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College Campuses as Political Battlegrounds Over Faith (Forbes.com) May 14, 2012

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays.

The month of May is not only about final exams and graduation ceremonies on our nation’s college campuses.  AtLibertyUniversityand Vanderbilt recently, they have also been busy with the continuing debate over the place of faith in the public square.

Mitt Romney was the weekend commencement speaker atLibertyUniversity, founded by the evangelical Christian leader, Jerry Falwell.  While Romney had some predictable words of encouragement for the graduates, no one doubted that the primary agenda for his appearance was the opportunity to strengthen his credentials with evangelical Christian voters, a crucial support group for his presidential campaign. 

It would be difficult to overstate how important this group has become to a Republican presidential candidate.  Over 50% of Republican primary voters this year were identified as evangelical Christians, which accounted for much of Rick Santorum’s surprising strength.  When Karl Rove spoke of mobilizing George W. Bush’s base, this was the main group he sought to turn out.  So these are voters that Romney needs to have energized on his behalf, not just favorably disposed. 

But evangelicals have not been enthused about Romney.  Despite being a man of faith, and a lay leader in his church, the evangelical language is not Romney’s native tongue.  As a Mormon, Romney’s faith is more lived out in his daily walk as a matter of ethics and morality, whereas evangelicals want to hear about it.  Theirs is a confessional faith, one that is preached, not just lived.  At the edges of evangelicalism, some consider Mormonism more of a cult than a Christian denomination. 

Specifically evangelicals want to hear that Romney’s faith translates directly into his positions on key social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage.  It will be tricky for Romney to win their support while at the same time reaching out to moderate voters in the center, whose very different preference is for a candidate who is religious, but not too religious.  Polls consistently show that moderates and independents prefer a candidate’s faith to produce strong values and moral behavior, but not one that looks to God or church leaders for policy positions. 

Although Romney touched several important bases in his address atLiberty, one speech isn’t going to hit all the evangelical hot buttons.  He did talk about the importance of culture, which is a bedrock issue for evangelicals, but his idea of culture was essentially the primacy of family.  On that subject, he did contrast his position with President Obama’s, saying marriage is between a man and a woman, but most of his talk about family concerned broad notions few would disagree with. 

In the end, perhaps the most important statement he made to evangelicals was simply to show up at one of their bastions of strength, Jerry Falwell’sLibertyUniversity, but he has much more to do to win the enthusiasm of Falwell’s followers.

Meanwhile the Tennessee Legislature and Governor were in engaged in their own battle over faith atVanderbiltUniversity.  Vandy has recently taken the official position that campus Christian groups cannot require that their leaders share the group’s faith and values, mandating a policy of nondiscrimination to “take all comers.”  As these groups have pointed out, such a policy is not required by federal law and, in many cases, compromises the entire purpose of the organizations. 

The Tennessee Legislature responded by passing a “religious freedom bill,” exempting religious groups from non-discrimination policies at colleges and universities in the state.  Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said he disagreed with Vanderbilt’s policy but, as a conservative who believes in limited government, he vetoed the bill, seeing no reason for the state to tell a private university how to run its own affairs. 

Vanderbilt, ironically founded as a Methodist institution, has essentially said through this policy that most Christian groups, especially those with a focused faith-based mission, are unwelcome on their campus.  This is part of a larger, misguided effort to say that every position in every organization of every university must be open to every student.  There is no longer room for a diversity of institutions, or even a diversity of student organizations within an institution, but only an “all comers” philosophy of nondiscrimination everywhere.  Plain vanilla is now the only acceptable flavor.

America’s colleges and universities, unfortunately, continue to serve as politicized battlegrounds for these larger questions on the role of faith in the public square.  With same sex marriage gaining momentum, and a divisive presidential campaign in the air, it will be politics, politics, politics on our nation’s campuses for the foreseeable future. 

To go to the Forbes.com site to view the article please click on the link:    http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2012/05/14/college-campuses-as-political-battlegrounds-over-faith/

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