Campus Scenes

God and Sexuality at Bowdoin

A wonderful Maine college loses its soul.

By 3.9.14

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To be at home in all lands and all ages;
To count Nature a familiar acquaintance,
And Art an intimate friend;
To gain a standard for the appreciation of others’ work
And the criticism of your own;
To carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket,
And feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake

I remember hearing these words — “The Offer of the College” — in my earliest days as a Bowdoin College first-year. They came in a whirl of initial activity: a “pre-orientation” trip to a beautiful coastal locale filled with awkward conversation between pre-oriented students; kissing my parents goodbye after all the boxes were moved in; and, this being a Maine college, a lobster bake to formally kick the year off.

The Offer of the College was touted early and often at Bowdoin. Its late-Romantic tones, featuring a mildly divinized natural order (shout out to Emerson) and its exhortation to adopt a chastened noblesse oblige initially sounded odd to my eighteen-year-old ears. I know from my perusal of the back pages of the alumni magazine that it influenced my peers, however. Many a poor-paying urban teaching career, a long-term environmental research post, or a stint in a developing nation has been launched because of a small college in Maine animated by a humanist credo.

It is because Bowdoin has historically embodied this statement that recent developments at the school have taken me and many others aback. In a move that has reminded many onlookers of heavy-handed institutional actions at Vanderbilt University and Tufts University, the school’s administration presented Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF) volunteer leaders Rob and Sim Gregory with a “non-discrimination” statement. This statement required, among other things, that the Gregorys open BCF leadership up to students of any sexual orientation.

As reported in the Bowdoin Orient, Dean of Students Tim Foster explained that “If someone’s participating in an organization and they are LGBTIQA and they are not allowed to participate in that organization because of their sexual orientation or they cannot lead that organization because of their sexual orientation, then that’s discrimination.” Foster sharpened the point: “And that is a violation of Maine law and therefore also a violation of College law.” But that was not all, per the Orient. The college needed to know more about the people who were influencing its students: “According to Foster, the initiative grew partially as a reaction to the Penn State scandal in 2011 in which assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of multiple counts of child molestation.”

I commend Foster’s interest in the welfare and protection of the students he serves. I remember him as a kind and gracious man, generous with his time for struggling undergrads. (Full disclosure: I know Foster, was hired by his office to be a peer mentor at Bowdoin in my student days, and am always greeted warmly by him when I return to my alma mater.) Foster’s implicit connection of BCF leader Rob Gregory to known pedophile Jerry Sandusky is shocking, however. Like many Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship volunteer leaders, Gregory has with his wife Sim mentored countless students, financially assisted them, and counseled them through difficult circumstances of the kind that college students frequently face. According to the Orient, Gregory took on the cause of Aijalon Gomes, a Bowdoin graduate who fell into disfavor in North Korea. Irrespective of creed, the connection of Gregory to a child predator is therefore deeply unfortunate, and seems to speak to a deeper, darker bias.

The larger issue, though, is this: is BCF really discriminating against others by selecting its own leaders, students who adhere to the historic Christian belief that homosexuality is sinful? The answer is plain: it most certainly is not. While Maine has passed anti-discrimination legislation on the basis of sexual orientation, no court — in Maine or anywhere else in the United States — has held that a campus religious organization is breaking any law by requiring leaders to agree to a common statement of belief on theological and ethical matters. The ability to select leaders is a crucial part of the freedom of association, an American constitutional right grounded in the First Amendment. In cases like Boy Scout of America v. Dale (2000), the Supreme Court has upheld that organizations are permitted to structure their membership (and by extension their leadership) according to their particular point of view.

BCF enjoys the freedom to select its leaders no less than any other campus organization. Per long-standing historical precedent, the Bowdoin College Democrats need not admit Republicans to leadership. The Bowdoin Queer Straight Alliance need not admit a person who believes homosexuality is immoral to leadership. The Middle Eastern Belly Dance Ensemble need not admit a non-belly dance enthusiast to leadership. If these points seem straightforward, it is because they are. Yet this logic is undergoing revision by the Bowdoin administration.

