Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Religious Education's Latest Indecent Assaults on "Indecency"

In the wake of President Obama’s rather tardy and completely-less-than-heroic endorsement of gay marriage, there are two stories this week about so-called Christian schools and their absurd, anti-Christian, and noxious bigotry. We need hardly go over the fact that Jesus says precisely bupkes about homosexuality, that the much-trumpeted sections of Leviticus that appear to declare homosexuality an “abomination” are widely interpreted by Biblical scholars as being nothing more than injunctions against raping male slaves, or that there are Biblical sanctions against everything from shellfish to tattoos, but concubines, slaves, and even rape are… well… we can’t take the Bible literally on that part.

So… at Shorter University in Georgia, tenured librarian Michael Wilson has refused to sign a “lifestyle agreement” that forbids homosexuality, drinking in public, premarital sex, adultery, drug use, or farting. OK, I made the last one up. But I’m not making up a requirement that faculty now must be active in a local church.

There’s a history here, of course. According to Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed,
Shorter has been a religious institution since it was founded in 1873, but its official link to the George Baptist Convention dates to 1959, when the college agreed to let the convention select trustees in return for financial support from the convention. Relations between the college and the convention deteriorated in 2001, when the convention abandoned a longstanding practice of picking trustees from lists submitted by the college.
The university, fearing a loss both of autonomy and of accreditation, sought to sever relations with the Convention, who in turn sued. In a decision based more on technical legal niceties than on broader philosophical, pedagogical, or even economic issues, the Georgia Supreme Court voted 4-3 to prevent Shorter from disentangling itself from the Convention. Jaschik writes that “Shorter's board would have been within its rights, the court ruled, to have transferred control of the college to another college. But it couldn't shut down with the goal of just setting up a new corporate structure.”

At the time of the court decision, Board Chairman Gary F. Eubanks urged faculty to “brace yourselves for the likelihood of difficult days ahead.” His fears, alas, were realized, as the Convention has exercised increasing control over the institution. The Convention’s influence on the university has metastasized over the past few years. Libby A. Nelson of Inside Higher Ed writes that
in 2008, Shorter joined the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a group of evangelical colleges who hire mostly only evangelical Protestants as full-time faculty members…. The first president chosen by the new board took office last year, and the lifestyle statements were introduced in October.
The signature quotation out of this whole mess is from that new president, Don Dowless, who asserts that the university has a right to hire whoever it wants: “Anything that is not biblical, we do not accept.” Well, except all the stuff that isn’t biblical that they do accept, of course.

Even were we to grant the silly and bigoted injunctions against homosexuality, for example… alcohol? What, Jesus turned water into grape Kool-Aid? But, of course, if drinking a beer really is against their principles (as if such people really have any), shouldn’t alcohol use per se be forbidden? The policy forbids it only in public. If we forbid homosexuality, shouldn’t we forbid drinking? Wait… I’ve got it! No gay sex in public! And, of course, since we’re good little pseudo-Christians who take everything literally, that means that anything short of intercourse per se, in public, is acceptable. I might even be willing to sign that one, myself.

Ultimately, the rest of us, those who care about academic standards more than religiosity, don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The policy is probably legal—Shorter receives no federal funding (per se… I wonder about Pell grants and the like), and they’ve probably figured out a way to pretend that refusal to sign this pledge somehow qualifies as moral turpitude or some such hogwash, allowing them to renege on tenure guarantees.

That still doesn’t make it anything but screaming-into-the-night stupid. Shorter is losing faculty—especially, as one might suspect, in the sciences and fine arts— by the droves over this inane initiative. They’ve already lost academic credibility. Unfortunately, the people who suffer most from this preposterous posturing are the alumni from back when Shorter was interested in education, not faux religion. Those folks’ degrees have been significantly diminished by a Convention, a board, and a president who couldn’t care less about actual education, or indeed about actual people.

