First, a little background . . .
Recently, a student at Vanderbilt University was asked to resign membership from a Christian fraternity allegedly because he was a homosexual. This incident led to a period of introspection by university higher ups. This spring the big wigs rolled out a new directive. They call it the all-comer’s policy. Essentially, no registered student organization is allowed to bar students from membership based upon beliefs. Nothing short of a maelstrom followed.
Religious groups are left in limbo. Some decided to forego official status but remain on campus. Some are still trying to decide.
As a Tennessee native and life long Baptist, I am going to focus on the Baptist response. The Baptist Collegiate Ministries run by the Tennessee Baptist Convention first suggested it would comply with the new regulations, but recently changed tack and is leaving. This is the wrong decision.
The following eight points will I hope clarify the issue.
1) The facts of this case are difficult to ascertain from a distance. There could be events or nuances not discernible from a cursory reading of a few articles. Thus, what I say I say with humility. I could be wrong.
2) The issue is difficult. It is not black and white. Sincere believers may easily have different views. Again, humility is needed on all sides.
3) This is not a constitutional issue. Vanderbilt as a private institution has a right to introduce and enforce this policy. Because its implementation followed the fraternity expulsion incident, I do not see it as bullying. I see it as an honest attempt to create an environment of fairness and acceptance for all students. It may be misguided, but I do think it is an honest attempt. This is assuming of course the all-comer’s policy applies to all ideologically driven groups equally. I have not heard anything about how it will affect other such organizations. It seems only the Christians are making news. So do Hindu and Islamic organizations have to accept atheists and Christians? Do College Republicans have to accept Democrats? I don’t know the answer to this, but it appears they do. The policy states unequivocally registered organizations cannot deny membership to a student based on beliefs.
4) This is course the rub for official student associations such as the BCM. How can a religious group maintain any meaningful identity if it is not allowed to on some level discriminate beliefs? It’s a good question. Here however, is where I part from many of my conservative co-religionists. Some commentators seem to think the minute this policy goes into affect, religious groups will be flooded with torch and pitch forking bearing, Christian hater mobs bent on a hostile takeover. But is that the case? It hasn’t happened at Stanford, a school with a policy similar to Vanderbilt’s. And why would it? The all-comer’s policy does not effect the organization’s mission as far as I can tell. Groups can still do, believe, and put in leadership whatever and whoever they want. The school’s provost Richard McCarty emphasized this in a recent town hall meeting with concerned students. Maybe a group can’t mandate a president lead in bible study as part of its’ written constitution, but what is to stop the same group from electing a president who will do just that? Nothing. So are we really to think a person antithetical to Christianity would want to join a Christian organization, much less bring dozens of friends to bother with a hostile takeover? And if this happened, so what? The Christians could just start another group. Or better yet, return the favor! Non discrimination is a two way street after all. Therefore, I don’t see the all comer’s policy necessitating the BCM’s move away from official status. I simply don’t believe including those of different beliefs will alter the BCM’s purpose, mission, or impact. It could even have a positive effect on all parties.
5) These are not churches we are talking about. They are campus groups who utilize secular university money. Churches are bodies of committed believers functioning as an alternative political reality, a foretaste of the kingdom to come. They are unencumbered by subservience to any government or outside institution. They are guided by the Spirit in growing towards holiness together in community. Churches have not only the right but the responsibility to demand holiness and accountability of their members. That is not the role of a campus organization, not least of which one supported by required fees from all students. This distinction is important for all Christians to keep in mind.
6) Lost in the shuffle is the question of whether or not Christian student groups should be barring people from association based on beliefs or lifestyle in the first place. Should we not want people of all stripes in our midst? Remember it’s not church membership we’re talking about here. Was not the one we call Lord infamous for hobnobbing with sinners, cast offs, misfits, and others shoved to margins of society? Should we not desire every opportunity and every bit of legitimacy possible to get our message of love and redemption out there?
7) It seems to me voluntarily withdrawing from official status is the absolute worse move. It lets the school off the hook. Why not stay, keep your requirements, and make the school kick you out. This forces Vandy’s hand and probably they would have backed down. Do that if you feel you can’t in any way bend. The other option, advocated in this post, is to comply. But why leave voluntarily? It makes no sense.
8) Lastly and most importantly, Vandy’s BCM has a unique, strategic perch in the midst of a major culture making node. Is there anywhere more ripe for influence than an elite college campus? And they are throwing it away. Baptists are sending a message of fear, when we should be welcoming all to come and see what we’re made of. I just don’t see how we’re accomplishing anything by taking our ball and going home because we don’t get to dictate every term.
That is why the BCM’s decision is lamentable. I earnestly pray and hope they will change course. I have to believe a comprise of some sort can be worked out.
Don’t get me wrong. It is regrettable Vanderbilt feels the need to institute this policy. It is regrettable our society has reached a place where Christian uniqueness is offensive. The BCM and others need to continue to press Vanderbilt, call out the school out on its’ hypocrisy, and appeal to religious liberty for reconsideration.
To conclude, let’s reframe the debate a little bit. What if we ask different questions? What if Christian students groups made themselves indispensable to the university through their charity on behalf of others and clarity on behalf of the intellect? What projects could we take on or adapt to make this happen? What are we afraid of? What are we waiting for?