The recent de-recognition of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship by the massive California State University system is another escalation in a long simmering conflict.
Often with considerable hyperbole, evangelicals have long complained of mistreatment at the hands of university administrators and professors. Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, referred to UCLA as the “little red school house” at the outset of his ministry, which began at that institution. Despite such rhetoric (which resembled William F. Buckley’s complaints about Yale University), evangelical ministries found a ready and receptive marketplace in the 1950s. California universities hosted “Religious Emphasis” weeks and evangelical organizations brought speakers from Billy Graham to Wilbur Smith to campus.
Still, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Crusade (now Cru) often faced obstruction from both administrator and mainline Protestant campus groups. Besides the concern of mainline ministries to maintain their influence, there have been some understandable reasons why evangelical ministries have found themselves not wanted on campus. Most non-Christians have not exactly loved evangelistic campaigns on campus, for instance, and university administrators have been wary of non-student staff members participating in them. Evangelical ministries did not go away, however, and by the 1970s were the most visible expression of Christianity at most public and many private universities and colleges.
Over the past twenty years, however, some public and private institutions have taken steps to limit the presence of evangelicals in their midst. Tufts, Georgetown, SUNY Buffalo, and Vanderbilt have all questioned, and in some cases, de-recognized evangelical organizations such as InterVarsity, either because the institutions in question were not affirming of gay and lesbian students or because they did not open leadership positions to “all comers.” In other words, they made agreement with certain religious principles a requirement to hold office.
Now, according to Christianity Today, IVCF president Alec Hill warns that with the implementation of the Cal State policy the issue may have reached a “tipping point.” The policy means that IVCF will not have access to university funding (made available to other groups) and must pay to use meeting spaces. Evidently, IVCF students at Cal State campuses made the decision not to change their chapters’ policy on leadership positions.
I am of two minds on the matter. First, one presumes there would be little harm in adopting the “all comers” policy. There is opportunity here for mischief makers, but I presume Christian organizations could vote like-minded Christians into positions of leadership. I wonder if it is not more important to preserve access than to contend for a principle that should make relatively little practical difference. If the rule is non-discrimination, Christian organizations have to play by the rule.At the same time, the actions of the administrators are hypocritical, short-sighted, and provocative. Given that other organizations at Cal State and Vanderbilt (from athletic teams to Greek houses) discriminate on the basis of sex or ability on matters of both leadership and membership, it is hard to dismiss the contention that the administrators in question simply have targeted unwanted Christian groups for de-recognition.
We can probably all agree that discrimination is bad. In this instance, the fact that IVCF would not allow non-Christians to put themselves forward for leadership positions seems rather less discriminatory than singling out evangelical organizations for de-recognition. It seems uncharitable to insist that IVCF should not complain under such circumstances..
Moreover, given that university administrators for much of the past half-century have been leery of the activities of evangelicals in their midst, one wonders how future bureaucrats would imperil those activities if not checked at this point. It is likely that IVCF and others will litigate the Cal State policy, and I don’t think the CLS v. Martinez decision (which upheld the de-recognition of an evangelical group at Hastings College of the Law) is the last word on the matter. CLS v. Martinez addressed the matter of participation, not leadership.
One irony in this case is that it is IVCF that so often finds itself in conflict with university administrators. Since the late 1960s, IVCF has moved far in the direction of progressive evangelicalism, espousing — actually, living out rather than merely espousing — racial diversity and social justice. This is a group known for such high-pressure tactics such as inviting students to inductive Bible studies. Presuming one likes people who tend to be thoughtful, respectful, and service-oriented, these are about the least annoying evangelicals non-Christians are likely to meet. On the other hand, IVCF chapters want Christians to lead those Bible studies. The nerve. Seriously, anyone who cannot stomach these evangelicals needs to rethink that lip service about diversity and inclusion.