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The Scarlet Letter

D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, where I am a student, never anticipated that affirming his own school’s rules would result in calls for his resignation, but he underestimated the passion of LGBT supporters. Along with thirteen other religious leaders, Dr. Lindsay signed a private letter to President Obama requesting a religious exemption to the president's then-approaching executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. An exemption was denied, and so Gordon’s administration faces the challenge of how to move forward in the face of serious legal questions to its hiring and admitting standards. While currently able to retain federal grants and student loans, the college is headed toward conflict with the government, which is working out the details of how this order goes into effect. Gordon must also chart that course amid a deeply divided campus.

Located on Boston’s North Shore, Gordon College is an evangelical Christian institution, and as such it mandates that its students and faculty follow various behavioral rules. Unhappy with rules prohibiting homosexual practice, many students opposed the inclusion of a religious exemption in the aforementioned executive order, so that Gordon would be forced to “join the twenty-first century.” Arguments for religious liberty have entered the discussion, but many Gordon students and faculty nevertheless believe that government should overrule religious belief in order to break down heteronormativity.

A seismic shift in the discussion has occurred since President Lindsay’s letter became a rallying cry for LGBT supporters, igniting a media firestorm despite the fact that Gordon changed nothing about its policy on LGBT issues. Before the executive order was signed, many students and even some faculty took grave offense at Lindsay’s leaked letter, spurred on by incendiary articles in the Boston Globe, Huffington Post, and Salem News. A petition demanding “no discrimination” from President Lindsay garnered thousands of signatures online. Even if President Obama had considered Gordon’s opinions before signing his executive order, he would not have seen a unified Gordon College in opposition to the order.

Following the White House’s decision, local respect for Gordon has turned into disdain, with organizations and even political representatives grandstanding against the college that has always been open about its sexual standards. Vitriol aimed at President Lindsay became intense and personal. It was strange to see such reactions even from some members of the Gordon community, all of whom had pledged to follow its Life and Conduct standards; but Gordon’s policy had been a notable point of contention for months. Growing calls for the college to change its course on sexuality have played a part in discussions both official and unofficial.[1]

At Gordon, opinions on cultural and political issues such as homosexuality vary among students and faculty. Those who want to conserve the school’s historical stance on homosexuality often struggle to articulate their view, partly out of not understanding their own position adequately, and partly out of social pressure not to be “intolerant.” In fact, vocal political debates in general are frowned upon at Gordon, because the culture prefers to focus on Gordon’s Christian mission. Strident liberals certainly make up the most outspoken political group on campus, but more moderate liberals at Gordon often waffle because they are balancing their faith with a newfound or tenuously held political ideology that has historically been at odds with evangelicalism. All this leads to choosing “sides” that are remarkably varied and undefined. Sympathy for people who have gone through hardship is ubiquitous, however, and LGBT advocates at Gordon have made large strides by framing all things LGBT as a struggle for acceptance and love.

Gordon has had quite a challenge striking a balance between their long-standing sexual ethics and understanding for LGBT Christians. Growing calls for full endorsement of this group have centered on changing the community from the inside, but LGBT advocates have never been as excited as they are now that President Obama has entered the fray. Liberals increasingly prefer radical government action to organic change, and no sooner was President Obama considering this executive order than Gordon’s Left was hailing executive fiat as superior to carefully considered reform within religiously free institutions. Those who want Gordon to continue functioning without government intervention face newly emboldened opponents who seek to press their advantage with a social liberal in the White House.[2]

The website OneGordon, which has a Facebook page with 1,000-plus followers, typifies the movement toward full LGBT approval. Part of a funded network of Christian college students, the site’s stated goal is “affirming and supporting people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions. We strive to open up dialogue, share resources, and nurture greater participation in community.” News about the executive order raised its profile and emboldened its opinions. OneGordon has posted a wide array of insulting and profanity-laced articles targeting Gordon’s administration, largely from local non-Christians. These include a Boston Globe columnist declaring Gordon discriminatory, blogger Jim Dowd calling for students to sue Dr. Lindsay,[3] and many allegations of “fundamentalism.” Yes, after years of openness to evolution, global warming, liberal theology, and interfaith dialogue, Gordon’s traditional statutes on sexual ethics now render the 125-year-old school fundamentalist.

Many assumed that Dr. Lindsay’s letter meant Gordon was escalating opposition to LGBT students’ place on campus. This simply was not so. Stating that people of all sexual identities are welcome if they abide by the college’s rule against homosexual practice, President Lindsay wrote, “We have never barred categories of individuals from our campus and have no intention to do so now.” This stance satisfies moderates and conservatives who appreciate Gordon’s Life and Conduct Statement, but it’s legally problematic. Because of the Supreme Court decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a distinction between sexual identity and practice cannot legally exist. Thus it makes sense for OneGordon to oppose any middle ground that accepts LGBT Christians but restricts their right to date and marry. If the consequences of this executive order come to matters of student financial aid, where many on both sides expect the issue to end up, then colleges like Gordon will mostly be relegated to the margins. Federal loans and grants are essential to the operation of practically every college in the country, so for their own security none of them want to draw federal ire.[4]

With legal pressures coming into play, the middle ground on this issue is vanishing, creating unwanted polarization within a community that prides itself on diverse and moderate political views. Committed to making no compromises, OneGordon flatly rejects Gordon’s desire to accept LGBT Christians but demand they still  keep its rules. Conservative students have responded with the Facebook page “We Stand with Gordon,” which also posts prolifically, and the “dialogue” is turning into a debate between distinct camps.

For conservatives to regain lost ground in this discussion, they need to articulate how Gordon benefits from its code of sexual ethics. Students keep campus rules about sex and relationships remarkably well considering the hookup culture that dominates most colleges. With rules limiting even opposite-sex room visitation, my friends and I receive minimal pressure to conform to our highly sexualized culture. Since the system of sexual ethics is rooted in Gordon’s interpretation of what Scripture has to say about marriage and sexuality, abrogating it so sharply will most likely cause it to break down entirely, as numerous colleges with forgotten honor codes attest to. With its sexual standards in place, Gordon avoids permissiveness that surrounds most college students, which benefits all of us—gay and straight students alike.

This controversy provides yet another example of the conflicts that arise from government control of private activities, but it is an opportunity for Gordon conservatives to persuade many in the student population that religious liberty is worth protecting. Liberalism is not hegemonic at Gordon, but too many students tend to accept government-imposed solutions without skepticism. Hopefully, more will learn from this event that President Obama’s intervention opposes the right of religious colleges to shape their communities.


Paul Crookston is from Tampa, Florida, and is a junior at Gordon College. His interests include politics, sports, video games, and especially history, which is his major. He can easily transition from cheering with thousands of fans to talking about religion’s intersection with politics. For a characteristic smattering of all these things, you can follow him on Twitter @classycrookston.

[1] Gordon invited LGBT advocate Justin Lee to speak during Human Sexuality Week, some professors believe that the Bible should not be taken as condemning all forms of homosexuality, and progressive students openly agree.

[2] Popular alumnus and outspoken liberal Jorge J. Rodriguez V penned a widely read blog post calling on the administration to alter its Life and Conduct Statement’s rules about homosexuality:

[3] This Pulitzer-worthy piece inspired such inspired insults as “Douchewagon”:

[4] It’s unclear exactly how the federal government will move forward in light of this executive order, which conflicts with previous law. The Department of Labor needs to resolve the issue. A ruling can be expected soon. Analysis of that impasse can be found here:


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