Friday, February 11, 2011

Moral Standards

Sorry folks: this one is long.

One of the low level on-going debates here in New Brunswick relates to Crandall University, formerly Atlantic Baptist University. Crandall receives modest amounts of public support. That public support is larger then one might think if we were to properly calculate it, but let’s use the existing definition that Crandall’s critics seem to be using: direct grants from state bodies. The federal government provided some infrastructure spending last year (or, over the last two years, apologies I did not check out the facts) and the City of Moncton provides a very small grant, somewhere between $100 000.00 and $200 000.00 dollars. For those of you who go, gee … that ain’t small, for comparison Mount A (where I work) has a total budget approximating $40 million and we are a small university. Crandall is primarily supported through tuition fees and the Atlantic Baptist Convention. To be sure, then, we are not dealing with regularized state support (infrastructure grants are not regular) or on-going support in any significant way. In terms of university funding, to say this again, we are dealing with tiny amounts of money.

I feel I need to make this point because reading some of the critics of Crandall, particularly those who argue that something is horribly amiss if the institution receives state support, might lead one  to believe that mass amounts of public money are flowing to religiously based institutions. Point number one of this discussion should be to acknowledge that this ain’t the case.

Point number two should be to acknowledge that the problem with Crandall is not its statement of faith. I listened -- courtesy of a friend who sent me the link -- to the CBC discussion of whether or not religious institutions violate academic freedom. I think that anyone who seriously believes in diversity will accept the idea that in a vibrant civil society there will be all kinds of institutions. Some of these will be secular (in NB UNB), some will be semi-secular (STU), some will be secular in practice and ignore their religious heritage (Mount A), etc. In other words, different institutions will do different things and provides services to different communities. Moreover, these institutions will change over time as they direct their future. I see nothing wrong with this. I do think, however, that the argument made by critics of religiously-based education -- that it is somehow wrong -- is completely off the mark. One would need to do something more they theorize here. I’d need some evidence. In other words, I would say that one is innocent until proven guilty, a fact that a lot of the critics of religiously-based schools seem to have neglected. They assume the worst.

So, is Crandall’s statement of faith a problem? Does it hamper freedom of speech? Is anyone making that allegation who works there (as opposed to people who have visited for an afternoon and have no knowledge of how it works)? Are any students alleging that their voices are being silenced? To date, the critics of Crandall have provided no one single case. Now, I am not trying to be hard on the critics. If there is a case, let’s here about it. But, the fact of the matter is that the facts seem to be for Crandall on this point. When its president argues on CBC that the statement of faith does not hamper academic freedom, he seems to have the weight of evidence on his side.

This is important to me as a scholar. Anyone can speculate and speculation can be fun. But, we need to remember that speculation is speculation. It is not empirical reality. So, for those who don’t like Crandall, don’t speculate: send in your evidence. Post it on this blog. No “if X then  Y but also maybe Z” but actual cases.

In point of fact, if we accept the idea of freedom of religion, as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Crandall’s statement of faith is fairly innocuous. It basically says you have to be a Christian to work here. As I understand it, everyone who works at Crandall has to sign this statement of faith. Those who oppose Crandall will say that this is wrong but this raises another issue. Do we want the state telling universities who they can and cannot hire? Would not that be a violation of academic freedom? Gee … Mount A, I see that you are semi secular and you don’t have enough agnostics on staff, your next six hires will have to be agnostics. I’d argue that this would not be good. Yet, oddly, in asking for sanctions against Crandall -- financial penalties, in effect -- this is what Crandall’s opponents argue. The state should use its financial power to punish those people who take seriously the freedom of conscience provisions of the Canadian constitution.

The real issue and the crux of the matter is something other than the statement of faith. It is Crandall’s “Statement of Moral Standards.” In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the real issue is not its anti-porn provisions (most academics, I suspect, will accept that having already been convinced by feminist arguments against pornography) but its anti-gay provision. In other words: one line is cause the problem.

I am less certain how applicable this. I don’t know whether one must agree to this statement as well. Here those people like me who defend Crandall run into difficulties for a couple of reasons. Let’s start with big reason number one:

1) the theology is faulty. Yep: this statement is based on a pretty loose and weak reading of The Bible.  Let me give you two examples: the anti-gay provision is simply debatable. Sorry. If anyone takes the Bible seriously, there is no way that they can make a hard and fast statement that “God doesn’t like gay people.” End of discussion. Only an ideologue could make this statement. Jesus, for instance, never mentioned anything about homosexuality. (Again, I’m a bit of an empiricist: prove me wrong. Post your evidence. Give me a quote from Jesus.)

Moreover, this statement is a bunch of “thou shalt nots.” That is pretty shaky Christianity. Where is the “thou shalt.” For instance, references to helping the poor are mentioned frequently by just about everyone in the Bible (I read there are something like 2000 references to helping the poor). That is absent from Crandall’s statement and that is just plain wrong from a Christian perspective. I’d argue, in fact, that Crandall should be embarrassed about this absence and about their neglect of God’s word.

2) The “Statement of Moral Standards” readily acknowledges that it is not based on the Bible. Here is a direct quote: “Every community has standards.  As a Christian community, Crandall University upholds Christian standards of behavior to which faculty and staff are required to conform.  These standards derive not only from the Christian scriptures, but also from the culture of the supporting evangelical constituency.”

Here is the problem, you are not asking me to defend your freedom of religion any longer but your culture. I’m more than willing to argue that culture  is culture. The government should not be in, say, the assimilation business. Someone moves to Canada from, say, England, nothing should be done to force them to change their accent or change their diet or religion. A silly example, to be sure, but you get my point. We can defend freedom of religion and argue that this is important. It is another thing to defend the intrusion of institutions into people’s lives on the basis of something as vague as “the culture of the supporting evangelical constituency.” I consider myself part of that constituency. I don’t donate a lot of money to Crandall but they are on my list of missions to which I will be contributing this year. Yet, the anti-gay part of their moral statements clearly contravenes my culture. Culture is notoriously slippery. If the supporting culture favours Italian food, does it become a requirement?

Moreover, and this is the key point, we need to be really careful here. Crandall advocates can say “this is God’s will” (or this is Biblically grounded) but, as I have already demonstrated, they have made selective use of the Bible, neglecting key elements of God’s desire for us (care for the poor) and substituting others that are far more shakey. This is not the word of God but human beings claiming the right to tell us what the will of God is. And, let us be clear, this is something different. Christians have a bad history of interpreting the will of God for other people and imposing it on them. We don’t need to review the history such things in Canada because we can simply use the words “residential school” and that should be enough for anyone to be cautious about too much certainty.

Let’s not go overboard. If there is no requirement to sign the moral statements and agree to it, no harm has been done: no harm no foul. If Crandall permits and encourages open discussion of their statement of faith, how far it can be applied, whether or not it should be modified, etc., academic freedom has been preserved. Their president seemed to be suggesting this and so I will take him at his word. What I would suggest is that just about everyone in this low-grade debate is wrong. Those who reject state funding are wrong and, in fact, in violation of the very document -- the Charter -- on which they base their arguments. There is no mass movement of public dollars to religious institutions and, in fact, Crandall is part of a broader post-secondary educational system that includes all matter of different institutions (it is not a secular v religious black and white dichotomy). Crandall, on the other hand, needs to rethink their moral statements and needs to make them more pro-active. God is about many things, but among the things he is about are mercy, justice, and love. I’d like to see those things more directly stated.
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