One spring night in Otero, in a dormitory housing first-year students at Stanford University in California, a student went on a drunken rampage, tearing fliers from the bulletin boards and walls, making an unholy racket. A resident assistant (RA)—an upperclassman selected to oversee the dorm—told him to stop and was answered with curses and slurs. The RA then fetched the resident fellow, a faculty member living in a cottage close by. He was treated similarly.

The student was evicted from the dorm for his actions. As in any era at Stanford, disciplinary action was a predictable response to drunken, rude, and destructive behavior. The Residential Education staff in Otero, however, felt that the incident reflected more than one individual’s misconduct. They saw it as a failure of “community” in the dorm. More ominously, the failure involved homophobia, for the RA was openly homosexual, and the drunken student had called him names.

Lengthy dorm discussions were organized—two-and three-hour meetings, week after week—which degenerated into shouting matches over homosexuality. Detailed stories in the Stanford Daily, the student-run newspaper, kept the entire campus abreast of these exchanges. Adding to the tumult, a group of fraternity members protested the student’s expulsion, walking through the halls carrying candles and wearing hockey masks. Their protest reminded some of the Ku Klux Klan, and demands were made that the protesters, too, be disciplined.

Joanne Lin, then a first-year student in the dorm, remembers that the residence staff “had great ambitions and intentions, but it blew up in their faces. The distinctions between people drove them apart.”

Accentuate The Labels

Welcome to the world of multiculturalism and “political correctness,” an ideology raising a storm on many of America’s most prestigious campuses. The events at Otero happened almost four years ago, but the issues remain fresh. According to Ann Porteus, assistant director of Residential Education, multiculturalism means “having people learn how to understand each other’s differences and value them in some way.” That requires struggling with “anything that disempowers one group and their relationship to another.… We are concerned about behavior that is hurtful, that is racist, that is sexist, that is homophobic.”

That sounds constructive, and it often is. In its milder definitions, multiculturalism means helping individuals recognize and appreciate their different backgrounds. But more radical versions put group identity ahead of individual identity. A person’s point of view is seen as radically formed by birth—particularly one’s ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference. As Lin puts it, “There is a tendency to accentuate those labels. I can introduce myself as an Asian-American Christian woman.”

Article continues below

Also, the concern for hurtful behavior can be strict and one-sided. At Stanford people can say pretty much anything they want about white males or religious fundamentalists, but woe betide the individual who says or does something deemed offensive to the oppressed: women, homosexuals, the disabled, or people of color.

On several occasions in recent years, the misbehavior of one or two students has led to campuswide uproars. Two white freshmen caused a brouhaha three years ago when, after a late-night drunken argument with an African-American dormmate who claimed that Beethoven was black, they scribbled an Afro hairdo on a composer pictured on a concert flier. The two students were ousted from the dorm and ordered to apologize publicly. Long dorm meetings (fully reported in the press) led to screaming and tears; the responses provoked stern admonitions from university president Donald Kennedy that the school would not tolerate racism in any form.

Stanford is unusual in the extent to which the administration has carried the banner for multiculturalism and the “politically correct” behavior it requires. But at nearly every major university, multiculturalism has become a cause to love or revile.

At the University of California at Berkeley, officials who wanted an ethnically diverse student body secretly limited the number of qualified Asian-Americans who could attend. At Yale, students charged undergraduate dean Paul Kagan with racism and sexism after he made a speech emphasizing the primary importance of Western thought and culture. At Harvard, a dean achieved perhaps record-breaking political correctness when he denounced dining-hall workers for holding a “Back to the Fifties” party. Their crime: celebrating a decade in which segregation still prevailed.

Lengthy articles in the New Republic, the Atlantic, and the New York Review of Books have attacked multiculturalism’s impact on campus, charging that universities have repressed free speech, particularly by writing “behavior codes” that vaguely describe but sternly punish insensitive speech and behavior. Critics have also hammered at changes in curriculum that downgrade the centrality of Western culture. Stanford became a target for criticism when its required class for first-year students, “Western Civilization,” was changed to a broader curriculum called CIV, for “Culture, Ideas, and Values”; at the time, U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett charged that Stanford had devalued the study of Western culture.

Article continues below

But have universities like Stanford really changed? That is subject to some doubt. The classes aren’t much different. The students seem, if anything, less politicized. Some would say that a person’s group identity has always mattered on campus: it was just that comfortable, white males dominated. (At some schools, they were the only students admitted.)

