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In one of the newest fronts in the culture wars, statewide elected officials and lawmakers from Florida to North Dakota to Texas have put forward a variety of policies designed to attack, demonize and dismantle offices of diversity, equity and inclusion by arguing that such offices are discriminatory and promote so-called woke ideology in education.
As an example, here in Ohio, state senators introduced SB 83, the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act, which would “prohibit any mandatory programs or training courses regarding diversity, equity, or inclusion” and compel public universities to “establish and implement intellectual diversity rubrics for course approval,” among other clauses aimed at targeting any DEI effort at public institutions of higher education in the state. (An amended version of the bill would allow for mandatory DEI trainings in certain instances.)
What these policies and their embedded logics miss is the role DEI offices play in helping all students—including evangelical Christians—express themselves both in and out of the classroom.
In the research of which I have been a part for more than 20 years, it is clear that evangelical students at public institutions feel routinely scrutinized if not dismissed for their beliefs. This form of silencing is not the same marginalization that occurs for racially and religiously minoritized students. Across the United States, for example, Muslim students are forced to pray in stairwells on campuses because dedicated spaces have not been made available to them or are not located near enough to their classes.
Even so, evangelicals often feel as though their voices are compromised in the academy—that bringing up their religious point of view will lead to them being labeled as anti-intellectual, noncritical, overly biased and even stupid. Add to that the complications evangelicals have with initiating friendships on campus, with many nonevangelicals questioning the evangelicals’ intentions with sharing their stories: Are you interested in a genuine friendship with me or are you trying to coerce or convert me?
Of course, these experiences must be understood in light of the national conversation about Christianity and its influence in society and the academy. How does Christianity privilege evangelical students in the academy? Beyond academic calendars based on Christian holidays or buildings that resemble churches sprinkled throughout college campuses, Christianity often has been and continues to be used as a means for oppressing students who identify as non-Christian, making them feel like they don’t belong on campus.
Given these complexities, is it any wonder why we need offices of diversity, equity and inclusion on college campuses? In my research experiences with these offices, I’ve found that many DEI experts help evangelicals express themselves authentically, even as they hold privileges and unearned influence in society. Although helping evangelical students should and may not be the primary focus of their work, these experts also equip all students—and often educators—with the skills needed to communicate effectively across differences.
As an evangelical professor at a public institution, I am grateful to the experts in these offices for their willingness to take on the labor that comes with this complicated work. From my point of view, I see it as the type of inclusive spirit that Jesus offered and embraced as part of his mission on earth.
Any effort to demonize and dismantle these offices as opportunities to gain political favor not only hurts students of color, those of non-Christian faiths, students with disabilities and students who are economically disadvantaged, but evangelical students and professors as well.
One of the main reasons for the existence of DEI offices is to promote freedom and justice for all students. Dismantling them will likely result in religious suppression for everyone, including evangelicals. Simply put, attacking DEI offices violates the Jesus many of us embrace—the Christ who invites, includes and loves each complicated person as is, for who they are.