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.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Collateral Damage: Christian Colleges and Culture Wars

  1. A few thoughts:
    1. This conflict is framed by the modern commitment to universality – of knowledge and truth. All REAL truth/knowledge is universal, i.e., not tied to some particular individual or community. The era of modern Christendom operated on this basis and took theological truths as that universality (and all outsiders or rejectors of that claim are perverse – that “privileges religious views by default” of which you speak). The breakdown of modern Christendom has been the admission that Christianity /theology is NOT universal. At least some “secular” forces still take universality to be the determinant of real knowledge. They have it, Christians, sectarians as they are, don’t.
    2. As one who played Stratego as a kid, I wonder what place is left for deception if we take it as a metaphor for our action. Our first thought is that Christians Always Tell the Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth. Surely Jesus operated that way at least. But no, even Jesus refused to answer every question. He remained cryptic in both word and deed. Being cryptic may not fit in our current category of “deception,” but maybe it should, so we have a greater repertoire of Christian/ethical action.
    3. Stratego works if players keep to the rules. I remember one person I used to play with would “accidentally” bump the board so my pieces would fall over, exposing my lay out. I’m not sure our competing institutions have enough shared conception and practice of the rules to succeed in playing the same game for an extended time.
    4. “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!).” I’ve been deeply influenced by MacIntyre’s understanding of a “tradition.” The agreements that make a tradition what it is (THIS tradition and not some other) are constituted by internal and external interpretive conflicts. If every tradition is partially defined by what it is not – by argument with competing traditions – then avoiding talk of “what we’re against” is impossible, if we’re going to move the tradition forward. Doubtless, if being AGAINST something is all we have, our tradition would be described as “degenerating” and not worth much. Of course, if we were good moderns, would deny that we represent a tradition at all – we simply have truth, not a tradition.
    5. Following close on #4, and I think this may be what you’re getting at, our traditions’ agreements may be partially constituted by their conflicts, but they exist for MORE than conflict. We are healthy to the extent that we pursue our fundamental purpose (even as our understanding of that purpose is refined through conflict).

    Thanks John!

  2. Another quick thought – just because someone or some group wants us to fight a particular battle, doesn’t mean that fighting that battle there and then fits with our mission. If we’re wise, we’ll have to say NO to both inside and outside invitations to battle. And sometimes we’ll just have to do the institutional equivalent of “taking up our crosses” and suffering.

    1. Thanks, Richard, for both thoughts. While I agree that traditions exist in community and that part of that tradition involves how it is distinct from other options, it doesn’t follow that the focus should be on what’s wrong with the other options. For example, Christian colleges exist because we believe that the faith journey is essential to the development of graduates into the leaders and servants and citizens we desire. It’s not necessary to diminish the work of other institutions that leave that out. The positive case is much stronger.

      Saying “no” to invitations to battle is part of what I was getting at toward the end of the piece. Rather than protect my flag, I’d prefer to simply turn the tile toward my opponent and say, “See, here it is. This is why it’s important.” (makes Stratego far less fun to play, but it’s a metaphor after all).

      There may certainly be a place to discuss policies on homosexuality, alcohol, or premarital sexuality on Christian college campuses but those conversations would ideally be subservient to the central mission. In other words, we have these policies because they support our educational and developmental tasks and not because they’ve become identity markers.

      Re your last line: I’ve often pondered that refusing to maintain our preferred cultural arrangement with regard to social issues while still pursuing mission IS what it means for the Christian College to take up its cross and suffer for Jesus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s