I'll never forget Ruth Malhotra and Orit Sklar's battle against Georgia Tech. After enduring years of censorship on campus, including campus police disruptions of their events and a personal admonition from the university president to be silent, these two brave young women—one Christian, one Jewish—launched a legal challenge to a series of unconstitutional policies at the university. The school imposed a "speech code" on its students, threatening to punish any actions it found "intolerant," it confined free speech to a small "speech zone" on campus, and—incredibly—even published a "Safe Space" manual that purported to evaluate and endorse specific religions, explicitly preferring Buddhists over Baptists.
The legal battle was fierce, but liberty triumphed. The school changed its unconstitutional policies, the judge struck down its Safe Space manual as violating the Establishment Clause, and Ruth and Orit were awarded their attorneys' fees and costs.
But sometimes it didn't feel like a triumph. At the height of the case, Ruth was threatened with rape, disfigurement, and death. She moved out of her sorority house for fear of endangering her sorority sisters, and she had police protection on campus. Orit was subject to an avalanche of vitriol and slander.
But why? What were these young women doing that was so dangerous, so wrong? After all, when they won their case, every single student at Georgia Tech enjoyed greater free speech rights. Ruth and Orit were persecuted for defending liberty and attacked for their conservatism (for example, they had the radical idea of protesting the administration's sponsorship of the Vagina Monologues).
If there was ever a case where the Christian community should rally around two beleaguered students, this was it.
But on campus, it was not to be.
We were less than a year into the case when someone called to tell me the largest Christian ministry on campus was planning to join the local GLBTQ group in a protest against Ruth and Orit and in support of the school—in support of censorship. When I asked why, the caller said, "They're doing it to preserve their witness to the GLBTQ community."
My response was immediate: "Tell me, please, who is witnessing to whom?"
I was reminded of that incident this week when I saw the Barna Group's six megathemes from their 2010 research. According to Barna, Christians are becoming less theologically literate, less outreach-oriented, and less interested in spiritual principles. They are also more activist and more "tolerant," but there is less visible Christian impact on the culture.
This exactly mirrors what I see as I travel from campus to campus. There, Christianity often correlates with simply being "nice." Religious engagement drops off a cliff, with rates of church attendance plummeting and rates of absolute non-attendance nearly doubling.
You'll often find a Christian community that doesn't talk much about their faith (indeed, they don't know much about it), doesn't engage in explicit Christian activism, but seems eager to serve in ways that everyone finds appealing. Protect the environment? Yes. Serve soup at a soup kitchen (on occasion)? Yes. Defend the unborn? Maybe. Defend marriage? Definitely not.
In other words, they look a lot like their peers, and if they're a lot like their peers, how can there be evidence of distinctly Christian impact on culture? As one friend said after visiting an Ivy League campus known for its liberal politics, "I met an amazing group of Christian kids. They loved Jesus and hated America. I couldn't tell which feeling was more intense."
I had a front-row seat during Ruth and Orit's ordeal, and I can understand the temptation to stay on the sidelines—especially if you have no real knowledge of your own faith or its indispensable contributions to our culture. Devoid of biblical knowledge, Christians experience cultural resistance as proof they have done something wrong and conform their behavior accordingly—often apologizing profusely for their fellow Christians in the process.
Yet doesn't scripture note that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing? Didn't Christ promise His followers they would face persecution? Yet our own biblical ignorance and the fear of man press us into religious conformity, and we believe if we're just nice enough, if we can just distance ourselves from those "bad" Christians, then we can really make a difference.
But if we're just like our peers, what exactly is our witness? As we beg, "like me, please," how can we call a world to repentance?
"Repent from what?" is the logical answer. After all, if we're the ones striving to meet the world's standards, then the conversion has already occurred.
And we are the converted.