In September 2016, a group of students began protesting a required humanities course at Reed College in Oregon. The course covered the ancient Mediterranean world, but the group argued it was Eurocentric and marginalizing to ethnic minority voices. These protests continued for over a year. Student activists would target each Humanities 110 class, holding signs as they sat or stood near the professor for the entire period. In 2018, Reed College expanded its Humanities 110 curriculum to include Mexico City and Harlem; however, the protestors remain unappeased with these changes, submitting additional demands.
While Reed College may be an extreme example, debates over free speech on college campuses have become so heated that some states have passed laws protecting free speech on campus. Our country continues to drift further apart across political, economic, racial, and religious lines, and college campuses have become ground zero for these discussions—but not without good reason. Colleges and universities produce vital research and educate students, preparing them for the workforce and civic life. The ideologies that guide this research and teaching shape public policy, cultural trends, and voters. Which is why so much seems to be at stake in the debate over what kinds of speech should be permitted on college campuses. Curricula are amended, commencement speeches are canceled, speakers are protested, protests are counter-protested, and classes are interrupted by students who find the material offensive.
In the end, many wonder if free speech is even possible at the university level.
Christian campuses, from colleges and universities all the way to seminaries, are not immune from these culture wars—nor from the suspicion that they curtail free speech (although for theological reasons). Between policies prohibiting cohabitation and same-sex romantic relationships and mission statements claiming that Christianity is the Truth, the structures of many Christian schools appear to be antithetical to the entire university enterprise. How can scholars pursue truth wherever it may be found if they begin by assuming they already know that Christianity is true? It’s no wonder that some education leaders are calling for the end of Christian school accreditation.
To be fair to the critics, on occasion, Christian schools have stifled scholarly work because it appeared to challenge their faith statement. And sometimes they have censored school papers and pushed hard conversations away rather than inviting them.
Still, in my experience, Christian schools are remarkably open to free speech. Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries have resources to balance the pursuit of truth with the obligation to preserve goodness and justice. It is this balance, in fact, that allows these schools to be far more supportive of free speech than is commonly thought.
Much of the hyper-sensitivity and trolling on college campuses can be seen as an outworking of “expressive individualism,” which is the widely held belief that life is meaningful only when we discover and express our identity—I matter in the world when I know who I am, and I express that identity, usually through consumerism and social media. When it comes to campus free speech, expressive individualism dramatically raises the stakes for debate. Instead of an idea being wrong or even harmful, it becomes an existential threat to students. If an idea challenges one of my closely held beliefs, then it challenges my identity, and if it challenges my identity, it challenges my very existence. Thus, when you disagree with me, you are actually questioning my humanity or right to exist. While this logic usually plays out in more explicit language on the political Left, the Right is just as committed to expressive individualism, and so they are just as likely to elevate their political beliefs into ultimate goods.
Perhaps due to the influence of expressive individualism, some people live in a paradox of desperately needing to announce their beliefs while feeling incredibly sensitive to the beliefs of others.
Here is where Christian colleges and universities have an advantage. By rejecting expressive individualism, schools can provide a better foundation for engaging ideas that offend, challenge, or trouble students. The Christian understanding of identity is grounded in personhood, our unique createdness as humans by a loving God. Because our worth is not contingent upon our ability to express our identity, we should be able to entertain opposing viewpoints without feeling existentially threatened. Our personhood remains an objective fact regardless of what others may say. When faculty teach students to have this confidence in their personhood and avoid the insatiable demands of expressive individualism, Christian campuses can produce the vibrant intellectual debate that ought to define the university.
Language as Power
Another belief prevalent on secular campuses is this: All human interactions are fundamentally about power. If the basic truth about our relationships is that we are always competing against one another, then taking offense and giving offense turn into strategies of leveraging power. When we see ourselves as antagonists, we have no incentive to listen or respect one another and we have every incentive to coerce, shame, mock, and persuade each other into submission.
The Christian alternative is that we see our neighbors as fellow image-bearers of God, those we are called to love, whose interests Paul commanded us to consider. In disagreement and debate, we desire that our opponent is won over by the beauty, truth, and goodness of our argument, for their own good. The purpose of argumentation is not to “own” someone but to edify and exhort them. Such an approach to public discourse doesn’t come any more naturally to students and faculty on Christian campuses than it does to those at secular schools, but Christian schools have the theological framework and vocabulary to make charity the defining characteristic of campus speech.
I have seen this work on my own campus. Burdened by the racial tensions in our nation and the church, last year, student leaders at Oklahoma Baptist University organized an event where we sat, listened, and talked with one another about racism. At times, the conversations were tense and difficult. They required vulnerability and humility. But overall, it was a success. I suspect that in many secular colleges, events like this would either alienate anyone who wasn’t already progressive in their understanding of racism or devolve into a yelling match. Our Christian conception of the human person enabled us to speak charitably to each other, even—especially—when we disagreed.
