I have to be honest: I view the push to make the leadership of every student group on a campus open to everyone–even those who do not share a commitment to the purpose of the group–as absurd. I may write more about exactly why later on, but for now I pass along this opinion piece. I agree with the author that such policies actually quash diversity and honest dialogue in favor of a false view of society.
The debate over Vanderbilt’s new religious life policy demonstrates how difficult it is to discuss faith without the conversation degrading into binary “us vs. them” categories — conservative vs. liberal, religious vs. nonreligious, tradition vs. individualism. The more public the controversy, the greater the possibility of mutual demonization using these tired, increasingly irrelevant categories.
The issue presented by this policy change is whether Vanderbilt will allow student groups to ensure that their leaders share the core beliefs and purpose of the group. This change came from the highest levels of Vanderbilt’s administration, not the Interim Director of Religious Life or the Dean of Students office. Several religious organizations, including Graduate Christian Fellowship, the ministry in which I serve, are on “provisional” status due to this policy. Like virtually all campus religious groups, our membership is open to all students. We merely ask that our leaders hold to our core doctrinal beliefs.
Couching this discussion as “the university vs. Christian students” is inaccurate, unhelpful, and allows the conversation to be caricatured and dismissed. Instead, this debate reflects a much more crucial question: Do we want different communities with conflicting narratives and ideologies to be authentically represented on campus or not?
Vanderbilt’s chancellor and top leaders are in the difficult position of navigating this institution through the unpredictable currents of pluralism. Because true diversity can be messy and contentious, the human tendency regarding pluralism is often to flatten differences and stamp out unpopular ideologies. Irreconcilable ideologies produce conflict; conflict threatens peace. However, the proper resolution is not to abrogate conflicting ideologies, but to learn to embody our robust particularities respectfully and intelligently.
The tragedy of removing some religious organizations from campus would not be merely the loss of religious liberty, an enormous and embarrassing loss indeed, but also the tacit admission by the administration that pluralism is not, in the end, a possibility. It’s an admission that, at the end of the day, the university must ask student communities to surrender their particularities to guard against controversy and debate.