Many of our readers are interested in the question of how Christian colleges and universities evaluate and document their identity. We can talk about curricula, hiring principles, governance, and many other factors.
A ruling this week from the National Labor Relations Board has declared that St. Xavier University in Illinois is too “secular” to claim a religious exemption from certain laws and rules governing the unionization of adjuncts. As one official noted,
There is no evidence that the university would discipline or fire faculty if they did not hold to Catholic values,” he wrote. “A faculty member’s religious values, or lack thereof, play no role in their hiring or retention at the university and are not a subject of their evaluations” or judgments of their suitability for promotion. The university’s mission, he said, is “to educate men and women irrespective of their religious beliefs.
The NLRB report further observed a
lack of any reference to religion in Xavier’s articles of incorporation; the presence of only five members of its founding religious order, the Sisters of Mercy, among the 24 voting members on its Board of Trustees; its reliance on the Catholic Church for only a small portion of its funds; and its lack of any requirements that students take courses in Roman Catholicism.
I personally don’t think it’s the right of any governmental agency or authority to start evaluating the religiosity of an institution; that’s a sword that could cut in a number of different ways that clearly run afoul of the First Amendment.
Having said that, while I have no knowledge of St. Xavier or their internal representations of their identity (and would prefer to consider the larger question here, not the specifics of that institution), I do think that this works at a problem that is endemic to religious higher education. In politics, there are “RINO”s (“Republicans In Name Only”); “Christian” higher education has plenty of those kinds of places too: “CINO”s. We need more, and stronger, institutions of higher education that propagate the Christian Intellectual Tradition, not fewer, but the question constantly comes back to the working definition of what it means to be “Christian.”
If the word “Christ” doesn’t appear in the hiring principles, the curricula, the governance policies, or student outcomes, when how exactly is an education “Christian”? If the words “Scripture” or “Church” likewise are absent, then I have a hard time seeing exactly what is “Christian” about the identity. If the historical creeds are absent from any sort of voice in defining the identity, when what is “Christian” about it?
To some extent, this is a question of lexicography: how does one define “Christian”? The American Heritage Dictionary (3rd edition) has this as its first definition: “Professing belief in Jesus as Christ or following the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus.” I think that most of our readers would be able to embrace that definition as a starting point at least, a bare minimum.
Too many “Christian” organizations, however, have adopted the fifth and final definition: “showing a loving concern for others; humane.” That is not a definition of “Christian” but is a synonym for “kind.” By that definition, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or an atheist can be a “Christian” as long as s/he is good-hearted. It’s a basic logical observation: All Christians should be kind but not all kind persons are Christian. In lexicography, the first definition is prescriptive; the latter is descriptive. Ideally, the two terms should be consonant, but the reality is that the latter definition is not enough; if we follow only the latter definition, we are quickly in contradiction to the first (and primary) definition.
Indeed, this matches the problem we have with defining the Gospel: is the Gospel that Christ has risen and has dealt fulsomely with the Curse or is the Gospel that we are supposed to be nice to one another? One is a stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:23) and the other is a kindergarten lesson in ethics.
The NLRB ruling raises a question that I’ve heard many a preacher invoke on a Sunday: if you were to stand trial for your faith, would there be enough evidence to convict you? I don’t like the judge in this case, but I do like the question.