Tish Harrison Warren has written a very compelling article at Christianity Today on her experience as a campus ministry worker at Vanderbilt University. Several years ago, Vanderbilt University kicked several Christian student groups off of campus for failing to comply with the university’s revised anti-discrimination policy.
Along with Bowdoin College in Maine and possibly soon the entire Cal State school system, with some 450,000 students, Vanderbilt has joined a growing trend that is seeking to revise their criteria for allowing religious groups to affiliate with university campuses, allowing space for on-campus meetings, as well as sometimes permitting the partial use of student activities fees to fund some aspects of their programs. The conservative Christian groups at Vanderbilt sought to challenge what they considered to be an intrusive form of control by the university. Vanderbilt insisted that leadership in student religious groups should not be limited to those adhering to an organization’s statement of faith. This put the Christian groups on that campus in a real bind, having to choose between the principle of honoring their creedal commitments against working with the anti-discriminatory policies of the university.
It is a dilemma worth thinking about deeply.
Religious Freedom, Discrimination, or a Failure in Apologetics?
I have heard a number of arguments that suggest that campus Christian groups can still abide by these anti-discriminatory restrictions while maintaining group identity through their statements of faith. They can agree in principle to a school’s policies, but they can still guide the process in other ways as to how leadership is determined. For example, groups can simply require that those voting on new leadership must have a fairly solid record of attendance at group meetings, etc. Even atheist supporters of Vanderbilt’s policy, such as LBGT blogger, Camille Beredjick, concede this much.
While Tish Harrison Warren acknowledges these more pragmatic approaches, she has been mainly concerned about the issue of theological drift; that is, the concern that a group could be “taken over” by less than orthodox elements. So she could not abide by the Vanderbilt policy based on principle.
No matter how particular Christian groups respond, it just goes to show how public opinion can easily swing away from supporting traditional Christian values.
Issues like these are very important to me, not simply because I work at a public university, but because my own college experience hinged greatly on my personal involvement with a campus Christian ministry. As a freshman in college, I remember going with several others from my group to a student-led, campus leadership board meeting. All students were required to pay a student activity fee that was then in turn used to fund the activities of various clubs on campus, such as the Chess Club. The student leadership offered to give our group some funds on one condition: that we remove the term “Christian Fellowship” out of our group’s name and replace it with “Spiritual Fellowship.” It never occurred to those leaders that to change the name of the “Chess” club to the “Chess and Racquetball” Club would have been defeating the principle of voluntary association. We kindly refused the funds.
I could be completely wrong, but I really wonder if the policies at Vanderbilt are truly an example of an erosion and misunderstanding of religious freedom. At least, I sincerely hope that this is not the case. For another perspective, you should read Warren’s followup comments in Rod Dreher’s column, and you can think about how such policies impact not just Christian groups, but others, such as Muslims, too.
Instead, and please correct me if you think I am overfocusing on the negative side of this, but I see that the current backlash against Christian groups on some campuses is essentially a type of “payback” for all of the years of conservative Christian groups pushing against the acceptance of same-sex attraction in American culture, particularly at the political level. For supporters of “gay marriage,” the Christians who been active in the fight against same-sex unions have actually been viewed as being the ones discriminating. For many today in the culture at large, the question about same-sex relationships has little to do with the question of honoring traditional, biblical standards of human sexuality. Instead, for those advancing such policies, this is primarily a justice issue, pure and simple. Discrimination based on sexual preference is no different from racism. Racism has no place in a free society and discrimination based on sexual preference must be resisted as well. This is a very loud message being broadcast in today’s culture. As in the case of Tish Harrison Warren, even more nuanced voices that seek to reframe the issue and cast it in a different light affirming a traditional, biblical view of human sexuality are finding themselves being drowned out. Christian views of marriage that would have been the unquestioned norm twenty years ago are now being considered an indicator of being the “wrong kind of Christian.”
Nevertheless, what still nags at me is the question of religious liberty. Let us lay aside the moral question of discrimination based on sexual preference for the moment: Some may argue that the Vanderbilt approach is “good” for democracy, but I am having some difficulty in understanding this. Rather, the situation does not look good for Christians in groups (and others!) who believe strongly in upholding their faith convictions, but neither is it good for the LBGT community, as it only further isolates these communities from one another. The administration at Vanderbilt may consider the views of certain religious groups as being hopelessly discriminatory and objectionable and therefore not fit for campus life, but I find it odd that they fail to uphold the aphorism apocryphally attributed to the atheistic-leaning Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
I would think that in these types of situations, Vanderbilt rather should encourage their students to actually employ some discrimination. If the creedal beliefs of the Christian group are deemed that offensive, then would it not make sense that a Vanderbilt student discriminate by simply not attending such a group? Allowing any religious group to gather together on campus does not necessarily imply any campus administrative endorsement, does it? Vanderbilt University is a private institution, so it has every right to make their own policies, but are they really promoting dialogue or are they stifling it?
Christianity in the MarketPlace of Ideas
Now is an opportunity for thoughtful reflection.
Why raise this issue here on Veracity? …Because Christians are finding it increasingly difficult to be persuasive in a secularized culture. In a recent email from Reasons.org, astrophysicist Hugh Ross relates the story in the Bible where David meets the giant Philistine, Goliath. King Saul tried to outfit David with a full suite of armor, but the bulky outfit was of no use. So David simply took his slingshot and a pack of smooth stones to meet his rival. Hugh Ross points out that Christians often find themselves in using unwieldy apologetic arguments in defense of Christianity in matters of science:
Arguments for design that fail to identify the Source of design pack about as much punch as marshmallows. And arguments for a Creator who provides false scientific data (apparent age, not real age) might as well be spit wads. I’ve seen the effects of these arguments, and Im sure you have, too…What you and I need are some polished stones from the river of biblical truth, prayerfully aimed at the reasons for disbelief in Christ. .
I would argue that the same lesson applies to how Christians make apologetic arguments regarding broader cultural issues, such as regarding traditional, biblical sexuality. It is one thing to “take a stand” on issues regarding the nature of marriage. It is quite another thing to be properly armed with the appropriate slingshot and not some horrifyingly bulky suite of armor.
I would hope that the contemporary situation like that at Vanderbilt is only the pendulum temporarily swinging in the opposition direction. Vanderbilt oddly does provide an exemption to their policy for fraternities and sororities, so it only seems reasonable to me that an exemption be granted to religious groups, too, just as other secular universities have done. I pray that cooler heads will prevail in the future, but even if they do not, it presents a challenge for Christians to seriously rethink how to approach the issue of cultural engagement with the Gospel. Based on the all-too apparent reality that the conservative Christian community and the LGBT community appear to be at almost complete loggerheads with one another, we have a lot of work to do in order to overcome the standoff: promoting peace, healing and reconciliation, all while maintaining the integrity of biblical witness.
What kind of Christian are you?