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How Gay Activists Mobilize on Christian Campuses

Invasion of the Mission Snatchers

Gay activists are mobilizing for “the new frontier in gay rights — Christian colleges.” This article explores activist organizations & their strategies.

Prevalence of Gay Activists on Campus

Are gay activists mobilizing on your campus?  How would you know?

In his book, Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities, Jonathan Coley reports on his study of 682 Christian colleges and universities.  About half, 45%, had officially recognized LGBT groups.  Other campuses, of course, have unrecognized groups.  Activists are trying to increase the number and influence of such groups.

“Regardless of whether Christian colleges and universities are predisposed to embrace LGBT rights, most (if not all) Christian colleges and universities are home to students who self-identify as LGBT, and [these] students are mobilizing …”[1]

Organizations Dedicated to Mobilizing on Christian Campuses

In our article, “APU’s LGBTQ Crisis,” we mentioned the gay activist group Brave Commons, an “intersectional, queer and POC-led, Christian organization” seeking to “elevate the voices of LGBTQ+ students working within and beyond Christian universities,” Brace Commons partnered with APU students to bring about changes that became quite controversial.  While the board ended up reversing these changes, the crisis revealed the vulnerability of Christian campuses to the influences of outside groups working with our students.  And, outside activist groups are looking for gay students on our campuses.

Campus Pride in Faith describes itself as “a national coalition that aims to provide resources, support, and guidance to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and ally (LGBTQA) students who seek to build welcoming environments, LGBTQA student organizations, and/or all-inclusive non-discrimination policies at their faith-based colleges or universities” (https://www.campuspride.org/campusprideinfaith/ Viewed 4/22/19).

The Reformation Project describes its mission and vision as “a Bible-based, Christian grassroots organization that works to promote inclusion of LGBTQ people by reforming church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity. Our vision is of a global church that fully affirms LGBTQ people.[2] Their website offers the Equipped for Change Conference as follows:

Do you want your church to be more affirming of LGBTQ people, but you’re not sure where to start? Are you afraid that you don’t know enough about the Bible or theology to begin having conversations about LGBTQ inclusion in your faith community? Do you want to be a part of the movement for change but you’re not sure how to get involved?

Register now for The Reformation Project’s Equipped for Change Conference so that you can become a confident and vocal advocate for LGBTQ inclusion in your community. Speaking out for LGBTQ inclusion can be scary and isolating, especially if you are unsure how to answer biblical arguments or how to change church policies. This is why you need to equip yourself for change at the upcoming conference in Seattle! [3]

Soulforce describes itself as “a 20-year-old LGBTQI [I = Inclusive] organization that works to sabotage Christian Supremacy and end the political and religious oppression of all marginalized people.”[4] According to their Soulforce Campus Organizing Toolkit, “Christian Supremacy and its movement, the Religious Right Wing, are … places of violence and oppression.”[5] Soulforce does not seem to be especially interested in civil dialogue.  They explain,

As we challenge Christian supremacy, we also indict the leaders and institutions that have co-opted religion to their own oppressive ends. Which means that, yes, we want acceptance and we love belief systems that love us back, but what we want more is transformative justice.

We seek not admittance into broken institutions and bankrupt ideologies. We can’t just get ourselves free, we have to get all of us free. [We] … demand that the practices, policies, and institutions that uphold so many systems of oppression undergo wholesale change.[6]

Coley states that Soulforce is a group organized to promote LGBTQ goals precisely on the campuses of conservative Christian higher education institutions.  But their current website seems to promote a broader agenda.  Perhaps the Campus Pride description is more current:

Soulforce is a national non-profit that works nonviolently to end the religious and political oppression of LGBTQ people. While Soulforce is not itself a faith-based organization, its organizers lead from the understanding that oppressive religious beliefs, civil rights abuses and anti-feminist attitudes that oppress LGBTQ people are interrelated and part of the cycle of oppression.[7]

