Losing Our Religion?

My former college, one of the nation’s top-ranked schools, is considering banishing a highly respected national Christian group from campus for discriminatory practices. It may be a case study of coming hostility for Christians in America’s public square. If so, is this bad news or good?

The InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter at Vermont’s Middlebury College is unwilling to install any leader who advocates any form of sexual intimacy outside of marriage. A proposed college policy would not only force the group to accept leaders who don’t share their moral beliefs (or lose funding, meeting space, and campus affiliation), but even demand that no group "discriminate" on the basis of religion.

Okay, before I start to cuss, let me get this straight. Alcohol-abhorring Muslim groups have to consider wine-lovers as leaders? Jews have to entertain Gentiles? Whatever a Christian’s ethical conclusions, whatever one thinks about God, this amounts to an appalling act of censorship that suffocates the free exchange of ideas and the practice of religious liberty.

Imagine the uproar and college reaction if a white student demanded to lead the Black Student Union, a male the Feminist Association, or a heterosexual the Gay and Lesbian Alliance. Middlebury bends over backwards, as a secular institution should, to accommodate support groups for all kinds of minorities.

However, it is not Muslims and Jews who are being harassed. At least for now. A powerful subculture of American elites confessing "tolerance" as the highest virtue finds one group in particular completely intolerable—evangelical Christians with strong moral beliefs.

The marginalization of any clear moral or religious perspective has serious ripple effects. Dallas Willard, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy, recently described the American university as "a system which tells you that you can be the best-educated person on earth and 1) not know anything about God and 2) be a moral wreck."

I might not have survived Middlebury if not for the Christian fellowship’s compelling corporate alternative to the binge drinking and partying that so dominated student life. The fellowship was one of the few places on campus where organizing one’s life around God was taken seriously. Two centuries ago Middlebury was a distinctly evangelical college. I am grateful that the school no longer promotes one religious doctrine. But to swing to the other extreme is no virtue.

MIDDLEBURY’S CONTROVERSY may foretell America’s future. "This century," predicts author Richard Foster, "the church’s privileged position in Western society will end. The preferential treatment many have come to expect is fast disappearing and we are being pushed to the margins of society. I expect this trend to continue on many fronts, up to and including the removal of tax exempt status for church properties in the United States."

Is such marginalization good or bad for Christianity? When I meet Christian students on secular campuses, they are so much hungrier for Christ than the complacent souls at Christian colleges where professing Christ is normal. As a missionary kid, I witnessed the rapid growth of Christianity in Korea, only to return in 1996 to find booming churches swelling with materialism. Persecution, not public adoration, busted the early Christian church out of its comfort zone in Jerusalem, scattering the faith to the uttermost parts of the world.

Christianity doesn’t mix very well with success. If authentic disciples mature better amidst hostility, then when persecution comes perhaps we should be soberly grateful to have lived in such a way to have provoked it. At Middlebury, InterVarsity’s campus staff worker tells me that her prayer life has never been stronger. Her students are learning to contend in the public square as never before. A campus-wide public forum on the controversy was attended by more than 300 students—one-fifth of the student body—who seemed stunned by articulate peers who took God and their scriptures seriously.

It is a shameful intellectual hypocrisy that among educated elites who hold "diversity" as sacred, these students may never meet such alternative perspectives in the classroom. If such voices are threatened with official extinction, why aren’t Christians raising more of a fuss—and should we be? At the very least, we ought to be talking about intensive training to be a subversive minority in the battles ahead.

CHRIS RICE lived and worked in Jackson, Mississippi, for 17 years and co-authored More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. He is currently studying at the Duke Divinity School in North Carolina.

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