The Coming Collapse Of Christian Colleges
Conservative Christian colleges, once relatively insulated from the culture war, are increasingly entangled in the same battles over LGBT rights and related social issues that have divided other institutions in America.
Students and faculty at many religious institutions are asked to accept a “faith statement” outlining the school’s views on such matters as evangelical doctrine, scriptural interpretation, and human sexuality. Those statements often include a rejection of homosexual activity and a definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Changing attitudes on sexual ethics and civil rights, however, are making it difficult for some schools, even conservative ones, to ensure broad compliance with their strict positions.
“Millennials are looking at the issue of gay marriage, and more and more they are saying, ‘OK, we know the Bible talks about this, but we just don’t see this as an essential of the faith,” says Brad Harper, a professor of theology and religious history at Multnomah University, an evangelical Christian institution in Portland, Ore.
The report goes on to explain that Christian colleges who hold on to Biblical teaching on homosexuality are facing serious legal challenges, as well as challenges from a huge cultural shift among young Americans, even those identifying as Christians. More:
In April 2015, during a Supreme Court argument over the constitutional rights of LGBT individuals, Justice Samuel Alito noted that Bob Jones University in South Carolina had lost its tax exempt status because of its prohibition on interracial dating and marriage.
“Would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?” Alito asked U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr.
“It’s certainly going to be an issue,” Verrilli answered. “I don’t deny that.”
The exchange alarmed officials at conservative religious schools, for whom the loss of tax-exempt status or federal funding would be devastating. Their anxiety deepened a year later, when the Obama administration notified colleges and universities that it interpreted Title IX as prohibiting discrimination “based on a student’s gender identity, including discrimination based on a student’s transgender status.” Christian schools saw that letter as threatening a loss of federal funding if they refused to accommodate students who identify as transgender and want to be housed with other students who share their gender identity.
Upon taking office, the Trump administration rescinded the Obama directive, but some leaders at Christian schools still fear the cultural and legal trends are in favor of expanded LGBT rights on their campuses, which could mean their policies on sexual behavior could face serious challenges.
There were people who saw this coming over a decade ago. Here is Maggie Gallagher’s prophetic 2006 article based on interviews with legal scholars on both sides of the gay rights vs. religious liberty issue, in which they discussed what was to come. Excerpts:
Is the fate of Catholic Charities of Boston an aberration or a sign of things to come?
I put the question to Anthony Picarello, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket Fund is widely recognized as one of the best religious liberty law firms and the only one that defends the religious liberty of all faith groups, “from Anglicans to Zoroastrians,” as its founder Kevin J. Hasson likes to say (referring to actual clients the Becket Fund has defended).
Just how serious are the coming conflicts over religious liberty stemming from gay marriage?
“The impact will be severe and pervasive,” Picarello says flatly. “This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations.” Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses. In times of relative peace, says Picarello, people don’t even notice that “the church is surrounded on all sides by the state; that church and state butt up against each other. The boundaries are usually peaceful, so it’s easy sometimes to forget they are there. But because marriage affects just about every area of the law, gay marriage is going to create a point of conflict at every point around the perimeter.”
As general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, Marc Stern knows religious liberty law from the inside out. Like Anthony Picarello, he sees the coming conflicts as pervasive. The problem is not that clergy will be forced to perform gay marriages or prevented from preaching their beliefs. Look past those big red herrings: “No one seriously believes that clergy will be forced, or even asked, to perform marriages that are anathema to them. Same-sex marriage would, however, work a sea change in American law. That change will reverberate across the legal and religious landscape in some ways that are today unpredictable,” he writes in his Becket Fund paper.
Consider education. Same-sex marriage will affect religious educational institutions, he argues, in at least four ways: admissions, employment, housing, and regulation of clubs. One of Stern’s big worries right now is a case in California where a private Christian high school expelled two girls who (the school says) announced they were in a lesbian relationship. Stern is not optimistic. And if the high school loses, he tells me, “then religious schools are out of business.” Or at least the government will force religious schools to tolerate both conduct and proclamations by students they believe to be sinful.
Stern agrees with Feldblum that public accommodation laws can and should force truly commercial enterprises to serve all comers. But, he asks, what of other places, such as religious camps, retreats, and homeless shelters? Will they be considered by courts to be places of public accommodation, too? Could a religious summer camp operated in strict conformity with religious principles refuse to accept children coming from same-sex marriages? What of a church-affiliated community center, with a gym and a Little League, that offers family programs? Must a religious-affiliated family services provider offer marriage counseling to same-sex couples designed to facilitate or preserve their relationships?
“Future conflict with the law in regard to licensing is certain with regard to psychological clinics, social workers, marital counselors, and the like,” Stern wrote last December–well before the Boston Catholic Charities story broke.
