Fall 2014

At Secular Universities, How "Christian" Can Christian Clubs Be?

By Brett McCracken

Nowhere is pluralism more frequently preached as a prized value than on today’s secular college campuses. And yet some Christian campus organizations have recently found their place denied at the pluralistic table.

Emboldened by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that a public law school in California had the right to derecognize a Christian student group that excluded LGBT voting members, several universities have derecognized Christian groups who refuse to allow students of other beliefs from holding leadership positions.

At Bowdoin College in Maine this summer, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship was taken off the list of recognized campus organizations after 40 years of ministry on campus.

A similar thing happened to InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt University in 2011. The group became one of 14 campus religious communities that lost their organizational status for refusing to agree to a policy that would make it possible for a non-Christian or even an atheist to seek a leadership position in the Christian club.

Writing about the policy for Christianity Today, Tish Warren lamented that the university’s stance discriminated against “robustly religious” communities whose deeply held beliefs might constrain sexual activity or identity.

“Religious organizations were welcome as long as they were malleable: as long as their leaders didn’t need to profess anything in particular; as long as they could be governed by sheer democracy and adjust to popular mores or trends; as long as they didn’t prioritize theological stability,” wrote Warren, who worked with InterVarsity at Vanderbilt.

The California State University system followed suit this summer by withdrawing official recognition from InterVarsity clubs on all 23 of its campuses.

Responding in The Atlantic to Cal State’s decision, Karen Swallow Prior of Liberty University noted that former Chancellor Charles Reed’s executive order on the matter included a noteworthy exception. The order stipulated that the university will not recognize any student organization that discriminates in its membership “except that a social fraternity or sorority or other university living group may impose a gender limitation.”

“This notable exception — that sororities and fraternities can discriminate on the basis of gender — is illustrative,” wrote Swallow Prior. “The university seems to accept that the essence of a sorority and fraternity is gender, while refusing to recognize that the essence of a religious club is, well, religious belief. Just as a sorority required to admit men would no longer be a sorority, so a religious club run by non-believers would cease, by definition, to be itself.”

This is the question raised by these cases. What point is there in allowing distinctive voices on a pluralistic campus if those voices are denied expression of what makes them distinct? If pluralism is not relativism but rather (as the Harvard Pluralism Project defines it) “the encounter of commitments” and the embrace of a table where distinct voices can dialogue with their commitments intact, why are Christian clubs unwelcome unless they shirk those commitments?

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