In depriving the Inter-Varsity group of its right to select leaders in keeping with its identity, Bowdoin is compromising the right of free speech on campus. Free speech, after all, is a dead letter without freedom of association, and freedom of association is a dead letter without the freedom to set standards for leadership. The fracas in Brunswick, Maine, should therefore be of interest to citizens from a wide range of backgrounds who share a common interest in basic personal liberty.

Bowdoin is acting not only against BCF, but its own core values. Three years ago, Craig McEwen, then the Dean of Academic Affairs, called for campus “solidarity” while also encouraging “teaching and learning about difference.” McEwen called this effort a “paradox” in his speech for the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good. He noted that hearing stories from various constituencies of the community would “provoke our instinct for empathy” and “awaken in others an unrecognized kinship or solidarity that deepens understanding” and “may touch conscience,” among other effects. Barry Mills, the current president of the College, made the point still more strongly in his 2010 convocation address (which touched off its own diversity-related firestorm that led to a 300-page NAS report). I quote at length from one particularly salient passage by Mills:

Second, we must be willing to entertain diverse perspectives throughout our community. We have made real progress on this issue in our student body and on the Bowdoin staff. And we have made significant progress in the faculty over the past few years. But diversity of ideas at all levels of the College is crucial for our credibility and for our educational mission. Civility and respect are essential at Bowdoin, but we must guard against political correctness and a culture where everyone — students, faculty, and staff — is supposed to feel “comfortable.” We value, as one of our highest priorities, the Bowdoin sense of community and collegiality, and we should continue to do so. However, we should be willing to incorporate more vigorously a diversity of views into that sense of community. Creative tension is a positive force in a community committed to intellectual excellence and vitality.

Mills’s speech reflects Bowdoin’s long-standing desire to train students “To gain a standard for the appreciation of others’ work/And the criticism of your own,” as William DeWitt Hyde once said. In this late hour, one must ask: how will students encounter the criticism they need — not merely classroom criticism, but holistic criticism aimed at genuine personal development — if they do not encounter different views on campus? Organizations like BCF are a small part of the larger fabric of the college, but they are a vital part. Unlike other educational models, they allow students to taste the exhilarating (and sometimes bewildering) experience of genuine intellectual exchange.

Bowdoin College finds itself in a transitional moment in 2014. Like many leading schools, it is a secular institution, owning no religious creed, ostensibly welcoming a diverse group of students and faculty. Yet the college faces an essential question: what exactly will diversity look like at Bowdoin? Is this a privileged diversity in which some groups are ideologically more equal than others, or is this a generous diversity, one that will tolerate difference of belief? In Mills’s own words, will “political correctness” rule on the campus, or genuine “diversity of views?”

This last question has ramifications far beyond Bowdoin. It is, in fact, the central question of our time. In a polarized, divided society, will tolerance in any meaningful form endure? Or will “non-discrimination” stand, in Orwellian terms, for silencing and marginalizing voices of many kinds that do not agree with the progressive sexual movement? Until recently, I was heartened to think that a collegiate and societal commitment to “diversity” might preserve the rights of different groups, however much in the minority, to stand for their own convictions. At Bowdoin, at least, this no longer applies.

All this is rather tragic. The modern humanist experiment worked well for a good long while. It certainly did for me, anyway. More than a decade after my graduation from a small college in Maine, I can easily say I am the better for the climate of genuine intellectual exchange and mutual critique Bowdoin fostered. This environment changed me, sharpened me, and humbled me. For me and countless other alumni, the college has cultivated in its students “generous enthusiasms” and has trained us to “cooperate with others for common ends,” per the words of the Offer.

It appears that this great project, the fruitage of a now-benighted modernity, may have run its course in Brunswick. It remains to be seen how, in the words of Hyde, one can be “at home in all lands and all ages,” after all, if one cannot be at home on one’s campus.

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About the Author
Owen Strachan is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College and the author of, most recently, Risky Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2013).