Why Christians Must Repair Religious Liberty

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why Christians Must Repair Religious Liberty

Sweet and lovely Mary Hatch was a vandal. 

In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Mary (Donna Reed) and George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) walk by the deserted and dilapidated house that will eventually be their home. The story went that if you threw a rock and hit one of the remaining windows, your wish would come true. Mary picks up a rock, hurls it, and—smash—happy day.

The broken window theory, as Richard Cohen explained a recent op-ed, comes from James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling who observed, “if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” 

Thus if we ignore small problems such as broken windows, we will soon face much bigger problems. Wilson and Kelling applied it to criminal behavior, Cohen to foreign policy. It also applies to religious liberty.

Last week, the California State University system announced that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, for years a campus staple, has been “derecognized” on all twenty-three campuses. While they didn’t ban the student-led Christian ministry, InterVarsity will no longer be an official student organization meaning no free meeting space, no access to students through student activity channels, and diminished standing on campuses.

InterVarsity, a Christian group, committed the unforgivable sin. It requires its leaders to be practicing Christians who affirm a statement of faith and live according to the Scriptures.

As Ed Seltzer notes in Christianity Today, “Following the same logic, any group that insists on requiring its leaders to follow an agreed upon set of guiding beliefs is no longer kosher (irony intended) at California’s state universities. This will impact many other faith-based organizations with actual, well, faith-based beliefs.”

And Cal State isn’t alone. Vanderbilt University and Bowdoin College have also “derecognized” organizations that require actual beliefs. It all began when University of California’s Hastings College of Law refused to recognize Christian Legal Society, a case that went to the U. S. Supreme Court

As Tish Harrison Warren, former InterVarsity staff at Vanderbilt wrote, “Like most campus groups, 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.” Ditto for Hastings, Bowdoin, and California State. 

Which leads me to three observations. 

First, it’s not about faith. It’s about sex. Tish Warren goes on, “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.”

Second, the schools are practicing self-deception at its worst. Rather than saying, “Christians and others with creeds and traditional ideas about sexual morality are not welcome,” they manufacture verbiage about “fairness,” “diversity,” and “equality” coupled with actions designed to bring about injustice, uniformity, and discrimination. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote recently, “I can live with progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.” 

Third, we need to do something about these broken windows. Note that it began with one school (Hastings) and with the Supreme Court’s blessing spread to two more (Vanderbilt and Bowdoin), and then to the whole California State system. Does anyone imagine that if there are no consequences, it will end here? Or that what started in higher education won’t spread across society?

Repairing the windows will take people who are willing to speak out. 

Colleges and universities fear bad publicity. Give it to them in abundance. 

Schools rely on friendly, generous alumni and, as the old saying goes, the one who pays the fiddler calls the tunes. If you’re concerned about religious liberty at your college, tell the people with the real power; tell the development office or (at big schools) the athletic director. 

And while most faculty just want to research and teach, no administrators wants to face tenured faculty and department heads publicly pointing out their foolishness and hypocrisy.

When George and Mary Bailey repaired the windows of the old house, no one ever threw a rock at them for luck again. These broken windows can also be fixed. 

Jim Tonkowich is a writer, commentator, and speaker focusing on the role of religion in our public life. His new book, The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today is available from St. Benedict Press and other online retailers. 

Publication date: September 11, 2014