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Waterloo Of Christian Colleges

Carl Trueman demolishes the blind optimism of many religious conservatives

If you read nothing else today, make it Carl Trueman’s massively important piece on the coming capitulation of conservative Christian colleges and universities to the LGBT movement. Trueman prophetically sees the stakes in this clash, and the elements of how it is likely to be resolved. Excerpts:

The expansion of the scope of Title IX legislation by the Obama administration makes colleges that hold to traditional Christian moral positions on homosexuality and transgenderism vulnerable to loss of government funding and to damaging legal actions. We might add the related matter of accreditation: Failure to conform to Title IX will be punished with notations and probable loss of accreditation. Perhaps even more deadly than these threats is the role of the NCAA, as schools that are not “friendly” to LGBTQI students will find that they are unable to compete in sporting events. Sadly, while the choice between sport and one’s faith should not merit a second thought, I expect that this will be the point at which many colleges crack.

How Christian colleges respond to all this will be critical. The desire expressed by some to dialogue with their opponents on this matter is not a good sign. At worst, it represents the cynical prelude to capitulation: “We listened, we heard, we changed.”

He says that conservative Christian college administrators who think that opponents are actually interested in good-faith dialogue are guilty of naïveté that “verges on criminal negligence.” The Law of Merited Impossibility is infallible in these matters: “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”

And there’s this:

In conversation after conversation over the last few years with friends at Christian liberal arts colleges, I have encountered the assumption that few administrators will choose fidelity to their faith over institutional prestige. And administrators are only half the story. There are also the professors. The dominant philosophy in so many secular humanities departments—that there is nothing so complicated in history or literature that it cannot be reduced to a simple question of power and exploitation—has allowed academia to be hijacked by those who are marked less by their knowledge of their subject than by their ability to spout angry clichés about privilege and power and hegemony. These people represent the spirit of the age, and their language is seeping into Christian discourse. In some colleges, it may not be the administrators who lead the charge for change.

This is true in my more limited experience as well. You may recall that last year, the president of the Society of Christian Philosophers, Notre Dame’s Michael Rea (who now holds Alvin Plantinga’s old endowed chair in philosophy), and its executive director, Calvin College’s Christina Van Dyke, issued a public apology after the eminent Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne mentioned briefly in an SCP lecture that the Christian moral tradition holds homosexuality to be sinful. Read Edward Feser for a quick recap of that controversy. Shortly thereafter, when a foul-mouthed Yale philosopher posted on Facebook how much he hated conservative Christians, Van Dyke responded with a smiley emoticon, which she quickly retracted — but not before a screenshot could be taken.

The point is not that all Christian philosophers agree with them. The point is that when one of the world’s most important living Christian philosophers cannot affirm Scripture and Tradition on the matter of homosexuality, and in the mildest of terms, without sparking a massive row among other Christian philosophers — well, Christian colleges are in trouble.

To Trueman’s broader point about how the dominant secular humanities department discourse driven by anger and intersectionality cliches seeping into Christian colleges, note well that those conservative Christian colleges that tolerate this kind of poisonous discourse around race and gender will not be able to defend themselves against the same thing manifesting itself around sexuality. This is happening right now, as a moment’s Googling will reveal.

Trueman also despairs of what Christian colleges are likely to do if the NCAA forces them to accept full LGBT rights, or surrender their athletic programs. He ought to despair of it. The real religion of a lot of these places is football and other athletics, as we shall soon see.

A couple of paragraphs in Trueman’s piece deserve a long essay on their own (I hope we’ll see one from him). He says that the old arguments in favor of the traditional Christian teaching on sexuality do not work anymore, because young people have been formed by a culture of emotivism, not reason. Syllogisms are swords of spaghetti in this new environment. The real battlefield is in the imagination. 

Trueman is blunt:

With Trump in the White House, Christian colleges have four, maybe eight, years in which the cultural and political tide might not flow as strongly against them as it did under Obama. Now is the time to organize, externally and internally. Colleges with a mutual interest in religious freedom and in preserving Christian standards of sexual morality and human personhood should talk to each other, abandon pipe dreams of “dialogue,” and coordinate their legal actions and political lobbying. They have the constitutional right to do so. America is still a free country. The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. But time, focus, and realism are of the essence.

Read the whole thing. “Realism” is exactly the right word. There are so many conservative Christians who are determined to close their eyes to what’s right in front of their noses. They think that the name-brand Christian colleges they’ve put their faith in are holding the line. They trust their churches and Christian high schools to form their children in the faith. This is extremely unrealistic! There might be churches, Christian schools, and Christian colleges doing these things, but there are many fewer of them than most Christians think.

Dialogue is not possible with power-holders who think you are evil and that goodness requires you to be crushed. This is the situation orthodox Christians and their institutions are in now, and it will only get worse. As I say in The Benedict Option, hope is not the same thing as optimism. There is no reason right now to be optimistic. If we are going to be hopeful — that is, if we are going to have solid reason to believe that we can endure, and that suffering for our faith is a blessing — we are going to have to accept certain realities, and act in the face of them. Carl Trueman gets it.

In 2014, before Obergefell, Ross Douthat wrote that the debate on same-sex marriage had shifted:

But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

Which has a certain bracing logic. If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job. Already, my fellow Christians are divided over these issues, and we’ll be more divided the more pressure we face. The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform.

This is the new reality. Even if a conservative Supreme Court somehow permitted these institutions to teach and govern themselves from within their own tradition, there can be no doubt that the social and cultural price those colleges will pay will be severe. Graduates can expect that their degrees will be shunned. And for that matter, the students who still bother to attend will have likely come to them with imaginations catechized by popular culture, not any kind of robust church.

The lines between the church and the culture on this issue are not where many Christians think they are. They run right through the heart of churches and Christian institutions. The sooner orthodox Christians accept that fact, the better informed and, one hopes, the more effective, our survival strategy will be. Blind optimism serves us not at all.



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