At evangelical colleges, a shifting attitude toward gay students
A group of Wheaton College alumni formed OneWheaton to offer an alternative view on sexuality from the evangelical school.
March 30th, 2013
09:15 AM ET

At evangelical colleges, a shifting attitude toward gay students

By Sarah Pulliam Bailey, For CNN

Wheaton, Illinois (CNN)– Combing through prayer requests in a Wheaton College chapel in 2010, then-junior Benjamin Matthews decided to do something “absurdly unsafe.”

He posted a letter on a public forum bulletin board near students' post office boxes. In the letter, he came out as gay and encouraged fellow gay Christian students - some of whom had anonymously expressed suicidal plans in a pile of the prayer requests - to contact him if they needed help.

In a student body of 2,400 undergraduates in the suburbs of Chicago, at what is sometimes called the Harvard of evangelical schools, Matthews said that 15 male students came out to him. Other students seemed somewhat ambivalent about his coming out, he said.

No one told him he was wrong or needed to change, Matthews said some students were obviously uncomfortable with someone who would come out as gay and remain a Christian.

“I don’t think most Wheaton students knew what to do because they've been given ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ rhetoric, but they don't know how that plays out in real life,” said Matthews, who graduated in 2011. “They would mostly just listen, nod and say, ‘Yeah man, that’s hard.’”

As is the case at many evangelical colleges, Wheaton students sign an agreement to not have sex outside of marriage, including "the use of pornography ... premarital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and all other sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage."

On campus, the college created an official group in February for students to explore questions of gender identity and sexual orientation. The group is intended as a “safe place for students who have questions about their sexual orientation or gender identity,” where students may self-identify as LGBTQ.

But cultural and political changes have created tensions for the academic and student life environment. As more mainline denominations ordain openly gay clergy and more states pass same-sex laws, some gay evangelicals – and their allies - are openly deviating from Wheaton’s official and long-held positions. Well-known Christian author Rob Bell, a graduate of Wheaton, came out in favor of gay marriage in mid-March.

OneWheaton, a group unaffiliated with the college, wants to offer an alternative view on homosexuality from that of the evangelical school. The group, which is not explicitly religious, wants GLBT students to feel affirmed in their sexuality, acting as a support network for students struggling with their sexual identity, whether they choose to be openly gay or whether they choose to remain celibate. But leaders of the group say that gay Christians do not need to be celibate to retain their religious identify.

“For those of you feeling alienated, it gets better,” says OneWheaton’s founding statement, signed by about 700 GLBT and straight, alumni, echoing Dan Savage’s national “It Gets Better” campaign for gay youth. “Your desire for companionship, intimacy and love is not shameful. It is to be affirmed and celebrated just as you are to be affirmed and celebrated.”

A widespread question

Wheaton is hardly the only evangelical college that’s seeing a growing spectrum of responses toward homosexuality among students, alumni and staff.

Last year, a group at Biola University in southern California came out with posters and a website called Biola Queer Underground. The group describes itself as “like-minded LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) students and allies who have formed a private underground community in which we share our life struggles, as well as our love and support for one another.” Biola then issued a “statement on human sexuality” saying, "God’s design for marriage and sexuality is the foundational reason for viewing acts of sexual intimacy between a man and a woman outside of marriage, and any act of sexual intimacy between two person of the same sex, as illegitimate moral options for the confessing Christian.”

Groups from at least two Christian schools, Eastern University in Pennsylvania and George Fox University in Oregon, have formed OneEastern and OneGeorgeFox, which launched public websites in 2012.

About 200 LGBT and straight alumni from California’s evangelical Westmont College co-signed a letter to the student newspaper suggesting they experienced "doubt, loneliness and fear due to the college's stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues."

Many Christian schools have different regional, historical and denominational ties that keep issues related to sexuality complex and keep these institutions from responding monolithically.

Wheaton’s well-known alumni include evangelist Billy Graham, former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and former George W. Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson. To come out at the college, OneWheaton’s organizers say, is to risk losing a network of fellow-minded alumni.

“Part of OneWheaton is showing that while people are risking their networks, they'll have people they can turn to,” said OneWheaton spokeswoman Kristin Winn, who came out six months after graduating in 2007.

The married-sex-only agreement that Wheaton students and faculty sign is part of the college’s Community Covenant, which says that students agree the Bible condemns “sexual immorality, such as the use of pornography, premarital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and all other sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and woman.” Few students self-identify as gay, and if they do, it has different implications based on their expressed beliefs and behavior. Students can self-identify as gay, but college officials consider each student on a case-by-case basis if it comes into question.

