Essay responds to an open letter from gay professor at Christian college
Letter to a Gay Professor
An open letter to Anonymous, in reply to his or her open letter to the presidents of the member institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU)
My compassion goes out to you for the pain and difficulty you face in your life circumstances as a closeted gay faculty member at a CCCU member institution. You close your essay expressing the heart of your desired outcome, namely that "I would like to be able to live my life in the open and, like many of you, share life with a loving partner." Unfortunately, as I will argue below, to attain the outcome you desire would compromise the religious freedom and mission of yours and other CCCU colleges.
The vast majority of our colleagues in higher education who read your essay are no doubt serving at nonsectarian institutions where criteria for employment focus exclusively on professional competence and not also on religious faith and commitments. Many of these colleagues may be nonreligious or nontraditionally religious and hence have no personal sympathy with institutions with distinctively religious missions. Many others of our colleagues who do have some sort of personal traditional religious faith are unfamiliar with the nature of institutions that attempt to embody the particular religious traditions that the CCCU colleges do. Finally, some of our colleagues, religious and not, serve at institutions of either a more historical or broader religious affiliation that employ persons of an array of religious faiths and/or moral convictions, including GLBTQ persons.
Further, both you and I live in a cultural moment when many presume that individuals alone have the right and responsibility of determining their life path and desired outcomes. The rapidly evolving public support for same-sex marriage clearly manifest in so many polls reflects the desire of many to live as autonomous individuals.
But the member institutions of the CCCU are united around the idea that it is only in submitting our lives to the redeeming and transforming power of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, that our lives can take their proper shape, and that this is best done in communities of faith to which we are accountable. This puts our CCCU institutions at fundamental discord with some popular cultural views.
Curiously, no one has pointed this out better than my own professional association, the American Psychological Association. The 2009 report of the APA Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation notes that the question of the foundational identity of a person is not merely a psychological or scientific question, but overlaps with the domain of ethics and religion. The committee members acknowledge that conflict and tension may exist between certain psychological and religious perspectives on such a fundamental question.
You describe your goal as having your orientation accepted, living your life in the open, and sharing your life with a loving partner. Such a set of goals is perfectly congruent with what the APA Task Force describes as the perspective of gay affirming therapy, that of pursuing "congruence" between identity and your experience of sexual orientation.
But the APA wisely recognized that some religious perspectives regarding identity formation are quite different. Christianity as a religion points to something outside of and beyond ourselves as the ground of identity formation. The heart of the Christian Gospel is the bad news that all of us experience profound and pervasive brokenness, which is countered by the good news that through forgiveness in Christ, we can be free to pursue a greater wholeness and blessedness through life in Christ as we seek not to become what we are or want to be, but what God wants us to be. (The APA characterizes such religious views as valuing “telic congruence” which it contrasts with psychological approaches which value “organismic congruence;” p. 18.)
It is a tragedy for a person such as yourself to be trapped in silence. If you were on our faculty at Wheaton College, and if you were in sincere agreement with our theological and moral convictions as evangelical Protestant Christians (respectively articulated in our Statement of Faith and Community Covenant), I would embrace you as a colleague, seek to support you in your journey, and welcome you to come out of your self-imposed closet to whatever extent you found productive and comfortable. It must be acknowledged, as you articulated, that those sincere moral convictions – which faculty at Wheaton regularly affirm – include sexual chastity if one is not in a monogamous, traditional marriage.
Unfortunately, it seems from your essay – unless I misunderstand you — that you could not sincerely affirm the moral convictions of the Wheaton College community. Your dismissal of our moral convictions as supported merely by “biblical proof texts or ‘texts of terror,’ ” and your characterization of the consensual moral teachings of the Christian church across all the major denominations for two millennia as grounded in “a hermeneutical practice of simplistic literalism,” suggest that you simply disagree with the historic moral tradition articulated by the Christian Church and embraced by many CCCU colleges such as Wheaton.
I affirm and even celebrate your right to disagree with theological and moral convictions that have been embraced by the Christian denominations for 2,000 years. This is part of the core of religious freedom. At the same time I affirm and celebrate the right of religious institutions – denominations, churches, schools, social service agencies and others – to stand for precisely these theological and moral convictions and to constitute themselves as they see fit by employing individuals who fully identify with those defining convictions, as I have argued earlier in this publication.