Their organizational mission seems to have evolved to include that “[their] framework would open up [their] set of tactics, concepts, and analysis for a larger audience: anyone who is doing the subversive work of liberation from Christian Supremacy.”[8]

Nevertheless, Soulforce seems to dedicate significant effort to challenging Christian campuses.  They are still holding workshops for interested educators and students and claim to be engaging the schools of the Religious right.  They offer a Soulforce Campus Organizing Toolkit as a download.  Perhaps it was written by a team.  The level of writing and critical thinking in some parts do not exactly bring scholarship to mind.  Malice, on the other hand, may be the reader’s first impression.  They are angry.

Taking ideas from Liberation Theology and Womanist Theology, they want to facilitate action.  Among other actions they suggest are demonstrations, sit-ins, walk-outs, and night-time chalking their messages around campus.  Especially disturbing are the ideal times they suggest for their events (e.g., during accreditation visits, alumni events, campus visit weeks for prospective students, homecoming).

Arsenal of Activist Activities

How did a student group pressure Belmont University to adopt sexual orientation as a category for non-discrimination policies?  They had public protests (e.g., prayer walks, sit ins, rallies).  At Goshen College, the students found success by organizing an “Open Letter” campaign.  Some events are highly disruptive.  Others are more polite.

1.      Confrontive Tactics to Demand Change

Disruptive events require more than a handful of passionate students.  Four students cannot hold an effective sit-in.  So, activist groups encourage gay students to cultivate various types of allies.  The advice of these activist mentors is that if there are other groups of students who feel disenfranchised (e.g., an ethnic minority, feminists), helping with their events means they are likely to join your protest march or letter-writing campaign.  Or, instead of having separate protests, a joint event addressing multiple issues from various unhappy groups can be organized.

Considering the worldview of so many young adults, it is likely that students or even faculty members will participate in some of these events.  However, with so much effort to find allies to participate in disruptive events, the number of participants in an event may not reflect the number of students concerned with the particular policy change being demanded.

Soulforce gives guidance on how to plan a number of disruptive events.  For example;

Walk out: Coordinate for folks to wear one color or t-shirts with a statement. Sit together during chapel. At a strategic time during chapel, walk out together in protest. The same can be done with a larger group during class time .[9]

Speaking of allies, the press can be enlisted.  It is not hard to find media figures who do not feel warmly toward Christian campuses.  What will administrators do about a sit-in when cameras are rolling?

Targeting the administration or particular administrators is another way to make demands.  A petition, perhaps on social media, can be used to target a specific administrator with demands or to complain about an administrator.  The Soulforce Campus Organizing Toolkit suggests asking for a meeting with an administrator and taking total charge of the meeting, setting the agenda (instead of letting the administrators do so), telling who they are bringing (instead of asking) while making demands as to which administrators can or cannot attend (e.g., not any lawyers or PR people).  The Toolkit suggests,

Ask for things. Can we put our own resources in the counseling center? Will you not counsel people that they can change, in accord with the APA? Can we get these X books in the library? Can we teach a class on the sociology and biology of LGBTQI people? Can we hold a Bible study without interference and advertise it? Will you document bias incidents in a non-biased fashion and report them publicly?

Ask them for the names of their top donors and the emails for the board of trustees. You should be able to get it if it is a non-profit. This may scare them immensely. Good.

Ask them hard theological questions. Expect them to be responsible for what they believe and the policies they create from their theology. If they act as if they are the arbiters and gatekeepers of true faith on campus, they are not. Your faith is valid and no less important.”[10]

How to Respond

I doubt that most LGBTQ student groups would be so unwise as to walk in with such a hostile and demanding demeanor.  However, in the face of such a demanding group, I suggest that you tell the group what parts of their agenda you are ready to discuss, what else you want added to the meeting, and who you will bring (regardless of their demands). Certainly, do not let them tell you that you have to make decisions during the meeting.

