By Tom Krattenmaker
Is the pope Catholic? Is the president of the Christian student club Christian?
These questions might seem equal in their wry obviousness. They’re not. In the massive California State University system, as at some other universities, new anti-discrimination rules for student groups mean it can no longer be required that the president of the Christian student fellowship is Christian, or that the head of the Muslim association is Muslim, or that the officers of any group buy into the interests and commitments of that group.
Student clubs that refuse to accept the new rules will find themselves on the sidelines when it comes to meeting space, recruitment opportunities and other valuable perks that go with being an officially recognized group.
Such is the fate that has befallen InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a national campus ministry that finds itself “derecognized” in the 450,000-student Cal State system for insisting that student leaders of its campus chapters affirm the basic tenets of evangelical belief.
Not surprisingly, the situation has become one of the latest talking points for Christians invested in the grievance industrial complex. The difference between this and much of the other ax-grinding is that in this case, the objectors have a point. Let the Christian student groups reserve their leadership roles for Christians if they want.
Those of us opposed to discrimination can appreciate Cal State’s good intention in enacting the new policy this fall. But any good principle played out to the nth degree, and in isolation from other important principles, can lead to strange results:
Such as the possibility of a Christian taking over leadership of a campus’ secular student organization. Or a white supremacist becoming president of a support group for students of color. Or a homophobe grabbing the leadership reins of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group.
At first glance, this seems as if it’s a fight over something that’s never going to happen. Why would an atheist want to become leader of an evangelical group Such as InterVarsity? To this point, there are no reported instances of the kind of absurdities the situation conjures.
Yet in a time of hardball politics, and given the creativity of campus pranksters, one can imagine the opportunities for mischief. What better way to bring down your political rivals on campus than to stack the membership of their group and elect a new president who is opposed to its beliefs and activities?
Then there is the principle of the matter, which is where InterVarsity is making its stand. It’s only fair and logical to allow a group based on common beliefs to expect its leader to share those beliefs.
Kudos to InterVarsity students at several of the Cal State campuses for continuing, undeterred, despite losing their official student-group status. To compensate for their inability to recruit at the student activities fair, InterVarsity members at Sonoma State took to the campus with large vertical banners worn like backpacks. This kind of cheerful resilience is a better advertisement for their faith than complaining.
But it does not come easy, or free. InterVarsity estimates the cost of operations could rise by many thousands of dollars annually on some of the Cal State campuses. This is part of the reason why InterVarsity is continuing to pray and plead for relief from the new policy.
University officials and state lawmakers should reconsider, and not merely for the sake of InterVarsity. In addition to the freedom from discrimination, there are other relevant freedoms to factor: freedom of religion, freedom of association and our freedom to exercise common sense.
Tom Krattenmaker writes on religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is the author of The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.