Don’t treat people as symbols for a tribal loyalty quiz

Ashleigh Bailey wrote a perceptive post last week on “InterVarsity, Lawsuits, and Leadership.” Bailey digs down underneath to examine what’s really going on in a series of disputes over sectarian campus groups and whether or not they can discriminate on the basis of religion.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is a large evangelical Christian student group that has chapters at hundreds of colleges and universities all over America. As the name suggests, it’s a Christian fellowship — a sectarian, religious group run by and for students who belong to one particular religious sect. Membership in InterVarsity groups and attendance at their gatherings are not restricted only to Christians — they’d love everyone to come out to Bible study, and consider inviting non-Christian friends to various events to be a form of evangelism and a religious duty. But they also want the student leaders of their groups to be Christian students.

That’s understandable, since maintaining their identity as a Christian fellowship is pretty much the whole point of InterVarsity. But some sectarian student groups have recently run afoul of the guidelines many schools have for officially recognized (and/or funded) organizations, which prohibit such groups from discriminating on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc. Sectarian groups seek something like a ministerial exception that would allow them to require that their leaders share the religious perspective of the group, but some schools’ guidelines don’t easily accommodate that.

I’m sympathetic to InterVarsity’s desire to have Christian students lead its Christian student groups. No one seriously regards a legitimate ministerial exception as “religious discrimination.” None of us sees it as an injustice that the local Orthodox synagogue refuses to hire any rabbi who is not committed to Orthodox Judaism. We don’t cry foul when a local mosque looking for a new imam suggests that Catholic priests need not apply. And we would rightly mock any born-again Christian who tried to claim “religious persecution” over not being considered for the leadership of his college’s atheist student alliance. Nearly everyone appreciates that a ministerial exception is more akin to, for example, the Harry Potter Fan Club’s legitimate desire to have a Harry Potter fan as its leader than it is akin to any form of “discrimination” in the pejorative sense.

There’s an obvious, “no duh” logic to such exceptions, which suggests that it should be fairly simple to find a reasonable solution to these campus disputes.

But as Bailey describes, the real issue here is not the text, but the subtext. On many campuses where InterVarsity has wound up in such disputes, she writes:

The issue is InterVarsity’s objection to “practicing” gay Christian leaders.  In fact, from what I’ve read, at many of these campuses these issues are really the same.  The conversation goes something like this:

IV: “Susie, you are gay and think that’s OK, so you can’t be a leader anymore.”

Univ.: “That’s discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation!”

IV: “No, it’s not! It’s OK with us that Susie is gay. She just shouldn’t think that’s OK.”

Univ: “Oh. Well that’s discrimination on the basis of religion!”

IV: “So? We’re a Christian group.”

Then instead of objecting and saying something like, “Well, not all Christians agree with you” (which to me is a logical response), many universities are saying, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t let you discriminate on the basis of religion at all then.” Which then, of course gets presented as, “They want us to put Wiccan and Muslim students in charge of our Christian group!” Perhaps some universities would really push for that, but that’s not exactly where the conversation got started in the first place at many of these schools. At many of them this is starting as a conflict about sexuality.

When a conflict about sexuality plays out under the pretense that it’s really a conflict about something else, it becomes very difficult to find reasonable solutions. That’s because when we’re all pretending to talk about one thing while really all talking about something else, we’re not being reasonable.

And it’s actually even worse than that. The argument about sexuality beneath the surface of the pretense of an argument about religious liberty isn’t really even an argument about sexuality. That argument, in turn, is really just a proxy for yet another underlying argument — an argument about the meaning of the Bible. That argument has to be buried so many layers down because the very existence of such an argument undermines evangelicals’ desperate belief that the Bible automatically settles all arguments — that it’s meaning is transparent, obvious, uniform, unambiguous and easily accessible to anyone who opens the book and starts to read.

Another reason this all gets so confusing, producing so much more heat than light, is that for many evangelical Christian groups like InterVarsity, the definition of their core sectarian identity is implicit, ill-defined, and unexamined. That identity is opaque and slippery even to the group itself.

Evangelical groups are prodigious producers of elaborate “statements of faith” that seem to spell out their core sectarian identity in extensive, lawyerly detail. But those statements of faith don’t include the tribal markers that provide the short-hand litmus tests for all of the theological-sounding mumbo-jumbo they enumerate in detail.

The groups themselves may not be aware of these tribal markers, or of their intense devotion to them, until someone transgresses the boundaries they create — even inadvertently — setting off the wailing of the tribal perimeter alarms.

