EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the January 26, 2015, issue of National Review.
In the new climate of liberal intolerance, conservative Christians can’t even find refuge by agreeing with Elizabeth Warren. Just ask Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College.
On July 1, 2014, he signed a letter to President Obama — writing as an individual rather than in his institutional capacity — exercising his most basic First Amendment right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The letter, signed by a number of Christian leaders and scholars — including the CEO of Catholic Charities and Rick Warren, famous pastor of Saddleback Church — dealt with the president’s then-imminent executive order banning sexual-orientation discrimination by federal contractors.
The letter made a simple request: It asked the president to add a “religious exemption” to his planned executive order. Lindsay wrote:
We have great appreciation for your commitment to human dignity and justice, and we share those values with you. With respect to the proposed executive order, we agree that banning discrimination is a good thing. We believe that all persons are created in the divine image of the creator, and are worthy of respect and love, without exception. Even so, it still may not be possible for all sides to reach a consensus on every issue.
Not much hate there.
Indeed, the letter did not ask the president to halt the planned order. Instead, it merely asked for an exemption for religious institutions contracting with the federal government — an exemption that was actually narrower in its impact than one Democrats had passed overwhelmingly through the Senate, with the support of none other than Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts’s junior senator and undisputed champion of the Left.
In 2013, Warren voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a proposed federal law that would ban sexual-orientation and gender-identity discrimination in workplaces across the United States, encompassing tens of thousands more employers than President Obama’s planned executive order. Yet ENDA contained a robust religious exemption, flatly exempting houses of worship and providing broad protections for religious employers who require employees to adhere to statements of religious orthodoxy.
ENDA passed the Senate (it has made no progress in the House) in November 2013. President Lindsay signed his letter eight months later. A lot can change in eight months. The arc of leftist social history moves quickly, and it bends towards intolerance.
By the following July, the Elizabeth Warren position (and the position of 51 other Democratic senators) was an intolerable outrage. Religious exemptions were tainted by the Hobby Lobby case, in which the Supreme Court interpreted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to permit Hobby Lobby to exempt itself from aspects of the Department of Health and Human Services’ so-called contraception mandate.
Religious liberty — once a thoroughly bipartisan cause — was now out of favor, at least if it conflicted with the Left’s reigning sexual orthodoxy.
So Gordon College had to pay the price for its president’s impertinence — through a wave of illiberal anti-religious provocations driven by establishment-leftist vitriol that, left unchecked, could threaten the very existence and viability of Christian higher education in the United States.
In many ways, Gordon is an unlikely target for the Left’s latest “two minutes’ hate.” First, its academic reputation is sterling. If there were such a thing as a “Christian Ivy League,” then Gordon would be at the top of the conference, right along with its better-known cousin, Wheaton College, in Illinois.
Second, Gordon is hardly a hotbed of right-wing reactionaries. My own memories of Gordon go back to my law-school days, when the few Harvard Christians would occasionally car-pool up to Gordon (it’s located just north of Boston) to enjoy concerts or lectures. We found it a haven of Evangelical Christianity, but we could never presume the professors’ or the students’ politics. Devout, yes. Thoughtful, yes. But conservative? Only sometimes.
And so it is today. For the better part of the last two years, I’ve provided occasional legal counsel to President Lindsay and the college’s board, and I find that Gordon is the same thoughtful but difficult-to-categorize place I knew 20 years ago. The one thing you can safely assume about members of the Gordon community is that they’re doing their best to follow Christ. Beyond that, assumptions are dangerous.
But while Gordon is intellectually rigorous and ideologically diverse, it is culturally isolated. Its Evangelical orthodoxy would fit in well in my home state of Tennessee, right alongside Christian colleges such as Lipscomb University (my alma mater), Union University, Trevecca Nazarene University, Lee University, Covenant College, and any number of theologically orthodox Protestant schools.
But on the outskirts of Boston, Gordon stands alone — alone and vulnerable to the leftist mob.
Unable to punish President Lindsay personally, activists targeted Gordon, discovering that — lo and behold — it had a policy (like virtually every orthodox Christian school and church in the United States) that required students and employees to limit sexual activity to marriage, defining marriage within the Judeo-Christian tradition, as the union of one man and one woman.
