LGBTQ and Evangelical Colleges: Can We Please Just Skip to the End?

It might sound good to some, but a recent “Fairness for All” bill will not solve evangelical colleges’ problems with LGBTQ issues. With respect to all the smart, loving, sincere supporters of these half-measures, the historical record is glaringly clear on this one. Evangelical universities cannot fudge the issue of LGBTQ rights and the issue will end up splitting evangelical institutions. Again. But evangelical tradition has plenty of room to accommodate changing times. Can we please just skip to that part of this story?

Here’s what we’re talking about: Utah Representative Chris Stewart introduced recently a “Fairness for All Act.” The bill has the ardent support of evangelical organizations such as the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. In short, the act would ban discrimination against LGBTQ persons, except at institutions that have a religious reason for discrimination or at small businesses.

Will it work? No. And not only for the usual political reasons. In short, this attempt to square the LGBTQ circle for evangelical institutions is another half-measure that will not satisfy anyone. It is similar to the ways many evangelical institutions these days make an impracticable distinction between LGBTQ “identity”—which is approved—and LGBTQ “practice”—which is not. Or the weird ruling recently at Fuller Seminary that same-sex “relationships” are okay, but same-sex “marriages” are not.

Based on the history I uncovered in the research for Fundamentalist U, these half-measures will end up being a curious footnote in the story of evolving LGBTQ rights in the evangelical world. Here’s my prediction—hold me to it—of what the end result will be.

First, though, let me be as clear as I can be on this point: I do not equate the evolving policies about LGBTQ rights with the 20th-century history of decreasing racism at evangelical colleges. The two cases are distinct. But what is similar is a central fact that many prominent historians have pointed out. Namely, evangelical Americans are still Americans, and their ideas about changing cultural norms are in line, more or less, with the rest of the country. As Daniel K. Williams put it, like many other white Americans, white evangelicals in the mid-20th century worked “to distance themselves from the overt racism that had characterized their churches.” And, as Molly Worthen argued similarly, “the moderate middle” of white evangelicalism “experienced a genuine change of heart about the meaning of skin color,” similar to what the moderate middle of white people in general experienced.

Again, racism is different from anti-LGBTQ ideas. Intelligent evangelicals will tell me that sexual morality is an inherent part of true Christianity, while racism was a deviation from true Christianity. I get that. Nevertheless, the point remains—evangelicals have shifted their ideas about LGTBQ identity along with the rest of the country. They will continue to do so.

So what will happen? If history is any guide here, we will end up with (yet another) split among evangelical institutions on this issue. Most universities will find a way to double-down on their traditional sexual morality while making room for LGBTQ rights. How? Not by today’s compromises, but rather by falling back on the heart of evangelical sexual morality, insisting that sexuality must be reserved only for monogamous marriage. The definition of “marriage,” though, will expand to include same-sex marriage. No more false distinctions between “identity” and “practice.” No more meaningless opining about the importance of sexless same-sex relationships. No, in the end, most evangelical institutions will basically embrace LGBTQ rights, but re-frame them in a traditional way, with an emphasis on marriage. Sex outside of marriage will still be forbidden. But marriage will come to include same-sex marriage.

At other schools, hard-liners will double-down on anti-LGBTQ tradition. They will not only ban same-sex relationships, but any element of LGBTQ inclusion. If necessary, they will fight against all comers, including the US government, to preserve their discriminatory anti-LGBTQ policies.

What do you think? Should we agree to meet back here in thirty years to find out if this prediction comes true?

Notre Dame and the Fundamentalist Dream

Is it practical? I have no idea. But the proposal last week from students at the University of Notre Dame to block porn from campus pushes all the buttons that animated fundamentalist college reformers a century ago. It goes against the very openness—as Gene Zubovich wrote recently—that has led Catholic higher education to be so much more intellectually vibrant than the conservative evangelical versions.

notre dame

Can they keep the baby if they block the bathwater?

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for student activism against pornography. I admire the zeal and vision of the Notre Dame students. I’m especially happy to see my fellow men stand up against the exploitation of women and children. As the Notre Dame signatories argued,

We are calling for this action in order to stand up for the dignity of all people, especially women. . . . Pornography is the new sex education, providing a disturbing script about what men find sexually appealing and what women should do to please them. Notre Dame’s sincere efforts to educate students about consent and other aspects of healthy sexuality are pitifully weak in light of the fact that by the time students arrive on campus, many have been addictively watching pornography for years. . . . ​Porn is not acting. The overwhelming majority of contemporary pornography is literally filmed violence against women — violence somehow rendered invisible by the context.

I don’t dispute any of that. Historically, however, the goal of blocking and shielding students as part of a righteous college education has had some unintended consequences. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, the heart and soul of the fundamentalist college dream was to block, ban, prohibit, limit, encircle, and deny. In short, what fundamentalist school founders wanted was to create an alternative system of higher education in which young people could learn without being exposed to the behaviors and attitudes that had taken over mainstream higher education.

