Larycia Hawkins has stated that she is “flummoxed and flabbergasted” at Wheaton College’s decision to place her on administrative leave and proceed with firing. I can’t say that I am flummoxed and flabbergasted given the current reactionary and polarized state of much of evangelicalism. But I certainly am disappointed. I see no basis in Hawkins’ original statement, or her follow-up defense of it, to proceed with such a radical course of action and I worry about the chilling effect such actions will have on academic freedom and freethought.
That said, what I want to address in this article is the perception of some in the self-described “freethought” movement that the very idea of holding members of an institution accountable for beliefs core to that institution is somehow a violation of freethought. If it is, then no institution is an advocate of freethought, including so-called “freethought” groups.
Consider “The Freethought Society”, the top result I got on a google search on freethought groups. The introduction to the group states its purpose as being “to provide more services to the non-theist community“. Assuming employees of The Freethought Society are accountable to a board, were one of those employees to write a Facebook post saying that Muslims and freethinkers “worship the same God” you can bet the board would investigate.
Every institution has boundaries, whether that institution is a college, a church, or a so-called freethought society. In other words, institutions create boundaries regarding the limits of thinking (“free” or otherwise) that is permitted within the institution. As a result, if you are a member of that institution and you utter high profile statements that could be seen to be transgressing those boundaries, you can reasonably expect repercussions.
In conclusion, the issue is not that Wheaton College has boundaries, but rather the precise nature of those boundaries, the way they are being interpreted, and the means by which apparent transgressions of them are investigated. The same issues could be raised with “The Freethought Society” or any other institution.