Pluralism in a Post-Christian Culture: A Defense of Bowdoin

BowdoinI’ve been working on this post for two days and find it’s one of the hardest I’ve dealt with. Probably because the risk of being misunderstood is so high and because readers may feel that I’m being insensitive to their beliefs. But since I haven’t been able to let it go, there’s nothing left but to plow ahead.

 
Monday’s New York Times had this story titled “Colleges and Evangelicals Clash on Bias Policy“. While part of the story was a rehash of issues arising in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court Decision allowing the Hastings College of Law to go forward with anti-discrimination language. But the trigger event for the story was a change at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. A private school of roughly 1800 students, Bowdoin’s Christian Fellowship will be disbanding because of the school’s expectations of student organizations.

In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

The last paragraph certainly captures the sentiments of InterVarsity, which has promoted the story heavily on social media. They have been sending out a quote from a student at Cal State Chico: “We’re not willing to water down our beliefs in order to be accepted.”

While actions like Bowdoin’s raise serious challenges for groups like InterVarsity and a number of other excellent campus ministries, I think the argument “in the eyes of evangelicals” that this is an attack on Christianity is misguided. There is something more significant at play illustrated by the contrast by the two paragraphs quoted above.

I am not alone in writing that we have entered a Post-Christian (I prefer Post-Constantinian) phase of American Society. This has profound implications for how Christians operate within that context, as David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw pointed out in their book. What we’re seeing is a social context operated according to purely secular principles. It’s easy to dismiss this as “political correctness” but  there’s something far deeper going on.

If you go to the Bowdoin web page and search for the rules for student organizations, you find the following:

Clubs cannot discriminate membership or leadership based on race, religion, age, ethnic or national origin, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, or income; exceptions for the gender requirement and physical ability requirement may be made if in direct alignment with the club’s express purpose and mission (emphasis mine).

I don’t know if this language about club charters has been recently changed or just newly enforced. But it is clear that it’s staking out a position that student organizations are for the benefit of all students. As such, no a priori exclusions in terms of leadership are allowed (that’s really the rub in this case). In other words, you can’t bar people from coming to club or applying for leadership roles based on the defined criteria. It doesn’t say that those people MUST be admitted into leadership but that discrimination is banned.

One of the responses I saw on Facebook asked about someone looking to be president of the math club who doesn’t do math. First, math ability isn’t one of the criteria listed. Second, that person is free to pursue leadership but won’t be selected.

InterVarsity also linked to this story about President Alec Hill’s participation in a forum on pluralism held by The Aspen Institute. Summarized in last years’ report, “Principled Pluralism: Report of the Inclusive America Project“, the project attempted to explore the changing nature of pluralism in American society. If you follow through the material, you’ll see that Hill’s presentation on the panel was something of a dissent from the rest of the presenters. The executive summary of the report, written by Madeleine Albright and David Gergen, concludes with this:

In the future, we risk deeper and potentially disastrous fragmentation if we do not remain true to our heritage as a diverse people united around certain core values—including respect for the rights and dignity of every human being.

That statement prioritizes diversity. The report does a good job of outlining a valuable role for religion (thanks to contributions from Eboo Patel, Richard Mouw, David Campbell, Jim Wallis, and a host of others) but it does so within the context of all participants without priveleging any.

Post-Constantinian society marks the end of a presumed privilege for positions of faith. It doesn’t mean that faith isn’t important. But it does mean that faith participates alongside other value systems, including secular small-d democratic principles like dignity, equality, and freedom for all.

This will likely mean that religious ministries at secular institutions may no longer operate as student organizations. It is why, in spite of George Will’s sentiments about collegiate responses to rape, we are paying more attention to the victimization of women. It’s why one-man-one-woman amendments are being struck down by state courts across the country.

In a post-constantian society, issues aren’t being contested on the basis of “belief” but on the basis of fair play and human dignity. There is a vital role for religious groups to play in the society but they will need to learn how to engage the questions being asked instead of the ones that they are comfortable answering.

 

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