The Importance of Conversation: Faculty Colleagues and the CCCU

This past week, Chris Gehrz asked, “What do you love about Christian Colleges?” So far the response has been less than overwhelming. But his question got me thinking.

It is true that I love working alongside undergraduates eager to make sense of the world around them. And there are no other settings where I would get paid to pontificate about sociology.

But one thing stood out as I pondered Chris’ question: my faculty colleagues.

We come from a variety of different places and experiences. We come with different disciplinary lenses. We have different frameworks in terms of our understanding of institutional mission. We adopt different political philosophies. And yet those differences don’t seem to define us (at least for the most part — more below).

When I first started the writing project that became my book, I was focused on the importance of what I called Christian Academic Community. This concept was how I distinguished the Christian College from other institutional contexts. It’s why the Christian College isn’t the same as the state university — we take Christian identity seriously. It’s why the Christian College isn’t an extension of the denomination — it is Academic in character and process. It’s why the faculty aren’t focused primarily on making a name in the disciplinary guilds — we are a Community.

Outside of my classes and university meetings, I spend significant time in interaction with my faculty colleagues. We don’t sit around in spaces quite as nice as those in Augustana’s picture above. Our conversations happen in offices, in stairwells, at lunch, over coffee.

Those conversations are the places where we wrestle with the world’s big issues (as well as institutional politics). I have had many conversations with colleagues about the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states (these were prior to the June’s Obergefell Decision). We have talked about economic inequality. We have talked about the role of the church in a post-Christian era. We have talked about the value of liberal arts in a STEM environment.

We are not of one mind on any of these issues. There are legitimate differences between us. Some wind up being negotiated over months and years of conversation. Others get so far and then we identify the one barrier that separates us and decide to live with that tension.

As I write this, I’m thinking of a particular colleague whose high view of scripture calls him to land in a particular place on same-sex marriage. I respect his position. It’s part of who he is and where his years of study have led him. We agree on a great deal within the broader conversation but we will never completely see things the same way.

And that’s wonderful. I need him. I hope he needs me. Together we are part of Christian Academic Community, listening for the Spirit’s leading as we reflect on our own positions.

This is what has been so troubling to me about the CCCU crisis relating to Goshen and Eastern Mennonite’s policy change on hiring and the response of other Christian Universities like Union University. I struggle to affirm the demand for strident action because my first inclination is to wonder how the faculty and administration at GC and EMU reached their conclusion. I wish I could sit down over lunch and hear their rationale.

This is how faculty members operate. We put our prior assumptions on the table (eventually) and discuss them as brothers and sisters in a community who are invested in each other’s lives. In so doing, we work first toward understanding and then toward the common good.

The CCCU news has been largely about pronouncements of what the CCCU membership criteria should mean. By defining the criteria in certain ways, it has been easy for critics to claim that Goshen and Eastern Mennonite aren’t really Christian Universities at all.

By the way, a group called Christian Universities Online yesterday released this year’s list of The 50 Best Christian Colleges and Universities. Goshen came in at #4 and EMU at #22 (Union was #6 and SAU was #19). I’m not clear on the criteria used, but the timing was interesting to say the least.

Messiah’s Jenell Paris had an interesting post this week (thanks for the heads up, Chris!) on the limits of separation as a religious strategy. She speaks of the values inherent in The Karate Kid that she missed because her church growing up didn’t go to movies. She speaks of “a visceral fear of engaging differences“. She concludes:

There is much I appreciate about my fundamentalist heritage, including a love for the Bible and careful attention to individual moral duty. But the doctrine of separation? I’ve let it go, and have found nothing of the Gospel diminished. In fact, it seems bracingly alive in conversation, life, and conflict with people with whom I disagree, both within my religious group and beyond.

I agree with Jenell. As a faculty member, I have seen that honest engagement enhances the depth of understanding, reveals the Spirit in our midst, and leads us into all truth.

I have known some faculty colleagues over the years who still embrace a separatist ideology. They have seen it as their responsibility to look for litmus test issues among other faculty. It saddens me, because such folks seem cut off from the very Christian Academic Community which is the lifeblood of what we do in our institutions.

Differing views are a given, whether seen within a Christian college faculty or in a loose association of similar Colleges into an umbrella organization. The key is what we do with those differing views.

