Restricting Religious Freedom at Vanderbilt University

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This year, Vanderbilt University enacted a new non-discrimination policy that forbids campus religious groups from asking student leaders to affirm the group’s doctrinal commitments. Due to this policy, my organization, Intervarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, will likely lose our status as a registered student organization.

For Christians, our basic anthropological and moral understanding is communal. We believe that men and women are made in the image of a triune God that is Himself communal. This view of the person is in conflict with the radically individualistic assumptions of Vanderbilt’s administration, which make it very difficult for the university to understand the nature of creeds and creedal communities.

As I’ve spoken with administrators about this policy, they insist that Vanderbilt would never think of marginalizing creedal faith. As individuals on campus, you can believe whatever you like, they assure us, as long as you don’t ask others to believe anything. However, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of a creed. Creeds are not statements of belief to which many individuals happen to subscribe. Instead, they define the parameters of and govern a community.

Yale Historian Jaroslav Pelikan has pointed out that when Christians say the Nicene Creed together, we are not asked, “What do you believe?” At which point, every congregant takes out a 3 x 5 index card to write what he or she happens to believe that day. Instead, we are asked “What do we believe?” And together we respond with words that our community has inherited from a tradition that is far older than us and which will far outlast our little moment in history.

As my Christian community affirms the faith together, I am buoyed along by those to whom I belong, and their faith carries me to Jesus. The strength of my belief may ebb and flow in a given week, but my prior commitment is to our faith, our creed, our salvation. One cannot reject the creed of a community and remain holistically part of that community. Thus, creedal commitments are profoundly at odds with our democratic culture of inclusivism.

The Vanderbilt administration’s individualistic impulse has led to an extremely privatized view of religious belief, a view which understands creeds as something we hold in the privacy of our hearts –something to be framed and displayed quaintly on the wall while we all go about living as we please. They assume that religious commitment ought not be exposed in public, daily life or lived out with others. At a recent Town Hall meeting about this policy, Vanderbilt’s Provost McCarty said that though he is Catholic, he does not think faith ought to affect daily decisions in one’s life. He stated, “We don’t want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision making on this campus.” Thus, Vanderbilt has attempted to circumscribe religious belief on campus, not by banning it altogether, but by making creedal faith merely individualistic and privatized and thus weightless.

We also see an anthropology of individualism in the university’s blind faith in individualistic civil rights discourse as the guiding force in morality. Wendell Berry wrote in his essay “Sex, Community, Economy and Freedom”:

“There are two kinds of freedom: the freedom of the community and the freedom of the individual. The freedom of the community is the more fundamental and the more complex. A community confers on its members the freedoms implicit in familiarity, mutual respect, mutual affection, and mutual help; it gives freedom its proper aims; and it prescribes or shows the responsibilities without which no one can be free, or free very long. But to confer freedom or any other benefits on its members, a community must also be free from outside pressure or coercion…The freedom of the individual, by contrast, has been construed customarily as a license to pursue any legal self-interest at large and at will in the domain of public liberties and opportunities. The two kinds of freedom, so understood, are clearly at odds. “

Vanderbilt has decided not to protect a religious community’s ability to authentically embody shared faith commitments together. Instead, the university has privileged an individual’s right to believe or do as he or she wishes while retaining the opportunity to lead whatever group he or she desires to lead. The idea that individual autonomy is the ultimate good is a presupposition so dearly held by our culture that this assumption is invisible to those who hold it. Though individualistic civil rights are of value to the church in so far as they promote love for one’s neighbors and a modicum of justice, this discourse is not, in the end, our grounding moral principle. Interdependent, self-sacrificing, holy love, not moral autonomy, is our aim as Christians, an end that is impossible to seek outside of a creedal community.  And thus, we, as a community, are at an impasse with the university.

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Tish Harrison Warren is a Campus Minister at Vanderbilt’s Intervarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship.

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