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She Was The Wrong Kind Of Christian

Tish Harrison Warren thought she was the “right” kind of Evangelical, in the eyes of Vanderbilt University, her college campus:

I’m not a fundamentalist. My friends and I enjoy art, alcohol, and cultural engagement.

We avoid spiritual clichés and buzzwords. We value authenticity, study, racial reconciliation, and social and environmental justice.

Being a Christian made me somewhat weird in my urban, progressive context, but despite some clear differences, I held a lot in common with unbelieving friends. We could disagree about truth, spirituality, and morality, and remain on the best of terms. The failures of the church often made me more uncomfortable than those in the broader culture.

But Vanderbilt kicked her Christian organization, the Graduate Christian Fellowship, off of campus. Why? Because they wouldn’t drop the requirement that people who lead the group actually endorse the group’s constitutive principles. That is, they expected their leaders to agree with the group’s statement of doctrine and purpose.

That wasn’t good enough for Vanderbilt.

Warren thought that there must be some mistake, that when she met with Vanderbilt’s administrators, they would see that the GCF is a moderate Evangelical group that seeks to engage with others on campus. She was wrong:

But as I met with other administrators, the tone began to change. The word discrimination began to be used—a lot—specifically in regard to creedal requirements. It was lobbed like a grenade to end all argument. Administrators compared Christian students to 1960s segregationists. I once mustered courage to ask them if they truly thought it was fair to equate racial prejudice with asking Bible study leaders to affirm the Resurrection. The vice chancellor replied, “Creedal discrimination is still discrimination.”

Feeling battered, I talked with my InterVarsity supervisor. He responded with a wry smile, “But we’re moderates!” We thought we were nuanced and reasonable. The university seemed to think of us as a threat.

For me, it was revolutionary, a reorientation of my place in the university and in culture.

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.

The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.

That’s all that mattered to the liberals who run Vandy. At the end of the spring semester, she says, 14 on-campus religious organizations were de-recognized by the university. Vanderbilt will tolerate Christians, but only tame ones.

Read the whole thing. Harrison, who is now an Anglican priest, says that half the problem is that Vanderbilt wants to discriminate radically against religious organizations, but wants to pretend it’s not doing so.

As I was reading this, I thought, “Who needs the university’s permission to meet as a Christian organization, and to do what Christians do?” Meet, do your thing, and be very public about it. Dare them to shut you down. If I were an undergraduate, I would be more attracted to an organization the campus authorities thought so dangerous that it ought to be shut down. Just what is it about orthodox Christianity that frightens Vanderbilt’s administrators so? Force the question.

By the end of the story, it seems that that’s exactly what some of the Christians on campus are doing. Good for them. Interestingly, when you look at the list of religious student groups still officially recognized by the university, there are exactly three: the Muslim Student Association, Chabad, and Zion’s Inspiration, a black Bible study group. I find it impossible to believe that the MSA, which is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood (see Husain Haqqani on that point) and the Chabad Lubavitch ultra-orthodox Jews, would be willing to sign off on the university’s requirement (and if not, G-d bless them for it). I’m willing to bet the truth is that Vanderbilt’s administrators lack the spine to tell Muslims, Jews, and black Christians to comply or get off the campus. I could be wrong. Anybody know? If they signed the statement, why did they? How could they do it with integrity?

Anyway, as a father who has children who will soon be of college age, it’s important to know that Vanderbilt has become a place that is anti-Christian.

UPDATE: Since posting it this morning, several of you have demonstrated that there are far more religious, especially Christian, groups on campus than I was able to find in the official Vandy website that I checked. I’m not sure what accounts for the discrepancy, but I’m pleased to correct my earlier error. Here’s the more complete list. If you are a student or teacher at Vanderbilt, and are involved with any of these groups, tell me how your organization justified signing the university’s pledge.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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