My experience tell me that engagement is the only sure way forward. In that engagement, we come to discover the reality of Christian Community.

Dis-Union in the CCCU

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 5.55.53 PMIn 1989, I was invited to a conference outside of Philadelphia with about 120 other sociologists from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). We had gathered to discuss the then-new monograph, Sociology Through The Eyes of Faith, written by Tony Campolo and David Frazier of Eastern University. It was remarkable for three reasons.

  1. It was amazing to discover my affinity with other scholars who shared my dual calling to sociology and Christian faith. It’s not that there weren’t Christians elsewhere, but this was a real fraternity. We shared an ethos and to see that fraternity embodied in a conference room was moving. We were from a wide variety of faith traditions and taught at very different kinds of Christian schools but we shared something significant in terms of identity.
  2. It was an exercise in humility. Tony and David had sent advanced copies of the manuscript to each of us and the authors came to us in small groups to hear our feedback. It was a level of collegiality I’ve rarely seen in the academy.
  3. I heard one of the most important speeches I’d ever heard. Given by Ray DeVries (then of Saint Olaf and now of the University of Michigan), it spoke of structural evil. Not in terms of the big issues of poverty and racism but of the small everyday issues in which power is demonstrated in ways that cause real harm. Maybe it was in a classroom. Maybe it was what constituted “appropriate scholarship”. Maybe it was in a faculty meeting. But it was a powerful reminder that has stayed with me ever since.

This meeting has been on my mind this week given the turmoil within the CCCU. Last month, two Mennonite schools (Goshen and Eastern Mennonite) changed their discrimination statements to allow hiring of monogamous same-sex married faculty and staff. This was done after the Mennonite Church adopted a resolution recognizing that their fellowship was divided on the question of same-sex marriage. The resolution, which they called a “forebearance resolution” stated the following (according to a story in The Mennonite):

The proposed forbearance resolution “acknowledges that there is not currently a consensus” on matters related to same-sex covenanted relationships. It “calls those in Mennonite Church USA to offer grace, love and forbearance towards conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters relating to same-sex covenanted unions.”

While it may be surprising that the recognition of difference led the schools to take a more “progressive” choice of allowing same-sex marriage, it is consistent with some New Testament passages where the early Church was navigating differences.

Following the change in policy from the two schools, questions arose as to whether these two schools should be allowed to remain within the CCCU. Stories in Christian media seemed to set the stage that expulsion was the only reasonable course. The CCCU has been studying the issue and is expected to make a determination by the end of this month.

But the central rationale for CCCU membership is that faculty members have to be practicing Christians. This has been true since the founding of the pre-cursor of the current organization. This, as David McKenna pointed out in a history two years ago, was a means of distinguishing “Christ-Centered” colleges from the merely “church affiliated”. It overcame denominational distinctions because it set the center on the right thing–the place former CCCU president Paul Corts called “keeping the main thing the main thing”.

The crisis came to a head this week when Union University suddenly announced that they were not waiting for the Board review but were leaving the CCCU effective immediately. The tweet from Christianity Today claimed (a self-fulfilling prophecy if I ever heard one) that “Union University was the first school to bolt the CCCU.” Others are now talking about leaving if Goshen and Eastern Mennonite are allowed to remain.

I don’t think I know faculty members personally at Goshen and Eastern Mennonite, although I’ve had colleagues who’ve been in both and Howard Zehr at EMU is the world’s expert on restorative justice. And yet those faculty members are my colleagues. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. The faculty at Goshen and EMU are my fellow-laborers, working alongside Christian young people striving to be what God designed them to be. For that matter, faculty members at Union are my colleagues and fellow-laborers as well.

To suggest that they aren’t “real Christians” because their school has made a policy decision is the kind of exclusion Ray DeVries was describing all those years ago. We haven’t excluded people for their school’s stance on the ordination of women, on the inerrancy of scripture (we all affirm authority), or on the nature of creation.

Some may suggest that we aren’t making such determinations but that schools like Union are simply holding the line on Christian Orthodoxy. But they are clearly stating that they do not believe that Goshen and Eastern Mennonite are “Christian” institutions. In truth, they are Christian schools as long as they’ve put Christ first in their classroom interactions and have “kept the main thing the main thing”.

