Saturday, August 23, 2008

Church-Based Colleges and Homophobic Discrimination


I appreciate your response to my “Walking the Walk” posting yesterday. Since the questions you raise are important and complex, I thought I’d reply with another posting, rather than a brief comment.

First, thanks for visiting the blog. We share a love for Emily Dickinson, who is for me a secular saint. I still keep in one of my old journals a tiny wizened apple I plucked from an old tree in her yard in Amherst on a previous visit, and I’ve gone to her grave as though it were a saint’s shrine.

I see your point about Dorothy Parker. She was acerbic, but at least she told the God’s honest truth, when so many of us use language to conceal and deny—and, in my view, that’s a saintlike virture, plain honesty. I don’t know if you realized it when you left your reply, but you did so on Dorothy Parker’s birthday. Waldo Lydecker’s Journal had a tribute to her yesterday, with some entertaining (and moving) clips of her reading her poetry (see

And now to address the issues you raise: if I understand your primary point correctly, you’re concerned about my insistence that faith-based colleges/universities fulfill their part of the social contract by teaching and upholding values necessary for the proper functioning of civil society. You’re nervous about attempts to impose on these faith-based institutions the values of other groups, including civil society at large. You want to defend the right of any religious group to hold its own unique religious beliefs.

And I don’t disagree at all with that right. I’m all for defending the right of any religious group to maintain its own unique religious beliefs, no matter how loony or noxious those seem to me.

What I don’t support, though, is the right of religious groups to impose those beliefs on other groups, including civil society. And I don’t support the right of religious groups to insist that civil society allow them to extend their peculiar religious or moral views to society at large, when those views contradict fundamental values of civil society.

And that’s where (in my view) the role of church-based colleges and universities comes into the picture, and deserves to be examined very carefully. Despite the wall separating church and state, church-based institutions of higher learning i benefit—and largely so—from our tax dollars. And so, all of us as citizens have a vested interest in seeing that these institutions serve the common good and respect (and teach and foster) the values essential for the proper functioning of civil society.

As an example, I’ve just read on the website of a faith-based university a big announcement of a major federal grant to that university. The announcement is a bit peculiar, in that this is a grant the university receives routinely, though the website is showcasing it as some kind of fundraising coup. I have a personal interest in the story, because a close friend of mine wrote this grant, and I seriously doubt she will receive any credit for its being funded.

I bring her story up because it illustrates the point I want to drive at. When the president of this church-based university began to engage in vicious homophobic behavior towards several administrators at the university, my friend resigned in protest. She could not stomach the behavior. She could no longer work for a leader who exhibited such profound, toxic homophobia towards employees, even in (or particularly in?) a church-sponsored university.

And that’s really the heart of the story, in my view. As with public universities, faith-based universities have long made a social contract with our civil society to produce citizens who help to build a more humane society, in accord with the democratic values we profess to cherish. We give lavishly of our tax funds to church-based universities for that reason: they produce leaders, teachers, good citizens, professional folks who embody (we hope) the core values we need in order to keep participatory democracy alive, and extend it to those who are pushed away from its table.

For this reason, would argue strongly that church-based institutions should be permitted to cherish any and all religious beliefs unique to their sponsoring church, no matter how strange those may seem to me. But they should not be permitted to instill those beliefs and values in graduates who are going to serve the common good, if those beliefs and values undermine or conflict with core values of our civil society.

In my view, how church-based colleges and universities treat gay human beings is a litmus test—perhaps the litmus test—of this distinction today. I keep recurring to the case of the National Council for Teacher Education (NCATE) for this reason. As with many public institutions, many faith-based colleges and universities produce a huge number of teachers for our public schools.

Teaching in a public school demands respect for diversity. It does so because we live in a society that is increasingly diverse, and teachers cannot educate diverse groups of students without understanding and respecting diversity.

One of the diversities with which schools are now having to deal—for all kinds of obvious reasons—is diversity in sexual orientation. Youth are coming to terms with their gay/lesbian orientation at ever earlier ages. There is no way to avoid this public discussion in the classroom.

In my view, while teachers may justifiably hold peculiar religious or moral views that condemn gay people and gay behavior, they ought not to be permitted to impose those views on their classrooms, in a public school. A fundamental, a core, value of civic society is respect for difference and otherness, the desire to understand those who are tagged as different in a demeaning way and to protect them from prejudice. Our participatory democracy depends on that core value.

And it depends on educating teachers who understand this. This is why NCATE has added to its criteria for all teacher education programs, whether in faith-based or public colleges, the expectation that teachers are taught to respect diversity in the area of sexual orientation, and the expectation that the college itself has regulations in place requiring such respect institution-wide.

All accrediting bodies for American colleges and universities have been moving in this direction, as a matter of fact. It is not possible, increasingly, for colleges and universities to engage in open homophobia in hiring and firing procedures, in evaluation procedures, or in curricular decisions, and to use religion as an excuse for doing so.

I don’t want to maintain that the accrediting bodies do a very good job of enforcing these regulations. I have had a close association with several faith-based colleges/universities whose teacher education programs were run by deans and faculty who are deeply and overtly homophobic, and who are willing to use homophobic slurs to destroy the careers of valued colleagues who happen to be gay and to win political points with homophobic top administrators. In one sickening case, one of these educators is the daughter of a minister in a church whose teaching about sexual morality is very strict, and which definitely forbids homosexual behavior. But it also looks askance at multiple marriages, and this faculty member has been married three times--and reports to a homophobic dean who carried on an open relationship with a married colleague while she herself was married, while she used homophobic slurs to destroy the careers of several gay colleagues.*

I haven’t seen any action on the part of any accrediting bodies to remove accreditation from those colleges/universities. Several of them don’t even have institutional non-discrimination policies in place to prohibit outright discrimination in hiring, firing, evaluation, etc.—and this despite the fact that all are sponsored by churches that profess to deplore homophobic discrimination, while condemning homosexual behavior.

I’m glad you brought up the issue of slavery, because, in my view, it’s an historical illustration of the very point I’m making. There was a time when many American churches and the colleges they sponsored would, indeed, have claimed religious exemption to defend and promote (and teach) slavery. Prior to the Civil War, most churches in the South made explicit statements about this. They noted that slavery had always been upheld by biblical norms; they argued that the South was simply holding to the tried and true traditional Christian morality in defending slavery.

And they were dead wrong. Today, it would be unthinkable for us to permit any church-based college or university to teach students that slavery is morally or scripturally warranted. It would be unthinkable for us to produce teachers, even in church-based institutions, who are permitted to go into the classroom and promote slavery, and punish students who challenge them for doing so.

Yet we still allow church-based colleges and universities to practice homophobic discrimination, and to produce graduates who will engage in that form of discrimination in their civic and professional lives.

In my view, homophobic behavior is just as destructive to the bonds of civil society and to participatory democracy as defending slavery on biblical grounds used to be. In my view, churches which teach that people of color are an inferior form of humanity (there are such churches) have a right to teach and believe what they want.

But they do not have a right to try to impose that teaching on civil society or to sponsor colleges and universities that produce teachers, citizens, and professional leaders who espouse this teaching for the body politic and who try to impose this teaching on the body politic.

Maybe Emily Dickinson was wise when she simply absented herself from church life altogether. I sometimes think this when I see the damage that church communities do to our civil society when they use their religious beliefs to attack marginalized groups including LGBT persons.

Something that made me fall in love with Emily Dickinson long ago was when I discovered in her biography that she had been taken as a girl, along with her entire class at an Amherst school, to a revival. Where all those attending were leaned on to confess their sins and receive Jesus.

Emily refused. She was one of the very few in her class who stood apart when the altar call came along. As you know, she later simply stopped going to church, and wrote poems about how she encountered God walking in the woods more than she did in church.

Religion does some wonderful things. It’s capable of tremendous good. But it’s also capable of tremendous evil, and throughout history, all religious bodies have done horribly destructive things to some folks, in the name of God.

As they are often doing today to gay human beings . . . .

Again, thanks for writing. If I have misread your comment, and/or you’d like to continue discussing these issues, I invite further comments.

*It's not my business to pass moral judgment on these folks. I couldn't care a fig about how they live their personal lives, as long as they don't harm others. My point in referencing their own stories in the context of this story about the special status accorded to gay folks in many church-related institutions is this: there's a huge double standard. While their own behavior violated the ethical norms of the church sponsoring this college, they were never called on the carpet for that behavior. And I wouldn't advocate that any college begin to monitor and punish sexual transgressions of faculty and staff.

Even so, however, these faculty members willingly participated in a vicious campaign to destroy the careers of several colleagues solely because those colleagues were gay. And they were permitted and even encouraged to do this by the president of the university in question. The church that sponsors the university teaches that engaging in homosexual acts is incompatible with Christian life. At the same time, it also teaches that adultery is morally wrong. In its university, however, it would be unthinkable for a married faculty member engaging in an affair to be punished for that behavior. It would not be unthinkable for a faculty member in a committed gay relationship to be punished.

This is a huge double standard. And it is present in the life of the church itself. A significant number of churches within this denomination are resisting even allowing gay people to join the church. The same churches would not dream of asking heterosexual members if their sexual behavior makes them fit to be church members.


Amanda said...

Hello. My husband is the person you're responding to in this post, and he led me to the blog because it's a very important issue to both of us and I've been defending gay rights since I was old enough to know what those words meant. I'll fully admit I'm not intelligent enough to give my opinion one way or another on this particular post, because I think discrimination against people for ANY reason is wrong, and yet I think forcing religious groups to act in a way contrary to their teachings is a violation of their rights, too. I think it would be wrong, for example, for a legalization of gay marriage to lead to the government forcing churches to perform those ceremonies.

In not really being smart enough to debate on this point, my main reason for coming to comment was to say congratulations on your forthcoming fourtieth anniversary. That's an amazing achievement, and I hope that Jason and I will get there one day.


Keshalyi said...

I can see your point, an I agree that the interface between the public and private spheres here is very fuzzy. I think that the end state, clearly, should be a society in which a second grader, say, whose parents both happen to be female could conceivably talk about his moms in school, the same way my children will talk about their dad and mom, without having to be afraid of the teacher (students, now, that's a whole other question, but it's after all sensitive to the opinion of the teacher, really). I don't know if that's true. I don't know, say, if my son wrote a story fro class where two princes get married at the end of the fairy tale if I'd get a call from the teacher, homophobic or not, because it's just such a distracting topic to bring up in our current social climate right now. The problem is that a public education system, invariably, and unavoidably, instills more than simply literacy and a knowledge of basic mathematics into it's students - it instill cultural values, in particular, the cultural values of the teacher. In some senses, this is good - I am glad that my children can learn, for instance, about the value of hard work, and the importance of showing respect for other people that their excellent kindergarten teacher instilled in them. I think these are values that everyone can agree on.

But (fortunately) we no longer live in a homogenous society. This is the same reason that it's no longer appropriate for us to have children say 'under god' in the pledge, the same reason that we shouldn't have a school prayer before football games. It's also the same reason why it's important that history classes now have the sidebars about famous women, blacks, asians, etc, throughout history. Because, we're not teaching a big group of white traditional protestant children anymore, we're now teaching a diverse unpredictable group of students. Like I said, I think this is a good thing, and I think in many instances, it just means waiting until children are old enough to form their own opinion before bringing up certain topics. That's why we don't teach evolution to third graders - because we need to respect the fact that a third grader usually does not have the mental subtelty or moral sturdiness to make their own mind up about something that many of the people of our nation disagree on. Sure, I think evolution should be taught in schools, but I do not bemoan the fact that it isn't taught to my kindergartner, because I expect, by the social contract, that they will also not teach the hero worshipping view of Texas History that you seem to learn in this state until my children are old enough to disseminate facts and make up their own mind. I understand teaching it, whether or not I agree with the methods, but I appreciate that it isn't taught until my children are old enough to decide for themselves.

This is why things like reading primers have changed so much over the years - we don't read the New England Primer that Dickinson read anymore, because, looking back on it, while it seemed expected at the time, the book was as much about inculcating protestant values into children as it was about learning to read. The format of Webster's Dictionary, for instance, has changed for hte very same reason. Unfortunately, this means that the modern primer, in it's effort to nto offend anyone, ever, can be convoluted, boring, pedantic sometimes (PBS children's shows - same story), and I think the children understand and internalize the inevitable falseness of a book in which the human, faulted authors are told, that they must include so many black children, so many asian children, so many stories about children of different values getting along, etc. They know these thigns are forced, and unnatural, sure. But I don't mind that, the children at least learn that society is trying to change, that it, in a sense, wants them to be better than the present generation. And when there is a disagreement, an honest disagreement, among groups, normally the best option is just to leave it out. That's why our children don't read stories about soldiers, or about Palestine, or about the Vietnam War - because while these are part of the American psyche, and important preceptors of values, they aren't appropriate as a universal lesson of values in a heterogenous society.

The problem with homosexuality in such a setting, is that it's difficult to truly leave out. On the one hand, it would perhaps be best to not put in an issue that is obviously vitriolic, obviously controversial, into a book read by 2nd graders. On the other hand, we aren't just leaving out heterosexual marriages. It seems a bit silly to just say children's stories read in school can no longer mention parents. Not only silly, but counterproductive. So we're left with a quandary - it isn't fair to teach children that 'normal' means 'you have a daddy and a mommy' when the government has no business deciding the gender of parents. On the other hand, it isn't fair to tell parents that their children must accept stories that teach something that their honestly held (if in my opinion faulted) beliefs say is wrong. Sure, you can write a story that says "Some kids have two mommies, and that's ookay, and two daddies is okay, and a daddy and a mommy is ok, too, and it's really none of our business here at school to decide whether God agrees or not, because we just want everyone to be nice to each other." I honestly, sincerely wish it could be taught that way. But, imagine, for a moment, that our kids were reading a story that said 'Some daddies like to kiss their little girls naked, but some daddies don't, and that's okay, because the law says it's okay,and it's not really our business here at school to decide whether God agrees or not.' Even if it became legal for parents to have incestuous relations with their young children, I wouldn't want my children to feel like it was okay for them, because for me, that's anathema, that's my wall. And I think the government would be wrong to force that on me. Well, millions of people, good people who do not attack homosexuals, some of them who would even vote for laws that don't keep homosexuals from the army, or from discrimination in employment, or who would stand up against hate crimes against homosexuals, because they think that sort of behaviour is wrong still believe (albeit, in my opinion, mistakenly) that homosexuality is not, in and of itself, moral, and that they want there children to know, say, that we'll still love you if you end up gay, but it's wrong, and it's bad for you. I don't agree with this statement, I do not think this statement is good for society, at some level, even, but I do know that people of generally good conscience, who have as much right as I do in this country, believe this statement, believe that homosexuality is damaging to the peopel who practice it, and that they would never wish such a curse on their children. And while I don't personally believe this is a bad thing, I will probably agree with them that hearing about homosexuality when they are young children in a normal, non-threatening context, makes it easier for htose children later to believe it's okay if they're gay. I think that's great, personally, and I want MY children to hear that two mommies can have a beautiful, loving relationships wehre they share a deep and sacred love, and that their children can be loved and nurtured as surely as my children are nurtured by their 'traditional' family. But, I don't know if I'm willing to say that that lesson should be forced on families that do not want it to be taught to their children. And I don't know if it's possible to have a society where the lesson is taught in an unbiased way. The issue is too important to be taught without bias, ironically.

But, agian, is that fair? Is it fair to the kid who DOES have two mommies, and to whom the silence on homosexual parents will be painful and alienating, and carry the unspoken message that their parents are 'weird'? That there family isn't the way families are 'supposed to be'? No, it's not fair, and on that side of the issue, I want to cry out 'why can't we just change a couple of parents, here and there into two daddy families? Let these poor kids be, there life is hard enough in our society.' Therein lies the rub - there is no fair solution to the issue.
Sorry if this is scattershot - I'm not an academic, not even a college grad, and by the time I get this many words out, I'm just too exhausted to go back and edit them ;).

William D. Lindsey said...

Jason, this is a GREAT reply. Because I've blabbed on and on in what I said to Amanda earlier, I'll use the comments section here.

First, I didn't know until this comment that you and Amanda have children. I had thought of saying in my reply to Amanda that your children are lucky to have such intelligent and thoughtful parents. But I didn't want to say that in case you didn't have children.

Now I can say it: they're lucky to have you as parents.

All that you say underscores a point I think I probably should have made, but didn't, in both of my replies to you and Amanda. This is that we're in a re-negotiation time in our society, re: these issues, and that makes them even harder to think through.

People's feelings and beliefs are strong on all sides, and that makes it harder to discuss these issues carefully.

Re: children and educating for tolerance: as a parent, you have a vested interest in those discussions that I don't have (though I have nieces and nephews about whom I care a lot). So I should listen carefully to your perspective as a parent.

Here's my "outside" (i.e., non-parental but good-citizen's) perspective: it's probably never too early to start educating children for tolerance. The reason I say this is that I think research shows that children actually learn the opposite. They learn to hate and discriminate. They don't do those things naturally.

So, our school system has a strong reason to begin moving against the forces that want to teach children to hate and discriminate at an early age. The school system should begin inculcating values of tolerance and acceptance as early as possible.

Re: gays and lesbians, I wouldn't be in favor of overt education about sexual matters in the early years. That would be inappropriate for age reasons, it seems to me.

But as you say, increasingly, there are children in the classroom who have same-sex parents or who have gay-lesbian relatives, and total silence about the very existence of LGBT people harms those children.

In addition, children are learning about the existence of LGBT people at earlier and earlier ages now, and are also questioning their own orientation at surprisingly early ages. So schools can't totally ignore these questions, it seems to me.

Plus, there's the brutal fact of bullying of gay young people in schools, or of anyone perceived as gender-inappropriate.

Whatever curriculum the schools end up with, I Hope that folks like you and Amanda have a hand in writing it! You're certainly right about those old primers--and what you say even applies to the Dick and Jane readers of my childhood.