In the case of InterVarsity, their statement of faith reads, in part:

We believe in the unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness and authority of the Bible.

The InterVarsity trustees who wrote that assumed that anyone who agreed with that statement must also agree that “it’s not OK to be gay.” They assumed that so thoroughly that they weren’t even aware they were making the assumption. They never imagined anyone like “Susie” or like me or like millions of other Christians who do not share their implicit belief that “the Bible” requires the condemnation of LGBT people. And because they couldn’t imagine it, they cannot understand what they’re hearing and seeing from us — they can’t really hear what we’re saying at all.

The conversation — an overly generous term — turns into something like this:

Us: We also believe in the divine inspiration, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible, but we don’t interpret that to require us to condemn LGBT people/ourselves.

Tribal Trustees: Well, then, you can’t possibly really believe in the Bible.

Us: Sure we do. Here, let us explain our hermeneu …

Tribal Trustees: No. We’re not going to listen to you talk about the Bible when you obviously don’t believe in it. End of discussion.

It’s more than just a refusal to listen. It’s a claim that we do not legitimately exist — that we are non-entities who therefore cannot be heard.

Worse than that, though, is what these tribal trustees are doing when it comes to LGBT people. They’re not treated as people at all — just as short-hand symbols who provide a convenient test. For the tribal gatekeepers, LGBT people do not matter as people. They do not even exist as people, but only as a useful gauge of any given defendant’s beliefs about the “authority of the Bible.”

And that’s one of the cruelest things about this whole business. Millions of people are treated as nothing more than abstractions — as useful things whose existence serves only as a convenient short-hand test. In this view, LGBT people exist primarily so that they can be disapproved of by those who would pass the authority-of-the-Bible test.

That’s just evil. Treating people as things is pretty much the definition of evil.

So here’s my plea to the tribal trustees and the evangelical gatekeepers: You’re free, in good faith, to not find my hermeneutic acceptable or persuasive. You’re free, in good faith, to believe that the clobber verses require you to condemn same-sex attraction. And you’re even free, in good faith, to believe that every other possible interpretation of those clobber verses is tantamount to a rejection of “the authority of the Bible.”

But stop treating people — flesh-and-blood children of God — as nothing more than symbols for your tribal loyalty quizzes. That’s evil. Knock it off.

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  • Donalbain

    Fraternities are not a thing over here, so that is not an issue.

  • histrogeek

    I think most frats and sororities get around the anti-discrimination policy by having the Pan-Hellenic Council be the officially recognized group and the organizations being governed by that. I’m completely guessing there, but it would be a legal fig leaf. It’s either that or no one bothers to enforce the gender rule on the Greeks just because massive law suits involve very deep pocketed organizations.

  • Yeah, the funding is the crux of the issue. Any student is usually free to use the school as a meeting place and peacefully associate with other students of similar interests. But if the school is to fund them, that is when the university student association rules start to come into play.

  • Something amusing is that when I was going to Bellevue Community College, I was the treasurer for a student anime club. The club president and I had a meeting with the student government to request funds be allocated to us and make our case for why those funds are justified. The student government set aside a day to meet with representatives of many different clubs for that purpose, so we waited in line behind a few others who were there for the sake of their clubs.

    The several people immediately ahead of us were requesting funding for their Christian club, I forget exactly which, and they got their funding request granted. The government called for the next club to step forward and present, and the same students as the previous presentation got up again, to present their case for funds for their Christian club, a different Christian club. Someone in the government said “Hold it!” and asked why they were up again. Apparently they represented three different Christian clubs, one local to the college, one a chapter of a national club, and one for… something, I cannot remember what the distinction was. The student government threw out their further funding requests, noting that all three clubs were being run by the same people with largely the same membership, it was like they were trying to grift three clubs worth of funding for one club.

    After that, our funding request (which I was nervous was a little high) seemed a lot more reasonable in comparison. We got our funding fully and enthusiastically approved.

  • Erp

    True but by many university rules the discrimination in leadership must be by the members voting for or against someone not by a priori banning someone from running or, after election, removing someone (again except by a vote of the members as provided by an approved constitution). This is with certain exception; for instance the officers can be required to students in good standing with the university.

    Discrimination can occur in student groups in certain cases, for instance a singing group with limited membership can hold auditions for the most appropriate voices for the group.

  • EllieMurasaki

    And Disqus’s just-now update that broke the ‘see all of the replied-to comment in the email notification of the reply’ did not fix the ‘An unregistered user says’. Bah.