One of these days, we will need to acknowledge that there are people of deep Christian faith who have come to believe that affirming same-sex marriage is consistent with their faith. According to nearly all the polls, many of those people are the undergraduates coming to our classes.

The CCCU is a key place where faithful Christians will find the space to work through the social changes that surround us. The diversity in the CCCU is its greatest strength and needs to be protected.

The Patrick Option

As a sociologist, I’ve been as interested in the dramatic shifts in religious life and American Culture as the next social observer. The data is compelling.

We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation (the Nones), the collapse of Cultural Christianity (which was not a bad thing), major demographic shifts in the mainline churches, and new pressures on traditional evangelical churches. Attitudes toward same-sex marriage have shown massive change in a remarkably short period of time. Religious freedom claims are being made by those from non-Christian religions (or from no religion at all).

It’s all a little overwhelming. It’s no surprise that many in the Christian world worry about persecution (in spite of a near absence of it in the American context). Certainly the landscape is shifting and we’re trying to figure out where we fit.

Many people are attracted to Rod Dreher’s suggestion of The Benedict Option. Drawing upon the collapse of Rome around the turn of the sixth century, he argues:

Around the year 500, a generation after barbarians deposed the last Roman emperor, a young Umbrian man known to history only as Benedict was sent to Rome by his wealthy parents to complete his education. Disgusted by the city’s decadence, Benedict fled to the forest to pray as a hermit.

Benedict gained a reputation for holiness and gathered other monks around him. Before dying circa 547, he personally founded a dozen monastic communities, and wrote his famous Rule, the guidebook for scores of monasteries that spread across Europe in the tumultuous centuries to follow.

Rome’s collapse meant staggering loss. People forgot how to read, how to farm, how to govern themselves, how to build houses, how to trade, and even what it had once meant to be a human being. Behind monastery walls, though, in their chapels, scriptoriums, and refectories, Benedict’s monks built lives of peace, order, and learning and spread their network throughout Western Europe.

They did not keep the fruits of their labors to themselves. Benedictines taught the peasants who gathered around their monasteries the Christian faith, as well as practical skills, like farming. Because monks of the order took a vow of “stability,” meaning they were sworn to stay in that place until they died, Benedictine monasteries emerged as islands of sanity and serenity. These were the bases from which European civilization gradually re-emerged.

A quick Google search found other choices. One could opt for the Dominican Option or the Jeremiah Option and I’m sure that more research would find many other Options.

I understand the appeal of the Benedict Option. It’s provides a focus on maintaining what we know in a changing world. It offers the hope of re-engaging the culture in some hoped-for future when things are more amenable to Christian thinking.

But there is another way. It’s a way that relies upon heightened engagement in place of withdrawal.

I’m calling it The Patrick Option.

St PatrickI’ve been exploring this idea for the 20 years since Thomas Cahill wrote his compelling book, How the Irish Saved Western Civilization. But my thinking was greatly expanded by the work of George Hunter from Asbury Seminary. I heard him give a presentation in the early 2000s on The Celtic Way of Evangelization and immediately bought the book of the same title upon which it was based. At the center of the story is Patrick — the young man who was taken by an Irish band as a slave, who escaped to study in Rome and become a Bishop, and who then felt a Macedonian-like call to return to the very island of his captivity.

I’ve spent the last few days reading some new Patrick material. One book is Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Way of Saint Patrick by Jamie Arpin-Ricci. This book focused on Patrick’s willingness to put himself at risk, to engage in chaos, and to build true community. Jamie’s book also draws heavily on Scott Peck’s work on community (which I use in my own book) and lessons from 12-step movements. The other book is a second edition of George Hunter’s book, largely rewritten after a decade since the first book.

When Patrick got to Ireland, he used a very different strategy than his counterparts in the Roman Church. Where they were focused on the importance of believing the right things as a prerequisite for belonging, Patrick engaged the barbarian kings in Ireland and built relationships. As Hunter observes, for him and other Celtic missionaries, the strategy was to build relationship and invite people into the Christian community for conversation, so that people would come to belief.

The Roman Church knew how to extend Christianity alongside the colonization of the Roman Empire. In religious matters just as in political matters, all eyes turned to Rome. Not so with Patrick and his colleagues. He was engaging a non-Christian culture and participating in enough community building so that indigenous practices were retranslated into Christian ones (Hunter’s book is full of examples).