Beyond individual religious freedom, a key facet of the constitutionally protected right of religious liberty is the right to the free exercise of religious belief, the right for religious persons to form themselves into organizations without external interference by government or government actors. You argue, “Much of this debate at your institutions hinges on biblical hermeneutics.” It does indeed, and each institution’s stand on biblical hermeneutics is as much an intrinsic and integral part of its religious identity as other aspects of its belief systems.
My institution is the only one that you single out by name as living “tragically consistent in its foundationalist approach to biblical hermeneutics.” You cite a truly tragic event. Without addressing that specific case, in general when a faculty member’s actions violate the moral standards of this community, continued employment may become problematic. Given that we expect all of our faculty and staff to identify with and affirm our common theological and moral convictions, we are exercising our religious liberty to express the identity of this college by hiring and retaining those whose beliefs and actions are consistent with our own.
You ask rhetorically whether “the great professor ceases to be a great professor because his/her divorce was based on irreconcilable differences rather than adultery?” The answer at Wheaton College is yes, a hypothetical great professor may cease to be a great professor because she or he became a professor who no longer embodies the theological and moral convictions of our community. We deliberately seek to make available to our student body faculty and staff who represent a mature embodiment of our communal theological and moral convictions. A faculty member with professional competence who is no longer a suitable moral role model cannot continue to serve as a faculty member at Wheaton College. That our faculty understand and embrace this was reflected in at least one essay by a colleague at the time of the publicized divorce matter, this public comment reflecting many supportive private comments that came my way at the time.
You note the rapid changes in cultural acceptance of a variety of sexual orientations and of same-sex marriage, asking “Will your institutions continue to attract students?” Perhaps, but perhaps not. But then, because of our religious convictions, many of our CCCU institutions think of success in terms different than you might. If success means fidelity to a religious tradition and faithfulness in the face of adversity, it may be worth risking enrollment challenges toward such an end. The early Apostles, threatened with beatings and imprisonment in Acts 4, chose obedience to God as representing true success.
Were you one of my faculty colleagues at Wheaton College, I would approach conversation with you about these issues with deeply held convictions, the first being that regardless of your sexual identity or history, or of your theological and moral convictions, you are made in the image of God and worthy of respect and compassion. Based on this conviction, I would want to listen to you and understand you on your own terms. Second, I would want to explore these issues in depth to make sure that you understand all of the theological, ethical and moral issues that undergird this debate; I would invite you into a patient and thorough examination of these issues. I would hope that your original, sincere identification with the theological and moral identity of our institution would be restored. My concern, I should note, is not at all about your sexual orientation, but about your theological and moral convictions and the resulting behavior.
Were sincere identification not restored, a grave concern would remain, both about our institutional integrity in employing someone who cannot affirm our very public and clear religious and moral identity, and about your personal integrity in seeming to affirm that which you do not. This would, in my judgment, be an untenable situation both for the institution and for you as a person of integrity. Were we to work this through together, I would want to assist you in every way possible in your finding a position at another institution, and would be willing to work with you, patiently, to help you make a productive move.
I can imagine a chorus of reader indignation that these last few comments may engender. However politely, I have just threatened this person’s employment. Many might ask: How can you justify such legalism? How can such primitive and ignorant perspectives on sexual orientation and sexual identity be justified in the scientific age? How dare you allow the private moral decisions of an individual to imperil their employment and professional future? How can you call an institution that would have such policies a legitimate institution of higher education, and how can such a hopelessly bigoted institution produce graduates who can contribute competently to a pluralistic world?
As a longstanding participant in these debates, I have no expectation that I can provide answers on any of these points that critics would find convincing, but there are defensible answers nonetheless. The brevity of what follows should not be taken to mean more robust and comprehensive responses are not possible.
