The slow-moving rift in evangelical Christian higher education

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(RNS) — Quietly over the past few years, conservative Christian colleges have reemerged as a fault line in evangelicalism’s ongoing process of defining itself against the broader culture and policing its own boundaries.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision, which legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, seemed to muffle what had been a flashpoint among evangelicals, who returned to defeating abortion and championing religious liberty at the ballot box and in their advocacy. Candidates who ran in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries seemed to find no upside to running against Obergefell.

The sense was that the debate about LGBT rights and marriage for same-sex couples had been lost in the broader culture and it was time to move on. But for many Christian colleges, moving on hasn’t proved as simple.

On the one hand are their students, who are, after all, the paying customers who increasingly demand that their schools tolerate divergent views. In 2019, researchers at the Ohio State University and North Carolina State University found that 85% of incoming students at evangelical colleges and universities considered it at least moderately important that their campuses are welcoming toward LGBT people, with 44% finding it very important. 

On the other is the federal government financial aid programs, which help students pay for their educations. While the courts have ruled broadly in favor of religious schools’ rights to operate in accordance with their beliefs, lawsuits are popping up to challenge these rulings based on Title IX of the Civil Rights Act barring those who discriminate on the basis of sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity, from receiving federal funds.

Last year in Oregon, 32 LGBT students at religious colleges brought a class action suit arguing that the U.S. Department of Education is “duty-bound by Title IX and the U.S. Constitution to protect sexual and gender minority students at taxpayer-funded colleges and universities, including private and religious educational institutions that receive federal funding.”

Since 1976 the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, an association of confessional Protestant schools, has been a bulwark against such arguments. The CCCU has long defended its members’ right to act in accordance with their belief that biological sex is binary and immutable, that marriage is between a man and a woman and that sexual relations are properly reserved for such unions. 

Representing schools of 35 different denominations, each of which maintains confessional accountability according to its own polity, ecclesiology and theological principles, the CCCU is the first place to look when considering the future of Christian colleges and universities, and indeed, the fast pace of social, legal and political change left some conservatives wondering whether the CCCU had gone too far in accommodating the new landscape.

In 2015, two colleges affiliated with Baptist state conventions left the CCCU because they thought the association did not move swiftly enough to expel a small handful of member schools that decided to affirm same-sex marriage. Four years later, the two institutions, Cedarville University in Ohio and Union University in Tennessee, helped form a new association called the International Association of Christian Educators, headed by David Dockery, a respected past president of two CCCU schools and now distinguished professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

If it’s tempting to suppose that the IACE would compete with or weaken the CCCU, the opposite seems to be true: A couple dozen of the most conservative CCCU schools are also members of IACE, and some Southern Baptists told me that while they see the IACE as a more reliable guardian of biblical and confessional orthodoxy, all the educators I spoke with appreciate the CCCU’s robust lobbying and legal advocacy in defense of conservative Christian schools. 

Indeed, the CCCU has had a net gain in membership under the leadership of Shirley Hoogstra, who became its president in 2014. 

But the schools still undeniably bear watching as institutional evangelicalism debates such topics as LGBTQ acceptance and systemic racism and what should be done about them. During the Trump years, politics served this function. When it was suggested that evangelicalism’s treatment of sex abuse, sexism, racial insensitivity or unconditional allegiance to Republican politics revealed something problematic within the fabric of evangelicalism itself, institutional elites pushed back, saying the movement could flourish alongside Trumpism.

But a handful of CCCU institutions are charting a more moderate course, officially hewing to conservative biblical interpretation on sex and gender while also being more open to students and faculty with different views. And they are staying.

Moderate and liberal critics who choose to remain in evangelical institutions pose a problem to the faith’s gatekeepers. Unlike secular progressives, they affirm the historic Christian creeds; they believe, with the rest of ecumenical Christianity, in a more robust version of social and racial justice than Southern Republicanism ever has or will require. Crucially, some of them will come to believe that the biblical and divine plan for marital love can include God’s LGBT children.

But if a shift is coming, it will be a phantom one that may well be nearly imperceptible, pacific and dignified compared to the prostration of evangelicals to the past administration. The conservative Supreme Court, meanwhile, will likely shelter them from lawsuits like the one in Oregon.

The dynamics of the IACE and the CCCU also promise to work in the schools’ favor, acting almost as a pressure valve: IACE schools  generally have more stringent guardrails to swiftly expel progressives or prevent their hiring in the first place. CCCU schools tend to have tenure policies or denominational processes that can more easily accommodate LGBT-affirming professors — or that will deal with dissenters more slowly.

In the end, institutional evangelicalism may resist the evolutions that have made many Catholic universities or historically Protestant schools indistinguishable from any mainstream institutions, keeping their traditional views on marriage and sexuality as long as evangelicals hold them.

(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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