woody zimmermann 120Although Christians – especially Evangelicals – are often characterized by secular-minded people as grossly bigoted and intolerant, the fact is that religious folk are often more than willing to give cultural and political adversaries the benefit of the doubt. Their assumption that others operate from motives of decency, good will and tolerance sometimes extends well beyond the point of prudence or wisdom.

The impulse to assume the best in people has been operative to a considerable degree in Christian higher education, where the current hot-button issue of homosexuality – spurred by a cultural, governmental and media blitz to normalize “same-sex marriage” – threatens to upset Biblical standards of morality and personal conduct that have governed America since its founding, not to mention western civilization for over two millennia.

Leaders of a few faith-based colleges have already stepped out to declare that homosexuality and same-sex “marriage” are unwelcome at their schools because those behaviors violate Biblical teaching on human sexuality and marriage. Accordingly, these schools exclude faculty and students who espouse or practice deviant sexuality. Only sex within the bounds of heterosexual marriage is permissible under their codes.

These forthright declarations have naturally attracted the attention of individuals and groups who oppose that exclusionary position. In some cases, reactions have been rather severe. For unequivocally excluding faculty or students who don’t comply with the school’s restriction of sexual expression to heterosexual marriage, Gordon College ran afoul of both the local government of Salem, Massachusetts, and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Salem officials barred Gordon’s student teachers from practice-teaching in the town’s public schools. More ominously, the NEASC granted Gordon a twelve to eighteen month “…period of reflection …to review their policies to ensure that they are non-discriminatory.”

Many educators expected the “period of reflection” to conclude with the NEASC stripping Gordon of its accreditation for violating the association’s diversity requirements. But that did not occur. Instead, the NEASC backed off and declared Gordon fully compliant with all accreditation standards. The town of Salem also dropped its exclusion of Gordon’s student-teachers and resumed normal relations with the college. Sanity had returned, and a principled stand was vindicated.

Other faith-based schools have also made clear declarations regarding their prohibition of sex outside of heterosexual marriage. So far, none has had to contend with overt attacks from gay rights groups or from government officials pushing the gay agenda – although the threat that state or federal funds might be withheld from schools hostile to homosexuality and/or same-sex marriage hangs over many administrators of those colleges. The issue is far from being settled.

A few Christian colleges have attempted to deal with this cultural shift by hiring staff to “help” students who might be struggling with same-sex attractions. One of these is my own alma mater, Wheaton College, which in late 2014 hired Julie Rogers – described as a “celibate lesbian” – to help provide spiritual care for same-sex-inclined students on its campus. After a year in her office, however, Wheaton and Miss Rogers parted ways. Contrary to President Philip Ryken’s request, she had declined to discontinue her off-campus speaking and social-media blogging, in which she insisted on identifying herself as “gay” and said that she felt no need to be “healed” of her sexual proclivity. Noting that her presence was harming the school’s reputation in the wider Christian community, President Ryken asked her to resign. Miss Rogers has since written publicly of her grief and disappointment over her experience at Wheaton, expressing her belief that God “delights” in gay people and does not wish them to change.

Other schools have tried to keep a low profile on the gay issue – officially standing by their policies on Biblical standards of sexuality, but allowing debate of the issue in student newspapers and other campus venues. This group includes a small liberal arts college that I know pretty well. (Let’s call it “Wills College” in this discussion.) Since the 1880s Wills has been connected to a staunchly Biblical denomination that has championed education, human rights, evangelism and foreign missions throughout its entire history. The college’s academic reputation is excellent, and its highly qualified graduates are scattered across the USA – indeed the entire world – working as educators, doctors, ministers, missionaries, theologians, philosophers, writers, musicians, artists, scientists, government officials and business-people. They bring a strong Biblical grounding and morality to all of their enterprises.