How can such legalism be justified? In reality, the long and rich tradition of reflection on the moral teachings of the Christian faith is anything but legalistic. To draw moral boundaries is not the same thing as being legalistic. Few of us are true moral skeptics or moral agnostics, and if readers believe in right and wrong at all (such as believing that murder [or rape or pederasty] is always wrong), then we are not talking about legalism at all, but rather we disagree on where the boundaries stand for moral and immoral behavior. Traditional Christianity is anchored to the teachings of the Bible on these matters. Recent compassionate and thoughtful treatments of this moral tradition have been penned by two accomplished New Testament scholars, Richard Hays and celibate gay Christian and Wheaton College alumnus Wesley Hill.
One particular way in which our community’s views might seem legalistic is hinted at in your essay where you say that at CCCU institutions, gay faculty “must ‘pass’ as straight or… [live by] an implicit ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach.” Our evangelical communities have been guilty indeed of treating homosexual experience as if it is an especially reprehensible condition, and of imposing unreasonably stringent expectations in this area. We need to change this, and were you at Wheaton, I would want to support you as you journeyed – fallibly yet with integrity – towards our shared understanding of the calling of a moral life. But the common thread of that moral calling in the traditional understanding is towards celibate singleness, understood not as a life of aching loneliness but a life in rich community following Christ in costly obedience along with fellow sojourners (like me).
Are the traditional moral teachings of the Christian tradition (as well as the Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist traditions, among others) hopelessly unscientific, primitive, or rationally unjustifiable? The short answer is no. As I have argued elsewhere, science is simply unable to answer the moral and metaphysical questions we have around these matters, and further it is clear that the state of our scientific knowledge about sexual orientation and sexual identity is more inconclusive and ambiguous than many argue. I am not arguing, I hasten to add, that these teachings are thereby to be construed as scientific or rationally validated — I am not sure any moral views, whether endorsing or censuring full acceptance and inclusion of same-sex intimacy, are scientific or rationally validated.
How do we dare allow the private moral decisions of an individual to impact a person’s employment? Only by being absolutely transparent about exactly the type of educational institution of higher learning and religious community that we are, one that depends on the voluntary and competent self-identification of our faculty, staff and students that they want to be at an institution that has our unique character. We are crystal-clear in job ads, and in our application materials and procedures, that service here involves theological and moral entailments that we presume have been freely chosen by community members. We do not want anyone to feel the pain of being constrained or limited by being here, which is precisely why we are so explicit about our religious identity in all of our communications; in short, we do our best to avoid situations such as you describe.
Can an institution with such policies be a legitimate institution of higher education, and can its graduates contribute competently to a pluralistic world? Yes, it can and they can. A Wheaton College education is not an indoctrination and not mere catechesis. It involves rigorous examination of the world of ideas and rigorous training in critical thinking, all from a broad, shared religious perspective from which we can engage the full array of the wider world of ideas.
Ours is a religious mission, in part, of preparing some graduates for service within what may legitimately be called sectarian, religiously identified contexts such as our own institution, but also of preparing many for service in completely pluralistic, public contexts. We produce teachers, medical students, artists, psychologists, and business and government leaders – some of whom continue to hold the views of our institution and some who do not – who, as a matter of religious conviction, treat those who hold other moral views with respect. A well-educated and well-formed individual will respond with civility and respect to those who disagree with her or him, and have a vision for serving the broad public good as part of their responsibility in honoring God with their professional lives.
At their core, the issues you raise are questions of religious liberty; specifically, how do your evolving religious and moral views as an individual interact with the stated and practiced religious and moral identity of your home CCCU institution? The traditionally religious institutions of higher education are a minority of all institutions of higher education. Those institutions would be fatally compromised in maintaining their institutional identities if they were rendered incapable of seeking and retaining faculty who faithfully and voluntarily embody their clearly articulated theological and moral standards for their communities. The prioritizing of your individual religious liberty over that of a duly constituted and explicit religious community would threaten the viability of institutions such as ours. There must be room, in an academic culture where your views are in the vast majority, for the religious liberty of groups of individuals – who have formed themselves into organizations – to exercise their religion as they believe they are called by God.
I sincerely wish you well.
Stanton L. Jones
Stanton L. Jones is provost and professor of psychology at Wheaton College, in Illinois.