Members of OneWheaton attend an athletic event on campus.

“What matters is the moral understanding of the person and how that matches with our institutional identity and the moral behavior that flows from the understanding. There’s no formula to how this gets applied," said Wheaton's Provost Stan Jones, a psychologist who has written several books on sexuality.

Students who openly deviate from or openly advocate for deviation from the covenant may be dismissed from the school, Jones said.

Alumni say some gay students have been asked to leave or been counseled to leave Wheaton. No member of Wheaton would be asked or counseled to leave this institution on the basis of sexual orientation alone, Jones said, and he is not aware of any cases where people were dismissed only because of sexual orientation.

Jones said it would be difficult to say whether a student who signed OneWheaton’s statement would be in open disagreement with the covenant, though he is not aware of any student who has left or been dismissed over involvement with the group. “We’re not in a rush to show people the door,” Jones said. “We want Wheaton College to be a community where people can wrestle with these issues.”

The balance, college officials say, is between preserving the theological integrity of the school while leaving room for questions.

“Articulating orthodox Christian theological beliefs and moral convictions itself is and ought to be an expression of grace,” said Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton, explaining the college's stance on sexual behavior in response to OneWheaton's emergence. “Those theological principles and moral guidelines are an expression of God’s character and the best way to live.”

Homosexuality is not a focus at Wheaton more than any other college, said Ryken, but culture places a priority on sex. The college does not keep track of the number of students who leave over homosexuality, he said. “There are a variety of challenges that different Christian colleges and universities face from people advocating homosexuality,” Ryken said in an interview in his campus office. “OneWheaton has been clear in saying they’re not interested in changing the college, but it remains to be seen what kind of influence they desire and may seek to have.”

A growing trend

Evangelical colleges likely face generational differences in attitudes toward sexuality as younger evangelicals develop friendships with people who are gay, says David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, a Christian market research firm.

“There has been a shift from rightness to fairness,” Kinnaman said. “There’s a real sense in which their institutional loyalty and their loyalty to theoretical morals and ethical choices are trumped by their peer relationships.”

About 40% of evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29 are likely to say homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared to 24% of evangelicals who are older than 30, according to the 2007 religious landscape survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But there is still less acceptance of homosexuality by evangelicals than by other young people. The same Pew poll found that 63% of Americans age 18 to 29 say homosexuality should be accepted by society, as do about half of Americans ages 30 to 64.

As a younger demographic is less opposed to gay marriage, they are also are more likely than before to identify as pro-life. Forty-one percent consider themselves "pro-choice," a record low since Gallup began asking the question.

“During the last five to seven years, there has been a definite uptick in interest [in homosexuality],” says Michael Hamilton, a history professor at Seattle Pacific. “As evangelicals and the main currency of American culture converge, an increasing number of gay students are going to say, ‘Wait a minute. I don't see a problem.’”

Last year, students at Seattle Pacific University received student support and a faculty letter backing a group’s desire to discuss being gay. Its administration approved the request but declined to give it official status. In 2010, Abilene Christian University declined to grant official status to a gay-straight alliance.

Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College in Massachusetts, said that homosexuality is just one of a basket of issues that evangelical schools are dealing with now for the first time.

“Any moral issue dealing with the body gets a visceral response,” said Lindsay, who said future important issues will include bioethics, disability and other questions dealing with life. “Because sex is tied in with the body, naturally it’s one of those issues folks will have highly charged responses.”

Facing alternative views

The Wheaton alumni group, OneWheaton, was initially a private Facebook network that went public partly in reaction to an April 2011 chapel service at Wheaton featuring Wesley Hill, a gay Wheaton alumnus who says he chooses to be celibate, a path that some gay students and alumni take. Hill wrote the 2010 book “Washed and Waiting,” about being gay, Christian, and celibate, and told students how he came to his position that sex is between man and a woman in marriage.

“I found myself convinced of the position the church has held with almost totally unanimity throughout the ages, that although many people find themselves, through no fault of their own, to have sexual desires for members of their own sex, this is not something to be affirmed and celebrated, but is a sign that we’re broken, in need of redemption and recreation,” Hill told students.

“Gay people are not uniquely broken,” he said. “That’s a position we share with every other human who has ever lived or will live. But we are, nonetheless, broken. And following Jesus means turning our back on a life of sexual sin, just as it does for every other Christian.”

According to a survey conducted by the Wheaton student newspaper in 2008, about 5% of students (mostly male) reported having "had a homosexual experience." About 56% of students agree or strongly agree that homosexuals are not welcome at Wheaton, the survey reported.

