THE WILSON CONTROVERSY: A PERSONAL HISTORY
Nick Gier, Emeritus Professor
Department of Philosophy, University of Idaho
One day in 1975 a nice young man came up to me after a session of my “Introduction to Philosophy.” He introduced himself and asked me one question: “Is it OK if I defend the faith in this class?” I answered a fate-filled Yes, and thus began my history with Douglas Wilson. We had friendly theology debates on a regular basis, in and out of the classroom. He wrote a fairly respectable M.A. thesis on free will and then took on his local ministry. He had defended the faith well and we only hoped that he would use his degree responsibly. Sadly, this appears not to have been the case.
THE ABORTION DEBATE OF 1983
In the early 1980s we team taught (along with two other people) a course on 20th Century theology, and then we had a debate on abortion in February of 1983. Canon Press may still have tapes of the debate, or anyone can borrow my cassette. Wilson had a regular column in what was then called The Idahonian, and Wilson came out with a piece that listed points that I tried to refute in the debate. (For the specifics see my article at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/ 103/abortion.htm.) In a letter to the editor, I cried foul, not because I could claim that my refutations were sound; rather, because Wilson did not mention my responses at all. It was at that point that I began to question Wilson’s intellectual integrity and honesty, and that has been my main point of criticism in the current controversy.
2000 GUEST LECTURE AT NEW ST. ANDREWS
During the late 1980s and 1990s I had very little contact with Wilson other than causal meetings in town and attending a debate that Wilson had with an atheist. In the spring of 2000 Doug Jones invited me to speak at New St. Andrews College (NSA), where I gave a lecture on “Confucius and the Aesthetics of Virtue.” My talk was well received and I thought I handled myself well in the exchange afterwards. I challenged the students to look at Christian virtue ethics, and I offered to help any student who was willing to write a senior thesis on the topic. (I had spent over 60 hours helping a NSA student write his thesis on Buddhism.) I congratulated Wilson on the success of his new college and I received a bottle of French wine for my efforts.
2003 REGIONAL MEETING OF THE AAR/SBL
In December of 2002 I sent an invitation to NSA dean Roy Atwood for his faculty and students to participate in the regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). I had been elected AAR President and I was excited about bringing the annual conference to Moscow for the first time. I was sorely disappointed that no NSA faculty submitted papers, and no NSA students had entered the student essay contest. I was even more disappointed when not a single NSA faculty or students attended the conference. In my thirty years with the conference, the host institution’s neighbors were always actively involved in the annual conference, primarily because there is no expensive and time-consuming travel involved.
I wrote a letter to the editor about my disappointment about the NSA no show, and I mentioned the fact that faculty participation at academic conferences was a very important factor in a college’s accreditation. Roy Atwood answered that NSA had more important things to do, and that NSA was already an accredited institution. After doing a little research I discovered that NSA was only a “candidate” for accreditation by the little known Transnational Association of Christian Schools and Colleges (TRACS). (See my letter to TRACS here.) I alerted Atwood to my discovery and I allowed him several months to make a public correction. He did not do so, and in a letter to the editor I made the correction and also gave my own personal accreditation report. It was during this e-mail exchange that Atwood said that he would not communicate with me ever again, a promise that he has so far kept. So much for his criticism that his critics do not want a genuine exchange of views.
2003 DEBATE WITH FORREST CHURCH
For their annual debate Doug Jones invited the Rev. Forrest Church of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City. In the run up to the debate I received an e-mail with an URL about the Morton Street Casino. Some of our Unitarian church members wondered whether it was a good idea for our top minister to be debating Wilson considering these new revelations. (I let the casino charge go, but I wondered why the local newspaper had not done a story on it.) Rev. Church decided to go ahead with the debate, whose topic was supposed to be the nature of the good life. Even though Church was sincere in reaching out to establish common ground with Jones, it was obvious that Jones was only interested in reading a prepared script in which Unitarian theology was unfairly and unmercifully lambasted. Jones kept hammering away at a “hermit god,” even Church kept saying that was not his belief at all.
Many Palouse Unitarians thought that they had been taken for a bad ride, so I responded by challenging Jones to the debate on the Trinity that he really wanted to have with Church. I wrote up a 5,000-word response to Jones (www.class.uidaho.edu/ ngier/trinity.htm), and he agreed to publish a much briefer debate in Wilson’s journal “Credenda Agenda.” I gave him my first 400-word statement in November, 2003 and he finally responded in March of 2004.
