We've been jumping on the Los Angeles Times quite a bit in the past week or so, with no apology. Nevertheless, I decided to let another jab wait over the long Memorial Day weekend. Still I can't let this one pass.
If you visit the home page of Morehouse College, it includes a short summary of its educational and cultural mission. Here is part of that:
The mission of Morehouse College is to develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service. A private historically black liberal arts college for men, Morehouse realizes this mission by emphasizing the intellectual and character development of its students. In addition, the College assumes special responsibility for teaching the history and culture of black people.
Founded in 1867 and located in Atlanta, Georgia, Morehouse is an academic community dedicated to teaching, scholarship, and service, and the continuing search for truth as a liberating force. ... The College seeks students who are willing to carry the torch of excellence and who are willing to pay the price of gaining strength and confidence by confronting adversity, mastering their fears, and achieving success by earning it. In pursuit of its mission, Morehouse challenges itself to be among the very finest liberal arts institutions in the world.
Let's face it. That's pretty vague.
To find out more about what makes Morehouse tick, you can, of course, turn to its Wikipedia entry. For those of you who want to stay on the safe side of things, factually, you can look at the Peterson's profile of Morehouse and learn a few more specifics.
Morehouse is a private, independent, four-year liberal arts college for men. It was founded in 1867 in Augusta, Georgia as the Augusta Institute; its purpose, to train freed slaves to read and write. The school moved to Atlanta in 1879 and expanded its scope to prepare blacks for the ministry. Consequently, it was called Atlanta Baptist Seminary. In 1894, the first college instruction was introduced and in 1897, the first bachelor's degree was granted and the name changed to Atlanta Baptist College. In 1913, the name changed to its present name, Morehouse College.
The key is that there is religious blood in this institution's veins -- to some degree or another.
This brings us to the fascinating Los Angeles Times "Column One" feature by Richard Fausset that ran with this very long and detailed double-stack headline:
Morehouse College faces its own bias -- against gays
The 'Morehouse man' is a paragon of virtue and strength, a leader destined for great things. But can he also be gay?
The story focuses on the life and times of Michael Brewer, a Morehouse senior who is also a very outspoken gay-rights activist. This causes some tensions on campus, for logical reasons. More than a few African-Americans are conservatives when it comes to moral and cultural issues, or they say that they are. Brewer arrived on campus knowing that he was not going to hide his gay identity and lifestyle.
... (That), historically, has been a problematic strategy at Morehouse. The 141-year-old college has played a key role in defining black manhood in America. But with a past steeped in religion, tradition and machismo, it has struggled to determine how homosexuality fits within that definition.
The private school was founded shortly after the Civil War with the help of Baptists sympathetic to the plight of illiterate freedmen. Over the years, it became famous for turning out the vaunted "Morehouse man" -- a paragon of virtue and strength in a society that once institutionalized the destruction of the black nuclear family.
Traditionally, its students have been expected to follow a well-worn path: They were to choose ambitious wives, preferably from Spelman College next door, a historically black school for women. They were to become captains of industry, leaders of men, saviors of a race. But now, more than ever, students like Brewer are forcing the school to confront a vexing question: Can the Morehouse man be gay?
Discussions of religion and civil rights show up early and often in this feature, which isn't surprising when the chapel on campus is named after the school's most famous graduate -- the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel. I want to stress that there's a lot of important information in this story and that the news hook is solid, especially in a political season in which Sen. Barack Obama has made it clear that he intends to challenge black churches to rethink their doctrines on homosexuality.
You'll read about a variety of Morehouse men, from churchy students and future ministers who are on the conservative side of this issue and want to witness to the lost. There are Muslim students, too. Then there are "straight allies," "openly gay upperclassmen" and the "men on the down low," who are in the closet.
But there is one thing that you will not learn in this story, one crucial fact that is missing.
Liberal arts colleges -- left and right -- are voluntary associations, which means that students choose to go there of their own free will. And these colleges -- left and right -- are allowed to openly and clearly set standards for behavior for faculty, staff and students, especially if these standards are linked to openly declared religious doctrines. It's that "religious liberty" thing, you know.
We need to know: Was Brewer asked to sign a behavior code when he enrolled as a student? Did he sign it? Did it ban sex outside of marriage for all, straights and gays? In other words, Morehouse has religion in its DNA, but are religious truth claims still part of its legal identity today? Note the word "legal."
We need to know. This interesting story tells us many things, but it does not tell us that one key fact. What kind of college is Morehouse, today? Does it still openly claim its Christian identity?