By MICHAEL GERSON
WASHINGTON — The rapidity of progress by the gay rights movement — from Stonewall to likely Supreme Court vindication of gay marriage in a historical blink — is causing a series of social and legal tensions.
It has left some recently evolved politicians looking cynical (see David Axelrod’s account of President Obama’s convenient malleability on marriage). It has left some conservative politicians appearing fidgety and anxious to change the subject. It has turned the taking of wedding photos and the baking of wedding cakes into unexpected cultural controversies. Is there a constitutional right to the baker of your choice?
The adjustments have been particularly rocky in higher education, among institutions called to serious ethical reflection and capable of serious moral preening. Some universities have begun denying recognition to student groups that use conservative religious beliefs on sexuality (and other issues) as a criterion in choosing officers. A prominent evangelical institution of higher learning, Gordon College, has been put on notice by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges that it may lose its accreditation over a student behavior code that proscribes “homosexual practice” (along with all premarital sex).
The stigmatization of evangelical colleges that hold traditional views on sexuality involves a painful psychological adjustment on the part of the stigmatized. The school I attended, Wheaton College, was founded in 1860 by a rambunctiously eccentric abolitionist dedicated to educating African-Americans and women at a time when that caused controversy. Many evangelical institutions with strong traditions of social justice are understandably offended when others portray them as benighted.
The unfolding victory for gay rights has set up a national debate about the meaning of pluralism. In some forms of modern liberalism, only the individual and the state are, in any meaningful sense, real — and one of the primary purposes of the public authority is to enforce the rights of individuals against oppressive social institutions. But there is an opposing view: that religious freedom is not merely the individual right to believe but also the right to associate with fellow believers. A community, in this view, is enriched by a proliferation of communities offering differing views of the good life (within the broad boundaries of public health and safety). And this requires the protection of institutional religious freedom.
One of the nation’s most influential educators, David Coleman, the president of the College Board, has engaged this debate in a manner designed to transcend it. In 2013, Coleman went on a scholarly project to Wheaton’s Wade Center, which houses C.S. Lewis’ papers. His encounter with Wheaton staff and professors set off a series of public reflections, in speeches and articles, on the distinctive contributions of religious colleges.
The point, he told me, is not “merely their right to exist.” It is their “animating values that are precious to higher education, and inescapably so.” The first he describes as “productive solitude,” which is both characteristic of the spiritual life and “important for academic growth.” The second he calls the “reverent reading” of shared texts, which allows “different minds to act on the same problems.” Many modern academic settings, in his view, “now don’t share a single text” studied across disciplines. And this is a problem, because learning “relates to powerful, haunting language held in common.” The third comparative advantage of religious education, according to Coleman, is the determination to be a “safe haven for body and spirit.” Modern student life often involves “abuse of alcohol” and “premature, reckless sexual encounters.” Noting Dartmouth’s recent campus ban on hard liquor, Coleman offered: “Maybe it is time to construct stronger norms.”
None of this settles the difficult issues surrounding individual and institutional religious rights. And Coleman is careful to avoid weighing in on specific debates. But he is determined to point out the virtues of institutional diversity in higher education — finding contributions where others only find controversy. This was once known as being liberal-minded.
In the midst of social change on gay rights — what he describes as a “10-year deliberative process” — Coleman argues for a “patient pluralism.” “You may disagree with members of the community for a while,” he told me. But you “do not banish them from the community.” And such patience, he said, is an expression of “confidence in your own values.”
This deliberation is taking place even within evangelicalism, as some moral traditionalists wrestle with the genetic component of same-sex attraction and see the virtues of committed gay relationships. But such reflection is inhibited by intimidation. A genuine dialogue requires a principled pluralism.