Nonetheless, the university stood for different principles: One was supposed to check one’s group identity at the door. Theoretically, the search for truth put everyone on equal footing. Now at Stanford and elsewhere, a person’s group identity officially matters. That is beginning to affect the way Christians at Stanford see their place in the university.

Why Don’T Christians Count?

Stanford has a beautiful, sleepy campus insulated from the surrounding Silicon Valley by acres of open space and eucalyptus groves. Looking over the central quadrangle, from the highest vantage, is Jesus: a bigger-than-life mosaic on the front façade of the Memorial Church. Architecturally, Jesus has always been at the heart of Stanford.

Yet it is painfully obvious today that Christians don’t count. Preparing for a week-long centennial celebration last year, Stanford officials made no plans to include prayers or religious services until Dean of the Chapel Robert Gregg pointed out the omission. They added an interfaith service, but “it was an afterthought,” says Catholic chaplain Russ Roide.

Of course, universities have shown indifferent attitudes toward religion for decades. But the disregard is more striking now that the university’s stance has shifted from skeptical rationalism toward multiculturalism.

Dean Gregg observes a “cluelessness about the fact that significant numbers of people make room in their existences for religious life.… It seems to me absolutely bizarre to have a really diverse group of religious communities on campus and not count that as part of … multiculture.”

“Talk about being ahead of the multicultural debate,” says Floyd Thompkins, associate dean of the chapel, “the only programs on this campus that are not in English are in the religious communities. The Asian fellowship is in three languages. There’s the Korean Bible Study, which is in Korean. The Muslim programs are in Arabic. It’s the only time graduate students who come here from another country don’t have to strain to be translating.”

Article continues below

Yet last year, when plans were made to gather leaders from all student groups for a conference discussing multiculturalism, only late in the day did someone point out that religious groups had been overlooked.

“This university has a problem,” Thompkins says. “It may end up teaching everyone about every kind of diversity without recognizing that one of the most important forces in the world is religion. And it’s not even religion, it’s faith.”

By far the largest and most faithfully attended student groups on campus are Christian. The Catholic chaplaincy involves a thousand students (from a student body of about 12,000, half of which are graduate students). Seventeen Protestant groups are officially recognized. Among the largest are InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Cornerstone, and Campus Crusade for Christ—evangelical groups that involve several hundred students in weekly meetings and Bible studies. Black Church, a weekly worship service started by African-American Christians, counted 20 decisions for Christ last year, and it attracts a sizable congregation, both white and black.

Instead of feeling embattled, these groups seem vital and energetic. Students and campus ministers almost uniformly say that Christians are happily tolerated. “It’s fine to admit that I’m a Christian,” Willy Inboden commented at the end of his freshman year. “It’s cool that I’m into spirituality. But if I were to try to ‘impose my views,’ then I’ve gone over my limits.” Christians are tolerated, but at a price: they keep what Thompkins calls a “silent contract.”

The Silent Contract

Multiculturalism is dedicated to wiping out racism, sexism, and homophobia. Christianity, as the dominant religion of Western civilization, often catches blame for these ills. Do Christians at Stanford have to defend their faith against charges of abetting slavery and discrimination, the subjugation of women, or prejudice against homosexuals?

Christian students say they are rarely taken to task for these sins. “Students are not made to pay for being a Christian,” says Mark Phifer-Houseman, an InterVarsity campus minister, “unless they believe there is a hell, or talk about abortion.”

Students admit that most of the time they keep controversial thoughts to themselves. Though multiculturalism emphasizes the value of differences, students at Stanford, religious or otherwise, don’t seem to probe their differences very deeply. There’s a wariness of saying the politically incorrect thing and stumbling into a hornet’s nest of “education.” Those with politically correct opinions also seem weary. According to Darrell Armstrong, an African-American student who helped start Black Church, “Many black students would say they are tired of being the ‘educator.’ ”

Article continues below

Ann Porteus is the assistant director of Residential Education, a somewhat rumpled, graying woman who projects a sense of warmth and efficiency. “Communities get built,” she says, “by dialogue, by working things out.” The resident assistants and fellows she helps hire and train are supposed to create dialogue. “We’ve been very careful to take resident assistants and resident fellows out of the police role.… It’s awfully hard to be a disciplinarian and ‘spy’ while you’re trying to be educator and community builder.… We’re not idea police.”

