Campus Christians flourish amid adversity
The phone call came after midnight on April 13, 2000. A representative from the “J,” the Tufts Community Union Judiciary, called Curtis and Jody Chang, Boston-area campus-ministry leaders for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, to deliver a short message. Without a hearing or an opportunity to be heard, the Tufts Christian Fellowship, the largest student group at Tufts University and an InterVarsity affiliate, had been expelled from campus — “de-recognized,” in the bureaucratic language of university regulations. The grounds? The Fellowship was a threat to campus safety. Its Christian message of sin and redemption could drive students to suicide.
The proximate cause for the J’s fury was the Fellowship’s recent decision to deny a lesbian student’s application to lead the group. Not only did the student expressly disagree with InterVarsity’s teachings on marriage, family, and human sexuality, she also specifically stated that she wanted to use her position at the Fellowship to advocate gay rights. It would be the equivalent of Walter Palmer attempting to join PETA to lead the group in a hunt to kill Cecil the lion. Rather than accept such leadership, the Fellowship chose to remain true to its Biblical roots: An orthodox Christian organization wanted an orthodox Christian leader — as Baptists want Baptist pastors, Muslims prefer imams to rabbis, and Republicans tend to nominate Republicans to represent their party. But the secular university is consumed by both the sexual revolution and identity politics. Thus, the Fellowship’s commonsense exercise of freedom of association was immediately re-characterized as hate and exclusion.
When news of the Fellowship’s expulsion hit the media, and as the Fellowship began to fight back not just in campus courts but also in the court of public opinion, the campaign against it began to spread. Soon, InterVarsity chapters at Harvard, Williams College, and Middlebury found themselves under scrutiny or expelled from campus. Next, large public universities took aim at InterVarsity — it was expelled from Rutgers and threatened at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Multiple University of Wisconsin schools attacked InterVarsity and other campus ministries. At every school, the reasoning was the same: It was inherently discriminatory for a Christian organization to reserve its leadership for Christians. InterVarsity was bigoted, best compared to the Ku Klux Klan and southern segregationists. First hundreds, then soon thousands of Christian students found their campus lives disrupted; they were viewed as outcasts and sometimes faced acts of physical intimidation.
Within two years, InterVarsity became the nation’s most embattled Christian ministry, and the problem only got worse. At Central College in Iowa, InterVarsity faced potential expulsion after it asked a gay student to step down from leadership after he refused to advocate Biblical sexual ethics. At the State University of New York at Buffalo, the administration de-recognized an InterVarsity fellowship over the case of a gay student who was ineligible for leadership, despite that student’s objection to the university’s action and his respect for InterVarsity’s Biblical stance on sexuality. At other universities, campus ideologues pursued InterVarsity even though Muslim student groups not only maintained their own exclusive membership and leadership policies but typically engaged in sex-segregated worship — thereby “discriminating” on the bases of religion, sexual orientation, and gender.
In 2010, InterVarsity’s plight worsened. In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Supreme Court rejected decades of First Amendment precedent and ruled that it was permissible for universities to require Christian student groups to be open to non-Christian leaders, at least so long as the universities consistently maintained an “all comers” policy that required all student groups to be open to leadership from any qualifying student. Universities could, in effect, force atheist leadership on Christian students.
By 2014, the number of affected students had expanded exponentially. InterVarsity faced expulsion or possible expulsion at dozens of campuses. It was de-recognized at all 23 schools of the California State University system. InterVarsity was so prominent in the fight for religious freedom on campus that sources on Capitol Hill have said that university lobbyists trying to block religious-freedom legislation claimed that universities didn’t have a religious-freedom problem, but rather an “InterVarsity problem” — all because InterVarsity consistently and steadfastly refused to comply with campus demands that it abandon its principles when selecting its leaders.
I know this history because I’ve lived it. For 15 years, I helped defend InterVarsity on campuses from coast to coast, beginning at Tufts University, where I launched a defense effort after receiving that midnight call. I argued for religious liberty before campus tribunals, haggled with deans and provosts, filed suit when necessary, and made the case for religious freedom to the media during those few sporadic times when the largely behind-the-scenes fight for liberty broke briefly into the news cycle. During that time, I got to know InterVarsity, from its national leaders to its university-level staff to its student members. I watched it respond to a frontal attack in the culture wars and struggle to do so without allowing the constant conflict to transform its mission and character. And, critically, I watched it grow. Yes, grow.
