Mumbling Toward Gomorrah

Which side are you on? That’s the question college administrators hate to answer. A few recent headlines make it clear that conservative evangelical college leaders continue to prefer mumbling through some of the touchiest issues they face. As I found in the research for my new book about evangelical higher education, it has always been thus.

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What’s their position on homosexuality? …how much time do you have?

I was reminded of this dilemma when I came across a conservative lament about Baylor University in Texas. One outraged correspondent wrote to Benedictophile Rod Dreher to complain that Baylor had ditched its Baptist tradition. Officially, according to this American conservative, Baylor’s code of student conduct prohibits homosexual relationships. But as he or she described, it can be very difficult to actually find that rule spelled out. As s/he told Dreher, in order to find out that Baylor officially bans homosexuality,

You must start here Student Misconduct Defined https://www.baylor.edu/student_policies/index.php?id=32401 only to be redirected here for Sexual Conduct Policy https://www.baylor.edu/student_policies/index.php?id=32294 which says literally nothing, but directs you here: https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php?id=39247. This tells you almost nothing but at least tells you sex is only allowed in marriage–but these days, who knows that means? The Baylor website basically says they understand marriage according to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message but tough shit, we aren’t going to give you a link; you’re are on your own. I found it: http://www.baptiststart.com/print/1963_baptist_faith_message.html And it turns out that according to the Baptist Faith and Message, marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. Whew! I’m tired already! Lots of link-chasing and more than a few logical inferences from different webpages are necessary to conclude that in fact, homosexual contact is prohibited by Baylor policy.

Baylor isn’t the only evangelical school to founder in the face of sex policy. SAGLRROILYGYTH may remember a recent case from Boston. Gordon College’s President D. Michael Lindsay set off a firestorm a couple of years ago when he reminded the Gordon community of Gordon’s long-standing policy against homosexual relationships among students. The Gordon community remains painfully divided over the question, with entire faculty committees resigning their leadership roles in protest over leadership decisions.

Now, I’m no evangelical. I’m not conservative. I wouldn’t send my child to a school that banned homosexual relationships, even if that school buried those rules deep in ivy. But as an outside observer, I can’t help but notice what so many school leaders have always known: Sometimes the best policy is mumbles. Anything else can blow up in your face.

After all, Lindsay at Gordon wasn’t changing any rules. He was not imposing a new, draconian policy. Rather, he was simply stating established Gordon rules. And that was enough to create an uproar. It would be difficult for other school leaders not to get the message. Time and time again, cautious school administrators and others can see the enormous benefits of mumbling. Of studied silences. Of intentional ambiguity.

Baylor considers itself a mainstream school, a powerhouse in both faculty lounges and football fields. The fact that its policy officially prohibits homosexual sex isn’t something it likes to promote.

Similarly, President Lindsay’s statement about student sex did nothing more than openly state the school’s longstanding policy, yet his statement has led to prolonged anguish for the Gordon community.

With stakes so high, it certainly seems to be in colleges’ best interest to maintain some flexibility in their official policies. This strategy is nothing new.

To describe just one example from my new book, in the 1960s Wheaton’s administrators faced a similar upsurge from the Wheaton community. Students wanted to revise the forty-year-old student pledge. The old rules against movies, alcohol, and card-playing—rebels insisted—reflected the college’s sad fundamentalist past. They insisted on more flexible rules in order to give them more moral responsibility.

In 1967, President Hudson Armerding agreed, sort of. He approved and announced a new set of guidelines for student behavior. From then on, instead of the old list of banned activities, students were expected to abide by the following rules:

                1.) Cooperate constructively in the achievement of the aims and objectives of Wheaton College and the responsibilities of citizenship in the community and nation.

2.) Exhibit Christian conduct, based on principles taught in the Scriptures, which will result in the glorification of God, the edification of the Church and his own growth in grace

3.) Observe, while under the jurisdiction of the college, Wheaton College’s ‘Standards of Conduct.’

4.) Take maximum advantage of the educational opportunities available to him by ordering his life so that he can live in harmony with both the academic and non-academic goals.

5.) Make full use of his God-given abilities so as to achieve maximum personal development.

6.) Continually evaluate his commitment to Christ and to the purposes of Wheaton College.

Armerding was a past master at mumbling through these questions. He could tell students with a straight face that he had heard their complaints. He really did approve a new approach.

Yet at the same time, President Armerding could tell conservative alumni and trustees that the new rules left the old ones in place. Students still had to abide by the old standards of conduct while on campus. He could look parents in the face, as he did in a 1971 chapel talk, and tell them that nothing had changed. As Armerding put it, Wheaton would never approve

a shallow permissiveness [that] conveys a distorted view of God who deals far differently with His children. . . . We believe that students should be disciplined and corrected and that this should be consistent with the teachings of the Word of God.

The questions in the 1960s and 1970s weren’t about homosexuality. But the strategies were the same. As do administrators at all types of colleges, many evangelical school leaders cherish the value of fuzzy, possibly two-sided rules.

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