What Vanderbilt Says, What Vanderbilt Does

What Vanderbilt Says, What Vanderbilt Does January 25, 2015

Most Christians know about what has been called the “5 love languages.” If you have not heard of it, I suggest you look it up, whether you are Christian or not, as it is a good way to help us understand our relationships. My love language is acts of service. You can tell me how much you care about me all you want but if you are treating me badly then I will never believe you. Love languages do not only apply to romance but to our everyday relationships. Thus my read of how people treat me is relevant in my friendships in that I believe that my friends care about me by how they treat me. I really do not care about what people say. I deeply care about what people do. That is how I process my interactions with others.

That perspective helps me to understand the recent controversy concerning a professor at Vanderbilt – Dr. Carol Swain. She is a professor of law and political science who is an incredible rarity in academia, an outspoken black conservative. She recently penned an op-ed in the Tennessean entitled “Charlie Hebdo attacks prove critics were right about Islam.” Her controversial article caught the attention of many of the Muslim students at Vanderbilt. Those students soon organized protests against her. Farishtay Yamin, an undergraduate student, commented that she wanted the protest to reach the administration so that they could “…ensure that this campus will always be a safe place for Muslims to learn.” They did get the attention of the administration. The Dean of Students, Dr. Mark Bandas, sent a letter to the entire student body to make sure that the administration acknowledges the offensive nature of the article and that they do not support Swain’s arguments.

Before I go on, allow me to clarify what this blog entry is not about. I am not defending the contents of Swain’s letter. Her sentiments are most definitely not my own. Since I offer no expertise in dealing with terrorism, I choose to remain publically silent on this topic but needless to say, the argument she makes is way out of balance for my taste and even she herself later wrote that it was too strong. I am also not arguing about people’s right to protest her. That is part of the greatness of free speech. As long as the university does not fire her for her comments, then let the dialog continue.

But what has caught my attention about this situation is where it is taking place – Vanderbilt. This is the same university that adopted an all-comers policy that resulted in the removal of many Christian student organizations. I railed against such polices at Bowdoin, and feel no better about the Vanderbilt policy. For those who do not know about this policy, it states that student organizations cannot have religious requirements for membership or for leadership. Even religious organizations cannot require that the president of the organization is an adherent of that particular faith. If that sounds outrageous, then you know why I blogged against the policy. If you do not think this is outrageous, then this update of my objection to this unfair policy will offer further evidence that this policy was never about treating all students fairly but rather was a policy that placated the religious bigotry of college administrators.

Notice that the care the administration decided to show their Muslim students was conspicuously missing in their treatment of Christian students. With the Muslim students there was a concern that they would feel comfortable with their religious identity on campus. With Christian students there was a rush to get them off campus. Let us compare the two situations. At its worst the Muslim students have to put up with a terrible op-ed from a single professor. The op-ed was not in their campus paper but in a local paper, and they can most likely avoid the professor if they fear that the professor will mistreat them. Thus the worst case scenario for Muslim students is that there is a single Islamophobic professor on their campus who occasionally writes insulting columns in local papers.

We should compare this to the situation for Christians. At best they have had the right to have standards for their leaders taken away and they have been kicked off campus for not complying with the administrators’ intrusion. The administration not only provided no assurance that they wanted the university to be a safe place for them to learn with their religious identity, but it prosecuted a policy that overly limited their participation on campus. Thus for Christian students their best case scenario is that their organizations have been kicked off campus. In reality I suspect that they also endure slights and snark from professors in their classes and those professors’ writings. Does anyone seriously think that if a college professor wrote an op-ed decrying conservative Christians as backward, nonthinking sheep who are trying to set up a theocracy that the Vanderbilt administration would send out a statement supporting the college atmosphere for Christian students? A more realistic expectation is that we would see a statement on the free speech of the professor.

I hate to play the victim Olympics but if we are going to consider creating a welcoming environment for college students of different faiths, then we have to compare the two situations of Muslim and Christian students at Vanderbilt. Which is worse as far as having a welcoming attitude for students – a single horrible editorial or being kicked off campus? Needless to say, I think any reasonable person would state that having a single professor, no matter how bad or crazy we may think that professor to be, is not worse than not being able to have your group participate at the university. The very fact that Muslim groups were able to organize against Swain is due to the fact that the university allows them on campus – something that they have denied to several Christian groups. This distinct treatment of the two groups fits right in my recent argument from the University of Colorado data that among religious groups, it is Christians who are most likely to be in an unwelcoming atmosphere.

