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During a rally in Washington, D.C., in 2011, then-U.S. Rep. Mike Pence speaks from a podium draped in a Gadsden flag. ( Creative Commons photo: Mark Taylor ) 

During a rally in Washington, D.C., in 2011, then-U.S. Rep. Mike Pence speaks from a podium draped in a Gadsden flag. (Creative Commons photo: Mark Taylor

IWU Has An Anti-Gay Problem; Boosting Gov. Mike Pence Doesn't Help

By Steven Porter

Protests are rare at my alma mater. But I was proud to see a group of students and alumni stage a peaceful demonstration on Indiana Wesleyan University’s manicured Marion campus, picketing against the decision to host Gov. Mike Pence as a spring commencement speaker.

After citing a laundry list of Pence’s controversial political activity with regard to education, immigration and gay rights, they marched through the student center and called upon the administration to seek student input in the future. Their concerns are my concerns. But it seems some people have had a hard time understanding why IWU students would take offense to a generic graduation speech from the sitting governor. To make sense of the anti-Pence sentiment, you need to understand that his selection isn’t an isolated incident. There’s a pattern here.

During my four years as an undergrad at the conservative evangelical school, the university consistently showed deference to guest speakers who preach and teach the “correct” conservative response to any given sociopolitical quandary; other points of view, meanwhile, were summarily dismissed if mentioned at all. For an educational institution, that’s a big problem in at least two ways. First, it fails to instill in students any critical thinking skills. Second, sometimes the “correct” answer isn’t the best answer.

As a gay man, I found this one-sidedness most frustrating as I heard speaker after speaker decry society’s growing acceptance of homosexuality. Campus leaders found it too taboo to even mention that some Christians who hold scripture in high regard think it might also be possible to be both gay and a believer. So the university insulated conservative students in a theological safe space free from ideas they might find objectionable.

During IWU's spring commencement 2012, then-President Henry Smith hands me my diploma. (Photo by Jen Hines)

During IWU's spring commencement 2012, then-President Henry Smith hands me my diploma. (Photo by Jen Hines)

I love and respect my former classmates who, on account of their Christian conviction, choose to abstain from same-sex romance, despite their deep longing for such intimacy. As long as they’re transparent with themselves and any future partner, their abstinence resembles a chastity vow taken by a straight nun or priest. For me, however, attaining personal integration meant coming out as gay. It was a long, discomforting process, but it was necessary. Now four years since graduation, I have a committed long-term relationship and a promising career trajectory. But I still feel stunted by my IWU experience.

During my sophomore year, in 2010, Pastor Miles Welch and Senior Pastor Kevin Myers from 12Stone Church in Georgia led a spiritual emphasis week tackling hot-button topics, including homosexuality.

“We had better wake up to the war that is happening around us,” Welch said. “We had better wake up to this because if genetics and preference define what is normal and what is moral, and any attempt to draw a line with scripture is seen as intolerance and being judgmental, then one day you will legalize pedophiles and protect them. And when you speak out against the pedophiles, you will be intolerant and judgmental because you have drawn a line. … You might say that that is not ever going to happen, but what do you think they were saying decades ago was never going to happen? It’s happening. It’s actually happening.”

His argument presents a slippery slope fallacy, insisting we must hold the line against growing acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships if we hope to ethically oppose acceptance of pedophiles in the future. All the while, he ignores the fact that a child is legally and ethically incapable of consenting to sexual contact of any kind with an adult — a fact that’s in no way diminished when we acknowledge an adult’s autonomy to have sex with other adults, regardless of their genders.

Such a reckless misrepresentation of the LGBTQ community as some gateway to supporting pedophilia is appalling, illogical and arguably slanderous — I told Welch this last week, when I contacted him with follow-up questions for this article. He declined an interview, but we spoke off-the-record to gain a better understanding of each other’s position. (Myers, who was on the platform when Welch made the statement quoted above, serves on IWU’s Board of Trustees.)

