Is “Gay” the New “Black” at Evangelical Colleges?

It’s not a simple question, but there is a simple answer. A recent story from NPR about LGBTQ+ issues at evangelical colleges has people asking: Are today’s official anti-gay policies at most evangelical colleges the 21st century equivalent of their 1950s racist policies? Short answer: No.

wheaton rainbow bench

It’s not easy. The rainbow bench at Wheaton was covered over…

As the article describes, many campuses such as Calvin and Multnomah send profoundly mixed messages about non-heterosexual identities among students. On one hand, students are carving out for themselves friendly spaces on evangelical campuses. They are finding emotional support among sympathetic faculty and fellow students.

This matches other reports, such as one from Liberty University a few years back. It is different at different schools, of course, but students have already introduced LGBTQ+ rights on most evangelical campuses.

On the other hand, most schools still have official rules banning non-married, non-heterosexual sexual expression. As the NPR article describes, people at evangelical colleges are often confused. The chaplain at Calvin, for example, put her position this way,

You’ve got those two values. . . . We love our LGBT people. We love our church of Jesus Christ. We love Scripture. So those of us who do this work are right in the middle of that space. We are living in the tension.

It’s hard not to ask: Is this just an updated version of the struggle over segregation and racism at evangelical colleges? As I argue in my recent book, evangelical and fundamentalist schools had a shameful racial legacy in the twentieth century. (For the record, so did non-evangelical schools.) Though many evangelical colleges had been founded as explicitly anti-racist or cross-racial missionary institutions, by the early twentieth century they had imposed rules and policies against interracial dating. They discouraged non-white applications.

Are today’s battles over sexual and gender identity just new versions of this old conflict? In at least one important way, the answer is a clear no. When evangelical activists fought against their schools’ racism in the twentieth century, they were able to pull from their own evangelical history to make their cases. At Wheaton College, for example, faculty activists such as James Murk and John Alexander were able to point to the incontrovertible fact that the school had been founded by Jonathan Blanchard, an ardent cross-racial Christian activist.

There is no similar history for LGBTQ+ activists to pull from. They can say—and they do—that loving all people is an essential part of their religion. But they are not able to pull from their own evangelical history to make their cases.

To be clear, I’m all for LGBTQ+ rights. I’m proud to work at a school where there can be no institutional discrimination based on sexual identity or gender identity. Speaking as an historian, though, I have to make the obvious point: It will be harder for LGBTQ+ Christians to stake their claims than it was for anti-racist white students.

HT: EC

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