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The Big Freeze

Preparing for a long, hard winter in Christian higher education

The other day, I had an e-mail exchange with a prominent scholar who studies religion in America. It’s not part of his public profile, but he happens to be a believing Christian. He was extremely pessimistic about the situation here, given the long-term data he is seeing about how the advance of secularism, consumerism, and individualism is routing belief.

I’ve been thinking about that all weekend, and how unprepared American Christians are for it. We really do labor under the self-indulgent illusion that It Can’t Happen Here. Oh yes, it most certainly can — and it is. Today in First Things, Carl Trueman writes about how Christian colleges and universities had better get used to doing without federal funding, even in the form of tax exemptions. Why? For one thing, Title IX forbids federal funding to any university that practices sexual discrimination, though there is an exemption for religious institutions and seminaries. The Obama administration tried to expand Title IX to include LGBTs, but that has been withdrawn — for now. Trueman points out that the “underlying cultural commitments” that made expanding Title IX to include LGBTs remain in place.


Some colleges—for instance, Hillsdale and Grove City—stand apart from federal funding. Such places thus seem relatively safe. But are they? There is another point of vulnerability: the 1983 Supreme Court ruling in Bob Jones University v. United States. This ruling denied tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University because of policies regarding interracial dating that were judged contrary to a compelling government policy. The text of the decision can be found here, but the key passage reads as follows:

The Government’s fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on petitioners’ exercise of their religious beliefs. Petitioners’ asserted interests cannot be accommodated with that compelling governmental interest, and no less restrictive means are available to achieve the governmental interest.However we may cheer the particular result of the Bob Jones case, the implications unfolding in today’s climate are concerning. Replace “racial” with “sexual” in the paragraph above, and the point is clear. In an era where a close analogy is assumed between civil rights regarding race and civil rights regarding sexual identity, the Bob Jones precedent could easily lead to the revocation of tax-exempt status for schools committed to traditional views of marriage and sexual morality.

The usefulness of Title IX and Bob Jones for the sexual-identity revolution lies precisely in the fact that most Christians see them as sound in what they were originally meant to accomplish, even as some might cavil at their heavy-handed application in after years. In a world where the law increasingly seems to exist not to protect minority opinion but to impose the sexual or identitarian taste du jour, the uses of these laws are increasingly sinister. Yet their origins make them hard to oppose with any cultural plausibility. For this reason, the religious exemption in Title IX will, I suspect, either fall or become so attenuated as to be in practice meaningless.

Remember too that when the federal government published a list of Christian colleges that requested Title IX exemptions from the Obama administration’s LGBT expansion, those colleges were hit with all kinds of bad publicity denouncing them as havens of hate. Plus, Christian colleges are split on this issue, just as the churches are becoming. Those institutions that hold to Christian orthodoxy are going to be increasingly isolated and stigmatized.

Sometimes I hear Christians saying things along the lines of, “Bring it on! The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church!” etc. These are the kind of romantics who in a different context would gas on about the cleansing power of war. They have no idea what persecution is like, and what it can do to Christian communities. In the Orthodox Church in this country, you meet people who grew up under communism, in Russia or other Eastern European nations. It’s always the same story: most of their family was lost to the faith, because the government made believing in God too difficult. Often immigrants from formerly communist countries who show up at Orthodox churches have to be catechized, because the faith was almost entirely obliterated from public life. Persecution may strengthen some Christians, but it is not something to be welcomed.

I also hear some uninformed Christian romantics saying things like, “Fine, we don’t need the state’s money.” What they don’t grasp is that even if that is true, on principle, that means that most Christian colleges will have to close. In California, when the state last year tried to deny state tuition assistance grants to needy students who went to colleges the state deemed anti-LGBT, it almost passed. What prevented it from going through was in large part the political fact that the students who would have suffered most from this policy were minorities. Nobody believes this issue has gone away for good. Without federal and state tuition assistance, many Christian colleges and universities couldn’t make it.

Also, something a lot of American Christians who live in bubbles don’t understand: as the orthodox Christian position on sexuality and gender identity becomes ever more unpopular, young people will stay away from colleges they perceive as bigoted, and will not want to pursue degrees from institutions bearing the bigot stigma in this culture.

Read the whole thing. Trueman points out a truth that far, far too many Christians refuse to acknowledge: that the political assault on orthodox religious institutions is happening because American culture has radically changed. Fighting politically and legally are necessary, but ultimately not sufficient to save us, because we increasingly don’t have the people with us. Writes Trueman, “It is the heart that must change if arguments are to carry any weight. And only things that go that deep will avail us at this time.”

This is the basic thrust of The Benedict Option. Carl Trueman is a college professor. He understands what’s happening. He is telling orthodox Christians to prepare for a long, hard winter. He is correct to do so. We are in much deeper trouble than most Christians realize, and we had better use the time we have now to prepare for it. I heard over the weekend from a Christian reader who is deep inside the Educational-Industrial Complex, who wrote with very heartening news about creative resistance to what’s coming. I hope to be able to write about that later.

Along these lines, I received this e-mail over the weekend from a reader of this blog. I share it with his permission, though I’ve slightly edited it to protect privacy:

 Your post on Christian Smith’s rant made me think immediately about my son who is graduating from [university] (and I’ll never recommend it to anyone).  My son aspires to be a college history professor and has received encouragement from his current professors to pursue this.  Yet he’s a religious conservative.  Does his aspiration require him to wade into “weapons-grade B.S.”?  What alternatives might he consider?  Perhaps you have thoughts or could suggest others [my son] and I could contact.




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