A Conservative Christian’s Reflections on Life in the Legal Ivory Tower

by
October 13, 2014

Tish Warren’s recent essay in Christianity Today brought many questions back up to the surface for me and many Christians who have been associated with Vanderbilt University over the past few years. Did we do everything we could to stand up for truth in a loving and compassionate way during the debates over religious association policies? What role did we play as we urged administrators to realize we are not the equivalent of segregationists and we just want to ensure our Christian organization leaders are in fact followers of Christ? What lessons can other students at other schools learn from what we went through?

Difficult and repeated questioning is nothing new to me. This is the first year in the past decade that neither my wife nor I are enrolled as students at Vanderbilt as undergrad students and/or law students. We both have two degrees from Vanderbilt, and held leadership positions in many of the organizations affected by the policy changes. We are often asked about our experiences there and the current status of religious life.

For me, the answer to these questions can not be fully understood without first analyzing the reason I chose to attend Vanderbilt in the first place, most significantly why I chose to enter Vanderbilt Law School.

Every law student is inevitably forced to answer the same questions from professors, family, and friends: “Why did you go to law school and why do you want to be an attorney?” Admirable yet unrealistic answers are plentiful. Most of these answers are idealistic and hopeful to change the world for the better, but they lack core conviction or the courage to forge a new path. Law school is expensive and loan payments are brutal. The legal job market is still scarce and food must be put on the table.

My answer was no different. I just masked my idealism with humor by replying that I have always wanted to be Atticus Finch or Ben Matlock. Professors would roll their eyes and point their finger at my meager attempts to be a class clown, while the few students paying attention would snicker or ask their neighbor who Atticus or Matlock were.

Yet in many ways, my joke contained truth. As a conservative Christian who grew up going to Memphis public schools and taught at one of the highest-need public high schools in Nashville before attending law school, Atticus Finch and Ben Matlock represented what I felt the legal profession needed.

Rigorous defenses of the vulnerable in a world of oppression.

Courageous voices against the mob mentality of popular opinion and easy answers.

Winsome engagement with opponents, realizing the need to persuade instead of the temptation to annihilate.

I entered the ivory tower of academia somewhat jaded from the start. In the fall of 2011, newly married to a rising 3L at Vanderbilt Law School and coming off two years of teaching U.S. History and U.S. Government, I missed the trenches of teaching 35-student classes at a struggling school. I may have had days teaching where I felt like a failure, but I was still the man in the arena, as Teddy Roosevelt classically said.

My wife warned me that the transition from the trenches to the legal classroom would prove frustrating. She learned this lesson first hand having entered law school two years before me, fresh off the mission field in rural South Africa where she cared for HIV/AIDS orphans.

And she was right. I found myself sitting in the library, analyzing cases, and wondering what I was doing with myself. I couldn’t help but ask similar questions that my students used to ask me – what was the point in studying this arcane material when there was so much turmoil and tragedy happening all around the globe and in the communities right next door?

It was in those moments when I was forced to make a choice. Did I enter law school to simply earn a degree and put food on my families’ table, an admirable desire to say the least? Or was more required of me? Was I called as a follower of Christ to engage with my peers and professors in tough ethical, philosophical, and cultural debate, asking tough questions about the nature of law and truth, despite the ridicule that might follow?

And if I chose the latter, did the culture war waging in the Vanderbilt Chancellor’s office and within the various campus ministries I led change my responsibility to speak truth with convictional kindness in my classroom?

I chose the latter. Imperfect and ineloquent as I often was, I attempted to engage in tough conversations about truth in the classroom, while simultaneously joining leaders like Tish in challenging the university’s restriction of religious liberty outside of the classroom.

There are many cynical clichés about law school and the legal profession.

“It’s a pie-eating contest where the only reward is more pie.”

We have all heard the jokes about lawyers and the depressing statistics about the profession I’ve chosen. And this essay would likely get more clicks if I talked about how I felt so oppressed and disrespected at law school and my conservative Christian worldview was mocked daily.

But that’s just not the case. In fact, when I chose to engage in tough conversations, some of my professors who disagreed most vehemently with my conservative, confessional Christian values and world view were the kindest, most respectful, and most appreciative of me ardently defending those views in class and in the law school community.