Think about that for a moment. Of all the experts gathered to forecast the impact of gay marriage on religious organizations, no one, not even Stern, brought up adoption licenses. “Government is so pervasive, it’s hard to know where the next battle will be,” he tells me. “I thought I had a comprehensive catalog, but the adoption license issue didn’t occur to me.”
This was at a time when every other person was asking, “What does my neighbors’ gay marriage have to do with me?” — this, as a way of saying that it was no big deal. People who said it was going to be a very big deal were told that they (we) were alarmists. As I recall, the news media didn’t write about this stuff. Did they do it because they couldn’t foresee that these problems would arise? Or did they do it because they knew that if they wrote about these things, and people began to grasp that Christian colleges could be forced to comply or close down, they wouldn’t be so quick to embrace LGBT rights? Or both? I think both.
But anyway, here we are. Lots of Christian colleges (e.g., Notre Dame) have already capitulated. There will be some holdouts, but I’m not sure how long they can manage. If these colleges cannot access government funds, many of them will be forced to close. And then there is the matter of accreditation. And finally, how many students will want to go to colleges that have the stigma — fair or not — of being bigot factories?
Most American Christians are not prepared for this. Dean Abbott writes that the plain fact is, traditional Christianity (as distinct from the Rachel Held Evans SJW version) is now a mark of low social status. Excerpt:
Class is as much a matter of attitudes and belief as it is of financial income. Access to positions that guarantee upper-middle class income and influence requires more than skill and competence. It requires demonstrating to those in power that you are fit for their realm, not just by possessing the right credential, but by possessing the right outlook.
The establishment of Leftism as the default belief system of our elites means that serious, traditional Christian belief has become a signal of low status. Under the current ideological regime, advancing through the ranks of elite groups and institutions means downplaying, if not repudiating, Christian belief. Not only do many working class people not want to do this, they resent a system that would ask it of them.
Abbott, an Evangelical, followed up with a post on how “engaging the culture” is a failed strategy precisely because to be a Christian today is to be a marginalized outsider, even a figure of pity and contempt:
Evangelicals sought to engage the culture by being relevant, by creating works of art , by offering good arguments for their positions. None of these addressed the real problem: that Christian belief simply isn’t cool, and that very few people want to lower their social status by identifying publicly with it.
Many evangelicals sensed something was going on. They responded as though the problem were a matter of style rather than content. They created churches calculated to prove evangelicals could be as hip as anyone else. The result was churches that had rocking worship bands, superb lighting, a million cool programs and no cultural impact.
The only lasting success to come from this trend was to make the hip pastor in a goatee and skinny jeans a universal object of derision. When the elites see him, they aren’t impressed. Rather than seeing someone so cool they want to emulate him, they see desperation. They see a low-status guy craving their approval, and they are rightly repulsed.
This is just one example of how evangelicals misjudged the context in which they operate. They could not see that Christianity has fallen from its place of cultural dominance not because we haven’t had enough worldview seminars, cool clergy or “God’s Not Dead”-style movies. Christianity has become marginalized because Christian belief has become an obstacle to getting what most people want: social status and the privileges which accompany it.
Rod Dreher was one of the first to recognize this. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of his “Benedict Option” solution, it is an attempt to grapple with the reality of our situation. In the end, few will heed his advice. The worst, and most probable, response evangelicals could offer here is to continue doing what they have been doing: offering solutions to problems most people don’t have.
I appreciate the shout-out. The Benedict Option is not perfect, for sure, but I think it’s a much more realistic response to the critical problems Christians face in this post-Christian society than anything else on offer at the moment.
I’m not suggesting that Christians give up on the fight for religious liberty, and for our colleges’ right to teach within fidelity to Christianity. We have to fight! If you aren’t donating to The Becket Fund and/or the Alliance Defending Freedom, please consider it. And please let your elected representatives know what you think.
But we have to be realistic. What I am suggesting — no, what I am shouting from the rooftops — is that the environment in which traditional Christian colleges and educational institutions work is rapidly changing: politically, legally, and culturally. We cannot count on anything anymore. As the NPR story indicates, this is not only a problem coming from outside the churches (meaning from politics and law) but also from inside the church (with the collapse among the young of traditional Biblical teaching about homosexuality). Somehow, faithful small-o orthodox Christians have to figure out how to educate within this hostile new heterodoxy. We will have to form new institutions, ones built to be resilient in the face of anti-Christian modernity.
Be aware too that the orthodox within Christian colleges will be savagely attacked by their colleagues within these colleges because their orthodoxy will be correctly seen as a threat to the colleges’ continued viability (as well as to the social and professional status of faculty there). Look what’s happening now at the very conservative Taylor University, for example.
And more broadly: if you are a Christian who is not prepared to be despised and exiled from elite social and professional circles over your faith, then your faith won’t be strong enough to withstand what’s here, and what’s to come. This is a hard truth, but one you had better confront now.