Weekend think piece: Probing post-Obergefell fault lines in Christian higher education

The vast majority of the time, GetReligion features critiques -- positive and negative -- of mainstream press coverage of religion news. However, in recent years we have started adding some other features by veteran religion-beat specialists Richard Ostling and Ira Rifkin that address Godbeat work in short features that we think will be of interest to people who care about domestic and international trends in religion -- period -- or who are professionals on the beat.

In the "Religion Guy Memo," for example, I have asked Ostling to serve as kind of Metro desk sage, a veteran editor talking about issues related to the beat the way an editor might chat with a religion-beat scribe over a cup of coffee. As any reporter knows, a good editor helps you discern what stories "have legs" and what stories may be just over the horizon.

That is what Rifkin is doing in "Global Wire," as well, focusing on questions raised by recent events around the world or, on occasion, trying to spot slow developing stories that may be on the rise, or those that are about to pop into the open.

On weekends, I also like to share what I call "think pieces" -- links to pieces about developments on the beat or essays by religion insiders who are clearly trying to discern what will happen in the news in the near or distant future. All reporters have writers and thinkers that they follow online, seeking clues about future stories. Think Pew Forum folks. Think John C. Green of the University of Akron. For decades, Martin Marty of the University of Chicago was THE go-to brain for religion-beat pros. I mean, the man answered his own telephone!

You don't have to agree with this kind of insider in order to draw information from them. The key is that they have some unique insight into developments within specific religious communities. They can read the spiritual weather forecasts, in other words. It also helps if they speak common English, instead of inside-baseball jargon.

So with that in mind, please consider this new essay about a topic that -- for obvious reasons -- is of great interest to me as a writer and as a teacher. That would be trends in Christian higher education in the wake of the recent 5-4 Obergefell decision on gay marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court.

This is from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in Washington, D.C., which is the Southern Baptist Convention's office on Capitol Hill. Now, yes, this is a conservative shop, but one led by a man -- Russell Moore -- who broke into public life long ago working in the office of a Democrat in Congress. He listens carefully to arguments on both sides of the hot issues, as any good debate pro would.

Now, this particular essay is by Phillip Bethancourt and is called, "The top 10 religious liberty threats for Christian higher education." This is not a flamethrower piece at all, but simply notes -- the key for journalists -- where the next battles may be fought, as lawyers for gay-rights groups seek to consolidate their recent victories and defenders of doctrinally defined Christian non-profits of all kinds brace for the next round of fights. Here are a few key items -- thinking news stories ahead -- on this list:

Accreditation issues: Christian schools face increased scrutiny from their accreditors. Look no further than Gordon College’s experience over the past year, which included a probe from their accrediting agency. As the Department of Education likely adjusts sexual orientation and gender identity policies in light of the Supreme Court ruling, it puts federal educational regulations on a collision course with Christian convictions in a way that could jeopardize accreditation.

And also, in addition to tax-exemption questions and the potential loss of donors:

Financial issues: One of the greatest threats to Christian schools is the potential financial costs of religious liberty consequences. The most commonly cited financial risk is the potential elimination of federal funding such as pell grants. But research grant writing and other revenue sources could also be at risk. Most importantly, access to the federal student loan system could be in danger. Tuition revenue generated from students using federally funded loans makes up a much higher percentage of a school’s budget than direct federal funding to the school.

Those are pretty obvious. Here are the two that jumped out at me.

External relations issues: There are growing risks with external constituencies such as denominations and alumni. Alumni backlash over conservative policies is evident even at schools such as Wheaton College. Denominational risks could develop if schools become out of step with the shifting perspective of their denomination. ...
Doctrinal issues: The Supreme Court ruling will force a crisis of doctrine for many Christian schools that haven’t solidified their confessional convictions. Schools that lack a clear statement of faith and policies are at greater risk of institutional crisis. As schools seek to clarify and solidify their doctrinal stance, they face the potential for controversy and fracturing amongst their administration, faculty, staff, and students.

In other words, look for more heat as denominations -- after years of trying to adopt post-denominational stances -- have to get their doctrinal acts together on key issues of morality and theology. What, for example, if school leaders (especially in faculty lounges) shift to the left AHEAD of their denominations, which may actually own and control campuses? What if a church tradition -- think Baptists -- has solid historically reasons for avoiding the creation what amounts to a creed?

Study this list, reporters. There are all kinds of stories in here, many sure to impact schools in your newsroom's zip code or nearby.

Read it all.

PHOTO: From Gordon College

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