Since 2011, Vanderbilt University has upheld an “all comers” policy when it comes to regulating leadership in student groups on campus. The policy says that no student can be barred from a leadership role on the basis of ideological grounds — namely, you don’t have to be a Christian to run for office in a Christian group.
When the policy kicked in years ago, 14 religious groups lost their organizational status rather than adapting to the new policy. One of them was Vanderbilt’s Graduate Christian Fellowship. And this week, one of their former leaders, Tish Harrison Warren, wrote for Christianity Today that her group was “kicked off campus for being the wrong kind of Christians”:
At first I thought this was all a misunderstanding that could be sorted out between reasonable parties. If I could explain to the administration that doctrinal statements are an important part of religious expression — an ancient, enduring practice that would be a given for respected thinkers like Thomas Aquinas — then surely they’d see that creedal communities are intellectually valid and permissible. If we could show that we weren’t homophobic culture warriors but friendly, thoughtful evangelicals committed to a diverse, flourishing campus, then the administration and religious groups could find common ground…
But as I met with other administrators, the tone began to change. The word discrimination began to be used — a lot — specifically in regard to creedal requirements. It was lobbed like a grenade to end all argument. Administrators compared Christian students to 1960s segregationists. 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.”
Here’s the thing: Members of groups like Harrison Wilson’s are perfectly free to operate under leaders who best represent their goals for the group. The key is that they have to elect those leaders, and they can’t pull anyone out of the running for believing differently. Hell, they technically could elect someone with opposing beliefs — but why would they? Where are they seeing a threat?
Hemant has written before about student organizations who feared that open policies like this one would lead to infiltration by atheists or gays or some other non-ideal group, who would eventually take over. (As if we would. Ain’t nobody got time for that.) I don’t think that’s what is happening here, though. Harrison Wilson is perplexed by the notion that banning student leaders from expressing certain beliefs — because student groups are fundamentally forums for expression — is discrimination.
She is especially thrown by this because she perceived her group — and her faith — as “pluralistic,” valuing social justice, philosophy and diversity of membership:
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.
Let’s flip this scenario around. Let’s say a person comes to a campus LGBT organization’s meeting and tells the group there calmly that he doesn’t believe in marriage equality. Can they debate with him? Certainly. Can the group president pull the person aside after the meeting and ask to have a one-on-one conversation about it? Sure. Challenging one another’s beliefs is a-okay.
But as long as s/he is not harassing anyone, that person cannot be asked to leave. Content-based discrimination violates the First Amendment, stifles discussion, and shuts out underrepresented groups.
Here’s Harrison Wilson’s misguided thesis:
In effect, the new policy privileged certain belief groups and forbade all others. [No… but the old policy did that.]
Religious organizations were welcome as long as they were malleable: as long as their leaders didn’t need to profess anything in particular; as long as they could be governed by sheer democracy and adjust to popular mores or trends; as long as they didn’t prioritize theological stability. Creedal statements were allowed, but as an accessory, a historic document, or a suggested guideline. They could not have binding authority to shape or govern the teaching and practices of a campus religious community.
Beliefs are not forbidden under this policy. Rather, freedom from creedal requirements encourages students to bring those beliefs to the forefront of conversation, comparing, contrasting, and counter-pointing; isn’t discussion so much more beneficial and engaging when there are different viewpoints represented? Colleges and universities, even Christian ones, are sites of inquiry and collaboration and exchanges of ideas. These processes cannot happen if individuals are mechanically shut out of the system on the basis of belief.
Atheists legally must be allowed to run for leadership positions in religious groups, but students aren’t required to vote for them. Clubs must uphold everyone’s right to free expression in their operation, but members are not obligated to denounce or hide their beliefs. The author is mistaking an inclusive organizational culture for a personal attack on her faith. This isn’t about being the “right” or “wrong” kind of Christian; it’s about leveling the playing field for every kind of Christian and non-Christian alike.