I don’t think we’d be talking about Welch’s comments six years after-the-fact if students had been prompted to digest the message and reflect on its merits, while weighing alternative points of view. But that’s not what happened. Instead, they were asked merely to ingest and, at times, regurgitate. No intellectual engagement required. Meanwhile, prospective chapel speakers who might highlight the flaws in Welch’s message, by daring to advocate for a two-way conversation between Christians and their queer neighbors, were deemed too controversial. This juxtaposition is unfortunately characteristic of my IWU experience.

While covering a jury trial last year for the Lafayette Journal & Courier, I listened to a young girl testify, with graphic detail, about the sexual abuse her mother and her mother’s boyfriend carried out over two years. Although I take pride in my stoicism, my eyes teared up as the girl pointed to the middle of her throat, indicating matter-of-factly the depth to which the man had forced his penis.

Boiling with anger at the abusers’ perversion, I tried to distract myself momentarily from the trial by thinking about something else, anything else. Each daydream took me back to that 2010 sermon, one of the countless times I’ve heard a Christian sibling erroneously liken my love to pedophilia. I scrawled descriptions in my notebook of each criminal act the girl described. I winced in physical pain as I considered how many peers and mentors back in Marion would conflate the affection I show my boyfriend with the sexual abuse I’d write about in my trial coverage.

Being compared to a pedophile doesn’t lose its sting with time. And it’s far worse than offensive. It’s maladaptive, to queer and straight students alike. Many of IWU’s LGBTQ undergraduates, like me, sought to bypass the gay-affirming campus environments offered by state schools, in an effort go straight. Rather than finding a healthier space in which to grapple with the implications of our sexuality, we were then required to sit through chapel services that thrashed our still-developing minds with uncontroverted anti-gay slander, the ramifications of which ripple well beyond questions of whether Christians should oppose same-sex romance. That pastor’s slippery slope fallacy and others like it touch on deeper matters of individual and communal identity, calling into question my qualifications as an uncle and, some day, a father. This does nothing to help me understand my gendered and sexual self within the context of my identity in Christ.

I’m not looking for the university to tell me it’s OK to be gay. I don’t need that. I’m looking for the administration to take the holistic development of all students seriously by carefully avoiding institutional messaging that defames the many queer and non-binary young adults already on campus. For starters, that means consistently acknowledging we exist.

Yes, I’ve read Genesis 19; Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-10 and Jude 1:7 — I’m not looking to convince anyone in this post that these seven Bible verses, rather than condemning all gay lifestyles, actually condemn raping strangers, molesting children and engaging in ritualistic orgies. My point is that this conversation should be happening at IWU, but isn’t.

Terribly misguided alumni make matters worse, pressuring the administration to white-knuckle it with an overly simplistic response to the complexities of human sexuality. Peter Heck, a 2001 alumnus, conservative radio commentator and public high school teacher who lives in Kokomo, described the IWU students who protested as “confused souls” with “confused minds,” participating in spectacles that “echo the meaningless babbling that Paul encountered centuries ago” in a “desert of lies.”

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks during the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on Feb. 27, 2015. (Creative Commons photo by  Gage Skidmore .)

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks during the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on Feb. 27, 2015. (Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore.)

When I explained my Pence-related concerns to Keith Newman, IWU’s executive vice president and CEO for residential education, he responded candidly, noting that this is the first time in his seven years at IWU that he’s seen pushback against a commencement speaker. He offered some advice in narrative form.

“When I’ve had people in my life with whom I’ve strongly disagreed,” he said, “God has challenged me to listen to them, not so that I necessarily will change my mind, but I’ve always found that I learn about the diversity of God’s creation.”

It’s good advice. Listening to someone with whom we disagree can challenge our existing opinions, prompting us either to refine our faulty points of views or to grow stronger and more articulate in what we already believe. Refusing to engage, on the other hand, can deprive us of an opportunity to learn and grow. For that reason, I hope everyone who hears Pence speak listens critically, discerning the flaws in his message from the truth. This sifting process is a key component of Christian higher education.

“It’s one thing to talk about an issue philosophically,” Newman continued. “So you can debate the philosophical issue of homosexuality or the philosophical issue of same-sex marriage. It’s a whole different thing to sit down and have somebody across the table with you drinking coffee that is homosexual or is that is in a same-sex marriage.”

Newman said IWU will not back down from The Wesleyan Church’s teaching that God-honoring human sexuality is expressed only within a marriage between one man and one woman. That being said, it’s important to keep open lines of communication with those who disagree: “When we quit having conversations,” Newman said, “when we quit listening and we quit talking to each other, even if we don’t like what’s being said, that’s when we’re in trouble.”

Last year, unfortunately, IWU snipped these open lines of communication. Under pressure from concerned parents and hyper-conservative alumni, administrators uninvited Michael Kimpan, executive director of The Marin Foundation, from a student chapel service, The Sojourn reported. The chapel would be the wrong venue, they decided, for a potentially divisive sermon on how to go about loving the LGBTQ population. Oddly enough, however, the chapel had just a month earlier been deemed a proper venue for a speaker who teaches that supporting queer rights leads to supporting pedophile rights. Pastor Welch was invited back to campus and served as the keynote preacher for Spring Summit 2015.

This forced homogenization shortchanges theological discourse on campus and causes falsehoods shouted from the pulpit to go uncontroverted. Pence, who has long been a vocal opponent of gay rights, is merely the latest speaker who will either agree with his predecessors or agree to leave their misstatements unchallenged.

Pence isn’t just a Christian who holds public office. He’s a politician running for reelection in a contested race. When I mentioned this to Newman, he insisted Pence had been invited to speak about his faith and career, not his candidacy: “This was not a political decision,” Newman said. I believe him. But I’m still uncomfortable with how things are playing out.

Some commencement speakers — including Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican, in summer 2012 — have received honorary doctorates from the university. A committee of board members, faculty and administrators determines whether to confer an honorary doctorate on a case-by-case basis, according to Karen Roorbach, senior counsel to the president and university ombudsman. Presidential citations, on the other hand, are honors bestowed at the president’s sole discretion, she said. I asked which honor Pence will receive, if either, but Roorbach said IWU doesn’t disclose that information until the graduation ceremony itself.

I don’t think IWU should strive to be apolitical, nor do I think it has done so. It’s acceptable for President David Wright to testify before state legislators, as he did in January. And it’s acceptable for IWU to host Pence, or any other politician, to campus. But ignoring your own influence doesn’t neutralize it.

Moving forward, I would hope to see IWU make progress in at least the following three ways:

  1. Strive for greater political diversity in guest speakers. If a liberal’s message falls flat, so be it.

  2. Let the student body hear from The Marin Foundation, the Gay Christian Network and other moderate voices regarding LGBTQ-church relations. Students need to practice discerning truth from falsehood.

  3. Amend the student handbook’s vague prohibition of “homosexual behavior.” (What does that even prohibit? Same-sex hand-holding? Splitting an entree? It’s euphemistic and unclear.)

I’m pleased to hear the Board of Trustees approved a change to the “homosexual behavior” policy that has yet to be made public. Newman said the administration will finalize the language of the new policy soon. Since the handbook is a legislative document, I hope the administration approaches it as such, with precise definitions narrowly tailored to achieve a clearly defined objective congruent with Wesleyan teaching and hospitable to queer students.

Additionally, I was pleased to hear that faculty members had been encouraged to facilitate respectful dialogue in their classrooms in response to the Pence protest. Let’s hope this approach to dissent permeates the rest of campus as well.

As a Christ-centered academic community, we listen to each other’s opinions, evaluate our own positions critically, and offer our thoughts to each other honestly and charitably. In the end, we submit ourselves to the authority of God’s Word. ... There are times when particular conversations, or conversation partners, may be difficult and even hurtful for us. It is never our goal to create hurt or offense. But it is our goal to learn and grow.
IWU President David Wright

Steven Porter is a Master's candidate at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a 2012 alumnus of Indiana Wesleyan University. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterporter.

published April 27, 2016