Now, let me be clear: in my Con Law II class, there were not many voices arguing against the so-called constitutional right to an abortion or arguing why “morality” should be a valid governmental interest for the purposes of constitutional analysis. In fact, I was the only one raising the point that rejecting “morality” as a foundation for laws only meant that traditional Judeo-Christian morality would be excluded from the public policy-making square in exchange for a supposedly morally-neutral, secular philosophy.

But overall, my colleagues treated me with respect. There were many who I debated quite often, inside and outside of the classroom, who remain good friends of mine, encouraging me to keep fighting the good fights because the arguments I made deserved a proper hearing in the public square.

It is no secret that many higher education institutions founded on faith find themselves carving away at religious association rights formerly protected in student handbooks. As has been quite documented, Vanderbilt is no exception.

In her recently published essay in Christianity Today, Tish Harrison Warren bravely and eloquently outlines the lessons learned from Vanderbilt’s “forfeit[ing the] robust understanding of religious pluralism.” As I worked alongside Tish to try to convince Vanderbilt administrators, many of whom are close friends from my stint in undergraduate as Vanderbilt Student Body President, I too thought that “a winsome faith would win Christians a place at Vanderbilt’s table.” I too wanted to believe that rational reasonableness, compassion, and nuance would win the day and produce a compromise that prohibited all discrimination and protected religious creedal association.

However, this dream has sadly not yet been realized at Vanderbilt. The administration has chosen to move forward with their “all-comers” policy, and most Christian student groups have been forced to formally leave campus as a result.

Reflecting on the lessons learned, Tish says it best in her essay:

Our task moving forward is to resist bitterness, cynicism, or retaliation, demonizing the university or the culture. […] We have to forgive and to look squarely at places in our own heart that require repentance. In community, we must develop the craft of being both bold and irenic, truthful and humble.

And while we grieve rejection, we should not be shocked or ashamed by it. That probationary year unearthed a hidden assumption that I could be nuanced or articulate or culturally engaged or compassionate enough to make the gospel more acceptable to my neighbors. But that belief is prideful. From its earliest days, the gospel has been both a comfort and an offense. […]

Throughout history and even now, Christians in many parts of the world face not only rejection but violent brutality. What they face is incomparably worse than anything we experience on U.S. college campuses, yet they tutor us in compassion, courage, and subversive faithfulness. We need not be afraid; the gospel is as unstoppable as it is unacceptable. [… The students are still there.]

They’re still there in labs and classrooms, researching languages and robotics, reflecting God’s creativity through the arts and seeking cures for cancer. They are still loving their neighbors, praying, struggling, and rejoicing. You can find them proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, in daily ordinariness. And though it is more difficult than it was a few years ago, ministry continues on campus, often on the margins and just outside the gates. God is still beautifully at work. And his mercy is relentless.

Vanderbilt’s unwise policies have made it more difficult for many campus ministries to continue to love and serve Vanderbilt’s campus. But I discovered that policies or popular opinions hostile to conservative, Christian views written down in creeds need not be determinative of how hostile things are personally and practically.

The Dean of Vanderbilt Law School always went above and beyond to be welcoming and accommodating to the Christian Legal Society while still being within the letter of Vanderbilt’s absurd policies. Students who would call my views bigoted were often still friendly to me as an individual, respecting me even if they did not respect my views.

Why do I draw this careful distinction? I have found in my limited experience that standing up for conservative Christian groups, people, and beliefs is more effective when arguing with winsome conviction, or what Dr. Russell Moore calls convictional kindness. I like to think that I never shied away from my unpopular viewpoints and arguments during law school, while being sure to make the most compelling argument possible. But I made every effort (sometimes failing) to do so persuasively and winsomely.

As Tish writes more eloquently than I ever could, this does not guarantee a policy victory. In fact, it can make losses sting all the more. But God does not give us the right to sulk, complain, or retaliate. We are called to continually love and continually stand for what is right. And my experience at law school reinforced lessons I seem to be learning every day of my life. We must stand for what is right. We must sacrificially love those around us. But we don’t have to back down from policy battles as long as we realize the preeminence of personal relationships. God’s mercies, love, and truth continue to pour through us even in the midst of policy losses.

It’s a necessary reminder for us. God’s love and grace does not depend on us winning or being effective. We are called to be loving and faithful. My three years in the legal ivory tower taught me that we are not guaranteed the winning percentage of Ben Matlock. Fighting the right way for what is right in the trenches is much more similar to Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson. As Atticus said, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”


Joseph Williams
Joseph Williams is a constitutional lawyer and ERLC Associate Research Fellow.