Yes, people discuss sex on religious campuses

Today's New York Times front page features a story about a hotly debated issue at many Christian colleges and universities. Yes, gay, lesbian and bisexual students attend religious schools and yes, many of them disagree school policies ranging from behavior to campus activism. Unfortunately, the Times' attempt at examining these tensions fell flat, since the story failed to consider many dimensions that the reporting should have considered. In other words, there are some crucial facts and themes missing.

The RSS headline reads, "Gay Rights at Christian Colleges Face Suppression," revealing an underlying sentiment in the story that students' legal rights are being squelched in these schools that are, of course, voluntary associations. The online headline reads, "Even on Religious Campuses, Students Fight for Gay Identity," sort of insulting the reader's intelligence -- as though sexuality issues would magically disappear on a religious campus.

The piece deserves Douglas LeBlanc style questions (I marked key phrases in bold letters). Let's begin with the lead:

Battles for acceptance by gay and lesbian students have erupted in the places that expect it the least: the scores of Bible colleges and evangelical Christian universities that, in their founding beliefs, see homosexuality as a sin.

Why would Bible colleges and evangelical Christian universities be the last place expected for gay and lesbian students to find acceptance? What makes it so unusual? Homosexuality has nothing to do with fundamental beliefs about God, Jesus, heaven, hell, etc., so how is seeing "homosexuality as a sin" a "founding belief"?

Decades after the gay rights movement swept the country's secular schools, more gays and lesbians at Christian colleges are starting to come out of the closet, demanding a right to proclaim their identities and form campus clubs, and rejecting suggestions to seek help in suppressing homosexual desires.

How does the reporter know that more gays and lesbians are starting to come out of the closet? Where's the evidence that something is taking place that didn't take place before?

Perhaps the reporter could make clearer up high that most Christian colleges and universities ask students to sign a code of conduct in which they voluntarily agree to a certain set of rules, including that they will not engage in premarital sex of any kind. Instead, he uses the phrases "forbidden" and "right" as though students are suppressed, with no say in the matter. Once again, voluntary associations exist on the religious and cultural left and on the right in American life.

Many of the newly assertive students grew up as Christians and developed a sense of their sexual identities only after starting college, and after years of inner torment. They spring from a new generation of evangelical youths that, over all, holds far less harsh views of homosexuality than its elders.

The assertion that younger evangelicals have different views than their parents is probably true, but where's the evidence? Why not cite a poll or survey here? Who determines whether the views are "less harsh" and what does that mean?

Facing vague prohibitions against "homosexual behavior," many students worry about what steps -- holding hands with a partner, say, or posting a photograph on a gay Web site -- could jeopardize scholarships or risk expulsion.

"It's like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object," said Adam R. Short, a freshman engineering student at Baylor University who is openly gay and has fought, without success, for campus recognition of a club to discuss sexuality and fight homophobia.

Based on the setup quoted above, it looks like Baylor students risk expulsion if they do hold hands or post a photo on a gay website. Is that the case? Can someone in the administration--maybe even its new president Ken Starr -- speak to that?

A few more liberal religious colleges, like Belmont University in Nashville, which has Baptist origins, have reluctantly allowed the formation of gay student groups, in Belmont’s case after years of heated debate, and soon after the university had forced a lesbian soccer coach to resign.

How is Belmont considered "liberal" exactly? Compared to what? Is Baylor "liberal"? Liberal explains pretty much nothing in this context.

At Harding University in Arkansas, which like Abilene Christian is affiliated with the Churches of Christ, half a dozen current and former students posted an online magazine in early March featuring personal accounts of the travails of gay students. The university blocked access to the site on the university’s Internet server, which helped cause the site to go viral in the world of religious universities.

How is 44,000-ish (as I'm writing this) hits on that site considered "viral"? Was the site linked at other Christian colleges?

Further down in the story, there's an anecdote about a former student of North Central University, which the reporter refers to as a "a Pentecostal Bible college." How is a university a Bible college, even if that's in its roots?

The story tends to use an example or an anecdote to represent a whole crowd of people. Why not quote individual students or alumni instead of trying to make it seem like they all had the same experience?

Some of the gay students end up disillusioned with Christianity, even becoming atheists, while others have searched for more liberal churches.

David Coleman was suspended by North Central University in his senior year in 2005, after he distributed fliers advertising a gay-support site and admitted to intimate relations (but not sexual intercourse) with other men. He calls the university's environment "spiritually violent."

Mr. Coleman, 28, is now enrolled at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, Minn., which is run by the more accepting United Church of Christ. He still dreams of becoming a pastor.

"I have a calling," he said.

Perhaps the reporter could have asked Coleman to flesh out his quote a little bit more. What does it mean that the campus is "spiritually violent"? "I have a calling," is kind of a weird way to end the story, since it's not about about gay seminarians looking to become pastors (that's a whole different set of issues).

One of the basic problems with the story is that we don't hear from many administrators or any professors (we hear from one vice president of student affairs). Surely there are some intelligent presidents or people on staff who could speak to the difficulties of navigating these waters. Can you imagine the Times printing a story on a the difficulties of controlling alcohol abuse at major universities without quoting any of the people who set the rules?

Further, why not quote some fellow students on what it would mean if the college were to allow openly gay relationships, clubs, etc.? Would it impact their own decision on whether to go to the school or not?

Finally, part of the fundamental problem with the piece is the Times' attempt to put "Bible colleges and Christian universities" together in one category. You will find, for instance, that Westmont College or Calvin College will probably handle the issues differently than Baylor University or Liberty University. The institutions have different regional, historical and denominational ties to consider.

It's true: homosexuality is a hot issue among many Christian colleges and universities. But the way each institution handles it varies widely and probably doesn't all fit the Times' neat little storyline.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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