Speaking of which…

What is it with Catholic schools and prom this year? A couple of weeks ago, in Pennsylvania, it was a portent of impending Armageddon that a young woman wanted to attend without a date. This time, in Kentucky, it’s a pair of female students went (gasp!) together. Here’s the reporting of Jennifer Hewlitt of Kentucky.com and the Lexington Herald-Leader:
Hope Decker, 18, a senior, and sophomore Tiffany Wright, 16, had already gotten their dresses for the event, but Friday afternoon they were told by school administrators they could not attend as a couple because of the church's stance on same-sex relationships, Wright said.

In an email Sunday, Lexington Catholic president Steve Angelucci said, “As a Catholic high school, we uphold every teaching of the Catholic Church. The policies and procedures of our school reflect those teachings.”

When the couple tried to enter the school's gymnasium, where the prom was held, they were turned away, so Wright said they held their own prom in the school's parking lot.

“I would understand and respect the school's decision if they truly upheld church teachings,” Wright said Sunday night. “They didn't forbid the entrance of all the couples who've had premarital sex and all the kids who planned to get drunk after the prom.”
There are a couple of interesting angles here, completely apart from the obvious hypocrisy of both the Catholic Church’s decision to believe one part of Leviticus is the inspired word of God and another part of the same book just a sort of casual suggestion, and of school officials’ concomitant selective enforcement.

For one thing, there’s the issue of whether Hope and Tiffany were known by the school to be a couple. Trouble is, this is a no-win for Angelucci, Principal Sally Stevens, and their cohorts: if they knew about the relationship, then it would appear they were perfectly willing to take tuition money from the girls’ families, just not to let them be themselves in public. Sort of undercuts that pious platitude from the Catechism, released by the Diocese as a defense of the school’s indefensible conduct: “This in no way detracts from the value and dignity of the students involved.” Uh huh. Maybe I ought to try that at my next audition: “You have value and dignity, but you’re Catholic, so you can’t participate.” I’m sure that would go over really well. Of course, even that wouldn’t actually be as bad as what the church and school leaders did, because belief systems are more alterable than gender identities. Stated more crudely, being Catholic really is “curable.”

There’s a chance, of course, that school officials weren’t aware of the apparent relationship between Decker and Wright. That would mean that, as far as they knew, there was nothing inherently homosexual in their attendance together—at schools all over the country, completely heterosexual girls go to prom in pairs or in groups, and they sure as hell dance with each other when they get there. But even the Catechism condemns only “homosexual acts” (emphasis mine) and “actions which normalize homosexual tendencies” (whatever the hell that means). So, Lexington Catholic, pick one… you’re hypocritical asshats or… you’re hypocritical asshats.

What I love about this story, however, is the response of the girls’ friends, literally dozens of whom stayed outside with them in the rain to support their friends. Here’s senior Megan Carter-Stone, who attended the “outdoor prom”: “It was a wonderful time, and I think we got our point across. At least I hope we did.” Trust me, Megan, you did.

Even more impressive is senior Suzie Napier, who wrote a letter of protest to the administration and collected over 100 signatures of other students. (By the way, there’s also a petition at Change.org.) You want a quote? Here’s a quote: “‘Universal love and acceptance’ is greater Catholic tradition than its stance on same-sex relationships.” President Angelucci, Principal Stevens, anonymous minion at the Diocesan office: Ms. Napier is the student, but you’re the ones who just got schooled.

Underlying both these stories is a tension between the religious establishment and the educational needs of a democratic, secular society. Both Shorter and Lexington Catholic have a “right” to behave as ignorantly and repressively as they like, at least by one definition of “right.” Ultimately, however, they don’t. Religiously-affiliated schools at both the secondary and collegiate level have contributed greatly to this country’s success. But that great tradition means also that there is a profound sense of responsibility that falls on the shoulders of people like President Dowless and Principal Stevens: to understand that religion and secular society must co-exist, to model the sensitivity and respect they purport to revere, to value the truth above all else. They’re not doing very well at fulfilling those obligations.

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