1.  Polite Tactics Activists Use to Influence Campus Attitudes

Among young adults, including Christian young adults, many students see gays as a persecuted minority and the Church as inappropriately intolerant.  Such views may be shared by some faculty members and administrators.  To build those views into a larger coalition, dialogues, lectures, films, art, and articles might be used.  A student group that meets across the street from campus may regularly invite students to a Bible study that questions the meaning of passages of Scripture related to homosexuality.

Dialogues about religion and gay rights or what it means to be a loving and Christian community that has gay students might be promoted.  Surveys can be conducted to uncover harassment of gay students, which will provide useful material for flyers and articles.  Recording the number of minorities, women and LGBT speakers in chapel as well as teachers and administrators can be useful for articles and recruiting allies.

Some activities suggested in the Soulforce Campus Organizing Toolkit that would appeal to the more artistic include the following:

  • Photo Campaign: Using handwritten signs or memes, Initiate a photo campaign on a theme.
  • Stickering: Use stickers to brand safe/unsafe spaces or speak to a particular issue on campus.
  • Chalking: Write affirming quotes or statements with chalk on your campus overnight.

2.  Activists’ Most Effective Tactics on a Christian Campus

When students at Goshen College petitioned the school to add LGBTQ to nondiscrimination protections, the activists stated that it was their Christian faith that drove them to support LGBTQ inclusion and full gay rights at the school.  After all, look how Jesus reached out to the marginalized and included them.  Couching their arguments in Christian beliefs is a common and effective tactic.

Coley describes “challenging people’s preconceptions about what it means to be a Christian university” as a “common approach to challenging Christian colleges and universities’ policies on LGBT issues.”[11]

The activists tend to emphasize love as the heart of Christianity, a version of love where loving people without disapproval of their orientation is viewed at true Christianity.  He cites, as an example, how an LGBT student organization at Belmont University succeeded in changing campus policies and climate.  They were able to alter people’s views on what it means to be a Christian university and community of Christians by engaging in discussions about their understanding of Christianity and what it means to be an LGBT Christian.

Belmont was associated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention (TBC), a part of a conservative denomination within a Bible-belt state.  One would assume that TBC gave its funding over the years because it expected the school to fulfill the important ministry of educating students in the context of a conservative Christian worldview.  However, faculty and student handbooks prohibited homosexual behavior.

When new donors joined the board, promising significant funding, the school broke ties with TBC.  After all, the new board members were not Baptist and were not interested in preserving the relationship.  The school grew in size and reputation.  For a few years, there were not signs of mission drift.  But, the break with TBC and the new sources of funding being developed would later open opportunities for successful LGBT initiatives.

… even gifts from people who do not have an agenda can open the doors to mission drift. Consider a denominational college that may have been founded with offering-plate money, but which severed ties with their denomination so that they could become “broader and more inclusive.”  [The school] would have to have found other sources of funding to divorce their founders. How “happy” such a denomination must be to have poured so much money over so many years into a school that no longer wants to solve the problems for which it was founded. Of course, this is what happened with Harvard, Yale, and so many others.

Donors can become termites, or they can keep a school centered on its mission. Read all about it in “Shoot the Pirates: And Three Other Strategies for Safeguarding Your School’s Mission (Part 1).”

As Belmont grew, it was torn between being a conservative Christian institution or a progressive school with a national reputation for its impressive school of music and business.  The crisis came when a female soccer coach came out of the closet, announcing that she and her lesbian partner were having a baby.  She left the school.

Believing that she had been forced out, members of an LGBT student group organized a series of protests and sit-ins.  Signs promoted their cause as Christian (e.g., that Jesus loves the coach, that we should love our neighbor, that God is love).  The students positioned themselves as modern Christian reformers bringing the school back to a true Christian mission by “treating others as one would want to be treated.”  Press coverage was abundant.