With so many of its graduates working in ministry, education and other low-paying occupations, Wills is not heavily endowed. Yet it makes a significant effort to give scholarships to students of high academic achievement, as well as to financially needy students who otherwise could not attend the school. Accordingly, the support of alumni and other donors is essential for raising the college’s operations budget and funding campus improvements. To operate in the black, Wills must meet its enrollment and student-retention targets, so anything that threatens donations or enrollment becomes an existential danger to the college. It shares this financial vulnerability with many small colleges of similar religious grounding.

Over its many decades of existence, Wills has seldom faced a less advantageous economic environment than it does today. A substandard national economy for most of the past decade has curtailed the incomes of many families who would like their children to attend the college. Government funds are limited because of high levels of federal debt. And a collective national student debt of $1.2 trillion – much of it un-repayable because graduates cannot find employment – is beginning to destabilize the very financial foundations of higher education. A national debate is underway in which the entire premise of higher education – particularly in the liberal arts – is being critically examined and questioned.

Now, at the worst possible time, cultural pressure to legitimize deviant sexuality threatens to undo whatever economic stability remains in Christian higher education. Deviancy is elbowing its way onto campuses that have extended the hand of friendship and good will while standing by their faith-based charters. This has happened at Wills College during the past year. Editors of a campus student newspaper repaid the freedoms afforded them by Wills governors by running a year-long series of in-your-face articles, written by both alumni and current students, on “being gay at Wills,” etc. – emphasizing their mistreatment and rejection by students and profs. Avowedly gay alumni are insisting that the school must change in order to accommodate the changing culture and its new sexual norms. Students acquainted with the newspaper’s principal staff say the editor is on a mission to “fundamentally change” the college. (Haven’t we heard that before?)

During the editor’s year-long pro-gay campaign, Wills administrators and officials of its affiliated church denomination have waved off concerns by affirming that the school stands solidly by its Bible-based charter, while assuring worried parents and alumni that the campus paper is just a few students “blowing off steam.” But other concerned individuals more attuned to the power of modern communications have tried to warn administrators that the campus paper is read all over the world, via the Internet, by people whose entire impression of the college – correct or not – comes from those articles. Little by little the school’s solidly Biblical reputation is being eaten away, with little protest coming from its leadership.

All this has alarmed the great body of Wills alumni who remain aligned with the school’s long-time charter and behavioral code. Faculty and current students are unhappy about the constant gay drumbeat, but feel powerless to stop it. Donors are starting to indicate a reluctance to continue their support of the school unless the administration clarifies its position on the gay issue and “stops the bleeding.” An impression that Wills is no longer a “Christian school” has gained some credence.

Things finally came to a head recently when dozens of prospective students and their parents visiting the campus exited a chapel service to be greeted with a new edition of the Wills campus newspaper that carried two gay-sympathetic articles – one of them featured prominently above the fold on page 1. This finally tipped the boat over for Wills administrators. Anonymous sources report a high-level debate over whether to shut down the campus newspaper entirely or simply exercise greater editorial control to ensure that the image of the school the paper projects is correct and non-harmful – particularly in view of its widespread propagation on the Internet. At this writing, these deliberations are ongoing.

At last the light has dawned on the stark reality of today’s cultural battlefield. Career educators – particularly those of enlightened Christian persuasion – tend to think everyone shares their inclination for decency, reasoned discussion, bonhomie, and good will – even toward one’s philosophical opponents. But ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered walls (as Tom Lehrer called them) are realizing that the outside world is not necessarily friendly – particularly on issues of sexual behavior and “morality.” There are some wicked and ignorant people out there who don’t have good will toward colleges like Wills. One commentator said that people today “…want to do what they want to do, and they demand society’s full acceptance of it – whatever it is.” (Look for a revival of the 1930s song, “Anything goes.”)

For Wills, this is far from the end of these matters. As Winston Churchill famously said (on another occasion), “This is not even the Beginning of the End, but it is, perhaps, the End of the Beginning.” The first step toward winning a war is a recognition that you’re in one. It’s just one step, but it’s a critical one. Until you understand this, you’re losing. Wills is late getting there – hopefully, not too late.