Political Diversity at Christian Colleges

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I want to call your attention to a nice piece at Inside Higher Ed on Christian colleges and political diversity.  It is written by Thomas Albert (Tal) Howard, a historian at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana and former director of the honors program at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

To get a fuller picture of the Christian academic landscape, one would need to visit institutions such as Bethel University in Minnesota, Calvin College in Michigan, Dordt College in Iowa or East Texas Baptist University, among hundreds of others. They “represent a slice of America that most secular liberals don’t know anything about,” according Molly Worthen, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of a much-discussed book on evangelical higher education.

As institutions that host many first-generation college students and are also replete with Ph.D.s from major universities, Christian colleges can provide a bridge between elite opinion and “red-state” America. How might they rise to the occasion?

First, they must practice what they preach. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In an age when conservative intellectuals often find themselves “disinvited” to speak on prominent campuses, Christian colleges should make certain that they invite articulate and diverse voices, including liberals and secularists, to their own campuses. When I oversaw a center at my former (evangelical) institution, Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., our lecture series included the well-known atheist Bart Ehrman as well as Cornel West, John Kerry and Susannah Heschel — hardly icons of the right. We also regularly hosted Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim speakers. Charity begins by hearing what another is actually saying, not encountering it secondhand in caricature.

Second, Christian colleges can contribute to the common good by continuing to teach and even expand curricular offerings in the conservative intellectual tradition, perhaps one of the biggest causalities of the recent anti-intellectual insurgence. Authors whom one would find neither by Trump’s bedside nor trumpeted in the curricula of most elite colleges deserve a robust hearing: Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, C. S. Lewis, Adam Smith and Richard Weaver, among others. Liberals should welcome thoughtful young conservatives lest their own identity become deformed in obsessions against Trump. Beware, Nietzsche once warned, for you can easily become the monsters you seek to slay.

Third, in what some have dubbed our “postsecular age,” Christian colleges should point the way by teaching, through empathy and analysis, how religion functions as a dynamic and complex phenomenon in human affairs. At elite colleges and universities, too often religion is viewed strictly through the lenses of race, gender and class — or else through some of the grand explanatory schemes of the academy, including that of Karl Marx (religion as ideological superstructure), Sigmund Freud (religion as coping mechanism or neurosis) and Michel Foucault (religion as a mask for power). Some of these schemes have yielded valuable insights, to be sure. Nonetheless, as Brad S. Gregory, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, has argued, they often come with the presumption “that religion is not something that can be or ought to be understood in its own terms.” As such, explaining subtly and sometimes readily yields to a more reductionist explaining away, denying students insights wrought by the messier, more difficult process of empathetic engagement.

Finally, permit me to offer a modest proposal — one that would require no small dose of philanthropic support and administrative imagination. Christian colleges and elite secular institutions should seek out one another to promote student exchanges, either for a short visit or a semester of study, similar to one suggested by David J. Smith in a previous article in Inside Higher Ed. A Bay Area student at the University of California, Berkeley, would have much to learn from spending time with peers at, say, Goshen College, a Mennonite school in northern Indiana. A top-notch conservative Lutheran student at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., would greatly benefit from a stint at Williams College in Massachusetts. Stereotypes might well erode, exposing leftist, rightist, secular and religious groupthink in the process.

Read the entire piece here.

What Pence Could Have Said in the VP Debate When Asked About Faith and Policy

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Evangelical Protestants don’t struggle with how to apply their faith to matters of public policy.  Or at least they don’t talk about such struggles.  Evangelicalism is a religion of certainty–a lot of black and white, not much gray.

Catholics are pretty certain about things too.  But they also tend to feel more comfortable with mystery and struggle.

I am probably doing some pigeonholing here.  But I thought about this during Tuesday night’s Vice-Presidential debate when the candidates–Tim Kaine and Mike Pence–were asked, “Can you discuss in detail a time when you struggled to balance your personal faith and a public policy position?”

As Mark Silk notes at Religion News Service, Kaine answered the question, but Pence did not.  I am not sure if Pence’s evangelical faith and/or Kaine’s Catholic faith were behind their responses to the question, but it was interesting to see how they both approached the question.

Here is a taste of Silk’s post

Democrat Tim Kaine, first up, answered the question by talking about his struggle as governor of Virginia to carry out the death penalty, which he opposes in line with his Roman Catholicism.

“It was very, very difficult to allow executions to go forward,” he said, “but in circumstances where I didn’t feel like there was a case for clemency, I told Virginia voters I would uphold the law, and I did.”

Republican Mike Pence, by contrast, veered away from the question: “And with regard to when I struggle, I appreciate, and — and — and — I have a great deal of respect for Senator Kaine’s sincere faith. I truly do.”

He then proceeded into a discourse on his opposition to abortion, a mainstay of his evangelical faith. He never got around to saying anything about when he struggles.

Which was a shame, given what happened last year with Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That act, you’ll recall, allowed businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples — albeit Pence, as governor, insisted it was only about guaranteeing religious liberty.

Read the entire post here.

Miroslav Volf on Why Christians Should Vote for Hillary Clinton

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Volf is the Henry B. Wright professor of theology at Yale Divinity School.  (Yes, Yale does have Christian theologians on the payroll).  Check out his interview with journalist Jonathan Merritt that is currently running at Religion News Service.

A taste:

RNS: In a given election, is there ever a “Christian” candidate?