  • Akili

    Sadly it ended with him refusing to sign anything or coming to any meetings after that so we just voted in another person a month and a half later as is the university policy. We were even nice enough to not put his name onto our drag show’s list of members of the group.

    He, last I heard, still thinks we tricked him somehow into putting his name forward in the first place and thinks that we will somehow ruin all his chances of getting a job.

  • If that last were true, we’d be living in a pretty dismal world indeed…

  • Exactly. She’s a complex character – she has moments of wisdom and moments of foible, with the expected effects on the characters around her. Complex characters make stories more compelling than author-stand-ins do. Pratchett’s stories have a lot of the former and pretty much none of the latter, though it’s easy as a reader to forget that when, say, Vimes goes on a rant or Granny starts sermonizing.

  • DavidCheatham

    But non-discrimination in membership is not the same as non-discrimination in elected leadership.

    And I repeat the question my original post asked: WTF is discrimination in ‘elected leadership’?

    Of course the election of leadership is a discriminatory process. All elections are. The leadership of a club is not open to ‘everyone’, it’s open only to the person the membership wants to elect. If the club only wishes to have non-gay people as leaders, it will presumably only _elect_ non-gay people as leaders. This is not rocket surgery.

    I can’t even figure out what people think they’re talking about here.

    What appears to _actually_ be under discussion is that InterVarsity feels they can _require_ local chapters to not elect gay leaders, even when the local chapter wishes to. And, according to the bylaws that the student organizations are under, InterVasity is correct.

    As I pointed out, the problem here appears to be that a ‘student club’ is not actually being run by majority vote of the students in said club. That, right there, is the entirety of the problem.

    Any officially recognized student organization at any college should be required to operate under two rules: a) any student in good standing can join upon payment of dues, and b) that the organization fully under the control of such members. (Which doesn’t mean a majority vote on everything, or that anyone can run for office. Perhaps you have to attend 80% of the meetings for a year before you can vote, and only upperclassmen can run for president, and a supermajority is needed to change the bylaws, etc. But the rules have to be objective. Although, strictly speaking, organizations can do whatever the hell they want because they are in charge of the interpretations of their own rules.)

    Once you start allowing _anything else_ call itself a student organization or have official university support, you’ve entered into stupid and dangerous waters. Any college that has allowed InterVasity’s groups to have any sort of official campus support is almost certainly _already_ in violation of the law.

    And, no, there’s not an argument that universities are doing the same from the other direction. Because, uh, they’re not. Universities generally do not ‘meddle’ in student organization elections. (Although it’s worth pointing out that usually student organizations are actually _subsidiary_ organizations of the actual university, and hence they actually have ultimate power over them.)

  • Mira

    I’ve run into this a little at my current university (I’m a graduate student at a small school in the northeast), where the Christian fellowship is an Intervarsity organization, and I think I know where the “practicing” part is coming from. It’s not that they’re saying “it’s ok to be gay as long as you don’t think it’s OK” – it’s that they actually have a code of conduct.

    A couple years ago I was asked if I’d like to be involved in leadership, and I was interested until I saw the statement of belief/code of conduct leaders had to sign. The statement of belief was pretty general, unobjectionable “mere Christianity” type stuff, and the code of conduct basically said that as a leader you would exhibit good Christian behavior, including not engaging in sex outside of marriage, with members of the same sex, or with non-Christians. I said I couldn’t sign because I didn’t agree with the “rules” in principle and didn’t intend to follow them in practice, but I’d be happy to bake cookies or host a meeting or help out the group in other capacities that weren’t official “leadership.”

    This worked out absoutely fine. I’ve discussed my public violation of the code of conduct by marrying a non-believer in the group multiple times when relationship issues have come up (which happens a lot when you get together a bunch of mostly single people in their 20s and 30s), and there are some people in the group who don’t think that’s OK, but they are interested to hear what I have to say, our conversations are respectful, and they’ve never been unkind to me or my spouse. Others strugglea lot with whether it is OK for them to date non-Christians, and I am glad that I can be the voice saying, “I think it’s fine.” This is a legitimate interpretive disagreement in what is an ecumenical group, and I do not think my group would have an issue with my leading a Bible study or whatever. (I still benefit from straight privilege, though, so I can’t say whether an LGBT person in my group would have a similar experience. I hope they would.)

    The take home lessons here are that 1) this is super messed up as a national policy, and 2) there can be real differences between how the national organization handles things and how local groups want to. We see this happening in the Boy Scouts, too. An overly conservative central organization can really cripple local chapters.