As Gene Zubovich argued recently, Catholic higher education has had a different tradition. Of course the Catholic Church has its own long, lamentable tradition of prohibition. Nevertheless, Catholic intellectuals became the big brains of America’s conservative movement in the twentieth century, Zubovich wrote, because

Unlike evangelicals, conservative Catholics could draw on research universities, law schools, medical schools, business schools and other intellectual-producing institutions in the fight against secularism.

Now, I disagree with Zubovich’s across-the-board dismissal of academic and intellectual life at evangelical universities. It was not only Carl Henry (whom Zubovich mentions) who dreamed of creating an academic intellectual powerhouse. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, the roots of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities were in another ambitious and practical plan to improve the tenor of intellectual life in evangelical schools.

However, that quibble is beside the point this morning. Zubovich is absolutely correct in marking a big difference between the attitudes of leaders at Catholic universities, compared to evangelical ones. Faculty at Catholic universities do not have to sign detailed statements of faith. Hiring for academic positions is done by credentials, not by faith backgrounds. Most important, the expectations of students at Catholic universities has never matched the sometimes-extravagant lifestyle controls imposed by evangelical schools.

What does this all have to do with Notre Dame’s proposed porn filter? Just this: imposing a block or a filter might seem like a laudable purpose, but the long-term impact on any academic institution will be serious, even severe. Do Notre Dame’s signatories want to take their institution down the long path to wall-building?

The Crack Appears at Christian Colleges

It wasn’t hard to predict, but I’m surprised it has come so quickly.

World Magazine reported recently that a potential split had developed among the members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Two schools, it seems, have liberalized their policies about homosexual employees. Will this lead to a break in the CCCU? If so, it might be the last blow for a network that started with big ambitions.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH will know that I hardly ever get anything right. It is famously difficult for historians to use the past to predict the future. But in my current research, I see time and again that issues such as homosexuality have divided the family of evangelical colleges and university. It was not very hard to see that the recent SCOTUS decision about same-sex marriage would lead to a split among evangelical schools.

eastern mennonite university

A founding member of the CCC upsets the applecart…

Exactly three months ago in these pages, I put two and two together: the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriages would present evangelical schools with a terrible dilemma.

Sure enough, Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University recently announced their plans to hire non-celibate homosexual faculty. They do not necessarily want to leave the CCCU, though. Leaders of the CCCU network are wondering: Will this lead to a split? Will member schools be forced to choose between a homosexual-friendly evangelical network and a traditional gay-is-not-okay one?

Unfortunately, the history of the CCCU offers little help on that question. In its early days as the Christian College Consortium, the network had some grandiose dreams. Some leaders, such as Hudson Armerding of Wheaton College, fantasized about a multi-campus evangelical university. The dream was to concentrate resources in order to keep up with secular colleges.

As far back as the 1950s, some evangelical college leaders toyed with this idea of a California-style mega-versity. Some schools, Armerding hoped, could offer more intense engineering programs. Others might focus on missionary preparation or languages. Yet others could host pre-med degrees. All of them would contribute toward a central graduate campus, too.

In this way, the future CCCU would remain orthodox in religion, yet be able to compete with big public and rich private universities.

As Armerding put it in a confidential letter to his fellow school leaders in 1955,

Each particular college would offer the same undergraduate instruction for the first two years and then would offer a limited number of majors for the final two undergraduate years and graduate studies leading to the doctorate. . . . There would be the possibility of mobilizing the entire evangelical community to support the proposed Christian university, challenging their loyalties through familiar and accepted institutions to which this constituency had already committed itself. Hence the continuing support of the university would be relatively assured. The geographic distribution would make possible a nation-wide impact upon the social and cultural life of the nation and would facilitate the educating of students who might otherwise be unable to travel to one central location.

Speaking from Gordon College near Boston, President James Forrester wrote in 1961 to evangelical intellectual leader Carl F. Henry to support the idea:

I have wondered if a beginning might not be made toward the consolidation of some of the evangelical effort at the undergraduate level on such a campus as ours. This could be done under a federated scheme similar to Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Toronto, Claremont College, and other associated programs. I think particularly of King’s and Barrington and wonder if some person who transcends the entrenched interest of our three schools, could bring together in conference key personnel for a discussion of this possibility. I do find that the limited assets available to Christian higher education in the area are divided among Wheaton, King’s, Barrington, and Gordon. All of us struggle with capital problems and operating deficits. . . . I am also conscious that with such a fractured effort as we now represent, we are no match for the consolidated interests of educators committed to the philosophical position of a naturalistic humanism in the university field. I also feel that this could be the natural groundwork from which could be extended ultimately your magnificent concept of a great Christian university.

It didn’t work out that way. In practice, the CCCU became a loose association of schools. So loose, in fact, that no one seems really sure what will happen now. Member colleges pledge vaguely

To advance the cause of Christ-centered higher education and to help our institutions transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth.

Can they do that if they welcome non-celibate homosexual faculty and staff? Or do those schools need to go elsewhere? If they do, how many of the 181 member schools will they pull with them?

From grand 1950s dreams of a powerful and aggressive evangelical multiversity, it seems evangelical colleges will be split yet again into smaller and smaller organizations.