Have Christian Colleges Lost Their Way?

by
June 9, 2014

When Notre Dame and Boston College conferred honors upon heads of state who work to secure abortion rights—respectively, President Obama and the Prime Minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny—thousands of alumni, students, and parents signed petitions, wrote open letters and editorials, and protested publicly. Bishops and prominent Catholic intellectuals refused to attend the events. Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon declined an honor from Notre Dame, which she was to have received alongside President Obama. The controversies prompted reflection, much of it thoughtful, about what it means for a college or university to call itself a Catholic college or university. At least in Notre Dame’s case, that reflection has borne fruit.

Protestant Christians have not had that conversation about our own colleges and universities. It is time to discuss the matter.

What makes evangelical and other Protestant Christian (Reformed, Churches of Christ, Baptist…) colleges and universities distinctive is supposed to be what makes them effective at informing and disciplining young minds. Two commitments stand out. First, an emphasis on the primacy of scriptural authority is thought to give students access to, knowledge of, and hearts inclined toward God’s special revelation.

Second, the Christian insistence that faith and reason are allies is understood to enable and embolden students to pursue and witness about what is good, right, and true. The alliance of faith and reason is not merely an intellectual but also a moral matter, a source of inclination toward truth. It is supposed to be why Christian college graduates go off to do good things in the world.

When Christian colleges are willing to compromise those commitments, their students suffer. But the colleges also place themselves in peril. Parents, students, and donors might reasonably wonder: Do Christian colleges have a unique reason for being, or are they merely attractive campuses where students encounter the liberal arts, among hundreds of such places?

Authority of the Bible

A couple of years ago, the Bible department of a Christian university advertised a public event on the question whether to support a law defining marriage as marriage, i.e. the union of a man and a woman. The advertisement promised that four clergy would speak to the issue, two in favor of the marriage law, two against it. Professors in the same university wrote an editorial which encouraged students to vote against the law. In other words, the discussion proceeded on the premise that there are more than one Christian definitions of marriage, as if marriage were a changeful, malleable, institution which can be redefined by law and other human institutions.

Some Christian educators assert that this way of framing the discussion is necessary for academic dialogue. That’s just not true. This is not to deny that Christian educators do well to engage winsomely with non-Christians in public discourse about moral issues. I have participated in public debates and discussions about abortion, assisted suicide, and the meaning of marriage with non-Christians. Of all the thank you notes I have received, one of my favorites was from the LGBT(AQ…) society at a secular law school, thanking me for “being willing” to participate in a forum they hosted about marriage laws and to “share [my] view.” That view was simply the case for real (biblical) marriage, made in non-biblical terms—with appeal to the coherence of law, the rights of children, the duties of adults, etc. The students and faculty in attendance had never heard it before, and were fascinated. After the event, several students stayed to continue the conversation, which dove into more fundamental questions, such as the relationship between law and morality, the role of reasons and religion in legal discourse, and the meaning of empathy.

Discourse with non-Christians has enormous pedagogical, as well as moral, value. And Christian institutions should be commended for hosting and encouraging dialogue with non-Christians on all matters of civic importance. But when Christian college faculty cast doubt upon the biblical conception of marriage they risk causing intellectual and moral harm to their students and the community. And they cast doubt upon the commitments of their institutions.

If we are committed to the authority of the Bible, there is one answer to the question what marriage is. The Bible does not endorse marriage as anything other than the one-flesh union of a man and woman, and never even speaks of marriage as a genderless institution. And if marriage is not the union of a man and a woman, then what is it? For anyone who thinks that the Bible equivocates on marriage, it is not enough to observe that there are both central cases and borderline cases of marriage in the Bible. No one doubts that there were better and worse marriages in ancient times, just as there are today. Christian teaching on marriage has not changed in twenty centuries in part because the Bible has not changed. Equivocation on the meaning of marriage indicates a willingness to make the meaning and authority of the Bible negotiable.

That law establishes a civil, rather than religious, institution of marriage does not create space for good-faith disagreement among Christians. Some conception of marriage is going to be enshrined in law, either a true conception or a false one. And American Christians cannot avoid responsibility for what the law teaches; we live in a democratic republic. A vote to abolish from marriage law the distinction between men and women is a vote to eradicate the legal offices for fathers and mothers, to eliminate the legal right of children to be raised by the people who gave them life, and to force an unbiblical conception of human sexuality on our own institutions (including our colleges and universities) as well as others. Civil marriage is a public institution, and marriage law applies to everyone. Support for redefining marriage in law just is support for destroying marriage as a public institution. That Christian educators should lend support to that effort is troubling.

