The Chronicle of Higher Education also chronicles the trials and travails of religion in academia. A recent edition of CHE reported on how California State University withdrew official recognition of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because its leadership is, by definition and constitution, Christian. The organization contested the decision, and, in this thorny situation, I think, rightly. The disestablishment clause cuts both ways. Government can’t establish a religion, but it can’t prevent one either. InterVarsity, although not exactly to my taste, has been a fixture on campuses for decades. It offers alternatives to pong and related forms of diversion without being pushy about faith. Indeed, it does not insist that participants be Christian, and, in my experience, doesn’t try to convert them. It offers a service that is useful for undergrads and has every right to be on campus, as much as the young republicans do. Can an organization be banned for having Christian leadership? How much can we disestablish before we become oppressors?
I recently had a conversation with a college humanist chaplain. There aren’t many of these, but they are beginning to appear on campuses, offering the services traditionally given by religious organizations. Many people don’t know what to make of this. Not all rationalists, humanists, agnostics, and atheists are enemies of spirituality. We can be both spiritual and human. Some would argue that we have no choice in the matter but to be. Some express it as Christianity. Others as a non-doctrinal recognition that being human means wanting to affirm unions and weep at funerals. Maybe it is more than just chemico-electrical signals across gray matter after all. Colleges and universities should be places to explore. Like it or not, without the influence of the church, and before that the synagogue, the concept of higher education likely would never have developed at all.
How much of the baby do we throw out with the bathwater? Evangelicals cost me my first real job. I had, however, grown up among them. Although not in InterVarsity, I did participate in Christian groups in college. I don’t think it damaged my education. How can a person learn to compare when one of the options is displaced? Will Newman House be permitted to stay? Even government officials can’t agree on exactly what it means to have a religion-free government in a religious, if post-Christian, nation. Why antagonize an organization that is only trying to offer a service? Every time I pull up to a gas pump chances are pretty good that I disagree at a pretty visceral level with the ideology behind the company supplying me my fuel. And yet, here I am, running on empty. Ideologies and services, it seems to me, are very different things. Those that don’t cause harm should be the least of our concerns.