Shame on you Bowdoin College

A good example of how anti-Christian hostility can manifest itself in our society.

College administrators, in their role of administrators, should not choose sides in this theological debate. But when they imply that a Christian group should accept a non-Christian leader, then they have entered that debate. That Christian group has decided that leadership must be with their same religious tradition and does not accept the premise that all religions led to the same God. The college has no business dictating otherwise.

 

Next year I anticipate having a book out that will look more deeply into the anti-Christian hostility in our society. When it comes out, I will do a blog or three on the findings in that book. But this blog entry will not deal with those findings. Instead, one of the questions I considered as I conducted this research is how the anti-Christian hostility can manifest itself in our society.

Then we get Bowdoin College with a near perfect example of how anti-Christian hostility can manifest itself. Since those with hostility towards Christians tend to be highly educated, wealthy and white, they tend to be in positions of institutional power – such as the administration of a college. (That is a finding in my new research but can also be seen in my previous work) They would be likely to extrinsically embrace a value of tolerance and yet would likely use measures with a disparate impact against Christians if such measures would enable them to express their hostility. It is in this context that I understand the recent controversy at Bowdoin College.

To those of you who have not heard of this controversy here is a quick recap. As seen in a New York Times article, the college recently decided to enforce a rule stating that student organizations must make all leadership roles open to any student regardless of sex, religion, sexual preference or race. The Intervarsity organization insists that it is a Christian organization and only wants Christians in leadership positions. As such, they have refused to sign a statement indicating that their leadership positions are open to non-Christians.

One could argue that they should have signed the document and then do what they wanted with their leadership, but evidently they had too much integrity to engage in such dishonesty. Nevertheless, I am not sure such a strategy would work long-term as a non-Christian may challenge for leadership and then claim discrimination if he or she does not gain a leader’s role. As a result of Intervarsity’s refusal to make their leadership open to those who do not share the beliefs of the group, they are no longer a recognized student organization.

Other religious groups have been willing to sign the document and retain campus recognition. I can only assume that they have an ecumenical tradition of including individuals of different religious beliefs in their leadership structure or have no intention of abiding by the demands in the document. Either way, this is a policy that disproportionately punishes conservative Christian groups that want to maintain an ideological and/or theological purity to their organizations.

Such desires are not unrealistic given the work of Dean Kelley who years ago argued that the strictness a religious organization maintains with its rules and ideas help that religious organization to grow. This policy is a way to minimize the potential impact of conservative Christian groups with the illusion that one is fair.

In the age of an IRS where at least some progressive activists have subjected conservative groups to more scrutiny than progressive groups, one should be suspicious that even a rule that on the surface seems to be neutral will be applied in a non-neutral manner. Yet even if applied in a fair manner, this seemingly nonpartisan rule seems geared to support certain beliefs and puts the university on the side of certain religious ideas over others – something that violates notions of religious neutrality.

In the next paragraph, I will begin to explain why this sort of rule favors certain religious ideas and expressions over others, but I should note that I am not the first person to write about this controversy. Some have also expressed distain for Bowdoin’s decision while others have attempted to support it. As it is clear from the title of this entry, I am part of the former group. But I have taken advantage of not writing about this topic as soon as the New York Times article to more clearly think about the issue and to read the comments supporting and criticizing this policy. After laying out the problems I see with the policy, I will also address some arguments put forth in support of it.

The supporters of the policy argue that leadership of all groups should be open to anybody regardless of their religious beliefs. This does not mean that anyone will become a leader but that they can run for the office of leader in the group. Right from the start we have an attitude supporting a certain perspective which makes this policy non-neutral: the idea that democracy, or a vote in the group, is the acceptable way to choose a leader.

Many religious groups believe that leadership should be selected by an elite group rather than from the masses. Others may simply look for a sign from God as to who their leader should be. I may agree or disagree with non-democratic methods but if I impose an idea of democracy into how a religious group chooses its leader, then I am no longer using a non-neutral policy.

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