Faith and Freedom

“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” — Nelson Mandela

Link Chains

Earlier this month I was looking for updates on Baptist-affiliated Shorter University, which lost 43% of its faculty last year after requiring staff to sign so-called “faith” pledges. The university hired 51 new faculty members for the following school year and framed its statement and employee turnover as part of maintaining an “authentic Christian context.”

Similar reasoning came from the Ohioan administrators who terminated a teacher because he wouldn’t take down a social media post that varied from diocese teachings (I’ve written before about this case). At about the same time, I learned of a similar struggle at Ohio’s Cedarville University. The NYT reported on the forced resignation of Cedarville’s student affairs vice president; by the time of the article, the university president was also stepping down—all apparently because these administrators accommodated a visit from SoulForce’s bridge-building Equality Riders that the denomination disapproved of.

So Shorter’s last few years might be a fairly extreme illustration of a religious school “cleaning house” to maintain its purity, but it’s not exactly unusual.*

Reporting on Shorter’s situation last November, education magazine Inside Higher Ed identified the root issue as a series of questions: “Which tradition is more powerful: articles of faith or academic freedom? Who defines [denominational] values? And what does it really mean to be a Christian college?”

I don’t believe there is a necessary conflict between faith and freedom. I don’t think it impossible for these communities to infuse their relationships and policy making with more thought-for-others and more respect for both conscience and constraints freely chosen. I’d love to support communities in understanding that force sullies compliance, that securing mass compliance with weak policies and via compulsion is actually the worst possible outcome, not the best. It’s the worst outcome because it’s so beguiling: the masses have bowed down, and so our kingdom shall stand forever.

It can be hard for groups to assess their policies’ strength and value, I know. Beyond that there are the impacts of our policies on real people; using a mix of “objective” assessments and impact statements is one way to design the path ahead. I’m sympathetic to the fact that this work is complex, and sometimes thankless. I can understand why administrators might be tempted to sweep it aside.

Yet if faith is about deepening one’s alignment with reality and academic freedom is the ability to research, explore, describe, and comment on that reality without intimidation or retaliation, how can faith and freedom be opposed? What it is about this freedom that makes religious schools more likely to limit it through polarizing confessions like the one required at Shorter or the lifestyle conformity required at Adventist universities? Why do we so often default to using these strictures to shape institutional culture?

A community that didn’t regard its standards as inherently sound would be smart to use pressure and prohibitions to bolster those standards and keep community members in line. Secular states often do this. But relying on this kind of force in a religious context suggests that an option isn’t attractive or persuasive enough on its own terms to inspire free consent or voluntary compliance. 

Does life not provide enough natural feedback to validate our preferred moral guidelines as the best rules for our groups and their members? Does God’s Spirit require institutional support to guide people into “all truth” and keep them hemmed in once they’re there? We seem to design our institutions as if we can’t trust people to be moral or morality to be reasonable. Why is that?

I was once taught that the end-game of this human experiment was that right-being and right-doing would be intuitive and internally driven. If that’s more than a pipe dream, shouldn’t religious institutions be the most skilled at honoring and nurturing free conscience and persuasion and teaching all of us to do the same? Shouldn’t they be leading freedom, not limiting it?


* At the end of 2012, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools reaffirmed Shorter University’s accreditation. US schools retain the legal room to define their religious and non-religious educational philosophies and craft policies to match them.

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One thought on “Faith and Freedom

  1. Pingback: Faith and Freedom II: Beyond Force | mackenzian

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