Article Jun 22, 2016

Biola, conscience and the culture war

“It’s going to be an issue.”

You may recall those five words that were spoken by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli in the oral arguments phase of Obergefell v Hodges. Specifically, that sentence was Verrilli’s response to a question from Justice Alito about the tax-exempt status of private religious schools that continued to define marriage traditionally over and against the definition of the government. Justice Alito made a salient observation: If the Obama administration’s contention was that traditional marriage laws were analogous to racial segregation, wouldn’t schools that defined marriage traditionally be in the same category as those (such as Bob Jones University in the 1990s) who continued to enforce anti-segregation campus policies (and, thus, were ineligible for tax-exempt status)?

Verrilli’s response was telling; it signaled a willingness to acknowledge the latent tension in the same-sex marriage debate between the advance of “equality” and the preservation of religious liberty. The lines demarcating where marriage revolution begins and the protection of dissenters ends were, according to the state, blurry. The solicitor general’s comments were, of course, intentionally vague and uncertain, but a year after the Court ruled in the revolution’s favor, it’s becoming apparent how correct they were.

Biola University, located in Southern California and one of the country’s most well-known and prestigious evangelical colleges, now finds itself arguing for its right to be evangelical. The state legislature is seeking to amend a non-discrimination law which would stipulate that the only schools that can be granted religious exemptions to the non-discrimination statutes are schools that exist for the training of pastors and theological educators. Schools that offer more general programs—like a degree in humanities, engineering, or public education—would be required to submit to the non-discrimination law, effectively ending any legal protection for colleges and universities that want to only admit professing Christians or maintain campus-wide spiritual life programs. 

The effect of the amendment would be to redefine religious liberty so as to make a clear distinction between institutions that integrate religious faith and public vocation and those that focus only on parochial training. Conceivably, supporters of the bill are fine with the idea of students receiving a religious education that teaches that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and that sexual expressions outside this category are morally problematic—as long as this education is clearly not intended to go beyond the walls of a church service or a seminary lecture hall. Pastors and polemicists, yes. Business managers and brain surgeons, not so much.

Such a distinction is one that owes much to a faulty understanding, increasingly common on the Left, of what it means to be “religious.” Conservatives have warned for some time now of a serious attempt by sexual revolutionaries to make religious belief synonymous with religious worship; ergo, the private ritual of religion is what’s protected by “free exercise,” not the living out of such beliefs in the public square. The language desired by the California legislature feels like a clear substantiation of this concern. 

Would the amendment protect students from discrimination? Certainly, the amendment would probably initiate the shuttering of several California colleges that LGBT activists would consider “discriminatory.” Because the non-discrimination law applies just as much to religion as it does to sexual orientation or gender identity, the language would essentially force Christian schools to relinquish their confessional identity—they could be sued, for example, for refusing to hire an atheist to teach sociology, or denying tenure to a New Age transcendentalist professor of comparative religion. What sounds like fairness to many progressives is in reality the dismantling of the idea of Christian education. 

But there’s another issue at hand, one that supporters of the proposed amendment need to answer. While it’s true that the new language would probably curb discrimination in the sense of forcing the closure of many schools that teach traditional ideas about sexuality, the  proposed solution is less obvious. Advocates seem to think that protecting seminaries and religious training schools from the anti-discrimination language is still OK. But why? Why do seminaries and other institutions that train students for ministry deserve legal protection if cross-disciplinary schools like Biola do not?

Perhaps the thinking here is that larger, liberal arts schools such as Biola are more susceptible to infringing on students’ rights than smaller, ministry-minded institutions. But this seems to be a completely arbitrary notion. Consider what two supporters of the amendment, one a current Biola student, had to say about the bill:

Erin Green, a senior at Biola and executive director of Biola Equal Ground, an unofficial LGBT student support group, said it’s a common misconception that students who are LGBT wouldn’t choose to attend an evangelical Christian college.

“Here’s the thing – who’s paying for college?” Green said. “Parents are paying for college and if they’ve grown up in an evangelical environment, a parent is choosing the college. A lot of students have no choice.”

For students who are gay or transgender and deeply connected to their faith, the dissonance they feel on campus is intense, said Jordyn Sun, national student organizer for Soul Force, an advocacy group that works with LGBT students at evangelical Christian colleges.

“This is a Christ-centered university and I have faculty saying they love me, yet I can’t be myself on campus,” said Sun, who graduated in 2014 from Azusa Pacific University, a Christian college in Orange County that has not sought an exemption to Title IX. “I think it does more mental, emotional and spiritual damage to people than anyone realizes.”

Both Green and Sun’s comments seem heartfelt, but they have an enormous logical tension: If the goal of anti-discrimination law is to ensure that students don’t have to choose between their education and their sexual and moral beliefs, why should such law stop short of protecting students who want a seminary or ministerial education? Why are the experiences of liberal arts students more worthy of the force of anti-discrimination law than the experiences of seminarians?

But the reality is that this is the kind of tension that the architects of the marriage and gender revolution have assiduously avoided acknowledging. For years, we have heard from the contemporary activist class that the issue was one of civil liberties and not of conscience. But what else could the targeting of Christian higher education be, if not a clear move toward paving over conscience?

California’s hostile stance toward conscience is bold, but it very well may be a harbinger of things to come. Three days after the horrific murder of dozens of people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, The New York Times published an astonishing editorial that laid part of the blame for the tragedy at the feet of conservatives who criticized same-sex marriage and contemporary gender ideology. These conservatives, the Times editorial board argued, were responsible for a climate of “hate” toward LGBT Americans, a climate that manifested itself in Orlando. This irresponsible and ridiculous rhetoric is, of course, just rhetoric; but coupled with California’s actions against evangelical colleges, it seems to signal a real oncoming threat to traditional Christian belief.

After all, this isn’t just about sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s about the right to take seriously a narrative of human nature that disagrees with the progressive consensus. Forget same-sex marriage. Why should the California legislature suffer any school that forbids premarital and extramarital sex to exist? Why should any school be allowed to tell an adulterous husband that he is morally disqualified from ministry? Why should any institution of higher learning be allowed to lecture on the permanence and indissolubility of marriage to a student who has fallen in love with someone else?

Thus, Christian education itself unravels. Those who believe that a government bold enough to mandate the exile of Obergefell dissenters can stop short of attacking the very idea of a transcendent human story are engaging in a delusion that will, I think, be very short-lived. What is ultimately at issue is not whether couples of the same-sex can live together on a college campus. The ultimate question is whether any institution—whether Biola or Boyce Bible College—may attempt to shape the consciences of her students in ways that run afoul of a very modern, very Western sociopolitical “norm.” 

And for that question, those who favor scrubbing out California’s Christian colleges need to offer something better than, “It’s going to be an issue.”

This article was originally published at Mere Orthodoxy.