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Collateral Damage: Christian Colleges and Culture Wars

I’m reluctant to even use the concept of “collateral damage” in light of Gaza/Israel, Malaysian flight #17, and Central American minors seeking refuge in the US. Each of those cases has seen suffering by innocents as a byproduct of actions of others seeking some larger political, regional, or economic agenda. We feel so helpless precisely because there is such a vast remove between the broader political issue and the immediate suffering experienced by so many.

And yet it’s the right image. In following the various backs-and-forths since the Hobby Lobby decision was handed down three weeks ago, it’s clear that various parties are pursuing their own opportunity for advantage. But the parties never actually come in contact. Instead, they talk past each other making worst-case-scenario assumptions about intent, goals, and potential outcomes. In the midst of all this argument, real people are often lost both figuratively and literally. Reductionist arguments are made from egregious straw-man (person) examples used without context. Emotions of anger, resentment, fear, threat, are all played out in an attempt to get a particular result in favor of one side or the other.

Christian colleges and universities have seen themselves in opposition to secularizing forces of the broader society, under threat from an anti-religious public and subject to a perceived overreach by institutional entities. Those outside the Christian college orbit see groups attempting to stand in the way of progress, who desire special privilege in light of the small-d democratic social contract, and who are using religion to hide their pathologies.

These warring factions (although not monolithic and largely unnamed) shape the ways in which  issues are addressed. Or more correctly, not addressed. Because the issues that are posed are largely exaggerations of serious questions that would benefit from a fruitful conversation. If the serious questions were addressed, perhaps we’d get somewhere. Instead, there’s too much posturing and positioning.

source: Amazon.com

source: Amazon.com

In pondering the collateral damage done by culture war battles, I found myself thinking back to the board game of Stratego. I don’t remember if I actually had a version or played a friend’s and just always wanted one, but the format stuck with me. It’s a simple version of a strategy game. Two armies set up on a board, like in Battleship. The goal is to protect your flag while gaining the other player’s flag. It’s got a clear military hierarchy: high level leaders are precious, lower level are expendable in pursuit of the cause. It has spies to identify what the other side might be doing. And it has bombs placed at strategic points (hence the name) to protect the flag, the leaders, or to misrepresent where they were.

For those who were homeschooled or are too young to know the games of my youth, here is the Wikipedia description.

Stratego is a strategy board game for two players on a 10×10 square board. Each player controls 40 pieces representing individual officers and soldiers in an army. The objective of the game is to find and capture the opponent’s Flag, or to capture so many enemy pieces that the opponent cannot make any further moves. Players cannot see the ranks of one another’s pieces, so disinformation and discovery are important facets to gameplay.

A quick review of news reports over the past three weeks shows concerns about George Fox gaining a Title IX exemption to deny a transgendered student housing in a campus apartment with friends , Gordon president Michael Lindsey creating something of a firestorm by signing a letter asking the Obama administration to retain the Bush-era exemption to a non-discrimination executive order (which wasn’t in the final order), Wheaton College gaining a temporary injunction from the Supreme Court stating that even filing the form for religious exemption to the contraception mandate, and four members of the Bryan board of trustees resigning because they can’t support the president. There have been articles written about Christian schools not deserving accreditation, about the Bowdoin College non-discrimination policy for student organizations, ongoing issues about faith and science, and an atheist prayer in the New York town council.

The Stratego game has three key elements that are appropriate for understanding our inadequate dialogues over religion and pluralism in a post-Christendom era. First, as the Wikipedia entry explains, disinformation is crucial to the game. The whole point is to hide the flag where the opponent cannot find it and misdirect the opponent’s investigation. Second, spies are expendable pieces designed to expose the positions of the opposing side (even though they are destroyed in the process).Third, the flag is usually protected by bombs. When the opposing player comes across the bomb, he is destroyed (unless he’s a miner).

In my Stratego metaphor, the flag represents the true mission of the institution. Each college has a unique role shaped by its history, its personnel decisions, and its core values. For Christian colleges, this latter piece is often deeply informed by their theological perspective (regardless of the denominational affiliations of their students and faculty). But the core mission is educational, not theological. For example, here is the Gordon College mission statement:

Gordon College strives to graduate men and women distinguished by intellectual maturity and Christian character, committed to lives of service and prepared for leadership worldwide.

By way of contrast, here’s the mission statement from the University of Michigan:

The mission of the University of Michigan is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.

Since the U of M is a comprehensive research university, it has the preamble about applying knowledge. But its focus on students as leaders and citizens sounds an awful lot like Gordon’s desire for graduates who are intellectually mature, who are faithful Christians, and who will provide leadership and service. We should see each other as complimentary institutions and not sources of suspicion. So why the animosity that showed up in comments like the Conns?

I’d suggest that its because Christian colleges have focused so much of their rhetoric on the Christian character component of their mission. I fully agree that this is one of our reasons for existence but only as an integral part of the rest of the academic preparation of the university. I remember attending a regional CCCU leadership meeting a number of years ago where we were encouraged to “keep the main thing the main thing“. In other words, to make sure Jesus was at the center of what we were doing.

I certainly can’t argue with keeping Christ as our defining characteristic but that often seems to set up an unnecessary antagonism toward other schools where religious faith is not central. In my institution of Spring Arbor, we talk of how our commitment to Jesus Christ is our perspective for learning. There’s a subtle difference here between education being framed within Christian perspective and defense of specific faith positions (the distinction between education and indoctrination).

