Christian Educational Institutions’ Looming Choice between God and the State – Part 1

on April 23, 2016

The struggle to protect religious liberty from the sexual revolution may shortly be reaching a “make or break” time, with religious liberty abridged to exclude conscientious objection from contributing to sexual behaviors many religions consider sinful, and which humanity has historically despised. No longer is it a question of whether society may make sexual transgression criminal, but whether citizens of free societies may decline to contribute to such behavior, or enforce traditional sexual standards in private organizations. It is the moral intuition of the elite in Western societies that the hurt feelings of those who wish to engage in what traditionally has been thought sexually immoral make such persons victims, while the religious belief or moral sense that most of humanity has had about sexual morality is “irrational,” despite the fact that neither sexual purity nor sexual rights can be discovered empirically.

In response to secularization, traditional Christians have developed a subculture of churches, educational institutions, social services such as hospitals and charities, broadcasting outlets, and publishing organizations. Commonly these organizations prohibit what traditional sexual morality declares to be immoral (i.e., any sexual activity other than heterosexual marital intercourse) in whom they hire and fire, in conduct of life requirements among employees and clientele, and the goods and services that they offer. This subculture is now at grave risk of being destroyed or secularized by making acceptance of what traditional sexual morality declares to be immoral into an antidiscrimination category. While the Health and Human Services contraceptive/abortifacient mandate threatens most religious institutions other than houses of worship, religious educational institutions now face antidiscrimination attack on the issue of homosexuality.

The threat to religious educational institutions was detailed at a recent presentation at the Heritage Foundation on April 13. Hosted by Jennifer Marshall, Heritage Vice President for Family, Community, and Opportunity, the presentation featured Dr. Derek Halverson, President of Covenant College in Georgia. Following the presentation there was further discussion of specific threats to religious freedom in higher education by Roger Severino, Director of the DeVoss Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, and Gregory Baylor, Senior Council of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Marshall began by noting that in contemporary America “higher education is remarkably diverse … even modes of delivery [vary] from the classroom to online.” People today also have different priorities for seeking higher education. But “since the earliest days of higher education in America religious institutions have played a very significant role in providing academic excellence and contributing to the common good.” But today “directives from the U.S. Department of Education suggest that private religious institutions should conform to the government’s changing understanding of marriage and sexuality, rather than to their own historic confessions.”

Halverson then emphasized the connection between the need for civic virtue in a democracy and the continued adherence of religious schools to the development of morality as part of education. He pointed to the opinion of historian Gordon Wood, that early Americans understood that a democracy requires “extraordinary moral character in the people, and hence virtue was the lifeblood of the republic.” This involves people setting aside their own interests for the common good. This kind of public good was called “disinterestedness.” While monarchs in predemocratic societies maintained order by “fear or force,” according to Halverson, under democracy, it is necessary for citizens to be “disinterested.” This kind of public virtue rooted in the Christian virtue of charity, Halverson maintained, and:

“American democracy depends on the existence of a virtuous citizenry. Christian colleges and universities maintain a commitment to the cultivation of virtue in their students that other educational institutions have abandoned. Therefore, Christian colleges and universities ought to be protected.”

Schools from the Middle Ages on considered truth to be linked to goodness and beauty, therefore education necessarily had a strong moral component.

Educational institutions in America generally pursued an educational program that involved the incorporation of moral development into learning until the late 19th century. The idea of a research university developed after that time, originating in Germany during the Enlightenment, Halverson said. He observed that this idea of higher education became dominant in the United States in the period 1880-1930. It divorced knowledge from the good and the beautiful, and rejected the inclusion of moral formation in the pursuit of knowledge. Individual acquisition of knowledge for knowledge sake became the prevailing educational philosophy. There is little concern with the formation of students into good people. Research universities became dominant because they generated scientific advances, Halverson said. But he observed that a recent study showed that “45 percent of students did not register a significant improvement in learning over the first two years of college.”

By contrast, Christian colleges are “decidedly old school” in holding to an ideal of moral formation as part of learning. With Christian schools, “disinterestedness runs deep” according to Halverson. They believe in “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but to God the things that are God’s.” They believe that they should promote the welfare of the wider society. Social mobility, research, and service demonstrably benefit from Christian colleges. While secularists see religion as “dangerous,” religious citizens are in fact better citizens, according to Halverson. Remarkably, 95 percent of Covenant College’s alumni “are members or regular attenders of a local church.” Halverson cited the conclusions of Robert Putnam and David Campbell in a recent book that “religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than are secular Americans. They are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”

While this educational vision worked well in the past, fulfilling the Christian duty of obedience to God, promoting an informed citizenry necessary for democracy, and providing much needed public services from dedicated and talented people, it is currently under attack by a legal culture and a Presidential administration with an adversary moral vision of personal fulfillment. This adversary moral vision holds the Christian moral vision of duty, sin, redemption, and discipleship to be oppressive, and an object for government penalties and exclusions. Current developments in this offensive against religious liberty were discussed by the panel’s two other presenters, and will be covered in a subsequent article.

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