Published April 28, 2022
The news that Baylor University has officially chartered Prism, an LGBT student organization on campus, marks an important moment in Christian higher education in the USA.
To be fair to Baylor, Christian colleges and universities have a very difficult task in the current climate. Institutions of higher education are meant to be places for free discussion and exchange of ideas. With sexual identity politics now a central component of wider public discourse, freedom of discussion inevitably means that sexual identity discourse will take place on campuses. But there is a difference between students discussing these issues in the context of, say, a debating society or a mainstream political club, and discussing these ideas in an official LGBT group. To receive an official charter is to receive a formal imprimatur.
The charter itself is interesting. It contains no reference to Christ or Christianity, an odd lacuna for a group at a Christian university. Especially for a group whose stated mission is to “help students gain deeper understanding of their own and others [sic] complex and intersectional identities, including gender and sexuality and faith and spirituality” and to “provide resources to navigate essential services including physical, mental, or spiritual well-being at Baylor and beyond.” We are all now familiar with spirituality Hollywood-style, which lacks objective content and represents little more than self-affirmation. It is unfortunate that a Christian school would endorse such language without requiring some explicit reference to the Christian faith.
Significant too is the group’s desire “to create a safe and respectful environment for LGBTQ+ community.” On one level, this is laudable: Campuses should be places where all students are safe from physical harm and from verbal abuse. The problem, of course, is that the language of safe environments is today remarkably flexible. It often means a place where ideas that a given group finds uncomfortable or offensive are not tolerated. The danger of this kind of charter is that it might easily come to be used as an instrument for the kind of conceptual and linguistic cleansing that now grips the culture of other universities. In effect, it begins to establish a rightward boundary on what is deemed acceptable to think and to say on campus—conservative views on sexuality start to be deemed offensive and intolerable, and outside the bounds of acceptability. Baylor is scarcely unique in this. Progressive pieties are disenfranchising conservative views and more throughout higher education. Examples abound, but the recent case of the radical feminist disinvited from Harvard for her rejection of transgender ideology is a case in point.
Further, Prism is unlikely to remain just one student organization among many. Its charter indicates its ambition to transform campus culture. Indeed, the logic of the politics of recognition virtually requires this. As with the wider culture, identity politics defaults to a demand for recognition and celebration, not simply tolerance or peaceful co-existence. The pattern of things at Notre Dame is significant here. Notre Dame started down this path some years ago. In the same month that Baylor announced the chartering of its LGBT group, Notre Dame announced the launch of a pro-LGBT alumni group. Anyone interested in how safe space thinking can develop, and how it can be used to disembowel an institution’s own religious commitments and marginalize those who actually adhere to those commitments, should consider this recent example: When a priest wore a rainbow pride stole to an event sponsored by a Notre Dame LGBT organization, one student expressed concerns, and was subject to all manner of unpleasantness for doing so. There is no slippery slope from “safe place” to “no place for dissent.” The latter is simply an inevitable consequence of the former.
Who will speak up about this? Academics, especially Christian academics, should rise up to clearly indicate where the leftward boundary is that marks Christianity off from secular progressivism—especially where Christian teaching is incompatible with progressive views on sexuality. But intellectuals and academics as a class have been leaning left for generations, as figures from Raymond Aron to Hilton Kramer have pointed out, and they routinely, even instinctively, see the biggest threat as coming from the right. As Sir Roger Scruton noted in The Times in 1989, Isaiah Berlin was remarkably reticent in opposing contemporary threats from the left, long after the Nazism and fascism that had galvanized his political thought had ceased to be a danger. Scruton’s career in British academia never recovered.
In the same week that Baylor chartered Prism, a board committee of my own institution, Grove City College, proposed setting a leftward boundary on what is taught at the school regarding certain race theories that are said by some to conflict with the college’s Christian mission. Regardless of the alleged strengths or weaknesses of that document, it was interesting to see that it was swiftly met with howls of protest from Christian academics outside the institution. Yet these protests do not seem to have a counterpart regarding simultaneous developments at Baylor. Unfortunately, that is exactly what one should expect from a broad academic culture where the most pressing threat is always perceived as coming from the right. But Christian institutions need boundaries on both sides. And, as the ineluctable pull of the culture is leftward at this point, and the Trumpist academic right, if it exists at all, is scarcely a significant force in higher education, Christian colleges will likely find that boundaries on the left are of far more immediate and urgent importance than those on the right.
In 2017 I had the privilege of speaking at a conference at Baylor. While walking around campus that afternoon with a friend, I pointed to the football stadium and commented that holding fast to traditional Christian views of sex and sexuality would cost an institution such as Baylor dearly once the NCAA made progressive orthodoxies mandatory. I suspect the loss of football income is now unlikely to be a major concern for strategic planning.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.