Vanderbilt has enacted a policy that will revoke a student religious group’s registration status if it chooses to retain the ability to ensure that its student leaders adhere to the basic beliefs of the group. There has been much ink spilled in the local campus paper, The Tennessean, and national news sources about this policy and its ramifications. Our Q&A section is an attempt to clear up the misconceptions many people have about this policy and about religious groups on campus. We hope these questions and answers will help shed some light on what is happening at Vanderbilt:
Isn’t this really just about money? No. Campus religious groups advocating for this policy to be changed are not asking to receive any funding from Vanderbilt.
Most campus religious groups do not receive any money from student activities fees or funding from Vanderbilt. For example, InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship, which has been on provisional status this year due to this policy, has received no money from Vanderbilt. The funds in our Vanderbilt student account are from private donations. Religious groups can apply to the Interfaith Council for grants, which are typically associated with one-time events that are open to all students, such as bringing in a guest speaker or doing a service project. Graduate Christian Fellowship received one of these grants two years ago. If Interfaith Council would like to vote to limit these funds to groups that have no faith requirements for their leadership, they are certainly free to do so.
Don’t you want to limit your membership to only certain students? No. All religious groups on campus are open to any and all students as members. Many of our groups are very diverse. We are committed to being hospitable and welcoming.
Isn’t this really about sex and sexuality? No. We welcome the protection for GLBTQI students on this campus and want to retain this language in the nondiscrimination policy. We do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and we join with the administration in wanting our campus to be a welcoming place for all students.
Most sacred texts do address sexual behavior. In Christian traditions represented among our staff team, believers look to scripture to govern their understanding of sex and the use of our bodies. However, it is overly simplistic to say that religious groups want to exclude anyone due to their sexuality. Students who are nominated to be leaders for our group are not asked how they identify sexually. They are asked what they think of the Bible, the resurrection of Jesus, and basic doctrines of the faith. That is the conversation we want to be having with prospective leaders, as well as discussing their vision for the group and for leadership. Sexuality, for all of us, is complicated. And there are as many stories and shades of sexual identity and practice on this campus as there are students. We do not use sexual identity as a litmus test for leadership. Instead, we want all of our student leaders, regardless of sexual identity, to seek to live lives of obedience to Scripture in every area of life, including sexual practice, in response to God’s unconditional love.
So if you don’t need money, you don’t want to exclude members, and you’re okay with protections for sexual orientation, what are you upset about? We are concerned about the provision in the nondiscrimination policy that does not allow us to ensure that our leaders hold to our basic beliefs. Asking our leaders to hold to our religious tradition’s creeds is central to our religious identity and acts to preserve it. For an expanded explanation of this, see our blog post about this.
Is your main concern a so-called “hostile takeover”? No. Of course, something like this could happen under this policy, which is bothersome, but we are more concerned about other negative ramifications of this policy for religious groups.
What are your main concerns about this policy? Firstly, religious people have used creeds for thousands of years to ensure clarity and consistency of belief. Think of creeds like a tuner in music. A tuner defines truth (it tells you if what you think is a C is really a C or is instead a D flat) and brings unity to the various instruments playing. Without ever using a tuner, over time, little by little, an instrument will go out of tune. Our creed prevents the theological drift that time, inattention, and majoritarianism inevitably bring. We want to stay true to the creedal tradition we have inherited, which is why we ask our students to affirm this creed. It protects the religious identity and particularity of our group. Whether the university means to or not, taking away this ability will slowly lead to a washing out and watering down of our basic faith.
Secondly, there are multiple examples even on this campus of leaders changing core beliefs mid-year. If mid-year one of our leaders has a crisis of faith and no longer believes in our creed, that person is no longer best able to represent our faith commitments. In order to preserve the purpose and mission of our group, we must have a way to ensure that our leaders are committed to what we profess and our purposes. We also would not want to ask a student leader to “cover up” their crisis of faith in order to keep serving the group. Pastorally, we desire for all of our students to have integrity and wholeness between what they believe and what they publicly endorse and practice. Thus, we would not want to put a student in a position of espousing something they no longer believe.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we do not believe that a leader can adequately or appropriately represent the faith or provide leadership for a Christian community if that person does not personally believe or practice the tenets of the faith. Belief in the core doctrines of the faith is not ancillary but, rather, is core to leadership in a Christian community.
But isn’t the administration letting you have creeds? Yes and no. Vanderbilt has insisted that they would never think of restricting creeds. You can believe whatever you like, they have assured us, but you cannot ask others to believe anything. However, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of a creed. A creed is not simply an accessory to a group of individuals – something to be framed and displayed quaintly on the wall gathering dust while we all go about believing and living as we please. A creed is a governing mechanism. We inherit it from a tradition that is far older than and will far outlast our moment in history, and we do not dictate to it what it should be. Rather, it dictates who we are and who we should be. It does little good for an organization to have a “creed” that is prohibited from serving as a governing force for the group. Thus, Vanderbilt has attempted to remove our creeds, not by banning them, but by making them weightless.
What if I think your beliefs are stupid and wrong? That’s fine. We aren’t trying to be the only voice on campus. We support your right to start a group called “Students who believe that religious students are annoying miscreants.”(Although, the name is a bit long.) In fact, we support your right to make sure that people like us don’t have leadership positions in your group.
