Is THIS the Future for Christian Colleges?

Now what do we do? That is the question plaguing conservative college administrators nationwide. Since the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriages, many evangelical schools have wondered if they will have to change the way they do things. In Michigan, Hope College has announced its accommodation with the ruling. Will other Christian colleges do the same thing?

The gateway to the future?

The gateway to the future?

As the Sophisticated and Good-Looking Regular Readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, questions of homosexuality and same-sex marriage have long bedeviled evangelical colleges. For non-evangelicals, it might come as a surprise to hear that the issue is contentious. After all, at most evangelical schools, the official doctrine clearly and resolutely condemns homosexual activity.

Yet at all sorts of schools, the campus community is much more welcoming. At Gordon College recently, the president’s reminder that the school officially bans “homosexual practice” brought furious protests from students and faculty. Even at the far more conservative Liberty University, faculty members do not always take the harsh tone we progressives might expect.

As our Supreme Court decided the constitutionality of state bans on same-sex marriage, many evangelicals fretted that their decision would trash traditional rules on their campuses.

At Hope College in Michigan—a school in the Reformed Church tradition—the leadership and campus has experienced similar turbulence on the issues of homosexuality. In 2010, for example, the administration provoked protests when it banned the film Milk. More recently, the campus has welcomed homosexual student organizations, though the administration has continued to endorse the Reformed position on homosexuality.

In its most recent announcement, the school’s leaders have declared their intention to abide by the SCOTUS decision. From now on, same-sex married partners of college employees will be eligible for the same benefits as heterosexual partners. The administration again affirmed its respect for the Reformed Church’s official doctrine that homosexuality is a sin. That does not mean, however, that the school will contravene the law.

Is this the path other schools will follow? Unlike pluralist colleges, evangelical schools face intense pressure to stay true to traditional beliefs and norms. As Professor Michael Hamilton wrote in his study of Wheaton College,

The paradigm that has dominated Wheaton through the century holds that colleges, more than any other type of institution, are highly susceptible to change, and that change can only move in one direction—from orthodoxy toward apostasy. . . . The very process of change, no matter how slow and benign it may seem at first, will always move the college in a secular direction, inevitably gathering momentum and becoming unstoppable, ending only when secularization is complete.

Hope College may find itself the front line for this debate within the Reformed Church in America. The church as a whole has gone back and forth for decades about the proper Christian reaction to homosexuality. Is it better to embrace the sinner? Or to drive out the sin? Conservatives within the RCA will doubtless take this announcement as proof that Hope has gone soft. Progressives will celebrate it as a small step towards equity.

Other evangelical schools will face similar scrutiny. If they openly welcome homosexual students, faculty, and staff, they will be subject to withering condemnation from conservatives. If they don’t, however, they’ll risk being sidelined, branded as anti-gay bigots.

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8 Comments

  1. I applaud Hope College for deciding that their personal beliefs do not trump the rights of LGBT people to be employed and receive benefits without discrimination. This just goes to show that a college can oppose homosexuality without discriminating. It’s quite welcome after my best friend told me just yesterday that her mother fired a caretaker for being a lesbian.

    Reply
  2. Agellius

     /  July 8, 2015

    “Other evangelical schools will face similar scrutiny. If they openly welcome homosexual students, faculty, and staff, they will be subject to withering condemnation from conservatives. If they don’t, however, they’ll risk being sidelined, branded as anti-gay bigots.”

    But is this really affected by the court ruling? Does the fact that gay couples can now marry civilly in every state have anything to do with how welcome we should expect them to be at Christian colleges? I don’t see what’s changed, except that now some colleges may be legally coerced into doing things they otherwise might not have done.

    Reply
    • I think the shadow of the Bob Jones case is long and intimidating. On the one hand, schools would much rather not be legally coerced into granting benefits to same-sex partners. But perhaps more compelling, they don’t want to be the new BJU, left behind as other schools move away from old traditions.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  July 9, 2015

        I think that all depends on how serious they are about their Christianity. Just as some people would rather die than renounce their faith (called martyrs), some schools would rather die than conform to what they see as approval of immorality. And just as some Christians would capitulate and go ahead and throw incense on the pagan altar rather than face the lions, some Christian schools will capitulate as well.

      • I think you’re both a bit off the mark here. The salient legal issue that surely will be tested at these schools concerns the practical boundaries of acceptable discrimination at religious schools in the wake of Obergefell. (And maybe the definition of “religious institution.”) Some Christian colleges merely state a general prohibition on extra-marital sex in any form, with or without a hetero definition of marriage. This has long been the wise, pragmatic position for these colleges, and it seems to be getting recommended more nowadays. It reduces the potential for litigation to a matter of whether the schools can discriminate against students and employees who marry a same-sex partner. Other colleges with over-articulated lists of prohibited (especially homosexual) behavior and written or unwritten policies for policing student sexual behavior vulnerable to a much broader range of discrimination suits that would be much harder to win and likely much more damaging. Issues with transgender and queer students lead into another emerging category of whether and how Christian colleges may discriminate on the basis of gender identity and expression.

  3. Lumping Hope and Wheaton together as “Evangelical” colleges is inappropriate without heavy qualification. Wheaton is a historic hub of the northern fundamentalist-evangelical world, but it has no denominational affiliation or particular ethnic heritage. Hope is affiliated with the oldest established church in the US and was founded by Dutch immigrants a decade before Wheaton. The RCA has always been the most liberal wing of the North American Dutch Reformed churches to the point that it is frequently described as being and becoming more of a “mainline” denomination. Internally however it has very conservative and pietist midwestern congregations caught in fissiparous tension with the more liberal coastal congregations.

    Hamilton really nails the way Wheaton’s Evangelical ethos articulates its secularization anxieties; from that perspective the history of a church like the RCA and its European counterparts is the history of secularization. (Secularization is assumed to mean heterodoxy, lost faith, damnation, etc.) But from the mainline and continental reformed perspective, secularization may be a misnomer and mean none of these things. In fact you could make the case that American Evangelicalism and conservative Protestantism in general has staked its identity politics on rejecting or avoiding problematic orthodox sources like Bonhoeffer and Barth within the continental reformed traditions who mounted critiques of religion or endorsed frightening things like “religionless Christianity.” These are faultlines within the conservative Protestant and Evangelical coalition that will probably outlive and undo that coalition.

    Reply
    • Point well taken about the vast gulf between Hope and Wheaton. I didn’t mean to equate the two. I do think Hope’s decision, though (and that of Baylor now) will be examined closely by schools such as Wheaton and others.

      Reply
      • Maybe the gulf is not so vast in actual sentiment, especially among the younger generations, but in terms of what is institutionally possible on marriage and sexuality, the RCA and also its sister denomination the CRC not only have options but also a certain necessity of logic that doesn’t pertain for most free church evangelicals. Both the RCA and CRC avoided committing to a strict inerrantist type of fundamentalism in the past and have worked through women’s ordination and evolution/creation issues since the 1970s. They have also been walking back on very harsh, hardline positions on homosexuality that were taken in the 70s, so they’ve probably been talking about it and dealing with it internally much longer than the broader evangelical world. The comparative lack of process for far-reaching internal discussion and reform in the non-denominational evangelical world may account for the perception of stronger conservatism which certainly has institutional support, but whether it will outlast the boomers looks questionable.

        I doubt college boards and administrators will examine anything at Hope beyond the possible impact of their “liberal stance” on enrollment, donors, public perception, etc. The idea that the business logic and economic practices of religious institutions might themselves be the primary engine of secularization is equated with a suspiciously “liberal” sort of discontent among humanities professors who obviously know nothing about running a business.

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