NPR on evangelical culture wars: Open fights over sex and doctrine kick into high gear


For a decade or more, your GetReligionistas have been urging journalists to (a) check and see if there are faith-based colleges (left or right) nearby and then (b) check and see if the leaders of these schools (think trustees or religious denominations) require students, faculty and staff to SIGN a doctrinal statement that frames all campus life.

In many cases, religious schools -- especially Baptist and nondenominational evangelical schools -- have long assumed that everyone can affirm "biblical authority" and/or "traditional Christian values" and that's that. There are lots of Protestants who, claiming a specific approach to the priesthood of every believer, simply do not like to write doctrines down. That would be a creed, you see. Think #Romeaphobia.

The problem is that we live in a legalistic age that demands precision and candor, especially about sex. And never forget that 1983 Bob Jones v. United States decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, when conditions are right, it's fine for the government to get entangled in fights over what is good doctrine and what is bad doctrine.

The First Amendment ground started moving. This brings us to this solid National Public Radio report: "Christian Colleges Are Tangled In Their Own LGBT Policies."

The key to this piece is that it covers both the broad legal questions involved in these disputes and the growing doctrinal warfare inside the often vague world of evangelical culture. That second angle is one that GetReligionistas have long argued is worthy of mainstream-media attention, linked to the rise of a true evangelical left, defined in terms of doctrine, not politics. You can see these disputes breaking out all over the place, like Taylor University in Indiana and Abilene Christian University in West Texas.

Here's the NPR overture, which is long and solid:

Conservative Christian colleges, once relatively insulated from the culture war, are increasingly entangled in the same battles over LGBT rights and related social issues that have divided other institutions in America.
Students and faculty at many religious institutions are asked to accept a "faith statement" outlining the school's views on such matters as evangelical doctrine, scriptural interpretation and human sexuality. Those statements often include a rejection of homosexual activity and a definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Changing attitudes on sexual ethics and civil rights, however, are making it difficult for some schools, even conservative ones, to ensure broad compliance with their strict positions.
"Millennials are looking at the issue of gay marriage, and more and more they are saying, 'OK, we know the Bible talks about this, but we just don't see this as an essential of the faith,' " says Brad Harper, a professor of theology and religious history at Multnomah University, an evangelical Christian institution in Portland, Ore.
LGBT students at Christian schools are also increasingly likely to be open about their own sexual orientation or gender identity.

The one thing I would note in that: Most of these doctrinal statements address issues of sex outside of marriage by all students, gay and straight. If that isn't made clear in these texts, then that's an important news story. Someday, these same kinds of questions may be asked at institutions linked to Orthodox Judaism and Islam. Roman Catholicism? Oh yeah.

Meanwhile, there's another story hiding in the fine print.

You see, it's one thing for students to affirm that they will honor the doctrines in the documents that they signed to enroll at a college that they (or, in some cases, their check-writing parents) selected. It's one thing for them to say that they -- gay or straight -- will not have sex outside of biblical marriage.

What about dating? What about make-out sessions in the lobbies of dorms or on the front steps minutes before curfew? Do the same rules apply to gays and straights? Do college officials seem to care, or worry, as much about the public and private struggles and sins of straight students, as they do LGBTQ students? Is a sin a sin or are some sins more equal than others?

As I said, one strength of this NPR report is that it realizes that this is now a debate INSIDE evangelicalism about the interpretation of scripture. For many modern evangelicals, you see, there are few -- if any -- ties to centuries of ancient doctrines. They know what they feel in their hearts, the same hearts that tell them they have been born again.

Here is what that looks and sounds like at an elite, trend-defining school in Christian academia -- Calvin College. This is long, but essential:

At Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., junior Sam Koster, who identifies as queer, finds fellow students to be generally tolerant.
"People I've met in the English Department," Koster says, "even in my dorms, they're like, 'Oh, you're queer? OK, cool. Do you want to go get pizza?' "
Staff and faculty at these Christian schools have to balance a need to attend to their students' personal and spiritual needs with a commitment to their schools' faith statements or official positions on sexuality.
"You've got those two values," says Mary Hulst, senior chaplain at Calvin. "We love our LGBT people. We love our church of Jesus Christ. We love Scripture. So those of us who do this work are right in the middle of that space. We are living in the tension."
Calvin College is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, which holds that "homosexual practice ... is incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture." Hulst leads Bible study groups with her LGBT students and discusses with them the passages that refer to same-sex relationships.
"Those are the clobber passages," Koster says. "They're used to clobber queer kids back into being straight."
Koster was troubled by those Bible verses at first but eventually became comfortable with a devout Christian identity and joined the Gay Christian Network.
"When I realized that my faith wasn't necessarily about the [Christian Reformed] Church, and it wasn't even necessarily about the Bible but about my relationship with God and that God is all-encompassing and loving, I felt very free," Koster says.

Some of the depth in this piece appears to be linked to an on-site visit to a recent global conference organized by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (an organization in which I taught for 20-plus years).

Lots of issues are discussed at meetings of this kind. However, NPR noted that, "One off-the-record session titled 'Is Government Funding Replaceable?' was packed solid."

Yes, once again the Bob Jones decision is looming in the background. And the NPR piece also noted that this recent Supreme Court exchange -- quoted many times here at GetReligion -- is very much in play.

In April 2015, during a Supreme Court argument over the constitutional rights of LGBT individuals, Justice Samuel Alito noted that Bob Jones University in South Carolina had lost its tax-exempt status because of its prohibition on interracial dating and marriage.
"Would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?" Alito asked then-U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr.
"It's certainly going to be an issue," Verrilli answered. "I don't deny that."
The exchange alarmed officials at conservative religious schools, for which the loss of tax-exempt status or federal funding would be devastating. Their anxiety deepened a year later, when the Obama administration notified colleges and universities that it interpreted Title IX as prohibiting discrimination "based on a student's gender identity, including discrimination based on a student's transgender status." Christian schools saw that letter as threatening a loss of federal funding if they refused to accommodate students who identify as transgender and want to be housed with other students who share their gender identity.

This is a must-read story. Also, journalists really do need to head over to the websites of nearby religious schools and dig into the fine print.

The First Amendment ground could keep moving.

Want to understand why so many conservative religious believers care so much about the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court? Even if it means biting their lips and reluctantly voting for the likes of Donald Trump?

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