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 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT