College campus holy wars

Anyone who explores academic hallways on American campuses will find lots of cartoons posted on professors' office doors and bulletin boards. But what if the cartoons included the Prophet Muhammad?

In one famous case, a professor at Century College in Minnesota dared to post the Muhammad cartoons that were published in a Danish newspaper. Facing fierce criticism, she put the images behind a curtain so that anyone passing her bulletin board would not see them unless they chose to do so. Administrators quickly created a policy requiring advance approval of all posted items.

It's easy to find hot religion buttons on campuses. What if a club tried to screen Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and administrators banned it, citing its R-rating and controversial content? What if the same administrators allowed a play on campus in which a character pretended to perform a sex act on an image of Jesus?

What if a Jewish group sponsored a campus lecture by an Israeli official and it had to be cancelled due to heckling by Palestinian students? What if a professor urged students to destroy a campus-approved display of tiny crosses, created by pro-life students, that symbolically represented their opposition to abortion?

These cases are real and there are hundreds more.

Passions are boiling over on many campuses," stressed attorney William Creeley, who directs legal teams for the secular Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "Students and professors and administrators are fighting about all kinds of things, but the surface issues are often proxies for the real issue -- which is religion. ...

"The garb in which these clashes are clothed may be student rights or campus fees, but they are usually about religion, morality and sex."

A recent survey by the foundation, he said, found that 71 percent of America's campuses try to enforce codes that in some way clash with the First Amendment. Meanwhile, many private schools -- which can create covenants that limit many freedoms -- are failing to warn students, faculty and staff about the contents of the documents they sign when entering these voluntary associations.

Catholic educators at Georgetown University had a legal right to ask the abortion-rights group "Hoyas for Choice" to operate under the name "H*yas for Choice" and to deny it some campus benefits. DePaul University had a right to deny equal treatment to a group called "Students for Cannabis Policy Reform." The issue, said Creeley, is whether private-school leaders explicitly warn students and parents -- before they enroll -- about "what they are getting into."

Scratch the surface and it's easy to find religion in other campus conflicts. For example, "conservatives" often claim they face discrimination when seeking faculty promotions or jobs in prestigious schools, especially in science and political science departments. Programs that discuss Islam, or deal with Israel and the Middle East in general, continue to generate heat. Can faculty who dissect the Bible do similar textual criticism of the Koran?

However, any FIRE review of recent campus fights, said Creeley, would have to discuss whether or not religious groups on state campuses can insist that their leaders support their foundational beliefs. In other words, can a Jewish group insist that its leaders support the right of Israel to exist? Can a pro-life group insist that its leadership be limited to those who oppose abortion? Can an evangelical group require that all members of its leadership believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court -- in another 5-4 decision -- ruled that the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco could require its Christian Legal Society chapter to use an "all comers" policy for members and leaders or lose its status as a campus organization. The case pivoted on the group's affirmation that sex outside of marriage -- the union of husband and wife -- is sinful.

FIRE has tracked 40 or more disputes of this kind, noted Creeley, and there are sure to be more.

"I cannot think of anything less 'liberal' than what we are seeing on many campuses," he said. While most educators "pride themselves on offering a 'liberal education,' " many are now promoting "an orthodoxy that tempts them to edit the First Amendment. ... You end up driving certain points of view off campus and silencing the religious voices that trouble you. That's dangerous -- period."

Faithfully listening to Obama

Since returning this fall, Craig Dunham has asked his Biblical Ethics students at Westminster Christian Academy to focus on ways that conservative believers can participate in hot public debates, while showing respect for others. This quote from the book "Uncommon Decency" led to timely discussions.

"How can we hold onto strongly felt convictions while still nurturing a spirit that is authentically kind and gentle? ... The answer is that it is not impossible -- but it isn't easy," argued Fuller Seminary President Richard J. Mouw. "Convicted civility is something we have to work at. We have to work at it because both sides of the equation are very important."

These class discussions are sure to continue after Dunham wrote a commentary urging other evangelicals to watch President Barack Obama's back-to-school address with a mixture of respect and skepticism. Now, his students are getting an eyeful while reading fierce online criticisms of their teacher's views.

While his own Christian school near St. Louis didn't show the speech -- which would have required cutting into curriculum several weeks into the semester -- Dunham was stunned to hear that some parents were ready to keep their children at home in order to avoid seeing it.

"Seriously? ... These are the conversations I would think a parent would be PRAYING to take place," wrote Dunham. "At some point, Christians have got to stop putting the mental in fundamentalist and start interacting with the world. Teaching our kids to stick their heads in the sand and ignore anyone they may not totally agree with is, in a word, unChristian. Folks, we can't counter the culture unless we encounter the culture, so let's take off the blinders."

After parsing the president's text, Dunham said he is convinced he needs to use the video in his classroom.

"You know, from a Biblical Ethics perspective, I don't know how not to talk about this," he said. "If we can't talk about these subjects in a Christian school, where can we talk about them?"

Most of Obama's speech to public-school students focused on familiar themes, especially with its drumbeat call for discipline in an age of video games, rap and reality TV. The president used several candid illustrations based on his life as the child of a single mother, including times when she taught him extra lessons at home -- at 4:30 a.m.

"We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems," he said. "If you don't do that -- if you quit on school -- you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country."

While Dunham took some lumps online, he was not alone in praising the address.

"This is the speech I expected the president to give to our children -- excellent," wrote the Rev. John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, a popular evangelical author. "If you settle for the news headlines that say the president tells the kids to wash their hands and take care of the environment, you will miss the wisdom and courage in this speech."

An influential Southern Baptist leader also praised the speech, while criticizing Department of Education lesson plans -- since withdrawn -- that urged students to describe how they could "help the president."

Many criticisms of this event, argued Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, are "reckless, baseless and plainly irrational. ... At this level, the controversy is a national embarrassment. Conservatives must avoid jumping on every conspiracy theory and labeling every action by the Obama administration as sinister or socialist."

At the very least, this firestorm "smacks of disrespect for the president and, by extension, disrespect for the presidency itself." Even worse, said Mohler, this controversy "threatens to sow seeds of permanent distrust and suspicion in the hearts of the young. In an age of rampant cynicism, this is inexcusable."

Clearly, said Dunham, some religious conservatives are losing their ability to hope "that God can work in any situation," especially during an administration led by a president with whom they have sharp moral and cultural disagreements.

"There is a kind of fatalism on the loose that has many people saying, 'We're doomed'," he said. "That kind of perspective may be a conservative perspective, in a political sense of the word, but it's certainly not a conservative Christian perspective."

Catholic college culture wars

Anyone trying to understand the Catholic college culture wars can start with last spring's commencement address by Cardinal Francis Arinze at Georgetown University.

Media coverage was guaranteed, since many list the Nigerian prelate as a top contender to succeed Pope John Paul II. Who knew he would dare to mention sex and marriage?

"The family is under siege," said Arinze. "It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce."

A theology professor walked out, as did some outraged students. Seventy faculty members signed a letter of protest. But traditional Catholics began asking a burning question: Why was it shocking for a cardinal to defend Catholic doctrines on a Catholic campus?

These fires are still smoldering as students return to America's 223 Catholic colleges and universities. The Arinze controversy also reinforced some controversial statistics suggesting that four years on most Catholic campuses may actually harm young Catholic souls.

"What we are seeing is a battle between orthodox Christian beliefs and the moral relativism that is becoming more powerful in many religious groups," said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a fiercely pro-Vatican educational network.

"Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, you name it.