Gordon College prevailed, but will the country?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/12/08/gordon-college-prevailed-but-will-the-country/

Gordon College, the small Christian liberal arts college just 30 minutes north of Boston, became the focus of much negative media attention just over a year ago. Its president, D. Michael Lindsay, had signed an open letter to President Obama, supporting a religious exemption to his Executive Order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

President Lindsay has emphasized the need to grant faith-based institutions the freedom to “hire for mission” and for religious colleges to “set the conditions for community life.” But soon after, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges took the college’s accreditation under review to determine whether Gordon’s prohibition of same-sex relations among students and staff might bar it from receiving federal funds.

On both sides of the issue, followers of the story tended to see it as just another skirmish in the culture wars. The case is now closed, with Gordon’s accreditation renewed in May of 2015, after all. Although the college is still reeling from the media’s onslaught, local hostility, and resulting divisions within its student body, it has weathered the storm and stands resolved in its principles.

But Gordon’s muted challenge to federal authority is just the beginning of what this nation will face as many rise to the defense of one of its founding principles, namely, religious freedom.

The fury over Gordon’s destiny raises the question of what kind of country we want to live in and what the extent of tolerance might be. The answer must be both more sweeping and more complex than simply “a country rooted in Judeo-Christian family values.” Whether you are a gay marriage advocate or an evangelical home-schooler, there is more to this issue than a clash of values. Much will be lost if those on either side assume that their personal values must be applied universally and by force.

True pluralism must accommodate diversity of religious belief. Americans must embrace difference, rather than force homogeneity, and rally around basic principles of individual liberty and civic responsibility.

Such constructive engagement has its roots in our Declaration of Independence, which is bold in that it appeals to a brotherhood of all. In doing so, it inspires in us notions of individual potential while transcending particularistic interests to serve the common good. As such, American pluralism both enriches our country and poses a healthy challenge to each one of us, namely, to not succumb to self-righteous complacency and to justify our own values through civic service.

Gordon College is all about the common good. Its students are actively involved in local and national mentoring and aid programs and its commitment to helping the poor and needy is exemplary. Gordon students spend time in the poorest regions of the world, providing orphan care and instruction, assisting in construction projects, and volunteering in leper colonies. Their commitment and dedication to charity and service is unassailable. One might not embrace the Christian ideals that motivate Gordon students, but it’s impossible not to admire the humanitarian initiatives that they compel.

Gordon College may have survived the challenge to its religious principles, but unfortunately, Catholic Charities of Boston did not.

In the spring of 2006, the organization, which provides the needy with vital support and whose official mission it is to “build a just and compassionate society rooted in the dignity of all people,” fell victim to anti-religious bigotry.

Catholic Charities was the biggest and most experienced adoption agency in Massachusetts, but its licensing contract came up for renewal. Between 1986 and 2006, it had placed 720 children in adoptive homes with more than half of them being foster children who had been abused or neglected. At that time, Catholic Charities handled 31 percent of “hard” cases (older children, sibling groups, special needs children and those who had suffered trauma), while the remaining 52 percent were handled by seven separate agencies.

The licensing requirements for adoption agencies in Massachusetts include the signing of a pledge to obey state law. Yet the Massachusetts ban on “orientation discrimination” of 1989 and the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2003 put the pledge at odds with Church teaching.

Furthermore, in order to proceed with its focus on “hard cases,” Catholic Charities needed to contract with the State Department of Social Services, which, similarly, would not tolerate the groups’ insistence on male-female-parenting couples.

In March 2006, Catholic Charities of Boston stopped providing adoption services. To some, this was a victory for gay marriage. The real losers in all of this? The children.

Critics of faith communities fail to recognize the integrity of faith as a coherent system of belief. Although it is understandable that some feel offended by particular tenets of Catholicism or of evangelical belief, it is also understandable that institutions such as Catholic Charities and Gordon College need to be able to act in accordance with their beliefs. Different aspects of diversity might seem offensive to some, but America can only thrive and, in fact, survive, if diversity of belief is allowed to flourish.

As G.K. Chesterton, the English master of wit, rightly pointed out in the early 20th century, the American Constitution is founded on a creed. Yet, Chesterton was also quick to point out that there was a “danger of tyranny becoming the temptation of America,” namely, the danger of wanting to control a person’s beliefs.

Are we, in fact, veering towards an American despotism of consciousness today? Groups with opposing views need not like each other and they can bring their own lunch to the table, but be civil and sit down together they must. For such is the nature and the hopeful adventure of the American public sphere.

The American ideal is one of a harmony of differences through a workable civic culture. Yet, once the precarious balance of mutual respect is undermined, we risk an Orwellian dictatorship, where opinions are subject to public sanction. In Chesterton’s words, “the Americans are doing something heroic or doing something insane.” Let’s be heroic and grant institutions like Gordon College and Catholic Charities the right to exist on their own terms, and let’s not forget to exalt our unique national commitment to the defense of religious freedom.

Tina McCormick is Publisher of the NewBostonPost.

Also by Tina McCormick:

Religious pluralism

The lost boys: To win the war on terror, America must win the hearts and minds of young men

Deaths of desperation