A perennial conversation in the Christian colleges where I’ve served has been around vision. What does it mean for us to produce leaders who are faithful Christians committed to service? Why would we do A and not B? How does that relate to our academic program, our student life philosophy, or our pedagogy?

When we hide our flag out of fear of what others will think, or because we’ve held to past traditions and don’t want to start down slippery slopes, we take away our strongest point and we open ourselves up to critique from outside. One of the pieces of collateral damage from Gordon getting caught up in the controversy over the Executive Order letter is that it allowed critics to denounce Gordon College as something that Gordon College has never been: an arch-conservative institution feeding bigotry and backward thinking. If anything, Gordon has a reputation for being one of the more forward thinking institutions in the CCCU.

The second element of my Stratego metaphor deals with the role of the spies. In the game, the spy can be used to expose the other player’s weakness. When a spy comes across another piece, the piece must be exposed as a major, colonel, or whatever. If the other piece is the flag, the game is over. Spies are useful to test assumptions about positions. Christian colleges may pick the most egregious example from someone denouncing Christian higher ed and use that as the example of “what things have come to”. Critics of Christian colleges find an extreme case (I’m often guilty of feeding this by posting something of the latest overreach by a conservative institution) and attacking the entire Christian college enterprise. The example the use is far from the median response. Most colleges aren’t under attack nor are most attempting to purge moderate thinkers.

But the spies’ stories feed a larger narrative. They add ammunition to previously held assumptions or fears. The fact that the Wheaton exemption fell directly on the heels of the Hobby Lobby decision which was followed two days later by the Executive Order letter fed a fear that was often stated as “and so it begins”. Furthermore, the narratives are so conflicted that any hope of mutual understanding is dashed. Yesterday, Inside Higher Ed featured an audio segment on the very issues I’ve been addressing. In addition to two IHE representatives, they had Shapri LoMaglio (government relations specialist with the CCCU) and Shane Windmeyer (of LGBTQ advocacy group Campus Pride).  Not only did the two specialists talk past each other (what a surprise!) but IHE made little attempt to find common ground or to correct misinformation (like why colleges aren’t federal contractors or why financial aid goes to students and not institutions).

Thirdly, there are the bombs. So many bombs. We surround our hidden mission with all these other elements. Student behavior covenants (which aren’t bad things), positions on a historical Adam, belief in certain theories of atonement, questions about same sex marriage (or sexuality more generally) attitudes toward the roles of women in leadership, Touch one of those bombs and you’re at great risk. The bomb goes off and people are damaged. Faculty members pursuing academic inquiry. Students with honest questions. Parents who want their students to be those informed Christian citizens the mission calls for. Trustees who are trying to understand how the mission plays out in a changing world.

I’ve written much about the millennial generation and the questions they bring. I’ve suggested that they will not long avoid the bombs we’ve erected to protect our institutions. There is a near consensus in the literature than today’s students are tired of the bombs. They want to engage the broader culture. That’s what we said our mission was all about. To continue down the road we’ve been on is to drive away the very students we want as leaders for the future. We all wind up as collateral damage as a result.

 

So what do we do to avoid continual Culture War battles? First, don’t play the game. Stratego sets up opponents as zero-sum combatants in 18th century military settings. We are far more agile today. We build alliances across disparate groups, try to find common values even though we have different backgrounds, and try to find ways to embrace a pluralistic culture without losing our identity.

We can do that if we shift our focus from the bombs to the flag. We can talk about why we do what we do and talk less about what we don’t do. We can articulate what motivates us and not what we’re against (and if we’re motivated by what we’re against we should get out of education!).

In short, we need to remove the bombs, stop any misrepresentation of others, and make our mission clear. By way of my analogy, it means starting the Stratego game saying “my flag is right here.”

There is promise in such a strategy even with regard to divisive issues like same-sex marriage. Consider these two posts both written by Christian legal scholars. John Inazu, law professor at Washington University, wrote an insightful analysis for Christianity Today. He concludes:

Advocacy for Christian witness must itself demonstrate Christian witness. In this way, our present circumstances provide new opportunities to embody tolerance, humility, and patience. And, of course, we have at our disposal not only these aspirations but also the virtues that shape our lives: faith, hope, and love.

This morning, Whitworth professor Julia Stronks wrote this piece in Inside Higher Ed. As a legal expert teaching at a Christian College in one of the same-sex marriage states (enacted by popular vote), she has a unique perspective.

The Supreme Court says it will not get into deciding what is and is not legitimate religious belief but I think that faith-based institutions that want exemptions from law should at a minimum be required to spell out who they say they are. And they should be required to be consistent. I do not care for behavior covenants at schools, colleges or nonprofits, but I think a democracy can make room for them. However, if an employee is fired for violating a behavioral covenant that excludes homosexuality, employees that violate other parts of the covenant should likewise be fired. Transparency and consistency of treatment are very important.

I am encouraged by these legal analyses. They both suggest that pluralism isn’t an enemy of Christian faith. That we could be clear about who we are and what we are trying to do. By avoiding bomb-throwing, we can participate in encouraging the very leaders we will need to sort through the complexities of religious identity in a society that no longer privileges religious views by default.