OneWheaton is working to change that in some in-your-face ways. During one homecoming weekend, the group held a concert featuring Jennifer Knapp, a former contemporary Christian Music musician who came out as a lesbian in 2010. “Although I disagree with painting sexual orientation and gender identity as a biblical sin, Wheaton has a right to that interpretation,” Knapp said. “But I don’t know how you can be welcoming but not affirming.”

Knapp questions whether colleges such as Wheaton present alternative theological positions.

“Whether it’s alcohol or premarital sex, is Wheaton an academic institution willing to present both sides, or is it wanting to churn out soldiers that believe exactly the same things they do?” said Knapp, who used to identify as evangelical but now disassociates herself from the movement.

The college does not typically host speakers who espouse theology that affirms same-sex behavior, but it does not forbid such discussion from taking place. Administrators say they know that students might end up differing with the college theologically.

“This is not a place of indoctrination,” said Jones. “This is an educational community. We need to have a high level of patience and tolerance for students working through those issues.”

In many ways, Jones said, students need to be thoughtfully engaging the issues.

“Many students have only heard about homosexuality in the context of ‘Those bad people who we must oppose,’” he said. “There are many in our student body who want to engage these issues sympathetically, but there are others who are prone to thoughtless speech that can lean in the direction of incivility.”

At the same time, he said, Christian colleges are facing outside professional and political pressure on gay issues. Wheaton administrators spent several months preparing for a 2006 visit from Soulforce, a group aiming to change religious leaders' minds on gay issues that was co-founded by Mel White, who was a ghost writer for some evangelical leaders, including Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell.

Soulforce members had been arrested at other Christian campuses that ban same-sex behavior, but the group had a cordial gathering at Wheaton and visited again last year.

In 2009, the American Philosophical Association adopted a procedure to “flag” ads from employers that ban same-sex sexual conduct.

“I find that extraordinarily ironic for a discipline that prides itself on spirited debate about fundamental issues,” Jones said. “You are inviting the erosion of your distinctions if you don’t draw some boundaries.”

Administrators also are carefully watching court cases related to federal funding and hiring practices, where the government could pull funding if an institution is deemed discriminatory.

Faculty are expected to sign the same covenant as students, and those who advocate for something contrary to the stated beliefs would be called into question, Jones said.

“If a person disagreed with a clear assertion of the covenant, that has implications regardless of their status, even for those who have tenure,” Jones said. In faculty applications, he would consider where a professor stands on sexual intimacy as between a man and a woman in marriage, though questions about whether gay marriage should be legal at a state level would not necessarily come up. “We don’t ask about their civic views of gay marriage,” he said. “I would not be looking for their policies on a governmental policy voting.”

On the “Day of Silence” in April 2012, about 90 students wearing white T-shirts printed with "break the silence" attended a campus-hosted discussion about homosexuality, such as whether Wheaton can be considered a "safe place" for gay students. “You are telling LGBTQ students that no matter where they end up on their journey of identity, you care for them, respect them, and will remain their friend,” OneWheaton leaders wrote on a sign-up form for students who wanted to wear T-shirts. One alumnus came out to the rest of the group.

Matthews, the student who came out at Wheaton in 2010 – he now teaches middle school science in Connecticut - wrestles with whether the group OneWheaton will be an effective network since its views are far from the college’s stance on sexuality. He said he followed Wheaton’s agreement to refrain from premarital sex during school, but his personal views on the morality of homosexuality have shifted.

Matthews was attracted to men when he began college but hoped he would begin liking women.

He considered sexual orientation conversion therapy, which some evangelical Christians embrace but which the American Psychological Association has said is ineffective and could be damaging. After the Episcopal Church ordained its second openly gay bishop in 2010, Matthews began reading more and eventually embraced a theology that suggests gay Christians do not need to be celibate. At one point, he considered becoming an Episcopal priest.

Matthews said Wheaton was a safe place to come out because he could work through both being gay and being a Christian. If he had gone to another college, he said he might have stayed closeted because people might suggest abandoning his faith, something he wasn't willing to relinquish.

“Quite ironically, had I not gone to Wheaton, I might not have come out,” Matthews said. “They weren’t going to say what I presumed people at other colleges would tell me, which is, ‘If you have conflict between your faith and sexuality, drop the faith.’ No one at Wheaton was going to tell me that.”

Editor's Note: Sarah Pulliam Bailey is managing editor for Odyssey Networks.

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