A number of Christian educational institutions have made it into the news recently. The latest controversy is over the church’s stubbornness on the issue of homosexuality.
In September of last year, the Boston Business Journal reported that the New England Associations of Schools and Colleges has given Gordon College, a Christian institution in Wenham, MA, one year to evaluate its policy on homosexuality which may be in violation of accreditation standards.
The San Francisco Chronicle, along with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, excoriated Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s “chilling” insistence that the faculty of Catholic high schools abide by the moral teachings of the church on human sexuality and its rejection of so-called same-sex marriage.
And most recently, Erskine College, a small Christian college in South Carolina, has received scrutiny over its “Statement on Human Sexuality” which affirms, apparently audaciously, that “members of the Erskine community are expected to follow the teachings of scripture concerning matters of human sexuality.”
For many Christians, these predictably knee-jerk, politically correct reactions have been dismissed as just silly: Isn’t it obvious that Christian educational institutions are going to be, well, Christian? Are not demands for secular values on Christian campuses akin to ordering a Big Mac at Chick-fil-A or insisting on Wi-Fi at an Amish general store?
And Fox News’ Todd Starnes asks: “Where in the United States Constitution does it give the city of San Francisco the right to tell the Catholic church what they should or should not put in their employee handbooks?”
And yet, I can’t help but reluctantly sympathize with these progressive proscriptions, in that they are simply doing what the American church has invited them to do for nearly a century.
Before the twentieth-century, the church represented the principal institution by which the moral life of society was interpreted and lived-out. We need think only of the image of Walnut Grove, the small town featured on the TV series Little House on the Prairie: no municipal buildings, no bureaucrats or administrators; rather, it was the church building that symbolized the unity of the town. Thus, the church community was civic space. In fact, up until 1913, the most contact that such towns had with the federal government was the post office.
But with the rise of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its increasingly hostile orientation toward faith as a form of knowledge, the church was pushed incrementally to the periphery of social importance and consigned solely to the sphere of one’s private life. And in its place stands today the secular state, which, through the process of secularization, increasingly reconstitutes the whole of public life around itself.
What we have to come to terms with is that the modern American church has done very little to change this, and has, by and large, accepted its relocation to the private sphere. Having been relocated next to strip malls, the church’s unique vision for a humane society is reduced to merely one of innumerable options for private recreation: yoga class on Saturday, youth group on Sunday.
And yet, in the midst of having accepted largely its relocation to the private, recreational sphere of life, the church and Christian institutions want to continue to maintain their moral identity. But this is socially incoherent. Morality is public, not private; it is objective, not subjective; obligatory, not optional; morality applies to all, not to merely some.
Therefore, I regretfully submit that the secular liberal detractors are in fact far more socially consistent than these Christian educational institutions. Political correctness, which is that value system reconstituted around the secular state, is the objective moral order of our day, and thus occupies a socially privileged position over all competing privatized subjective value commitments.
Progressive critics are simply calling the bluff of the contemporary American church: you can’t affirm your privatized social status while maintaining moral commitments that stand opposed to the privileged value system of the secularized public square
Perhaps this is the wake-up call the church has needed for some time. It’s time to stop sending mixed messages. The church must once again assert her role as the primary institutional agency for moral and salvific life, and confidently affirm that the church, not the state, has the unique frames of reference that can provide for a truly charitable and humane society.
Christian educational institutions can start by dropping secular or state accreditation agencies, such as the New England Associations of Schools and Colleges. And pulpits can encourage strongly their congregants to reject the secular values of a politically correct government education for their children and avail themselves of a distinctively Christian educational option.
Until then, the church can go on offering its potpourri of recreational activities for everyone from one to ninety-two, but it can no more make definitive moral pronouncements than can pizzerias or dry cleaners. That’s the price of strip mall spirituality.