Some things don’t mix well. Oil and water, blindness and graphic design, Minnesota and assertiveness. Two things that are important to many people on campus don’t appear to be mixing together well either: Vanderbilt’s public commitment to inclusivity and diversity and the beliefs of many conservative religious organizations on campus. The dispute began last year, instigated when BYX–the Christian fraternity on campus–asked one of its gay members to resign. In response, Vanderbilt began formulating a nondiscrimination policy that they believed would make the campus in general a more open, welcoming place. Things heated up in October, with the policy gaining national attention and being covered in newspapers and on television. Religious organizations–particularly of the conservative, evangelical Christian variety–reacted strongly against this policy, with on-campus and Facebook campaigns lobbying Vanderbilt to change its mind. In January, Vanderbilt’s administration held a town hall meeting to alleviate the concerns of students on campus. In many cases, this only seemed to exacerbate growing anxiety among the religious organizations. This week, religious organizations were asked to sign Vanderbilt’s drafted “all-comers” policy, which would mandate–among other things–that leadership positions be open to any student, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and (most importantly) creed. Eleven organizations–including the Navigators, Cru, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and BYX–refused to sign the policy, with Vanderbilt Catholic declining to re-apply for student organization status.
I am a religious person, so I followed the development of this policy with some interest and some admitted exasperation. In October, I called for religious organizations to do their best to compromise with Vanderbilt’s wishes. I still wish I could say that’s what I thought the solution was. But, in pondering further and reflecting on the divide that fundamentally separates the Vanderbilt administration’s understanding of inclusivity from that of the religious organizations, I understand why the organizations did what they did.
Religion is a touchy subject for a lot of people. It’s one of the three things you’re not supposed to talk about at the dinner table, and there’s a good reason for it. Many people are defined more by their religion than by anything else–I would count myself as one of them. Depending on what religion one ascribes to, different things are of central importance: doctrinal statements, corporate rituals, social action, or a combination of all of these. Conservative American Christianity tends to define itself doctrinally, delineating itself from other religions (and other forms of Christianity) through specific statements of belief. Statements as simple as “I believe in the Holy Trinity” contain a wealth of information about the structure of one’s system of thought. This is precisely why churches and other religious organizations have statements of faith to begin with. To give up a statement of faith would be, for many religious people and religious organizations, tantamount to giving up the identity of that religion.
I sympathize with many of the objections to this line of thinking, particularly pertaining to campus organizations. I want to see all religious organizations open themselves to everyone, especially those to whom religion seems to offer no place. I see this as a central calling of my own religion. There are also many legitimate debates about what counts as “central” and “essential” to each religion, making some specific statements of faith very divisive. Vanderbilt’s policy is an understandable reaction to overly exclusive statements that exclude those who should not be excluded.
But I still believe that many religions–not just Christianity–are rightfully identified by specific beliefs. Leaders of any organization should, in my view, help to shape and confirm that organization’s vision, sacred or secular. Whether or not it is theoretically likely that, for example, a militant atheist would want to or could infiltrate a conservative Christian organization in order to subvert it does not answer this fundamental problem. The nature of religion–and the right freedom of assembly and association–necessitates that organizations can and must be allowed to define themselves through their own beliefs. There is almost always room for some compromise on doctrine; but to disallow an organization from holding any requirement for leadership based on adherence to faith weakens religious identity and subverts its purpose.
I do not have an ideal solution to this problem, and it upsets me to say so. I believe the Vanderbilt administration and leaders of student organizations worked together in good faith to find a solution, and if they couldn’t I don’t know how I could. From the outside, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding on both sides of what the other side wants. While I still wish some kind of compromise would be possible, I fear that we have passed that point and those religious organizations that cannot comply with Vanderbilt’s policy will have to find new ways of operating. I worry for those organizations; I worry also for Vanderbilt, because I do not want to see religious identity (whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or otherwise) marginalized on campus. It may take years for the full ramifications of the all-comers policy to work themselves out. I cannot predict what those ramifications will be. But, at the same time, I could not deny my own religious convictions if asked, and I understand why these organizations could not either. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther regretted telling the Catholic Church and the Pope that “here I stand, I can do no otherwise”–because he knew it would mean fracturing of the church. Both Luther and many Christian organizations at Vanderbilt have made similar statements. I think these statements are tragically necessary, but they are not what is best for either Vanderbilt or religion on campus.