It’s no understatement to observe that Patrick’s work was not looked upon favorably by the Roman Leadership (some called him a Pelagian). He even got the date of Easter wrong!

But as Arpin-Ricci’s book illustrates, Patrick was willing to be open in his faith — to put himself at risk, even the risk of being thought wrong. He didn’t just see himself as missionary to the Irish — he thought himself one of them. He identified with those he was trying to reach.

Hunter explains it like this:

What was the difference between Eastern monasteries and Celtic monastic communities? Briefly, the Eastern monasteries organized to protest, and escape from, the materialism of the Roman world and the corruption of the Church; the Celtic monasteries organized to penetrate the pagan world and to extend the Church. The Eastern monks often withdrew from the world into monasteries to save and cultivate their own souls; Celtic leaders often organized monastic communities to save other people’s souls.

Patrick opened himself up to truly engage the barbarians around him and in so doing modeled the God that was preveniently reaching out to them. They weren’t actually treated as barbarians but engaged as potential friends created in the Image of Almighty God.

Both Vulnerable Faith and Celtic Way are essentially optimistic visions of God’s work in the World. We go forth and engage others. We hear their stories and we share ours. We look for common ground upon which we can build.

That means that we need to spend more time with those Nones and Dones in our midst. We need to understand why one-third of churchgoing millennials are supportive of same-sex marriage. We need to know more about how individuals are navigating this confusing thing we call family. We need to hear the formerly religious talk of their disaffection with faith and institutional church. In hearing their stories and engaging them in authentic Christian community, we have the possibility of communicating the Gospel in new and fresh ways that can connect to their lived experience.

Taking such vulnerable journeys into “hostile territory” is daunting. But Patrick didn’t think he was doing ministry in his own strength and certainty but rather in obedience to the Holy Spirt who was leading him (and others) through those meaningful conversations.

I’ll close by sharing George Hunter’s final paragraph:

The supreme key to reaching the West again is the key that Patrick discovered— involuntarily but providentially. The gulf between church people and unchurched people is vast, but if we pay the price to understand the unchurched, we will usually know what to say and what to do. If they know and feel we understand them, by the tens of millions they will risk opening their hearts to the God who understands them.

This is not the time for Christians to withdraw. This is the time for us to engage as we did 1500 years ago.

The Future of Evangelicalism: A Follow Up

It’s been a little over a week since my post at Patheos on The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism. I appreciate the questions and comments. This week, Patheos added The Future of Progressive Christianity. While the new responses were as varied as last week’s, there is some fascinating synergy here worth watching.

Updates on My Post

First, some reflections on my own piece. Some have suggested that I was arguing that evangelicalism was more fragmented than at any point in the past. I don’t think I ever said that but I can understand the implication.

Let me clarify a few things. First, as a sociologist, my time frame was limited to the past 75 years — the period from the foundation of the National Association of Evangelicals to the present. That is why I referenced Molly Worthen’s history of what I call Industry Evangelicalism — the organizational dynamics that defined what we think of as “evangelical” in the popular realm. As Molly points out, there was significant variability among religious groups in the broad Evangelical umbrella, but there was a “mainstream evangelicalism” (a term often evoked to demonstrate someone is outside that stream). Those focused on defining mainstream are the ones that Putnam and Campbell identified as the source of their “second aftershock” of millennials becoming disillusioned with institutional faith (a pattern David Kinnaman has documented well).

Second, the fragmentation today is taking place in a remarkably different social context than any past fragmentation. This is well documented in the Pew Religious Landscape Report. We have seen a remarkable decline in Cultural Christianity because the social sanctions for not being religious have basically disappeared. Business owners no longer suffer in their local environments for not being members in good standing of the local Presbyterian Church. Furthermore, as a variety of institutional figures have found themselves on the wrong side of social media, abuse claims, or authoritarian personalities, it has coincided with a general anti-institutionalism within the society. In an age of social media, there is a democratization of viewpoints that would not have been present in the past. These changes in the social context, along with others, exacerbate the fragmentation that is present and makes consensus building much more difficult.

