While paranoid observers are still trying to sort out whether “bless you” is permitted in certain classes at the College of Coastal Georgia, evangelicals are upset about Vanderbilt’s decision to prohibit campus organizations from establishing their own standards for student leadership. Matthew Lee Anderson has come to the following realization in the light of increasing hostility to evangelical Protestantism at U.S. colleges and universities:
Many of the most hopeful and best parts of evangelicalism the past fifteen years have been encompassed by an incipient desire for respectability. The resurgent apologetics-evangelicals have sought to demonstrate the faith’s intellectual credibility, while the artistic evangelicals have made it quite clear you can still love Jesus and watch House of Cards, thank you very much. The politically-reformist evangelicals have put a hole in the “not like those Republicans” drum, while the social justice evangelicals have made everyone forget about the Four Spiritual Laws. And some of us—ahem—have pounded on about how we can read the old stuff, too, which can be its own form of “not like them folks there” attitude. . . . the vast majority of us will, I suspect, continue to fight and plead for a kind of respectability out of the earnest, good-hearted desire to see our neighbors convinced of our ideas—or if not of our ideas, at the very least of our sanity. Arguments for ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ and ‘respect’ are coming fast and furious these days, after all, even though they are fifteen years (at least) too late.
Anderson is echoing a piece at Christianity Today in which Tish Harrison Warren commented on Vanderbilt’s decision:
I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space. The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus. It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.
I empathize with Anderson and Warren, and I can’t deny that a form of anti-Christianism exists in many sectors of the academy that resembles the sorts of prejudices that Protestants used to harbor against Roman Catholics (leaving room, of course, for good sorts of prejudices). But I do wonder why folks like Anderson or Warren are surprised by this outcome. After all, my theory is that gay marriage is simply the push back that evangelicals may be justly receiving for touting family values the way they have for the last three decades. “You want family values? Well, let’s add homosexuality to family values. How do you like them now?”
And now, Vanderbilt’s decision may be simply the consequence of promoting w-w for as long as Tim Lahaye’s wife has been writing about sex. What I mean is that evangelicals, following their neo-Calvinist superiors, have adopted the mantra that faith goes all the way down and separates believers from non-believers. This means that we cannot treat religion as a private matter since it must affect everything a religionist does. It means that the divide between the secular and sacred, between the public square and the church assembly is artificial and arbitrary. It means as well that a Christian scholar will study the arts or sciences differently from the secular scholar, and that the Christian college will be different because faith-soaked institutions will bring religion to bear on every nook and cranny of the curriculum.
In other words, for all the effort to employ “common grace,” the w-w craze has turned Christians into a group set apart on the other side of the antithesis. Even common grace winds up being divisive because it condescendingly grants to non-believers some truth but always reminds them that they really have no good reasons for accessing it. Instead of emphasizing in common spheres like the public square (however naked she may be) or the university what believers share with non-believers, w-w has fed the politics of identity and removed believers into a distinct tribe.
For that reason, can we really blame officials at Vanderbilt for not being able to tell the difference between Joel Osteen and Tim Keller? The way the religious right, with the help of their neo-Calvinist enablers, has carved up intellectual and political life, Vanderbilt is simply following what w-w Christians prescribed. It is further evidence of the old Gypsy curse’s power — “may you get what you want.”