The Coming Split at Conservative Colleges

Is your school for bigots?…Or for apostates? That’s the choice that conservative school leaders have faced throughout the twentieth century. And it is coming round again. As the US Supreme Court hears arguments about same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, conservative religious schools and colleges should gear up for another divisive debate over equality and theology. If SCOTUS rules in favor of same-sex marriage, will evangelical and fundamentalist schools face a return to the hot tempers of 1971?

More bad news for conservatives...

More bad news for conservatives…

The case itself is a combination of cases from four states. In short, SCOTUS is trying to decide two issues: whether or not the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriage; and whether or not same-sex marriages in one state must be recognized by all states.

Conservative Christians have made their feelings clear. Among the hundreds of friend-of-the-court letters are one from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and one from Governor Mike Huckabee’s advocacy group.

At the Christian Post this morning, we see nervous worries about the possible fall-out for conservative Christian schools. Justice Samuel Alito made an explicit reference to the precedent on every conservative’s mind: the Bob Jones University case. Back in 1970, the leaders of BJU refused to allow racial integration on their South Carolina campus. As a result, the Internal Revenue Service took away BJU’s tax-exempt status. By 1983, BJU had taken its case all the way to the Supreme Court. It lost.

Alito asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli if the precedent would apply:

JUSTICE ALITO:  Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating.  So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­ sex marriage?

GENERAL VERRILLI:  You know, I ­­ I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. ­ I don’t deny that.  I don’t deny that, Justice Alito.  It is ­­ it is going to be an issue.

Conservatives worry that this might mean the end of religious schools and colleges. Should religious schools refuse to provide housing for same-sex married couples, the federal government could revoke their tax-exempt status. For most schools, that would mean a sudden and impossibly steep tax bill. When schools are already teetering on the brink of financial insolvency, it could certainly mean the end.

But that’s not all. If history is any guide, Christian school leaders should also prepare for another kind of crisis. Back in the 1970s, fundamentalist schools endured a vicious and destructive split over Bob Jones University’s position on racial segregation.

As I’ve been finding in the archives this past year, even schools that agreed with BJU’s fundamentalist theology sometimes disagreed with BJU’s position against interracial marriage. At the Moody Bible Institute, for example, leaders decided to cancel an invitation to pro-BJU fundamentalist leader John R. Rice. The decision subjected MBI’s leaders to withering criticism from fundamentalists nationwide.

Reporters and observers have noted that SCOTUS’s decision in this case might raise questions for leaders of conservative religious schools. Those leaders should also consider another likely outcome. If SCOTUS’s decision puts pressure on school leaders to recognize same-sex marriages, it might lead to another in a long line of bitter fights among schools.

Will conservative evangelicals and Catholics submit to the law of the land? Or will they resist, citing a higher authority? Will conservative schools lose their conservative credibility if they give in to the new cultural ethos?

It’s not going to be an easy choice. If I were the president of a conservative Christian school or college, I’d get myself ready for a lose-lose decision. Do I want my school to be labeled a bunch of fanatical bigots? Or would I prefer to join the ranks of schools that don’t take their religions very seriously?

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  1. Agellius

     /  April 30, 2015

    “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” Jn. 15:18

  2. In 2000, BJU casually discarded the “Biblically-based” rules that cost them their tax exemption. Bob Jones III told Larry King on live television that the interracial dating rules “were never a big deal.” [whatever, Triplestyx, we alumni know they were indeed a big deal]

    I don’t think the question’s “is a split coming” but rather, “how long will the die-hards dig in their heels before the last one standing make a change and acts like like they’ve been on board along?”

  3. Agellius

     /  April 30, 2015


    I think you’re wrong because racial segregation never was a moral issue, even if some pretended it was, whereas homosexual sex has been considered immoral since the beginning of the Christian Church (and before). Some colleges will capitulate I’m sure (some already have), some will resist and some will go out of business as a result of resisting.

  4. “Racial segregation was never a moral issue”.

    I have read this four times in a bid to check I haven’t misunderstood it.

    What kind of issue was it then?

  5. Agellius

     /  May 1, 2015


    Sorry, careless phrasing, I’m glad you brought it to my attention. What I meant was that racial segregation did not have a moral basis; there was never any moral requirement that the races be segregated.

  6. Right, to embrace LGBT rights and maintain tax-exempt status would require acquiescing to what the schools deem unbiblical standards at campus or liberalizing their denominational / organizational statements of faith to accept the sudden change. They’d have to suddenly agree with those Bible scholars and religious authorities who explain away scriptural prohibitions on homosexual behavior… Seems a much more foundational shift than admitting “Hey, there’s really no biblical justification for this opposition to interracial marriage.”

  7. But that’s exactly the problem— many hardcore segregationists dug their heels in arguing that there was a moral basis for keeping races separate. They were wrong, of course, but they did see the issue through a moral prism.

    • Agellius

       /  May 5, 2015


      I know. My point is that there was not actually any objective basis, in Christian doctrine or tradition, for seeing it that way. There never was a universal Christian prohibition of the intermixing of races. Such “taboos” were confined to particular times and places. Whereas there has always been a universal Christian prohibition of sodomy.

      • Truly? I wasn’t aware that Christ had ever spoken on the issue.

      • Agellius

         /  May 6, 2015

        You may have noticed that he also doesn’t spend much time (if any) preaching about murder, theft and adultery, but it would be a mistake to conclude therefrom that those things are now OK. He tended to focus his teaching on things that people didn’t already know.

  8. Has anyone ever said concretely why having interracial or gay couples on a campus is such a threat to the majority that disapproves of them? It seems like an indirect admission that exposure to pluralism will result in a transformation of values even though there is no reason why this must necessarily follow.

    What I never understand about either issue is why the “conservatives” assume complete separation/full community rejection is the only way to handle certain categories of people and their associated sins. The only explanation that makes sense to me also accounts for the persistent focus on sexuality: it is an atavistic social and biological urge to keep the herd or tribe “pure” and “healthy” on the basis of general characteristics. This impulse should become uniquely problematic in Christianity, and I attribute the sharply decreasing tolerance for it in modern societies to deeply religious principles that shifted to the secular state as their sponsor after the American and French Revolutions. The American version was implicitly Protestant and white supremacist so white religious conservatives still cling — less consciously now — to their sense of former privileges without considering the sources.

  9. Agellius

     /  May 8, 2015

    Dan writes, “What I never understand about either issue is why the “conservatives” assume complete separation/full community rejection is the only way to handle certain categories of people and their associated sins.”

    Speaking for religious conservatives but not racial segregationists, it’s not the people but the sins. Anyone willing to give up a sin is welcome (hence St. Augustine’s saying “love the sinner, hate the sin”). But welcoming people along with their sins implies approval of the sins, which in turn is like saying they’re no longer sins. But as St. Augustine also says, “the man who lives by God’s standards and not by man’s, must needs be a lover of the good, and it follows that he must hate what is evil.”

    The funny thing is, liberals, progressives and atheists hate evil every bit as much as traditional, orthodox Christians, and try to drive it from their midst; they just consider different things evil.

    • The confusion is due to the lack of consistency. What other sins are most religious conservatives prepared to shun people over? St. Paul enumerates a certain list including swindlers and the avaricious, but even the fornicators are not so problematic for most religious conservatives. Few Evangelicals truly submit heterosexuals (especially those who are married) to scrutiny and a general don’t ask, don’t tell rule applies to a host of potentially scandalous issues. You have used the term “sodomy” which refers to acts now generally adopted by heterosexuals, including religious conservatives, that were criminal or highly disapproved (along with contraception) in the first half of the 20th century.

      • Agellius

         /  May 8, 2015


        You are right when you say that sodomy, whether hetero- or homosexual, was criminal or highly disapproved in the first half of the 20th century — and for a couple of millennia before that. This shows that Christianity per se traditionally did not draw a bright line between heterosexual and homosexual sexual sin. The bright line was (and for Catholics still is) between venial and mortal sin, mortal being the kind that can send you to hell. And pretty much all sexual sins — hetero- or homo- — fall into the mortal category due to the fact that they involve “grave matter”.

        You’re also right that the vast majority of Protestant churches, during the 20th century, loosened their mores when it came to heterosexual sodomy and birth control, as well as divorce. That’s an argument that I have been making recently on my own blog: That once contraception and no-fault divorce were acquiesced in — and the same goes for heterosexual sodomy — the arguments against gay marriage were undermined. So in my view, you’re right: Churches that don’t condemn divorce, birth control and sodomy in all its forms, have no ground on which to condemn gay marriage.

        And by the way, here also is a Methodist minister making a similar argument: That “same-sex marriage, if it comes about, will not cause the degeneration of the institution of marriage; it is the result of it.” []

      • I suppose we agree from very different perspectives. To paraphrase Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in slightly kinder terms, the traditional Catholic position is eminently logical and coherent as an argument, but its premises are tied to a premodern Aristotelian metaphysics with a scientifically and morally defective notion of the human person, the body, sex, and women in particular. The conservative Protestant position is illogical and incoherent as it has wandered from those premises or attempted to retain them in muddled ways. What they agree on is the overriding need to keep firing the ammunition of their condemnations which is all blank cartridges and totally ineffectual except when discharged in the faces of their own children.

      • Agellius

         /  May 9, 2015

        I’m glad you follow my reasoning even if we differ on our premises. That’s something.

        As far as the firing of condemnations, again they are being fired in both directions, though each side seems to think that its judgments aren’t really judgments since they’re only stating the truth.

      • I don’t think that’s a fair distinction, but it is how people act when they have joined in a pointless dogmatomachy. (See When the tide is not in your favor, hysterical reaction seems like a choice to hasten one’s failure and irrelevance.

        I’d be interested to know how you regard Catholic conservatives (and others) who have come out in favor of marriage equality, like Joseph Bottum and Paul Griffiths, but that is probably getting too far afield in this comment zone.

  10. Agellius

     /  May 9, 2015

    I’m not sure what distinction you’re referring to. Again, I would say that there is hysteria on both sides. The liberal/progressive reaction to the Indiana RFRA/Memories Pizza situation, for example, struck me as arising from a hysterical compulsion to smack down any vestige of dissent.

    I would be happy to continue the conversation by email in order to go off-topic, if you like. You could click my avatar to go to my blog, then use the Contact Me form to send me an email.

  11. Agellius

     /  May 10, 2015

    I have now had a chance to read a bit of Bottums and Griffiths. It seems to me that what both are saying amounts to the same thing, and is similar to what I have been arguing: That opposition to gay marriage makes no sense without also arguing against divorce, sodomy and birth control, but that arguing against those things is futile at this point. They are too firmly entrenched as being socially and morally acceptable in our society, even among many Christians. In which case it’s equally futile to argue against gay marriage: People can no longer understand the argument, and therefore will assume that your opposition is based on nothing but prejudice.

    I regard this position as reasonable. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we should favor gay marriage, and I’m not sure that either of them is saying so either. Just that, since marriage has long since been loosed from its Catholic moral underpinnings, Catholics really no longer have a stake in “defending” it in its current form.

    • Right, I think the practical upshot of their position is that religious people need to accept a full decoupling of their marriage concepts and practices from the ones defined by law and upheld by the state because this is in any case the de facto situation. It may seem like a further “privatization” of religion or contraction of the “less public” domain of religious authorities, but arguably it is not. The religious person may not like what is licit in the public or secular domain, but he is only free to restrict things in the religious domain to the extent the law allows it. The law ought to allow church marriages of any type to be restricted as the church sees fit as long as they consistently apply their rule. Church-affiliated educational institutions are in a more vexing situation. Their legal status and the extent to which they are allowed to discriminate internally is going to have to be renegotiated now, so a lot of emotion is focused there.

      By the time gay marriage was accepted in most states their civil rights statutes had also changed to include equal protection on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and sometimes gender expression. Conservative lobbying groups ensured there were exemptions for religious employers and religious schools so they could continue to discriminate in their hiring and disciplinary practices. Typically schools that avail themselves of these exemptions will prohibit all harassment, discrimination and bullying in the same way a public school is required to do for students and employees under Title IX of the CRA, but when it comes to hiring, sexual orientation and other things like religious beliefs can be a basis for discrimination. This was never a very sound position, legally or ethically IMO, especially for religious institutions that hire people and accept students from a wide range of religious affiliations (or none) and may not be formally affiliated with a specific church. Currently we have the odd situation where a gay man in deep denial about his identity could be hired by a religious school, come out as gay at some later point and be fired even if he is celibate and simultaneously protected by law from harassment on the basis of his sexual orientation and gender expression. He could also be legally married in the eyes of the state, but becoming so would be grounds for termination by his employer.

      This takes us back to Adam’s original topic. How do you think Catholic and other religious schools should navigate their legal and cultural predicament?

  12. Agellius

     /  May 11, 2015

    I can’t speak for Protestant fundamentalist churches, but in a conservative Catholic institution, I don’t think that simply admitting that you’re gay and celibate would be a fireable offense. I think most would consider that a good thing: An openly gay man setting an example of chastity for the students. What could get him fired would be advocating for doctrinal and moral positions that are at odds with Catholic teaching, which of course would also apply to non-gay faculty.

    “This takes us back to Adam’s original topic. How do you think Catholic and other religious schools should navigate their legal and cultural predicament?”

    I don’t know, it would depend on what exactly they are called upon to do. As a Catholic institution, it simply could not endorse nor condone immoral behaviors. It could not have faculty living in openly adulterous situations, or who openly fornicate, or who advocate for the acceptance of adultery or fornication; and by the same token it could not have faculty living in openly homosexual relationships or who advocate for the acceptance of homosexual sex. If the government forbids it to conduct itself in this manner, then it would have to either close or else stop being a Catholic institution. What that would mean, of course, is that it has become illegal to operate Catholic institutions in this country.

