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The Briefing: The secularization and liberalization of higher education and the danger of arguing the Peace Cross is anything other than a Christian symbol

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I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

We’ll see a resurgence of paganism in a supposedly secular age, we’ll see why Halloween is growing darker and darker, why evangelical Christians should care about what’s happening on a Catholic college campus, and this is the week in which we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

The secularization and liberalization of higher education and the danger of arguing the Peace Cross is anything other than a Christian symbol

We’ll trace once again a pattern of the secularization of religious institutions of higher education in this country. We’ll see why the politicization of higher education, the liberalization of higher education, means that inevitably the sexuality issues become front and center, and we will come to understand the danger in arguing that the cross is anything other than a Christian symbol even in order to defend a war memorial.

The concerns of the heart are still rightly very much directed to Sutherland Springs, Texas, and grieving families, a grieving congregation, an entire grieving community there, but the political discussion of the week is likely to be dominated by the new Republican sponsored tax reform legislation. If adopted, it would be the most comprehensive reform of the American tax system since the 1980s and the Reagan administration. But as we will see in a closer consideration of that proposal later this week, as we look at tax policy in a nation, we’re looking at the heart of its economic considerations, a balancing effort. And that also means that there are always very hard choices to be made. In every reform of the tax code there are both winners and losers, and we’re going to be looking at the fact that when a tax system is adopted by a government, certainly a government the size of the government of the United States, it is embedded with economic disincentives and incentives. They are both in place in order to change economic behavior and eventually economic behavior tends to conform to the new tax code. So it’s going to be a very interesting week in terms of the political and thus the economic debate, but it’s already an interesting week on other fronts as well.

Tracing the pattern of secularization at religious higher education institutions

Just a few days ago on The Briefing we looked at a controversy on a Catholic university campus that should be of intense interest to American evangelicals. That campus is Georgetown University. It’s traced all the way back to the revolutionary era in the United States, and of course it has been considered one of the leading Jesuit institutions of higher education in the world. It’s also, this is no secret, increasingly secular and liberal. There have been very serious charges about the theological direction at Georgetown University made by conservative Catholics, Catholics who actually believe Catholic theology. But what’s been going on that campus has everything to do with the sexual revolution as well. The original controversy has to do with charges made against a group of students, an officially recognized student organization known as Love Saxa, an organization that dares actually to believe and to contend for the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on matters of sexuality. In particular, it defines marriage just as the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. As the leadership of Love Saxa has said, Catholic teaching simply doesn’t allow for any other definition of marriage.

But this has run into a head-on collision with the fact that Georgetown University has openly claimed in terms of its administration to be the most gay friendly Catholic university in the nation. Two students on behalf of a larger group of students brought charges against Love Saxa claiming that they violated the moral standards of the university concerning how students are to treat one another and speak of one another because any organization that would actually define marriage and human sexuality the way the Catholic Church does would be offering a doctrine of hate to the fellow students at the supposedly Catholic Georgetown University. Just last week the student government was unable to come to a decision after hours of debate, but all that changed as the Washington Post reported on Saturday, it changed on Friday. As the Post reports,

“A panel of Georgetown students decided not to take action against a pro-heterosexual-marriage campus group that had been the subject of a complaint accusing it of fostering hatred and intolerance.”

The Post report continues, “After deliberating behind closed doors until after midnight Friday, the Student Activities Commission voted 8-to-4 that no sanctions should be imposed on Love Saxa, which advocates for marriage as ‘a monogamous and permanent union between a man and a woman,’ the group states in its constitution.”

Now the report in the Washington Post goes on to offer considerable detail about the fact that the two students who brought charges against Love Saxa are now threatening that they’re going to appeal the decision by the Student Activities Commission to the official administration of Georgetown University, an appeal you can be sure the administrators of Georgetown would very much like to do without. As the Post states the matter rather diplomatically,

“The committee’s ruling is not binding, and is merely a recommendation to the university’s director of student engagement, who can choose to accept, amend or reject it. The issue,” says the Post, “will now probably come before the university on appeal, raising the question of how administrators at Georgetown, the United States’ oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning, will handle the controversy.”

As you might expect, the student government organization indicated that it had taken the complaints offered by students seriously, but it did not find that it ought to defund and derecognize Love Saxa. This also has to be placed in the context of enormous public scrutiny, including the scrutiny of many Catholics around the country waiting to see if the student government would vote that a student organization that holds the Catholic doctrine could not be recognized on a Catholic university campus. One of the students who brought the charges told the Post that the decision is, “a big step backwards.”

He went on to say that the decision, “calls to question the university’s reputation and self-made claim of being the nation’s most queer-friendly Catholic campus.” He went on to say that funding of tuition money for Love Saxa, “advocates for traditional marriage and against queer marriage and queer lives.”

