It's time for Christian Universities to end the LGBTQ fights
The Respect for Marriage Act and the Path Forward
I have often written here about the tensions between the current generation of students attending Christian Universities and the administrators and trustees of those same institutions when it comes to matters of LGBTQ+ inclusion. These current students, who were born the year Massachusetts courts allowed same-sex marriage, have followed this conversation their entire lives. They have had friends at school, at work, at church, and at college who have come out as queer and have learned to love those friends without centering their sexual orientation.
Queer students come to Christian Universities because they desire the holistic community that combines faith, classrooms, and social life. In fact, many of these students I have known have a far more robust understanding of their faith and theological commitments than it true for students in general. Somewhat ironically (at least to those on the outside), the Christian community provided within the Christian University has allowed them to own their orientation and their faith.
Faculty and staff tend to be closer to students and are therefore more sensitive to the journey queer students are on.This puts them in an unenviable position vis a vis the powers that be. Their commitments to specific students are set against the abstraction of Gay People from denominational leaders.
Administrators, Trustees, and Denominational Leaders have a vested interest in defending Traditional Marriage and Sexuality. It is tied up in their commitments to uphold a Biblical Worldview.That commitment to traditionalism falls under the general rubric of “sincerely held religious beliefs”. Denominational or institutional documents will simply say “we believe marriage is between one man and one woman” and that is all that is necessary.
Institutional leaders have argued for decadesthat if “the liberals” get their way, Christian Universities will be forced to affirm queer students and same-sex marriage or cease to operate. The bad guys will strip them of their tax exempt status and preclude them from receiving federal financial aid funds, essentially forcing them out of existence.
That all changed yesterday when the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act. This took up the bill passed by the House last spring and added enough religious protection carveouts to get twelve Republicans to support the legislation. This bipartisan support was sufficient to overcome a cloture vote and move the legislation back the House. A vote there is expected in the coming days with a signing ceremony by President Biden sometime next week.
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin (at the podium) led the group trying to pass this legislation. How she, who herself is gay, navigated the tightrope necessary get the bill past cloture is a story worth reflecting on. First, she advocated for delaying the vote until after this month’s midterms so that the vote wouldn’t simply become fodder for those writing campaign ads. She reached out to Republicans who she knew were sympathetic (some with gay family members) to find out what was necessary to bring them to support.
A result of that outreach was an articulation of the above-mentioned religious carveouts. It’s worth looking at them in more detail. The amendment she developed in consultation with her Republican colleagues is noteworthy. It stipulates that religious organizations will not be required to perform same-sex marriages.It clarifies that the bill does not open the door to polygamy. It affirms that religious universities are not at risk of losing tax exempt status or Title IV eligibility due to their views on marriage. And it recognizes that institutions and the people within them can have differing views on marriage and are worthy of having those views respected.
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Of course, finding a compromise like the RMA leaves others unhappy. Jonathan Capehart, writing in the Washington Post, complained about the small steps the act accomplished.Senator Mike Lee had an op-ed on Fox's website arguing that the amendment described above didn't go far enough.
So where does this leave the Christian University? I’d argue that the RMA has provided these institutions with a tremendous gift. By removing the lingering threat of losing financial aid funds or being mandated by the government to adopt positions inimical to their traditional views, a window has opened. Now that the government is not going to force these changes upon Christian Universities, they can opt to voluntarily take a more open stance toward LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff.
The place to begin is with the last bullet point in the Baldwin amendment document: recognizing that people of deep Christian faith can differ on their understanding of gender and sexual orientation. The denomination may have a preferred position, but those who dissent are neither anti-institutional nor unChristian. Any handbook language that puts students or faculty at risk of expulsion for arguing a different perspective should be removed.
Queer students (and their allies) need support. Many unofficial support organizations have popped up, usually with a name like ONE[name of institution]. These need to be made official alongside other support groups.What does recognition mean for queer students at Christian Universities? It doesn't mean rampant sexual activity or campus drag shows. These institutions already have policies precluding sexual activity outside marriage. Given that students will not likely be married, this doesn't raise a big concern.
What about faculty or staff who are in same-sex marriages? Addressing this possibility is what put Goshen, Eastern Mennonite, and Eastern University in the news in recent years. But still, most Christian Universities I know have behavioral expectations for faculty and staff — namely precluding sexual relations outside of a legitimate marriage. That’s true for CIS faculty and it would be true for gay faculty. All we would be talking about then are either celibate gay faculty or married gay faculty.And recent court decisions regarding Gordon College's claim that faculty counted as ministers have made clear that faculty members are contracted to perform tasks for the university. Their evaluation in those tasks would be dependent upon their teaching, scholarship, and service and their sexual orientation shouldn't matter.