THE SLAVERY BOOKLET
Several years back I had heard rumors that Wilson was involved with the neo-Confederate movement, but I dismissed such talk as off- the-wall comments. The discovery of the slavery booklet took me by surprise, and the Wilson-Jones-Atwood response to this discovery was shocking. Atwood’s complaints in the Daily News (March 6) echo the broken record that all three have been playing since the controversy broke. Atwood claims that the critical response was nothing but nasty comments and name calling, when in fact two UI historians wrote a detailed critique of the booklet, showing how, for example, the slave narratives of the 1930s were egregiously misused by the authors. Instead of giving a scholarly response, Wilson & Co. attacked the professors and demanded that they be disciplined and their article pulled from its website. Carefully sifting through the documents available, Tom Hansen has documented the attacks on the UI and posted many other relevant articles at www.tomandrodna.com/ notonthepalouse.
I responded with three essays (www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/slavepatge.htm), one of which Atwood said he would read but never did. As a sign of his unwillingness to debate, Wilson ceased all communication with me saying that I had become a “slanderer” and in addition to being the same old “lefty.” I sent him drafts of each of the essays above so that he could correct them before I put them on Vision2020, but I got no reply. I e-mailed him about his views on suffrage for women but got no response. I asked me for a copy of his talk on Dabney but he refused. He did, however, write a bad faith response to Twelve Articles for Repudiation that I put to him in early December, 2002. (See www.class.uidaho.edu/ ngier/WilsonRepud.htm.) So I submit that that Atwood has it all reversed: the name calling, nasty comments, and refusal to respond properly have come primarily from his side not the critics’ side.
ROY ATWOOD’S CHARGES
Speaking of the critics, Atwood keeps calling them enemies of evangelical Christians. The fact that many of Wilson’s critics are former church members and other evangelical and reformed Christians puts the lie to this charge. (I know for a fact that several conservative Presbyterians have asked both Wilson and his co-author Steve Wilkins to withdraw the slavery booklet, but they have stubbornly refused.) I have written a book critical of evangelical Christians (www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/gre.htm), but I have nothing but praise for those evangelicals who do not make the same mistakes that Wilson & Co. make. Furthermore, 40 percent of the presentations at the Moscow AAR/SBL conference were from conservative evangelical schools, whose representatives voted for me as president of the conference.
In my responses I refrained from name calling, while others did say that Wilson is a “racist” and worse. I accept Wilson’s disavowal of racism just as I accept Mel Gibson’s protestations that he is not anti-Jewish. (See my critique of the movie at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/madmax.htm.) Nevertheless, Wilson’s defense of Southern racial slavery is just as hurtful to African Americans as Gibson’s movie is to Jews.
Steve Wilkins is a founding director of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate organization labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Since 1998, the League has had close ties with the 32,000-member Sons of Confederate Veterans, who in 2000 elected Kirk Lyons to its national executive board. An outspoken racist, Lyons was married by neo-Nazi Richard Butler in 1990, when Butler still had his compound in Hayden Lake. The League and the Sons of Confederate Veterans organize public protests with the Council of Conservative Citizens whose website decries "negroes, queers and other retrograde species of humanity." (Try replacing the “Cs” in their acronym with “Ks”!) One League leader said that we “need a new type of Klan.”
While others on both sides have aimed too many hits below the belt, I’ve tried to keep my remarks aimed at the heart and mind. I do admit that my goal is to discredit Wilson, because I believe that the type of religion he espouses is dangerous and destructive. (I have found chilling parallels between Islamic and Christian fundamentalism at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/parallels.htm.) I have fought religious fundamentalism all my life and this movement does not deserve our respect or tolerance, but it requires our strongest condemnation.
I must respond to Atwood’s incredible statements about the atmosphere at the University of Idaho. Was he quoted correctly when he charged that multiculturalists there “wanted him to deny Christianity as the only valid religion”? If this is true, can Atwood name any administrator who told him to do this? Since when has a statement of faith become a requirement to teach at a public university? Does Atwood also think that UI faculty and students are responsible for the vandalism done against NSA’s property? Will he apologize to the Moscow police chief for distorting his comments about whom the chief thought was responsible?
As far as healing the community is concerned, my friend Jim Weddell had the best advice in a letter to the editor. He had grown up in the South hating the Yankees and hearing the story that the war had been forced on his unwilling compatriots. But later he learned that the story was a lie, and that he was truly sorry for his former beliefs. He asked Wilson to repent his neo-Confederate sins and to apologize to those he harmed by his intemperate words. Wilson could have saved himself, his church, and his community a lot of trouble.
But so far there does not seem to be any movement away from celebrating Robert E. Lee’s birthday at Logos School, or changing the curriculum at hundreds of Wilson’s Christian schools where history is taught according to the standards of Wilson’s and Wilkins’s “Southern Slavery As It Was” and where creationism is taught as science.