Ultimately, he said, speaking of LGBTQ students on the campus, “we’re being forced to pay for people who hate us.”

That’s the kind of language that is now just taken for granted on public university and elite private university campuses, but the big point here is that this is Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution in the United States. But it is abundantly clear that Georgetown has been moving away from Catholic doctrine for decades now, especially since the 1960s and 1970s. And the student is not exaggerating in this case. There can be no question that Georgetown’s administrators have been working very hard also as driven by the universities increasingly secular and liberal faculty to be just as these students say the most LGBTQ friendly Catholic University campus in the nation.

Why the liberalization of higher education forces the sexuality issue front and center

Now, in order to understand this in context no one believes that this decision is likely to be final, and everyone understands the decision was made under duress with an awful lot of people, especially Roman Catholics in the nation, getting ready to be outraged if Love Saxa had been defunded and derecognized. But it’s probably only a matter of time. The reason why that is so is of upmost importance in terms of the Christian worldview. In the last report on this issue I discussed the increasing secularization of religious higher education in the country, but speaking of this specific pattern, Anne Hendershot writing in the current edition of City Journal published by the Manhattan Institution actually names it for what it is. The headline of her story, “Taking the Catholic Out of Catholic Universities.”

As she says, “Rather than embrace the good, the true, and the beautiful, many of the schools,” that is the historically Catholic schools in this country have, “adopted the politically correct fads of secular universities.”

That’s exactly what we see here on the campus of Georgetown University. Hendershott points back to 1990 and the concern of the Pope then, Pope John Paul II, that Catholic universities were revolting against Catholicism. In that year the Pope handed down an encyclical named ex corde ecclesiae, and in it he required that every Catholic college and university must have a certificate known as a mandatum from the local bishop ensuring the orthodoxy of Catholic doctrine and morality taught on the campus. It led to an outrage on the part of American Catholic college and university administrators, and there has barely even been lip service given to the Pope’s command. Furthermore, as Hendershott says professors on many of these campuses who actually support Catholic teachings, “have come under siege on their own campuses, usually with little support from their academic administrations.”

Hendershot points in particular to Georgetown University and a 2013 official charge made against the University by William Peter Blatty, the novelist and author of the novel The Exorcist. He filed what is known as a Canon law petition with the Vatican demanding that Georgetown University be denied the right to call itself Catholic. He told an interviewer at the time that proclaiming Georgetown to be Catholic is dishonest. He said that the University presents a Catholic façade and alumni dinners, in the novelist’s words, “they will make sure there is a Jesuit in a collar at every table, like the floral arrangement.”

Blatty identified Georgetown University as in his words the leader of the pack of the Catholic colleges, “failing to live up to their Catholic identity.”

So, what’s the most important take-home for this for American evangelicals? Well we need to recognize that most of what is called Christian higher education is no longer even remotely or distantly Christian. The process that these Catholic observers are noting taking place on Catholic University campuses has happened overwhelmingly when it comes to the Christian colleges and universities in this country. And that would include, by the way, almost all of the major institutions of private higher education in this country. Almost all of them were established as officially and confessionally protestant at least in terms of their founding worldview, and they continued for a very long time trafficking off of their Christian reputation, even as they trampled upon Christianity’s doctrines and moral teachings.

But it is also the case that there are still some continuing Christian colleges and universities that take that Christian commitment very seriously and offer a comprehensively Christian and biblical academic preparation for young people. But they are relatively rare. They’re getting thinner and thinner on the ground, and the great danger reflected in this controversy at Georgetown is that Catholic parents and Catholic students will assume that an institution is Catholic simply because it claims a Catholic identity. The same danger comes to evangelical parents and students who may often believe that a college that was established by evangelicals is still in terms of its convictions on doctrine and morality distinctively evangelical. That has to be tested.

But there are two other ancillary observations here. The first is there really are no Catholics who can be all of a sudden surprised about Georgetown University. It has been sending the signals of its liberalization and its secularization for decades now. It’s a little late all of a sudden to catch on. But secondly, when you are listening to the arguments made by Georgetown by the administration describing the University when a university is advertising itself as the most LGBT friendly university in the Catholic world in the United States, you can hardly be surprised that it’s doing its best to live up to its advertising.

The danger of arguing the Peace Cross is anything other than a Christian symbol

Next we shift to another story in the area of Washington D.C. As the New York Times reports,

“Five miles from the United States Supreme Court, a 40-foot-tall World War I memorial in the shape of a cross has stood for nearly a century. Now, it is at the center,” as Emily Baumgaertner says, “of a battle over the separation of church and state that may end up on the court’s docket.”

