Kicking Christians Out of College

Does being an evangelical Christian automatically make one an anti-gay bigot? If so, can tolerant universities still allow such groups among their students? Those are the tricky questions highlighted in a recent New York Times article about evangelical culture and higher education. As the NYT story noted, this clash between pluralist campuses and “exclusivist” religious groups seems like a tough nut to crack.

But is it fair to assume that all evangelical students are bigots? That opposition to gay marriage pushes students beyond the bounds of polite society? To put it in the most provocative terms: Are evangelical student clubs being ousted because they are seen—sometimes unfairly—as being anti-gay?

The story opens with an update from Bowdoin College in Maine. At that elite liberal-arts school, the tiny evangelical student club has been cut off from official university support. Why? Because, like many evangelical student groups, the Bowdoin group insisted that leaders must be Christians themselves. This led to what the NYT article called a “collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies.” At Bowdoin, as at many other schools, leadership at university-sponsored clubs must be open to all students, regardless of race, religion, or sexual identity.

The official question in the Bowdoin case is not about homosexuality or same-sex marriage. But it would be easy for a casual reader to miss that. The article mentions other schools in which evangelical students have gotten into trouble for anti-gay activity. At Vanderbilt, for instance, one Christian fraternity kicked out a gay member. Indeed, it was precisely that anti-gay activism that led Vanderbilt to force student groups to sign antidiscrimination pledges.

But Bowdoin’s student group does not seem particularly fervent about issues of homosexuality or same-sex marriage. At least according the article, the evangelical club at Bowdoin does not have a single party line about the morality of gay marriage. It’s hard to see a group as anti-same-sex marriage if some of its members support same-sex marriage.

Some studies have suggested that the faculty leaders at universities tilt decidedly against evangelical students. One 2007 study of university faculty concluded that evangelicals were “the only religious group about which a majority of non-Evangelical faculty have negative feelings.” And, as Rice sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found, faculty at elite schools often have a very skewed notion of evangelical belief. It does not seem like a stretch to think that these faculty prejudices might tip university policy.

For their part, evangelical intellectuals have struggled long and hard to prove that their opposition to gay marriage and, in some cases, to homosexual sex does not make them bigots. Perhaps the most vocal pundit on the issue, Ryan T. Anderson, insisted that conservatives had legitimate reasons for opposing gay marriage. But too often the other side wouldn’t listen. “Marriage re-definers,” Anderson complained in 2013,

don’t tend to say what many opponents have said, that this is a difficult question on which reasonable people of goodwill can disagree. No, they’ve said anyone who disagrees with them is the equivalent of a racist. They’ve sent a clear message: If you stand up for marriage, we will, with the help of our friends in the media, demonize and marginalize you.

Don’t get me wrong: I am personally fervently in support of same sex marriage rights. I’m opposed to locking anyone out of access to influence because of their sexual identity, religion, race, or other causes. But it seems as if universities would do well to uncouple these issues of club leadership, religious belief, and homosexual rights.

Could a student club demand religious beliefs of its leaders, while still welcoming gay and lesbian students to become leaders? Is it fair for universities to assume that evangelical belief automatically implies anti-homosexual attitudes?