The Litmus Test
The homosexuality debate that has torn apart mainline denominations is fanning faculty and student protests at Calvin College, and highlights a growing issue facing evangelical schools.
The spark was a memo issued by trustees of the Grand Rapids school prohibiting "advocacy of homosexual practice and same-sex marriage" both in and outside the classroom. Sent to faculty and staff before fall classes began, the memo provoked charges that the board was curtailing academic freedom, due process, and Calvin's tradition of vibrant Christian inquiry.
The Faculty Senate has asked the board to rescind the memo, arguing it bypassed normal faculty-review procedures for policy changes.
The board recently (Oct. 24) declined to do so but appointed a committee to revisit the statement in consultation with faculty. The committee also will suggest ways for Calvin to articulate academic freedom at a Reformed Christian college, and recommend whether the whole issue should be referred to the Christian Reformed Church Synod.
The case is being watched with interest by other schools struggling to balance compassion and doctrine in their policies on gays.
"I think it's a symptom of the growing lack of consensus about this issue," said Stanton Jones, provost at Wheaton College and a sexuality scholar. "The debates that once were contained within the mainline denominations are spilling over into the evangelical denominations."
He added that young evangelicals increasingly see homosexuality "not as an issue of sexual morality but as an issue of justice, dignity, or tolerance." But other prospective students and their parents want colleges to hold to traditional positions.
"There are some people for whom this has become the litmus test for whether you are properly compassionate and have a proper commitment to social justice," Jones said. "Others say this is a key litmus test for whether you're properly biblical."
Neither Wheaton nor Calvin is seen as gay friendly, according to the Princeton Review's recent college ratings. Wheaton was ranked first in the category "alternative lifestyles not an alternative"; Calvin was 13th among 371 schools.
For Calvin faculty, the debate goes beyond policy positions to the very mission of the college.
"They are more unified on this than I've seen them unified on anything for a long time," said Karin Maag, vice chair of the Faculty Senate.
Professors wonder why trustees singled out the gay issue, Maag said, adding, "There is a worry among some colleagues that this is the thin edge of the wedge. Will the board of trustees start making statements about other issues?"
The board considered the senate's request in late October as members of the Calvin community re-examine what it means to pursue truth at the 4,000-student college owned by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).
Conversations were catalyzed at Calvin, Wheaton, and other schools in recent years by visits from Soulforce, a national gay advocacy group that toured dozens of Christian colleges.
After Soulforce visited Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, in 2007, students published a volume of stories by gay and lesbian students about their struggles. Gordon encouraged its students to talk with Soulforce but vowed the college would not veer from its policy prohibiting sex outside of male-female marriage.
It's not a big issue for prospective students, said Gordon spokesperson Jo Kadlecek. "We hear more questions about the dining hall or the professor-student ratio," she said.
Following the 2007 Soulforce visit, more controversy came to Calvin with Seven Passages, a play about gay Christians conceived and directed by Calvin drama professor Stephanie Sandberg and performed at a Grand Rapids community theater. Drawn from 127 interviews and questioning traditional interpretations of Scripture, it was also performed at the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops.