July 21, 2014Kurt A KeilhackerChair, Board of TrusteesGordon College255 Grapevine RoadWenham, MA 01984
Dear Mr. Keilhacker,
I received your letter to the Gordon Community on July 13, 2014. As an alumnus of Gordon College (1987), I too have an interest “in the vitality of this institution, in the advancement of its mission, and in upholding the College’s integrity and reputation.”
You state that “it has been heartbreaking to see how quickly and personally our institution (and by association, all of us) has been mischaracterized and misunderstood” and that it is unfortunate that Gordon College “has been thrust into the center of a political issue.”
Let me begin by objecting to the passivity of that last statement. A man of Dr. Lindsay’s national experience had to have been well aware that he was consciously choosing, as Gordon College’s proxy and leader, to thrust the College into the center of a political issue. To think otherwise requires willful naiveté. Dr. Lindsay writes that he feels badly that others have misunderstood him and, because of their confusion and misunderstanding, their feelings have been hurt. This represents a rather flaccid non-apology: “I’m sorry that you misunderstood me and got yourself so upset by your own confusion.”
And though I have read a good bit of local and national commentary on this incident (I live nearby on the North Shore), I only have scant evidence that the College has been “mischaracterized and misunderstood.”
In fact, most of the response has focused on the salient and undeniable fact that the letter to President Obama that Dr. Lindsay signed on to explicitly and straightforwardly requested that the College be exempt from federal civil rights protections related to employment and that, in other words, it should be free to discriminate in matters of employment. That is the prima facie reading of the letter and that is precisely what many, including myself, have taken offense to with the publication of the letter. In fact, most of the responses that I have read have been thoughtful and reasonably informed about the nature of Gordon College and its mission. The follow-up responses provided by you and by Dr. Lindsay both missed the point that few outside the Gordon community are concerned about the Behavioral Standards. Rather, they are concerned about the overt abrogation of civil rights.
I write as an alumnus who, in many ways, exemplifies the Gordon experience. I transferred to Gordon College in 1985 in my junior year from an extremely conservative Oklahoma Christian college. I grew up in a fundamentalist denomination based in the South. My father (David Sherwood) also came to Gordon College, joining the faculty in order to help start the new Social Work program after the Barrington College merger. Having come from what I considered to be something of a madhouse of a university, Gordon was a breath of fresh air: serious academics, religiously engaged, faculty and students who were diverse in their thinking, and an orientation to the world that was constructive rather than adversarial and based in paranoia. Like most of my fellow students, I honored the Behavioral Standards as much in their breach as in their application. I considered the ministry, married a fellow student (though we eventually divorced), began years of public service by working a first job out of college in a local homeless shelter, got Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Religion and Literature, have served my community on boards and as an elected official, and have a well-established career in community development. I have even returned on occasion to offer guest lectures in the Social Work department.
In short, I believe that I became the type of engaged and productive graduate that Gordon College hopes to foster. I consider myself to have been reasonably equipped to handle life in this world and to do good in it. The contributions to making such a life are many and, for me, this includes my time at Gordon College. Yet I can assure you that this had almost nothing to do with the Behavioral Standards. Rather, it had to do with the modeling of compassion, tolerance and open-mindedness that I found in most (but by no means all) of my professors and among my peers. It came in traveling with my peers as part of a summer seminar to the then-Soviet Union, and other Eastern Bloc nations. It came following my professors and fellow students down creative and illuminating paths of enquiry, from the nature of scientific knowledge to the exploration of medieval mysticism. If anything, the Standards are infantilizing and do Gordon’s students a disservice by retarding their ability to navigate in the world beyond the confines of the Quad.
And yet, in your letter you particularly point to the Standards as what makes Gordon College unique ‘as an intentional Christian community’ and thus they serve as the basis for the request to discriminate and be exempt from federal civil rights law. I find that immeasurably sad. Sad that Gordon College is reduced to being about voluntarily choosing not to smoke, consume alcohol, or have sex outside of marriage. Sad that Dr. Lindsay and the Board feel that this is what defines Gordon College and that it is on this ‘ground’ where the College must make a stand against…well, I’m not sure what, seemingly against a federal government that doesn’t find the interest of the Standards compelling enough to justify overt discrimination. No, what makes a place Gordon unique is that it can – if allowed without ideological constraints – to truly explore freedom in faith and intellectual maturity. That is a standard worth fighting for and it is a standard ill-served by protectionist stances.
Allow me to repeat myself. My own reaction (and the reaction of most others, in my observation), has nothing to do with Gordon’s interest in creating an intentional community that adheres to some (rather eclectically compiled and very selectively enforced) behavioral ideals. It has everything to do with using that meager basis as the foundation for civil discrimination. In the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ regarding this fracas posted on the College’s website, it states “Gordon College does not discriminate in hiring based on a person’s sexual orientation.” And yet, that is precisely what Dr. Lindsay was asking for legal permission to do.
President Obama’s amending of President Truman’s original executive order banning various forms of discrimination added four words only to the text of the decades old order: “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” Dr. Lindsay’s request for exemption from the revised order can only be construed as an exemption from hiring protections based on these two additions. There is no other plain reading of the letter that Dr. Lindsay’s signed, beyond requesting permission to discriminate in hiring.
That is why Dr. Lindsay’s letter and your response have provoked my own response here and the responses of so many others who are ‘friends of Gordon College.’ I’ve lived in happy ambivalence to my time at Gordon College, looking at the behavioral pledges almost wistfully as a part of my sentimental education. I gained much from my time there, in terms of intellectual growth and the expansion of my views of the world. But I’ve allowed myself to gloss over the covert and overt discrimination against my fellow alumni who were gay and lesbian. In a way, I’m grateful for this turn of events. It has removed the veil, as it were, from my wistful picture and revealed an institution that seems to have reduced itself in the past 25 years and that is willing to go to the mat over its right to discriminate.
In this context and with a heavy heart, I hereby return my diploma to the Board of Trustees. I cannot in good conscience keep it as a token of my relationship with the College.
I hope that the listening and dialogue process promised on the College’s website in response to Dr. Lindsay’s action yields a deep reconsideration of the College’s understanding of what its true values are and what they are not.
Jonathan Sherwood, Ph.D.
Class of 1987
cc: Dr. D. Michael Lindsay
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His new book is —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace