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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  • Treating people as things is pretty much the definition of evil.

    The Gospel According to Granny Weatherwax.

  • In other words, InterVarsity only wants Real True Christians. *Sighs* The tribalism. It burns us, precious.

  • Carstonio

    The only thing I can add to Fred’s excellent entry is to ridicule the idea of a “practicing” gay person. Like being one is like being a doctor or lawyer. Is there a licensing authority involved? What would the phone book ads look like? Or else this is like being a practicing musician. which would fit the claim by some homophobes that orientation is taught. Maybe the university involved has gay practice sessions on Thursdays.

  • Isn’t “don’t take funding” a possible moral of the story? Along with “don’t recognize religious groups if you are a secular institution especially a government one”?

  • Baby_Raptor

    We saw how well that went over with Catholic adoption agencies in states where equality is law. They shut down, then whined that the state “forced” them to because it was “trampling on their rights.”

  • Lunch Meat

    At my alma mater, they said no to a GSA, even when we explicitly stated we would not encourage anyone–gay or straight–to break the rules regarding sexual behavior. The simple fact that we wouldn’t treat people’s orientations as shameful was enough to make it against the university’s moral code.

  • Note: Granny Weatherax often treats people as means to her own self-agrandizement, through the maintainance of their ignorance. Baring in mind this is a woman who speaks out against bathing, against informing people, etc. And, this is also a woman who only hesitates to bring vengeance against a man who’s great crime was asking her to take down her hat because she sees the fate that an accident will take his life within hours anyway.

    Rather her sense, and what RTCs think God’s sense of this is, is “other people treating people like things is evil, but it’s okay for me and when I command it.”

    Why do I bring this up? Well, in both Granny Weatherax’s case and that of the RTC god, treating them as the paragons of morality, as opposed to merely sociopaths with some good PR moments, then necessitates that the followers follow suit and start treating people as things.

  • Sounds like a pretty good example of why we shouldn’t give money to those, then.

  • Lori

    AFAIK the adoption agency issue has turned out just fine everywhere that it has come up. Catholic agencies withdraw from their government contracts, and in some cases shut down, and whine about it. Another agency, which does not discriminate against same sex or non-religious couples takes over the government contract and couples who would previously have been turned down are able to become parents. I fail to see the downside.

  • Carstonio

    Was this a Christian college or a secular one?

  • Lunch Meat


  • Carstonio

    If a secular college chose not to recognize any of the religious groups, I would think they could meet on their own in an unofficial capacity, without being bound by the college’s antidiscrimination rules.

  • Michele Cox

    “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”—Granny Weatherwax, in _I Shall Wear Midnight_, by Terry Pratchett

  • Carstonio

    That happened in DC. The problem was that the Catholic agency was being petty, caring more about avoiding any alleged taint of homosexuality than about finding homes for children who need them.

  • Right, that is what I’m saying.

  • misanthropy_jones

    i used to be a practicing heterosexual, but a few years ago i finally got it right…

  • misanthropy_jones

    this is a constant problem i have dealing with some of my fellow christians.
    although, a few years ago, one of the did tell me they’d talked it over and thought that, despite my belief in equal rights and science, they thought i probably would make it to heaven. i was oddly touched by that statement…

  • As it turns out, I am a non-practicing heterosexual. No one seems inclined to care about that, though…

  • walden

    Not sure how this could best be resolved. Plenty of religious groups define their orthodoxy in different ways. IV may be wrong, but it’s hard to say why they can’t define the parameters of their own orthodoxy. (viz. some groups don’t allow women in leadership; some groups keep kosher; some groups segregate by sex).

  • Magic_Cracker

    So are you, like, a journeyman now?

  • JayemGriffin

    They absolutely can! And (in the case of my public university) they are welcome to discriminate all they want- but then they are not eligible for school funding.

  • P J Evans

    Try Brunner’s Shockwave Rider, which says it pretty close to like that, and then has people recognizing that it’s evil, and changing their ways. (Not easily, no.)

  • Lori

    I was in DC when that all happened and it was amazing to me how blatant the Catholic agency’s pettiness was.

    Which was fine really. I definitely consider the DC situation a good outcome. The Catholic agency is no longer receiving tax money to support their discrimination and the DC contract for adoption services is now being administered by an agency that doesn’t discriminate. Plus some petty folks got their undies in a bunch and their fee-fees hurt. Win all the way around, in my opinion.

  • MaryKaye

    Speaking as someone who has led both an unofficial and two official student organizations, a lot of things get vastly easier with recognition. We were allowed to post signs, for example. One of the two official ones got an office in the basement of the Student Union Building. We could reserve rooms on campus to meet, for free. We were mentioned in listings of campus activities. And we had a solid negotiating position when we ran afoul of campus authorities (happened a few times). The unofficial group had a lot of obstacles to face.

    I don’t personally think it’s necessary to put those obstacles in a group’s way just because it is religious. What I *would* encourage is the realization that your campus may need more than one Christian organization, so you mustn’t use this one’s presence as an excuse not to charter another, or several more–however many can show the membership needed to be an official student group. The existing organization, sadly, may fight this; don’t give in.

  • otrame

    “Treating people as things is pretty much the definition of evil.”

    According to Terry Pratchett it is.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Yes, this. I didn’t mean to imply that such would be a bad result. I was just offering an example of what would likely happen.

  • Akili

    This reminds me of the time my college LGBT group voted a anti-LGBT guy as our president based on the fact that A) our vice-president was the one who did most of the work B) the guy wouldn’t stop sprewing on about how we’d never vote for him, so why should any of our kind attempt to get into his religious club and C) we thought it’d be funny as hell to see his face when he won (it was)

  • fredgiblet

    Good end achieved.

  • arcseconds

    You know, just on the subject of a born-again Christian becoming head of an athiest alliance…

    I have it that one of Hypatia’s students was invited to become a bishop in a North African city.

    Now, there’s so remarkable about that especially. Or maybe there is: Hypatia, after all, was a pagan philosopher martyred by Christians. But she had Christian followers as well as pagan ones, so casting this as a Christian offense against philosophy and reason, it might be better to see it as part of the more general phenomenon of douchebags (violent ones in this case) versus civil people.

    Anyway, the remarkable thing about this is that this guy wasn’t one of Hypatia’s Christian students, but rather a pagan. Apparently nevertheless he was considered the best candidate for the job (well, he was a top student of a top philosopher and mathematician, so of course he was! :] )

    Which I think is a wonderful example of pragmatism and humanity overcoming dogma :]

    He did convert to take up the chair, though.

    His first sermon got a lot of flak and was seen by many to be heretical, and his response was “well, I’ve only been Christian for 72 hours! Give me a bloody chance here, alright?”

  • Martin

    Cool! a Depeche Mode record cover :-)

  • I dearly want to know how that ended.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Nobody is saying deny them recognition simply because they’re religious. But if they want recognition, they need to follow the rules. And the rules say no sexual discrimination.

    If they insist on discriminating, then they need to be unrecognized so they can do that without breaking any rules.

  • Carstonio

    There was no guarantee that another agency was available. The Church shouldn’t have taken that attitude in the first place. Hard to tell if they believe that same-sex couples want kids just to recruit them into homosexuality, if they fear hell for being insuffiently condemnatory, or if they just like the idea of being humanity’s sexuality police.

  • Hypocee

    A woman who, like most early Pratchett characters, had evolved quite a bit from her slapstick origins before she stated that philosophy.

  • P J Evans

    They probably have a hard time wrapping their brains around it. (A friend of mine described me as ‘out beyond the 2-sigma point on the low end of the normal curve’, which is pretty nearly the same thing.)

  • I think that at it’s core, it’s about being privileged and entitled by your religion over “the other” who are not of the “tribe,” religion, race, class, sex etc. Gay is a worldwide egalitarian movement. and egalitarian movements are disconcerting to people who believe in the righteousness of privilege.

    Here is a chapter from a book by a local megachurch pastor on God’s privileged, born again nobility from his book. Pastor Smothermon has thrown open the doors to his church to people like Scott Lively and Rick Scarborough, and is locally well known for his anti-Gay rights activism. To me, it reads like thinly disguised white supremacism. But, maybe it’s just me?

  • True, but even late in her evolution, she cast a spell on a man to make him think he was a frog, in retribution for calling her a bully.

  • Abigail Nussbaum

    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.”

    I’m not sure that the first option would be at all preferable. It would essentially mean that a secular institution was defining Christianity for its Christian student. Or, more precisely, rejecting their definition of Christianity, but as objectionable as we might find that definition, rejecting it implies putting another one in its place, and I don’t really think that’s the university’s job.

    I’m reminded of a case in the UK from a few years ago. An orthodox Jewish school rejected a student because his mother’s conversion was non-orthodox, and therefore by the school’s definition the student wasn’t Jewish. The parents took the case to court, which ruled that the student was too Jewish because he and his parents affirmed their Jewishness and lived a Jewish lifestyle. So not only have you got a secular court deciding who is and is not Jewish, that court belies its alleged secular nature through its ruling, which reflects the profound influence that Christianity has had on UK culture and habits of thought: the notion that a person belongs to religion X if they affirm it and live an X-ian lifestyle is a Christian, not Jewish one (or, at least, not orthodox Jewish).

    I’m not necessarily saying that the school was right in their choice – conversion is a fraught issue for Jews, and the issue of the orthodox rejecting non-orthodox conversion is a particular sticking point. But it’s not the place of non-Jews, or secular institutions, to settle this issue, and given the choice I wouldn’t fault anyone for saying, when faced with this question “OK, now you can’t have faith schools of any kind.”

  • I’m fairly sure it’s from Witches Abroad?

  • Turcano

    Carpe Jugulum, actually.

  • arcseconds

    Yeah, Mordicai and Carstonio have it right below.