Never mind that the policy allows any person of any sexual orientation to attend Gordon, teach at Gordon, or serve in its administration. The fact that its Life and Conduct Policy prohibits “sexual relations outside marriage” and “homosexual practice” (explained as “sexual intercourse”) was enough to take action, to declare it bigoted and not fit for inclusion in society.
The response was swift.
In an act of pure moral grandstanding, in July — just eight days after President Lindsay signed the letter to President Obama — the city of Salem suspended a long-term contract with Gordon that had allowed the college to use the city-owned Old Town Hall — a spiteful act, but one of little consequence to the college.
But then the spite became harmful. In late August, the Lynn School Committee — a nearby school district — ended an eleven-year relationship with the school and refused to accept Gordon College students as student-teachers in its system.
This action — in addition to being destructive (teaching programs can’t function without student-teacher placements) — is grotesquely unconstitutional, violating students’ rights of free association, free speech, and religious liberty by punishing them for merely attending Gordon College, even without evidence the students themselves have engaged in any “discriminatory” acts or even agree with Gordon’s policy (there are dissenters who attend the school).
Then, in September, Gordon’s accreditor, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, announced that it had met to consider whether “Gordon College’s traditional inclusion of ‘homosexual practice’ as a forbidden activity” violated the association’s standards for accreditation. The Association gave Gordon one year “to ensure that the College’s policies and procedures are non-discriminatory.”
The implication was clear: You have one year to choose between your conscience and your accreditation.
For Gordon, the death penalty now looms. A college cannot exist without accreditation. The number of programs and benefits that are conditioned upon accreditation are simply too numerous to mention. Simply put, a student with any ambitions to participate in the commercial life of this country or to pursue a graduate or professional degree would be foolish to attend an unaccredited college.
Gordon — like all other major Christian universities — has been accredited without incident for generations. And for good reason. Accrediting agencies are traditionally concerned with the quality of the academic programs and the financial health of the college, not with the college’s commitment to any given version of ideological purity.
Not only is this respect for religious liberty a matter of tradition, it’s also mandated by federal law. While accrediting agencies such as the New England Association are private, their decisions have power because the accrediting agency is “recognized” by the Department of Education. To be recognized, an accrediting agency must satisfy a host of “eligibility requirements,” and none of those requirements give the accreditor the ability to dictate a Christian college’s religiously motivated policies on sexual conduct.
To the contrary, those policies dictate that “the agency must consistently apply and enforce standards that respect the stated mission of the institution, including religious mission” (emphasis added).
There is a pattern to recent public battles over leftist intolerance. If the conservative target is culturally or geographically “red,” the conservative backlash overwhelms the Left. Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby have taken the Left’s best punch and have emerged unbloodied and unbowed.
But Gordon isn’t well-known in Red America. Tucked in the Northeast, it doesn’t enjoy the support of any national conservative constituency. So it has faced its crisis supported only by the small community of writers and bloggers who monitor religious freedom in higher education.
The new conservative congressional majority must put the Department of Education on notice that it will not be permitted to “recognize” any accrediting agency that seeks to impose an ideological litmus test on private, religious colleges. If the New England Association has given Gordon College a year to toe the leftist line, Congress should give the Department of Education and the New England Association six months to reaffirm its regulatory requirement to respect Gordon’s religious mission.
The true legal battle for religious liberty isn’t won by prevailing only where the faith is strong. In those areas, the popularity of Christianity becomes its best defense. Rather, it’s won by prevailing where the faith is culturally weak — where the faithful can’t rely on “buycotts” or multi-million-person Facebook campaigns, but must instead appeal to the rule of law and to the constitutional obligations of lawmakers.
Gordon College’s case may never become a popular cause. The college is unlikely ever to enjoy the pop-culture power of chicken restaurants and craft stores. But few battles will have more enduring meaning than the fight for Christian education, for the very ability to transmit knowledge and values from one generation to the next.
— David French is a senior legal counselor at the American Center for Law and Justice. This piece appeared in the January 26, 2015, issue of National Review.