Enforced conformity to creedal secularism at the university

11 Mar

G.K. Chesterton once said “These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own.”  Here’s more evidence that he is right.

From Owen Strachan:

To be at home in all lands and all ages;
To count Nature a familiar acquaintance,
And Art an intimate friend;
To gain a standard for the appreciation of others’ work
And the criticism of your own;
To carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket,
And feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake

I remember hearing these words — “The Offer of the College” — in my earliest days as a Bowdoin College first-year. They came in a whirl of initial activity: a “pre-orientation” trip to a beautiful coastal locale filled with awkward conversation between pre-oriented students; kissing my parents goodbye after all the boxes were moved in; and, this being a Maine college, a lobster bake to formally kick the year off.

The Offer of the College was touted early and often at Bowdoin. Its late-Romantic tones, featuring a mildly divinized natural order (shout out to Emerson) and its exhortation to adopt a chastened noblesse oblige initially sounded odd to my eighteen-year-old ears. I know from my perusal of the back pages of the alumni magazine that it influenced my peers, however. Many a poor-paying urban teaching career, a long-term environmental research post, or a stint in a developing nation has been launched because of a small college in Maine animated by a humanist credo.

It is because Bowdoin has historically embodied this statement that recent developments at the school have taken me and many others aback. In a move that has reminded many onlookers of heavy-handed institutional actions at Vanderbilt University and Tufts University, the school’s administration presented Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF) volunteer leaders Rob and Sim Gregory with a “non-discrimination” statement. This statement required, among other things, that the Gregorys open BCF leadership up to students of any sexual orientation.

As reported in the Bowdoin Orient, Dean of Students Tim Foster explained that “If someone’s participating in an organization and they are LGBTIQA and they are not allowed to participate in that organization because of their sexual orientation or they cannot lead that organization because of their sexual orientation, then that’s discrimination.” Foster sharpened the point: “And that is a violation of Maine law and therefore also a violation of College law.” But that was not all, per the Orient. The college needed to know more about the people who were influencing its students: “According to Foster, the initiative grew partially as a reaction to the Penn State scandal in 2011 in which assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of multiple counts of child molestation.”

I commend Foster’s interest in the welfare and protection of the students he serves. I remember him as a kind and gracious man, generous with his time for struggling undergrads. (Full disclosure: I know Foster, was hired by his office to be a peer mentor at Bowdoin in my student days, and am always greeted warmly by him when I return to my alma mater.) Foster’s implicit connection of BCF leader Rob Gregory to known pedophile Jerry Sandusky is shocking, however. Like many Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship volunteer leaders, Gregory has with his wife Sim mentored countless students, financially assisted them, and counseled them through difficult circumstances of the kind that college students frequently face. According to the Orient, Gregory took on the cause of Aijalon Gomes, a Bowdoin graduate who fell into disfavor in North Korea. Irrespective of creed, the connection of Gregory to a child predator is therefore deeply unfortunate, and seems to speak to a deeper, darker bias.

The larger issue, though, is this: is BCF really discriminating against others by selecting its own leaders, students who adhere to the historic Christian belief that homosexuality is sinful? The answer is plain: it most certainly is not. While Maine has passed anti-discrimination legislation on the basis of sexual orientation, no court — in Maine or anywhere else in the United States — has held that a campus religious organization is breaking any law by requiring leaders to agree to a common statement of belief on theological and ethical matters. The ability to select leaders is a crucial part of the freedom of association, an American constitutional right grounded in the First Amendment. In cases like Boy Scout of America v. Dale (2000), the Supreme Court has upheld that organizations are permitted to structure their membership (and by extension their leadership) according to their particular point of view.

BCF enjoys the freedom to select its leaders no less than any other campus organization. Per long-standing historical precedent, the Bowdoin College Democrats need not admit Republicans to leadership. The Bowdoin Queer Straight Alliance need not admit a person who believes homosexuality is immoral to leadership. The Middle Eastern Belly Dance Ensemble need not admit a non-belly dance enthusiast to leadership. If these points seem straightforward, it is because they are. Yet this logic is undergoing revision by the Bowdoin administration.

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