Voices

Uninvited guests

How hospitable should Christian campuses be to visitors who oppose their beliefs?

Issue: "Muddy Gras," March 4, 2006

Imagine that you're the president of a traditional evangelical Christian college. You're opening your mail this morning, and your attention is arrested by an envelope with an unfamiliar but Islamic-sounding return address.

You're satisfied that it's not a mail bomb. Instead, you find an altogether cordial introduction to a group of bridge-building Muslims who are reaching out to evangelical Christians. They would like to visit your campus for a couple of days, getting to know you, your faculty, and your students. They would like to sit in on and participate in some of your classes, join you for meals, be part of your worship in chapel. They say that in the process they would also like to have the opportunity to explain to you their way of doing all those things as well. The visit would be, very simply, what we have for years called a cultural exchange.

Seems worth checking into. Given the fearful climate of our times, sounds like a constructive educational experience that wouldn't, at least on the face of it, compromise the college's Christian distinctives. Indeed, it might well provide genuine opportunities to understand the Islamic mindset while at the same time serving as a Christian witness to our visitors. Might be prudent to be sure that this group has no links to any terrorist groups. But yes, you tell your dean to pursue the visit. The two of you discuss the public-relations aspects-with the local media, with parents, with the college's sponsoring denomination, etc. You understand the challenge, but on balance the venture strikes you as consistent with your role as an educational institution.

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Against that imaginary backdrop, try this somewhat more difficult assignment. Imagine that instead of getting such a communication from an Islamic group, the request comes from a self-proclaimed evangelical homosexual group. A team of homosexual activists who say they are evangelical believers in Christ wants to visit your campus for a cultural exchange.

You might have to imagine the part about your being a college president. But the rest of the scenario is not imaginary at all this spring for a number of Christian college presidents. A homosexual organization known as Soulforce has organized "Equality Ride," an eight-week bus tour for 35 young adults who have invited themselves to 15 Christian college campuses and two of the nation's military academies. The group's director, Jacob Reitan, makes no bones about the confrontational nature of the visits: "Colleges and universities don't want to make this list!" he said in a Soulforce press release. "This list means you have policies that devalue the life of GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender] people and slam the door on academic freedom."

So Mr. Reitan wants to bring his "diverse mix of bright, faith-filled young adults from all corners of the country" to stimulate discussion on campuses where homosexual behavior is forbidden. Clearly, he'd like nothing more than to produce an ugly response here and there that would confirm his worst caricatures of evangelical homophobes. He and a similar group visited the U.S. Naval Academy this past fall and got exactly what they wanted-a clumsy, awkward threat by academy officials that inappropriate discussions with midshipmen would be greeted by arrests. The media loved it.

But the Christian college presidents I know don't have the authority to threaten arrest-and tend to approach such crises with more finesse in any case. The word I'm getting from them is that they'd just as soon Soulforce didn't show up, but that if they come, their colleges will greet them cordially, have a discussion, and send them on their way. The presidents recognize, though, that they're dealing with high-octane stuff, and that unpredictable responses on any side could easily blow up in their faces.

That's why I framed the issue as I did, asking you to compare the two sets of self-invited guests, and to decide what the two have in common and where they are very different. If you tended to say yes to the Muslims, but were reluctant with the homosexuals, why? I will tell you I haven't found it an easy exercise.

And while you're wrestling that one to the ground, try throwing in a third group as well. What if tomorrow morning's mail includes a similar announcement of another forthcoming visit? It's from the National Association of Evangelical Adulterers.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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