  • It’s the bubble in effect. Authorial figures to filter everything that their tribe experiences by limiting how much external perspective the membership is allowed to experience. The fewer challenges to their authority, the more they can indoctrinate the membership until members of the tribe automatically equate any form of deviancy with a negative because they’re too used to accepting rigidly dystopian archetypes as commonplace.

    (IE, the day they inform the first homosexual person they ever meet “You’re only this way because you hate God and want to sin as much as possible with as many members of the same sex as possible” and get a negative response, they’ve been trained to shake their head and say “Well, what did I expect, you are a sinner.”)

    It’s disgusting that people do this to each other. They’ve been trained so well that they automatically try to pull people into the bubble with them. It’s very cult-like behavior.

  • Ani J. Sharmin

    Thanks very much for writing this. The “proxy” argument seems to happen very often whenever discussing LGBTQIA equal rights, and it’s always bothered me how it all becomes about religious freedom for the most hateful religious rights groups (defined as them being allowed to do whatever they want, regardless of consequences) with no focus on the rights of anyone else.

    I’m looking at this from an outsider’s perspective (as I’m not Christian and wouldn’t want to run for president of a Christian club) but there is something that I was thinking about while reading your post. What I find interesting is why someone who’s gay would want to join a group that doesn’t like them. I guess that maybe because they agree with that group’s views on others things, so maybe it’s an attempt to change things from the inside. What strikes me is the difference between, say, InterVarsity vs. say the American Family Association. I doubt a gay Christian would want to join the American Family Association, because being against gay people is the main point, but a gay Christian may still want to join InterVarsity. But, as you said, even some of these groups may not officially state their opposition to gay people in a charter or whatever, but it’s an implied litmus test. What I wonder is: When does the litmus test become so prevalent and important to the group that people wouldn’t want to join the group in the first place, and maybe start their own gay-friendly Christian group? I supposed the fact that InterVarsity is such a large organization is relevant as well.

  • Parasum

    “We believe in the unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness and authority of the Bible.”

    ## So do I, and I also believe in the plenary inspiration of the Bible – though not its inerrancy; I’m open to persuasion on that. So if this were a game of “More Evangelical Than Thou”, STM I’d win hands down. If some one can be a gay Christian with a very high view of Scripture, something is wrong with the idea that gay Christians can’t affirm the authority of the Bible in the same terms as – or more strongly than – the UVF. Gay Christians are just like any others – if the Christian is an Evangelical, why should orientation disqualify from office in Evangelical societies ?

    As for the clobber-texts, affirming that they are plenarily inspired, canonical, authoritative, trustworthy, do not deceive, and have God’s authority behind them, does not tell one how much authority for Christian behaviour they have today, or in what ways. This uncertainty is normal, not encountered only by those of us who are gay as well as Christian. So it does not deserve to be made into a big thing. If many Christians with a great esteem for the Bible can ignore commands in it relating to usury (in the OT) or swearing oaths (in the NT) – what logic allows them to shake certain NT texts at gay Christians ? Why are words of Jesus to the Jews to be skated over, and some words of St. Paul to the Roman Christians to be given a heavy functional load as an expression of God’s Will ?

    Is Jesus of less authority than St.Paul – or is a letter of St Paul of higher authority than a passage in St. Matthew ? I think some sorts of Protestantism tend to make St. Paul the intepreter of the gospels, instead of them taking primacy over St.Paul, and being a rule for reading him. What are the exegetical principles that allow Christians to swear oaths, despite the explicit prohibitions by Jesus & St. James, and to “clobber” those who take part in other activities spoken of with disapprobation in the NT ?

  • Parasum

    And he is AKA Synesius of Cyrene.

    From his works:

  • Parasum

    I’d guess that the Catholics involved did not want to participate knowingly, to any degree, however remote, with something that the CC is not over-keen on. Something very similar happened here in the UK a few years ago. This issue of avoiding co-operation in wrong-doing is also (AFAIKS) at the heart of the fuss over HHS, and its twin sister the denial of the Eucharist to “non-pro-life” AKA “pro-abortion” politicians. The importance of avoiding co-operation in wrong-doing plays a considerable part in Catholic moral theology – one of the practical difficulties is, to judge at what point something like (say) acting as a law-giver becomes an immoral and blameworthy tacit encouragement to do wrong. Such issues easily get tied up in others.

    In itself, the principle of avoiding co-operation in wrong-doing is perfectly intelligible, and is part of NT thinking. If people are to do good, they should do it in good ways, and avoid being morally compromised. But in modern society, that is easier said than done – it’s the application of the idea that tends to become murky.