A proposed California bill (SB 1146) is making headlines this summer as the latest in America’s ongoing religious liberty balancing act. The government wants to protect individuals from discrimination while also protecting the First Amendment rights of individuals and groups to freely exercise their religion.
SB 1146 is a bill that seeks to protect LGBT students from discrimination; in reality, though, it would unfairly discriminate against faith-based colleges seeking to live consistently with their Christian convictions.
I serve as president of Biola University, one of the faith-based institutions in California whose religious freedom is threatened by SB 1146. Biola has joined nearly 30 other California institutions in opposing the bill, and we’ve put together videos and a website to help explain the nature of the threat.
The website headline reads: Oppose SB 1146. Preserve Faith-Based Higher Education. But what are we actually fighting to preserve, and why is it worth preserving?
Why We’re Fighting
Contrary to some assumptions, we are not primarily fighting to preserve access to government funding. Nor are we fighting for our own jobs or some sort of privilege or relevance in society. And though a common narrative on these matters is that we are fighting for the “license to discriminate,” this is also not true. We are fighting to preserve the preserving institutions that are critical to the mission of the church, the health of our democracy, and the flourishing of the world.
In opposing bills like SB 1146 (and others that will come), we are fighting not for our own institutional survival but for the survival of things far bigger than we are.
We are fighting for the preservation of a confident and coherent Christianity, one that’s passed on to the next generation intact and not redefined according to the cultural zeitgeist. We are fighting for the preservation of institutions that espouse and practice biblical visions of human flourishing, even when those visions look very different from their secular counterparts.
We are fighting to preserve alternative modes of living in the world: Christlike modes where love for others is more important than our own comfort; where obedience to God trumps personal autonomy and communal identity trumps individualism. In an increasingly cutthroat world full of persons and nations only looking out for their own interests, we want to preserve the Jesus ethic that sacrifices for others and seeks first the kingdom of God. In a time of rapid change and great uncertainty, we want to preserve something solid and time-tested; something that will outlast the ephemeral fads and philosophies du jour.
Ultimately we are fighting to preserve institutions whose Great Commission impact depends on their ability to remain distinctly and robustly Christian. At Biola (founded in 1908 as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles) we are fighting for the freedom to continue in the work we were founded to do: educating Christian men and women to be effective ambassadors for Christ in their professions and around the world.
Pluralism and the Gospel
I agree with Russell Moore, who recently said: “We fight for religious liberty only so the gospel can go forth freely. We are not simply standing up for our own people and our own tribe. We are standing up for potential future Christians, for people who are not part of the church right now.”
We are also fighting to preserve some important principles that are getting lost in these debates. One is the principle of pluralism. It’s the idea that society as a whole benefits when diversity of thought and tradition are upheld, as opposed to a “one size must fit all” homogeneity where one set of values is legally mandated for everyone (in SB 1146’s case, for every institution of higher education in California). Whenever dissenting communities and knowledge institutions are legislated into one acceptable moral orthodoxy, everyone loses.
Another principle we’re fighting for has to do with the way religion is conceived. The trajectory of these laws is in the direction of reducing “freedom of religion” to simply freedom of worship or even freedom of belief. It’s an anemic view of religion that relegates it to the heads of believers and (maybe) the walls of churches and seminaries. But we know that following Christ is a whole-life endeavor. At Biola and schools like us, Christian faith is the foundation of everything. It’s in every major, from biology to business to journalism and psychology. It’s in our community standards and housing policies, which are in place to form students in a distinctly Christian way.
We must oppose bills like SB 1146 that narrow the conception of what religious activity is and is not. If we don’t, the church itself will fall prey to this mentality that cordons off religion from the “other” stuff of life.
Firm Center, Soft Edges
In fighting for all of this we do not want to be timid or embarrassed, unsure of the worthiness of our cause. But neither do we want to be unnecessarily combative or mean-spirited. We want to be confident but not arrogant, committed to truth but also to grace. In my recent book, Love Kindness, I call Christians to a posture of “firm center and soft edges” in which we are clear about and unashamed of our convictions, but also passionate about people and committed to loving and working with others for the common good—even those who are our ideological opposites.
Bills like SB 1146 seek to erode the “firm centers” of institutions like ours, removing our ability to draw boundaries around certain ideas and behaviors as our faith dictates. Yet the removal of conviction-driven boundaries and the neutering of faith communities would not benefit society. It would do great harm.
New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it this way in his outstanding book, The Righteous Mind:
John Lennon captured a common liberal dream in his haunting song “Imagine.” Imagine if there were no countries, and no religion too. If we could just erase the borders and boundaries that divide us, then the world would “be as one.” It’s a vision of heaven for liberals, but conservatives believe it would quickly descend into hell. I think conservatives are on to something.
Christian higher education needs boundaries in order to perform its preservative function. Boundaries don’t mean closed borders or militarized walls. Boundaries simply mean difference. Not difference just to be different, but difference so that we can make a difference in the way the gospel calls us to.