Tag: Randall Balmer

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.

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.

The Sociology of Institutional Repentance

This idea has been kicking around in my head for about half a year. I first raised the question of institutional or structural apologies in a post last October I called Sorry About That . I wrote:

This got me wondering if our inability to apologize for past institutional action is related to a number of problems in contemporary society. Is it possible that the disaffection of millennials from the established church is, at least in part, because they are longing for the church to take responsibility for her past insensitivity and judgmentalism? Is the anger of the Tea Party due, at least in part, to an inability of the Congress over the last 30 years to take responsibility for its lack of long-range thinking? Is our economic crisis in part a reaction to the inability of the mortgage lenders to own up to the fact that they gamed the system and almost destroyed the economy?

I’ve raised the issue of institutional confession and repentance with several theology or biblical studies colleagues. In general, people have said that it’s an interesting question that needs exploration. I look forward to hearing from those who can help me work through the question.

For now, I’ll simply use some sociological tools to explore why the idea of institutional repentance is so important. This week has provided four critical examples where institutional repentance is the only feasible response: Ta-Neisi Coates’ Atlantic article, the unfolding saga at Sovereign Grace Ministries (#IStandwithSGMVictims), new revelations about “normal life” at Mars Hill in Seattle, and the aftermath of the UCSB mass shooting (#YesAllWomen).

GiddensSir Anthony Giddens is one of my favorite sociological theorists. I was struck by his insights the first time I heard him in 1983. Shortly thereafter, he wrote The Constitution of Society, the first overarching explication of his theoretical perspective. The theory revolves around a remarkable idea — social structures and personal action form a duality. Each reproduces the other.

The structures that we live within impact the way we think and how we talk about our options. When we discuss potential actions and motivations, we react to the structural arrangements in which we’re located. But our actions also create fractures in the structures. The choices we make and the explanations we use can shape the structures for the future. But that depends upon a critical sociological and political variable: Power.

One of the ways power is exercised is in the definition of appropriate behavior and, by contrast, inappropriate behavior. As the “powers that be” define behavior, they can reshape understandings away from structural power toward individual choice.

This is the primary takeaway from Ta-Neisi Coates’ excellent article. While it is titled “The Case for Reparations“, it really makes the argument that structural arrangements favored an array of economic and political relationships that defined African Americans as not only having limited choices, but as feeling trapped by those choices. The legitimate structural arrangements of society shaped outcomes for individuals. Those same structural arrangements prefer a cultural argument to explain the presence of economic inequality. Coates argues, using both historic and modern examples, that the myriad ways in which African American outcomes are shaped is a direct result from the structural dynamics of the society. After a detailed description of confiscatory practices of redlining, predatory contract practices, and subprime mortgages, he suggests that there was a conscious attempt to deny African Americans of the assets associated with home ownership. And the pattern continues:

In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Too many commentators simultaneously do two things that perpetuate these outcomes. First, the decry claims of racism by assuming that “the race card” is an accusation of personal bigotry to which they take great offense. Then, they claim that we shouldn’t pay attention to race (as recent Supreme Court decisions attest). So there is no particular means to address the existing structural inequality.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King talks of being given a check marked “insufficient funds“. The reference is fascinating: the promises made in the Declaration of Independence were not fulfilled. There are echoes of reparations in that very speech. For us to focus only on the visionary closing of the speech is to perpetuate the structural inequality. Where were the people who would say, “that’s right, we did that“. Who calls out intentional practices of segregation? (Incidentally, Randall Balmer had a fascinating piece in Politico today about the relationship between segregation and rise of the religious right.)

Somewhere, we need to acknowledge the sinfulness of the structural arrangements. We need to find ways of structurally repenting. This may not be reparations, but it must be something. At the very least, it is to tell the truth about wrongs (dare I say sins?).

It’s hard for us to think about collective repentance. It’s so ingrained in religious culture to focus on personal responsibility, individual appropriation of Christ’s sacrifice, and personal reordering of priorities. But since reading the Brueggemann book I referenced in my last post, I’ve been focused more on the history of Ancient Israel. I have come to realize that the instructions given to the people from the prophets or from The Lord are societal instructions. Repentance isn’t just a matter of a collection of individuals who turn from bad practices. It’s the fabric of society  — not that they were very good at it, which is actually part of my point.

What’s disturbing about the Sovereign Grace story is the idea that we would protect religious leaders from accusation and demonize accusers. What is problematic about Mars Hill is the elevation of loyalty above conscience. What’s upsetting about the UCSB shootings is the twin assumptions of male acquisition and female vulnerability within the broader society.

These patterns are not simply the poor choices of bad actors. They reflect the systems of expectations, rewards, power maintenance, and ideologies that are woven into our institutional patterns. We can isolate the bad actor but that doesn’t bring about institutional repentance.

Institutional Repentance will require us to name our practices, to turn from our past patterns (especially if we feel individually blameless), and to imagine new forms that allow us to “go and sin no more“.