Led since 2001 by Alec Hill, who recently stepped down to fight bone-marrow cancer, the nation’s most embattled Christian ministry also turns out to be one of its most vibrant. In 2001, InterVarsity reported reaching roughly 31,906 students and faculty on 533 campuses. By 2015, InterVarsity was on 649 campuses and reaching more than 40,000 students and faculty. This was a double-digit growth rate made all the more notable by the facts that overall religious participation declines significantly during students’ college years and that Millennials are more likely to disavow the faith of their parents than any preceding generation. While Christianity struggles on campus, InterVarsity grows. Not only does it grow, but, with the exception of a handful of campuses across the country, it has tended to prevail in its fights for religious freedom — even at the California State system, which welcomes InterVarsity back on campus this academic year. What are the keys to InterVarsity’s success?
The question is particularly pertinent given the religious community’s alarm — sometimes bordering on panic — in response to the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. Orthodox Christians in the United States are enduring previously unthinkable levels of cultural and legal adversity. If religious employers refuse to recognize same-sex marriage, they are looking at potential losses of tax exemption and the closure of Christian adoption and foster-parenting agencies; Christian business owners who refuse to help celebrate same-sex weddings face ruinous fines. And these legal challenges are amplified by cultural shaming that often intimidates Christians into silence or limits their career trajectories in Left-dominated fields such as television, cinema, technology, and, of course, the academy.
Confronted with this new challenge, some Christians fear for the future of the Church. Pastors are calling insurance companies, seeking to guarantee coverage against gay-rights lawsuits that they believe to be imminent. Others are developing fresh strategic approaches, including perhaps even a degree of cultural retreat. Rod Dreher, for example, is advocating that the Church pursue the “Benedict Option,” a still-evolving concept that includes a partial tactical withdrawal from popular culture designed partly to give the Church space to reaffirm its commitment to core Biblical values and to more effectively impart those values to congregants.
Yet InterVarsity has taken a different approach — one that does not intentionally court controversy yet steadfastly refuses to conform to university demands. For the past 15 years, it has endured a legal and cultural landscape that in essence has been post-Obergefell. Indeed, the campus atmosphere has often been worse than the near-future culture imagined even by Christian alarmists. For example, not even the most doomsaying activist believes that churches will soon be unable to hire and fire pastors on the basis of their faith — that Baptists will have to hire atheist pastors. Only on campus have Christians faced punishment for refusing to publicly take political and moral positions contrary to their beliefs. For example, at Missouri State University, Emily Brooker was disciplined after refusing to sign a letter to a state legislator calling for an end to the ban on adoptions by same-sex couples. At Eastern Michigan University, counseling student Julea Ward was dismissed from her program after refusing to affirm the morality of homosexual behavior.
In other words, campus religious persecution is as bad as the American version of persecution gets. Despite this pressure, InterVarsity and other ministries have proven that the Church in America can face marginalization and still prosper — indeed, that university attacks often do more to empower and motivate young Christians than a decade’s worth of sermons. As InterVarsity staff worker Tish Harrison Warren told me, “it turns out that many young Christians want a faith that feels real, a faith that actually costs them something.”
InterVarsity officials will be the first to admit that the Tufts controversy — and the cascade of assaults that followed — initially took them by surprise. They weren’t prepared for either the campus fight or the media battles that immediately followed, according to Greg Jao, InterVarsity’s vice president and director of campus engagement. In the midst of the emergency, InterVarsity had to rely on the staff in place — the boots on the ground — to handle the initial onslaught.
Yet it was here that potential weakness turned into strength. Far from being the monolithic, cult-like entity that administrators imagined, InterVarsity was a collection of student-run organizations bound together by the organization’s doctrinal basis — its statement of faith. Any student organization was free to leave InterVarsity at any time, and InterVarsity was free to withdraw its recognition and support if a student group disavowed InterVarsity’s Biblical doctrines. Affiliation was creedal rather than extensively organizational or bureaucratic. This meant that theology mattered to InterVarsity students — it mattered a lot.
Consequently, when administrators pushed student leadership to abandon the national organization and move forward “free” of external influence, they encountered students who had already made the choice to affiliate with InterVarsity and viewed that choice as an important expression of their beliefs and freedom. It was a choice they would reaffirm again and again.
Warren, who worked with InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship during its yearlong battle for survival at Vanderbilt University, recalls the student reaction at her campus. “I reminded them that they didn’t have to fight,” she explains. “They led their own group, and they could cut ties with InterVarsity and make their own way at the school.” The group took a vote by secret ballot. “It was unanimous,” Warren says. “They stayed with InterVarsity and fought their own school, even to the point of exhaustion.”
