On Religion by Terry Mattingly


At first, Vanderbilt University's new credo sounded like lofty academic lingo from the pluralistic world of higher education, not the stuff of nationwide debates about religious liberty.

Leaders of Vanderbilt student groups were told they must not discriminate on the basis of "race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, or genetic information. ... In addition, the University does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression."

The bottom line: this "all-comers policy" forbade campus-recognized student groups from requiring their leaders to affirm the very doctrines and policies that defined them as faith-based, voluntary associations in the first place.

This private university in Nashville -- which once had Methodist ties -- affirmed that creeds were acceptable, except when used as creeds. Orthodoxy was OK, except when it conflicted with the new campus orthodoxy that, in practice, banned selected orthodoxies.

Ultimately, 14 religious groups moved off campus, affecting 1,400 evangelical, Catholic and Mormon students. Stripped of the right to use the word "Vanderbilt," some religious leaders began wearing shirts proclaiming simply, "We are here."

In the furor, some conservatives called this struggle another war between faith and "secularism." In this case, that judgment was inaccurate and kept many outsiders from understanding what actually happened, according to the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican minister who worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt during the dispute.

"What Vanderbilt did affirmed the beliefs of some religious groups and rejected those of others. That isn't secularism. Vanderbilt established that there is an orthodoxy on the campus, which means that it has taken a sectarian stand," said Warren, who now works with InterVarsity at the University of Texas in Austin.

"The university established some approved doctrines and now wants to discriminate in order to defend them. ... As a private school, it has every right to do that," she added. Meanwhile, conservative Christian schools "have their own doctrinal statements, but they're very upfront about that. Students who go to those schools know what they're getting into. The question is whether Vanderbilt will be just as candid and tell students about these new limitations on free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion" on campus.

The key is whether creeds are enforced, noted psychologist Richard McCarty during a 2012 Vanderbilt forum. At that time he was vice chancellor for academic affairs. Vanderbilt leaders believe that it's wrong to require a student to "profess allegiance to Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior" in order to lead a Christian group, he said, according to a forum transcript.

"I'm Catholic. What if my faith beliefs guided all of the decisions I make from day to day?" Hearing objections from critics, he continued: "No they shouldn't! No they shouldn't! No they shouldn't! ... As a Catholic, if I held that life begins at conception, I'd have a very big problem with our hospital" at Vanderbilt.

"Would I not? ... I would, but I don't. ... We don't want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision-making on this campus."

Many other Catholics disagreed and had to leave the campus.

Now leaders in credal groups face a growing challenge in state schools, where discrimination policies affect equal access to student budgets. In the California State University system -- with 450,000 students on 23 campuses -- leaders are pressing toward a policy requiring student-group leaders to pledge, in writing, they will not "discriminate on the base of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, or disability."

Once again, said Warren, the issue is whether these campus policies promote pluralism or weaken it. Ironically, 70 percent of InterVarsity students in these affected regions are persons of color.

Also, it's crucial to know that on some doctrinal issues -- especially linked to sexuality -- many evangelical students are eager to separate themselves from traditional, orthodox Christianity, she said. These tensions are real.

"It's great that we welcome progressives into our groups. I think it's great that we welcome students who don't believe the Gospel, at all," said Warren. "We need to be open and joyful and embrace as many people as we can. That said, we also need to know what we believe and what we must proclaim as the truth -- without shame."