Shocker! Erskine College covenant affirms 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on sex

GetReligion readers who know a thing or two about religious colleges and universities (also private schools for younger students) know that there is nothing unusual about these institutions asking students, staff and faculty to sign a "doctrinal covenant," often called a "lifestyle covenant," which confuses matters a bit.

This is an issue that frequently comes up in GetReligion critiques of mainstream news coverage, in part because many journalists don't seem to realize that it's normal (think First Amendment, once again) for voluntary associations on both the left and right to ask those who choose to become members to affirm, or at least not to publicly oppose, the goals and teachings (think "doctrines") of these groups. Thus, there is nothing unusual about the leaders of a network that opposes global warming to insist that its members to oppose global warming. There is nothing strange about a group for vegetarians choosing not to have officers who are openly affirm eating meat. Few Jewish groups want Messianic Jews/Southern Baptists as leaders. Ditto for Muslim groups welcoming Zionists.

This brings us to the hands-down winner of the worst headline of last week, care of The Washington Post. Once again, this headline graced one of those strange, brave new journalism (What is this?) "reported blog" pieces that was, nevertheless, promoted by the Post in lists of major news stories. News? Editorial? Who knows? Oh well? Whatever? Nevermind? The headline:

South Carolina college bans homosexuality after two volleyball players come out as gay

Uh, no. I guess this is why the headline was later changed to:

South Carolina college denounces homosexuality after two volleyball players come out as gay

The top of this alleged news piece does contain the text of what appears to be a rather normal doctrinal covenant statement on sexuality, common to those found in the student and faculty handbooks of hundreds of schools in America (Yes, I currently teach at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and, next fall, will be Senior Fellow for Religion and Media at The King's College in New York City).

But first, here is some of the "reported blog" language (as opposed to news copy):

Erskine College in Due West, S.C., describes itself as a “liberal arts” institution, but as far as that freedom applies to the hearts and minds of its students, it seems limited.
In response to two male athletes on its volleyball team coming out in an article published on OutSports.com last year, the college, which is aligned with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian tradition, released a strongly worded denouncement of homosexuality on campus that many read to be a behavioral ban. The document, titled “Statement on Human Sexuality,” was submitted by the Student Services and Athletic Committee and adopted by the board of trustees last Friday.

To its credit, the Post then published large chunks of the doctrinal covenant, which does indeed oppose -- in keeping with 2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy -- certain behaviors, as in sex outside of marriage. The key passages include:

“We believe the Bible teaches that monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is God’s intended design for humanity and that sexual intimacy has its proper place only within the context of marriage. ... Sexual relations outside of marriage or between persons of the same sex are spoken of in scripture as sin and contrary to the will of the Creator (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-11)."

While asking those in the Erskine community to approach these issues with "humility and prayerfulness," the statement also -- prepare to be shocked -- said people who voluntarily choose to study, teach and work at the college will be expected to honor this covenant.

“As a Christian academic community, and in light of our institutional mission, members of the Erskine community are expected to follow the teachings of scripture concerning matters of human sexuality and institutional decision will be made in light of this position.”

The Post team also noted what it appears to think was a contradiction in the policy:

It is unclear how the newly adopted statement will affect student life going forward; however, Erskine said in a followup statement ... that the new language “does not ‘ban’ any individual or class of individuals from attending Erskine.”

The Post then offers waves of outraged tweets and reactions, and more snark. Yes, the scare quotes are in the original in this following statement:

Erskine’s official statements may seem shocking in the context of modern America, but it is hardly imaginative. Such “positions” on homosexuality already exist on several other conservative Christian college campuses in the United States, including Baylor University.

Perhaps the "positions" quote marks are some kind of crude joke? The word the Beltway bible editors are searching for here is "doctrines."Also, they need to realize that -- in centuries of Christian teaching -- it is one thing to call a behavior a sin. It it something altogether different to "ban" people who struggle with any given temptation to sin. The key is public rejection of these defining doctrines.

Also, rather than "several" other schools affirming Christian orthodoxy on this topic, there are hundreds. Now, it is likely, in the near future, that there will be fewer schools with these covenants. Why? Watch for decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Then again, there may be others, like Erskine, who announce decisions to publicly embrace doctrinal covenants. The fact that a school like Erskine has at this moment in time publicly embraced such a doctrinal covenant is not all that surprising, in light of recent legal trends, including the much debated Health and Human Services mandate linked to Obamacare.

Say what? As I explained in an "On Religion" column, quoting Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance:

... The HHS mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of employers if they "fit a particular tax code definition that applies only to churches and their closely controlled affiliates," he said. These non-profit employers must have the "inculcation of religious values" as their goal, primarily employ persons who share their "religious tenets" and primarily serve persons who share those same tenets.

In other words, the government is offering key First Amendment protections only to religious institutions that are very open and transparent about the "religious tenets" that define their voluntary associations. Those "closely controlled affiliates" could be colleges and universities.

Now, to be blunt about it, the leader of many Christian institutions in the Bible Belt have, in the past, not openly used these kinds of legal covenants because -- surrounded by what they perceived as an affirming culture -- they thought these kinds of issues were simply understood and didn't need to be explicitly stated. Well, those days are gone.

So is there a story here? You betcha. Do the Post editors seem to grasp the story? Not so much.

For years, a school like Erskine didn't need to take a public stand on the doctrines that its supporters -- think trustees, donors, churches, parents -- assumed it affirmed. Now, the current legal climate -- think HHS mandates and perhaps the high court -- will not allow that kind of mushiness to continue. Schools are being forced to be much, much more transparent about their goals, when it comes to the "inculcation of religious values" and the "religious tenets" that define their work, in voluntary associations defined by those doctrines.

So Erskine is trying to clean up its legal act, almost certainly after leaders of its denomination saw the legal writing on the government walls. Will current faculty agree on this public stand? Probably not. Will students recruited before these doctrines were clearly stated agree? Probably not. How about their parents? Probably not. Are there other schools facing the same challenges? You betcha. Is that a news story?

Do journalists have to agree with the doctrines affirmed by these institutions? Of course not. However, if the goal is to do basic American model of the press journalism, it is crucial to understand these doctrines and to accurately report the views (perhaps even in a balanced manner) of believers on both sides of these important doctrinal and legal debates.

Meanwhile, as an Erskine alum noted in a communication with me, it is a strange time when readers seeking better coverage on this story should, wait for it, turn to BuzzFeed.

Perhaps Post editors will, at this point, decide to do an actual news report on the legal trends behind the Erskine story. Or, hey, they could try doing journalism about the Erskine story, itself. Just do it.

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