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Apostasy in Conservative Christian Academia?

I know many of you must be sick and tired by now of my posting so heavily on the gay rights vs. religious liberty question. I do it not because I enjoy this topic (actually, I hate it) but because it is enormously important to me. There is no political topic more important than religious liberty, and nothing I care about more than faith and culture. This topic is absolutely vital, because for many reasons — political, religious, historical, cultural — it reveals that Christianity in America is at a real turning point.

The reason the Indiana controversy has stunned so many of us religious conservatives is because of what it revealed about how little religious liberty matters to Americans today. As Damon Linker (a gay marriage supporter) writes in a powerful column today:

Same sex-marriage supporters who reject efforts to carve out exemptions for traditionalist believers should at least be honest about what they’re doing. Whipped up into a frenzy of righteousness by the cause to which they’re committed, they may feel like they’re defending freedom, equality, and enlightenment against forces of darkness, prejudice, and oppression. But viewed from the outside, from a sympathetic but skeptical distance, they look rather different: more than a little like bullies distressingly eager to treat millions of their fellow citizens like heretics — and to use government power to force them to conform, at least in public, to the dogmas of a contrary, and in some ways incompatible, faith.

Whether or not those on the receiving end of this act of raw government power are justified in feeling persecuted, they’re certainly right to see in this latest round of the culture war a betrayal of something very old and very precious in the distinctively American form of liberal government.

As Linker puts it, “Thou Shalt Not Discriminate has become the highest commandment of America’s state religion, and it is nearly always inviolable.” Here’s the thing that ought to keep religious conservatives up at night: there is evidence that this pseudo-religion (a manifestation of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) has hollowed out American Christianity from within. And this will have dramatic consequences for the church.

I said in this space the other day that people should not expect that the battle lines will be drawn between churches. The battle lines will emerge within the churches over the next generation. It has already split Mainline Protestant churches, and there is no reason to believe any church will be immune, no matter how strongly doctrinal they are. Look, for example, at the poll numbers for US Catholics, even (especially!) those who attend weekly mass. Evangelicals are by far the Christian group most opposed to gay rights and same-sex marriage, but that is fast changing. According to one nonpartisan 2014 study, “White evangelical Protestant Millennials are more than twice as likely to favor same-sex marriage as the oldest generation of white evangelical Protestants (43% vs. 19%).”

Which brings me to an e-mail I received today from someone who works at a small Evangelical liberal arts college. What he reports will shock some readers, who may have a completely skewed idea where the borders of this conflict lay. I quote it in its entirety with his permission, though I have slightly altered the e-mail to obscure identifying details:

I’m in a slightly different spot than those Christians who work for public or secular universities. In January, I was hired to work for a private, Christian liberal arts college. I’m staff, not faculty, so there’s much more risk for me if I stick my neck out on these issues (no tenure, no appeals to academic freedom), even at a place like this, where students are driving a lot of the “conversation” around sexual orientation and gender identity.

My traditional Biblical stance on sexual morality was publicly known to the college as it was considering my application, and that earned me a lengthy pre-hire conversation with my manager. Making sure I can work well with people who disagree, making me aware of the conversation on campus, that sort of thing. All very positive. I learned in passing that my manager also discussed my views with the president and the provost before offering me the job, although I don’t know what exactly the conversations entailed. Apparently, my traditional views on marriage, gender and sexuality went all the way to the top.

On the upside, they hired me; on the downside, it’s strange that these conversations have to take place even at an institution like this one, with Christianity deep in its bones—and located in a region as conservative and Christian as they come. I’d be blacklisted from other types of employment, I’m sure, but I’m red-flagged even at Christian institutions.

I could be wrong, but my impression is that there isn’t a consensus on what “Christ-centered education” means for this campus. The board and administration seem solidly committed to preserving the historic, orthodox Christian faith, but there seems to be less of that among faculty. Many of the students, of course, couldn’t pick orthodoxy out of a lineup down at the police station.

I’m aware of some recent controversy regarding our policies as they relate to sexual orientation, but I haven’t dug into things too deeply yet. I think I’ll keep my head down for a while. This is a good place for me, and still very comfortable for us conservative, traditional types. (I don’t want to give the impression that I’m walking on eggshells, because that’s very much not the case.)

I trust this college. We’re one of the good guys, and we’ve got a good thing going. We’re on solid footing, so far as finances, applications, enrollment, etc. are concerned, but I don’t know what would happen if we were in a position like Gordon College—if we were at risk of losing accreditation or tax exempt status or even significant federal or private funding. The storm is coming, and I think we’ll hold the line, but I’m not sure. If it comes to it, I’d rather lose my job than see this place lose its convictions. I hope it never comes to that.

I would very much like to know if this reader’s observations dovetail with what others in institutions like his are seeing.

This is the greatest fear of people like me: that we will lose our collective convictions, the memory of Christianity, and forget what it means to be a Christian. Ross Douthat wrote last week:

But for conservative Catholics today, and in conservative Christianity more generally, I think the debate with the theologically-more-liberal is shot through by a sense that what we’ve been watching happen in many churches and provinces of Christianity (since the 1960s but also further back) is a kind of erasure of the past, a severing of connective tissue, an iconoclasm of memory as well as images.

From the liberal perspective this is just mistaken conservative nostalgia; for the very liberal it reflects a failure to recognize that the church has basically always been a Ship of Theseus and must remain one to keep floating.

But that isn’t how I feel when I open the books, take and read, enter the time machine. At some moments the struggle of tradition against novelty is the struggle of a dead past against a living present, no doubt. But here, this week, on this almost two thousandth Good Friday, it feels more like the struggle of memory against forgetting.

There is a reason why sexuality, and gay sexuality in particular, is so key to the future. I’ll deal with that in a subsequent post. I want my fellow orthodox Christians to think about what it means if we can’t even hold on to our own children.

Then again, how can our children remember something they were never properly taught in the first place?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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