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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Fundamentalists Being Fundamentalists at Lee University


Last month word circulated online about some messy, homophobic business at Lee University, affiliated with the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). 

The renewed debate about identity and inclusion at Lee began weeks ago when Preston Sprinkle, president of the Idaho-based Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender, gave a chapel talk to students about showing compassion and love to people experiencing gender dysphoria, the feeling of distress when a person's gender identity differs from their sex at birth. 
 
Sprinkle told a story of a friend who was born a woman but identified as man. Sprinkle said his friend left the church but returned years later because of the love shown by a pastor. 
 
Walker said he got feedback from students, parents and community members that Sprinkle's message was ambiguous since it did not address whether people need to repent their sin. The Church of God does not support same-sex marriage or same-sex relations, just as it does not support premarital or extramarital sexual relations. According to its doctrine, the church believes those who practice homosexuality or are in a same-sex marriage have been misled by Satan and, if they do not repent and become celibate, they "forfeit their salvation and relinquish their eternal inheritance." 
 
The Church of God, which helps fund the university and provides the school's theological framework, put out a statement describing Sprinkle's message as "contrary to scripture." Lee University put out a statement as well. Sprinkle's talk was removed from Lee's social media pages. Then, on March 11, Walker gave his special address to the Lee community.

To be perfectly clear, the brouhaha is all due to a guest speaker urging compassion for transgender people. He wasn't affirming them at all. He only wanted people to be loving towards them while believing and presumably telling them that they're going to hell unless they repent. The absence of condemnation and a call for repentance was read as too kind, apparently.

As Hemant Mehta has noted, this really isn't surprising coming from a private university affiliated with a fundamentalist Pentecostal denomination.  

Well… yeah. I’m not sure why they’re surprised to learn that bigots are bigoting. Conservative Christianity teaches everyone to look down upon LGBTQ people if they dare to embrace that identity. Trans people don’t exist in their theology. Gay people must remain celibate if they want to stay in God’s good graces.

Sprinkle’s message was in no way pro-LGBTQ. The graduates were fine with that for some reason. But the school’s leaders flipped out because it wasn’t explicitly anti-LGBTQ and the graduates think that’s somehow going too far.

I agree with the graduates that the university is not a safe space for LGBTQ students. But why would it ever be? The Church of God isn’t a welcoming place for them either. Unless you’re entering the school with no awareness of its conservative Christian doctrine, you shouldn’t be surprised when the lack of bigotry is seen as a problem for a speaker.

He makes a legitimate point. It's like every time Pope Francis reaffirms traditional Roman Catholic teaching, and people act shocked about it. Stop already. The pope is Catholic, and fundamentalist-aligned universities are run by hateful religious bigots. 

And yet, it isn't always about whether a person knows this going in. 

First, young people often feel at a disadvantage, as they have no life experience, limited resources, and usually few connections outside of their family and friends. When lgbtq+ youth go to college, they may or may not be closeted, but they are under pressure from all sides to go along with the parents' agenda. At least, they might think, they're getting away from their home and will taste some freedom without their parents around. It's far easier said than done for a recent high school graduate to go against their parents. 

Second, not everyone comes to terms with who they are before adulthood. How many of us really did? In college, young adults are away from everything they've known and are exposed to people from other places and backgrounds. Yes, even at an evangelical school. The space, exposure to new people, and contact with different ideas can help the young come to needed realizations about themselves. Now, imagine doing that in an environment where the person you truly are is the specific type that the university condemns. 

The very first line of the Church of God's 'Declaration of Faith' states that they believe '[i]n the verbal inspiration of the Bible.' In case you're unsure, that essentially means that God inspired the Bible word for word. That's how far gone these folks are in their beliefs. Imagine going to school where professors have to agree with a statement like that, and most do so happily. Now picture being any of the types of people condemned to hell in that book, and being surrounded by professors and fellow students who agree wholeheartedly with it. The alumni are right to want to 'protect' the transgender students at Lee University. I wonder to what extent that's even possible.