Stories like this were repeated across the country as chapter presidents or InterVarsity staff outlined the options to embattled students. Stay and defend the doctrinal basis or cut ties and placate the administration. Through it all, students and staff refused to cast aside their Christian principles for social or administrative acceptance.
InterVarsity’s resistance depended not on creeds alone, however, but also on a healthy dose of perspective. Like many members of Evangelical institutions, InterVarsity staff and students are keenly aware of the immense, deadly persecution of Christians overseas. Their own struggles paled by comparison. Jao said that he was “never particularly dismayed” that the culture was drifting away from InterVarsity. For the “national culture and political framework” to reinforce the Christian value system, as they had done in the United States until recently, was unusual, he recognized. For Christians, opposition from the culture, not the culture’s agreement, was the historical norm. Further, as Jao noted, “an apathetic or somewhat antagonistic culture has never meant the death of the Church.”
Warren refuses to use the word “persecution” to describe InterVarsity’s experience — even as the Vanderbilt administrators kicked InterVarsity off campus and publicly compared Christian students to segregationists. “We were marginalized,” she says, “not persecuted.”
Still, it was sometimes difficult for students to deal with the vicious rhetoric. At Tufts, one Christian student broke down weeping during a campus hearing as he described being called a bigot despite years of activism for racial reconciliation and civil rights. At Rutgers, students were stunned when even some of their fellow Christians turned on them, accusing members of the Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship of being “intolerant.” At Vanderbilt, grad students “working to cure cancer” (in Warren’s words) suddenly found themselves described as the moral equivalent of white supremacists. The result, however, was greater student unity and greater faith. At Vanderbilt “students stepped up,” Warren said. “They decided to pray, [to] be unified, and to worship. I’ve never seen the kind of unity I saw during that year.”
But while the culture war came for InterVarsity, its students and staff decided they would not become culture warriors. In other words, they would not change or politicize the mission or purpose of the organization to defeat the threat. As a politically and racially diverse organization — often InterVarsity chapters are the only majority-minority religious organizations on campus — they viewed themselves as uniquely positioned to engage the administration and the wider campus.
“The goal is not triumph but transformation,” Jao said. Even student protests against university censorship and exclusion embodied the scriptural command to love your enemies. At Vanderbilt, InterVarsity students brought doughnuts to an LGBT counter-protest. Students held a prayer vigil for the school’s board of directors, praying for the members’ families and businesses, asking God’s blessings on the very people who were voting to ratify the chancellor’s decision to eject InterVarsity and almost a dozen other Christian groups. At another university, InterVarsity students attended art exhibits designed to highlight the problem of anti-LGBT bullying, and at still another they co-hosted an event with LGBT leaders, trying to model the university’s alleged dedication to “dialogue across differences.”
Not surprisingly, energized students became more effective evangelists. During the 2014–15 academic year, InterVarsity chapter leaders reported that more than 4,000 students made a first-time profession of faith in Christ, a 21 percent increase from the previous year and a 172 percent increase from ten years ago. It turns out that university scorn helps Christian students find their voice.
In more than 20 years of legal practice, including handling or overseeing hundreds of campus cases and controversies, I’ve seen Christian students rise to the occasion again and again. With my own eyes I’ve seen young college students — kids who months before never imagined they’d be at the center of a national controversy — braving physical intimidation in deliberately darkened hallways, barred from entering campus hearing rooms to respectfully defend religious freedom. I’ve seen young women endure rape threats and death threats yet double down on their faith commitments and commitment to free speech for all. Young students have been subjected to Star Chamber–like proceedings in which furious campus administrators tried to hector them into doubting and denying their faith. And students have turned out by the hundreds, crowding campus buildings, to pray for their university and protest their unjust punishments.
Yes, it is a shame — it has long been a shame — that this is the plight of all too many campus Christians. And yes, it is a harbinger of the relatively near future for the rest of American Christendom, as campus ideologies and animosities infect the larger culture, including an increasingly ideological and hostile judiciary. For those who fear adversity, InterVarsity’s experience is little more than a cautionary tale, a warning of jobs potentially lost and of social-media shame campaigns. But for those who know their Christian history and understand Biblical truth, this near future represents an opportunity to demonstrate a measure of courage, an opportunity to present a faithful contrast to a secular culture.
There’s a saying that “things will get worse before they get better.” But InterVarsity’s experience shows that things can get worse and get better — at the same time. A culture can grow hostile even as Christians grow more faithful. The one action often causes the other. Not only is this predictable, it is Biblical. The Apostle Paul put it best: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.”