Calan (fictitious name) is a very white, very conservative, evangelical-oriented university located in the Pacific Northwest. Historically, they’ve marketed themselves as a safe university that promotes a “Christian camp” environment and perpetuates a conservative evangelical theology and worldview for its students. Thus, the majority of its student and donor bases come from homeschool or private Christian school backgrounds.
During an Immersion Trip at the US southern border, an adjunct professor from Calan caught a vision for what could happen if they forged a partnership with Global Immersion. In encounter after encounter with the human beings who are caught in the crosshairs of immigration, she discovered the implications of the imperial theology that she had been groomed within. She became convinced of the good news that God is on restorative mission in and through us. She began to see her university as an incubator for next-generation influencers and discovered a deep longing for Calan to move beyond its theological commitment to safety and to realize its destiny as an instrument of peace that forms and releases Jesus-centric peacemakers into every sector of professional life.
The relationship between Global Immersion and Calan began slowly. We moved at the pace of trust through a year of strategic conversations, relationship building with key stakeholders, speaking, and guest lecturing. Next, we invited the Dean of the School of Education and a couple of hand-selected student leaders to join us for another Immersion Trip. Their experience awakened in them a shared conviction that Calan’s long term credibility and, ultimately, its future, required the theological, cultural, and practical remaking that our Immersion Trips, workshops, coaching, and consulting could provide.
A few short months later, we took another significant next step forward as we hosted an entire delegation (faculty, staff, and students) from Calan in a third Immersion Trip. This one, though, included Calan’s President.
Our relationship pre-dated the immersion, but the experience solidified it. While others ate or slept, he and I processed the complexities of immigration that we were observing, our shared mission to form people of faith to join God as peacemakers in the mission of restoration, and the shifting sands of higher education. As trust grew, he let me in on the cultural opportunities and obstacles at the university and, together, we began to imagine a future Calan whose reputation was “incubator of a restorative revolution.”
That said, the conversations turned as he revealed that the greatest obstacle to the journey of institutional liberation and renovation was their institutionalized commitment to safety. With humility and no small amount of frustration, he identified “safetyism” as the greatest threat to the academic integrity of the university. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt would agree.
Their book was born out of a hypothesis that emerged between the two authors. Wondering about the trends that they were witnessing on university campuses with regard to student demands for censorship, they recognized that “many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.” This hypothesis gave way to an article in the Atlantic that, due to its viral popularity, was ultimately fleshed out in book form.
In short, The Coddling of the American Mind is a book about why young people feel so anxious; how parents have contributed to an increase in fragility and a decrease in resiliency in their offspring; and how US American Universities are coddling rather than challenging the fragility of the emerging generations. Their best work is the unveiling of the Three Untruths that underlie the phenomenon of safetyism:
- The Untruth of Fragility offers the lie that “what doesn’t kill you only makes you weaker.”
- The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning says “Always trust your feelings.”
- The Untruth of Us vs. Them offers the misconception that “Life is a battle between good and evil people.”
Comprehending those Untruths caused a recent experience at Calan to come into focus.
This fall, I was invited to campus for a third time to speak at the student body’s weekly chapel service. Knowing that my theology and style of preaching is a bit edgier than they’re used to, I advised with the President and one of his Deans on the message that I was preparing to give. The passage I had selected was one of the more controversial moments in the life of Jesus. In fact, it’s a moment that portrays Jesus intentionally immersing into what religious wisdom referred to as “enemy territory” that, if stepped within, would contaminate one’s faith and compromise one’s standing with God. Simply put, Jesus transcended religious wisdom and moved beyond the threshold for safety where he was further transformed.
With the green light from the President and Dean, I delivered the message. Upon its conclusion, I was met by three very angry, white eighteen-year-olds who…had a lot to say about how they “felt” about my message. First, the message had made them feel very uncomfortable (See Untruth Number Two). Second, I was identified as “one of those preachers” who talks about justice rather than Jesus (See Untruth Number Three) and was, therefore, a “dangerous heretic” (See Untruth Number One) who they hoped would never be invited back to campus.
In conversation with Lukianoff and Haidt, let’s analyze their feedback within the context of “safetyism.” First, their defensive approach signals something of what they believe about difference: within the paradigm of safetyism, different means dangerous. That is, “different” is not understood as an opportunity to grow or expand or lean in with humble curiosity. Instead, it is perceived as a contaminate, a threat, that must be resisted lest it leads to one’s ruin (Untruth Number One).
Second, the immediacy of their heated presence upon the completion of the chapel service indicates that they did not have the tools to recognize that they were escalated and likely incapable of constructive, civil discourse. Rather than asking themselves, “Why am I escalated and what does it say about me?” they resorted to the response of safetyism: “I’m escalated because of him and he needs to know that what he did was wrong” (Untruth Number Two).
Third, they were quick to identify and draw boundaries around two different types of preachers. The “Us” preacher was the one who “talks about Jesus.” The “Them” preacher, of which I was seemingly identified as, was the one who “talks about justice.” The former was very obviously portrayed as good and preferable and the later as evil and to be dismissed. For the record, the entire talk was centered exclusively on Jesus.
If Lukianoff and Haidt assess the general disposition of students on top tier campuses as fragile, anxious, and easily hurt, it makes me wonder what they would say of students who inhabit US American Christian Universities. My encounter at Calan, interpreted alongside Coddling also leads me to wonder at how White American Evangelical theology is contributing to a dangerous intellectual fragility that is accelerating xenophobia and racism within the movement.
While I appreciate Lukianoff and Haidt’s six recommendations on how parents and educators could produce wiser children, the fact of the matter is, these fragile, anxious young people are already inhabiting our campuses and work force. So for those of us who are currently working with the young, coddled minds, let me offer these six suggestions:
- Hold space for them to be anxious and fragile for that is what they are.
- Metabolize their energy and, in so doing, disarm their anxiety.
- Affirm their courage in voicing their anxiety and fragility.
- Check their disrespect when it manifests and encourage civility.
- Teach self-awareness by asking them to invest as much energy getting curious with themselves as they are protecting their fragility.
- Follow up in order to provide space for them to voice their new discoveries.
 Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind, New York: Penguin Books (2018), 29.
 See also Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: What it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
 Haidt & Lukianoff, 3.
 See Haidt & Lukianoff, Chapter 12.