Skip to main content

The new college 'thought police'

By Jay Parini
updated 7:41 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
Jay Parini says campuses across the U.S. are placing problematic restrictions on evangelical groups.
Jay Parini says campuses across the U.S. are placing problematic restrictions on evangelical groups.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jay Parini: Campuses are placing problematic restrictions on evangelical groups
  • He notes that at Bowdoin College, officials want to impose their vision on groups' leadership
  • He says he is a liberal Christian who opposes discrimination, but this is not sensible
  • Parini: If groups don't impose their views or discriminate, keep thought police out of it

Editor's note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has just published "Jesus: The Human Face of God," a biography of Jesus. Follow him on Twitter@JayParini The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- There has always been a fine line between freedom of speech and the right to practice one's religion in the way one sees fit. The Founding Fathers struggled over these rights in framing the First Amendment, with Thomas Jefferson calling for "a wall of separation" between church and state -- a wall that has become mighty thin in recent years.

But now, the freedom to practice religion on campuses around the country, including at Bowdoin -- an elite liberal arts college in Maine -- has crashed into anti-discrimination policies, which also have a long and complicated history in this country.

Jay Parini
Jay Parini

The gist of the story is this: The Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, a conservative religious group that has lived quietly on campus for four decades, is being kicked off the official roster of college-backed groups. Their keys to college buildings have already been confiscated, and the administration won't recognize them any longer. The problem is that this group, like many groups of its ilk, insist their leaders must adhere to its version of Christian doctrine.

This problem is widespread now, playing out across the country, as at Cal State and Vanderbilt, where Christian groups, including, earlier, a Roman Catholic organization at Vanderbilt, have been forced off-campus because they refuse to allow their leadership to be drawn from people who don't adhere to their essential tenets. Let me put this plainly: Houston, we have a problem!

I've been a college professor for nearly four decades, and I've seen problems with the so-called thought police come and go over the years. At the height of the problem in the mid-'80 and '90s, it was imagined by many -- especially those on the right -- that universities had become politically correct to the point where any kind of conservative thought was forbidden.

Certainly these were vital years for the advancement of feminist thought in particular, and for the acceptance of gays as full citizens within the academy (full acceptance by the society at large is only now taking hold). For the most part, I always thought the idea of a liberal thought police was nonsense.

Doesn't common sense suggest that you should not be the leader of a Christian organization if you don't adhere to Christian tenets?
-- Jay Parini

I'm a progressive Christian, and I don't support any kind of discrimination. Jesus himself certainly demonstrated that one should seek to bring those at the margins of society into the fold.

I'm quite appalled by what is going on at Bowdoin, Cal State, Vanderbilt and elsewhere.

Doesn't common sense suggest that you should not be the leader of a Christian organization if you don't adhere to Christian tenets? Would a university or college really tell the Islamic Society on campus that they can't elect only Muslims to leadership positions? My gut tells me that it's only sensible to allow religion organizations to elect leaders who adhere to the teachings of the religion that serves as the organizing principle for that group.

There is, indeed, a bias against conservative Christians on campuses. And there are some reasons for this, as certain strains of conservative religious practice have been fiercely discriminatory over the past couple of centuries in the United States. There has also been an unfortunate anti-intellectual strain in the more fundamentalist groups of Christians, one that pervades American society as a whole, and creates problems for the practice of science, for instance, when it comes to subjects such as evolution and climate change.

It's no wonder that academic communities tend to resist groups that abhor rational thought.

But there is no basic conflict between -- again, for instance -- science and religion, between having a profound spiritual practice and wishing to uphold the highest standards within the academy when it comes to nondiscrimination. Tolerance, in fact, may well be one of the benefits that comes from having both an intellectual and a spiritual life. This means allowing for certain differences of opinion, letting a thousand flowers bloom.

For the most part, conservative groups on campuses simply wish to study the Bible together, pray and worship in ways that deepen their own sense of Godliness. These groups welcome nonbelievers.

They might even let someone like myself -- a Christian of a different stripe -- sit down and discuss their views. A campus is, or ought to be, a space where contradictory ideas are allowed to flourish, where genuine and deeply respectful debate can occur.

I would urge colleges and universities to give these kids their keys back. Let them elect officers in their organization who actually adhere to the ideas promoted by the group. That's the essence of democracy.

As long as these groups don't practice hatred or discrimination, or try to impose their views on others, let them be.

Our intellectual communities flourish when there are all kinds of ideas circulating, even ones we find curious or objectionable.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT