(Published in The Tennessean 9/15/2011)
Evangelical Christians are increasingly under attack for their biblically-based worldviews. Shortly after graduation last spring, Vanderbilt University’s Office of Religious Life quietly deferred its annual approval of several mostly conservative Christian organizations.
Groups affected included the Christian Legal Society, InterVarsity and the graduate chapter of Campus Crusade. These organizations face an uncertain future because of a new policy that prohibits religious organizations from requiring that their leaders share the same beliefs and goals of the organizations they seek to lead. The policy goes one step further by hamstringing Bible studies.
According to a letter from the acting director of the Office of Religious Life, Bible studies are suspect because they “would seem to indicate that officers are expected to hold certain beliefs.’’ The letter goes on to explain: “Vanderbilt policies do not allow this expectation/qualification for officers.’’
If this policy is implemented, it will make it harder for the students to have on-campus fellowship with like-minded believers and it will make it more difficult for them to grow in or even maintain their faith while on campus. The policy sends a clear message to students: religious associations are not a valued or respected part of the university’s ideological diversity.
This hastily conceived policy has the potential to destroy every religious organization on campus by secularizing religion and allowing intolerant conflict. Carried to its logical extension, it means that no organization can maintain integrity of beliefs. Christians can seek to lead Muslim organizations, Muslims can seek to lead Jewish ones, and Wiccans can seek to lead Catholic fellowships. The policy encourages people holding antithetical views to infiltrate organizations they seek to destroy.
Universities and colleges around the country are increasingly seeking to impose secular ideology upon religious organizations under the guise of political correctness.
Recently, the Supreme Court allowed a public law school to require all student groups to accept any and all student-comers for leadership positions, regardless of whether the students agreed with the groups’ goals and purposes; however, the Court carefully pointed out that the policy applied to all groups, not just religious groups.
By adopting a more restrictive policy than the Supreme Court allowed, the university aims to get national publicity for its aggressive policy.
Perhaps donors and alumni should weigh in on Vanderbilt’s new policy. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of worship, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits religious discrimination. It is not too late for Vanderbilt University to honor and respect the principles and traditions that helped make our nation and the Western university great.
Carol M. Swain is professor of political science and of law at Vanderbilt University. Her most recent book is Be the People: a Call to Reclaim America’s Faith and Promise.