This article in Christianity Today concerns my PhD alma mater, Vanderbilt University.
Tish Harrison Warren is a "priest" with the Anglican Church in North America and worked with InterVarsity at Vanderbilt University. From 2011 onward, Vanderbilt developed and eventually enforced a policy that no recognized student group on campus may have any creedal requirement for its leaders. It appears that the immediate trigger for this new policy was the putative ousting of an openly homosexual leader from one religious group.
Warren was shocked and assumed that something could be worked out for her own "moderate" group. After all, she says, her group isn't "homophobic" (whatever exactly she means by that word). Nor did they have any reference to sexual conduct in their requirements for leadership of their campus group. They did, however, require (for leadership roles, though not for membership) the affirmation of basic Christian doctrines such as the resurrection.
But as Warren continued to talk to administrators, she learned just how hard-core they were.
I once mustered courage to ask them if they truly thought it was fair to equate racial prejudice with asking Bible study leaders to affirm the Resurrection. The vice chancellor replied, "Creedal discrimination is still discrimination."
Warren came to understand just a little bit about the zero-sum game:
For me, it was revolutionary, a reorientation of my place in the university and in culture.
I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.
The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.
It didn't matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn't matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.
It's mildly interesting to me that she almost seems to think that it's fine for groups to "limit sexual autonomy," but she rather cagily doesn't say whether her group limited sexual autonomy (even implicitly) or whether she thinks it would be "homophobic" for some other group to limit sexual autonomy. Beyond saying that she is not a "homophobic culture warrior" and leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions she doesn't even say what she thinks about the issue of homosexuality that set off the entire train of events.
This is particularly striking since her own denomination's history is deeply bound up with that issue. The ACNA got started (not all that long ago) because of the ordination of Gene Robinson to the episcopate in the ECUSA. While the ACNA does ordain women, it has generally been regarded as conservative on the wrongness of homosexual acts.
I'm going to make a conjecture about Warren, but I admit that my probability for it is at no more than 50%, with error bars on either side. I'm going to conjecture that, if pressed to the point that she felt she had to answer, she would state that homosexual acts are wrong, but that she feels so uneasy about this position that she suppresses it as much as possible and tries to avoid allowing it to have any implications concerning policy. I'm going to conjecture that, confronted with an out and proud homosexual who wanted to be a leader in one of her campus groups, she would go through a lot of angst and soul-searching, with the outcome up in the air as to whether she approves him as a leader in the end or not.
I could be wrong about this. Her position might be a lot more liberal than that. (Side note: I just spent about ten minutes googling and couldn't find Warren saying anything more definite about her position on homosexuality or homosexual rights. That's not a lot of time googling, and I'm happy to admit I may have missed something, but I'm a pretty decent Googler, and I'm a little surprised to have found zip in that time period.) I consider this a charitable conjecture, based on the mixed evidence of her comments about not being "homophobic" and the stance of her denomination. If the conjecture is right, though, it means that Warren is an absolutely classic example of the person who has never previously grokked the zero-sum game and who thinks that, as long as she is as gay-friendly as she can possibly find a way to be, she will be accepted.
To be fair to Warren, I'm a little surprised myself that Vanderbilt took matters in this totally anti-creedal direction. I would have expected something a little different. I would have expected instead that Vanderbilt and other secular colleges would permit a requirement that the leaders of student groups believe in the resurrection or the Trinity but that they would require the groups to state explicitly that they would make no restrictions whatsoever on the sexual behavior of their student group leaders. The group's administration might even have to sign something to this effect and advertise it. So student group leaders could be promiscuous heterosexuals, married heterosexuals committing adultery, homosexuals with many partners, homosexuals with one partner, polyamorous, or whatever. Beyond that, yeah, you could require that they believe in the Trinity, because that belief would have been safely marginalized to a metaphysical realm with no behavioral consequences in the pelvic area, which is the realm of greatest concern to the culture warriors of the left.
