The Best Evangelicals on Campus

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.

 

"Who says we are a secular nation? You and atheists? Where did you get that? ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."
"Personal attack. Once you run out of reason fuel and facts, you engage in personal ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."
">>>"Read your responses to my comment and see whom is truly the one making 'personal ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • georgeyancey

    Great blog. Dead on. The hypocrisy is clear. Let’s hope for wisdom in the coming days.

  • Miles Mullin

    Thoughtful as usual, John T.

    For those who missed it, Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren), gives an insider’s view of how things developed at Vanderbilt over at Christianity Today (http://bit.ly/1tNOWGZ). She was the director of InterVarsity’s GCF chapter when the policies there went into effect.

  • drdanfee

    Well I am positioned at quite a distance from IVCF and so forth. My guess is that Cru is reaping a bitter tasting harvest from the sour seed already sown by the loudest conservative Christian voices who set so much of the dominant ‘tone’ as we bumped into one another in our various crossroads and public squares, i.e., that God indeed does hate people being gay but most frequently prefers to make nice with those detestables by saving them from committed-intimate-formalized relationships with one another. And, oh yes, by the way, one’s inner ongoing relationship to self should not be giving off any hints that one is, well, ‘that way.’ ?????

    I am not at all certain of these complicated campus matters, but I did work in an ecumenical Protestant campus ministry for over seven years in ministry and service to a flagship type of public university campus; and I lived for ten years during grad school in an intentional Christian student community. Of course, in the years after brothers and sisters graduated, we did find out that some of our community loved ones were ‘that way.’ I am still in touch with a lesbian couple who live in the hills, having raised two children together. They are very active in their local church.

    Even the newly rebranded Cru, if I recall correctly, spent most of its time in this past period, tippy-toeing around having a position about whether or not gay folks widely perceived across the overlapping circles and spectrums as …. a) a little bit worse than other sinners, since after all orientation persisted even if nobody dated anybody else, b) quite a bit worse than other sinners, and/or c) among the worst examples of bad humankind possible. Contrast that caginess with how widely and deeply the empirical human sciences sunk into and through institutions and peoples of USA Higher Education.

    Thanks to at least these two influences, if not also many other contributing factors, caused the uneasy determination to tag and rope off the queer folks (in some tangible ways to some tangible extents) to look and sound like a sort of awkwardly coded Creationist trope: damn the empirical sciences, full speed ahead on keeping ourselves ‘pure’ compared to the queer folks.

    I’m not claiming that any of this convergence of influential streams was consciously planned, intended, or even in many instances, noted when it began to happen on particular campuses where Cru’s predecessors were important stakeholders. I am only calling attention to how Cru failed to take many pains to form allegiances, in a hot bed era when college students so frankly led the way in Coming Out, when rainbow college student group life and Queer Centers were being born, willy nilly, on so many of those same campuses.

    It still looks and sounds like Millennial Evangelical students are suddenly discovering themselves at the back of some campus life parades that they thought were something akin to ‘secular fads’ that sincere believers just have to out-live, instead of real campus life changes.

    The recent decades in which certain conservative forms of Christian faith appeared to the media and public squares at large, to be ‘weaponized’, have daudled away the automatically ascribed good faith credits that ‘being sincerely Christian’ was awarded, during and after WW II ???

  • Greg

    The author cites Georgetown University as one of the schools which disinvited IVCF from its campus, along with Tufts and SUNY Buffalo. The reason John Turner gives is because of IVCF’s lack of full inclusion of women and gays, etc.

    I don’t believe that to be true. To be honest, I don’t know the specifics of Georgetown v. IVCF, but my guess is it has to do with other things besides who may serve in leadership positions. You see, Georgetown is a Catholic university, and as such, it too would have more narrowly defined rules as to who may do what in church leadership positions, and so forth. Furthermore, they have active campus ministry programs for Orthodox Christian, Muslim, and LDS students, whose denominations likewise do not ordain women or condone same sex relationships (just like the Catholic Church).

    My guess is that IVCF was disinvited due to proselytizing, or other infractions having to do with “playing well with others.”

    A little more research by the author into this specific issue would be helpful.

  • philipjenkins

    Correct me if I am wrong here, but I think the Georgetown issue occurred in 2006-7, and was a temporary blip:
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2007/may/at-georgetown-intervarsity-is-back.html?paging=off
    Headline: “At Georgetown, InterVarsity is Back. Banned last August, the ministry sought, found reconciliation.”

