Thursday, June 19, 2014

Political correctness

When I was in high school in the late 1960s and college in the early 1970s, I thought that US laws banning or discriminating against the Communist party were hypocritical.

On the one hand, I had read enough of Karl Marx's writings and other communist authors to recognize that although some communist ideals were admirable, Marx' prescription for achieving those ideals through the dictatorship of the proletariat was severely flawed. Studying economics, religion, and psychology in college confirmed that assessment, as did an even cursory and second-hand knowledge of life in the Soviet Union, China, and other communist countries.

On the other hand, the US Constitution promises freedom of the press, freedom to gather with people of one's own choosing, and implicitly recognized the right to one's own thoughts. Laws banning or discriminating against the Communist party seemed incompatible with those Constitutional rights and unnecessary, given the problems inherent in Marxism. I was confident that the vast majority of Americans would firmly reject Communism, no matter how attractive they found some of its rhetorical flourishes or promises.

Redbaiting and hating achieved its high water mark through the incendiary and bigoted bombast of Joseph McCarthy, a Republic Senator from Wisconsin. Sadly, most politicians, including President Eisenhower, lacked the moral courage to challenge McCarthy's denunciation of Americans as Communists frequently without his having substantial evidence to justify those claims. Thankfully, a couple of key Supreme Court decisions combined with shifting public opinion against the excesses led to McCarthy's downfall. The Communist Party retains, some seven decades later, its unpopularity in this nation. Both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union's demise incontrovertibly underscore the ideological and political bankruptcy of Communism.

A recent announcement that my alma mater, Bowdoin College, has terminated recognition of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF) deeply disappointed me.

I do not support the BCF nor do I agree with many of its doctrinal positions. The BCF is an evangelical Christian group that began after I graduated from Bowdoin and is affiliated with Inter-Varsity. Among my disagreements with the BCF are my strong support for same-sex relationships and my affirmation that Christianity is one of many valid, vital spiritual paths.

However, ending official recognition of the BCF, which will prevent the BCF from being an official part of campus life and having access to campus facilities, is hypocritical. Bowdoin promotes itself as a bastion of liberal education. Liberal education should connote space in which to explore ideas, even those that many regard as wrong or silly.

In my long service as a Navy chaplain, I staunchly defended the right of people from widely divergent faith traditions to gather in spite of opposition from conservative Christian elements and sometimes from the chain of command. Never once did I, or any command with which I served, find that protecting religious freedom diminished unit morale or mission effectiveness. Fears of those adverse consequences were always overblown. Sailors and Marines generally had too much good sense to succumb to the blandishments and enticements of even the most disliked religious groups.

Similarly, I have found that the best antidote to allegedly Christian but in fact silly versions of Christianity—whether the prosperity gospel of TV evangelists like TD Jakes or narrow-minded fundamentalism of groups like Inter-Varsity—consists of lovingly but persistently offering an alternative Christian vision. Persons receptive to weighing the merits of their ideas and values willingly engage in genuine dialogue, regardless of their current beliefs. Other persons must test alternative ideas and values for themselves by subscribing, at least temporarily, to those ideas and values, a process that is a normal part of human maturation. Most people eventually develop a set of ideas and values that enable the person to function as a reasonably healthy and productive member of their community.

When a community has a steadily increasing number of young adults who fail to develop the ideas and values requisite for a reasonably healthy and productive lifestyle, then the community's elders and larger society should become alarmed. The community is rapidly becoming dysfunctional and alienated, signs of social disintegration. In the US, those signs of social disintegration are evident in some segregated inner city neighborhoods in which unemployment, out of wedlock births, single parents raising children, and multi-generational dependence upon welfare are all dramatically increasing. The signs of social disintegration, including high rates of alcoholism, have also been evident on Native American reservations for generations.

Bowdoin College (and most other bastions of political correctness!) does not exhibit any of those warning signs. Bowdoin is an academically elite institution that draws the majority of its student body from America's privileged class. The cost of enforcing political correctness by banishing groups whose ideology one finds offensive, whether because of their religious fundamentalism or political extremism, is therefore hypocritical and self-defeating. Exposing students to the BCF and its woefully inadequate and unjust interpretation of Christianity denies Bowdoin students a valuable opportunity to test the waters, to explore different ideas, and to appreciate more fully why liberalism rightly endorses diversity and pluralism, confident that most people will reject narrow-minded prejudice in favor of respect for the dignity and worth of all.

For those not persuaded by my confidence in people, that confidence is the basic premise of democratic governance: most people will generally choose wisely.

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