Daddy went off to work. Mommy stayed in her Betty Crocker kitchen. And everyone was white! All kinds of hidden assumptions there, which shaped a whole generation of children.

I really appreciate you all's interest, and hope you'll put up with my long-windedness.

Amanda said...

Our eldest son had a girl in his classroom last year in 1st grade who had two mommies, and he never said anything about it one way or another. I'm not sure if he noticed, but he's an observant kid and probably did. Kids see the world, in and outside school. They're going to see gay couples on TV, in magazines, etc, and it's good to have that exposure because as you say Jason, exposure while young really does tend to make you more tolerant as an adult. Not always, but usually.

Unfortunately, not a lot is going to happen to fix the situation in Texas any time soon. Jason and I have to just do our best with our own kids and hope that Texas will follow suit when this comes to head on a national level.

COL55 said...

I tend to be very simple in my approach to things, so, in that simplicity, I will point out a simple, but glaring error ...

God cannot hate ...
anything that is hate ...
anything that is NOT love ...
cannot be of God ...

which in its utter simplicity
blows the hell out of every argument self righteous bigots use to justify their positions.

William D. Lindsey said...

Carl and Amanda, you've posted comments this evening responding to two separate postings. But what you both have to say seems to dovetail very nicely.

So if you don't mind, I'm responding to both postings at one time. Amanda, the posting I'm replying to in your case is at my recent posting about churches of Main St. USA.

There, you say, "i'm sorry, but I cannot believe in a god that would issue to someone the inborn ability to love someone, same sex or not, and then expect them to either live a lie or a celebate life, to deny what i consider to be a GOOD instinct. Love is a wonderful thing, not a dangerous evil thing. I dont' think love can be split into 'good love' and 'bad love.' If a god was cruel enough to do that, I would want to defy him."

And Carl says, "God cannot hate ...
anything that is hate ...
anything that is NOT love ...
cannot be of God ..."

I think you're both absolutely right. What puzzles me is why love seems to be a problem to some believers. When love is what the religious traditions of the world proclaim as the ideal....

I find it impossible to believe in any God who would make people love in a particular way, and then use that love to test them. The parallel of the LDS view that you describe so well, Amanda, is one I have encountered in the Catholic church.

For a number of years, I tried in every way possible to sublimate, deny, deal with the fact that I was gay and loved in a particular way. One of the pieces of advice some well-meaning spiritual directors gave me (and some who weren't so well-meaning) was to view being gay as a cross God has given me because God loves me in a special way.

In other words, in this theology, God calls people to love, and then asks that they view the very love God has given them as some kind of burden to bear, and to deny.

Thankfully, I finally realized this makes no sense. Most of all, it makes no sense of God. A God who would behave that way is not worth believing in or loving.

Adrienne Rich says in an essay that one of the most painful experiences in live is to live divided inside yourself. She talks especially about the pain of being told that your love is not real love, when you know full well that it is as real as any other love. She speaks here out of her experience as a gay woman.

The churches are incredibly cruel when they try to divide the love that some people experience into "bad" love, while they uphold the love some people experience as "good" love.

Of course, in Christianity, there ancient traditions that tell us to discern when love is moving us in good or bad directions. These all say that love which moves us beyond ourselves, so that we open our hearts and lives to others and are capable of giving more to others, is Spirit-led.

And that has been my own experience, when I've allowed myself to claim who I am and the love I have for another man. Unfortunately, many of our churches remain blind to the gifts such love between people of the same sex offer to the world and to the churches.

There will come a day, though, I feel confident, when the churches will have to recognize they are dead wrong on these issues. In the meantime, all the money the Mormons and Catholic church and other religious groups are giving to fight gay love just seems misspent, in my way of seeing things.

Thanks to both of you for great comments.

For some reason, most of the people I'm exposed to religiously are Mormon - I have tons of Mormon friends and associates. I think the LDS church has a very scary stance on homosexuality: that it is an instinct that God purposely gives certain individuals, in order for them to struggle against it and prove their obedience to God's commandments. So scary. i'm sorry, but I cannot believe in a god that would issue to someone the inborn ability to love someone, same sex or not, and then expect them to either live a lie or a celebate life, to deny what i consider to be a GOOD instinct. Love is a wonderful thing, not a dangerous evil thing. I dont' think love can be split into "good love" and "bad love." If a god was cruel enough to do that, I would want to defy him. Thankfully, I don't believe in the LDS point of view. The Mormon church is one of the biggest oppositions to gay marriage, raising money and campaigning against it, and I think this has more to do with the fact that if gay marriage was allowed, that'd be one less sin - homosexuals could remain celebate until marriage. That would seriously damage their line of reasoning.