  • Greg

    Thanks for the link. I just read the article. Too bad the author didn’t seem to know that ICVF was reinstated at G’town. However, the CT article does not say why IVCF was disaffiliated from G’town. My hunch is still the same as to the reasons why, e.g. proselytizing, or other infractions having to do with “playing nice with others.”

  • John Turner

    Greg, I do know that IVCF was reinstated at Georgetown. Note, that I write above:

    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.”

    “questioned, and in some cases, de-recognized” was intended to cover a range of outcomes!

    You are correct, though, that the reason wasn’t IVCF’s attitudes about homosexuality or the issue of leadership positions. It was indeed about proselytizing, as this article details:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/20/AR2007072002030.html?sub=AR

    Thanks for encouraging me to further investigate.

    IVCF’s own website has a host of links to articles about campus access cases.

  • Naturallawyer

    Greg: Having attended Georgetown University (and seeing it is about as Catholic as I am), and experienced a graduation ceremony in which a priest, a rabbi, and a Muslim cleric did a joint invocation “praying for the day when Jesus, Abraham, and Muhammad welcome their children into the kingdom of heaven,” it would not surprise me at all if Georgetown kicked IVCF off campus for not being “inclusive” enough.

  • Greg

    NL – I call your attention to the article provided to me by John Turner

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/20/AR2007072002030.html?sub=AR

  • Andrew Dowling

    “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.”

    Exactly

    “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.”

    Fraternities and sports teams are in entirely different categories than student groups/clubs. EVERY student group has to follow this policy . . the Young Democrats can’t prohibit Republicans and the fundamentalist Muslims can’t force a certain dress code on women. So to say they are “targeting” Christian groups is absurd . . the IVCF is simply making the most clamor because they can run with their persecution complex narrative that so many conservative Christian groups just lap up.

  • Donalbain

    When you make Christian groups abide by the same rules as everyone else, you are committing the worst kind of prejudice in history!

  • https://www.facebook.com/david.lloydjones.391 David Lloyd-Jones

    I can’t see what the problem is here. When I was first at university, in 1961, Ralph Caninstein had almost no supporters for Student Senate until our suspicions were confirmed, that he was a dog. At that point he became a serious candidate.

    He was defeated, barely, by Al Bowker, I think it was, a human being. Al may have pushed electoral morality to its limits by, uh, soliciting the endorsement of Miss Cupcakes Cassidy “and her twin forty-fours,” appearing at the time at the Victory Burlesque, but understandably lecturing on campus. I suppose all’s fair in electoral love and war, whichever this was.

    If the InterVarsity Fellowship find candidates of the canine, or other unwanted, variety in danger of winning positions of power and authority, surely they, too, can find such powerful endorsers.

    -dlj.

  • stefanstackhouse

    I found the IVCF chapter at Indiana U soon after reading the Bible on my own and coming to faith in Christ. My years in IVCF were a tremendous help for this new Christian, and established a very firm foundation for a lifetime of discipleship.

    I would hate to see any of today’s college students deprived of the same resource that I found to be so helpful.

    On the other hand, though, should the remainder of the students have to pay (through their activity fees) anything for the upkeep of groups in which they do not participate? Since those who pay the piper get to call the tune, I think not, and I think that receiving any share of activity fees at all is a great mistake. At best it can become a snare, and at worst it can leave campus groups vulnerable to exactly the sort of thing we are seeing here.

    If the administration does not want to allow “non-official” (and thus, from their point of view, “outside”) groups free or inexpensive access to on-campus facilities, then this may require the nearby churches to step up and offer their facilities for groups like IVCF to use. So many church buildings are so expensive and sit unused for so much of the time, this seems like a good way to redeem them for genuine Kingdom use.

    Except for the large group chapter meetings, most of our IVCF activities didn’t require reserving rooms anyway. Small group Bible studies mostly took place in dorm rooms. If administrations are going to forbid even those, then they are indeed moving far, far away from even any residual pretense of academic freedom.

    The one thing that might really be worth fighting for is the right to be able to have a presence at the student activity fairs that are typically held at the start of each semester. Being excluded from those really does make it more difficult for Christian students to find a group that can be helpful to them on campus. If administrations are going to be so rigid as to exclude any group that isn’t an “official” student group, then they are going to have to force groups like IVCF to make their presence known in other ways – which they will do, if they have to.

  • Hillary Spragg

    test