My recent research on Christianophobia also provides more context for comprehending this situation. In my recent book – So Many Christians, So Few Lions – we documented that those with disaffinity towards Christians are more likely to be highly educated (there was not a significant educational effect when comparing those with disaffinity towards Muslims). Since I would expect the Vanderbilt administrators to be highly educated (as well as have other qualities of individuals with disaffinity with Christians such as political progressiveness and irreligious) it is not surprising that their attitudes towards their Christian students would be less accommodating than their attitudes towards their Muslim students. Indeed it has been noted by Tish Harrison Warren that the all-comers policy has not been implemented at campuses where Muslim groups have protested the policy, and I do not think that Vanderbilt would have implemented the policy had Muslim groups argued against it. The next time I hear of this policy being implemented despite the concerns of Muslim groups will be the first time it has been so implemented.

The article by Warren sheds light on a couple of objections some brought up about my critique of this bigoted policy. Some argue that Christian groups should not receive money if they have an exclusionary policy. I disagree since student groups should be able to exclude from leadership those who do not accept the ideals of the group and still be treated like other groups, but that is beside the point. Warren points out that the Christian groups did not receive funding from the university anyway. They wanted recognition so that they could be on campus and participate with other student organizations in new student orientations. They merely wanted to be able to compete with other groups for students’ attention on a fair playing field. There is no church/state separation issue here.

There was also an argument that it was unrealistic to fear the takeover of Christian groups by non-Christians. I disagree as all it would take is for a small Christian group to do something controversial, such as bring in a pro-life speaker, for progressive students to “organize” a takeover. Given the activism of students who are willing to silence someone like Bill Maher it is not unrealistic to think that they would also work to silence religious groups. But even if I am wrong, Warren points to a simpler problem with the all-comers rule. What happens if a Christian student leader deconverts during his/her term in office and then decides to try to transform the group into this new ideology? The silly all-comers rule makes it impossible to remove the person from leading a group he or she no longer believes in. Even my most ardent detractors cannot deny the possibility that college students alter their perspectives and that this can be troublesome for that student leading a group he or she should no longer be leading. I found her report of the response from the administration quite telling. When she brought up this possibility the administrator reportedly said that the group could merely disband if that happened. So according to this administrator, an entire Christian group should be removed simply because one student decides to no longer be a Christian. Sounds like a great way to create a welcoming atmosphere for Christians right? I mean according to Vanderbilt’s administration’s response to the Swain controversy, this is what is desired for Muslim students.

So that I am not accused of dismissing Islamophobia, let me assure the reader that I know such hatred to be real. One only has to look at the comment section of many articles on Muslims and terrorism to see some of the most despicable statements about Muslims and Islam. The painting of all Muslims with the terrorist label is an issue that we have to control even as we deal with the real problem of terrorism. Stereotypes and dehumanizing Muslims is a problem in our society and we must address it. But Christianophobia is real as well. The way it manifests itself differs from how Islamophobia has developed and different individuals tend to be afflicted with it. While Islamphobia is a problem in our society, I do not fear that the Vanderbilt administrators have it. I have great concern that they have Christianophobia, and their decisions about how to run their university reflects their own personal prejudices.

At the end of the day, college administrators are like everyone else. They desire to reward those that they like and punish those that they do not like. My research, given the likely demographics of who is a college administrator, suggests that they do not like conservative Christians but may have some affinity towards Muslims. This does not make those college administrators evil. It merely makes them human. What I do hold the Vanderbilt administrators responsible for is the assertion that policies such as the all-comers are religiously neutral. Religious groups that are less willing to defend their doctrines are going to be disproportionally mistreated by this policy. The welcoming attitude administrators have towards Muslims, and rejecting attitude they have towards Christians, informs me about their true perspective of these distinct religious groups. Their actions, not their statements on desiring equality, speak more loudly to me about their true intent. And thus we come full circle about how my love language has helped me to understand the Vanderbilt controversy.

Having studied issues of race and ethnicity I am well acquainted with the notion of institutional racism. This is racism that occurs due to the institutions and laws in our society. The institutional norms and rules often work to the disadvantage of people of color regardless of the intent of those who created those rules and norms. The all-comers policy is a great example of institutionalized Christianophobia. It clearly has a disproportionate effect on Christian student groups as they are the ones who are de-recognized on campuses. However, given this new information, I questioned whether this effect is unintentional. We have seen that the Vanderbilt administration can be sensitive to the concerns of religious groups as long as they do not serve conservative Christians. If we truly want a campus that welcomes people of all faiths then when implementing a policy that disproportionally punishes certain groups, it is the responsibility of the policy’s supporters to show it to be absolutely necessary. I am not convinced that the right of an atheist to run a Christian group is more important than the rights of Christians to set whatever theological standards they want for their leadership.

Of course we will never have absolute proof of the intentions of the administrators at Vanderbilt or Bowdoin or the California state system, which also implemented these biased rules. But the differing ways Muslim students are treated in contrast to Christian students at Vanderbilt clearly indicates that it is not religion in general that college administrators opposed but certain brands of Christianity. The administrators do not want to welcome all students to the college campuses but those who have the right religious “beliefs.” You do not have to take my word for it. Just look at the actions of the Vanderbilt administrators.

Browse Our Archives