Just before the beginning of the fall semester, officials from Georgetown University’s Office of Campus Ministry met with representatives of six evangelical parachurch organizations and handed them a letter, informing them they were no longer welcome on campus. “[Y]our ministries,” they were told, “will no longer be allowed to hold any activity or presence (i.e. bible studies, retreats with Georgetown students, Mid-week worship services, fellowship events, move-in assistance, SAC Fair, etc.) on campus. As well, there will be no Affiliated Ministry presence or participation at our annual Campus Ministry Open House held at the end of August.” What’s more, “Your ministries are not to publicize in any literature, media, advertisement, etc. that Georgetown University is or will be an active ministry site for your ministry/church/denomination.” Henceforth chaplains employed by the University will minister to the spiritual needs of the thousand or so Georgetown students who self-identify as Protestants.
For evangelicals, Georgetown looks kind of like a domestic version of China, with officially-recognized and monitored worship services conducted by employees of the state church and “house churches” operating secretively at the margins.
I exaggerate, of course. Nothing prevents students from praying and studying Scripture together informally, on or off campus, and they’re free to worship where they please. It’s just that they can no longer do so under the auspices of groups — like the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship — that had long been active on campus.
The contrarian in me is actually tempted to defend the University. After all, there are two kinds of religious freedom at stake here. One is captured in the allusion to China: individuals ought to be free to worship when and where and how they please. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Georgetown isn’t really abridging that freedom.
The other is the freedom of a group or institution to cultivate its religious identity without undue interference from the state. By centralizing control over formal worship and religious activity on campus, Georgetown could be said to be pursuing its religious mission and promoting its religious vision. As a University spokesman told reporters, this move came from “a desire in the Protestant chaplaincy to build the ministry from within Georgetown and its Protestant student leaders rather than rely on outside groups or fellowships.” This would produce “a more consistent and focused effort” for students.
Sounds great, but what exactly is Georgetown’s religious identity and mission? According to its founder, Father John Carroll, S.J., as the university conveys his views today:
The school was, in the emerging tradition of American religious tolerance, to be open to “every class of citizens” and students of “every religious profession.”
Carroll saw Georgetown as an academically rigorous Catholic academy with a diverse student body. The vision of John Carroll continues to be realized today in a distinctive educational institution — a national University rooted in the Catholic faith and Jesuit tradition, committed to spiritual inquiry, engaged in the public sphere, and invigorated by religious and cultural pluralism.
The Campus Ministry fulfills this mission by providing support to a designedly religiously diverse student body. In particular,
Protestant Ministry provides a welcoming environment for undergraduate, graduate, and other members of the university community to grow in their faith and share their spiritual journey with other Christians.
The Protestant Ministry serves a diverse community, honoring the religious traditions of its members while affirming their oneness in Christ.
While the University celebrates its Catholic and Jesuit roots, it seems almost equally proud of its commitment to pluralism and diversity.
To fulfill that commitment to its Protestant population, the University employs seven Protestant chaplains (not all of them full-time). Four are Baptist (three black and one white); the others are ordained in the Episcopal, A.M.E., and Christian (Disciples of Christ) churches. While some of them might pass as evangelical, none looks plausibly like a theologically conservative evangelical.
That they weren’t adequately serving the needs of some evangelical students is clear enough. After all, a few hundred of them were active in the recently expelled parachurch groups. Kevin Offner, who works with IVCF, put it this way: “It’s not that our students hate [the official Protestant chaplains]. This just isn’t how they want to worship, and we don’t all worship the same way.” Recent alumna Alyson Thoner told World Net Daily that campus ministry doesn’t “encompass the full range of diversity of the Protestant faith at Georgetown.”
You’d think that a university genuinely committed to meeting the diverse spiritual needs of all its students would want to cooperate with parachurch groups, whose efforts would extend the reach of the Campus Ministry. But you can’t help get the impression that Georgetown’s commitment to diversity doesn’t go so far as to encompass those really different theologically and morally conservative faith commitments.
I suppose you might defend the University by saying that the conservative evangelical groups don’t play well with others. Rather than embracing and celebrating diversity as a good in itself, rather than modestly contributing their own little flavor to the multicultural stew, they, er, evangelize, which requires, of course, that they believe that they have something (universally) good and true to share.
There’s the root of Georgetown’s conflict with its erstwhile evangelical affiliates. It demands that everyone subscribe wholeheartedly to a thoroughgoingly pluralistic vision and suspects that the evangelicals don’t.
Let me state it another way. Georgetown’s evangelicals are practical or pragmatic pluralists. They experience and negotiate the intellectual, moral, and religious differences that characterize life on a contemporary university campus. They know that there will be disagreement and that all they can do is share the Word and let their lights shine. They cannot and would not compel anyone to accept even what they regard as a saving truth.
But that’s apparently not good enough for the authorities at Georgetown, who seem to want everyone to love pluralism with all their hearts, souls, and minds. Of course, if everyone affirms pluralism in this way, what you really end up with is a kind of deep uniformity, not genuine pluralism at all. Yes, there are differences, but everyone regards them as accidental and superficial, not worth shouting about, let alone (perish the thought!) fighting over.
Perhaps, in the end, Georgetown does have a religious mission that’s inconsistent with the goals pursued by the evangelical parachurch groups. Ironically, it’s not a traditionally Catholic or Christian mission. It’s even hard to distinguish it from those articulated by its moralistic and action-oriented secular counterparts. In its commitment to “deep” (but really shallow) pluralism, Georgetown University looks likes it has become just another school.