A Friendly Critique of the “Confessing Faculty” Statement (Ray VanArragon)

As of yesterday afternoon, the Confessing Faculty statement of confession and commitment had 424 signatures from faculty and staff at seventy Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries. One of my 34 colleagues from Bethel to sign the statement was philosopher Ray VanArragon, who nonetheless had some reservations about the document. I invited him to share those concerns (and his reasons for signing) in this guest post.

Ray VanArragon
Ray VanArragon – Bethel University

Last week I signed the Christian faculty “Statement of Confession and Commitment.” I did so because I mostly agree with it.

Like Chris, however, I fear that the petition won’t do any good. In fact, I would put the point more strongly than that: I’m afraid that it may backfire. It may turn off more people than it wins over – if indeed it does win anyone over, or turns off anyone who wasn’t turned off already.

Here are three reasons for these fears.

First, the petition is unduly expansive, covering a range of topics that include racism, economic disparity, the environment, and our lack of neighborliness. At the same time it does not offer any recommendations for concrete responsive action.

Second, it employs language that tends to put off people who live outside of academic circles. It speaks vaguely about “structural injustice” and “degrees of privilege and power,” without explaining what those terms mean. It slyly suggests that Christians ought to share the priorities of the political left – a suggestion reinforced by the fact that, expansive as it is, it makes no mention of abortion. Right-of-center Christians, even well-meaning ones, may be inclined to dismiss the petition as pompous, disingenuous, and one-sided.

That would be a bad result. No doubt some such reactions are unavoidable, but they might be minimized if the petition’s scope was narrowed and its key points were clarified and explained.

Third, it is signed (almost) only by college faculty. We have here a version of what we might call the Meryl Streep problem. Streep, you may recall, gave a speech at the Golden Globes attacking Donald Trump, a speech that likely changed no minds but instead solidified the perception that Hollywood is made up of preachy left-wing elites who have no sympathy for the concerns of Middle America. (And I say this even though I liked the speech.) In the minds of many, Hollywood actors and college faculty – even Christian college faculty – are not politically far apart.

As the petition says, we live in a time of polarization and fear. I believe it is essential, post-election, to reach out to well-meaning people who may have voted for President Trump but who see, or can be made to see, the profound threat that he and some of his followers represent to ethnic minorities, to refugees, to undocumented immigrants, to Muslims, to women, to the poor, and to the environment. Recognizing these as threats and seeking to act against them does not automatically put one on the political left. We have to do all we can to avoid implying that it does.

You may wonder why, given all of these “get off my lawn” complaints, I signed the petition in the first place. Well, as I said, I did so because for the most part I agree with it. I also want to stand with fellow Christian college faculty members, many of whom are my colleagues and friends. And, most importantly, I want to express solidarity with those vulnerable people who are genuinely threatened by the policies Trump is promoting and by the hate groups he has inspired.

If I were asked to rewrite the petition, I would write it differently. I would try to make it more narrowly focused, more concrete, less laden with jargon. But the sentiments it expressed would be the same.

Ray is the author of Key Terms in Philosophy of Religion and the co-editor of Evidence and Religious Belief. He has previously appeared on an episode of The Pietist Schoolman Podcast, in which we followed up on his chapter in our book on Pietism and higher ed.

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