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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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.

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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.

Gay + Christian = Celibate: A Long Tradition

What is a gay conservative Christian to do? With plenty of justification, many Americans think that conservative Catholics and evangelicals are anti-gay. A recent article in the Washington Post suggests that homosexual Christians have found a new answer to this conundrum, though those in the know know that there’s nothing new about it.

Michelle Boorstein’s article discusses the spiritual path of bloggers such as Eve Tushnet, whom Boorstein describes as a leader of a

small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re celibate.

When Tushnet converted to Catholicism, Boorstein describes, she felt as if she were the first gay Christian to choose celibacy. To be fair, neither Boorstein nor Tushnet claims this is brand new.  It is “easier” to be openly gay, Boorstein writes.  But not easy.  As the article discusses, such a decision opens one up to attacks from both sides. Some conservatives hope that God can “heal” homosexuals. Such folks want homosexual Christians to abjure their homosexual identities. From the other side, some gay activists argue that choosing celibacy is a terrible option, a truckling to anti-gay animus among conservatives.

What the article doesn’t examine is the long history of this question among conservative evangelicals. As one might expect, issues of sexuality and sexual attraction have long played a central role at America’s network of conservative evangelical colleges. What should young people do if they feel sexually attracted to their own gender? What should loving Christians tell them in college classes and counseling sessions? In my current round of archival research into the history of these schools, I’m seeing a long tradition of the answer “discovered” by folks such as Tushnet: Gay conservatives can remain true to their religious beliefs and true to their sexual attractions by committing to lifelong celibacy.

Certainly, as Boorstein notes, the language has changed, as have public attitudes. In the past, conservatives did not claim their homosexuality as openly or as proudly. But this does not mean that the celibacy “solution” is at all a new one.

In the 1930s, for example, among the troubles at the Denver Bible Institute was the leader’s insistence that all relationships be “continent.” This leader, Clifton Fowler, was accused of homosexual attractions. Indeed, he was accused of active homosexual sexual relationships. His solution was to insist that all married relationships—apparently all potentially sexual relationships—remain celibate. In that case, the facts were obscured by conflicting accusations on all sides. It seems clear, however, that the celibate “solution” to the perceived dilemma of homosexual attraction among Protestant fundamentalists is nearly as old as American fundamentalism itself.

In a later generation, the language used to discuss homosexuality and celibacy grew slightly more frank, while remaining just as harshly anti-gay. In 1951, a student at Biola College (now Biola University) promised counselors that he would remain celibate. As I read the record, this promise was taken at the time as a satisfactory and traditional “solution” to the problem of gay fundamentalism. Take, for example, the following explanation he offered to his dean:

as to the matter [i.e., homosexuality] that has been at the root of all my grief, I am positive that I am cured. The perverted urge will probably come upon me many times in the future but now that I know giving in to it has cost me all that I held dear, I am certain that I will be enabled to grasp the strength of the Lord to withstand.

Back in 1951, it seems, as in the late 1930s, among these conservative Christians, celibacy seemed an appropriate and acceptable solution to homosexual attractions. The student here did not suggest that being “cured” of homosexuality meant becoming heterosexual. Rather, all he promised was the ability to “withstand” what he called his “perverted urge.”

Continuing into the 1970s, leaders at evangelical schools seemed open to the idea that celibacy could be an acceptable evangelical answer for homosexuals. For instance, in a 1977 interview with Wheaton College’s student newspaper, Wheaton President Hudson Armerding offered this response:

The church should respond in love toward those with homosexuality [sic] tendencies and in humility seek to assist such persons to maintain and develop a life-style that is in obedience to the Word of God.

Armerding did not insist that evangelical homosexuals be “cured” of their sexual identity. Rather, he simply demanded that they find a “life-style”—presumably including celibacy—that went with Armerding’s understanding of God’s Word.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, then, evangelical homosexuals could remain both evangelical and homosexual by living celibate lives. Nor does the notion of celibate homosexuality seem particularly revelatory to evangelical collegians today. Julie Rodgers currently works at Wheaton College as an openly gay celibate Christian. She helps counsel students about sexual issues, among other things.

Certainly, the language these days has changed. Rodgers, for example, openly describes herself as gay. The gay celibate student at Biola College in 1951, in stark contrast, was driven to extremes in his attempt to hide his gay identity. Back in the 1930s, Clifton Fowler never admitted to any homosexual attractions, though there seems ample evidence of it.

Nevertheless, for those in the know, there is nothing new among conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists about the celibate “solution” to homosexual attractions.