But Porteus herself seems tired and unsure why dialogue isn’t happening. She has become aware, particularly through challenges from Dean of the Chapel Robert Gregg and a Residential Education staff member named Dan Ramirez, that Christian students feel stifled. “I feel bad,” she says, “that any student group, no matter who they are, feels that they can’t talk about what they care about in front of other students. And I do think that’s happened to religious groups.” Porteus admits that her staff have shown prejudice against Christians in selecting RA sand in sometimes not letting Christian groups use meeting rooms. She says that in informal discussions about prejudice, resident fellows often admit their bias against fundamentalists.

Proselytizing Fanatics

It isn’t, though, as if Christians get thrown to the lions. Sometimes they are denied a meeting room, but they can always find another place. Occasionally, a professor takes a shot at Christianity, but it hardly ever seems to get personal. Maybe it would if Christians went out of their way to asserttheir ideas, but very few do.

Floyd Thompkins, a large, black man with posters of Gandhi and Albert Schweitzer in his office at the chapel, says, “It’s very interesting, the white males that come here [to see me]. ‘Whisper, whisper, whisper,’ they tell me, and they say, ‘What do you think? Is that right or wrong?’ and I say, ‘Does it matter? Your problem is not in finding out what I believe about it, the problem is that you have peers … and somehow you can’t talk to them about this.’ ” Thompkins, who became a licensed Baptist minister while still a teenager, says, “My job, when I do come in contact with undergraduate students, is to say, ‘Behold, you are free.’ ”

Article continues below

Many Stanford students, Mark Phifer-Houseman points out, come from divorced families and have a deep craving for “a big, happy family.” When Christian groups get criticized, the complaint is often that they are dividing a dorm, or taking students away from the dorm community. When Christianity is discussed, the inevitable criticism is its exclusivity—it says one group of people is headed for hell.

The university, in trying to stamp outintolerant attitudes and speech, has created an atmosphere in which people believe they have what Thompkins calls “a right not to be offended.” Nathan Chan, a graduate student in operations research, observes, “If you take [multiculturalism] to an extreme, it’s very individualistic. You have your own box, and you can think what you want in that box so long as you don’t affect others’ boxes. When you say that Christianity is the only truth, you are imposing on someone’s box.”

While Christians fear speaking out, some university staff seem to fear Christians themselves. Dan Ramirez, a Christian who worked in the Residential Education office until last year, says that “evangelicals are seen as proselytizing fanatics. They’ve painted evangelicals and Moonies the same.”

Ann Porteus said that residence staff fear being “targeted.” She thinks evangelical groups have created a wall because they proselytize. While admitting that proselytizing is a loaded word, she still struggles to accept the way evangelical Christians approach discussion. “If it was just encouraging people to have dialogue, that’s one thing, but the groups that we were exposed to wanted people to join.”

Mary K. Wilson, who attended Stanford as an undergraduate and now serves on InterVarsity’s staff, describes an encounter she had with some resident fellows: “We had a pretty strong Bible study in the dorm, and they were really concerned about the effects that had had on splitting the dorm between the Christians and the non-Christians. One of the comments they made was, ‘So what you’re trying to tell us is that you think 18-year-olds have found truth.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you know, we believe that there is truth to what Jesus said.’ And her comment was, ‘That’s really sad, that 18-year-olds claim to know truth.’ It was a real clear picture for me of the pursuit of truth in the university. It’s fine to pursue truth as long as you don’t find it.”

Article continues below
A Multicultural Strategy

In one sense, multiculturalism offers Christians an opportunity. For decades we have been losers in the university’s intellectual Olympics. Science and materialism have seemed to dominate everything. Now universities are claiming to operate under new rules. They say no one group will dominate; rather, diverse cultures and experiences will have a say.

That is, of course, not always true. Sometimes, as Richard Blow put it in The New Republic, “Their idea of diversity is a chorus of voices all saying the same thing.”

Yet taking multiculturalists at their word, Christians can certainly claim a right to be heard. Faculty and administration may be reluctant to affirm religion as part of the multicultural rainbow, but no one has been able to offer a sensible reason why they should not. At Stanford, as elsewhere, a few Christians have begun to insist on their right to a voice.

But there is a problem. Multiculturalism offers a static vision, what Fred Siegel, writing in The New Republic, calls “an extraordinary reversal of the traditional liberal commitment to a ‘truth’ that transcends parochialisms.” By definition, you don’t recruit people for your part of the rainbow. You were born to yours; they were born to theirs. As the T-shirts proclaim, “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.”