Was the school afraid of losing the more liberal board members and donors they had acquired since leaving the TBC about 15 years earlier?  Belmont did amend their non-discrimination policy to be more inclusive, open and friendly related to sexual orientation.  The activists’ seemed to have “facilitated a redefinition of what it meant to be a Christian community, allowing the university to defend adding sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy.”[12]  Later, the school would be offering benefits to married same-sex couples.

Guard Your Mission: How to Respond to Activist Tactics

Jesus loved tax collectors, prostitutes, revolutionaries (Zealots) and other social outcasts, but did not change the standards of His community of followers to fit the desires of these groups.  He showed love to the woman caught in adultery, but did not say, “You are fine just the way you are.”

How do we respond to LGBTQ students?  Some demand change.  Some want help.  We need to love the gay students on our campuses, both those out of the closet and those who secretly struggle with a sense of shame and self-loathing.  We need to minister to those who want help.  We especially need to be faithful stewards of the institutional missions we have been entrusted to preserve.  How?  Here are a few suggestions:

1.  Recruit the Right Mix of Students

A school that enrolls a higher percentage of students who are not conservative Christians is likely to have a higher percentage of social-justice warriors.  If activists are gaining the upper hand, enrolling fewer students who are not conservative Christians could help with this.

If a school’s new recruitment strategy is to spend less effort in the Christian community and more effort in the broader community, perhaps the school will grow, but the challenges to mission will become greater.  A Christian university that accepts non-Christian students should consider what percentage of Christians are necessary to maintain its Christ-centered purposes.

Keep in mind that many of the activists who demand we adjust our theology and policies pertaining to sexual orientation may not be gay.  Straight allies who participate in LGBTQ groups are often people who are passionate about other social-justice issues and who have participated in other types of activist groups.  Certain types of extra-curricular activities on a college application could suggest a student is more likely to become an on-campus activist promoting causes that do not reflect a Christian mission.

2.  Vet Faculty, Staff, Administrators and Board Members

In “APU’s LGBTQ Crisis,” I detail how certain administrators, behind everyone’s backs, had deleted parts of the school’s “Statement on Human Sexuality.”  They also revised the standards of conduct so as to no longer prohibit public LGBTQ+ relationships (e.g., public displays) on campus.  Most of the faculty, administration and possibly the board only learned about the change when it was outed by the student newspaper.  Blistering criticism from Christian media moved the board to take notice and change the policies back.  The board also sent a notice to faculty that to receive contracts for the upcoming school year, they must sign an affirmation that they will support APU’s values and beliefs.  This included a traditional conservative statement pertaining to human sexuality.  Hopefully, APU will also more carefully vet new hires.

“The gravitational pull of secularism is felt perhaps most acutely in hiring.”[13]

Assuring a school is hiring people compatible with its theology and mission requires much more than simply signing a statement of faith.  Questions need to be asked about devotional life, church involvement, small group participation, volunteering at church, and other ministries.  Spiritual references need to be checked. 

In an article on mission drift, I suggested policies such as these for making good hiring decisions:

  • Ask employee and board applicants to write an essay about their spiritual journey (e.g., how they came to Christ, influences leading to their growth, how they cultivate their walk with the Lord, past and current service in church or other volunteer ministries, and any other items that would help you distinguish pretenders from faithful followers.
  • Ask applicants to discuss the mission statement. What does it mean to them? For which parts are they most enthusiastic? Are there any parts for which they do not feel passionate?
  • Ask applicants to discuss the meaning of your school’s statement of faith. Are their parts they do not fully embrace?
  • Ask similar questions when someone is potentially being promoted (especially if he or she would be in an influential position, such as in recommending persons for hire).
  • Finally, and especially important, place a highly trusted and proven officer in charge of vetting all applicants for their spiritual qualifications and mission fit. In addition to reviewing the above questions, this officer would check references. (If there is still doubt about the applicant, the officer would ask the references who else would know the applicant.) (“Shoot the Pirates: And Three Other Strategies for Safeguarding Your School’s Mission (Part 1)”).