She goes on to tell us that the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit declared last month that the Peace Cross as it is known in Bladensburg, Maryland and sits on state owned the land of the state has been maintained at public funds is unconstitutional. As Baumgaertner reports, this could lead as a ruling to the fact that the nation is effectively cleansed of memorials on public grounds across the country that could be construed as religious, specifically as Christian. The New York Times piece is sounding the alarm about the fact that the Supreme Court might have to rule on this case, and thus face again a question that it has not only sought to avoid in decades past, but has hopelessly confused in terms of its own decisions. In 2005, the Supreme Court handed down not one but two different decisions in terms of this kind of question, the constitutionality of religious symbols and messaging in public monuments. And the two different decisions based upon cases from two different states led to two different conclusions handed down by what’s supposed to be one Supreme Court.

Several things become very clear in this story. This past weekend I went to Bladensburg, Maryland, in order to see the piece cross for myself, and it’s clear to state the very obvious that it’s a cross. It’s also clear that it was erected as a World War I Memorial, specifically a memorial to the 49 fallen soldiers in American uniform in World War I who had served from Prince George’s County here in Maryland. It was established by a private organization. But it was eventually deeded over to the state, and the state has maintained it for the last several decades. This has lead of course to secularists complaining that a cross in the form of this kind of memorial on public property maintained with public funds, well you’ve guessed it, is an unconstitutional establishment of Christianity as the state religion.

Now I also noted that most of the people driving by the Peace Cross in Bladensburg apparently gave very little attention to it, but this just points to the fact that there are people using the very language included in the New York Times article on the part of one of the legal defenders of the cross who are seeking to cleanse the nation at any cost and at all costs of any kind of overt Christian symbolism that just might be anywhere near public property. One of the constitutional scholars cited in the New York Times article is Douglas Laycock at the University of Virginia Law School. He said that the 2-1 ruling by the three-judge panel was absolutely right. He said that indeed the cross,

“asserts the truth of one religion and, implicitly but necessarily, the falsehood of all other religions. Its secondary meanings,” said the professor, “as in honoring war dead, are entirely derivative of its primary meaning as a symbol of the Resurrection.”

In the arguments made before this Federal Court of Appeals, it was interesting that some of the opponents of the cross said that they would have less concern about a posting of the 10 Commandments because after all Moses was a lawgiver and the government is also a lawgiver. But of course that obscures the fact that the secularists have been doing their very best to also make certain that there is no biblical reference whatsoever even within the precincts of the American judiciary where we might note it is often prominently displayed in public buildings, including the home of the United States Supreme Court.

But the other interesting thing for Christians to note here is not just the fact that secularists have such an allergy, even to Christian symbolism in this culture, that tells us something about the increasing secular hostility, but it also points to the fact that some of the arguments made by the defenders of the Peace Cross should be rather alarming to Christians who believe in the gospel and thus see the cross and the empty tomb as God’s definitive acts, the atonement accomplished for our salvation. And thus Christians, Christians who love the gospel and Christians who thus love the cross can never defend the cross as an essentially secular symbol. But that’s exactly what the defenders of the cross in this case might have to do legally. There can be no question that the historical origin of this particular memorial was a desire by the citizens of Prince George’s County, Maryland to honor the 49 fallen of World War I from their own county. That’s a very dignified and solemn and honorable concern. But it’s clear now that some of the very defenders of that Peace Cross in a now very secular moment are going to have to argue at least constitutionally that even though it’s a Christian cross, it doesn’t actually represent Christianity, not theologically or spiritually.

In this case, even though I disagree with Douglas Laycock’s analysis of whether or not the court ruled rightly, I believe that it did not rule rightly. It is interesting that he said that the secondary meanings of the cross, “as in honoring war dead, are entirely derivative of its primary meaning as a symbol of the Resurrection.”

There is a good bit of theological truth in that statement even if we differ with the legal analysis offered by this professor. So as Christians honestly and understandably press back against the secularist pressure to completely cleanse as in theological or doctrinal cleansing the entire nation of all public references to Christianity, something by the way, that is not only mean-spirited and purely at odds with the American founding in terms of the founders own Christian references, but it is also irrational and it’s something that can’t possibly actually be accomplished. Just try to deny and to destroy and to eradicate every reference to biblical Christianity in American history. But this controversy does serve to remind us that we had better listen to ourselves as we make public arguments. And one of the arguments we must never hear ourselves make is any argument that defends a memorial in the shape of a cross at the expense of the atonement accomplished on the cross and in the empty tomb. Any denial of the power of the cross is just too high a price to pay in order to defend the cross as a war memorial.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to @albertmohler.For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.

(This podcast is by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Discovered by Christian Podcast Central and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Christian Podcast Central, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)

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