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Tradition ascribes to the Duke of Wellington the saying that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Today, I suspect the cultural Battle of Waterloo will be won—or lost—on the campuses of Christian colleges, and that in two ways.
The first way is obvious. The expansion of the scope of Title IX legislation by the Obama administration makes colleges that hold to traditional Christian moral positions on homosexuality and transgenderism vulnerable to loss of government funding and to damaging legal actions. We might add the related matter of accreditation: Failure to conform to Title IX will be punished with notations and probable loss of accreditation. Perhaps even more deadly than these threats is the role of the NCAA, as schools that are not “friendly” to LGBTQI students will find that they are unable to compete in sporting events. Sadly, while the choice between sport and one’s faith should not merit a second thought, I expect that this will be the point at which many colleges crack.
How Christian colleges respond to all this will be critical. The desire expressed by some to dialogue with their opponents on this matter is not a good sign. At worst, it represents the cynical prelude to capitulation: “We listened, we heard, we changed.” At best, it represents a miscalculation based upon the naïve idea that both sides have some level of mutual respect and an interest in co-existence. There is no evidence that this is the case, and now that the Southern Law Poverty Center regards the Alliance Defending Freedom as a “hate group,” I might suggest that such optimism verges on criminal negligence.
In conversation after conversation over the last few years with friends at Christian liberal arts colleges, I have encountered the assumption that few administrators will choose fidelity to their faith over institutional prestige. And administrators are only half the story. There are also the professors. The dominant philosophy in so many secular humanities departments—that there is nothing so complicated in history or literature that it cannot be reduced to a simple question of power and exploitation—has allowed academia to be hijacked by those who are marked less by their knowledge of their subject than by their ability to spout angry clichés about privilege and power and hegemony. These people represent the spirit of the age, and their language is seeping into Christian discourse. In some colleges, it may not be the administrators who lead the charge for change.
And this brings me to the second way. Colleges are where the battle for the minds of the next generation will take place. And Christian colleges cannot win merely by shouting Bible verses, however sophisticated their idiom. Nor will they win by good old-fashioned arguments resting on logic and reason. That’s not how it works any more.
I became acutely aware of the latter fact some years ago, when I was challenged by a student while delivering a guest lecture on gay marriage at a very conservative Christian college. My arguments did not work, because . . . well, they were arguments, and did not take into account how the mind of my young critic had been formed. She had not been convinced by any argument. Her imagination had been seized by an aesthetically driven culture, in which taste was truth and Will and Grace carried more weight than any church catechism or tome of moral philosophy.
In such a world, arguments, even irrefutable arguments, will not suffice. We need something more comprehensive, something to capture imaginations. We need a philosophy of undergraduate education that offers visions of beauty, that connects the fields of knowledge our modern world has torn apart and isolated, and that speaks to the human desire for meaning. A good start might be making the study of poetry, that medium which at its best makes human language carry almost more significance than it can bear, a compulsory course for freshmen. If the narrative and aesthetic of the world are gripping, then we must show that ours are more gripping, rooted as they are in real beauty and real truth.
With Trump in the White House, Christian colleges have four, maybe eight, years in which the cultural and political tide might not flow as strongly against them as it did under Obama. Now is the time to organize, externally and internally. Colleges with a mutual interest in religious freedom and in preserving Christian standards of sexual morality and human personhood should talk to each other, abandon pipe dreams of “dialogue,” and coordinate their legal actions and political lobbying. They have the constitutional right to do so. America is still a free country. The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. But time, focus, and realism are of the essence.
And those same colleges need to be thinking about their curricula in terms of seizing the imaginations of their students: teaching them that there is more to music than rap, more to love than porn, more to narrative construction than soap operas, more to culture than lambasting those terribly wicked white males, more to history than a zero-sum tale of Western oppression of the Other, more to education than a means to a paycheck.
Waterloo will be won—or lost—on the college campuses. Campuses will be in the legal and cultural frontline. Now is the time to take that truth to heart and to act upon it.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.