The Other Campus Free-Speech Problem No One’s Talking About

The Other Campus Free-Speech Problem No One’s Talking About

Christian activists are not trying to shutter secular schools; but some progressive activists are trying to put Christian schools out of business.
Mary Eberstadt
By

During the past few years, responding to ever-more draconian codes on secular campuses aimed at constraining free speech, dissenting voices have been raised here and there across the political spectrum, defending free expression and free association for all. This addition of conscientious objection outside conservative and religious ranks is a welcome development. It also brings us to one other large threat to free speech in education these days—one that’s still in the closet.

Secularist progressivism claims to champion diversity, but its activists today do not tolerate genuine diversity, including and es­pecially in the realm of ideas, as revealed by today’s legal and other attacks on Christian colleges, Christian associations and clubs, Christian schools, Christian students, and Christian homeschooling.

These are bellwether ideological campaigns that have yet to gar­ner the attention they deserve outside religious circles. Their logical conclusion is to interfere with and shut down Christian education itself—from elementary school on up to religious colleges and uni­versities.

It’s Not An Education If It Includes Christian Ideas?

Consider a few particulars. The Christian college club Intervarsity has had its credentials questioned on secular campuses around the country. So have other student groups including Chi Alpha and the Christian Legal Society, the focus of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010), which found that Hastings College had not violated the First Amendment in forcing the CLS to accept members who violated its Christian moral code. During the past ten years, two high-profile Christian colleges—The King’s College in New York, and Gordon College in Massachusetts—have been subjected to accreditation battles. Meanwhile, home-schooling remains an object of attack by leftish pundits, New Atheists, the National Education Association, and other progressive standard-bearers.

Still other authorities want to discredit religious higher education altogether. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2014, a professor at the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania called accreditation for any Christian col­lege a “scandal,” adding that “[p]roviding accreditation to colleges like [evangelical Protestant] Wheaton [College] makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of ac­creditation is supposed to uphold.” Trinity Western University in Canada has likewise been embroiled for years in a battle to keep its accreditation—because its community members pledge not to have sex outside traditional marriage.

Let’s ask the obvious question: exactly whose schools are being at­tacked as unworthy, substandard, and undeserving of recognition? Christians’ schools, that’s whose—not progressive flagships like Bennington, Middlebury, or Sarah Lawrence. If religious tradi­tionalists were fanning out to campaign against schools dominated by other canons, cacophony would resound from Cupertino to Ban­gor. But because the prejudice propelling these attacks has Christi­anity in its sights, no one outside religious circles objects.

How about Some Turnabout?

Here again, empathy from secular and progressive people who do believe that other citizens should be free to choose the kind of colleges they want would be a vital addition to this conversation, just as they are to the conversation over free speech on secular quads. There is an elementary question of fairness here. Christian activists are not trying to shutter secular schools; but some progressive ac­tivists are trying to put Christian schools out of business. Can’t tol­erant people have a problem with that, whether they’re believers or not?

These efforts to impede religious education are also part of an ongoing paradox. It is not Christian colleges that have made a habit of ha­rassing and intimidating speakers who represent different points of view; it is nonreligious campuses. When socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gave a speech in September 2015 at Liberty University, media accounts, including in The New York Times, took note of how courteous and polite the student body was, and how they unfailingly applauded a speaker who acknowledged at the outset profoundly disagreeing with their views.

Contrast their civility with the hostile reception certain other thinkers are guaranteed these days, just by setting foot on secular campuses. Followers of the Cross, especially, are often greeted by an especially bilious class of protester. Thus, for example, University of Tulsa students protested a former self-professed lesbian turned Christian—on the grounds that calling something “sinful” is “thinly veiled hate speech,” as one leader of the protest explained.

Simi­larly, when Jennifer Roback Morse—a former Ivy League professor and head of the Ruth Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to traditional Christian teaching—appeared at the University of California, Santa Barbara, 20 students interrupted her talk with chants, waving signs inscribed with various obscenities. When Christian speaker Ravi Zacharias spoke at the University of Pennsylvania, a local athe­ist group handed out bingo-style cards mocking the speaker to every student who entered the hall. The list could go on.

It also crosses borders. In 2013, Trinity College at Oxford hosted the legal group Chris­tian Concern for a three-day conference on “How to Engage the Secular Culture.” Again, vitriol ensued, with protesters charging the group was “intolerant.” Since Christian Concern’s supporters include former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, among other leaders inside the Anglican Commu­nion and out, it’s hard to see attacks on the group as anything but an expression of anti-Christian prejudice.

This Is an Unfair Double Standard

H. L. Mencken memorably defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” By similar logic, neo-puritanism appears to be the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be a Christian exercising the right to free associa­tion with other Christians. To survey today’s attacks on religious education is to understand that traditionalists have reason to believe they are being singled out for ideological marksmanship as others are not.

It’s a double standard that offers one more opportunity for genuinely tolerant people to distance themselves from what is being com­mitted in progressivism’s name. People from anywhere on the spectrum who do not want to rid the world of Christian colleges, campus clubs, schools, and homeschooling might also now lend their ears and voices to this other speech problem. Some people on the Left do want these things—and the silence of their fellows gives breakaway inquisitors carte blanche to do what they’re doing.

Today’s renewed interest outside religious quarters in the fate of free speech on campus is one hopeful sign that this, too, might pass, and maybe even that religious education may yet find allies it didn’t know it had—at least if consistency and tolerance are allowed to rule. Anyway, it seems a worthwhile ask.

Mary Eberstadt is author of "It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies," published by HarperCollins. This essay is adapted from the book.

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