But We’re Moderates!

There’s a poem that goes . . .

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The poem is attributed to Nazi-era German pastor Martin Niemoller. Niemoller admits that when the Third Reich began its campaign of systematic incarceration of those not . . . well Nazi, that the church was complacent:

When the concentration camp was opened we wrote the year 1933, and the people who were put in the camps then were Communists. Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers. Who raised their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists, those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians – “should I be my brother’s keeper?” Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? — Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren’t guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers I believe, we Confessing-Church-Christians have every reason to say: mea culpa, mea culpa! We can talk ourselves out of it with the excuse that it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out.

Now in what follows I don’t want to be accused of playing the “Hitler Card.” Nothing that happened at Vanderbilt University this year is even remotely in the same galaxy as the final solution. We would all do well to remember this:

However, that unfathomable faith in the power structures of the world to only oppress the other guys is the subject of this week’s Crux. Complacency or outright glee by progressive Christians at the marginalizing of those “fundies” assumes that enlightened Christians who are not puritanical bigots will be safe. As if modern power structures are unerring in their laser-guided bombardment of fundamentalists so that the right sort of Christians won’t be the unwitting target of the academic justice drone strike. Tish Harrison Warren thought she was the right kind of Christian.

I thought I was an acceptable kind of evangelical. I’m not a fundamentalist. My friends and I enjoy art, alcohol, and cultural engagement.
We avoid spiritual clichés and buzzwords. We value authenticity, study, racial reconciliation, and social and environmental justice.

Look see right there? She hit all the right notes. She said “authenticity” and everything.  Warren is the director of Graduate Christian Fellowship an affiliate of Intervarsity at Vanderbilt.

During the previous school year, a Christian fraternity had expelled several students for violating their behavior policy. One student said he was ousted because he is gay. Vanderbilt responded by forbidding any belief standards for those wanting to join or lead any campus group.

Vanderbilt publicly adopted an “all comers policy,” which meant that no student could be excluded from a leadership post on ideological grounds. College Republicans must allow Democrats to seek office; the environmental group had to welcome climate-change skeptics; and a leader of a religious group could not be dismissed if she renounced faith midyear. (The administration granted an exception to sororities and fraternities.)

As one behavioral psychologist put it, “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” The powers that be at Vanderbilt had the hammer and campus Christians just happened to be the nail.

In other words, Vanderbilt didn’t opt for precision strikes against discrimination, they decided to carpet bomb.

Warren’s Graduate Christian Fellowship (Intervarsity) was put on probation.

InterVarsity welcomes anyone as a member. But it asks key student leaders—the executive council and small group leaders—to affirm its doctrinal statement, which outlines broad Christian orthodoxy and does not mention sexual conduct specifically. But the university saw belief statements themselves as suspect. Any belief—particularly those about the authority of Scripture or the church—could potentially constrain sexual activity or identity. So what began as a concern about sexuality and pluralism quickly became a conversation about whether robustly religious communities would be allowed on campus.

Warren, a thoughtful individual accustomed to actually engaging in dialogue about disagreements thought that if she could simply assure the administration that they were the right kind of moderate evangelicals, they would be free to continue on campus. She says, “If we could show that we weren’t homophobic culture warriors but friendly, thoughtful evangelicals committed to a diverse, flourishing campus, then the administration and religious groups could find common ground.” What she found was quite different:

The word discrimination began to be used—a lot—specifically in regard to creedal requirements. It was lobbed like a grenade to end all argument. Administrators compared Christian students to 1960s segregationists. I once mustered courage to ask them if they truly thought it was fair to equate racial prejudice with asking Bible study leaders to affirm the Resurrection. The vice chancellor replied, “Creedal discrimination is still discrimination.”

Discrimination, any discrimination no matter how nuanced, compassionate, tactful, is a cardinal sin (well, if there was such a thing as a cardinal sin in this sort of world).

This is remarkably consistent with Don Veinot’s recent post “A King Who Knew not Joseph” In a post-Christian culture, the concept of a religious commitment through historic creeds are simply not valued. I’m not saying that the administration took sadistic pleasure in gutting the religious creedal statements for club officers, I actually think its more like the administration didn’t see how anyone could be so concerned about creeds.

Religious organizations were welcome as long as they were malleable: as long as their leaders didn’t need to profess anything in particular; as long as they could be governed by sheer democracy and adjust to popular mores or trends; as long as they didn’t prioritize theological stability. Creedal statements were allowed, but as an accessory, a historic document, or a suggested guideline.

In other words, you kids can play church all you want, just you know, don’t be the church. Don’t have any content to your belief. And if you insist on making claims, any claims, you are a threat. Here’s Warren again:

Feeling battered, I talked with my InterVarsity supervisor. He responded with a wry smile, “But we’re moderates!” We thought we were nuanced and reasonable. The university seemed to think of us as a threat.

The concept of creedal commitment itself is simply “icky” to a post-Christian world and rather than try to understand what’s going on and seek some sort of compromise that is fair and respectful to those who disagree, well you see we have this hammer . . .

Warren discovered that they come for the moderates only slightly later than the fundamentalists:

The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus. It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

Nail meet hammer.

 


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