Teaching In The Non-Believer’s Closet (A Guest Post on Christian Colleges)

The writer is an Instructor at a small Christian college.

“God bless you!”

I hadn’t just sneezed. I was holding open the door for a colleague struggling under the weight of a file box. “That looks heavy,” I replied, demonstrating for the zillionth time my ability to master in remarkably quick order that which is supremely obvious. “New Bibles!” she enthused. “Ah,” I said, “that would explain it.” And a wayward shoelace captured my attention.

Welcome to Religious Identity U, where I have taught on an adjunct and VAP basis over the course of a decade – and where I have done so in the closet, because I am a non-believer. I teach here because I need the money, because it’s actually a nice place to work, and because most of the schools where I live are just like RIU. I was asked to share some thoughts about teaching at a religiously affiliated university as a non-believer.

Spoiler alert: They talk about God a lot. You’d better, too.

The term, “religiously affiliated institution,” covers a lot of ground. At one end there’s places like Boston College and Georgetown – Catholic institutions, but not usually thought of as being especially “churchy.” At the other end are places like Biola University (an acronym for “Bible Institute of Los Angeles”) and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, where promoting the denomination and faith are explicit parts of the mission statement. In between are hundreds of small colleges and universities associated with one or another Christian — and usually Evangelical — denomination, where unsuspecting ABDs and newly minted Ph.D.’s often apply to job ads without really understanding what it means to be inside them. Places like RIU.

Bottom line: like RIU, many these schools sincerely want to educate and not indoctrinate, but not at the cost of the faith – so the faith comes first. Sometimes this is made explicit: at one school in my area, faculty must affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman in order to teach, while at another non-married faculty must affirm in writing they will not engage in sexual behavior. At RIU, faculty must incorporate content into every syllabus that – to the institution’s credit – can either affirm or challenge students’ faith. But at a minimum, this means that to teach successfully here as a non-believer one needs to be conversant in Christianity generally and the denomination specifically.

That the faith comes first will often be reflected in the professional achievements of your colleagues. At RIU, publishing is much less important than being a “good Christian” and getting good teaching evaluations (and RIU takes evaluations very seriously – department chairs review every one, every semester, with every faculty member). As an outsider, then, you’d do well to spend less time in research and writing and more in going to lunch – and be sure to be heard during the prayer.

RIU is an equal-opportunity employer, but with very few exceptions non-Christians need not apply. Co-denominationalists will know the “secret handshake” and will receive a preference in hiring, tenure, and promotion. There is a caste system at RIU. Faculty who are Christians, but not of the denomination, are less-than-first-class citizens, and the more liberal the flavor of Christianity (Episcopalians are especially suspect), the closer one gets to second-class. Indeed, even those from the wrong side of the Great Intra-Denominational Schism of the 1970s will struggle (resentment still festers over the introduction of guitar-accompaniment to the hymnal). There are no Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, or Muslims, and there are no non-believers (not even me, because I lie about it – adjunct job security, you see).

And of course there are no LGBT faculty. Because Jesus.

Except for life in the closet, RIU is a lovely place to work, even as an adjunct. Other than the relatively low pay (typical of Evangelical schools) and extortionate teaching load, it’s pretty much a dream adjunct gig: office and computer and phone and mailbox and helpful support staff; ladder faculty who invite you to join them for lunch or dinner at their homes; invitations to meet the deans and even the president; supervisors who appreciate and acknowledge your teaching skills; and your colleagues who seem genuinely happy to be there. They even dress for work, especially compared to the stereotypically shabby faculty of the R-1 where I received my training (and yes, it’s ties for the gents and skirts for the ladies).

But make no mistake: because RIU is small, gossip and not scholarship is stock-in-trade. Who you are as a person – as a Christian – is infinitely more important than who you are as a scholar. Take a job at RIU, and your secrets won’t stay secret long. Administrators talk, faculty talk, and students talk, and the “real” members of the community – those of the school’s specific denomination – will see each other many times a week at chapel. And that talk matters – tenure isn’t necessarily a protection against apostasy.

None of this will be in the job ad, of course. RIU is an equal-opportunity employer. But understand this: if you want tenure, you’d do well to burnish your classroom skills, you’d do well to go to chapel, you’d do well to say, “God bless you!” an awful lot.

Because at RIU, there’s never a wrong time to invoke the Almighty.

Similar Posts:


Teaching In The Non-Believer’s Closet (A Guest Post on Christian Colleges) — 12 Comments

  1. Dear Dr. Karen (and anonymous author of this blog post),

    Let me make sure I understand you clearly: you are advising people to lie about their job qualifications in order to find employment.

    Is that correct?

    Would you encourage them to add “extra” publications to their CV, or maybe conference presentations, just to give them a boost on this job market? Of course you wouldn’t!

    Why then, is this kind of intellectual dishonesty acceptable? What is the difference between lying about your publication record and lying about your religious affiliation? The two boil down to the same behavior: lying.

    The fact that the job market is tough is no excuse. There are lots of jobs outside academia. There are lots of jobs INSIDE academia that don’t require professions of faith. When we get to the point where lying is considered a legitimate career strategy, maybe that’s an indication that we (collectively) need some perspective.

    Honestly, Dr. Karen, I’m disappointed in you for publishing an article like this. I’ve been a reader for years and appreciate your practical approach to professionalization for Ph.Ds. But I would also expect you (as gatekeeper to this site) to be a bit more aware of the ethical implications of the strategy promoted here. If we ever want our students to have academic and intellectual integrity, we have to be examples of those qualities to them. I don’t see how we could rise to that standard using this kind of job-seeking tactic.

    • Ok. First of all, there is to “ethical” implications, as ethics are not tied to religion. Also, the author establishes that all institutions around him/her are religious, so it’s about “financial survival”.
      Furthermore, the author clearly doesn’t undermine that religious institution and keeps it for him/herself.
      Finally, “intellectual dishonesty”? Really? Religiousness is not something you can quantify… like a publication, a presentation or a job. Don’t try to mix beliefs with facts!

  2. A very simple answer on the original blogger’s behalf would be to point out that in circumstances where the institution is claiming to be an equal-opportunity employer but in actuality privileges believers at every turn, to feign a religious affiliation is not only a wholly rational response, but a morally excusable action–at the very least–in the face of a fundamentally unfair and mendacious setup. Notice who holds the power, here!

    In addition, consider that supposedly equal-opportunity RAIs (RIUs) typically can require or enforce only a commitment to furthering the university’s objectives. If the faking-it instructor manages to do so just as effectively as the true believer, as evidenced by teaching evaluations, the requisite amount of Hallelujahs, etc., then where is the difference?

  3. Karen,

    I fail to understand the value of this essay. For job seekers who are religious, and who are applying to jobs at religious colleges or universities, it serves little value as they are unlikely to be bothered by adherence to their own religious beliefs. For job seekers who are non-religious (and who are uninterested in lying on job applications) it serves equally little value.

    Additionally, the author demonstrates a stunning lack of integrity, not simply in their maintaining a pretense of religiosity, but in their narrow, even misleading, view of life at a typical RIU.
    As someone who’s worked, taught and traveled inside the RIU world for several years, it’s almost never the case that “unsuspecting…newly minted Ph.D.’s” are unaware that a college is strongly affiliated with a particular faith commitment. The very fact that that author felt the need to lie on their application would likely inform “unsuspecting” applicants that the institution to which they are applying is strongly committed to a particular religion. Additionally, not all religious institutions are Christian. For example, Zaytuna College in California is a wonderful example of an RIU institution that is Islamic. I doubt very much that faculty there harbor festering resentment over the “Great Intra-Denominational Schism of the 1970s” (whatever that is).

    The idea that for “small” institutions “gossip and not scholarship is stock-in-trade” is not only offensive, it’s also terrible advice to job seekers and the suggestion that “you’d do well to spend less time in research and writing and more in going to lunch” is terrible advice for anyone who wants to succeed at any college, RIU or not.


    • This essay is pretty consistent with what my clients at religious-affiliated institutions have shared with me over the past four years. The issue of the author’s integrity is a separate issue, but in terms of the depiction of the institution (or institutional type), I can’t say I’ve encountered much that contradicts this.

      Also, re the (dis)honesty part: I’m not telling anybody to do anything (and neither is the author). I’m merely sharing one instructor’s experience.

    • Dear J,

      A major issue is the stunning lack of intellectual integrity displayed by a subset of Christian political activists in America today. That unfortunately includes a number of evangelical colleges, from Liberty to Hillsdale.

      What we’ve learned from 2017 is that the religious right cares little about Jesus, as can be seen in their desire to deny healthcare to children to cut taxes on the rich. They don’t follow Jesus, who said “give [your] money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. What they care about is their identity (largely white identity) and excluding others (minorities, liberals). Liberty and Hillsdale either back racists, or have explicitly racist policies.

      Here’s a good article about how the religious right grew out of racism. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

      Liberty and Hillsdale and some other religious universities reject academic and American values. The author of this post is right to point that out, and the school should be ashamed that “Who you are as a person – as a Christian – is infinitely more important than who you are as a scholar.” That’s anti-intellectualism. And ultimately those who work at that school are helping Republican billionaires destroy America. None of us should stand for that. Good for the author for writing this post.

  4. Two friends at RIUs. This is sounds like the conversations I’ve had with both. Neither is aligned to the denomination of their school, and both navigated the offer without thinking that would be “a big deal”. They were wrong, both are having difficulty leaving, and both are uncomfortably faking it while figuring out a path forward. IMHO, both have integrity, but the situation in which they find themselves is very difficult. Thank you for posting this.

    • As one of those naive ABD Ph.D. candidates who applied to a tenure-track position at an RIU – will it hurt your career prospects to take such a job as a stepping stone? Is it better to adjunct elsewhere or take a postdoc for a year? I have been invited to interview for such a tenure track position, but the more research I do on the institution, the more troubled I am by the school’s student conduct policy. I don’t belong to the institution’s Christian denomination, and I am graduating from one of the leading programs in my field. Should I just use this as interview experience and move on? Thank you for any advice!

      • If you are not interested in teaching at the school, do not go to the interview. It’s a waste of your time and the school’s time and money. Small institutions such as this do not have much money to spend on interviews and the search committees are often limited to bringing 1-2 candidates to campus.

        You can have a forthright conversation with the search committee before you agree to the interview, asking your questions about the concerns you have with the student conduct policy. If you feel like you could work there after those responses, then move ahead with the interview process. If you don’t, find a different job or postdoc and you will be happier.

Leave a Reply to Anonymous Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.