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Evangelical Universities, Gay Students and Faculty Freedom

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Alumni protest has embroiled my alma mater, George Fox University, in controversy. George Fox is a rare and rich combination of America's famously conservative and spirited Evangelical Christianity and its more progressive and contemplative Anabaptist cousin, Quakerism. That paradoxical DNA spun out a storm in recent weeks when LGBTQ alumni protested the university's policy toward homosexual students and the administration responded, in part, by de-facto prohibiting staff and faculty from publicly advocating for policy change.

Like many evangelical colleges, the school requires students and staff to sign a lifestyle agreement which, among other things, requires them to refrain from nonmarital sexual activity and proscribes homosexual relationships. A group of LGBTQ and allied alumni called OneGeorgeFox presented the administration with an open letter. The letter challenges the University's policy, and disputes LGBTQ stereotypes, invoking gay student's desire to have families and demanding their Christian community's support.

The University responded to the letter with characteristic civility, affirming everyone's dignity, and acknowledging the need for improved communication, but ultimately reiterating its heteronormative theological position. Less characteristically, the administration has told its faculty that, although they can facilitate discussions among students, signing the letter or otherwise publicly advocating for a position at odds with the University's policy violates their employment contracts.

Consequently, a passionate, ideologically diverse faculty's signatures are notably absent. This is egregious. Universities exist, in large part, to encourage truth-seeking, and the faculty form the backbone of this pursuit. That a Quaker university could display such gross epistemic hubris strongly suggests the administration has lost sight of these guiding principles.

This controversy may tempt you to dismiss the school as a backwater. But George Fox is no fundamentalist factory cajoling students into creationist nonsense. Its ideologically diverse faculty more than prepared me for Harvard Law School. Many of its alumni go on to leading graduate schools and into academia, while others run companies, hold judicial and political office or serve as humanitarians.

Admittedly, schools belonging to the confessional faiths walk a difficult line when requiring faculty to affirm their central tenets. At its best, shared core convictions often prove fertile ground for inspiring intellectual inquiry and imbuing community life with meaning. But of course opposition to homosexuality has never been a core Christian doctrine, nor does it offer the above benefits.

In fact, the gratuitous silencing of professorial opposition to morally and biblically debatable positions makes a mockery of the deep academic inquiry the school's professors have dedicated their lives to pursuing and modeling to students. This scandalous contempt for the faculty's freedom must be reversed immediately.

It's difficult to imagine what would justify the squelching of faculty dissent. Perhaps the University fears retribution from its conservative donor base. Perhaps the administration unwittingly believes that it knows the Mind of God. In the school's public response to the open letter, it said "We recognize this belief may be in conflict with the practice or vision of the larger culture, as Christian beliefs have been in other times and places." Although it has also acknowledged conflicting interpretations of scripture, the University here seems to suggest it owns the Christian position, relegating OneGeorgeFox's perspective to little more than cultural faddism. This false dichotomy between God's stance and OneGeorgeFox's position begs the question. OneGeorgeFox has suggested that Christians should celebrate monogamous homosexual love, meaning that the appropriate Christian response to homosexuals is under debate. Simply saying that Christians should not is insufficient.

This whole episode brings to mind something one of my wise Fox professors taught me over a decade ago. The logic of intolerance need only rest on two propositions: "The truth is of infinite value" and "I have the truth." This toxic combination has often led the well-intentioned into acts of oppression. I would hate to join that ugly history. Consequently, even as a roughly orthodox Christian, I signed the letter (I do not speak for OneGeorgeFox or anyone but myself) because I believe the University should not yoke gay students with the heavy burden of a future without family life when it can be reasonably argued that scripture does not. In other words, I reject the implicit fiction that the administration owns the truth and that its exclusion of actively gay students is justified by this dubious truth.

Christian arguments frequently focus on scriptural texts, although the esoteric details of this discussion requires more space than an op-ed offers. But even if the conservatives are correct and we were to suppose that scripture proscribes all gay sex, their approach is problematic. The school's lifestyle agreement should not single out gay students or sex when the Bible more clearly, frequently and deeply proscribes greed, envy, gossip, boastfulness and pride. Jesus said serving God and money are mutually exclusive and said nothing about homosexuality. Yet the University refrains from policing these vices. This selectivity suggests that more than submission to scripture lies behind the lifestyle agreement, however unconscious and presumably vestigial.

I don't mean to suggest that the administration cannot take a position I oppose, nor that its earnest attempt to submit itself to what it believes the Bible dictates should be glibly considered hateful, even when harmful.

But it is quite hard to love and condemn simultaneously. For those of us who lack omniscience, it requires open, serious, authentic reflection and deliberation. For an institution like a university, this means a collective, public process, even if it angers donors. It requires us to suspend our judgments when we are warned that they may stem from idiosyncratic prejudice. It demands that we carry our uprooted certainty through the vulnerable terrain of self-doubt for long enough that those who ask us to listen can be certain we have truly heard what they have to say. Only after emerging from such a wilderness can we plausibly claim to authentically pair opprobrium with love. Unfortunately, by silencing professorial discussion, the University both abdicates its academic mission and strangles the credibility of its claim to offer love to gay students.

Christianity's condemnation of homosexual behavior is admittedly rooted in both scripture and tradition. But tradition often yields to experience and the scriptural condemnations here are debatable. Even some leading conservative Biblical scholars don't see scripture as heternormative. If the matter is open to Christian, biblical debate, why not invite faculty and staff to weigh in?

After all, traditional scriptural views have supported a geocentric universe, the acceptance of slavery, belief in a world younger than 10,000 years old and the subordination of women. (Christian!) professors often led the charge against such absurdities and atrocities. The problem was so often that we didn't know what we didn't know and we couldn't see how our prejudices blinded us. Let's at least let our sages speak.

I believe that the traditionalists at Fox are earnest. In fact I know, respect, and care deeply for many of them. If ever I have loved an institution, it was and is George Fox. My intellectual, emotional, relational and spiritual debts to it are legion.

And I see signs of hope. The campus pastor, who I admire and respect, discussed, on public radio, her plans to invite contrasting voices onto campus to speak to the student body. But I fear that the administration's paternalism toward its faculty and its selective moral opprobrium gives gratuitous fodder to those who accuse Christians of anti-intellectualism and bigotry and who denigrate Christian higher education. George Fox can and should be a beacon to a Church and culture rent by this difficult conversation. It should be a place where all students encounter the love of Christ and the life of the mind. If the administration chooses to treat its gifted professors with a modicum of the intellectual respect they deserve, their honest public deliberation will surely lead the way.