An Opportunity for Gordon College

In July I wrote three entries dealing with the media firestorm that Gordon College in Massachusetts had been facing. While the school is no longer making daily headlines they are still grappling with the fallout of those events. The current situation is they are taking 12 to 18 months to review their policies as relates to same-sex behavior. Despite this Gordon has said that their accreditation is not under threat and they have no plans to change their “Life and Conduct Policy.”

Depending on your view of things this may engender great hope or great despair. For me, I see it as a great opportunity for Gordon College to show to the world how a conservative Christian institute of higher education can interact with and include LGBT people in their community.

Gordon is allotting at least a year to think on these issues. To spend so much time on something and not come up with at least one good idea worth pursuing seems to me to be a waste. Some will probably say that Gordon has been unfairly depicted in this whole incident and should not be pushed into change too quickly. I agree, the media’s coverage this past summer left much to be desired in the nuance department. I think Gordon came off as a much worse school than it, in fact, is. I find that highly unfortunate. But what has happened, happened and now Gordon is taking the time to give these issues the hearing they deserve.

Many Christians are overwhelming frustrated with how many people in American society see them today. They are tired of being called bigots and hateful and homophobes. I am not trying to paint them as victims but just to highlight what people on the ground are feeling. Gordon College has an opportunity to change this, to be a beacon for engagement and inclusion towards LGBT people. If they get the next 12-18 months right they will not have to defend themselves against a society and millennial generation that has largely decided that Christianity has little good or moral to offer it. Gordon will be able to highlight that they do not hate, discriminate or stigmatize their LGBT students because they have done this and this and this. They will have set the model for every conservative Christian school to catch up to. They will become a magnet for Christian students who want strong doctrine but also reject the exclusiveness of other schools. Gordon’s long-term legacy and success will be assured. Of course some will never accept that a entity based on religion is worthwhile and no changes by Gordon will dissuade them of those feelings. Those people though are not why Gordon should be changing in the first place.

So what exactly should Gordon do? I’m not sure, I do not run a college or university. I will say this though. Gordon can institute changes that result in what I describe above without giving up their Christian identity, doctrine, and religious belief. Of this I am sure. Many commentators have argued in recent months that their is no “third way” on the issue of LGBT people. Gordon is taking the next 12-18 months to prove those commentators wrong. It is my hope and prayer that they do not waste this opportunity.

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Thoughts on Gordon College (Part 3)

Two days ago I started writing about Gordon College being in the news. Yesterday I highlighted some of the factors on why the college will not change in the short term. Today I want to finish by offering solace to those who want to see change today.

First, lets be clear about the scope of the issue. Gordon (and other conservative christian schools) is not banning certain groups of people from campus. It is requiring that any prospective members sign a statement agreeing to behave by certain community standards.The issue is not one of institutional integrity. It is of untenable policy. For those who want to see Gordon torn down and consigned to the ash bin of history I have nothing for you. You are welcome to go check out the cable news pundit of your choosing. For those who want Gordon to become a better version of itself, keep reading.

I personally believe Gordon and all schools like it will eventually change their policies toward LGBT people. I do not know when this will happen or the precise scope of these changes but they will. But when they do change it will not be to acquiesce to a new cultural norm of government mandate but because they believe are following Christ more clearly as an institution. 

I do not think many secular people fully understand the religious scope of a place like Gordon College. I’ll try to lay it out as clearly as I can. Gordon is a (conservative) Christian college. This means they want to follow Jesus in all they do. To follow Jesus they read, believe and try to follow the Bible. At the moment they believe the Bible says LGBT behavior is sinful. Hence their policies on belief and behavior. I realize you might not agree with this. That’s totally fine. But Gordon genuinely believes the above. They have a right to do so. And until the calculus above changes, the policies pertaining to LGBT people will not change in any profound ways.

If you are an LGBT person or supporter who has been burned by your experiences at Gordon or another school their is hope however. I offer a few ideas to put out the fire in the short term of this issue.

1) Petitions. This is already occurring. The trustees cannot ignore their student body and faculty if they are constantly confronted with the inadequacy of their current policy. I would focus petitions on small attainable things like meetings with school leaders. Asking big, direct things will have the leaders cocoon themselves in fears about money (see part 2) and religious liberty.

2) Call for consistency. I do not know how strictly Gordon enforces its community standards. But if it is not expelling straight students for premarital sex or drinking alcohol but are expelling students who come out as LGBT than this is an easy thing to confront them with. LGBT students need to be assured in writing that they will not be subject to school discipline and/or community rejection if they are publicly out on campus. If Gordon is unwilling to provide a safe campus for LGBT people because of their religious beliefs they need to say that openly. 

3) Call for some distinctions in employment. At the moment I can understand Gordon not wanting its trustees or professors to be openly gay. But what about their landscapers, or the construction workers who build their next building? Do they have to sign the community standards? If not I am not sure why they are asking for the federal exemption. If they are I think this is an easy compromise that allows for Gordon’s religious freedom concerns to be met while also not seeming utterly callous to society.

I never attended a Christian school or college but I am firmly committed to the idea that they belong and bring something to society. I know too many fantastic wonderful people who received their education and training from Christian schools and institutions. Moving forward I see ample opportunity for misunderstanding, polarization and judgement on both sides. But the time to do nothing has passed. I pray for all involved that wisdom and peace would dictate their actions moving forward and that together places like Gordon can become even better representations of Christ in their communities and society as a whole.

 

Thoughts on Gordon College (Part 2)

Yesterday I introduced the current news story of Gordon College seeking a religious exemption from having to hire LGBT people. Today I want to put down a few thoughts on how this will play out in the coming weeks and years. In the short term I do not think anything is going to change. Gordon will not change any policies it has unless it is forced to. This may be hard for some to hear but the reality is Gordon has more to lose if it changes policy now than if it does nothing.

The primary cause for Gordon’s inaction? Aside from their religious convictions (which as I noted yesterday I believe are genuine) the main fact is money. Surprise!

If Gordon changes it policies allowing LGBT people to study and work on campus the effect on fundraising would be dramatic. Think about what happened to Worldvision only a few months ago. They tried to mildly change their policy on LGBT people and people dropped their child sponsorships in droves. It’s not exaggeration to say that thousands of dollars left the organization overnight. Worldvision reverted to its old policy within the week.

No matter how many liberal students or professors happen to be currently on the campus Gordon is still a conservative Christian school. That is how it is marketed and that is the appeal for many who attend (or at least their parents.)

In Massachusetts it can be hard to understand this but if Gordon changed it policies today it would be a disaster for them. Freshmen who had been accepted for this fall would choose to go elsewhere. Current students would apply to transfer. Many alumni would no longer donate to the school. Schools like Liberty or Cedarville would take the lion-share of these disaffected students. I would guess that the trustees of Gordon see this as a greater threat to their existence than even losing their accreditation (which has been in the news this week.)

I am not trying to say that Gordon College is only looking at its bottom-line but the reality is in the short-term they have more to gain from maintaining the status quo than from changing.

There is a simple fix that I want to mention briefly. Gordon could renounce all forms of federal money and aid much like Patrick Henry College in VA does. If you do not take federal money it is much easier to say we are a private institution we can do what they please. I do not see this happening though. Gordon costs over $40,000 a year to attend. Even with an expected uptick in fundraising by marketing this as “an attack on our religious liberty, repelled by our faithfulness!” they won’t make up enough to make the school affordable for many. They need the access to federal loans and other things.

So in the short-term Gordon is going to try to carve out the most generous religious exemption it can to maintain the status quo and keep its essential identity as they see it. But where does that leave the disaffected and LGBT members of their community? I’ll write about that tomorrow.

Thoughts on Gordon College (Part 1)

Gordon College (MA) has been in the news lately. Their president recently signed a letter with other leaders that was sent to President Obama asking for a continued religious exemption when an anticipated executive order would be signed in the near future. The response was immediate and overall almost completely negative. The issues being raised are big and important ones: religious freedom, LGBT rights, government reach and/or overreach. Unfortunately the issue also lines up nicely for pundits to polarize our country even further.

I’m writing today as someone who grew up evangelical and feels like I have a pretty clear understanding of that subculture. I also write as someone who feels considerably more liberal than I did 10 years ago. Be warned what I am about write will make neither side happy. Evangelicals are not all the bigots some would smear them as. At the same time the status quo needs to change and they will need to consider things in the future. Liberals and/or less religious people have their hearts in exactly the right place as they seek to end discrimination and make the lives of LGBT people better. However their understanding of why entities like Gordon College believe what they do needs to improve and they need to consider how best to achieve their goals moving forward.

Today I will highlight some of the underlying details of the controversy. Tomorrow i will consider how each side can think about the future. (Brief disclosure before I continue. I applied to Gordon College for my undergraduate degree over 10 years ago but did not attend. I do have a significant number of friends and acquaintances  who have attended the school. They are all fantastic people.)

1) Gordon College is not the evil organization it has been made to appear.

It has been amazing to see the nefarious intent hoisted upon Gordon College as an institution in the past week. For someone who has never heard of the school they would probably assume it was full of hopelessly bigoted rednecks. This is categorically untrue. To my knowledge Gordon College has not changed any policy leading up to this letter. They are a conservative Christian college. This means they ask students,faculty, and staff to sign (voluntarily) a statement of faith and code of conduct. A part of this will be a line saying something along the lines of, “Members of the community will abstain from sex unless they are married.” This may sound crazy or naive or prudish or just plain lame to the average person but every conservative christian college and university in the US has a rule like this. It is their conviction as a religious institution and one that is genuinely held. When these rules were written discrimination, or hate or judgement against LGBT people were not the intent. If you disagree with this that is your prerogative but I would suggest evidence needs to be produced before smearing organizations like Gordon. However we still have a problem and this leads to my second point.

2) Gordon’s policies on sexual behavior are quickly becoming untenable.

The huge blind spot of the policies I highlight above is that they ignore LGBT people. LGBT students at Gordon can abstain from sex or they can get (presumably) kicked out. Even if they get married (which is legal in Massachusetts) that is not an option if they want to remain a member in good standing at the college. This is the issue that has people understandably upset about discrimination and students’ quality of life at the college. The fact that Gordon accepts federal student loans and is tax-exempt is problematic too. Why should they get federal money and perks but not have to follow the rules the federal government enacts for everyone? Today Gordon College is in the press but every Christian college will have to deal with these issues moving forward.

I’ve obviously provided more questions than answers here. Tomorrow I will look at what both sides can do moving forward. I welcome comments.