Finally, my call for an embrace of big-tent Bebbington definitions isn’t an “anything-goes” invitation. It’s a recognition that even evangelicals who disagree on social issues or come from different generational perspectives are all holding the scripture in high authority. They may not use the scripture in the same way in their positions, but they are trying to ascertain the meaning of the Word of God as best they can. The same can be said of the importance of Jesus Christ as the means to salvation and the desire to spread the Gospel to all who will hear. Their methodology may differ but their commitment is the same. If we can find ways of acknowledging the legitimacy of those commitments, even if we disagree with the interpretations arising from them, we can find some very solid ground for the future.

The Future of Progressive Christianity

When the next phase of the Patheos series came out this week, I was struck by a post by Kyle Roberts. Titled Will Progressive Christians Become More Evangelical?, it explores the same Pew data and makes use of the Putnam and Campbell book. Kyle suggests that as some evangelicals have found their way to mainline churches, the mainlines need to adapt. This raises the possibility for some healthy convergence. As I’ve written before, when you compare regularly attending mainliners and evangelicals, the differences are not as stark as our standard portrayals would assume. And Kyle finds a hopeful synthesis very close to what I was suggesting in my Bebbington paragraph:

We’re are seeing more experiments of faith, which might involve not only ecumenical Christian communities and initiatives, but inter-religious ones as well. And we’ll see more progressive evangelicals and former evangelicals (post-evangelicals)  joining up with mainline Protestants, progressive/liberal Catholics, and people of other faiths (or no particular institutional faith at all) in bringing a little more hope, peace, and gospel to their neighborhoods.  These progressive/post evangelicals are bringing with them a heart for the gospel, a deep respect for the Bible, and a “missionary” (or better: missional) view of the vocation of the Christian.

Today, Zach Hoag wrote a post aligning my fragmentation post with one from University of Washington sociologist Jim Wellman. Jim had argued that progressive Christianity lacks the infrastructure to be able to survive. As Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope documented in Church Refugees, those “done” with Church will find other institutional means of pursuing social justice concerns. Because too many progressive leaders are more likely to be isolates rather than part of broad networks, they run the risk of simply fading from sight over time.

Zach encourages us to explore the “messy middle lane”. He calls us to “rethinking and reforming” our religious institutions.

I think this is absolutely right. We need to find ways that the institutional church is an expression of the Body of Christ, is a place where people find authentic purpose in relationship with God and others (see this by Roger Olson), and is capable of speaking in Kingdom language to a post-Christendom culture.

More on what this might look like in my next post.

The Patheos Series on The Future of Evangelicalism

I was pleased to be asked to write an entry in Patheos’ series on The Future of Evangelicalism. My piece is called The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism and you can read it here.

If you just want the bottom line, here is my conclusion.

The next decade of evangelical life will be hotly contested within the group we’d consider as convictional Christians. The question, as Baylor theologian Roger Olson wrote this month, is whether the evangelical tent is large enough to handle the discussions and differences.

It would serve evangelicals well in the coming decade to return to David Bebbington’sdefinitional criteria for evangelicalism: high regard for scripture, the importance of Christ’s death on the cross, the need for conversion, and the need to share God’s Good News.

If evangelicalism can focus on affirming these core principles, even while disagreeing on broader issues, its impact on society will be substantial. If evangelicalism can’t build a big enough tent around those central pillars, it will mire in conflict and fade into irrelevance.

“Racism as a Visceral Experience”: Ta-nehisi Coates’ New Book

This is one of the greatest sociological paradoxes: what we call race is an imaginary social construction and at the same time one of the most powerful forces shaping American lives.

Geneticists tell us that the commonalities of individual DNA run extremely high, that the characteristics we use to distinguish what we call race are widely distributive phenomenon. In short, race does not exist as a biological marker.

Race certainly exists as a social marker. It matters in a wide range of social dynamics, from criminal justice to schooling to employment to lifespan. Those social dynamics can be seen in differential rates of educational completion, of median income, of incarceration. Such data is readily available to anyone who will look.

The statistics depend on what we sociologists call The Ecological Fallacy — extrapolating from aggregated data to make sense of individual behavior. They call us to look for policy solutions without understanding how those social dynamics play out on the ground.

