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Monday, May 23, 2005

Evangelicals invade the Ivy League

Previously a working-class demographic associated with the poorest backwoods of rural Appalachia and Arkansas, Evangelicals and Pentacostalists are profiting from their rising fortunes by going to Ivy League universities. Now they want to evangelize them. They see the educational power block as a major front in their battle to transform America's political dialogue.

From the article, it's clear that evangelicals are learning a lot from their class voyage from the depths to the peaks. They've learned to talk about the theology of God using rich people. They've learned about grand strategies in national politics. What's spooky to some of us mainline Protestants is how little their travels have made them think critically about pluralism, diversity, and the way the Christian message applies.

In account after account here, Christianity is set aside from other competing ideals not by what it tells the Christian about how to care for the poor, not by how it forces the Christian to reach out and listen to the downcast, not by the Christian's experience of outreach to the homeless, the diseased, and the immigrant, from the midst of the Ivy Tower's privilege. Instead, the dividing experience is how the Christian handles sex.

"I was just like, 'Oh, I can get this girl to like me,' " he recalled. " 'Oh, she likes me; she's cute.' And so it was a lot of fairly short and meaningless relationships. It was pretty destructive."
In his sophomore year, though, his evangelical a cappella singing group, a Christian twist on an old Ivy League tradition, interceded. With its support, he rededicated himself to serving God, and by his senior year he was running his own Bible-study group, hoping to inoculate first-year students against the temptations he had faced. They challenged one another, Mr. Havens said, "committing to remain sexually pure, both in a physical sense and in avoiding pornography and ogling women and like that."

I admit to being confused. "Ogling" or not makes the Christian? The Christian remains pure by keeping his eyes to the ground? I submit otherwise. My string of undergraduate relationships at Harvard began when I fell in love with a bright astrophysicist who didn't agree with me about anything except the aesthetic value of Ezra Pound. We argued up and down every walk about God, ethics, politics, and the American novel. After a year my view of politics had been broken down and reassembled into something much more valuable, much more filled out by the shape of compassion. After a year his views on faith had become much more open. God was at work there, opening both of us, refashioning our prejudices. I had a dozen brief relationships as an undergraduate, a lot of them painful: most of them in the long run made me think deeply about compassion, pluralism, the value of other ways of thought. I was caught up by looking at boys in much the way Saint Augustine had been caught up looking at the svelte bodies of women on the bright shore of North Africa. He swore his off in the end. I learned a lot about flavors of politics that didn't grow in Texas. It made me really smart. It made me a load more compassionate.

Heads up. When a group with a mission in the Ivy League starts preaching about sex, it's not clear to me that the exact levels of abstinence are their greatest concern. As expressed, their major problem is creating a free space where evangelicals can find others who agree with them, where they won't be overwhelmed by the desire -- visual, philosophical, intellectual, emotional -- to speak with and understand the people on the street around them. I suspect the language of chastity because of the thousand instances over hundreds of years in which it has been used for political motives. I only beg that we consider to what use it is put here. The policing of the gaze -- telling undergraduates that their ethical and spiritual purity depends upon where they let their eyes fall -- is a wonderful way of telling the curious not to be too curious about people who do not live like they do.

So this is an issue about free dialogue and interchange between the Christian and the world: evangelicals have positioned themselves at one extreme against the embrace of diverse political views. Ideally liberal education aims at just that: and over hundreds of years of church history, many of the best writers in the Christian tradition pointed to the way in which an open dialogue and free use of their critical faculties were equally an expression of worship of God. Openness to passionate exchanges need not only happen through dating, but they often do: especially among twenty-year olds away at school. It isn't the contamination of the kiss that the true Christian needs to fear; it's the contamination by mammon, by the hardening of the soul, to the evil that defiles the image of God whenever it turns away from the face of another human being. The kiss with the unbeliever no more leads to that hardening against others than a first date leads to becoming an unreformed sex felon. But the undergraduate kiss might be, and often is, the pathway to a curiosity about people from other parts of the country, other economic conditions; the trials they've suffered, the hopes they strive for, the way politics and history have intertwined to produce this one remarkable individual in one's face. I submit: those whose primary political actions are characterized by wanting to tame something like the undergraduate kiss may have a different agenda than the spiritually-rich life, the compassion-driven life, or the life of acts of love in Christ's imitation.

The rest of the New York Times goes on to detail a marriages between rich evangelicals who never kissed until marriage had been proposed. They talk about how God uses money for good. Good luck to them, and I sincerely hope that God will do as they say. But from an outsider's view, their marriage looks nastily like the fierce, hierarchical, closed-minded relationships between Boston brahmins that used to characterize Harvard before World War Two: elites who married elites, who were happy to run the country as they saw fit, who would never conceive of opening up the gates of splendor to the poor or the black or the Jew. When Harvard opened its doors wide in the 1950s, its president, James Bryant Conant, spoke with religious conviction about the good work that such diversity could accomplish.

I'm sure to evangelicals' minds, Conant also opened Harvard's doors to uncontrolled atheism. Be that as it may: the Christian believes that in free dialogue, the Truth will always when. So does the scientist. But I mean to argue here that undergraduate kissing is often a means by which diversity and truth-telling act. And that as such it can be an instrument of Christ. I mean only to register my suspicion, as a Christian, of a sectarian force whose tendencies illustrate their antagonism towards the very forces of pluralism and diversity that have accomplished so much towards the mission of civil rights according to a program very much like Christ's own.

Remaining pure from dating, remaining pure from meaningful relationships with non-Christians, remaining pure from engagement: if this is the tenor of the specimens sent to Harvard and Brown by the evangelicals, woe to the Ivy League. If evangelicals have a different agenda than that I have illustrated, then we'll know by their fruits. If they really do mean not merely to consolidate power, to police their ranks with Pharisee-like zeal, but instead, to follow the teachings of Christ in their charity and compassion and eradication of social boundaries yea unto the very kissing of lepers and prostitutes, then may the example of their lives show otherwise.


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