Birth-again control

Liberty University is noxious because it’s run by Falwell—but lay off its no-born-once-need-apply policy.

Mark’s entry calling John McCain a hypocrite, who panders to the Right more than he used to, is generally convincing. (Though it may give McCain’s past self a bit too much of a free pass, since his voting record, as opposed to his GOPically incorrect campaign quips, always placed him on the far Right.)

But one element of Mark’s argument confuses me. It’s completely valid to call McCain a hypocrite for comparing Falwell to Farrakhan and then keynoting at the former’s university. It’s fine to say (or imply, as Mark presumably meant to) that Falwell personally should be persona non grata for all decent people due to his serial bigotry and gleeful comments about how U.S. liberalism drew God’s wrath in the form of 9/11. If Liberty University systematically teaches its students such things (which I strongly doubt, actually), “madrassa” is the fitting insult for it.

But Mark also suggests that Liberty University should be off-limits to McCain simply because it’s “a ‘university’ which, as a matter of stated policy, hires only ‘born-agains’ as faculty members.” Huh?

Brigham Young University requires, last I heard, that professors be Mormons or at least do nothing inconsistent with the tenets of that faith. (Does it still require that students be Mormons? It used to, but perhaps civil rights law has made that harder. At any rate, I doubt non-Mormons would find it comfortable.) Pepperdine has a born-again clause similar to Liberty’s. No doubt there are small Catholic, Jewish, Brethren, or what-have-you colleges that believe their communities of learning should also be communities of faith, though most bigger ones have given up.

I’m not a believer, and I wouldn’t want to teach (or to have studied) at such a place either. But beliefs different from mine deserve freedom of religion and association too. Nobody makes me join a college where instruction has a faith background, but those who choose to should have not only legal freedom but—on Millian grounds—freedom from social ostracism as well. That’s only just to the students and faculty.

But the presence of faith-based universities is not all bad for academe either. When “diversity” is the official ideology of the academic establishment, religious purity is a welcome challenge to the—rather striking, actually—idea that variety of demography and life experience is an academic good in itself on a par with intelligence, studiousness, and the love of knowledge. Certainly nobody thought diversity such a crucial academic value until Justice Powell, swing vote in hand, used his concurrence in Bakke to tell admissions officers that it was the only justification for Affirmative Action that he’d uphold. (At the time, we forget, few legal commentators thought this made sense.) And anybody who thinks that critical inquiry and serious scholarship can’t take place in a background of religious uniformity has done more deductive reasoning—from specious premises—than looking around or reading history. Finally, those who believe that the biggest threat to intellectual freedom and true diversity of opinions comes from (disappearing) religious tests for faculty hiring should consult me for easy terms on a bridge in Bronxville.

I don’t think Mark meant in fact to argue that religious tests for faculty made a university either a bad university or (even stronger, since politicians speak at truly awful universities all the time) automatically off-limits for respectable politicians. But the slip from hating the substance of particular preachings to distrusting the freedom to choose one’s own mode of preaching is both tempting and dangerous enough that we should struggle against it. To repeat: Falwell is noxious, and I support a boycott of any forum that he chairs. But let’s get our reasons straight, and let’s leave the associational freedom of religious people alone.

UPDATE: Two readers write to correct my guesses about BYU. Stephen Fromm, a former faculty candidate, says that he didn’t have to be Mormon to be considered for a job–but did have to get a reference from a Church elder. This didn’t bother him but would, I think, have turned off many secularists, even those not particularly anti-Mormon (me, in both cases)—not to mention many non-Mormon people of faith. Another points out that BYU students never absolutely had to be Mormon, especially if they have unusual talents—but the example he gives hardly challenges my suspicion that non-Mormons find the place a bit constraining. (Didn’t they fire a professor a few years back for coming out as a lesbian?)

My point, which survives the (amusing) corrections, is that unusual universities like BYU can and do impose rules, by policy or norm, in the name of a common faith, and that we shouldn’t pillory them for adopting such rules even if they flout our own preferred values. A lot of mischief occurs when we import crusading secularist positions born in an age of persecuting Church monopolies into a pluralistic age in which everyone has options—and eighty-some percent of undergraduates attend State institutions where none of this matters.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.