“Evangelical Morality” in a Pluralistic Age: A Dialogue with Alan Noble

I was pleased this weekend to see that my friend Alan Noble had an article posted in The Atlantic titled “Is Evangelical Morality Still Acceptable in America?” It’s a very interesting piece that speaks to the complications of religious identity in a changing society. It does a good job of diagnosing the tensions surrounding Hobby Lobby v. Burwell or various issues related to legalities of same-sex marriage. But I found myself wanting to engage a bit more and explore the options facing evangelicalism in a postmodern society. So I asked Alan if he was willing to engage in dialogue on my blog (instead of simply writing inflammatory comments on the article like those who won’t engage his basic points). Thankfully, he was willing to engage.

Alan is assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University starting this fall. He is managing editor and c0-creator of Alan NobleChrist and Pop Culture and a prolific critic of popular culture. He fights a never ending battle against conservative extremist memes, commenting on sites in an attempt to show a conservative voice that isn’t irrational. He recently earned a PhD in English from Baylor University, writing on “manifestations of transcendence in twentieth century American fiction”. He and his wife have two adorable children (almost as cute as my granddaughter).

Alan’s argument is well crafted. After summarizing a variety of pieces challenging evangelicals, he rightly identifies the central challenge:

Behind all of these charges is the suspicion that evangelicals are simply refusing to accept contemporary American mores; they are privileging their faith over the moral spirit of the age. But for many evangelicals, these beliefs are not actually a sign of retreat from public life. Instead, there is a fear that in an increasingly secularized society, there will be less tolerance for people who wish to act upon their deeply held religious beliefs, except in narrowly defined, privatized spaces. This is a fundamentally American concern: Will I have the right to serve God as I believe I am obligated to?

This fear isn’t just personal. As laws on issues like same-sex marriage and contraception have changed, there’s a growing fear that public policy will become more and more in conflict with evangelical morality. This, according to many conservative Christians, is what these tensions are about: being legally required to perform acts that you sincerely and deeply believe are immoral.

He argues that a focus on autonomous individualism has shifted moral conversation to issues of rights. This shift to rights is difficult for some evangelicals as they fee forced to violate their own sense of obedience to God in order to participate in modern society. He attempts to speak to the diversity present in evangelicalism that is missed by those responding only to extremism.

If the evangelical worldview is deemed invalid in the public sphere, then the public sphere loses the value of being public. American discourse will be marked by paranoid conformity, rather than principled and earnest disagreement. And our ability to prophetically speak to one another and to our nation’s troubles will be restrained.

The right framework here is one of pluralism: the ability of many different kinds of people to live out their faith in public with and among those who deeply disagree with them. This is no easy challenge; it’s painful and ugly and hard. But the alternative to is a thin, univocal culture, one in which the only disagreements we have are trivial. And that would be a shame.

That’s the summary. Now for the dialogue:

John: Evangelicalism has a long history of trying to separate from culture. It’s part of why the institutions we teach at were created. That sentiment of separatism has persisted in the evangelical subculture. We have our own schools, publishers, music groups, movies, and internet favorites. That insularity keeps us talking to each other without engaging the broader culture. It also feeds a suspicion of those “outside”. So our attempt at remaining separate has created a situation where we are cut off from larger social debates and afraid of those having them. Would you agree? How might we overcome this isolation in the pluralism you suggest?

Alan: Yes, I think that’s right to some degree. Evangelicals have long had their own subculture and it has led in many cases to isolationism and a failure to love our neighbor properly because we simply don’t understand our neighbor. That said, I also believe that evangelicalism is not much different in this regard than any other major subculture in the US. With the disintegration of local communities, interest-based subcultures are what we are left with, whether it is extreme sports, online gaming, DYI home improvement, or evangelicalism. So, I think this is a part of a larger problem we have in the US of dialogue in a nation without unifying, deep institutions and ideologies.

And not all this separation is bad. I’m excited at the prospect of being able to pray with my students at OBU. The separation that a Christian university provides allows me to explore a vision of faith as integral to the whole of life that a “secular” institution simply could not allow me. There’s value in both kinds of institutions. Where I believe we get into trouble is when we cease to value evangelical culture for its unique positive contributions and we begin to think of it as merely an alternative culture to flee to. And that is where we can start moving out of isolationism, by seeing that the purpose of these evangelical institutions and cultural works is not to offer an escape from the world, but to model a better way for the world and to minister to us more fully as humans.

John: In my own response to the Hobby Lobby decision, I pondered how we define religious belief. In addition to core tenets from the Apostle’s Creed, evangelicals hold a variety of second-level positions as central to religious belief. It’s not same-sex marriage per se, it’s how a position on scripture is tied up with that topic. So giving ground isn’t a matter of civil discourse but abandoning a belief in “God’s Word”. This is a very difficult position to maintain in pluralistic exchange because casual observers are aware of other situations where we accommodate shifts from what scriptural authority would suggest (e.g., Divorce). Do you think we need to narrow our claims of religious privilege in order to engage the critical issues of the day?

