There is no reason why you should know about a faculty member leaving Wheaton College, so, in case you did not happen to see the front-page story in the Chicago Sun-Times, or the metro section of the Chicago Tribune, or the Sunday New York Times or the national coverage by ABC or Fox news-here is a quick recap:
Wheaton is an evangelical school at which all employees sign annually a "Community Covenant" in which they agree to pursue a way of life consistent with biblical Christianity as understood and articulated in it. Kent Gramm, a long-serving professor of English, resigned because he did not want to have a conversation with the administration about his divorce. He explained to the Tribune, "I think it's wrong to have to discuss your personal life with your employer."
Every year, Wheaton College hires divorced employees or retains newly divorced ones. In the six years I have taught at Wheaton this has been the case with two colleagues I consider close friends, and I don't know how many other people, as these matters are handled discreetly. On the other hand, I have never known or heard of anyone, since I first joined the Wheaton community as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s until the present, who has been dismissed because of a divorce. In other words, the problem is not that Gramm is getting divorced but that he has refused to be transparent with the community or a discreet community leader to discover whether or not there are sinful patterns of behavior that need to be addressed.
Wheaton is the kind of deeply counter-cultural place that thinks that the whole person matters. You couldn't be a member of a white supremacy group and teach at Wheaton, for example, however brilliant you might be in your discipline and effective as an educator. We are just uptight about racists that way. Likewise, if your spouse is divorcing you because she has finally got the courage to leave after years of emotional and physical abuse, that is the kind of thing Wheaton wants to know about. (I know personally, like, and admire Kent Gramm, and I would bet a heap of good money that there was no such thing going on in his marriage.)
The media and blogging story has been one of outrage against Wheaton as a prying, legalistic, puritanical, authoritarian institution. Watching from the inside, the controversy has abounded in ironies. First, Gramm in exclusive interviews with major news organizations has defended his right to privacy-to get a quiet divorce that nobody ought to be concerned with except himself, his wife, and the readers of the Sun-Times. He could have said that he was leaving us and it was nobody's business why and that really would have been the end of it. Then most members of the Wheaton community would not have learned that he was getting divorced-it would have been handled in a truly private manner.
Which leads on to a second irony. Gramm has said that he does not want to discuss the reasons for his divorce. He indicates a divorce would be better off without the finger-pointing. The irony is Wheaton College already has a no-fault divorce policy. You can walk away from our Community Covenant at any time with no questions asked. Instead of pursuing the no-fault option, after a 20-year covenantal relationship with Wheaton, Gramm has decided to accuse Wheaton of being the unreasonable partner. Gramm's use of the media has dragged his long-term partner's name through the mud.
The final irony centers around hypocrisy. If a conservative Christian minister is found to be engaging in behavior that violates traditional Christian standards, you can bet the media and the bloggers won't say that it is private and therefore is none of our business. (For example, I don't recall a chorus saying that Ted Haggard was a good preacher and that his professional competence is all that should matter.) On the other hand, if Christians themselves do enforce their standards rather than break them, this somehow also means they are hypocrites. The blogs are filled with the knowing comment that, according to conservative Christian theology, everyone is a sinner so, ipso facto, the line must be being drawn arbitrarily and therefore should not be drawn at all (as if Christian organizations should not try to weed out spouse-beaters because they can't successfully enforce a zero-tolerance policy on vanity).
Well, what's a Wheatie to do in response? I suppose try, by God's grace, to live by the Community Covenant.
-Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College in Illinois