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Socrates (Photo by Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images)

Philosophical differences

Philosophy association approves a highly discriminatory nondiscrimination policy

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

Are you a Christian philosopher looking for gainful employment? If so, be advised that Jobs For Philosophers, the go-to publication of the American Philosophical Association (APA) won't supply you with a full range of options. That's because the APA has outlawed advertisements from institutions that don't comply with the association's nondiscrimination policy approved in 2009.

The statement reads thus: "The American Philosophical Association rejects as unethical all forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, political convictions, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identification or age ... [in all] professional activities in which APA members characteristically participate. This includes both discrimination on the basis of status and discrimination on the basis of conduct integrally connected to that status." The statement, which I don't have room to quote in full, goes on to define what "integrally connected" means-for example, "sexual conduct expressive of a sexual orientation."

A sharp-eyed reader will grasp both the central issue and the embedded fallacy. The issue: An institution (such as a Christian college) that refuses hiring on the basis of homosexual practice is thereby discriminatory. The fallacy: If a non-discrimination policy includes religion in its list of protected categories, then any institution religiously opposed to hiring a practicing homosexual is itself discriminated against when its ads are rejected.

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The logical disconnect was noted, around virtual philosophical water coolers throughout academia, when the statement was proposed. A protest petition attracted luminaries like Alvin Plantinga, Robert George, and Roger Scruton, but totaled only 449 signatures (many of them bogus), as opposed to 1,486 on the pro-APA petition. In the spring of 2009 the policy went into effect. Christian institutions were allowed to advertise in APA publications, but if they refused to agree to the stronger anti-discrimination language they were flagged as "non-compliant"-placed on the naughty list, according to John Mark Reynolds of Houston Baptist University. The non-compliant status turned out to be a temporary measure; last May, with a vote of three to one, the Association agreed to ban advertisements from the naughty institutions outright.

Is this internal housekeeping, or a shot across the bow of Christian philosophy? Two years ago, during the Alvin Plantinga retirement conference at Notre Dame, the discipline Plantinga had done so much to revive was celebrated for its health and vigor. Nicholas Wolterstorff of Yale remains optimistic: "In general, I would say that the APA is considerably more open now to Christianity than it was when I entered the guild in the late 1950s." He acknowledges strong feelings about "discrimination," but he doesn't see a fatwa developing against Christians. Associate professor Alexander Pruss of Baylor cautions, "I think one needs to distinguish between academic discourse and academic politics, though of course the distinction is sometimes blurred. Christian philosophers are participants in all major areas of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics."

John Mark Reynolds acknowledges the participation by Christian professors of long standing, "but it would not be worth your life to be 'out of the closet' as a traditionalist during your program or before tenure." That is, a young academic aiming for tenure had better not teach, write, or act as though religion had anything to say about sexual ethics, much less mount a principled challenge to current mores.

Fifty years ago, no philosopher would have questioned that opposition to homosexual activity is "integrally related" to the status of being a Christian. The relationship between professed belief and practical application (or how one lives out what one claims to be) is a ripe field for the kind of discussions we don't have much anymore-at least not in the marketplace. A Socrates who pares careless assumptions down to the bone would probably be more welcome on our streets today than he was in Athens, but open inquiry about ultimate questions is what philosophy is all about. If open inquiry is throttled in its own house, Socratic discussion will have no place to go.

Christian philosophy may be alive and well, but perhaps it had better watch its back.

Email jcheaney@worldmag.com

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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