In May of 2014, Ta-nehisi Coates wrote a masterful work in The Atlantic laying out The Case for Reparations. In that 15,000 word article, he described the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, housing policy, criminal justice policy, and much more. His work has been supplemented by a host of others, especially since the Baltimore protests, that illustrate the imbedded nature of inequality into our taken-for-granted life in America.

Now Coates has supplemented that structural work with a very personal view in his new book, Between the World and Me. Written as testimony to his then-15-year-old son Samori, it describes how Coates attempted to navigate the terrain of race in America. The title refers to the gulf that exists between the world he saw on television — of boys trading baseball cards and playing with cars in nice suburban houses — with his own reality growing up.

The book appropriately uncovers that fictions of race. I am, as he frequently writes, one-who-thinks-I-am-white. But Coates reminds me regularly that I am not. I am a member of the species homo-sapien and the fact that I have less melatonin than others does not change my connection to them.

To exert privilege based on race I must pretend that race exists in an ontological sense. The structural inequality that is present in society requires us to regularly affirm that fiction.

There is a further sense in which Coates’ book spoke to me. While my fiction of thinking-I-am-white requires me to play cognitive games, the reality of being black is experienced in the body as well as the mind. He writes:

But all our phrasing— race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy— serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

This bodily reality of one’s social location is daunting. Coates writes of how to behave on his boyhood streets of Baltimore with tough kids, of how to hold his body in school to show acquiescence, of how to protect his body against authority figures, of how to experience discipline in his home. All of them impact, limit, and threaten to harm the body. Such a visceral reality is as far removed from my experience as those baseball card traders Coates saw on commercials were from his.

The reality of real bodily risk as historical fact and always potential present is what drew Coates to Malcom for inspiration. The “arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice” doesn’t work for Coates. In part, this may be as result of his atheism which makes such grand hope just too idealistic. But as he said on Charlie Rose shortly before the book was released, it is also because everyone who fought for that justice died. Their bodies were broken and destroyed.

This is the story of Eric Garner, of Michael Brown, of Tayvon Martin, and so many many more. It is true that their deaths have raised social consciousness but change is slow. A man was shot to death in Cincinnati as I write this. He failed to stop for a traffic infraction (he was missing his front license plate) which ended in him being shot in the head as he fled. He had been in trouble with the law but the fact that his body was so easily put at risk is a key part of the story. This is why the police buying the Charleston shooter a burger before booking is so outrageous or why pictures of Texas bikers sitting on the curb is so jarring.

Social commentators may find it tempting to write of cultural dynamics, of family disruption, of black-on-black crime. But such arguments fail to address the basic fact that these dynamics of culture, family, and violence happen in other segments of society without death being such a likely outcome. They fail to consider how Coates himself is the product of educated, intact families, striving for economic success. They fail to address how Coates’ Howard University friend Prince Jones, the middle class son of a radiologist, could be shot dead at a traffic stop. If a highly articulate born-again leader like Prince would be seen as a body to be disposed of, what hope is there for a kid from Baltimore or Ferguson? What can Coates offer Samori except to learn to watch himself? Here’s his advice near the end of the book.

Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live— and there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else’s country, but in your own home.

I’ll be honest — this was a difficult read. It reminded me of how insulated and isolated my life is. But also of how I follow a Jesus who identified with those in need. Who worked for justice and righteousness bodily, including the sacrifice of his life at the whim of those in authority. Of how I should follow that path but so often fall short.

I do not experience the bodily threat that Ta-Nehisi Coates so well articulates in this book. But I need to be reminded of it. To put myself in that place where I’m aware of risk of harm.

Twitter seems to be in a state over the issue of #Blacklivesmatter or if we should say #Alllivesmatter. What Coates points out to me is that #Eachlifematters. Anything that puts that at risk must be confronted, especially by those of us who think we are white.

Religious Liberty in Christian Universities: Responding to the ERLC list

The past few days have certainly been ones for lists. First Kevin DeYoung posts 40 questions for those support same-sex marriage. Then several others post 40 questions for those opposed. Then there are lists of responses to both sets of questions. These are not likely to change many minds.