    If the rules say no discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation (and they should), a Christian group has to obey those rules just like everyone else. We wouldn’t let a jock group kick out gay people because they’re pansies, so we shouldn’t let a Christian group kick them out because God hates fags.

    I can sort of see how there becomes a difficulty because you probably don’t want carnivores joining the vegan club and trying to vote in steak dinners all the time, but on the other hand, the chess club probably shouldn’t be able to kick out someone because when they aren’t playing chess they’ve got a perchant for all-you-can-eat spareribs.

    But I think it’s fine to say ‘well, we’re OK with clubs restricting some behaviour more than the wider university does when it’s to do with the core focus of the club, but there are non-negotiable limits to this. If you had told us up front that a core focus of yours is discriminating against gay people, then we’d never have let you sign up.’

  • Both? :P Maybe even all three?

  • The_L1985

    Not surprised.

  • misanthropy_jones

    yeah. still haven’t finished my masterpiece…

  • Lectorel

    In general, it seems like her hypocrisy, like the hypocrisy of many pratchett characters, is acknowledged by the text and gently laughed at, even while acknowledging her positive characteristics.

  • DavidCheatham

    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.

    Um, I don’t understand this analogy at all. Do groups not select _their own_ leader? Do they not _vote_ for them? President of a club is not a ‘job’, it is an _elected position_. The members can base their vote on whatever they want. We also wouldn’t cry fowl (although we’d be very confused) if a Southern Baptist church voted in an Orthodox rabbi as their pastor.

    Reading the actual blog post eventually linked seems to imply what is actually going on is that InterVarsity somehow has some sort of chapter ‘oversight’ that keeps local groups from electing a leader that _they want as leader_.

    No gay person is actually saying ‘They did not vote me president because I was gay’. What is _actually_ happening is that InterVarsity says ‘Gay people cannot run for office in local chapters, even if the local chapter wants it. We can override that.’.

    Frankly, the solution here is to ‘Any official club here, and club that get _any_ support from this college in any way, must be entirely controlled by _students_ at this college. They can certainly affiliate themselves with other groups, but control must remain in a majority vote of the actual student members of the group, of whom any student at this college can join by paying required dues.'(1)

    If a club doesn’t want gay people as officers, the solution is not _not elect_ gay people as officers. The problem that InterVarsity is running into is that some of their clubs _do_ want gay people as officers, and they would like the power to ban that.

    1) Technically, some stuff requires a supermajority, like changing bylaw and suspending the rules during a meeting. So some groups think they can cleverly put in a bylaw provision that says only straight people can hold office, and requiring unanimous consent to change that bylaw provision. But it is inappropriate for any _subjective_ requirements for office or membership (Such as beliefs or sexual orientation) to be in the bylaws or as a standing rule. Mainly because whether or not anyone falls _under_ the rule is decided by, tada, a vote of the majority of membership. So if a gay person shows up that 55% of the membership wants in office, someone would challenge their nomination on the basis that person was gay…and that would simply result in the membership taking a vote on ‘gayness’ and voting that person is really a straight person! Which is why such a thing is…not a good idea and gets stupid fast. The only things that should be in the rules for officers are stuff that the secretary can objectively state, like requiring membership for X year, or stuff the nominee can objectively prove, like that they are over 18.

    And, incidentally, actually putting an exclusion of gay people _in_ the bylaws really would open them up to discrimination lawsuits, as opposed to just _not voting_ for gay people, which is entirely legal. So they’re having to phrase it as ‘only Christians can run’, which is even stupider, because if the majority of the group has no problem with a gay person being leader of their Christian group, they obviously are going to vote that such a person falls under the ‘Christian’ requirement.

  • histrogeek

    In fairness, Kant said the same thing (more or less, Kant would never be that comprehensible) some years before Prachett and Fred.

  • Donalbain

    If a group is not open to ALL students of the university, then it should not be recognised by the university. That is the policy at the university where I studied, and I think is the case in most universities I have ever had dealings with.

  • histrogeek

    I think there is often, particularly in academia but hardly limited to it, a bureaucratic mindset that we just need the right regulation for everything to be hunky-dory. Both IVCF and whatever university they are jousting with have the same problem, they want a rule to forestall members making the “wrong” decision.

    The university is on better ground since non-discrimination in membership should be part of any campus group (i.e. a Muslim, atheist, or whatever could join IVCF if they wanted and just trust that ordinary rules would be adequate if such a person want to cause trouble. More likely though such a person would just join to be near someone they were interested in.). But non-discrimination in membership is not the same as non-discrimination in elected leadership.

  • When I was a college student, there were a number of fraternities recognized by the university that did not accept female members. For the most part, they were associated with national organizations that made such restrictions a condition of association.

    It has been a while since I was a college student, though, and I don’t know if that’s still true. I would be surprised and pleased to learn it wasn’t.

    Peripherally anecdotally: a non-resident service fraternity I belonged to had done away with their enforced men-only policy in recent memory, and the story was often told of the national convention at which that policy change was discussed, at which our Chapter President spoke up in favor of changing it. As I recall, her speech was well (albeit bemusedly) received.