Freedom and Limits
Underlying this debate over freedom of speech is a deeper discussion on the relationship between limits and freedom. In America, we tend to think of freedom as the absence of limits. If someone limits what we are allowed to say, what words we can use, what kinds of arguments we can make, we feel that our free speech has been infringed upon. At the same time, we acknowledge that there are extreme cases where limits are necessary. The University of Chicago released a “Statement on Principles of Free Expression” in 2012 which has served as a kind of manifesto for Jonathan Haidt (co-founder of Heterodox Academy) and other campus free-speech advocates. The statement calls for speech “free from interference.” Where the statement does place limits on speech, they are almost entirely legal: defamation, harassment, and threats. These restrictions are presented as unfortunate exceptions to the rule of “free and open inquiry,” which the statement refers to as one of the defining characteristics of higher education.
By way of contrast, the traditional Christian understanding proposes that proper limits constitute freedom. In John 8, Jesus claims that “the truth will set you free,” but this is a freedom from sin and toward righteousness (v. 32). When the Jews ask Jesus how he can make them free, he replies that “everyone who sins is a slave to sin. . . . So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 34, 36). Limitless freedom does not exist; it is a lie we tell ourselves to conceal our slavery to sin. True freedom, to be “free indeed,” is to be obedient to God’s law, to live according to his will. Limits are not a necessary evil but a constituent good of freedom.
We can see this dynamic work out in marriage. To a certain secular way of thinking, committing to one person for life in marriage is an infringement upon our freedom. What if your tastes change? What if you want some variety? What if the other person changes? What if you discover some latent desire that only a different sexual partner could fulfill? Christ demands that we deny these impulses. Not only are we to stay sexually faithful to our spouse, but we also are prohibited from even fantasizing about infidelity. And yet it is precisely within these limits that we have the freedom to love. Without these limits, our desires will be swept away by every fleeting passion, enslaving us to the insatiable hunger for novelty or vanity. When we acknowledge these limits, they create a vision for our desires; our spouse ceases to be a hindrance to attaining love and becomes the subject of that human love.
Christian doctrines and practices constitute the good, the true, and the beautiful in which God calls us to live. Freedom is not doing whatever I desire but being given agency by the Holy Spirit to live life in Christ—that’s true freedom. So while Christian schools are willing to study why non-Christians reject the doctrine of the Trinity or Christ’s atoning work on the Cross, those doctrines are not matters of debate. If a school gives up those essential doctrines, it cannot help students pursue a life of freedom in Christ.
How these limits work themselves out in practice is a matter of prudence and discernment, but the key is that administration and faculty have a responsibility to care for the souls, hearts, minds, and bodies of their students—not to stifle them but to help them live in the freedom that is Christ. That means, from a secular perspective, restricting free speech. From a Christian perspective, it’s what makes true free speech, and freedom itself, possible.
The “Statement on Principles for Free Expression” assumes that we are autonomous rational agents who are responsible for discovering truth for ourselves. According to this anthropology, it would be offensive for professors or administration to decide what ideas students should adhere to—that would be an infringement on their autonomy and an insult to their reason. But this view of human persons is flawed. We aren’t autonomous; we are communal, with ties and obligations that bind us. We aren’t rational agents, but rational, physical, and spiritual. And we don’t discover truths for ourselves, but rather we conform to the Truth of reality, a universe made by God.
This may seem like it would lead to a Christian intellectual bubble, where all the difficult and hostile secular ideas are hidden from students or reduced to caricatures. However, in my experience as a graduate student at Baylor University, we read and discussed the best secular thought in our field without misrepresentation or denigration. We read postmodern and queer literary theory in a Christian community of scholars, treating the texts with respect and seriousness, even when they were antagonistic to our faith. Embracing limits did not mean retreating from scholarly discourse—it meant engaging that discourse at the right time and with the proper context.
As tense as our public discourse is in 2018, I see glimmers of hope in my teaching. In a recent composition class, I witnessed two students peer review each other’s papers with charity and grace, even though their chosen topics were at opposite ends of the culture war. One paper made a case for abortion while the other argued against children seeking gender transition. Here were two culturally sensitive subjects that could have easily led to offense, outrage, or protest. But my students not only tolerated views they disagreed with, they helped make those arguments more persuasive for the purpose of the essay. I hope that outside of the class, those students dialogue with that same charity and grace, without sacrificing truth.
The animus that divides our nation is not subsiding, and higher education institutions will continue to struggle to balance the pursuit of truth with justice. Rather than being held back from free speech by religious strictures, Christian campuses can call upon shared values and a more humane conception of freedom to guide campus debates. This is not the “safe space” many conservatives and liberals seek to create. It involves challenging students’ beliefs, unsettling their understanding, and pushing them to mature with guidance and love.
Alan Noble is an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and author of Disruptive Witness (2018, IVP).