Thousands of onlookers gave Joni Eareckson Tada a standing ovation as she wept during her induction into the Society of World Changers in 2009. That was my freshman year at Indiana Wesleyan University. My sophomore year, Bill and Gloria Gaither fought back tears at the unveiling of their joint bronze bust. And just two weeks after his 90th birthday, a feeble S. Truett Cathy accepted the same award in 2011, my junior year, for his lifetime of work as a world-changing businessman.
But my senior year, in the spring of 2012, I will be the one crying throughout the entire induction ceremony.
You see, IWU officials decided to select actor Kirk Cameron as the next influential evangelical to place, quite literally, on a pedestal. Cameron will receive his honor April 11, 2012, less than one month before I graduate in the same auditorium with a Bachelor of Science degree in media communication. Given my studies and interest in the film industry, IWU’s choice to honor Cameron’s work (before that of any other Christian film professional) is frustrating, to say the least.
Don’t get me wrong. Kirk Cameron is no Fred Phelps. I have never seen him incite hatred, and he always seems to speak eloquently with good intent. Regardless, behind his carefully chosen words, Cameron’s logic is flawed. More than a few times this has led his behavior to stray from the ideal I was taught to expect from Christians in media.
Cameron converted from atheism to evangelical Christianity at the height of his acting career while playing Mike Seaver on the television series “Growing Pains” which ended in 1992. Cameron, in his late teens, began pushing the show’s producers to align their content more with his developing conservative beliefs.
Had a lesser-known actor demanded the things Cameron did on the “Growing Pains” set, that actor would likely have been replaced. As a former intern for a West Hollywood-based casting company, I learned that there are more than a sufficient number of actors vying for each role.
But Cameron’s fame waned with the sitcom’s decline. While he won several awards early in his career, he hasn’t won a major acting award since 1990.
Members of the selection committee for IWU’s Society of World Changers require recipients to be “individuals who have risen to the top of their profession,” something Cameron’s acting resume does not even come close to attaining.
Previous inductees have received honorary doctorates from the school. Induction does not, however, guarantee this added honor. Under Dr. Henry Smith, president of IWU since 2006, the school’s administration established an independent committee to decide who would receive the university’s highest honor.
“The committee felt that we were too generous at one point in terms of the offering of the honorary doctorate,” said Dr. Larry Lindsay, chief of staff to President Smith.
In an email on Sept. 7, Lindsay said the IWU president’s office was not prepared to announce whether Cameron would receive an honorary doctorate or not. According to the email, “The Honorary Doctorate Committee makes decisions regarding these matters closer to the time of considering the appropriate honors to bestow.”
Lindsay said the selection committee considered more than Cameron’s work as an actor. The former child star has promoted healthy marriages with the film “Fireproof” and the spinoff book “The Love Dare” by Stephen and Alex Kendrick. Cameron has spoken at numerous marriage seminars and launched Camp Firefly, a not-for-profit retreat center in Agoura Hills, Calif., committed to providing free vacation get-aways to terminally ill children and their families.
I cannot complain about the honorable work Cameron and his wife have accomplished with their resources and status. I can complain, however, about Cameron’s approach to media (my field of study) and his reasons for supporting certain causes.
Even those with degrees from IWU unrelated to media or the Division of Communication will face interrogation about the compatibility between their Christian beliefs and nonreligious vocations. Consider Cameron’s “contribution” to the debate between creation and evolution:
“The existence of God can be proven 100 percent, absolutely, without the use of
faith,” said Cameron on ABC’s “Nightline Face-Off” in May 2007. I’m sure I’m not the only person of faith who takes issue with that claim.
Cameron attempted to defend young earth creationism on “Nightline” by calling evolutionary theory “a fairy tale for grownups.” He then presented “the crocoduck” (a digitally manipulated image of a half-crocodile half-duck) as evidence that there are no “transitional forms” in nature. Cameron said evolutionists must be wrong because hybrid animals, such as his fabricated example, do not exist.
Members of the “Rational Response Squad,” an atheist group, countered Cameron’s argument on “Nightline,” claiming that all life forms are transitional.
Cameron committed a classic straw man fallacy. He may understand evolutionary theory, but the use of an example inconsistent with the theory’s tenets could lead astray those unfamiliar with Darwin’s work. Needless to say, this is unacceptable.
Furthermore, Cameron distributed as many as 170,000 abridged versions of Charles Darwin’s book “The Origin of Species” to students at 100 American universities in 2009, just before the 150-year anniversary of the book’s original publication.
The altered version of Darwin’s text initially excluded four of the book’s original chapters to save in printing costs. After a bout of harsh criticism, Cameron and his evangelical friend and co-worker Ray Comfort published a second edition that included all of Darwin’s chapters. Both versions include a 50-page “special introduction”, written by Comfort, to provide background information on Darwin’s life and an argument against the existence of “transitional forms.”
Dr. Lindsay said Cameron’s participation in the book distribution “was probably not as reasoned a work” as that by more thoughtful evangelical Christians such as Francis Collins, the current director of the National Institutes of Health and author of “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.”
Given IWU’s aspirations to launch a medical school within the next ten years, honoring Cameron is a curious choice that could invite unneeded criticism.
Mark A. Noll, a professor from Wheaton College, wrote “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” in 1994 to discuss anti-intellectualism among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.
“One great tragedy of modern creationism is that its noisy alarums have made it much more difficult to hear careful Christian thinkers … whose work could carry evangelicals beyond the sterile impasse of earlier decades,” wrote Noll.
Conservative Christianity needs a role model to promote a carefully reasoned, intellectual approach to science and life in general.
Considering the conservative family values pervasive in “Fireproof,” it should come as no surprise that Kirk Cameron used faulty logic to unequally yoke his religious conviction with political thought.
In 2008, Cameron appeared on an episode of FOX News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” to discuss the potential legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States.
“We can make laws in our country based on what the majority of people say, and the majority of people in our country say that marriage is worth fighting for. And they did, and the definition of it stays,” said Cameron on O’Reilly’s show.
But now that AP-National and The Washington Post have published survey results showing that a narrow majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, Cameron will have to find a stronger argument if he wants to continue defending legislation that limits marriage to heterosexual couples.
In the future, when the Society of World Changers selection committee decides to find a new film professional to honor, I feel members should consider evangelicals who have reputations that include both strong Christian belief and quality vocational work.
Scott Derrickson wrote about the need for quality filmmaking in a manner directed toward Christians who, like me, aspire to work in the film industry. Derrickson, best known as the writer and director of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” has earned respect among Hollywood power players and Christians alike.
Likewise, Ralph Winter was a producer for Christian films like “House,” adapted from a novel by Frank Peretti, a previous inductee into the Society of World Changers. In addition to Christian cinema, Winter has produced major Hollywood blockbusters including the “X-Men” franchise.
Clearly, we must recognize that World Changers are not perfect. They don’t have all the answers and don’t always fit the predetermined molds handed to them by the world and the Church. But their work should speak for itself.
I think we can agree that true World Changers acknowledge their mistakes, promote Christian values and earn the respect of their peers regardless of whether their vocations are secular or religious.