For those following such discussions, I’d call your attention to two sources of great interest to me. First, Harold Heie has launched another Respectful Conversation; this one on Christian Faithfulness and Human Sexuality. If it is like the past two years’ series on Politics and Evangelical Futures (respectively), it should be worth bookmarking. Another source I’ve found very enlightening comes from Southern Nazarene church historian/theologian Tim Crutcher. He’s been unpacking a very interesting series titled “A Rose By Any Other Name: A Radical Moderate Approach to Marriage” on the church’s response to same-sex marriage (the first post is here and you can click through to parts two and three).

ERLCMy purpose in this post, however, is to engage an argument put forward by Phillip Bethancourt, Executive Vice President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. A former administrator at Southern Seminary, he addressed The Top 10 Religious Liberty Threats for Christian Higher Education. I don’t know Dr. Betancourt but I know the ERLC has done some good work. Their president Russell Moore has been exemplary as a voice of reason in recent months and my friend Karen Swallow Prior is a Fellow at ERLC.

Bethancourt’s ten points are similar to many I have read in recent years and especially since the Obergefell decision on same-sex marriage (e.g., this summary in Inside Higher Ed). I want to address his concerns carefully because they are important issues.

In some cases, I think his points are one-sided and that the challenges are even more complex than he suggests. In other cases, there is a danger of wolf-whistling. In still others, his facts are not quite right. I’ll address his arguments one by one.

1. Accreditation Issues: He raises concerns that the regional accrediting associations will come after Christian Universities.  I addressed some of this worry in a post I wrote on Gordon College, which he uses as an example. In fact, he says that the Northeast Association launched “a probe” of Gordon after last summer’s letter to President Obama from their president (and others). The NEASC clearly stated in March that the request asking Gordon to review their policy was a routine response to being in the news and not an issue of institutional accreditation. As I wrote, institutional identity is central to accrediting bodies and they are likely to protect it. In addition some accreditors actually come from Christian institutions — I just learned that one of the VPs of the Northwest Commission is the former VPAA at Seattle Pacific University. I’m sure he’s not alone among the accrediting regions.

2. Tax-Exempt Status: Much of this concern stems from an exchange between Justice Alito and Solicitor General Virrilli dealing with the 1983 Bob Jones decision removing tax exempt status from the university because of its ban on interracial dating. If Christian institutions ban homosexual behavior on campus, won’t they face the same scenario? Many people have grabbed hold of this interchange, but I don’t think the comparison with Bob Jones holds. Randall Balmer’s analysis shows that the BJU tax case was directly related to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. President Nixon had ordered the IRS denied tax exemption to schools that segregated in light of the Act’s designation of race as a protected class in federal law. Sexual Orientation isn’t a federally protected class (although it is in some states). Furthermore, nothing in Obergefell deals with discrimination against LGBTQ individuals but instead focuses on state licensure of marriages.

3. Financial Issues: Bethancourt focuses on two precarious situations at the federal level. What if religious schools no longer have access to pell grants or subsidized loans? Financial issues are the largest challenge to Christian institutions whether that’s seen as a religious freedom issue or not. But the notion that federal changes would come about removing by Christian schools’ access seems both politically and legally unlikely. The Supreme Court struck down laws banning same-sex consensual behavior in 2003 in the Lawrence decision. If that were determinative for Christian institutions, we would have already seen such restrictions suggested at the policy level. There are larger financial implications of same-sex policies at Christian schools. The largest may be a potential loss of students from a generation more amenable to SSM. For institutions that are heavily tuition dependent, not addressing sexual orientation could present a real long-term problem.

4. Donor Issues: He argues that loss of tax exemption (#2) would lessen charitable giving. More important, there is a risk that donors might be shamed for giving to institutions portrayed as discriminatory. This is a potential risk, but not necessarily a large one. Most CCCU donors are small gifts or life estates. It also is quite plausible that a more open and affirming Christian university would find itself the darling of Gen-X alums who are more progressive and have some measure of disposable income.

5. External Relations Issues: This is my primary point of agreement with Bethancourt. Christian Universities are increasingly finding themselves caught in an untenable situation. One the one hand are traditionalist supporters and denominational groups who expect fidelity to past positions. On the other are younger alums (like the OneWheaton group) who are advocating for changes to university policy. Both constituent groups are critical and figuring out how to engage both is going to be increasingly difficult. This isn’t really a religious freedom issue but it is important nonetheless.

