Evangelicals: Bemoaning Duke’s Young Life decision is not enough

Duke University Chapel

(RNS)  — Like many evangelicals, I was greatly concerned last week when I heard that Duke University's student government had voted the evangelical Christian student group Young Life off its campus by denying it official status.

The student government's decision is yet another instance of campuses removing evangelical student groups because they oppose homosexual behavior and because they forbid non-celibate LGBTQ+ staff and volunteers from holding leadership positions.

Do I think Duke’s decision undermines free speech and a few other freedoms? Sure. Am I concerned where this trend is going? Very much.

At the same time, I wonder how many evangelical student groups can confidently answer this question: How are you authentically caring for the safety and well-being of your LGBTQ+ neighbors on campus?

Studies continue to show that LGBTQ+ people face significant hurdles to success and satisfaction in college. According to a Rutgers 2018 study, 30% to 50% of LGBTQ+ students felt unsafe after one year on campus, faced discrimination, and even took a one-term break because they felt they did not fit in. Nearly 25% reported being verbally threatened and seriously considered suicide within the last year.

By authentically caring about these hardships, I don’t mean “showing them the truth, even if it’s offensive.” I mean joining the fight to address and deconstruct the forces on campus that contribute to their sufferings.

These efforts must include honest reflection on how one’s evangelical group has contributed, intentionally or unintentionally, to their experiences of discrimination and trauma. For help with this, I recommend that group leaders read works like Jonathan S. Coley’s "Gay on God’s Campus" or "Washed and Waiting" by Wesley Hill. They can also solicit the help of a knowledgeable staff member on campus like an LGBT Center director.

Though evangelicals naturally want to hear the stories of suffering, they should not ask LGBTQ+ students to recount their traumatic experiences; they do not owe you this, and doing so could cause them more trauma.

These recommendations may seem to run counter to the frustrations many evangelicals feel about Duke’s decision, which they are now making public. I can understand the temptation to do so. However, from my vantage point working in non-religious higher education, I have seen how these defense mechanisms are ultimately harmful to our Christian witness and our public reputation for two reasons.

First, evangelicals must understand that many people on college campuses (rightly) see us as having an immense amount of privilege, primarily due to the resources we have at our disposal that other faith groups don’t have.

This usually includes paid staff, help from local churches, hundreds of student members, a disproportionately higher number of Christian faculty and staff than other faiths, Christian symbolism on campus, and more. These resources are often present even on campuses that seem exceptionally hostile to Christian conservatism.

So when evangelical groups bemoan their rights and privileges being taken away, they are understandably met with eye rolls. Other religious and non-religious groups see this reaction as symptomatic of an oversensitive Christian “persecution complex” that is ultimately self-serving.

Second, these public outcries about a loss of privileges are oftentimes the only time the broader, diverse campus community hears from evangelical student groups.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that my faith was transformed through an evangelical student group in college. I am exceedingly grateful for the lifelong friendships I made there and the opportunities the group gave me to worship and serve Christ. Because of this group, I felt like I belonged somewhere on campus. I know that hundreds of thousands of students today are having similar experiences.

But I have also observed that in these powerful incubators of spiritual growth and belonging, the interests and struggles of others on campus oftentimes fade into the background. Some students devote almost all of their free time to the evangelical group and are less inclined to contribute to common-good initiatives across campus that contribute to, among many things, the welfare of LGBTQ+ people.

Evangelical student groups need to consider seriously how their public witness is affected by drawing students into an exclusive, all-encompassing, enclaved subculture. Campus officials and students of other backgrounds may have a more difficult time seeing the contributions such a subculture makes to the campus community — and an easier time voting to remove it from campus.

Evangelical student groups are better off maintaining consistent, regular contact with diverse groups across campus, including the LGBT Center. This provides much needed perspective on a range of issues and demonstrates that you care deeply about all students, not just the ones who share your beliefs. A big part of trust-building with other communities is just showing up, in order to know and to be known; it is easy to take this for granted in the bustle and the chaos of campus ministry.

Would evangelical student groups be treated differently if they took seriously Christ’s example to put the interests of others (in this case, LGBTQ+ people) above their own interests on campus? Imagine if evangelical groups were seen not as opponents to policies and initiatives designed to protect LGBTQ+ people, but co-laborers. Would more of these groups be allowed to stay on campus?

What I am suggesting is an ethic of “neighborly faith” that I have seen many younger evangelicals start to embrace in the Trump era.

It is a public posture that balances orthodox theological convictions with surprising generosity and self-sacrifice for the good of others. Though my work has been in empowering evangelical students to build friendships with Muslims, the ethic of a neighborly faith can be applied to a host of communities that evangelicals have traditionally struggled to love.

In my experience, it is when evangelicals treat people in ways they least expect that there is curiosity about our faith. This is not unlike how crowds were “astonished” by Jesus’ willingness to love people deemed unlovable in the first century.

In this current social and political moment, jumping to our own defense in cases like Duke, without also showing concern for the well-being of our LGBTQ+ neighbors, isn’t just tone deaf; it’s not surprising. No one will ask us about Jesus if we beat our chests and demanded justice at Duke. Do we care?

Today, evangelicals should not take to social media to complain that Christian conservatism is under attack. Rather, we should grieve that our LGBTQ+ neighbors don’t feel safe on our campuses and do something about it.

That is what it really means, in the words of the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Philippians, to “look not only to (one’s) own interests, but also to the interests of others."

Originally published in Religion News Service on September 24, 2019.

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