That sentiment runs counter to the Christian emphasis on conversion. As Ann Porteus put it, Christians are not just interested in dialogue, they want people to join. (So, too, do Democrats and Republicans, feminists, and environmentalists.)

The Christian commitment is so fundamental, in fact, that all other perspectives—black or white, male or female, homosexual or heterosexual—get judged by it. The rainbow retains its colors, but they become background for one burning allegiance.

To proclaim such a vision requires nerve, and also clarity. As Catholic chaplain Russ Roide puts it, “We have a lot of dumb Catholics in our midst.” Catholic students, he thinks, stay quiet not because they are intimidated, but because they haven’t been well prepared. Catholic high schools and religious-education classes haven’t taught them how to articulate their faith among well-educated people who are, in many ways, hostile to it. The same comment might be made of Protestants. Evangelical ministries provide a supportive environment, nurturing personal faith and devotional Bible study. But they offer little intellectual help. In fact, they rarely discuss controversial issues at all. Christians in the university are in danger of becoming a tolerated minority holding esoteric, incomprehensible views—a mystery religion, so far as the university mainstream is concerned.

Article continues below

This is made no easier by the lack of Christian faculty members. Of the 1,380 Stanford professors, students know of only a handful who are Christians. There may be more, but they don’t identify themselves.

Philosophy graduate student Scott Gravlee only accidentally discovered that his faculty adviser is a Christian. “He was of the mindset that you don’t push that on your students.… We’ve been trained all our lives that once you get into school you drop all your biases and just go after truth. Yet you get into the university these days, and you’re supposed to bring your background. Your culture, your biases, everything is supposed to come into the university. I know who the Marxist is … and I know who the feminist is … I didn’t have to go ask anybody.” Gravlee says he himself is beginning to experiment with “coming out of the closet.”

Ending The Silence

Would Christians like Gravlee be tolerated if they made their views known? Randy Bare, an InterVarsity staff member spearheading national ministry to graduate students, says, “Christian grad students feel that if they express their true views in class, they are putting their careers on the line, especially in the humanities.”

Stan Oakes, director of faculty ministries for Campus Crusade, thinks students have reason to be pessimistic. He predicts “problems like we’ve never seen before. Lots of Christian positions will become illegal because of multiculturalism. If you think all religions are the same, it can be hate language to say that someone’s religion is wrong. If you say homosexuality is a perversion, that’s seen as hate language. If you say that God is a father, that would be sexist. I sense a tremendous chilling effect on Christian free speech. Western civilization is being blamed for all the problems of the world. I see it as a willful, hostile, orchestrated attempt, to eradicate not just Christianity from the university, but anything based on Christianity.”

Prof. Don Davis of the University of Texas is more optimistic. He agrees that a Christian stand would be the kiss of death in some departments; he learned how intolerant the university can be when one of his friends was driven from the English department because of his unpopular views. Overall, though, Davis believes his university seeks a position of tolerance. Through an unusually active group of Christian faculty, Davis says, “We’re giving them something to be tolerant of.” He thinks multiculturalism offers opportunities for Christians. “We can make the claim of the other dispossessed points of view: Can’t you hear us respectfully?”

Article continues below

There are plenty of reasons to be encouraged about Christians in universities. Christian groups, like the ones at Stanford, are diverse and vital. The students are hardly a depressed minority. Rather, they are bright, attractive, and committed. They say they learn a great deal and grow spiritually from the challenging atmosphere they encounter. They do gain from the diverse people they encounter. Often, they find, the university’s emphasis on tolerance and understanding embodies Christian ideals.

On the other hand, there is a wide gulf between what students learn in class and campus debates, and what they learn in their Bible studies. Students feel free to live their faith, but not free to articulate its implications publicly. But even if students were to feel free, would they be capable of presenting Christian input? Could they challenge the pervasive ideologies of the campus? Certainly they have few mentors to help them do so.

There is little evidence that Christian ideas even surface in, let alone penetrate, the secular university—even though millions of Christians have passed through these universities over the last decades, and thousands have become Christians while there. Surely Christians should care about this silence, since universities continue to exert such power in politics and culture. Surely universities should be concerned about this silence as well, unless they really think that Christianity’s intellectual force is the one voice in the multicultural chorus not worth listening to.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.