What is truly ironic is that the left depends on liberties, freedoms, and protections (speech, assembly, press, etc) that are distinctive products of the very Western civilization they attack. Indeed, our founding fathers who enshrined these rights in the constitution were inspired by great European thinkers such as Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Sir William Blackstone, Charles Montesquieu, David Hume and others, not to mention documents such as the English Charters of Liberty grounded in the Magna Carta.
Some full disclosure here: I’m a graduate of Pepperdine; so is my mother. My father served on the Board of Regents in the 1980’s. My parents were close friends with former Pepperdine President Howard White and my grandparents were good friends with the Pepperdines and former President Norvel Young and his wife Helen. My family roots go back to the origins of the Church of Christ, the church that played the key role in founding Pepperdine.
Indeed, the founding of Pepperdine in 1937 by conservative Church of Christ members was a result of a larger movement of conservative evangelicals to the West. As the book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism by Darren Dochuk, relates, this movement was about “how transplanted southern evangelicalism, itself revitalized and recreated in the Golden State, moved from the margins of the Southern Bible Belt to the mainstream of America’s first sunbelt society.”
Members of Christian denominations with deep roots in the South, such as Church of Christ, Four Square, Nazarene, Pentecostals, and Baptists moved into Southern California in large numbers in the latter half of the 20th century and in the process remade California’s theological and political landscape.
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As Dochuk writes, the “southern evangelicalism’s ascent on the West Coast coincided with the beginning of a conservative revolution that gathered momentum in Southern California during the early Cold War period before breaking through nationally in the 1970’s.” This movement was derisively referred to by the media as the “Christian Right,” a values-based grass-roots movement which brought political sophistication to millions of conservative Christians who were not otherwise politically active, and who contributed greatly to the election of Ronald Reagan — first as Governor of California and then later as President of the United States.
Dochuk continues: “At the center of the action were self-made men like George Pepperdine whose evangelical commitments extended beyond their local communities into the world of high finance and higher education… convinced that an overbearing, bureaucratic New Deal state threatened their belief in the primacy of individualism and local community, these entrepreneurs worked to create a network of institutions that could begin reversing the trend.”
Indeed, George Pepperdine himself was, as with almost all Church of Christ members in those days, politically conservative. Pepperdine University itself was deeply involved in building the conservative political movement in Southern California, even hosting rallies for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. Moreover, in the 1950’s, Pepperdine hosted a series of speeches by conservative leaders titled the “Freedom Forum,” which were not just for students but for residents of the Los Angeles community.
By 1970, this culturally enriching program grew into an ongoing public conversation called the “Great Issues Series,” which continued to feature leading thought-provoking conservative scholars and leaders such as Thomas Sowell, George Gilder, Russell Kirk, William Simon, Donald Rumsfeld and many others. The series ceased to exist by the mid 1980’s.
It also needs to be pointed out that Pepperdine was instrumental in the publication of perhaps the best book ever published that traces America’s constitutional order to the great ideas of Western civilization. In 1967, Pepperdine commissioned conservative scholar Russell Kirk to write the Roots of American Order, with the intention that it serve as a textbook at Pepperdine and other Christian colleges. More on that later.
While Kirk was the preeminent conservative scholar of the day, Ronald Reagan was the era’s leading conservative politician and it was during the 1970’s that Pepperdine developed a special relationship with him. In the course of his political career, he spoke to various Pepperdine entities a total of seven times.
On February 9th, 1970, Governor Reagan was the keynote speaker for the historic “birth of a college” dinner during which plans were unveiled to move Pepperdine from South Central Los Angeles to a spectacularly beautiful new campus in Malibu Beach. He also spoke at the dedication of Seaver College in 1975, and again at Pepperdine’s School of Law in 1979, during the kick-off of his presidential campaign. He knew many of Pepperdine’s early leaders and he supported the institution because its goal was to conserve the great civilizational gifts that we enjoy and to preserve the American order dedicated to freedom, opportunity, natural rights, and constitutional limits.
After Pepperdine Moved to its New Malibu Campus, the Seeds of Change Were Planted
When Pepperdine sold its South Central Los Angeles campus and moved to its new setting in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking Malibu Beach, things began to change. George Pepperdine and most of his core founding associates had passed away the decade prior to the move, and a whole new generation of board members, faculty and administrators were brought on, many of whom desired to steer Pepperdine away from its conservative roots in the Church of Christ.
Whether there was an organized effort to hijack the institution or a slow unfolding of non-deliberate events, that is open to debate, but there is no doubt there were fundamental changes at Pepperdine in the 1970’s. There was also little doubt pressure was brought to bear by large donors and board members seeking changes in order for Pepperdine to become a nationally recognized university. At least that was the thinking of some.
Mandatory chapel became less frequent and the number of professors who were Church of Christ members declined significantly. Many of the Christians hired were certainly more liberal, theologically, than Church of Christ professors and even many Church of Christ professors were more liberal than earlier generations of Church of Christ professors. Indeed, liberal Christians from all denominations flocked to the school, both as professors and students. As one former Abilene Christian University administrator told me, “by the late 1970’s the other Church of Christ affiliated universities no longer considered Pepperdine a real Church of Christ school.”
But many of Pepperdine’s supporters were overjoyed with the new enlightened Pepperdine. With a beautiful new campus above the ocean and a more relaxed theological worldview, Pepperdine had little problem attracting students. The thinking of many was that within the context of the very liberal California culture, the school’s movement toward a more liberal position, both theologically and politically, was the right thing to do. Besides, the argument went, unlike the small Los Angeles campus, the school now had to attract twice as many students in order to meet full capacity and pay the bills.
Continued in Part 2
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.