Let’s say you are on the trustee board of a Christian-affiliated university and you are trying to figure out what your school should do about its policies related to LGBTQ students.
You have two conservative voices in your ears, one loud, one a bit quieter.
The loud voice comes from the Christian culture warriors who persist in treating LGBTQ people as their enemies in the never-ending battle for victory against the liberals.
As Baylor University discovered recently, even the slightest movement toward providing a respectful and supportive environment for LGBTQ students will be attacked by the culture warriors as a drift toward heresy. The fact that even the provision of a support group for students can become the object of hysterical accusations reveals the unwillingness of these Christian culture warriors to allow schools to do anything at all for their own LGBTQ students.
These Christian culture warriors, these defenders of supposed biblical orthodoxy, have the power to cause real harm to colleges that venture in the direction of mercy and justice toward queer kids. The extent to which university leaders attend to these voices depends on several factors. These include the nature of the governing structure of each university, the school’s level of dependence on conservative church and donor support, the school’s particular enrollment patterns, and the extent to which college leaders can be intimidated by bullies.
The brute fact of the matter, though, is clear — any movement in the direction of recognition even of the existence of LGBTQ students will yield a university some very public punches in the mouth.
The quieter voice comes from the lawyers offering to help your supposed urgent need for institutional self-defense.
These are the legal eagles whose siren song to trustees is that they should lawyer up to protect their school from external pressures to fully include gay people on equal terms with others in the university community. The most influential of these groups right now is the Alliance Defending Freedom. Everywhere the issue of what Christian universities should do about LGBTQ inclusion is joined, it seems that ADF lawyers find a way to gain access. Their goal is to protect the religious liberty of conservative Christian institutions, understood to be at risk from liberal intolerance. Given the responsibility of trustees to protect the institutional interests of their schools, it is natural that they would be attracted to apparently authoritative briefings about how to keep the liberals at bay.
“Find a third ear, or maybe a heart that can feel the pain of some of your own most vulnerable charges.”
But here is my plea to trustees and to other leaders of Christian universities. Focus on student well-being. Focus on the vulnerable young people whom you are educating. The Christian culture warriors may be screaming in one ear, and the religious liberty lawyers may be whispering in the other. Find a third ear, or maybe a heart that can feel the pain of some of your own most vulnerable charges.
Traditionalist anti-LGBTQ religious environments hurt kids. Predictably, routinely, badly!
This hurt has spiritual ramifications: preventing LGBTQ children and adolescents from approaching God, interfering with their faith journey, blocking access to Jesus and faith, causing loss of religious belief in adulthood, often lifelong alienation. Overall, anti-LGBTQ religious environments are the ultimate anti-evangelistic strategy, driving a wedge between precious human beings made in God’s image and the God who made them.
This hurt has relational ramifications: exclusion or grudging semi-inclusion in church community drives people away from church, fractures family relationships, sometimes even forces kids out of their homes and onto the streets. Overall, anti-LGBTQ religious environments predictably lead to alienation in the most intimate relationships, central bonds upon which we all depend for stability and love.
This hurt has psychological ramifications: shaming and its consequences often lead to self-hatred and self-loathing; tremendous psychic distress and stress are caused through doomed efforts to change sexual orientation; hopelessness grows related to having a relationally meaningful future, a spouse, children or any religiously approved sexual expression; there is a clear correlation of such hopelessness with suicidal ideation, and with high-risk behaviors like drug use and promiscuity; anti-gay teaching retards or alters normal identity formation and normal sexual-relational development; LGBTQ kids routinely report a sense of inferiority to others and profound self-esteem problems.
Overall, anti-LGBTQ religious environments are a clear, direct threat to the psychological well-being and sometimes the very survival of those victimized by them.
Is it any wonder that kids coming of age in such contexts are asking for a support group? If you were being harmed spiritually, relationally and psychologically in such a way, wouldn’t you want some support?
Note: One authoritative source of serious research on all this harm is the Family Acceptance Project. If you want a truly relevant briefing on your LGBTQ policies, invite them.
So, Mr. and Ms. University Trustee: Yes, the culture warriors are screaming heresy and the lawyers are calmly reviewing their briefs to defend your right to maintain discriminatory policies. But there is a much more compelling responsibility found in Scripture: to open our ear to hear the cry of the most vulnerable — like God does.
“I plead with Christian universities that are wrestling with LGBTQ policies right now: focus on the well-being of your students.”
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-10)
I plead with Christian universities that are wrestling with LGBTQ policies right now: focus on the well-being of your students. At one time, we knew little of their distress, but that time has passed. The harm of discrimination is well-attested, and it is directly tied to the policies of discrimination that still exist at your schools.
It’s about the kids. Hear the cries of your own oppressed. Stop harming them.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. He serves as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and is the past president of both The American Academy of Religion and The Society of Christian Ethics. He’s the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.