 

3.  Teach

“LGBT activist groups work not only to change official policies toward LGBT people, often through direct action, but also to make their communities more welcoming toward LGBT people, most effectively through education.”[14]

A recent graduate of a Christian college told me he had visited an LGBTQ student group.  The meeting raised questions in his mind about the meaning of key passages of cripture pertaining to homosexuality.   His conclusion: He needed to study Hebrew and Greek to know what to believe.  My conclusion:  The fact that Christian colleges are not teaching about homosexuality makes our students vulnerable to the one-sided “education” offered by the gay community.

Keep in mind that young adults are steeped in a culture that despises “intolerance.”  They have been raised in a society that tells them that the gay students in their class have been treated unfairly.  To disagree with politically correct ideas pertaining to homosexuality is, at the least, uncaring.  Coley quotes from a student who is a straight ally in an LGBT activist group.  As a youth delegate at a meeting of Mennonite churches, she told about her friend who came out of the closet, became depressed, and considered suicide.  “I understand this is a theological issue and there are these things, but I was like, this is my friend.  And it’s so important — I don’t care what we do, but these people need to know that they’re loved.”[15]

It is possible to teach in such a way that we exhibit compassion, answer the questionable interpretations of Scripture offered by gay activists, give help to students who want help handling same-sex desires, and show students the opportunity to minister to LGBT people.

In, “Christian Colleges MUST Teach About Homosexuality: Where to Start,” I describe a variety of resources.  I also suggest one book be assigned reading in a lower-level required course and that an elective be developed to more fully cover the subject.  Presently, my two favorite books to assign in a lower-level required course are:

Sam Allberry, Is God anti-gay: And other questions about homosexuality, the Bible and same sex attraction. (Epson, UK: The Good Book Company, 2013).

Jackie Hill Perry, Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been. (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2018).

4.  Protect

While I do not agree with all goals of gay activists, I certainly agree with one:  our campus should be free of the slurs, harassment, and bullying that has historically been aimed at gays.  The Church has not always been innocent.  In Jackie Hill Perry’s Gay Girl, Good God, we read, “I have not always been in love with how the Church has loved the gay community.”

Crack down on any harassment of gay people.  Protecting the marginalized, whether a woman caught in adultery or an openly gay student, is Christlike.  If there is an atmosphere where there are no consequences for bullying, the gay students should lobby for change.  And, incidents of harassing LGBTQ students will cause your straight students to align with activists calls for more and more policy changes.

 

In the next edition of Christian Academia Magazine, we will follow up with an article on types of gay student groups and their goals.

 

[1] Jonathan S Coley, Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 42.

[2] “Mission and Vision.” Reformation Project. n.d. Accessed April 19, 2019, https://www.reformationproject.org/mission-and-vision.

[3] “Conference.” Reformation Project. n.d. Accessed April 19, 2019, https://www.reformationproject.org/conference.

[4] “About Us.” Soulforce. Accessed May 9, 2019. https://www.soulforce.org/about-us.

[5] Soulforce Campus Organizing Toolkit, page 2, Downloaded April 22, 2019, https://www.soulforce.org/about-us.

[6] “About Us.” Soulforce. Accessed April 22, 2019, https://www.soulforce.org/about-us.

[7] “Campus Pride in Faith.” Campus Pride. Accessed May 9, 2019, https://www.campuspride.org/campusprideinfaith.

[8]  Soulforce Toollkit.

[9]  Soulforce Toolkit, 21.

[10] Soulforce Tookit, 28.

[11] Coley, Gay on God’s Campus, 92.

[12] Coley, Gay on God’s Campus, 99.

[13] Peter Greer and Chris Horst, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches, (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2014), 103.

[14] Coley, Gay on God’s Campus, 102.

[15] Coley, Gay on God’s Campus, 48.

 

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