When presidents of religious colleges gather, do they share any strategies for coming battles?

I’ve covered enough stories about the cultural battles endured by Christian colleges to wonder why they don’t team up with similar schools from other faith traditions to get more support. This week I saw a story from Religion News Service about a meeting that did just that.

Imagine presidents of several evangelical Protestant, Mormon, Muslim, Jewish and Catholic schools together on a panel. What was interesting was not so much what they did discuss but what they didn’t.

Let’s see: What’s the most newsworthy topic that you can think of right now in the world of Christian education?

It would have to be the doctrinal and lifestyle covenants that many faith-defined schools require people to sign — students, staff, faculty, etc. — when joining these voluntary, private institutions. This is often referred to as “freedom of association,” for this who follow First Amendment debates.

In terms of news, I’ve written before about how the California state legislature went after 42 faith-based institutions not long ago in an unsuccessful effort to forbid these colleges requiring statements of faith in order to attend. Keep that thought in mind.

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Like most college presidents, Ari Berman and Hamza Yusuf care about giving their students the best education possible in the classroom.

They also want to support their students’ rights as people of faith.

Faith-based schools help students “to contextualize our lives in a greater mission, to have a sense of holiness about everything that we do,” Berman, president of Yeshiva University in New York, told a gathering of Christian college presidents in the nation’s capital last week (Feb. 1)…

Berman and Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in California, took part in an interfaith panel focused on what faith-based schools from diverse backgrounds have in common. The panel, which also included presidents of Mormon, Catholic and Protestant schools, took place at the end of the Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an evangelical consortium of more than 180 schools.

The most interesting comments in the piece came from Yusuf.

(Berman and Yusuf) defended their institutions as alternatives for students of faith who may be met with hostility from college professors at secular schools who consider their religion to be superstition or fellow students who don’t understand their beliefs.

“For me, just having safe places where people that actually are devotional can come to and not be offended,” said Yusuf, “I think that’s extremely important.” …

Yusuf told RNS that he has attended religious freedom events sponsored by evangelical Christians.

“Religion’s under siege right now, and religious liberty is being challenged,” he said in an interview. “I think Christian colleges and Christian institutions are realizing the necessity for alliances.”

Based in California as he is, Yusuf must realize that his institution could be attacked for not accepting openly gay students or could be the focus of pressure groups calling for employers not to hire their graduates?

After all, Brigham Young, Zaytuna and Yeshiva are all on the pro-gay “shame list” of “absolute worst campuses for LGBT youth.” There’s been a call for corporations not to hire students from these campuses.

So, did any of these college presidents discuss the doctrinal and lifestyle covenants behind many of these schools; covenants many of them still have and are being pressured to relax? The Deseret News, which also covered this story, likewise didn’t explore this question. But the writer, Kelsey Dallas, did look into it in an earlier story that ran before the same conference. I’m cherry picking two paragraphs from that.

However, religious colleges must still worry about the public relations ramifications of their stance on LGBT rights, (Peter) Wehner said. As the recent Karen Pence drama illustrates, many Americans have no sympathy for schools that want campus policies to match their conservative, religious beliefs.

"If Christian colleges and universities don't change their attitudes on sexual ethics, then do those institutions become essentially persona non grata?" Wehner said.

Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 took the heat off of religious schools — for a time — compared with the Barack Obama administration that made conservative schools apply for exemptions so they could enforce doctrinal policies. But that tide could turn, again, if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020. At that point, the action would return to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The fact that the Deseret News sent one of their writers to Washington to cover the CCCU conference shows the issue of religious freedom on college campuses is certainly one that concerns their many Latter-day Saint readers.

It sounds like Berman, Yusuf and Wehner were a minority of those interviewed who see battles looming in the future. I’m curious if this was the first time that Jewish and Muslim speakers were invited for this CCCU panel. Did anyone warn the audience during that discussion that society could take an ugly turn against the beliefs held dear by their universities?

The warnings are out there. The Associated Press ran a story on Feb. 2 on the movement behind the #ExposeChristianSchools hashtag appealing to people who despised the faith-based schools they attended as youths. Is a similar hashtag for Christian colleges in the works? It wouldn’t take much. RNS just ran a story on the evangelical Trinity Western University, just east of Vancouver, BC, which did a rule change its community covenant that seemed like a sell-out last August. Students had to promise not to engage in sex outside of heterosexual marriage beforehand. Recently, signing the covenant was made voluntary.

Since then, RNS said, enrollment and donations have gone up. At stake was a law school Trinity wanted to set up and the fact that law societies in some of the provinces threatened to not accredit the school if Trinity retained a compulsory covenant.

On the same day, RNS also ran an opinion piece with the headline: “Most evangelical college students appreciate LGBT people even if trustees don’t” concerning a study on changing attitudes on the part of students from 122 colleges and universities. Although I understand that this is a guest editorial, I feel like I’m seeing a theme here.

The story was unclear as to how many of 122 of these institutions involved were faith-based and what methods were used to differentiate which students were evangelical Protestants and which ones were not. A graphic provided with the article showed cohorts of Catholic, mainline Protestant, public and private nonsectarian colleges included, so the sample size of evangelical colleges was unclear.

It’s hard to make an assertion of changing attitudes when we don’t know if we’re talking about five such colleges or 50. The study’s authors were either professors or doctoral students at two state universities and they used their data as a platform to lecture the heads of evangelical institutions on how they could change their attitudes toward gay students.

Most academic studies –- and I’ve read my share in recent years while getting my second MA –- don’t editorialize in such a fashion. Plus, the article’s allusion to “the uptick in clashes between trustees and students over the last few years” only mentions one university — Azusa Pacific in southern California. What other battles are they referring to?

If we’re talking about attitudes toward minorities, I hope RNS solicits a similar editorial on growing anti-Semitism on college campuses, a trend that has seriously ramped up in the past year. Their last story (that I could find) on the topic was in 2015, before Trump took office. Did the Yeshiva University president bring up that trend at the CCCU conference?

From what I can glean of the coverage, there was more left unsaid than said in Washington this past week. It also sounds like this interfaith panel didn’t take questions from the audience. Hopefully next year at the CCCU confab, a similar panel will tackle these issues or at least give journalists a chance to do it for them.

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