The story, summarized in today’s New York Times, can be told as a simple tale. The most obvious story line–at least obvious to me–is the Orwellian fable of liberal universities banning religious groups from campus in order to protect diversity. That is surely the practical impact of new policies coming into play at both public and private schools. The universities demand that all student groups sign a pledge not to discriminate in any way, including religiously. The Christian groups say they welcome everybody but must have Christians in leadership. So the universities say, sorry, you’ve got to go, we can’t allow discrimination.
Another story line, though, puts the universities in a nobler light. It sees Christian groups that discriminate against gays. They want to have the privileges that go with recognition by a university, but they also want to stay stuck in their medieval conceptions of sexuality. The university has crossed that river and won’t go back. So, Christians can hold their opinions but they can’t hold university privileges.
This story has been playing out at many schools over the last decade. Most of the time it has stayed out of the headlines. At different schools it’s been resolved in different ways. Harvard notably resolved it in favor of letting the Christians stick to their principles. But more and more universities seem to be trending in the other direction.
Though it is a low profile story–I don’t think Fox News has yet exploited it–it’s symptomatic of a larger cultural debate and potentially significant.
I’m confused, though. It’s hard to put your finger on what the issue is for either side. Why do universities have to cast the issue as one of discrimination? Why couldn’t they see it as a matter of qualifications? In order to be an officer in the organization you must have certain qualifications, one of which is religious belief. Nobody is discriminated against; anybody can choose to hold those beliefs.
And that question works the other way: why can’t the Christian groups pledge that they don’t discriminate? Is this all about semantics?
I don’t think it’s just semantics. I suspect that hiding somewhere down in the depths of this dispute is a question of creeds. Can a group on a university (read: civilized society) be creedal? That is to say, can membership depend on your submission to a written statement of truth? For all kinds of reasons, creeds are at odds with the modern university–and with modern culture.
Even deeper down, I suspect, is a clash of competing creeds. Because of course the modern university does subscribe to a creed. Some of the creed is written down, usually in very bland language. (“Openness, spirit of inquiry, diversity, etc.”) A lot of it isn’t written down, but it’s pretty well established. And Christians who claim to find their truth in an ancient book are not entirely in harmony with that creed.
All the same, there must surely be some way to square this circle on pragmatic grounds. I expect that university administrators feel intensely uncomfortable with reducing diversity in the name of protecting diversity. Banning groups that won’t sign your pledge sounds a little bit McCarthyesque, dontcha think? On the other side, I believe the Christian groups involved in these disputes truly want to be a respected part of a diverse and non-discriminating university community. Somehow both sides have written themselves into a corner, and don’t know how to get out of it.
I should say, lest this be painted in the starkest terms, that the consequences of the university bans are not that great. They generally amount to Christian groups losing the possibility of university funding (which I don’t think most Christian groups receive anyway) and the loss of privileges for booking meeting places. I don’t think there’s any attempt to root out their existence on campus.
But symbolically and culturally, there may be a lot more at stake. Can a liberal, material, post-Christian society find ways to include and accept those who hold to another creed? Can Christians (and other creedal groups) find ways to accommodate their practices to a post-Christian America?
I am not personally optimistic about the status of Christianity in our society for the near future. I think religiously we are likely to look more like Europe than like Africa. But whatever we are becoming (and after the meteoric rise of gay marriage, the future seems to be closer than we thought) we are going to do it in a patently American way. And that way, we haven’t discovered yet.