Are Christians Too Bigoted to Work With?

You may have seen the headline by now: Christian College Discriminates Against Homosexuals.  And the follow-up: City Cuts Off Christian College.  But isn’t it weirdly ironic that non-religious governments now seem to be repeating the separatist struggles of fundamentalists?  Doesn’t it seem odd that the drive for tolerance pushes pluralists to act like the more extreme religious separatists?

In this case, it was the public decision of Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay to sign a letter to President Obama that sparked the furor.  [Full disclosure: Lindsay and I worked together as 2009 Spencer/National Academy of Education postdoctoral fellows, and I admire Lindsay personally and consider him a friend and colleague.]  Along with a host of other prominent evangelical leaders and intellectuals, Lindsay asked President Obama for a religious exemption to a planned executive order banning workplace discrimination against homosexuals.

Lindsay’s participation caused a furious reaction.  Gordon alumni and students petitioned Lindsay to retract.  Gordon College’s accrediting agency promised to investigate.  And most notably, the nearby city of Salem, Massachusetts canceled its partnering contract with Gordon to operate an historic city building.

Let me be clear about a couple of points.  First, I personally agree that institutions should not discriminate against homosexuals.  Public governments, especially, have a duty to include all members of society, not only passively, but actively.  IHMO.  Also, I do not wish to argue whether Lindsay’s position is or is not “anti-gay,” since he has publicly insisted that Gordon College does not discriminate against homosexuals.  And though I find it curious, I don’t want to ask why President Lindsay has become the center of this controversy, even though the letter was signed by many other evangelical leaders as well.  Even on my humble little blog, for example, I’ve experienced a surge of search terms such as “D. Michael Lindsay bigot” and “Gordon College Anti Gay.”  Why has Lindsay become the focus in this case?  Why not all the other signatories?

Though interesting, we have to leave such questions aside for now.  From an historical point of view, there is a more interesting aspect to this case.  It seems that those who support tolerance and diversity have, in some ways, adopted the position of the traditionally conservative fundamentalists.

Here’s what I mean: In the twentieth century, conservative Christian colleges carried on a furious and often angry internecine debate about the propriety of partnering with non-Christian institutions.  Schools such as Gordon and Wheaton College earned the vicious denunciation of more conservative schools such as Bob Jones University.  Among the many accusations, more conservative, “fundamentalist” schools often insisted that the more open, “evangelical” schools had tainted themselves by their open association with non-Christian ideas.  Separatist fundamentalists often cited the Bible passage 2 Corinthians, chapter 6, verse 14:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

In order to be truly Christian, separatists argued, believers could not allow themselves to be joined with those who did not share their belief.  So, for instance, when fundamentalist megastar Jerry Falwell worked with conservative Catholics and Jews in the Moral Majority, fundamentalist leaders at Bob Jones University denounced Falwell as the “most dangerous man in America.”

This rigid separatism, indeed, has been one of the hallmarks of American fundamentalism.  Some fundamentalists have insisted that they must practice even a “secondary separation,” not sharing Christian fellowship with other Christians if those other Christians share fellowship with questionable folks.

Now, it seems the city of Salem feels it must practice a strangely similar form of separatism.  As Salem Mayor Kimberly Driscoll informed Gordon College in a recent letter, the city must separate itself from the college.  Why?  Because, Driscoll wrote, Lindsay’s position implied open discrimination against the LGBT community.  The college had every right to do so, Driscoll believed, but the city could no longer be affiliated with such things.  The city’s non-discrimination law, Driscoll informed Lindsay, “prohibits our municipality from contracting with entities that maintain discriminatory practices.”

This is not the only time when the beliefs of liberals and fundamentalists have neatly swapped sides.  In the creation-evolution debates, for example, creationists took over evolutionists’ positions.  As historian Ronald Numbers has pointed out, by the 1990s creationists began appropriating the language of 1920s liberals.  In the 1920s, evolution supporters insisted that teaching only one theory was bigotry.  By the 1990s, creationists started saying the same thing.

In this case, we see a weird and clearly unintentional echo.  Mayor Driscoll feels compelled to separate her government from any entity that practices discrimination against homosexuals.  It is not enough, morally, for her government itself to avoid such discrimination.  The principle of separation seems to have migrated from fundamentalists to their supposedly tolerant opponents.