6. Student Issues: This section deals with issues of student lifestyle restrictions. How can schools prohibit homosexual behavior? Again, these are issues already raised in Lawrence. These require schools to look closely at their lifestyle policies to make sure they are properly connected to institutional identity. It’s worth noting that Baylor announced an adjustment to their policy last week changing their prohibition to premarital sex without singling out homosexual behavior. Other schools will likely quickly follow suit. Bethancourt also discusses issues with married students and student housing. This is one area with direct Obergefell impact. As I suggested in my earlier post on the impending court decision, if students are legally married by the state, this is one accommodation Christian Institutions might make. An alternative strategy is to privatize apartments near campus so that they are no longer college housing (which impacts the financial issues in #3).

7. Community Issues: In this section, Bethancourt correctly acknowledges that local media will not carefully nuance the college’s position. Not knowing the rationale for the traditional position, media and community figures might take the most negative view, impacting town-gown relationships. He uses Gordon College’s issues with the Lynn school district as an example of not being able to place student teachers. Two points here. First, Lynn is not GC’s “local school district” but is about 15 miles away. Second, there have been some early indications that Lynn overreached. This is a good reminder that the tensions between religious freedom and non-discrimination ordinances will require a lot of back and forth as we figure out the right balance.

8. Recruiting and Retention Issues: In this section, he raises a host of issues that involve student attitudes, faculty recruiting, and institutional reputation. He frames the concerns around the institution’s ability to not accept gay students and concerns of faculty worrying about long-term career issues. I would argue that we have long been accepting gay students (knowingly or unknowingly). This is why the handbook issues in #6 are important. It is also true that the millennial generation is far more likely to be supportive of SSM. It may be much harder to recruit those students to schools that do not address this important questions. When it comes to faculty issues, most faculty already face career choices about Christian schools and the assumptions made about them as candidates for other positions. I’m not sure that issues of same-sex marriage change that.

9. Employment Issues: This combines very real concerns about hiring faculty and staff with those of graduates having a hard time being hired because of the stance of the school. The second of these is a restatement of #7 and again is true to the same extent small Christian colleges already face. It’s possible that employers now hiring Christian college graduates might change their policy in light of Obergefell, but it’s hard to imagine this is a large number. The primary issue Betancourt raises here is about hiring faculty and staff. This is the most important issue on his list and is the one most directly impacted by the Supreme Court decision. It is the most urgent matter for Christian Institutions to carefully engage.

10. Doctrinal Issues: Bethancourt concludes by suggesting that schools solidify their institutional statements of faith. Again, he links this to the Supreme Court decision and I’d argue that this is not something impacted by Obergefell. He suggests that schools without a clear doctrinal statement are at greater risk of institutional crisis. Again, I would suggest an alternative. Wesleyan, Pietist, and Pentecostal institutions — more focused on experience, discipleship, and the leading of the Spirit — might actually be better positioned to avoid crisis that those institutions driven by doctrinal statements.

Here is how Bethancourt closes his article:

For those who are invested in the future of Christian higher education, these are the top 10 areas where schools face religious liberty threats. Granted, all of these issues may not materialize—and certainly not all at the same school. But they are the areas with the most potential for risk.

As Christian colleges and seminaries look to the future, they must think through their strategy in each of these 10 categories to determine how they will overcome the religious liberty risks created by the recent Supreme Court marriage ruling.

I appreciate what he has attempted to do in this piece. Even though I think many of the points require more nuance, these are important issues (although not all are impacted by the recent decision).

At the same time, struggling over perceived threats to religious liberty seems a limited strategy for moving forward. My Wesleyanism is showing, but I’m far more encouraged by what happens in interpersonal engagement. While I was working on this post, I came across this story in the Washington Post. It reports on the new friendship between Robert Vander Plaats, founder of Iowa’s Family Leader (a conservative evangelical organization) and Donna Red Wing, founder of the One Iowa LGBT advocacy organization.

But when they ran into each other on the day the Supreme Court declared that same-sex couples could marry anywhere in the country, crossing paths between dueling interviews at a local TV station studio, they locked eyes.

And then they hugged.

It gives me reason for great hope. The next few years will be messy as we work through these various issues. But we are still confident that God is in control and the Spirit is working. That is what allows staunch opponents to find themselves in a hug.