Evangelicals Not Welcome

It’s been a long time since most public and private universities and colleges in the United States desired the active presence of evangelical Christians in their midst. After the YMCA/YWCA and the Student Volunteer Movement backed away from their evangelical roots, groups such as Inter-Varsity, the Navigators, and Campus Crusade for Christ filled the vacuum. While some mainline Protestant ministries shrank in the wake of the sixties cultural revolution, evangelicals demonstrated new visibility and growth on many campuses.

As I discuss in Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ, that visibility and growth generated opponents from the start. Mainline Protestant ministries often complained to administration about the evangelistic tactics of Campus Crusade, partly because parachurch organizations attracted some of “their” students. Universities likewise sought to limit or block the participation of non-student evangelical advisers on campuses, and they took issue with the fact that evangelical students and staff proselytized in dormitories and cafeterias. Nothing worse than having a bad meal — universities didn’t cater to their students quite as much back then — interrupted by the Four Spiritual Laws. For the most part, however, evangelical organizations successfully defended their right to participate in the marketplace of campus religion, and they staked out substantial territory in locker rooms, Greek houses, and dormitories.

By the 1990s, however, private university administrations began finding or placing themselves at odds with evangelical ministries. Tufts, Middlebury (my alma mater), and a number of other institutions clashed over the fact that evangelical campus organizations wanted to restrict positions of leadership to — shockingly — evangelical Christians.

Recently, the New York Times detailed the latest developments in this ongoing struggle. Bowdoin College has derecognized Bowdoin Christian Fellowship. This means that non-students can no longer advise the group in any official capacity, and the fellowship cannot apply for any student funds. The same has happened to a dozen Christian ministries at Vanderbilt. Now, Cal State is preparing to derecognize a host of evangelical organizations:

At Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders… Cal State officials insist that they welcome evangelicals, but want them to agree to the same policies as everyone else. “Lots of evangelical groups are thriving on our campuses,” said Susan Westover, a lawyer for the California State University System. However, she said, there will be no exceptions from the antidiscrimination requirements. “Our mission is education, not exclusivity,” she said.

The Times article correctly observes that the Cal State situation is a tipping point. Instead of a small private college, we’re talking about a massive public university with many campuses. It is uncertain whether or not the groups in question have any legal recourse. In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Supreme Court upheld a California law school’s actions against an evangelical organization that denied membership to groups that could not sign a “Statement of Beliefs.” In particular, the case hinged on the fact that CLS excluded gay and lesbian students who were open about their sexual orientation and practice. The issue currently at hand is narrower. Should leadership positions in all campus organizations be open — at least in theory — to all students? Perhaps the Court would view leadership differently from membership, but my hunch is that Cal State would prevail.

This strikes me as an entirely unnecessary and unwise fight from several angles. For starters, conservative evangelicals now find their position on homosexuality anathema on public college campuses. More broadly, conservative evangelicals have lost in the realm of public opinion and in the courts on same-sex marriage and related issues. See Philip Jenkins’s recent post on that subject. It seems unwise for evangelical campus ministries to risk their futures on their ability to exclude any students from contending for leadership positions. One presumes that the members of these organizations still possesses the right to actually vote for their leaders, and one can safely presume that most evangelicals will choose fellow evangelicals. From my vantage point, campus ministries play an absolutely vital role in retaining and nurturing younger generations of evangelicals. They should not risk the viability of their ministries. I don’t believe it would compromise those ministries’ integrity to play by the rules of the game as defined by many private and some public universities. Yes, ministries should defend their principles, but they should defend them wisely.

The decisions of some campus ministries may be unwise, but the actions of university administrators are downright Orwellian. One cannot further diversity by adopting policies with the full knowledge that their primary effect will be to drive evangelicals — and a few Catholic groups — off campus or underground. This is remarkable. Regardless of their intent, universities are adopting policies that marginalize a single religious group. Can you imagine the outcry if a university policy undermined or drove out African American or Muslim groups? Typically, when policies and laws have the obvious effect of burdening a particular religious group, the courts view them with great suspicion (see, for instance, the recent district court decision on Utah’s law targeting polygamy and cohabitation).

Let’s presume that the evangelical groups in question believe that homosexuality is sinful and that they do not want gays or lesbians to have positions of leadership in their organizations. [And I think it's fair to presume that in many instances, evangelicals at universities and colleges -- especially in decades past -- have articulated hurtful opinions about gays, lesbians, and transsexual students]. It is hardly discriminatory for evangelical groups to restrict positions of leadership to like-minded evangelicals. How does it further these institutions’ stated missions of inclusion and diversity to deny funding to evangelical fellowships? Evangelicals make up a tiny minority at institutions like Bowdoin. There are certainly far more evangelicals at Cal State, but the Golden State hardly needs to ensure their further marginality. The net effect of such policies will be the decreased visibility of evangelical Christianity at such campuses, less expression of evangelical ideas and beliefs, and, in the end, fewer evangelicals on campus.

Perhaps it is time for university administrators to drop their charade and include a simple statement in their brochures and on their signs: Evangelicals not welcome.


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