SpongeBob SqaurePants, pray for us

Just when you thought it was safe to watch SpongeBob SquarePants again, David Crumm of the Detroit Free Press reports on the cartoon character's effect on a professor's free-speech rights. The main focus of Crumm's report is on the new book What God Has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage by psychology professor David G. Myers -- of Hope College in Holland, Michigan -- and Letha Dawson Scanzoni. As part of this report, though, Crumm mentions that an assistant religion professor, Miguel De La Torre, is leaving Hope for the far more gay-friendly environment of Iliff School of Theology in Denver (where he will lead the seminary's Justice and Peace Studies program). De La Torre ran afoul of James Dobson for writing a Holland Sentinel column mocking Dobson's concerns about a video that included SpongeBob. Here are two paragraphs from De La Torre's column, "When the Bible is used for hate":

Sadly, today the Bible is being used to oppress, dishonor, and persecute our queer brothers and sisters, who like the rest of us, are also created in the image of God. I am repulsed by politicians who have fanned the flames of hatred and fear toward gays in order to score votes with evangelical Christians. I am dismayed that the universal church of Jesus Christ has changed the message of salvation as an act of unconditional love to one where gays cannot be included among the saved. But does not Christ call us to love our (white, black, Latino/a, Native American, and yes gay) neighbor as ourselves?

No doubt some alert reader will respond to this column quoting the four or five biblical passages normally used to justify their continuous oppression and condemnation of homosexuality. I'll wait till then to show how the dominant heterosexual community has been taught by their homophobic culture to read fear and bias into God's Word, as did their spiritual ancestors.

Dobson responded in a Holland Sentinel op-ed column ten days later:

What did motivate Rev. de la Torre's unprovoked attack? What is the hidden agenda that led him to distort the facts and spew his venom in my direction? I submit that it is politics. He is obviously an ultraliberal and I am a conservative. That's why he is angry. He reveals that bias in the early section of his op-ed piece, when he accused me of taking credit for the re-election of George W. Bush. Again, de la Torre is dead wrong. I have never made such a statement, and have told Time, U.S. News and World Report, TV commentators Hannity and Colmes and other media outlets that my influence in the culture has been grossly overstated. I have taken credit for nothing and I deserve none.

Despite the distortions in the professor's editorial, I wish him no ill will. I do worry, however, about the students who sit under his liberal tutelage at Hope College. I'm glad my son and daughter are not among them.

Crumm reports that De La Torre's departure came after an exchange of letters with the college's president, Jim Bultman:

In response to concerns on campus, Bultman met with several hundred students on April 26. He told them he had received no donor pressure and that De La Torre's departure was his own choice.

It was only after the meeting that two letters between Bultman and De La Torre surfaced.

In a stern March 14 letter to De La Torre, Bultman criticized the SpongeBob essay.

"Hope is dependent on enrollment and gifts to drive the college financially," the president wrote. "When people are displeased with what we do, their only recourse is to exercise their options with regard to enrollment and gifting. Several have indicated their intention to do so."

A letter from De La Torre to Bultman in April revealed that the president also had denied the professor a merit raise.

Regarding Myers' new book, Bultman tells Crumm, "While we may disagree on various things, Dave has always been as accurate as he can be, as respectful as he can be, and he has always attributed comments to himself, not to the college."

Crumm writes about the significance of the new book:

"Myers' book is a breakthrough. It's going to be a lifeline for so many innocent people who are suffering," Mel White, the nation's leading religious activist promoting gay rights and head of the civil rights group Soulforce, said last week after reading an advance copy. "Hope may become known as a place of hope."

Phyllis Tickle, an evangelical author and an expert on religious publishing, said Friday, "This book is a very important 'first,' not only for the gay community but also for the Christian community. This issue is so divisive that there isn't even open conversation about it in many places. For a guy like this at Hope to be this brave is very exciting."

But how this prophet will fare in his own hometown is unclear.

It's not exactly a first. Back in 1978, Myers' coauthor wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (with Virginia Mollenkott), which became a standard text at the now defunct left-of-center evangelical magazine, The Other Side. (Scanzoni revised and expanded the book in 1994.)

What will be worth watching is whether Myers' work gives What God Has Joined Together? a deeper influence on mainstream evangelicals than Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? or Mel White's Stranger at the Gate achieved.

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