Last weekend I had the pleasure of lecturing at the American Enterprise Institute’s Values and Capitalism Faculty Retreat on the challenges facing Christians in higher education. One point I made concerned the need for Christian institutions to wean themselves off of government money as soon as possible. Given the financial significance that the federal student loan system has for most colleges, this process will be painful and difficult for many, where it is possible at all. Yet it is vital. The complexity that federal loans bring to the relationship between private institutions and the government is such that the whole notion of a public accommodation is now potentially far more extensive than could have been imagined a generation or two ago. And that means that the First Amendment, far from being a friend of Christian colleges and confessional seminaries, might prove to be the very opposite. If you take government money, what right do you have to restrict speech on your campus in accordance with your own religious convictions?
The specific point of conflict is likely to be (once again) Title IX legislation that prohibits sexual discrimination at any institution of higher education receiving federal funding. The law does allow an exemption for religious organizations such as colleges and seminaries, an exemption to which I shall return. What is worrying is the increasing elasticity of the legislation, which was extended under President Obama to include transgenderism. That “Dear Colleague” letter has since been rescinded, but the underlying cultural commitments that made Title IX expansions plausible remain in place.
Some colleges—for instance, Hillsdale and Grove City—stand apart from federal funding. Such places thus seem relatively safe. But are they? There is another point of vulnerability: the 1983 Supreme Court ruling in Bob Jones University v. United States. This ruling denied tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University because of policies regarding interracial dating that were judged contrary to a compelling government policy. The text of the decision can be found here, but the key passage reads as follows:
The Government's fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on petitioners' exercise of their religious beliefs. Petitioners' asserted interests cannot be accommodated with that compelling governmental interest, and no less restrictive means are available to achieve the governmental interest.
However we may cheer the particular result of the Bob Jones case, the implications unfolding in today’s climate are concerning. Replace “racial” with “sexual” in the paragraph above, and the point is clear. In an era where a close analogy is assumed between civil rights regarding race and civil rights regarding sexual identity, the Bob Jones precedent could easily lead to the revocation of tax-exempt status for schools committed to traditional views of marriage and sexual morality.
The usefulness of Title IX and Bob Jones for the sexual-identity revolution lies precisely in the fact that most Christians see them as sound in what they were originally meant to accomplish, even as some might cavil at their heavy-handed application in after years. In a world where the law increasingly seems to exist not to protect minority opinion but to impose the sexual or identitarian taste du jour, the uses of these laws are increasingly sinister. Yet their origins make them hard to oppose with any cultural plausibility. For this reason, the religious exemption in Title IX will, I suspect, either fall or become so attenuated as to be in practice meaningless.
Thus, for Christian educational institutions, the way ahead may be very hard. It will not simply be a matter of budgeting without federal loans. It could easily become a matter of budgeting without not-for-profit status. That double whammy is likely to annihilate many of those institutions which refuse to accommodate themselves to the dominant sexual culture. And that means that educators may need to look to new models of pursuing their callings.
The current struggle probably cannot be won in the law courts—certainly not until there are deeper changes in the ethos of society. Laws that may be used to dismantle Christian educational institutions are already on the books. How they are to be applied will be determined by the dominant taste or cultural sentiment. That aesthetic point is what Christians need to address. And that brings us to the need for cultivating good taste, sentiments, and aesthetics.
The response of Christian higher education to the coming winter must therefore be twofold: financial planning for the worst-case scenario, where not only federal money but also tax-exempt status is revoked; and careful reflection on how the curriculum can cultivate accurate and wholesome aesthetic judgment. And, given the very brief time colleges have to shape young people’s minds, they need to see their task as adjunct to the greater task of family and, above all, church—the vessels that carry us from the cradle to the grave.
Neither law courts nor the Constitution will save us as long as we live in a celebrity-addled society that seems to think the vacuous postmodern piety of an Oprah makes her a credible presidential candidate. The roots of our problem run deep. Indeed, so deep that they touch the profoundest places of the human soul. It is the heart that must change if arguments are to carry any weight. And only things that go that deep will avail us at this time.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.