First things first. Let me confess two things before I dive into this Los Angeles Times story about an extremely predictable controversy at Westmont College about homosexuality. * Westmont College is a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the now global network that is based in Washington, D.C. I am the director of the council's Washington Journalism Center, a semester-length program here on Capitol Hill. Thus, I have friends and associates at Westmont.
* The story in question was written by Steve Chawkins, an absolute gem of a colleague with whom I worked at the late, great Rocky Mountain News. He is one of the best feature writers I have ever known.
However, the story in question isn't a feature story and, frankly, I think that this is part of the problem. When I read this story I get the impression that it's only half there.
Let me stress that this may not be the fault of the writer. As always, we have no idea what was in the story that was turned into the copy desk. This story may have been slashed short. It is also possible that the reporter requested more space and didn't get it.
As printed, this story is (surprise, surprise) very one sided. However, knowing what I know about Christian institutions of higher learning, it is possible that Chawkins sought voices at Westmont that would help balance the story and was unsuccessful. It's possible that some people basically declined to speak, hoping that the story would go away. Christians have a way of thinking that if they are silent, reporters will vanish. Many religious folks, you see, like public relations way more than they like journalism.
In the end, we have a story in which the only scriptural authority quoted represents the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Want to guess what this scholar had to say? Did Chawkins talk to the Bible faculty members at Westmont? I wonder what they had to say.
Meanwhile, the Times story does contain a serious error, which I will address shortly.
Here is the top of the report:
When Melissa Durkee was in her senior year at Westmont College, her grades were outstanding, she was fielding offers from top law schools -- and she was stricken by fear.
"I was terrified that I'd be found out as someone dating a woman and that I'd be expelled," said Durkee, who went on to Yale Law School and a New York law firm.
Durkee is one of 31 gay and lesbian Westmont alumni who earlier this month roiled the Christian college in Montecito with an open letter in the college newspaper that spoke of the "doubt, loneliness and fear" they felt on a campus where homosexuality is taboo. More than 100 fellow alumni signed on in support, and last week, 50 of Westmont's 92 faculty members responded to them in a sympathetic letter seeking "forgiveness for ways we might have added to your pain."
Although LGBT -- an umbrella term for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender -- is a commonplace designation at schools across the United States, many Christian colleges have struggled with just how much to condone homosexuality, which is seen by some of their religious leaders as scripturally prohibited.
So what we have here is a private college, a voluntary association, that is governed by a doctrinal covenant. In one clause, this document defends centuries of Christian moral theology stating that sex outside of marriage is -- to state things simply -- sin.
Private colleges, on the left and right, can do this sort of thing. It's perfectly legal. Liberal schools can insist that their own doctrines and policies be enforced, such as that famous clash between Yale University and an Orthodox Jewish student over dormitory policies. Yale had every right to force its moral agenda on this student, even if it violated his faith. He signed on the bottom line and volunteered to go to Yale.
Westmont has a doctrinal covenant and students sign it, as this story notes. No one has to attend Westmont. We are not talking about a state school, driven by tax dollars.
I have heard from some Christian readers who were offended by the passage that bluntly stated, "... many Christian colleges have struggled with just how much to condone homosexuality, which is seen by some of their religious leaders as scripturally prohibited."
Actually that is completely accurate, in part because the story makes no attempt to explain that there are many different brands of "Christian colleges." Some are Christian in name only, including many that are completely divided on doctrinal issues of this kind. Some are as liberal as state schools. Some are more conservative than others.
The key is whether a college's professors and trustees are on the same page, when it comes to issues of doctrine and moral practice. That's the heart of this story, although one has to read between the lines to know it. Take, for example, those 50 professors who signed the letter seeking forgiveness from LGBT students "for ways we might have added to your pain." It's safe to assume that some of them support their college's covenant on lifestyle issues and that some oppose it, just as some may believe that sex outside of marriage is always sin while others may disagree.
So what does the Westmont covenant say? The story notes:
At the leafy campus near Santa Barbara, there are no gay-pride events or clubs in which gay students can socialize openly. The small, nondenominational school requires incoming students to sign a campus code that forbids "occult practices, sexual relations outside of marriage, homosexual practice, drunkenness, theft, profanity and dishonesty."
The key here is this: What does "homosexual practice" mean? How is that different from "sexual relations outside of marriage"? And, by the way, what does "sexual relations" mean?
Private schools are allowed to have covenants. However, they are supposed to be written in a way that students know what they are getting into, what rights they are choosing to forfeit. If a liberal school wants to slash the First Amendment rights of evangelicals, administrators are supposed to clearly say that in the covenant. If traditional Christian schools want to defend traditional doctrines on sex, their leaders must say so openly and clearly. This came up in my Scripps Howard column just last week ("College campus holy wars").
Thus, the activist quoted in the lede noted, about the wording of the Westmont covenant:
"It was hard to tell what that meant," she said. "Is 'homosexual practice' holding hands? A stray look or touch? Dating?"
This brings us to the error in the story that has caused the most feedback to GetReligion:
Other Christian colleges are grappling with their own "don't ask, don't tell" policies. A recent editorial in Christianity Today magazine criticized collegiate bans on homosexual behavior: "Consistency means not singling out those with same-sex orientation. The same standard should apply to all."
The problem is that the CT editorial does not criticize covenants that ban sex outside of marriage. Here is the key passage in that editorial:
... Christian institutions should be clear about the behavioral standards they expect from employees, students, and members, and then enforce them -- consistently, but judiciously. There are legal reasons for this. If Christian institutions expect society to let them make religious belief and practice a factor in their employment practices, they need to provide clear and consistent accounts of their standards. But there are also pastoral reasons. Churches and other Christian organizations have been inconsistent in dealing with departures from God's ideal for human sexuality, such as divorce, adultery, and sexual harassment. When pastors are caught in adultery or sexual harassment, churches too often punish the whistleblower and find ways to quietly transfer clergy to new parishes.
Consistency and clarity are essential. Consistency means not singling out those with same-sex orientation. The same standard should apply to all. Wheaton College's Community Covenant is a good model. It says, "[F]ollowers of Jesus Christ will ... uphold chastity among the unmarried (1 Cor. 6:18) and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman (Heb. 13:4) ... Scripture condemns ... all ... sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and woman." Those standards do not make a special case of homosexuality. To deviate from God's ideal is to deviate from God's ideal.
Consistency means not singling out those with same-sex orientation. The same standard should apply to all.
Yes, the final statement in this passage from the editorial assumes a traditional definition of marriage. The editorial in no way challenges that.
Clearly, a Times correction is needed -- ASAP.
Meanwhile, the newspaper has published half of a very interesting story. What to do? Ask the faculty members (as I said, Bible faculty voices are crucial) what they think of the covenant wording and quote them. Ask trustees what they think of the covenant wording and quote them. Call authorities at other Christian campuses -- of all kinds -- in Southern California. Listen to both sides.
Good luck with that (and I say that from personal experience). There is a story in there, but it may not be the one that Times people expect to find.
Top photo: A bench popular with couples on the Westmont campus.