Alan: So much of the discussion surrounding the Hobby Lobby case has dealt with the legal and social aspects, that I think evangelicals have often skipped over the theological assumptions. And I understand this leap. I do not believe Hobby Lobby should be legally required to cover contraceptives which they are convinced cause abortions (particularly because, as the SCOTUS ruled, there are likely other ways to cover those contraceptives which don’t create this religious conflict). But theologically and scientifically, I’m not convinced, yet, that Hobby Lobby is morally culpable if they are forced to pay. The impulse for many evangelicals is to merely defend Hobby Lobby because we are concerned about religious liberties being restrained. But we need to also have this hard theological conversation about the idea of culpability in this situation. Ethical training needs to be more a part of our discipleship. Because issues like the contraceptive mandate are complex, and evangelicals need to be able to tackle them fairly and carefully. Doing so, I believe, will help us sort out the problems you raise: our double standards on things like divorce and greed and other less popular sins. I don’t think we need to narrow our claims of religious rights, but I do think we need to be able to articulate what our rights are and why a particular issue matters in a way that is winsome and understandable to the world.

John: In spite of Citizens United and Hobby Lobby, the conflating of personal belief and business practice seems problematic. There is a way for Christian bakeries (whatever that really means) to make cakes that are not seen as endorsements. In fact, making cakes may be a means to engage in dialogue regarding moral behavior (if it can be done in non-combative terms). If God can instruct Hosea to marry a prostitute, maybe wedding cakes are a symbol of prophetic witness. Can one make a consistent claim not to do business with those who fall outside Biblical mandates?

Alan: It’s important to note that in these various cases where Christian businesses have refused to provide a service for a gay wedding, the issue, as I understand it, is not that the costumer is a sinner. The issue is that they are being asked to do a creative act to celebrate something (a wedding) which they believe is fundamentally immoral. I suppose this is the same problem Christian copywriters face: can I create something with the explicit purpose of promoting some thing which I know to be sin? If I’m an Anabaptist ad designer, can I design an ad for a fighter jet, or does it make me morally culpable?

To some extent, for private businesses, these questions are easy to deal with. Photographers, for example, can already legally turn down jobs which they are not comfortable with, even for moral reasons. If a photographer refuses to shoot a pornographic scene because she believes that the act itself is immoral, she is within her rights. The difference here is that in same-sex weddings, the moral objection is related to the costumers’ sexual orientation.

Please understand that my point here is to explain the reasoning of these evangelical business owners. I quite understand that for the same-sex couples who are facing this discrimination (I mean that in a literal, non-pejorative sense), it is experienced as personal rejection based on sexual orientation. I understand their frustration and objections, as much as I can, at least. But to answer your question about how evangelicals should do business and why some are refusing to, I needed to present their perspective.

As for using these opportunities as prophetic moments, while I think that is a positive and Kingdom oriented approach, I have grave doubts that same-sex couples in this situations would be open to having a moral dialogue about their behavior. But perhaps I’m mistaken.

John: One of the challenges arising from the first three points is that evangelicals haven’t been good at using civil means to pursue their ends. Some have used courts and legislatures to keep mosques from establishing or banning Sharia law. Now we worry about the civil authorities stepping in and mandating contraception coverage or non-discrimination and we cry foul. I found the recent “letter about the executive order” to be troubling. I understand the intent of the proponents, but it is seen by those outside as a request to stay outside the social contract impacting the rest of society. How do we respect beliefs and play well with others?

Alan: Love them. Desire the best for them. Work towards that good while knowing that you cannot force anyone to be righteous. You can’t even force yourself to be righteous. It is through Christ that we are saved. That Gospel reality can allow us to live with this tension, to live in a world filled with sinners like ourselves who will act in ways we believe are foolish or wrong or silly or deeply immoral. It will keep us from the self-righteousness that turns love for neighbor into abuse of neighbor. And also from the self-absorption which turns tolerance for our neighbor into indifference.

I’m sorry that’s all vague, but it’s a big question, and an important one. Thanks for asking me to do this.

Thanks, Alan, for your willingness to engage the questions. There’s much to consider in this back-and forth. We may have to do this again. I invite others to engage as well.

 

 

Today’s Post in Antioch Session

But you are God’s chosen and special people. You are a group of royal priests and a holy nation. God has brought you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Now you must tell all the wonderful things he has done. The Scriptures say, “Once you were nobody. Now you are God’s people. At one time no one had mercy on you. Now God has treated you with kindness.” 1 Peter 2:9-10

I am not a biblical scholar or theologian. I’m a sociologically oriented social psychologist who studies evangelicalism. And yet even I can notice that there something profound in this passage from First Peter.+

We are a priesthood.+

It doesn’t say, “you will be lead by a priesthood“. The Levitical set-aside was replaced by a remarkably open democratic vision: you all are royal priests. You must testify as to what he has done. Because you are God’s people.+

Too much of our discourse is caught up in various version of celebrity pundits: television commentators, religious bloggers, celebrity pastors, leaders of special interest groups (religious or political), politicians. What binds many of these together is that they deal in certainty. They know where their go-to positions are and will defend those against the go-to positions of opponents. My twitter feed is full of people aligning behind one position or another.+

But you are God’s people. All of you. And you will tell your story. The story that you tell is far less likely to deal in certainty. It is likely to deal in messiness precisely because everyday life is messy.

Read the rest along with some fine work from my AC colleagues at http://www.antiochsession.com/2014/07/14/having-faith-in-the-priesthood-of-believers/

Inspector Javert is not the hero of Les Mis: Grace and the Future of Evangelicalism

I spent a good part of yesterday doing one of my favorite things: trying to read the tea leaves on the emerging trends in evangelicalism. (Because of this, I turned on the soccer game about 22 minutes late which meant I missed the match!). It was an interesting day. I read a little of Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism and considered his take on Western Cultural Captivity. I watched a great discussion on Ed Stetzer’s The Exchange featuring Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Jonathan Merritt, and Trevin Wax. I watched Brandan Robertson’s talk at the Wild Goose Festival on his journey through Moody Bible and evangelical subculture. I finished the day watching Andy Gill’s Skype interview with Peter Enns (which lets you look at Peter close-up for 30 minutes and see his Yankee pennants in the background).

There was a lot to process in here. Questions about what constitutes evangelicalism and according to whose criteria (Bebbington had better be getting royalties for each time his quadrilateral gets trotted out). Seeing Jonathan Merritt using John Wesley’s method to explain religious change. Sensing the tensions between tradition as we’ve understood it and contemporary realities (thankfully, no one referenced “slippery slopes”). Issues of scriptural authority, church attendance, and, of course, millennials.

Not everyone agreed. But what characterized the discussions was a spirt of grace and compassion. Something that is too often missing in religious discussions.

JavertIt made me think of the lead male characters in Les Miserables. Jean Valjean’s life is re-formed through an encounter with unwarranted favor. He lives his life to extend that to others at great personal cost. Inspector Javert is committed to the Law. In fact, the superstructure of his mindset is organized around it (check out the lyrics to Stars).

There are many versions of what happens to evangelicalism over the next decade or so. Some are optimistic, thinking that pragmatism may win out as it has on other forces of social change in the church. Some are ready to give up evangelicalism as representing a past social form so intertwined with culture wars and political parties that there’s no hope.

I tend to see a celebration of gracious faith from all sectors of the Christian church. That means that our old dividing lines may not be meaningful anymore. Dropping labels of evangelical vs. mainline vs. Catholic would be a good place to start. There’s been far too much finger pointing and facile explanation given (I’m amazed at how often we talk of mainline decline or rote ritual even today). We should be offering grace to all those who faithfully strive to follow Christ.

John Armstrong rightly expressed concern yesterday over comments (never read comments!) to an article about charismatic leaders meeting with Pope Francis. The quest for order and law on the part of the commenters was telling. As Ed Stetzer observed,  the focus on our ideas and practices as litmus test issues “obscures the gospel”

It must be admitted that there are Javerts on the progressive side as well. Too many of the comments I read on Facebook and Twitter seem utterly dismissive of traditionalists (who seem utterly dismissive of progressives). Still, if grace is our motto we need to take another look at our practice and open ourselves up to alternative views.

A few weeks ago, I watched the movie Einstein and Eddington starring Andy Serkis (not in motion capture) and David Tennant, respectively. Eddington is a physicist who is intrigued with Einstein’s work and sets out to prove the General Theory of Relativity via a solar eclipse. (I ran across a great quote while researching Eddington. An interviewer said that there couldn’t be more than three people who understood Einstein. Eddington replied, “who’s the other one?”). In the movie adaptation, Relativity is a threat because it undermines the whole of Newtonian structure, which was seen as a means of demonstrating order in the universe. This is even related to the gassing of British Troops at Ypres (which the screenwriter asserts, must have happened for a reason). The tension between the advances promoted by Eddington (a Quaker) and the established Newtonian order was fascinating.

I thought of this again the other day when reading Randall Balmer’s book on Jimmy Carter. Looking back on Carter’s loss of the White House, Ballmer suggests that Carter could have done more to reach out to establishment evangelicals. He had been given a list of possible cabinet candidates by Pat Robertson that got lost and wasn’t remade. The religion advisor Robert Maddox (a Southern Baptist at the time) came too late in the term. It made me wonder if Carter could have maintained alliances, even though he was more progressive, if he’d found ways of sharing his Christian commonalities with those who went before.

In this regard, I’ve been fascinated by the series Peter Enns has been running lately about Biblical Scholars and their “AHA” moments about the Bible. He’s now done six of them (here’s the most recent). In every case, the scholar has great regard for the church of origin and the importance placed on scripture even though questions led each to deep Biblical scholarship.

I’m reminded of a book on Culture Wars that Robert Wuthnow wrote in the late 1980s. After looking at the chasm then separating the conservative and mainline (this was problematic even then) he suggests that it was evangelical academics who stood in the gap and could bridge the chasm. They could affirm the heart of the conservatives while offering the insight of the progressives. Perhaps, he suggested, there was a way forward.

At the close of his interview with Andy Gill, Pete Enns talked of the importance of humility, both spiritual and academic. It was important to maintain that grace when dealing with the social changes around us.

The future of a vibrant Christian faith in this country lies not in battles over orthodoxy or symbols. It is not about who won which political race or court battle. It is about offering the grace necessary to really hear each other, to serve as the midwives who will bring forth whatever next phase of Church the Spirit is birthing.

Engaged Evangelicalism: Randall Balmer’s Book on Jimmy Carter

RedeemerLast week I devoted myself to Randall Balmer’s new book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. I was drawn to it after reading Randall’s piece last month in Politico about how the Bob Jones tax exemption decision was the trigger that prompted evangelical political activism. So when I got an Amazon gift card for Father’s Day, I knew what to get.

