When Tolerance Becomes Intolerant

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Several months ago, my former employer, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, was featured prominently in a New York Times article entitled “Colleges and Evangelicals Collide on Bias Policy”.  It highlights the growing tension on a number of college campuses between campus administration and religious groups, specifically around the issue of who can serve as leaders within these campus ministries.

While this is an issue that is now starting to garner national media attention, for those of us who have been involved in religious work on colleges and universities this issue is all too familiar.  I believe the New York Times piece does a good job highlighting the issues, but to summarize, many universities and college campuses have begun to ban religious organizations from using their rooms and facilities for meetings and prayer. They have also prevented such groups from applying to be student organizations, which often means that they are not allowed to apply for student life fund or advertise their events on campus.

The reason for banning such groups is because many, like InterVarsity, require that leaders in their organizations be confessing Christians and sign a basis of faith. This is because student leaders in groups like InterVarsity are responsible for leading prayer meetings and Bible studies throughout campus. As such, they believe it is reasonable for a Christian organization to require its leaders to uphold Christian values in both their theology and their conduct. It is worth noting that these groups, InterVarsity included, have repeatedly stated that students of any background are welcome to be members and participate in the activities and events of their organizations. They only draw the line at the level of leadership

From the university’s side, such a requirement violates universities’ antidiscrimination policy which state that student organizations are not allowed to discrimination against who can serve as a leader within their organization on the basis of belief or conduct.  This is based on a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 which stated that universities are within their rights to adopt an “all comers” policy in regard to student organizations.

However, the problems with this policy are vast, for it bears profound implications for student groups beyond religious organizations. For example, under an “all comers” policy the college Democrats would not be allowed to require their leaders to be card carrying members of the Democratic party. Likewise, the Black Student Union would not be able to prevent a white supremacist for running for a position on their board.

The point is that every student group has certain values and beliefs which undergird why they exist, religious organizations included. As such, it is in their best interests to select leaders and officers who uphold those values. Every institution makes these kinds of “discriminatory” decisions when it comes to the level of leadership, from businesses and banks, to nonprofits and government agencies.

This touches on a broader issue in our society: the question of tolerance. How do we define “tolerance”? I think that too often when we talk about tolerance, we are looking for a way to avoid offense and force everyone to agree. But I would say that this is not really tolerance at all. Rather it is homogenization.

But such an approach actually undermines what most universities say they stand for. Namely, the goal of helping their students become global citizens; people who can talk to, work with, and live alongside people who may hold beliefs and viewpoints that are remarkably different from their own. Rather than encouraging tolerance, it actually hinders it, because it says that when we encounter a person with a worldview that we disagree with we should just ignore them, marginalize them, or force them into line.

The very term “university” comes from the blending of two others words: unity and diversity. Universities are places where people from diverse backgrounds learn to come together and work alongside each other, not by minimizing differences, but by learning to understand them and still coexist even where differences remain.

Should universities fail to teach this, they are actually doing a disservice to society. Is it any wonder that we are more polarized now than every before? I think it is because we have forgotten how to live civilly even in the face of disagreement. We would rather attack than seek to understand one another.

My hope is that universities would once again regain their calling to be places that encourage dialogue and cooperation, understanding in the face of difference, for then they will be true to their calling and mandate as places of formation for tomorrow’s leaders.

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