While I was pondering this pretty provocative post, I ran across today’s Anxious Post written by Baylor Historian Andrea Turpin. I'm just going to quote from her closing paragraph:
Perhaps this is a way that Christian scholars and Christian institutions of higher education at our best can help to solve the problem of pluralism: by modeling it. If we are already platforming and listening to Christians different from us—be it in terms of sex, race, denomination, or politics—we can continue. If we see deficiencies here in our own lives, we can grow. Our common commitment to Christ enables us to do what it seems odd in the world to do: to disagree vehemently and still come together around a common purpose (emphasis hers).
Andrea is right. There is an opportunity in this moment to move away from culture war stances. It is a moment to engage our students (and faculty and staff) where they are in pursuit of what faithful Christianity looks like in the contemporary age. It is an opportunity to help our students help their churches navigate the complexities present in the pews. It’s time to move forward on the LGBTQ conversation as opposed to repeating the same conversations over and over again.
That’s not to suggest that this is without risk. As I wrote in my newsletter about Eastern’s policy change, any movement on these issues will get attacked by the evangelical gatekeepers as evidence of loss of faith.
But Christian Universities shouldn’t be oriented around what the critics might say. They should be focused on what is needed by their students and those yet to come.
Who knows, it might just be that opening up the LGBTQ+ conversation is just what Christian Universities need to counter the demographic cliff and the rise of the nones. It’s time for a few brave institutions to step out and show everyone the way forward.
In my last three institutions, I probably knew dozens of students who identified as gay, another group that said they were bisexual or nonbinary, and probably ten who have since transitioned gender.
At least on this topic.
With a lot of help from Christian Legal Organizations
I know of Christian Universities that have denied their alums the ability to marry on campus for fear that doing so would mandate allowing same-sex weddings. So they opted for no wedding at all.
He acknowledges that the bill did not create an affirmative right to same-sex marriage. Instead it mirrors Obergefell by limiting the denial of marriage rights if the marriage is legal in the state where it was performed.
The support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for the legislation was key to its passage, building on the “Utah Compromise” from a few years ago. And Senator Lee was always a “no” vote.
It’s unclear how the courts will eventually settle the Yeshiva case.
It would be interesting to see how institutions handle “public displays of affection” (PDA). Christian Universities have likely been too tolerant of PDA in the residence hall lounge among heterosexual students. Perhaps everyone would benefit from toning PDA down.
I should note, of course, that there have been gay faculty and staff for years. Some closeted, some quietly active, some with long-term roommates. And I’d argue that this number is dwarfed by the number of sexually active single heterosexual faculty members.
Of course, if ANY faculty member was hitting on students, it’s a firing offense so we can leave the “groomer” language for 8Chan.
Her argument completely aligns with what I’m arguing in my own book project.
Thanks for writing on this. I teach at one of the other institutions on the front line of this issue, which you've blogged about by name recently. I hope you are right that some institutions will bravely step out to bury this hatchet, and become more welcoming to queer students. Indeed, I wish mine would do so (but it won't, given our Board).
Yet I worry that this is excessively optimistic: "... a window has opened. Now that the government is not going to force these changes upon Christian Universities, they can opt to voluntarily take a more open stance toward LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff." The old guard administrators and Trustees will not view these legal developments as security so that they can now rest easy and turn toward loving and accepting these students (nor, especially, any queer faculty or staff they may have!). Such Board members or Presidents will instead view this, given their classic culture-war mentality, as securing a win, and will advance to score further wins: they will double-down on marginalizing their queer students, rooting out the 'liberal' professors, and perhaps passing requirements of affirmations from their faculty or upper admin that they must *agree* with their anti-gay sexuality or behavioral policies. That they shouldn't speak out against them or teach their students affirming perspectives. Etc. BYU and others have already been cutting faculty who have voiced such opposition. My own institution may also engage in this over the next few months (though under the euphemism of 'program prioritization').
Such Board and administrative 'leaders' are uninterested in being more open and welcoming to LGBTQ individuals, whether on their faculty, staff, or students. They do not see queer folks as among their constituents or 'stakeholders', even if they feign support for them and respect for even their own faculty who think differently (as do a majority of our own faculty). These Board and denominational leaders are operating as if they want to return to an earlier 1990s era where it felt largely settled that gay sex was beyond the pale for Christians; they're seeking to correct course, given what they've seen happen the last 2 decades... and they're seeking to strengthen their advantage (having won the day within their denominations or at some key colleges where this has recently emerged as possibly changing their college toward becoming more affirming). What is so awful about all this, apart from how unloving and un-Christlike these attitudes and policies are toward LGBTQ folks, is that this is bringing financial ruin to many of these universities. If such Boards finally see the light that their institution is collapsing owing to lawsuits, annual falling enrollments, tarnished reputations, and fewer donors, it will be far too late to rescue these colleges. It is a live possibility that in 20 years there will be almost no CCCU colleges left.
Here's a good article from Giovanna Del'Otto and Yonat Shimron in which I was interviewed shortly before writing this post: https://apnews.com/article/religion-education-minnesota-gender-identity-gay-rights-009a5be975ab3cb5f0e24d3fe9b0479d