Can Christian Organizations Remain Christian in a “Tolerant” Age?

President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Published Mar 22, 2010
Can Christian Organizations Remain Christian in a “Tolerant” Age?
Can a Christian organization remain Christian in a culture of postmodern "tolerance?" That question is the focus of a case soon to come before the U. S. Supreme Court.

Like most colleges and universities around the nation, the University of California Hastings College of Law recognizes certain student organizations within the life of the school. Until recently, the Christian Legal Society had been one of those groups. But, controversy arose about five years ago, when leaders of the CLS chapter at Hastings asserted the national policy of the organization, which states: "In view of the clear dictates of Scripture, unrepentant participation in and advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle is inconsistent with an affirmation of the Statement of Faith."

The presenting issue is homosexuality and, as the Los Angeles Times reported, the issue before the nation's high court is "whether a Christian student group's right to religious liberty and the freedom of association can trump a university's ban on discrimination against gays and lesbians." Of course, another way of stating the same issue is this: Must a Christian organization surrender its Christian convictions in order to be recognized by a secular university?

The Christian Legal Society describes its mission as "to inspire, encourage, and equip lawyers and law students, both individually and in community, to proclaim, love and serve Jesus Christ through the study and practice of law, the provision of legal assistance to the poor, and the defense of religious freedom and sanctity of human life." It also clearly states that it is a "fellowship of Christian lawyers and law students."

The CLS "Statement of Faith" is clearly rooted in orthodox Christian beliefs, and the group is candid in pointing to its Christian intellectual, moral, and organizational commitments. It is involved in local chapters across the country and in student fellowships on many law school campuses. As the group warns, "Because law school is the formative period in an attorney's life - setting patterns and habits that will long endure and, in the case of bad tendencies, will only be broken with anguish - it is imperative that Christian law students seek out one another for fellowship, encouragement, and accountability. As a supplement to involvement in the local church, a Christian law fellowship should facilitate a closer relationship with Christ, so that in the words of the 10th century prayer, He may defend, refresh, preserve, guide, justify, and bless us."

The CLS understanding of "unrepentant participation in and advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle" as "inconsistent" with the organization's Statement of Faith ran into direct collision with the Hastings College of Law administration, which told the group it would lose its recognition by the school because its stance on sexuality violated the school's policy against discrimination based on "race, color, religion, national origin, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation."

Back in December, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to take the case after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Christian Legal Society's Hastings chapter.

Writing in USA Today, Tom Krattenmaker argues that the case comes down to this set of questions:

Does religious freedom include the right to discriminate on the basis of gender, race or sexuality? Do authorities have the right to foist their values on religious groups through carrots and sticks such as meeting-space privileges and the threat of withholding funds? And, as more conservatives are asking these days, shouldn't that oft-proclaimed liberal principle of "tolerance" also be invoked to the benefit of tradition-minded Christians?

A more fundamental question is whether Christian organizations can remain Christian in the light of such anti-discrimination codes and policies. The presenting issue in the current case has to do with the issue of homosexuality. But what about the clause banning all discrimination on the basis of "religion?" The Hastings policy would appear to exclude any Christian student organization that would refuse entry to an atheist.

Krattenmaker attempts to be even-handed, acknowledging what he calls "complex questions." Still, he manages to tip his hand in the argument. "Freedom from discrimination based on your color or gender or, as our society is coming to better appreciate, sexual orientation is not some flavor-of-the-month trifle," he insists. "Like religious liberty, it's enshrined in the Constitution, and correctly so. It's not politically correct so much as it's morally correct."

Well, the words "sexual orientation" are not found within the Constitution, but clear language ensuring freedom of religious expression is. As is so often the case, a policy banning discrimination is cited as exhaustively tolerant -- which it is not. Not all "sexual orientations" are accorded these rights under anti-discrimination policies. The argument in Krattenmaker's article does not extend to a deliberation of just how broadly such policies are to be applied.

Instead, he chides Christians for claiming that actions like the removal of the Hastings CLS chapter's recognition is a form of intolerance.

He writes: "At its heart, [tolerance] is a philosophy and moral commitment to accepting the rights of others to believe or behave differently from ourselves without excluding or penalizing. Don't expect champions of tolerance to "tolerate" acts of exclusion or bigotry that represent the very opposite of the principle they hold so dear."

In this statement, Krattenmaker is echoing the arguments of the late Herbert Marcuse, who argued that authentic tolerance would mean the toleration of virtually any ideology or practice that was itself sufficiently tolerant. The flip side of Marcuse's argument is that true tolerance requires unqualified opposition to any ideology that is considered intolerant.  Marcuse was seeking a radical transformation of society. Today's increasingly aggressive secularism looks much like what Marcuse and the young radicals who followed him hoped to see.

The case pitting the Hastings College of Law against the Christian Legal Society presents the nation -- and its highest court -- with an inescapable question: Are Christian organizations to be allowed to remain Christian, or must they all morph into secularized associations?

Must the Christian Legal Society surrender its biblical convictions in order to remain a recognized campus organization? Does religious liberty now stop at the law school door?

Obviously, much is riding on this case. The same logic used against the Christian Legal Society in this case can be used to argue that any Christian organization, school, or institution no longer serves the community's welfare if it holds such policies. How long before similar arguments are made against churches and Christian schools?

Can Christian organizations remain Christian in an age of ideological "tolerance?" All eyes will soon be on the U. S. Supreme Court as the Christian Legal Society's appeal is heard. Far more than one CLS chapter in one law school is at stake here.

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Tom Krattenmaker, "On Campus, 'Tolerance' and Faith Collide," USA Today, Monday, March 22, 2010.

David G. Savage, "Supreme Court Will Decide Appeal of Christian Student Group," Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, December 8, 2009.

For information on the Christian Legal Society, check their Web site, here.


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