Recently, I’ve been hit with a spate of my *favorite* invective about the place where I work: “Why would you (all) allow something like this? I thought this was a good Methodist school.”
The TL;DR version of my answer is this: Yes, we are a good Methodist school, and we do the things we do not in spite of that, but because of it.
For those who want a longer explanation–buckle up.
Church-related institutions have played an important role in the development of higher education in the U.S. for centuries. Some of the earliest colleges founded on this continent were at least in part (if not wholly) dedicated to the training of clergy, and over time expanded their missions to include the education of teachers, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals. One of our professors here in Ada once pointed out to me that it was no accident that the Methodists of the 19th century were interested in founding colleges. After all, this was the pinnacle of the Social Gospel movement, and it benefited the church to have well-educated lay people and ministers who were well-versed in the tenets of that point of view.
As a result of the early push for an educated laity and clergy, many institutions related to historic mainline Protestant churches have become seedbeds of liberal thought. After all, it’s nearly impossible to have generations of people raised on the tenets of mainline theology without producing a somewhat left-leaning cohort over time. So, when people say to me, “Why does your college allow X, isn’t it a good Methodist school?” My answer is “Yes, of course we allow X, BECAUSE we are a good Methodist school.” We’re doing what we’ve always done–educating young people to think for themselves. Mainline Protestant higher education has long been the place where free thought was encouraged, academic freedom has been celebrated, and questioning accepted norms in order to advance knowledge has always been de rigueure. Church-related institutions have been at the forefront of recognizing the inequities and injustices of society, and centering the voices of those who are traditionally marginalized, since their inception. So, why do we allow “X” to happen? (Replace “X” here with whatever topic is currently the boogey man of the more conservative among us.) We allow “X” because it is part and parcel of who we are.
So, if we allow a controversial play to happen on a stage that is supported by the educational institution that happens to be related to the church, it is our church relatedness that teaches us that we should allow all expressions of speech in order to seek out the truth.
If we allow a professor to teach a controversial topic or utilize materials by controversial scholars, we are doing so because our church relatedness allows our faculty academic freedoms that are often curtailed in state-sponsored schools, which are much more sensitive to the mores (and funding) of whichever government is in power at the time.
If we allow students to express opinions that don’t jive with the traditional teachings of the very church to which we are related, it is because we understand that even the church must be questioned from time to time, not to tear it down, but to help it become stronger.
We allow all of the above, and so much more, because we are church related!
So, when someone says to me, “Why this? Isn’t this a good Methodist school?” I simply reply “Yes.” And while that’s not very satisfying to the person who hears it, it is the truth, or at least as close to the truth as we can be now. Perhaps some day, a brave young person who went to a church-related institution will correct even me, and we will be that much closer to what the truth really means.