Note well: I am not advocating for a particular policy. I am not arguing that faculty who advocate marriage revisionism be sacked, or that only non-Christians must be invited to present non-Christian or anti-Christian views. But it is important to point out the costs of promoting confusion about Christian teaching on marriage, and to acknowledge that less confusing means of addressing these controversies are available. To adapt terminology from law, a Christian college should have a compelling reason to present non-Christian views as ostensibly Christian, and it should adopt the least morally-costly means of achieving that goal.

Moral Witness

Also a couple years ago, a Christian college invited then-Senator John Kerry, now the Secretary of State, to deliver a talk titled, “On Faith.” The lecture was advertised as the inaugural event in a series of lectures which would keep “a thoughtful Christian perspective at the forefront of contemporary cultural issues.” This move puzzled and even shocked many of the college’s alumni and supporters. Secretary Kerry has on many occasions contributed to the deliberate killing of unborn human beings. He is a vocal and tireless advocate for abortion rights and for public funding for organizations that provide abortions, such as Planned Parenthood. He has worked to secure public funding for research that entails the destruction of human beings in their embryonic stage of development, when they are most vulnerable.

In short, John Kerry’s public words and actions have been the very contradiction of a Christian perspective on the most fundamental moral issues of our day. What possible conception of a “Christian perspective” could have justified the Kerry event? The science is clear that human life begins at conception. And one of the clearest of Christian principles is the prohibition against murder. So the only question is whether we have the will to extend protection from murder to all human beings.

Public subsidies for abortion and embryo destruction are not merely policy or political issues, like immigration enforcement or the lawfulness of carbon emissions. To hold Senator Kerry out as a model of Christian witness is to risk forfeiting one’s own witness to the faith of many Christians who have courageously fought for the most vulnerable of God’s beloved creatures.

This is because to be pro-choice on abortion is to repeat the error of those who were pro-choice on slavery a century ago. It is either to accept or to claim that some human beings are less worthy of legal protection than others. Articulating, defending, and acting on the truth that all human lives are intrinsically valuable and equally deserving of legal protection is an indispensable aspect of Christian witness. American and British Christians in the nineteenth century defended this truth, and therefore stood against legalized slavery. For the same reason, Christians must oppose legal support for abortion.

Moral Muddle

The confusion about abortion and marriage is particularly striking in light of the stands that Christian college leaders have taken. A few years ago, several administrators of Christian colleges joined other evangelical leaders in signing a document called the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI). The ECI affirmed the importance of “moral witness,” but then proceeded to obscure that witness. The ECI declaimed that “Christian Moral Convictions Demand” certain responses to the issue of global warming, including “national legislation requiring sufficient economy-wide reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through cost-effective, market based mechanisms such as a cap-and-trade program.”

What Christian principle resolves the question how much carbon dioxide Americans should be permitted to emit? What is the Christian answer to that question? The answer must be more than zero. To state that obvious fact is to demonstrate that this problem is not a moral or theological problem at all. It is instead a pragmatic problem, to be resolved by technical expertise and prudential deliberation. Indeed, one must answer many additional, complex questions, implicating expertise in science, engineering, economics, law and other disciplines, before one can in confidence conclude that a cap-and-trade program would do more good than harm.

Of course Christians ought to be good stewards of God’s creation. Any disagreement is about the complex and numerous means of fulfilling that obligation. To suggest that Christians have a moral obligation to support a particular, national policy governing carbon emissions is to reveal a profound confusion about reason, morality, and obligation.

Clarity: The Path to Institutional Flourishing

Nevertheless, there are hopeful signs. Faculty, staff, and administrators from Christian colleges are among the hundreds of thousands of people who have signed the Manhattan Declaration, pledging to affirm the intrinsic value of life and marriage, and the importance of religious liberty. Some Christian colleges have ventured their resources and reputations in defense of life by filing lawsuits to challenge the Department of Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate, which requires religious employers to subsidize their employees’ use of abortifacient drugs. Several Christian colleges have publicly reaffirmed their commitment to marriage and sexual virtue in response to recent cultural pressures to abandon marriage.

The job of a Christian college is to promote clarity, not confusion, in the minds of its students. Many Christian educators seem to understand this. Those educators are serving their students well. And they are demonstrating a will to preserve their institutions for future students. Will all Christian colleges commit themselves to the same purpose?

Author’s Note: Thanks to Micah Watson for commenting on an earlier draft. The errors are my own.


Adam J. MacLeod
Adam J. MacLeod is Associate Professor at Faulkner University, Jones School of Law. He holds degrees from Gordon College and the University of Notre Dame.