It turns out that Randall and I graduated from high school in the same year. When he described the tumultuous factors impacting his teen years (the assassinations of RFK and MLK, the War in Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon’s Resignation) I completely identified. Those were my events too. For both of us there were also family and religious changes, but being in your early twenties when “one of our own” ran for the highest office in the land was certainly attention getting. We came of age at a time when a progressive voice in evangelicalism was being rediscovered after decades of post-social-gospel quiet. Not that everyone around us was progressive, but there were voices talking about inequality, justice, racism, and faith. Heady stuff for historians and sociologists.

Ballmer’s take on Jimmy Carter is fascinating. He keeps President Carter’s faith and his quest to follow Jesus at the center of the story. There are other players as well. The aforementioned Bob Jones case appears as a pivot point in turning evangelicals away from Carter between 1976 and 1980. Not that most folks were concerned about that specifically, but it was a lever used by people like Paul Weyrich who saw an opportunity to mobilize evangelicals (he wasn’t one) for conservative causes. Then there are the evangelical leaders like Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Phyllis Schlaffly who used their positions to undermine the President’s goals, hopes, and dreams. Bordering on opportunism, they saw nothing of distorting views (Schlaffly), making up anecdotes (Falwell), or being generally two-faced (Graham) if it suited their larger cause.

Set against all this positioning and opportunism is the story of a man who sought consistency in his moral life and tried to govern following that light. He was shaped by his interactions around race in rural Georgia, three very strong women (his progressive mother, his evangelist sister, and his wife), and his ambition to be of service in the world. Not that he always got that right. There is the gubernatorial campaign that betrayed his principles on race (for which he publicly apologized after his election). There is the Playboy interview given during the presidential run (right sentiments but evangelicals saw it as not maintaining separation from evil).

But time and again the story returns to his Baptist upbringing, the importance of congregational autonomy and separation of church and state (key Baptist principles at the time), and his own conversion at the leading of his sister Ruth. This isn’t a faith that is compartmentalized but one that is thought through carefully. There is a linkage between Carter’s commitments to Human Rights, to equality for women, to concern for the Palestinians as well as the Israelis, and what he believes Christ has called us to. It’s not a separationist evangelicalism that sees politics, government, and society as tainted. It’s a progressive view that believes that a person acting from a moral core, who works hard, who is smart, and who can effectively communicate those values can make a difference in the lives of many. Not because he’s special (though he knew he was) but because his Christian duty compelled him.

Ballmer’s title comes from his thesis that Carter redeemed American society from the sins of the Watergate era. He allowed us to move on (although Reagan gets the credit for “morning in America”) and to believe in possibilities again. But a variety of factors outside the president’s control (OPEC, Iranian Hostages, USSR invasion of Afghanistan, Inflation) hampered his attempts at moral suasion. There were clearly naive mistakes made by what was called “the Georgia mafia”. He could have reached out to evangelical leadership earlier than he did. And there the already mentioned forces that combined to favor Ronald Reagan as the darling of evangelicals (although he wasn’t one — while Jimmy Carter regularly taught Sunday School, many Sunday Schools of the day would not have allowed the divorced Reagan to have such a leadership role).

Randall quotes Emory President James Laney, who said that Carter “was the first president to use the White House as a stepping stone“. Carter’s post-presidential career has now spanned 24 years, three years longer than his political life from Board of Education to President of the United State of America. If anything, his moral voice has gotten stronger and more consistent. People don’t always agree with him but he continues to act on his Christian convictions.

There are some minor quibbles I could raise. Some phrases and stories get repeated a little too often. I would have liked a little more on policy initiatives. But the thrust of the story is about morality, faith, and following Jesus. Not just for the benefit of evangelicals but to pursue the common good, the shalom of God.

Balmer includes the “Crisis of Confidence” speech from July 1979, often called the “malaise” speech even though the word doesn’t appear. Carter had worked slavishly on the speech. What was supposed to be a speech about energy started with reflections on the American character. At the time, I thought he’d made a mistake by not being a presidential cheerleader (something his successor did to an extreme). But re-reading the speech 35 years later, I wish he’d left off the energy stuff. It was a six point policy statement about conservation, oil supplies, renewable resources, and the like.

But the opening of the speech (the first five pages in the appendix) are profound and speak to our moral needs today. He calls for us to have faith in each other. One that calls forth a faith and moral direction that benefits all Americans. It’s a message that we need desperately to hear in our churches, on our cable channels, and in legislative halls across the country.

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves…

Looking back, the Sunday School teacher from Plains always keeps his moral center and keeps testifying to us about what it means to follow Jesus.

Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges: Responding to the Conn Articles

Coens

This is not the Conns.

This week a pair of opinion pieces concerning Christian Higher Education burst onto my social media feeds. Since I had been on the road, the second one caught my eye first. Steven Conn, professor of history at Ohio State, wrote a piece in the Huffington Post titled “Is ‘Christian College’ an Oxymoron?“.  While trying to get my head around his very incomplete argument, I started seeing responses to a Conn article that had appeared in the Chronicle the beginning of the week. This one, titled “The Great Accreditation Farce“, was written by Peter Conn, professor of english and education at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m not sure how Steve and Peter are connected but I did find at least one piece that they co-wrote, so I’m assuming that they are brothers. (This is not a picture of them but every time I think of the idea of Conn brothers, these guys come to mind.)

