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.

Advertisements

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.

In Nothing, Something

The VMAs were this past Sunday, MTV’s ode to just about anything except music videos. This years show provoked a storm of commentary thanks to Twitter and its always-pushing-the-boundaries choice of performers. By most accounts this program was largely panned as the morally bankrupt extravaganza that it was. From Lady Gaga to Robin Thicke to Miley Cyrus there was surely little that could be redeemed from this epic failure of entertainment, right?

However I saw something while watching that I thought was important, was good,  and was in fact (at least partially) redeeming to the rest of the night. The pair of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis teamed up with Mary Lambert and Jennifer Hudson for a stirring rendition of their gay rights anthem “Same Love.”

For many Evangelical Christians this was the nail in the coffin for the evening; the last straw on a night that promoted far too much promiscuity and lewdness. Just another sign that the “gay agenda” has taken over our culture and our society, to the detriment of real, Bible-believing Christians.

This viewpoint, however genuine and sincere, is misplaced. “Same Love” is not an attack on the church, it is an appeal that the church can do so much better.

The line in the live performance that really resonated with me was something that was added in. Ms. Lambert and Ms. Hudson end the song by simply repeating back and forth to one another, “No more crying on Sunday.”

As Christians we talk about the gospel  as something filled with joy and hope and love. We talk about sin and death and sacrifice too of course but within all of that there is hope. Hope that Jesus does love us, did come to earth and did die on the cross. We preach that lives are eternally better when those lives live for God.

And yet even with all that hope and ministry and truth there is a tremendous blind spot for those who are LGBT individuals. For them Sunday is all too often not an oasis from the pain they received during the week from family, friends or others. In fact, Sunday is often the source of their agony, a huge blaring siren call that, in fact, they will never be good enough, they are irrevocably sinners, and so God cannot forgive them, or love them, or even bother to help them.

And so we have what you might expect. Gay teens are five times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. This is shocking, as it should be. But the real travesty is that the conservative evangelical church has not only ignored this problem but has now claimed persecution for themselves.

I realize many decent people are concerned about same-sex marriage. I realize that there are legitimate concerns about religious liberty and how it connects to gay rights.  But there needs to be a discussion backed up by solid steps to help these youth who are left with so little hope that they take their own lives. Preaching the gospel should lead to salvation, not suicide.

Macklemore’s song is a scathing indictment of the church’s treatment of LGBT people and youth up to this point. But I have hope that change can come not only from outside the church but from within. For this I am thankful.

The Words We Use.

My blog about Louie Giglio last week was mostly inspired from reading other responses to the situation from a variety of perspectives. Some of what I found was thoughtful, some was depressing. What troubled me most was some of the word choices that conservative evangelicals seems to use in all their entries. The words we use are important. They are how we communicate and connect with others. James talk about how important the tongue is of course and regrettably some evangelicals are using words that are unhelpful, inaccurate, and deeply hurtful. I offer three examples.

Agenda- Many evangelicals love to bemoan the fact of a “Homosexual agenda” that seeks to undermine Christianity. Giglio himself falls into this in his statement declining the invitation when he states, “…it is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration.” The implication is that the LGBT “agenda” is somehow “less-than.” The reality is LGBT people and advocates view their work as more promoting themselves as opposed to being “against” anything. Some LGBT people are faithful and genuine Christians. Of course where is the most fervent opposition to anything seen as “pro-gay” coming from? You guessed it, Christians. If you want to keep calling LGBT people’s calls for equal rights and recognition an “agenda” you can but evangelicals should at least be honest about the agenda that various conservative evangelicals leaders, groups and churches are leading themselves. Of course lamenting a gay “agenda” leads invariably to calls of…

Persecution- Many blogs are highlighting about how this incident is undeniable persecution of Giglio and his right to free speech in the public square. This is inaccurate on multiple levels. A website found an old sermon of his that they found repugnant and called him out on it. Rather than hold firm, renounce the sermon or defend his beliefs he offered a simple statement and backed out. If he had been arrested maybe persecution would be accurate. The ironic fact of the matter is that Giglio is benefiting immensely more from NOT speaking out than if he did. He is now able to go back to his pastoral duties and his ministry work. As I noted in my last entry, If he had renounced his sermon he would have likely lost all his leadership positions he currently holds. The persecution would come solely from his fellow Christians. Giglio is still allowed to work at and preach about whatever he likes. The fact that more people in the public square vehemently disagree with some of his beliefs is not persecution, it’s America.

Bullying– This is perhaps the most shocking word I have seen used but evangelicals have even used it in the titles of their blogs about Giglio. Just as many liberals know little about evangelical subculture, the use of this word to describe this situation shows how painfully unaware most evangelicals are to the experiences of LGBT people. LGBT young people more often report feeling unsafe in school and skipping school than almost any other group. Suicide rates among LGBT youth are tragically high. In the last few years, an “It gets better” campaign has started online where famous people tell young people that if they can survive school things will be better when they reach adulthood. To compare what Giglio has experienced to the torment many LGBT kids face on a daily basis is not only ludicrous it is unimaginably hurtful to LGBT youth and those who are seeking to make their lives better. Giglio was confronted on his beliefs, he was not bullied. He will continue leading an amazingly blessed life while too many LGBT kids see no alternative to their suffering.

If we want to have a conversation about the religious, political and social implications of the Giglio event, I support that.  I think we can have a serious conversation about the balance between religious liberty and individual freedoms in this country. But as long as the evangelical establishment (my personal faith) continues to demonize, undermine, and ignore the very real concerns of LGBT people and their advocates I see few positives occurring.

Louie Giglio in the news.

I did not imagine that the day after I wrote an entry about Christians, family values and LGBT people that something like this Louie Giglio news event would occur but here we are. This news story is yet another example of what Christians and evangelicals (my faith) will have to deal with in coming months and years and our response is clearly vital not just for the practice of our faith but also our relationship with the greater culture as a whole.

Some background for folks who have not been following: Giglio is a well-known pastor from Georgia. His main focus has been Passion conferences and a movement to end sex trafficking. This anti-slavery work garnered an invitation from the Obama Inaugural committee to offer a prayer at the ceremony. A couple days ago a website publicized a sermon by Giglio from the 1990s that preached negatively about homosexuals. After much outcry, Giglio released a statement respectfully declining the invitation to speak.

Full disclosure: I have watched a few sermon series by Giglio and went to one of his conferences when I lived in South Africa in 2008. I have not kept up with his Passion or anti-slavery movement but by most accounts I find him to be an engaging speaker and a great and thoughtful man of God.

Unsurprisingly the battle-lines have been drawn after this event. Somewhat unexpectedly though they are calling each other out about the same thing: tolerance and inclusiveness. LGBT advocates denounced Giglio as someone who is “anti-gay” and unworthy of the inaugural stage. Evangelicals accused LGBT advocates for promoting tolerance for everyone except them and other conservative religious followers. The question has been raised, is there any space in the public square for the conservative evangelical pastor or leader? Giglio himself expressed the issue concisely in his statement backing out of the invitation saying, “…individuals’ rights of freedom, and the collective right to hold differing views on any subject is a critical balance we, as a people, must recover and preserve.”

As an evangelical christian these are tough issues to think about and navigate. I foresee these issues continuing to come up in the days and years ahead. Here are just a few thoughts on things I think both sides could be thinking about in the days ahead.

Evangelicals need to realize that the standard “Christian” response to homosexuality is largely untenable to large segments of our present society. Most LGBT people have no desire to change, do not believe it is possible and are gravely insulted when Christians tell them that they can. This does not make them “anti-christian” as much as it makes them “pro-themselves.” In a nation that values “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” Christians need to accept that some will find all those things outside of the “evangelical” model. In addition, they need to accept that while they believe they are speaking “truth in love” this truth can be and has been incredibly hurtful, unhelpful, and destructive to people trying to not just live their lives but also find Jesus. Evangelicals also need to accept that the “Biblical” model of sexuality is not their own exclusive domain. There are many churches now that openly accept and affirm LGBT people and their relationships. We can debate and argue about who is right but are we willing to condemn all these other churches even as they preach Jesus as well? “…for whoever is not against us is for us.”

 

On the part of LGBT advocates I am sure it is wildly frustrating and even infuriating to hear over and over again how destructive their lives are from people who do not even know them. Realize that most have no idea how hurtful their words are and are often genuinely trying to simply follow their faith. I have no doubt in my mind that Giglio is not a bigot. He is however, trapped by his set of circumstances. If he were to disavow that sermon from the 90s he would likely have to give up his entire life’s work up to this point. He would lose his pastoral job and with it the leadership of his Passion conferences and leadership of his anti-slavery movement. Please understand I am not comparing his troubles to the myriad injustices LGBT people face simply existing in the world today but simply noting this is a tough issue that will take time. I personally feel it was unhelpful and unwise for Giglio to refer to LGBT people’s desire for acceptance as an “agenda” yet again yesterday. But I also think that labeling him a “bigot” does little to respect the great good he has done in his career or move the conversation forward.

I guess what I am calling for is a dose of humility from both sides. The more entrenched we become the less likely we will be able to meet each other going forward as citizens and Christians.