Religion and academia have never had an easy relationship.
American conservatives often think of college professors as wildly left-wing, politically agitating atheists bent on undermining American, Western, and otherwise Judeo-Christian values. Right wing radio shock jocks frequently bemoan the university as a hotbed of liberal propaganda, spinning it as a battleground in the “war on religion” that the left is supposedly waging.
These sorts of jeremiads against liberal fascism and its beef with belief have tended to huddle within the bastion of conservative rhetoric, generating little interest beyond those who already agree with it. Recently, however, the issue of religious freedom on campus has drawn the respective hussars out of their fortresses, with April’s news that Vandy Catholic—an organization of 500 Catholic students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee -- will be moving its operation off-campus next year.
The reason for the departure is Vandy Catholic’s opposition to a longstanding nondiscrimination policy that Vanderbilt began to enforce more strictly this year. The policy, beefed up after reports emerged in 2010 that a gay student was forced out of a Christian fraternity on campus, stipulates that all students are to be eligible for membership in registered student organizations. (Registered student organizations are eligible for funding from university sources and can use campus meeting rooms for free or at reduced cost, among other benefits). More controversially, it requires that all members in good standing be considered for leadership roles in those organizations, regardless of their personal convictions.
For Vanderbilt’s Catholic community, the news that they would have to consider non-Catholics as potential leaders -- even though the university guarantees their right to choose their leaders in the end—turned out to be unacceptable. In late March, Vandy Catholic decided to cut official ties with Vanderbilt and operate as a non-registered student organization, meaning it will no longer be able to include the Vanderbilt name as part of its official identity. Summarizing the feelings of the group, Rev. John Sims Baker, chaplain of Vandy Catholic, wrote in a recent statement, “Our purpose has always been to share the Gospel and proudly to proclaim our Catholic faith. What other reason could there be for a Catholic organization at Vanderbilt? How can we say it is not important that a Catholic lead a Catholic organization?”
The question the Vanderbilt policy has raised among religious conservatives is whether such non-discrimination policies in reality constitute attempts on the part of left-leaning academicians to discourage religious organizations from operating on campus. For example, the opening lines of a Fox News article on March 29, 2012, read, “Is Vanderbilt University waging a war against religion? Many of the university’s religious student groups think so.” Not allowing a religious organization to stipulate who can be a leader would seem tantamount to denying it the freedom to define itself how it chooses.
Lyzi Diamond of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a watchdog site for free speech on college campuses,  writes, “[…] the policy essentially dictates that religious […] organizations cannot determine their leadership based on the very things that make those groups unique: their beliefs and viewpoints.” Vandy Catholic is a unique organization thanks precisely to the Catholic beliefs and values that its leaders should logically be expected to share. Yet the university’s administrators say those beliefs cannot figure into whom is given consideration for leadership positions. In fact, were a leader of Vandy Catholic to change his views while in office, the organization would have no means of removing him.
Are we dealing with a case of left-leaning, religion-hating powers-that-be using subtle means to give religious organizations the boot? This is certainly what the shock jocks would have us believe, and their followers are legion. But the real answer lies elsewhere. Vandy Catholic’s fate has more to do with the culture of politically correct morality that has ruled college campuses since the 1980s, and less to do with the putative “war on God” that has caused religious conservatives to cry foul in recent years.
The bottom line for an institution like Vanderbilt is not extolling the virtues of tolerance and inclusion, despite what the university’s administrators would have us believe. Social engineering in deference to diversity is a lofty goal, and its realization is rarely within the grasp of a handful of campus bureaucrats and their faculty supporters. Rather—and much more prosaically—the unspoken goal of such campus nondiscrimination policies is to avoid litigation and the legal nightmares that accompany even the zaniest accusations of discrimination.
One of the myths of politically correct morality is that it was borne out of a heartfelt yearning for a more tolerant, more inclusive, and more equal society. This may be true in some limited sense, but if one were really to trace, à la Friedrich Nietzsche, the genealogy of politically correct morals to their source, one would find not a bleeding heart but the fear of lawsuits. Vanderbilt is doing what any powerful institution must do in our society of victimization: covering its hide. Better an injustice than a disorder!
Meanwhile, organizations like Vandy Catholic are left holding the bag. The group’s right to determine its identity has been superseded by a new set of “rights” stressing inclusion to the point of ridiculousness. Deciding who may or may not lead an organization is a fundamental part of a group’s process of self-definition. This is especially true of religious organizations, whose sense of identity is rooted in a particular creed. Religious groups are by definition based on some form of belief- or value-based exclusion, and to accept their existence logically entails accepting their exclusivity.
Religious freedom is therefore not the only thing suffering on the Vanderbilt campus. Reason suffers with it. Hopefully the university’s administrators will see the error in their ways and produce a policy more in tune with common sense.
Louis Betty received a Ph.D. in French literature from Vanderbilt University in 2011. He teaches at the University of San Francisco.