Obama Persecutes Christian Schools

Does President Obama have it out for conservative evangelical Christians?  Does he plan to crush them by hitting them where it hurts?  In the pages of today’s Christian Post, Michael Zigarelli worries that Obama’s anti-discrimination policy will do just that.  By putting the squeeze on religious colleges, Zigarelli writes, Obama plans to squeeze the life out of conservative evangelicalism.  This sort of conspiracy-theorizing may sound far-out to non-conservatives like me.  But for those who know the history of evangelical education, it might not seem so wacky.

Zigarelli is commenting on the recent controversy at Gordon College in Massachusetts.  As we’ve noted in these pages, President D. Michael Lindsay of Gordon College attracted attention for signing an open letter to President Obama.  In case you missed the story, Lindsay signed the letter requesting an exemption from a planned executive order.  The order would ban discrimination against LGBTQ persons.

For those like me outside of the world of conservative evangelicalism, Lindsay’s attitude sounds an awful lot like a license to discriminate.  If, as Lindsay wrote, Gordon College does not discriminate against gay students and does not plan to start, why would they need such an exemption?

I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but as I understand it, the evangelicals did not ask to be able to discriminate against anyone, but rather to be able to continue their policy that requires all students and faculty to agree to a goal of chastity outside of marriage.  As we discussed here at ILYBYGTH, to many non-evangelicals and former evangelicals, that seems like a distinction without a difference.

But if we put those sorts of questions to one side for a moment, we can see that Zigarelli’s attitude demonstrates key elements of evangelical thinking.  His op-ed articulates some of the fears of conservative evangelicals.  For many conservatives, Obama’s order means more than just the end to discrimination.  It means the end of conservative evangelicalism in general.  Once conservatives are no longer able to operate their schools and colleges as they see fit, they will no longer be able to educate their children properly.  As Zigarelli concludes ominously,

Empty desks will follow empty pews, at least if this capricious; destabilizing theology is foisted upon our Christian schools. It’s time to take a stand.

To historians, this sort of rhetoric sounds familiar. As I’ve argued in the pages of the Journal of Religious History, conservative evangelicals made very similar sorts of statements after the Supreme Court’s anti-prayer decision in 1963. That school decision prompted conservative evangelicals to shift their thinking about their relationship to the broader American culture. As the editors of the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today expressed it, before that decision, they were confident of their roles as leaders of America’s “devout masses.” After the decision, though, they worried that conservative evangelicals had become nothing but a “believing remnant” in a sinful American culture.

For evangelicals, like all other Americans, any loss of control over schooling can signal a loss of control over public life itself. Some of us may scratch our heads and wonder why evangelicals worry so much about President Obama’s planned non-discrimination order. If, as President Lindsay insists, conservative schools don’t discriminate against homosexuals, what do they have to worry about?

Throughout the twentieth century and into today, though, conservative evangelicals have maintained a tense relationship with the wider American culture. Many conservatives believe themselves to be the representatives of the real American mainstream, the “moral majority.” At the same time, however, conservatives see themselves as persecuted outsiders in a twerking culture besotted with sin, sexuality, and secularism. When big public-policy decisions seem to hurt Christian education, evangelicals react vigorously.

Does Obama plan to crush conservative opposition? As Zigarelli admits, such statements may sound “absurd” and “alarmist.” But given the past fifty years of evangelicals’ relationship with public education, the notion that the federal government might take drastic steps that hurt Christian education does not seem absurd or alarmist at all.


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  1. The argument you illustrate here always seems obvious to me: if you hurt my ability to indoctrinate people, then no one will believe what I believe. If Christianity is truly inspired by a deity, why can’t that deity be bothered with acquiring its own followers?

    Great post!

  2. Evangelicals want to insist that forbidding students to engage in any sort of homosexual relationships is not discrimination, so long as they are not explicitly forbidding students with a homosexual /orientation/. However, this does not hold water unless the college also wishes to ban any form of heterosexual relationship. Considering how strict many Christian colleges already are are about opposite-sex friendships and boundaries, I would not think it would be a hard leap for them to simply create equal restrictions on both. The fact that they do not wish to do this and instead desire to have exemptions from the anti-discrimination law indicates that they do, in fact, discriminate.

    • Anna, I might be reading this wrong, but I thought President Lindsay WAS saying that Gordon did not wish to discriminate. I thought he WAS saying that heterosexuals at Gordon are also prohibited from having sex outside of marriage. And it did not want to recognize non-heterosexual marriages. In effect, this means absolutely no gay sex, and hetero sex only within a marriage. To my mind, this seems discriminatory, but not because it does not also ban heterosexual non-married sex. It seems discriminatory to me since it precludes the possibility of a healthy sexual relationship for homosexuals.

      • Yes, that is what I am trying to say (perhaps poorly). They claim that it is not discriminatory, but since they preclude any form of homosexual sex but allow heterosexual sex under certain situations, then it is in fact discriminatory. I would also suspect that in many schools, a male and female student being in a relationship (with lots of strict boundaries) would be accepted, but two same-sex students in such a relationship (even with the same strict boundaries) would likely be disciplined or expelled. This is again discriminatory. Thus, president Lindsay saying “we do not discriminate” is a blatant falsehood, in my opinion.

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