December 17 response.” The college has not made public the full document outlining all reasons behind its move to fire her, but says on its website that what is “at issue are the theological implications of Dr. Hawkins’ statements and requested explanation.”

Hawkins made her theological statement public on Wednesday following a press conference. “When calling on one member to over and above every other member of the campus community to answer for a Facebook post that was actually committed to living out the love of Christ and the principles of the Statement of Faith, no one is safe,” she added.

“What is at stake for me is the integrity of my Christian testimony,” Hawkins tells TIME. “The administration, particularly Provost Stan Jones, insists that my Facebook post is a theological statement rather than an act of human solidarity emanating out of my faith commitment, that strikes me a drawing a line in the evangelical sand, and my body happens to be in the middle of that.”

Around the same time, Wheaton administrators responded to five faculty who took flowers and letters of support to a nearby Islamic Center earlier in December. English professor Tiffany Eberle Kriner wrote a letter expressing fury at abuses against Muslims, especially by fundamentalist evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, and expressed a desire to be better friends rooted in “shared love of the one God.” The administration did not contact all faculty who visited, but did reach out to Kriner to request clarification about her comments.

“The administration was concerned when her personal letter, which had been printed on college letterhead, appeared on social media,” Wheaton tells TIME in a statement. “Dr. Kriner immediately apologized for using college letterhead for a personal statement, and expressed regret for the theological confusion that could potentially follow from her statement. After discussion with Dr. Jones, she articulated her alignment with the theological standards of the college, and worked with him to finalize a clarification that could be used publicly if needed.”

The controversy is perhaps the most explosive for the school since Wheaton faculty engaged theories of evolution in the 1960s. It comes as the school is fighting the Obama administration’s contraception mandate on religious liberty claims, as racial and political demographic shifts change American evangelicalism, and as Muslims face heightened backlash for terrorism in Paris and San Bernardino. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson has compared Hawkins to Rosa Parks.

Jones will prosecute Hawkins at a hearing of nine tenured faculty members in the coming weeks. They will then submit a recommendation to Wheaton’s president Philip Ryken, who will submit a recommendation to the Board of Trustees, who will issue a final decision about her future at the college.

Now that Hawkins’ theological statement has been made public, faculty at Wheaton are starting to defend her. Some plan to wear their academic regalia in solidarity with her when classes resume on Monday. “Anyone who reads the document where Dr. Hawkins clarified her theological position to the administration can see that it is deeply rooted in the Statement of Faith that all Wheaton College faculty are asked to affirm annually,” says George Kalantzis, professor of theology and director of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies.

The debate centers on what room should be allowed within an evangelical doctrine of God for a range of perspectives. “Evangelicals need to sort out what is theologically essential from what is theologically peripheral,” Burge, the New Testament professor, explains. “Christian colleges like Wheaton write statements of faith to protect what is essential but they also need to discern where faculty are free to express private views. This is the very essence of academic freedom. Dr. Hawkins’ theological commitments place her squarely within the bounds of what is theologically essential at Wheaton College—and she should be free to express her other views where they do not violate those essentials.”

Brian Howell, professor of anthropology, notes that as a faith-based institution, Wheaton has long faced specific tensions other schools do not. “I am deeply troubled by issues of process in this case, and there are many questions I know faculty want answered in the coming weeks, but I do not think that this reflects some new pathology at Wheaton,” Howell says. “We are an unusual institution, and I know this will occasionally lead to conflict internal and external. I only hope we can handle it now and in the future with love for all concerned.”

The moment is complicated by the broader cultural and political forces at play in the U.S. and in the world. “My fear is that the political extremes we now see in our country, typified and exacerbated perhaps by Donald Trump, have now been baptized and brought into the evangelical world,” Burge says. “This likely influenced the public reactivity to Dr. Hawkins words and actions. My hope is that the Wheaton community will not be influenced by the polarizing political pressures we see everywhere today.”

A general attitude of fear and concern has also swept through the faculty, who are wondering now what expressions of their evangelical faith the college will deem acceptable, which cross the line, and what standard the college will use to decide. Their rights as workers, and as evangelical workers, is now part of what Hawkins is fighting for.

“It has also been very shocking to me at Wheaton at every turn to have to explain my evangelical chops like I need to, like I was not already thoroughly vetted when I applied there, like I don’t assent to the Statement of Faith every year when I sign my contract,” Hawkins says. “Yes, Wheaton has a right to say only evangelicals can work here, I assent to that, but what they are seemingly saying now is actually you don’t have freedom to say things that other evangelicals say.”

Reconciliation between Hawkins and the college is still possible. In fact, some see reason to hope for a unifying solution. “Unwarranted pressure was exerted on everyone involved to respond in ways that would satisfy the partisan interests of outside groups and their respective perceptions of ‘orthodoxy’ or ‘Evangelicalism,’” Kalantzis explains. “However, as an institution rooted in the Christian tradition, Wheaton College and every one of us intimately involved with it as staff, as faculty, as administrators and as board of trustees are deeply committed to the Christian concept of reconciliation, redemption, and peace.”

Hawkins original message of showing love to Muslims, especially Muslim women, was prompted by her decision to wear the hijab for the season of Advent leading to the celebration of Christmas, which prompted her Facebook post a month ago. “Through it all we’ve lost what she was trying to do—show solidarity for people that have been despised and rejected,” says Gene Green, Wheaton professor of New Testament. “Jesus got accused of being friends with tax collectors and sinner, he goes to the margins, to people everyone else pushes out, the Samaritan woman, the centurion’s servant. He’s really, really, good. And Larycia was doing a good thing.”

Elizabeth Dias is a correspondent for TIME covering religion and politics. She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Wheaton College, Ill, where she studied theology.

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