Evangelicals and Homosexuality on the College Campus

Maybe President Lindsay feels better knowing that only high pressure can create diamonds. Because the leader of evangelical Gordon College is feeling intense pressure from two sides right now. On one hand, the school’s accrediting agency has threatened to take away its accreditation if Gordon does not revise its policy on homosexuality. On the other, the school’s conservative supporters insist the policy must stay in place. If history is any guide, it appears one group might make the crucial difference in this case.

Are all welcome?  MUST all be welcome?

Are all welcome? MUST all be welcome?

This Gordon-ian knot is one that all conservative evangelical colleges have tried to pick apart. Schools such as these are in a pickle: they need to remain intellectually respectable and financially viable, yet a decision either way threatens both intellectual consistency and the bottom line.

As I’m finding as I research my new book, similar schools have had a difficult time walking this line. In the 1930s, for example, Wheaton College leaders moved fast to bring Wheaton up to accreditors’ standards. As historian Michael Hamilton argued, the president at the time, Oliver Buswell, viewed accreditation as more than just a piece of paper. To Buswell, accreditation was the “one of the best ways to earn intellectual respect for fundamentalist Christianity.”

But college leaders such as Buswell were also under intense pressure to maintain both the appearance and the reality of theological steadfastness. Leaders needed to maintain the confidence of the evangelical community that their schools were not slipping into secularism. In 1929, for instance, Buswell withdrew from publication a controversial book he had written. Why? As he explained to a colleague, above all Buswell felt the need to keep “the confidence of fundamentalist leaders . . . in the administration of Wheaton College.”

Losing either accreditation or the respect of the “fundamentalist” community could mean a wasting death for an evangelical college. And the two have often pushed in opposite directions.

WWBD?

WWBD?

Much has changed since then, but President Lindsay at Gordon College finds himself coming under similar pressure from both sides. [Full disclosure: I worked with Michael Lindsay in the Spencer Foundation/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellows program. I consider him a friend and colleague.]

For those who are just joining us, this story began back in July, when President Lindsay signed an open letter to President Obama about religious exemptions to an anti-discrimination law. Now, the question has become whether Gordon’s Statement on Life and Conduct violates the rules of its accrediting agency.

At issue is the Gordon ban on “homosexual practice.” The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has collaborated with Gordon in setting up a “discernment” group to examine the policy.  (As an aside, we could ask why only this part of the policy has come under investigation. After all, the Gordon policy also bans “blasphemy” and “profanity,” not to mention heterosexual sex outside of marriage. Doesn’t this impinge upon the free speech rights of potential students?)

For a host of reasons, the accrediting agency doesn’t care about blasphemy. But it is threatening to withdraw accreditation over the ban on “homosexual practice.” For Gordon College, loss of accreditation would have serious consequences. Its graduates would not necessarily be considered qualified for graduate school. Nor could they receive student loans backed by the federal government. Perhaps most important, though, loss of accreditation would be a symbolic slap in the face. Gordon would face the challenge of proving its continued intellectual respectability.

But that is not the only pressure facing Gordon right now. Just as President Buswell at Wheaton worried about both mainstream intellectual respectability and credibility within the world of conservative evangelicalism, so President Lindsay faces a double-sided threat.

Beyond accreditation pressure, Lindsay must consider the opinions of the far-flung community of conservative evangelicals. As one conservative pundit wrote recently in the pages of the Christian Post,

To Michael Lindsay, the gifted president of Gordon, and to the board of trustees, I remind you: Many eyes are watching you, knowing that the decisions you make could either strengthen or dishearten many other schools that will soon be put under similar pressure.

As this conservative writer worried, Gordon might be willing to “sell its soul” to maintain accreditation.  If it did, conservative students and parents might take their tuition dollars elsewhere.  But if it doesn’t it might lose accreditation.  Without that sort of mainstream credibility, students and parents might take their tuition dollars elsewhere.

So what is a conservative school leader to do? How can President Lindsay balance the pressure to reform with the pressure to hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints?

In this case, there is a new wrinkle. Traditionally, alumni are one of the groups most likely to push school leaders to maintain conservative positions. Today, though, some Gordon alumni are hoping to convince Gordon to change its ways. A group of two dozen alums have published a letter encouraging Lindsay to remove any hint of anti-gay discrimination from Gordon’s policies.

In the past alumni have been one of the most vocal groups fighting any change at evangelical colleges. Conservative evangelical colleges have long been keenly aware of the pressures to modernize and secularize. Traditionally, alumni of these schools have been staunch foes of any perceived change, since any change could lead to an utter loss of the school’s steadfast character. Historian Michael Hamilton described this alumni attitude this way:

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.

In Gordon’s case, however, alumni—at least some of them—are pushing in the other direction. It is impossible to predict what will happen at Gordon. The board of trustees may decide this policy needs updating. Or they may not. And President Lindsay might decide that this language is a central part of the school’s evangelical character. Or he may not.

This case highlights the double pressure faced by conservative evangelical colleges. In a sense, they must serve two masters: the pressure to maintain a vague and shifting “respectability” with mainstream institutions; and the pressure to remain bastions of orthodoxy in a world hurtling headlong into secular mayhem.