Define “Christian;” give three examples (updated)

texas-christian-university-tcujpgPlease allow me to jump into tmatt’s file of guilt for a moment of confession about a recent news item from Fort Worth, Texas.

I confess that I am not surprised, as some GetReligion readers appear to have been, that administrators at Texas Christian University have decided to designate some on-campus apartments for gay students and for others who support their cause. Yes, TCU is in the rather culturally conservative Dallas-Fort Worth area. And, yes, the word “Christian” remains part of the university’s name, although there was a minor flurry of headlines a few years ago when it appeared possible that the name would be legally changed to “TCU” to avoid that stigma.

Here’s a key section of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram report on this development:

The DiversCity Q community will open in the fall in a section of the Tom Brown-Pete Wright apartments. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender students and allies — heterosexual classmates who support them — will have the chance to live together. Eight students have committed to the community so far, said TCU sophomore Shelly Newkirk, who applied to create the program.

There is another reason that this development does not shock me and this is actually the journalistic element of the story that interests me. You see, TCU remains connected to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a liberal mainline church that — while policies vary from region to region — has taken strong stands to affirm gay rights. It often cooperates on missions projects, for example, with the United Church of Christ, a mainline denomination that clearly supports the ordination of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, etc.

No, what surprised me is the next paragraph, which clearly needs for explanation:

TCU will also open two Christian-based living groups, another for fine arts and three other themed housing arrangements. It’s all part of the university’s living-learning communities, designed for students who want to live with others who are like-minded.

What, pray tell, is a “Christian-based” housing option?

I can think of all kinds of possibilities, but them seems to imply that there are groups of students on the campus who are somehow uniquely identified as “Christians” and that this has lifestyle implications linked to housing. This, in turn, would suggest that there are other groups of students who are not “Christians” and that their rejection of this label would also affect housing and related lifestyle options.

This is fascinating. Are these “Christians,” in effect, the conservative or traditional students who want some kind of lifestyle or doctrinal refuge? Is there a set of apartments for liberal “Christians,” too? What are the special rules that one observes while living in the “Christian-based” housing units? Who requested that option and did the lobbying to see it through?

There are, you see, other self-defined communities on the TCU campus:

This year’s groups include Leadership and Strengths Community for students who want to become leaders, the Green House for student interested in the environment and the Health and Wellness Community for students interested in healthy living. Among the other groups for fall are one for patriotism in various cultures and a marine life group that will examine how the ocean affects the environment.

Huh? “Patriotism in various cultures”? What does that combination of words mean?

Meanwhile, over at the Dallas Morning News, the same development was described this way:

Like many colleges, TCU offers themed housing, called “learning communities,” in addition to traditional dorms or apartments. For instance, there’s the Green House, for students who care about the environment. The Language and International Living House, for those who want to master another language. Some students proposed a community with a gay and lesbian theme, and so the “DiversCity Q” community opens this fall in some on-campus apartments. Also opening: themed housing for patriotism, fine arts, marine biology and Christianity.

The idea is that students “are able to live with and near other students who have similar interests,” TCU spokeswoman Lisa Albert said.

This raises the same set of questions, doesn’t it?

It could be that students who choose to live in a “Christian” housing block are united by Bible studies, designated prayer times, missions projects and other interests that do not raise this kind of left vs. right divide that seems implied in the coverage. “Liberal” Christians may chose to live with “conservative” Christians. Then again, there may be Christians who are trying to find housing in which they can avoid alcohol, drugs, the hook-up culture, etc. We just don’t know.

To sum up, it is not strange, to me, that a university that is linked to a denomination that backs gay rights wants to express its doctrinal beliefs in this way. The hole in these stories, to me, is connected to that other label — “Christian” — which also seems to be controversial on this campus. What does it mean when you have to have designated “Christian” apartments on the campus of “Texas Christian University”? This might be a good hook for a follow-up story.

UPDATE: Well, it seems that TCU has changed its mind.

Statement from TCU Chancellor Victor J. Boschini, Jr.

TCU will not launch any new living learning communities at this time. Instead we will assess whether the concept of housing residential students based on themes supports the academic mission of the institution, as well as our objective to provide a total university experience.

Nowell Donovan, TCU academic vice chancellor and provost, will chair a committee of faculty, staff and students to review the concept and make recommendations for living learning program guidelines. The recommendations will be forwarded to the executive committee of the Board of Trustees, who will forward them to the full Board. In the meantime, themed housing currently in existence will be allowed to continue until new guidelines have been determined.

I assume that this means the “Christian” alternative community will also be canceled.

The journalistic questions about the earlier coverage remain.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • steve

    What, pray tell, is a “Christian-based” housing option?

    Exactly the question I have asked myself many times when I hear things tagged as “Christian” Like Christian rap, Christain heavy metal, Christian wrestlers, guides to Christain businesses.

  • Rebecca

    I’m a student at TCU and a religion major and while the coverage on this story definitely leaves something to be desired, the whole issue of what the Christian in Texas Christian University means could be a 3 part special feature story in itself.

    Especially to those who came to TCU looking for something more along the lines of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Hence the occasional “I thought this was Texas CHRISTIAN University!” editorial in the university paper.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Rebecca:

    Don’t people understand where the Disciples are coming from?

  • Rebecca

    Often, it doesn’t seem so. I have a feeling a lot of people (especially conservative evangelical Christians) who come to TCU aren’t really familiar with the DoC or their doctrines to begin with. To be truthful, I didn’t either but that didn’t end up affecting me negatively.

  • Jenny

    Who knows what the definition of “Christian” is anymore! The word has been so watered down that it’s sickening. …

  • Martha

    I really don’t get it. I would have thought you’d see enough of your classmates during the day so as not to need to be rooming with them exclusively as well – what was all that about going to university and encountering people from different backgrounds and cultures?

    I can’t help feeling money is at the base of this somehow (yeah, I’m a cynic); that they can charge higher fees for ‘themed’ or ‘community’ living: ‘live in our language community and learn how to say “My postillion has been struck by lightning” in sixteen languages!’ If it’s anything like my experience, you’ll learn rude words in sixteen different languages, but not be able to order a meal :-)

  • FW Ken

    Martha hits it: the story here is about education and whether living with “like-minded” people enables focused learning or elitism. And I don’t think a themed living environment qualifies as diversity in any real sense.

    TCU is in the rather culturally conservative Dallas-Fort Worth area.

    hrumph! Fort Worth is not Dallas, Professor Mattingly. At the time the Dallas Police Dept. was in court fighting hiring of a lesbian, the Fort Worth police chief announced that gay/straight had nothing to do with being a good cop and Fort Worth really didn’t care. Fort Worth doesn’t have a gay ghetto like Dallas (or Houston, for that matter): gay people live where they like. It’s true that Dallas has had a gay city councilman (and nearly a a gay mayor) for awhile now, but so does Fort Worth now. The difference is it’s not a big deal. He’s my councilman and I didn’t know until just before the election when a friend mentioned it.

  • Dave

    “Patriotism in different cultures” doesn’t even specify if they mean different countries or different American subcultures (both potentially interesting but not what I’d pick as a choice for a residence).

  • danr

    “TCU remains connected to the church church”

    Sorry, what exactly is the church church? Is that like a pair-a-church organization? (cue rimshot)

    P.S. I’ll remain a nitpick until I get my promised GR coffee mug!!!

  • Dave

    I assume the Christian housing option is of a conservative flavor, because that would distinguish it from the general environment.


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