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A Question of Accountability

Opinion | October 22, 2012

True to form, Tufts currently acts as a detailed microcosm of the ongoing interaction between the LGBT equality movement and religious privilege. A formal complaint filed last year against Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF) questioned the student group’s discriminatory practices and ties to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), a national evangelical campus mission. The publicity of this filing launched former University Chaplain David O’Leary’s image onto the holy pages of The Advocate last academic year. Now, Tufts is again at the center of this debate, and all eyes are on us.

In their op-ed titled “Navigating the complexities of discrimination and religious freedom,” (The Tufts Daily, December 12, 2011) representatives of TCF posed a commendable invitation: “We are open to challenges against our beliefs; they would not be strong beliefs if they could not withstand scrutiny.” Along with my fellow students encouraging critical analysis of TCF and IVCF, I maintain that the beliefs imposed by IVCF both limit the range of expressible beliefs of Tufts Christians, and reflect the ideological premises, which foster homophobic acts of ostracism and violence. The level at which IVCF controls the direction of TCF outside of the university is reason enough to derecognize it; the consequences of the organization’s unflinching beliefs are reason enough not to miss it.

First, it may be prudent to consider the national context of the conflict. This past June, Washington State began officiating same-sex marriages. In Georgia, student Jennifer Keeton lost her privilege to earn an advanced degree in counseling after refusing to counsel homosexual individuals. Claiming to be the victim of religious discrimination, Keeton appealed to the 11 US Circuit Court of Appeals and lost. In a remarkable case of déjà vu, IVCF’s local chapter at the University of Buffalo was suspended in December of 2011 after pressuring their treasurer Steven Jackson to step down after he came out as gay. Tufts and the University of Buffalo are among the 41 college campuses challenging IVCF’s recognition in the last 18 months. These are the current victories that provide an indispensable reference frame and form an impressive list of precedents relevant to Tufts’ investigation.

TCF, like IVCF’s U. Buffalo chapter, has a spiritual requirement for anyone wishing to be a leader within the club. The “Basis of Faith” states that eligible students must completely accept the divinity of the Bible; consequently, it is required that leaders conduct their personal lives in accordance with one specific evangelical canon. This means that queer Christians and Christians romantically involved with a person of another faith forfeit the right to an executive board position. That this violates Tufts’ anti-discrimination policy cannot be denied. Why TCF has been permitted to have this influence and privilege cannot be explained.

TCF’s position is made all the more curious by its identification as a “non-denominational student group.” An IVCF representative at the University of Buffalo reflected on the dismissal of Steve Jackson: “We love him, and we want him to continue to seek God and grow in his faith.” Jackson, like Tufts’ network of queer Christians (and, to a larger extent, Tufts’ network of Christians who do not follow IVCF’s path), has already found God. There is no one right way to be a Christian and any ecumenical Christian collective must recognize this. We owe nothing to an organization in which student leaders refuse to serve alongside other Christians because of practices that have nothing to do with their religious identity.

The consequences of homophobic discrimination warrant attention. Religious exclusion motivates homophobic bullying, which has caused several high-profile suicides to date. Musician John Grant’s lyrics on his breakthrough album Queen of Denmark speak to the urgency and confusion religious opposition to homosexuality breeds in developing queer individuals: “I can’t believe that I’ve considered taking my own life / ’Cause I believed the lies about me were the truth.” On World AIDS Day at Harvard’s Memorial Church, author Jodi Picoult described interviewing a representative of Focus on the Family, Planned Parenthood’s arch-nemesis, to better understand religious characters she created for her book Sing You Home: “I asked her if she worried that some of the positions that Focus on the Family espoused might lead people to commit acts of hate against gay people. And she said, ‘Well, thank goodness that’s never happened.’ Today would have been Matthew Shepard’s 35th birthday… I named six kids who have died recently by suicide because of bullying, because of sexual orientation. She burst into tears; she had no answers for me.”

It has been just one year since American Vision, a Christian nonprofit organization with over 13,340 likes on Facebook—Tufts University has 11,885 likes by comparison—called for the execution of all American homosexuals. The standard evangelical response to the physical and spiritual abuse their canon generates is a terse dismissal of the violence as un-Christian while failing to acknowledge their role in its proliferation. To think this way is to fail to grasp the severity and method of hate crimes and intimidation that have already ruined too many lives. Religiously charged discrimination has consequences. It is no longer tenable to be ignorant of religious exclusion’s relationship with self-harm; it is no longer reasonable for Tufts to fund a student group which fosters this behavior.

Still, many are persuaded by the argument that we must respect all religious practices, as each religious individual must have the right to their faith. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently criticized this appeasement of bigotry: “This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation… In each of these cases, we came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us.”

Unfortunately, IVCF does not value modes of Christian identity that deviate from the evangelical norm, and it is unconcerned with the effects its canon holds for LGBT youth. In their aforementioned op-ed, TCF representatives plead, “that students at Tufts tolerate and allow us the right to [our] beliefs. And we are asking for the right to select leaders who are willing to live by and commit to our beliefs.” I’m shocked by how well-received this plea has been with students I’ve discussed the matter with. It is important to remember who the oppressed are: TCF, a supposedly nondenominational organization, is actively restricting Tufts students’ ability to express Christian beliefs and contributing to the anti-gay culture that has killed so many youths. Students who hold these beliefs are actively denied leadership positions in direct violation of Tufts’ anti-discrimination policy. The fact is, we have tolerated TCF, and this religious privilege has come at the expense of others. It should be clear where we file our sympathy.

Seeing the complicated territory between discrimination and coexistence traversed in front of a national audience fills me with hope. Tufts can be the burial site of the myth that homosexuality and Christianity must be forever warring factions. In its stead, we can see a fellowship blossom that acknowledges the complex nature of modern Christian identity and holds no test for full acceptance. We owe this privilege to our fellow students. We are all responsible to secure a legacy of religious pluralism at a university that has given us so much.

A response to this article, “Our Vision for Intervarsity Tufts Christian Fellowship” by Elaine Kim, can be found in the Extras section of the website. 

Stephen Goeman is senior majoring in Philosophy and Cognitive and Brain Sciences. He is the Community Outreach Representative of the Tufts Freethought Society, a CARE member, and an alumnus of the Interfaith Youth Core.