Provost McCarty said recently in The Tennessean that although he is Catholic, he doesn’t want to exclude people who, for instance, believe in women’s ordination from campus. Neither do we! But that isn’t what this policy is saying. This policy is saying that unless you are willing to have anyone as a leader, your group must leave campus. We don’t want any group to be forced to accept just anyone as a leader. We do want all voices represented on campus. If groups like ours must leave campus, however, only voices that see no need for belief requirements for leaders will be represented.
Isn’t this a non-issue if you just hold open elections? No. First, many religious groups do not hold open elections because we only want people choosing leaders who are deeply familiar with the tenets of our faith and the mission of our group. Secondly, even if we elect leaders, we want to be able to use doctrinal commitment as a criteria in that election process and to ensure that those leaders hold to our creed throughout the tenure of their leadership in our groups (for more on this see above). Thirdly, if our students are using religious criteria in their election choices, we want to be honest about that. We want our expectations of leaders to be explicit and transparent. We believe that having “under the table” requirements in general elections lacks integrity, is hypocritical, and will lead to far more invidious discrimination than would having transparent and honest expectations of leaders.
Is this a non-issue if you let anyone run for or seek a student leadership position?” No. Our groups have always had open nominations, and we have made clear to the administration that any student can nominate themselves or someone else for a leadership position. However, according to historic and widespread Christian practice, we have belief-based qualifications for our leaders about which we want to be open and transparent. Read more on that here.
Does this policy affect all campus religious groups including denominational ministries or ‘affiliate’ ministries, those led by an ordained minister, or those run entirely by students? Yes. This policy applies to all religious groups on campus. The religious groups who have lost their status as registered student organizations due to this policy are those student organizations who use religious or moral criteria in their student leadership selection and therefore cannot honestly comply with this policy.
Is this an all-comers policy? Not really. A true “all-comers” policy as defined by the Supreme Court in CLS v. Martinez would mean that all groups regardless of type are open to all students in both membership and leadership. That would mean that LAMBDA must be open to be led by homophobes and SPEAR must be open to being led by climate change deniers. It would also completely dismantle the Greek system. University officials only recently began calling this an “all-comers” policy at the Town Hall meeting on Jan 31. As applied, however, this policy has targeted only certain religious groups and has disproportionately affected religious students while allowing group discrimination based on every other ideology.
Is this a right-wing issue? Not at all. There are plenty of folks who don’t vote Republican or identify as conservatives who care about religious identity, religious liberty, and the right of student communities to self-govern. Freedom of conscience, for individuals and communities, is a fundamental right. Anyone who truly cares about Vanderbilt being a place of pluralism ought to oppose this heavy-handed, top-down policy. In many ways, what we are asking for is liberalism in its classic, historical sense.
Is the university working with you and doing all they can to allow you to stay on campus? Not really. We really appreciate how university officials have been willing to field questions about this policy and carry on a conversation about religious faith on campus. However, the university has made no attempt to understand the perspectives of religious groups. At the Town Hall meeting in January, the provost said that he desires to work with us, but this simply means that administrators are willing to persuade us to change our minds about the need for creedal commitment in our groups. It does not mean that they are working with us to try to find a compromise that works for everyone. We would like the administration to consider having an all-comers policy for membership, preserving protection for GLBTQI students through the nondiscrimination policy, and simply allow us to ensure that our student leaders hold to the basic tenets of our faith.
Is this a common policy at other universities? No. This is the only policy of its kind in any top-tier university of which we are aware. This policy goes much farther in curtailing religious liberty and religious expression than would be allowed at any public institutions and than has been enforced at any other top private university. Two public universities considered enacting this sort of policy in the past two years – the University of Florida and Ohio State. In the end, both schools decided to protect religious liberty. Florida’s non-discrimination policy is similar to Vanderbilt’s but adds the following:
“A student organization whose primary purpose is religious will not be denied registration as a Registered Student Organization on the ground that it limits membership or leadership positions to students who share the religious beliefs of the organization. The University has determined that this accommodation of religious belief does not violate its nondiscrimination policy.”
But doesn’t Vanderbilt as a private university have a right to exclude whoever they want from campus? Yes they do. However, we ask that they simply be honest about who they are as a university. If they do not want religious orthodoxy to be represented by groups on campus, they need to admit that publicly and be willing to be criticized for it. Private universities, like Lipscomb, Belmont, and Vanderbilt, do not have to be viewpoint neutral. But Vanderbilt claims to be a place of robust pluralism. If Vanderbilt has decided to forbid all traditions or ideologies on campus other than late modern moral individualism or relativism, then they need to make that commitment explicit to incoming students and to the larger scholarly community (just as other private universities like Lipscomb and Belmont are overt about their commitments and ideologies). To read more about their legal rights to do this, we recommend “Vanderbilt’s Right to Despise Christianity” by Michael Paulsen.
Why is it important to you to stay on campus? First, there are, of course, practical considerations. Participating in student organizational fairs and being listed on the Office of Religious Life’s webpage allows us to let students know that we exist and invite them to join us. Being able to reserve rooms is very important for many of our groups that need space to accommodate large groups of students for gatherings. Additionally, campus ministers need access to campus in order to best provide pastoral care to faculty and students.
However, there is something more important to us than any of that. We love the university. We want to be citizens of the university. That’s why we are here in the first place. We believe that religious beliefs of all sorts deserve a seat at the table of ideas, and that religious orthodoxy ought not be excluded from campus. We are grateful that we’ve been able to be part of campus life—some of us for decades—and we want to continue to be part of the dialogue, joys, and challenges of university life.