I’ll try to summarize their arguments (using first names for brevity). Steven’s argument is that a school with an a priori faith commitment, especially one with a formal faith statement faculty must adhere to, is incompatible with academic freedom. Using examples of Bryan College (which he initially placed in Dayton, OH instead of Dayton, TN), Cedarville University, and Wheaton College (IL), he explores actions taken by administrators that have caused faculty members to leave (or been fired). He suggests that taxpayers might be unaware that “we subsidize religion through our system of support for higher education”. His complaints about Bryan come primarily from New York Times stories on the Bryan controversies and Cedarville’s from an 18 year old story from Harpers. He rightly looks at the religious history of American universities and says that their religious groundings shifted at places like Cornell and Harvard late in the 19th century. He goes on:

And for good reason. Higher education is dedicated to untrammeled inquiry rather than faithful submission. It starts with questions and explores them to their limits, not with answers that are then back-filled. It cultivates skepticism rather than insisting on credulity. Christian colleges pursue the opposite agenda. Questions already have answers …

Peter’s argument begins with a standard recitation of concerns about regional accreditation: too much focus on inputs, not enough attention to quality concerns, too tradition bound. He suggests that the primary motivation for schools to be accredited is for their students to gain access to Title IV funds (Pell Grants, Work Study, and Subsidized Loans). He cites two reports from the past decade that suggest accreditation needs attention. He also mentions his experience in overseeing a self-study and serving on an evaluation team at another school. Then he turns to his real agenda. Christian colleges should not be accredited because “they erect religious tests for truth”. He cites a faculty member at Bryan (from the New York Times) and critiques Wheaton for having its faculty sign faith statements. He says:

Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.

There have been some wonderful responses written in the last few days. Baylor Humanities professor Alan Jacobs and Wheaton Provost Stanton Jones provided excellent rebuttals. Jacobs focuses on the actual dynamics of accreditation (as opposed to those suggested by Peter). Jones writes eloquently about the moral foundations of all scholarly inquiry.

My responses to the Conns is based on my unique career path. I have been in Christian Higher Ed for 33 years, serving as faculty member and as senior academic administrator. I’ve been in five different Christian institutions and know quite a bit about a score of others. I have served as an evaluator in two of the six accreditation regions and been trained for the Higher Learning Commission. I’ve written a self-study, dealt with academic freedom questions from my faculty colleagues, and teach sociology in Christian institutions (which needs academic freedom protections from time to time!).

I’ll respond to Peter’s claims first. From everything I learned in my years working with accreditors (I’ve done three full-scale visits, four follow-up visits, and served on a program review panel) the central theme has always been about the primacy of institutional mission. What does it mean for Wheaton College to pursue its unique role? That must be clearly defined and give direction to all other aspects of the life of the College. Academic Freedom is seen within the context of mission. The same is true at the University of Pennsylvania. For the record, the last ten years has seen the regional accreditors moving rapidly to student outcome measures, increased focus on issues of alignment, and the significant role of faculty governance as part of protecting that alignment of mission, program, and policy. Boards of Trustees must be independent bodies that, while perhaps representing a sponsoring denomination, cannot be answering to the denomination. The schools are expected to be independent and protecting the educational mission at it impacts students. (That’s another distinction one could explore: academic freedom should find its expression in student learning and not simply in faculty statements.) I would wager that our impact on students at Christian institutions, especially on controversial issues, is greater that than of the University of Pennsylvania.

Steven’s argument about academic freedom is hard to fathom. He focuses on two somewhat rogue institutions (even by Christian college standards). I’ve written before about both Bryan and Cedarville. In both cases (as with Shorter), the situation was one where the administration violated principles of shared governance and forced changes upon existing faculty. They did have their academic freedom limited by dominant positions on Adam and Eve or the role of women in ministry.

But this was not inherent in all Christian Colleges. it  was the result of failure of alignment of mission and educational process in two specific institutions. Here’s a recent piece on on a Calvin College faculty member’s academic freedom regarding the study of human origins. The schools I’ve served carefully wrestle with the need for considering alternative viewpoint in ways that are accessible by students. It’s true that one needs to be more nuanced about how to present those viewpoints and that a capable academic administrator (I pray I was one) is able to deflect external attacks by pointing back to the centrality of institutional mission.

As I’ve written, our commitment as Christian institutions and as Christian scholars is not to some rigid dogma that constrains our free thinking. It is a belief that we are doing important work in preparing our students to live in the Kingdom of God. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit and the hard work of community, we model what real inquiry looks like. I would love for Steven (who thinks he couldn’t be invited to Cedarville) to spend a few days with the faculty at Spring Arbor. He’d learn quite a bit.

One more thing: My friend George Yancey has written on anti-religious bias in the academy. While he and I disagree on the extent of that, these articles seem to demonstrate his point. I cannot imagine either the Chronicle of Higher Education or the Huffington Post publishing a takedown of research universities as sloppily argued as the pieces by the Conns. We’d have a much higher standard to meet in terms of structure of argument and evidentiary support. The bias comes out in how easy it is for critics to cherry-pick egregious cases.

This is why the rest of us have got to find a way of changing the media narrative about Christian Higher Education.