That would have been my prediction, but I was wrong. Postmodernism and an absolutist form of relativism (yes, of course I recognize the contradiction there) turn out to be even stronger than that among the power-hungry Vanderbilt administrators. Creedal affirmation itself is seen as a threat. Warren's conjecture is shrewd when she says,
Like most campus groups, InterVarsity welcomes anyone as a member. But it asks key student leaders—the executive council and small group leaders—to affirm its doctrinal statement, which outlines broad Christian orthodoxy and does not mention sexual conduct specifically. But the university saw belief statements themselves as suspect. Any belief—particularly those about the authority of Scripture or the church—could potentially constrain sexual activity or identity.
The Vandy administrators are able to read and know that the Bible does condemn homosexual activity and also that Christian morality has traditionally condemned it. Therefore, they realized that someone who affirms the resurrection might feel that he was no longer as free as he was before to go on engaging in sexual acts with just anyone.
No doubt that is a big part of it, but I'm inclined now to think that the theoretical relativism has become an end in itself. All creedally defined groups have to be deconstructed. That is where Warren got off the bus.
As her above comments show, Warren has learned some things from this. It's difficult to say where she will take her musings in the long run. Supposing my charitable conjecture to be correct, I'd like to think that she will eventually be willing to condemn immoral sexual behavior more openly, now that she realizes that the left regards her and Jerry Falwell as sharing the same "square foot of cultural space," despite all her attempts to lean left. Hecatombs of Habitat houses and "social and environmental justice" will not satisfy the implacable god of the homosexual left, so you might as well "come out" and say what you really think.
I take some hope from this:
That probationary year unearthed a hidden assumption that I could be nuanced or articulate or culturally engaged or compassionate enough to make the gospel more acceptable to my neighbors. But that belief is prideful. From its earliest days, the gospel has been both a comfort and an offense.
Very well put. So...
One of the saddest notes in the story is this:
A group of professors penned a thoughtful critique of the new policy, but remained silent when sympathetic department heads warned that going public could be "career damaging."
Did they not have tenure, or what? When I was there in the 90's, I saw a bit of this, but I would like to think that at that time some professors would have spoken out nonetheless. At that time the big issue was "speech codes," and there were a few professors, both liberal and conservative, who were agin' them. I'm pretty certain they have all retired by now, though.
In this follow-up, Warren gives some more details. For example, she explains that she decided that she should not sign the agreement Vanderbilt demanded even though perhaps their group would not be taken over by hostile elements. I think this is to her credit. The statement said that the group did not discriminate on the basis of, inter alia, religion, and of course their intent as a religious group was indeed that leaders had to be Christians. (Ya think?) As Warren points out, the issue does really come up, because sometimes a student leader will deconvert in the middle of a semester and then try to continue being an officer of a Christian student group in order to use it as a platform for atheism. So this is not merely a theoretical possibility. She also says that at some other colleges such as Harvard this issue of not allowing creedal groups has come up, and the college has rejected this ridiculous policy.
I should add that she doesn't say whether Harvard requires the on-campus groups to promise not to discriminate on the basis of "sexual orientation," where that of course includes sexual behavior, and that she doesn't say (if so) whether Intervarsity signed on. If that is what happened, that would fit with my prediction, above.
Practically speaking, this new phase of the culture war and the zero-sum game is going to require all Christian campus ministries to start thinking fast. That includes not only Intervarsity but also Navigators, Cru, Ratio Christi, and probably a lot of others I'm not thinking of.
They need to decide where they draw the line and also what they would do if they lost their student group status. Is there a local church, for example, that they could use as a venue for bringing in speakers if they could not bring them to campus? Where would they meet?
It's important to get one's spine firmly stiffened when one sees these things coming. I suspect that all too many student groups just sign off and "hope it never happens," where "it" refers to the use of their group name as a platform for ideas and behaviors they think are wrong. This head-in-the-sand approach is a bad idea. Decide now that you will stand, and then stand.
And, yes, that should include not having leaders who are openly and actively homosexual and/or who hold and teach that homosexual activity is just fine. If you've already compromised on that one and signed a statement that you don't "discriminate" on that basis, think again next year. The temptation will be to sign whatever it takes to keep your ministry going, but that is not a good idea. And, as Warren's experience shows, if you don't draw a line in the sand, they certainly will. Eventually, if you have any principles at all, they will get to something you aren't willing to compromise on, so be ready.