Notebook > Religion

Leadership culture at risk

Religion | University ministries on elite campuses, this time at Brown, face ouster

Issue: "Kids' books," Dec. 2, 2006

An influential rights advocacy group whose acronym is FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has turned up the heat on Brown University's campus ministry department. Department head and campus chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson, a United Church of Christ minister, in September suspended one of the largest Christian groups on campus, Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). RUF student president Ethan Wingfield and Pastor David Sherwood of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Providence, RUF's sponsoring group, got nowhere in quietly seeking an explanation. Nelson and other department officials offered vague, conflicting reasons. Associate Chaplain Allen Callahan, when pressed, simply said RUF "had become possessed of a leadership culture of contempt and dishonesty that has rendered all collegial relations with my office impossible."

Now FIRE has come to RUF's side and is demanding that the department explain itself or revoke the suspension-or, by implication, face a lawsuit. Viewpoint discrimination may be involved. RUF is solidly conservative and evangelical; Nelson is a firebrand theological liberal promoting gay causes and activities on campus.

Earlier this year, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) went to court over the University of Wisconsin at Superior's decision to "de-recognize" the evangelical on-campus chapter.

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Bulletin board

VIETNAM: In a brief visit to Vietnam, President George Bush made time to attend a church in Hanoi-a powerful statement in a communist country that keeps tight control on organized religion. The visit came just days after the United States removed Vietnam from its list of the world's worst offenders of religious freedom. It had been under intense international criticism for harassment of Christian and Buddhist groups.

PAKISTAN: Another Asian country on the religious freedom watch list is Pakistan. Rights advocates around the world have been following closely the case of Ranjha Masih, a devout Christian and former hospital worker. Narrowly escaping the death penalty, he was handed a life sentence in prison on unproven charges under the country's notorious blasphemy laws.

Masih, 50, became a free man last month. In acquitting him, the Lahore High Court found lack of evidence, contradictory eyewitness claims, and other irregularities. He was arrested in May 1988 during a funeral procession for his close friend, Catholic bishop John Joseph. The bishop had committed suicide to protest persecution of Christians under the blasphemy laws. Muslims claimed they saw Masih during the procession throw rocks that broke a sign displaying a verse from the Quran, a claim disputed by even police investigators.

But Masih isn't really free. He went into hiding in a secure location, his lawyer said.

BAPTISTS: By a large majority, delegates to the Tennessee state unit of the Southern Baptist Convention approved a move to ask potential nominees to boards and committees whether they affirm the "Baptist Faith and Message" statement of faith. The SBC tightened the statement in 2000 to affirm biblical inerrancy and restriction of the pastoral office to men, among other points. SBC pastor Jerry Sutton of Nashville, who drafted the controversial proposal, indicated it was needed to help identify those not really "loyal" to the SBC.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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