 

 

Truthiness, Belief, and Story: Reflections on Hobby Lobby Decision

I wanted to wait to comment on the Supreme Court decision regarding Hobby Lobby (Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.) until I had a chance to review the actual decision after returning from my weekend in Chicago (a delightful Choral Festival at Fourth Presbyterian). In many ways, the outcome was fairly predictable given the Court’s prior position in Citizens United. Having granted bill of rights protections to corporations, it was likely that the conservative majority would be consistent. [In spite of some of what I've read, this wasn't a First Amendment case on free expression but relied instead on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.]

Supreme CourtWhen I saw tweets that Justice Alito had written for the majority, it was also clear how the argument would be structured. Others have observed the sharp distinctions between the arguments of the majority and the dissent. It was almost as if they heard two different cases since their rhetorical focus seemed so different. As I did a summary read on the decision yesterday, I came away with three critical reflections.

 1. The Central Claim was one of Truthiness

Stephen Colbert introduced the idea of “truthiness” the night he launched his satirical news show. His point was the facts didn’t matter because he depended on his gut to tell him what was true. It was the Merriam Webster “word of the year” for 2006, beating out the word “google”. If something feels a certain way, then that’s what matters.

At the heart of the dispute over the contraceptive mandate is a concern over four forms of contraceptives that the plaintiffs “believed” caused abortions. The mandate is actually in implementation language written by the HHS in response to amendment to the Affordable Care Act dealing with women’s preventative health. [The dissent makes clear than a religious exemption amendment failed during the ACA debate.] As the case was moving its way through the courts, I kept waiting for someone to address the central belief. There are many news reports that attempt to explore the claim that the four types (mainly IUDs and “morning after pills”) cause abortion rather than preventing ovulation. While not conclusive, my reading of the science leans toward the ovulation argument, but I’m not a definitive source. It seemed to me that someone would need to address this along the way.

I was quietly stunned in reading the oral arguments that both sides emphasized that the plaintiffs “sincerely believed” that the methods caused abortions which was a violation of their religious beliefs. But nobody addressed the scientific claim. I remember reading that social science data on young girls and dolls was an important part of the Brown v. Board deliberation, so it seemed appropriate.

This is important because Justice Alito based part of his support on the idea that there were less restrictive options available. The federal government could pay for those disputed contraceptive methods. But one can’t do so without addressing the science. If it turns out that these methods are, in fact, abortifacients, the Hyde Amendment and the Stupak amendment to the ACA would preclude any federal funds being used.  It’s stunning that Alito would suggest such a strategy unless he believed the science was on the ovulation side. [He does argue that the government has a legitimate interest in providing all 20 forms of contraception.]

2. The Nature of Belief

There are volumes written in theology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy on the nature of belief. The RFRA was written to protect a religious group from laws that infringe on their first amendment protections. The Wikipedia description quotes the act as follows: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

The Hobby Lobby argument is that their belief that “life begins at conception” is a religious belief and that the mandate infringes on that belief with regard to the four contested contraception methods. Personally, I struggle with the application of language on “free exercise” of religion with a particular moral belief. There is a big difference between Native American peyote practice (the case behind the RFRA) and a specific belief.

There are Christians firmly committed to Young Earth Creationism or that women should not have authority over men. Do these positions constitute the central place of religious belief? It’s not the same as being at risk for believing that Christ is the Son of God and Redeemer. For a society that seems to adopt a smorgasbord approach to religious belief [the Catholic Bishops just accepted the fact that 95% of Catholics disagree with the official position on birth control], how do we navigate if every set of beliefs is privileged by law?

3. Whose Story?

The Court determined that “closely held corporations” were protected by the RFRA. In other words, corporations that form around family enterprises (but not publicly traded companies) could have religious positions that must be considered. But as many have observed, Hobby Lobby as a company doesn’t appear to be organized around religious ends (except for being closed on Sunday). Many have pointed out that there are practices the company engages in that are hard to characterize as “Christian” (e.g., Jonathan Merritt’s piece in The Week).

But the court’s argument seems to be that the values of the Green family extend to the rest of the corporation. This strikes me as problematic on a number of levels. We often attempt to distinguish one’s personal commitments from one’s corporate stance. This was the argument made around the Chick-fil-a CEO last year. But if one’s beliefs and story extend over all else, then how do we make decisions?

This struck me the other night when I was watching Rising Star on ABC. I don’t normally watch these music competition shows, butRising Star a choir member’s niece was on when I was in Chicago so we all watched it together. What struck me was that the judges seemed less focused on musical ability or technique as on the back story. So the baseball pitcher who was blinded by a hit ball could now try to sing. The focus was on how much he’d overcome and what dedication he showed. People were commended on how they “brought it”, overcame nerves, or how their stories touched the judges.

There’s a parallel in a focus on stories that show dedication, sincerity, and Christian commitment within the political sphere. The argument becomes about the ways in which the Greens live out their commitments of faith. But our stories are part of what got us to the current point of discussion not the be-all-and-end-all. And we need to figure out how our stories intersect with the stories of others.

All of the justices were privileging story but they were privileging different stories. The majority focused on the Greens and the dissent focused on female employees of Hobby Lobby.

At the end of the day, I can affirm Hobby Lobby’s interest in pursuing legal remedies available to them but I keep thinking that there was a stronger opportunity for a faith witness in not insisting on their way.

These reflections can no doubt be challenged and I may modify my own thinking over time. For now, it seems like a decision that left a lot unexplored. We will no doubt be revisiting this case and others like it in the future.

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