    • There remains a problem however in the fact that the current law allows religious schools to terminate someone simply for being “out” as LGBTQ even if their actual beliefs would lead them to accept such a person provided they’re not sexually active. This sword would be hanging over the LGBTQ employee’s head constantly, so that if someone decides this person has expressed the wrong views and is “advocating immorality” or they looked at someone “the wrong way” it’s time to suspend or fire them. That type of prurient immature religiosity — critiqued by Bonhoeffer in his Prison Letters on “Christianity come of age” and “religionless Christianity” — is completely conceivable in the context of many Christian schools; should it be legal and can it remain so? To avoid the appearance of complete hypocrisy and unequal dealing, such schools would have to consistently monitor and respond to any public awareness of behaviors among their employees they regard as immoral and grounds for a disciplinary response. This creates a situation where petty snooping and office politics could become quite nasty, but perhaps this is a situation that will be legally tolerable and over time encourage these kinds of communities to “grow up.”

      Some interesting cases have come up recently with Catholic K-12 schools in Iowa. In one, an openly gay teacher who never advertised his identity publicly nor disclosed it to his employer was fired after his marriage plans on Facebook become more generally known in the community. The school leaders and bishop seem to have maintained a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that naturally fell apart once the facts were more widely known and conservatives mounted a protest. In another case, a woman who had been a teacher for decades was fired after her mother’s obituary mentioned she had a “partner.”

      The reactions within the schools and Catholic communities involved in these cases tend to be very divided because the “liberal” factions want the private, religious context to operate by our larger societal values and proceed in the direction the state and the law are heading. The “conservatives” will have to concede their battle with the state and the law, but must they necessarily redefine their religious domain as one where a legally married gay person who is not even Catholic cannot teach mathematics at a Catholic school? As I understand it, this should be permissible at a hypothetical Catholic university that is going “by the book.” It seems to me there ought to be some middle course that allows these schools to “take their faith seriously” and not be seen as “fanatical bigots” because the former actually entails an emphasis on grace, love, and unity which are not codewords for the secular virtue of “tolerance of everything that doesn’t offend me.” Why not admit there has always been tolerance for things that give offense up to a point because throwing people under the bus for a few categories of sexual sin has never made sense to do across the board. I suspect there are very few institutions that have consistently tried to police themselves this way; it is simply distasteful and impractical. Certainly in the context of Catholic schools there has been no effort to restrict faculty to those who are members of the church in good standing, not divorced nor remarried, not regarded as being in a state of mortal sin, and if married then married with a sacramental church wedding. Would you prefer to see this type of rigorist approach attempted or just sever the church’s ties to its schools?

  13. Agellius

     /  May 11, 2015

    “To avoid the appearance of complete hypocrisy and unequal dealing, such schools would have to consistently monitor and respond to any public awareness of behaviors among their employees they regard as immoral and grounds for a disciplinary response.“

    A lot of employers have conduct and character requirements, including secular and liberal-dominated colleges and universities. Why should policing conduct suddenly become a problem when the requirements are based on Christian morals?

    “an openly gay teacher who never advertised his identity publicly nor disclosed it to his employer was fired after his marriage plans on Facebook become more generally known in the community”

    Suppose a university professor was a private racist. He doesn’t talk about it in class or among colleagues and there is no evidence that he has treated students unfairly. It only becomes known in the community through his Facebook page or a comment by a family member. I suspect that at the vast majority of secular colleges he would be instantly fired, or heavily pressured to resign, or denied tenure.

    “Why not admit there has always been tolerance for things that give offense up to a point because throwing people under the bus for a few categories of sexual sin has never made sense to do across the board.”

    Yes, the extent to which a school’s values should be enforced is a matter of prudence. Take the case of the three Ole Miss students who were expelled for hanging a noose and a Confederate flag on a statue of a black man. No one was hurt and the statue was not damaged. The school could have given the students a verbal warning, a suspension, community service and re-education, or all of the above. Instead it chose not only to expel them, but also to close the campus chapter of the fraternity they belonged to. Basically, raze the city and salt the earth. Why didn’t the school “admit there has always been tolerance for things that give offense up to a point because throwing people under the bus for a few categories of sin has never made sense to do across the board”?

    I submit that it’s because racism, in secular culture, is a “mortal sin”, and therefore deserves zero tolerance. Why then must Catholics tolerate what they consider to be mortal sins in their midst?

    In my view, it boils down to the fact that we have different lists of mortal sins, and the secular culture wants to impose its list on everyone, while reacting in horror when we try to impose ours even within the context of our own privately owned institutions.

    “Would you prefer to see this type of rigorist approach attempted or just sever the church’s ties to its schools?”

    There are some Catholic schools that already take the “rigorist” approach, while most do not. My basic point is that in a free society, those that want to should be allowed to.

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