I had an interesting week last week on my campus. For a variety of reasons, both inside and outside the classroom, I spent a lot of time this past week thinking and talking about how liberals and conservatives are interacting with each other on our campus. Unsurprisingly, these interactions often don't go very well. Which is a shame for a Christian campus.
So what's the problem?
Well, the overt struggle concerns the overall tone and orientation of the academic conversation at ACU. Is it balanced? Or is ACU shading more to the liberal side? Conservatives see ACU as "drifting left." Liberals on campus see any "leftward drift" as a necessary corrective for the conservatism of the faculty, student body, and the constituency we serve (a lot of which is driven by our geographic location: Very red distinct in a very red state). In short, what looks like "bias" to one group is seen as "balance" to the other.
And so the predictable fight ensues. The political and culture wars replicate themselves on our Christian campus.
In thinking about all this during the week I came back to the analysis of James Davison Hunter. Hunter's argument is that political discourse is governed by narratives of injury. Each side, the left and the right, feels injured by the other. And it seems to me that those narratives of injury are also at work on my campus.
Here is the narrative of injury from the liberals. Liberals at ACU live in one of the reddest districts of the reddest states. Their votes in an election will never make a difference. So they feel excluded and marginalized from the political process. More, their liberal views are an anathema, socially speaking. Sticking up for Obama is a social death knell--at school, at church, in your neighborhood. Want to be a social pariah in Abilene? Just say you support the President.
So liberals feel that they have to keep a lid on it 24/7. They have to be careful at both work and at play, scouting out new acquaintances to see if expressing a liberal opinion won't ruin the budding relationship. Living as a liberal in Abilene is, I'm guessing, a lot like living "in the closet" as a gay person. You keep quiet and move in a subterranean world.
But the one place where liberals do feel free is in an academic setting. Academia, perversely so for conservatives, tends toward liberalism. And so, here in Abilene, academia is the only place a liberal can breathe freely.
So when conservatives object to the "liberalness" of the ACU conversation liberals can only experience this as an injury, a real poke in the eye. The feeling goes like this, "We swim everyday in an ocean of conservatism. We keep our mouths shut day in and day out. The one place where we can express any hint of a liberal opinion is in our academic conversations. And you want to take that away as well?! What do you want, everything?"
Conservatives on campus see the situation differently. Their narrative of injury looks like this:
Higher Education has a liberal bias, with the goal of liberalizing American college students. This is why conservatives are wary of American universities and the professorial "elite." More, liberals marginalize and stigmatize conservatives. Conservatives are considered to be redneck and ignorant.
But this should be different on a Christian campus. A Christian campus should be sympathetic to the conservative perspective. But ACU doesn't seem very sympathetic. It appears that liberals are driving the conversation, marginalizing the conservative voice on campus. The feeling goes like this, "I came to teach at a Christian campus, hoping that this would be a place where being conservative, while not enshrined, would be a least given a fair hearing. But that's not what I'm seeing or experiencing. I feel shut out and marginalized."
Those are the narratives of injury on campus. As best as I can make them out. Both groups--liberals and conservatives--feel harmed by the other. Liberals feel injured when conservatives try to regulate the one location where they can express a liberal viewpoint. Conservatives, by contrast, object to being marginalized on, of all places, a Christian campus. Both groups think they are trying to restore balance. Liberals are trying to balance out the dominant conservatism of the surrounding culture. Conservatives are trying to balance out the dominant liberalism of Higher Education.
The sad thing about all this is that ACU is simply replicating the poisonous political dialogue we find in the larger culture. When narratives of injury regulate our conversation we end up with the demonizing rhetoric of "the Left versus the Right."
What is depressing about all this is that Christians are doing this to other Christians. Christians have embraced these narratives of injury, on both our campus and in the wider culture. As James Davison Hunter has written:
Christianity [has] embrace[d] certain key characteristics of contemporary political culture, a culture that privileges injury and grievance, valorizes speech-acts of negation, and legitimizes the will to power...To the extent that collective identity rooted in ressentiment has been cultivated and then nurtured through a message of negation toward "the other," many of the most prominent Christian leaders and organizations in America have fashioned an identity and witness for the church that is, to say the least, antithetical to its highest calling...it creates a dense fog through which it is difficult to recognize each other as fellow human beings...I fear this is happening on my campus.
So what is the way forward? I don't know. But I feel very confident that one of the problems is that we are embracing narratives of injury on my campus. And this creates feelings of distrust and hostility. Emotionally, we just aren't ready to talk to each other. Not constructively.
But we need to find a way forward. If the faculty of our university can't talk to each other what hope is there for our students? And if Christians can't talk to each other what hope is there for the Kingdom?