MV: With just a bit of facetiousness, we could say that Jesus Christ is the only Christian candidate. Short of him, just as, strictly speaking, there are no Christian nations, so there are also no Christian candidates for the public office. Candidates can be more or less aligned with the commitments, convictions, and character that we see displayed in Christ, in the New Testament as interpreted in the context of the entire Scripture and taking into account the changed economic, political and cultural conditions under which we all live.

RNS: Who, in your opinion, is a more “Christian” candidate in this presidential election?

MV: It seems clear to me that Hillary Clinton is not only the more competent of the two major party presidential candidates running for office now, but that the kind of vision she stands for is more in line with the Christian faith than is Donald Trump’s. It is important to keep in mind the whole range of convictions and virtues when making an assessment, rather than zeroing in on just one or two. In Public Faith in Action, we discuss some 25 of them, ranging from positions on wealth and education, though positions on abortion and euthanasia to positions on war, policing and religious freedom.

RNS: I want to get to these issues. But first, make your best case for the candidate you think Christians should vote for.

MV: The best case to be made for Hillary Clinton is that on balance she better represents the convictions and character that should concern Christian citizens. No candidate is perfect. There are certainly areas where Secretary Clinton’s policies and record might give Christians pause. But she takes the threat posed by climate change seriously. Her policies, such as paid family leave, would actually strengthen American families. She is committed to a just and welcoming approach to immigration that does not unduly compromise the legitimate good of security. She supports major reforms to America’s overly retributive and racially-biased criminal justice system. And, perhaps most importantly, she has demonstrated much deeper commitment to supporting the disadvantaged and the vulnerable than her opponent has, his grandiose rhetoric notwithstanding.

RNS: What about the traditionally conservative issue of abortion? How should Christians think about this?

MV: Human life should be inviolable. That follows from the fact that human beings were created in the image of God and that God is attached to them in love. No matter who we are — how underdeveloped, incapacitated, and unproductive or how brilliant, diligent, and productive – we all have equal dignity before God and equal worth. That holds true for the new one in the mother’s womb, for the dying, and for everyone in between. The debates about the point that life in a mother’s womb becomes human life should not obscure that basic conviction.

Some food for thought.  Read the entire interview here.

What Can Augustine Teach us About American Politics?

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A lot.

Check out Alex Grant‘s piece, “City of God and the Ends of American Politics” at Christ & Pop Culture.”  Here is a taste:

At heart, the Democratic and Republican parties are each giving us a story about identity. Augustine begins his critique of this identity by satirizing some of what we might call the “conservative values” of the Republican party. He argues that we can tolerate corruption in a people and their government as long as “our way of life” is not disrupted:

“So long as it lasts,” they say, “so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of peace, why should we worry? What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place. It is all right if the poor serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make use of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride . . . if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect. . . .” (II.20, translated by Henry Bettenson)

Does not this desire to maintain riches, glory, and a certain kind of stability contain the echo of “making America great again”? Here is the preservation of class divides, the “freedom” to be good consumers, and a hawkish desire to go to war in order to “protect our way of life” (in our case, isolationism, capitalism, and neglect of social justice). It reveals a people who have found their identity in being “the greatest nation on Earth,” where greatness is defined in measurables, such as economic prosperity and military power rather than true justice and relational human flourishing.

But Augustine is not just concerned with the economic and material desires. He goes on to address the more liberal “identity politics” most often espoused by the Democratic party. Why should we worry, Augustine continues,

if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer salutary advice; if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights; if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; . . . The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a man’s own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s property, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his own, or with others, if they consent. (II.20)

Notice that, in this view, consent is all that is required to make an action virtuous. All desires and delights are valid. Here is the argument that it should be possible to do anything one wants, provided that it does not harm others’ property or bodies.

We could stop here, recognizing that both parties have their flaws. But Augustine goes further, linking the desires for unchecked economic prosperity and personal license:

It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink till they are sick: to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and of every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence. Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority: he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living. (II.20)

And this is where we reach the ends of what we have been trained to love and value. The link between both parties and ourselves is the supremacy of pleasure. And so the Republican party asks, “Why shouldn’t we do what we want with our money and do all we can to maintain our nation’s power?” And so the Democratic party asks, “Why shouldn’t we fulfill every desire that is in our hearts?” Embedded in both is the same question: Why should we deny ourselves pleasures of any kind, and why should we let anyone disapprove of what we do?

Read the entire piece here.

Obama and Romney Talk About Their Religious Faith…

with Cathedral Age, the quarterly magazine of the Washington National Cathedral.  Here is a snippet from each interview (as summarized by CNN):

Obama, when asked how he responds when people question the sincerity of his Christian faith, said:

… (T)here’s not much I can do about it. I have a job to do as president, and that does not involve convincing folks that my faith in Jesus is legitimate and real. I do my best to live out my faith, and to stay in the Word, and to make my life look more like His. I’m not perfect. What I can do is just keep on following Him, and serve others trying to make folks’ lives a little better using this humbling position that I hold.

Romney, when asked about how his faith plays a role in his life said:

Faith is integral to my life. I have served as a lay pastor in my church. I faithfully follow its precepts. I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor. My father was committed to Martin Luther King Jr.’s cause of equality, and I saw my parents provide compassionate care to others, in personal ways to people nearby and in leading national volunteer movements. My faith is grounded in the conviction that a consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God.