Houghton University Stands for Truth Despite Opposition - Even from Christians
Houghton University sits amidst the rural farmland of south-central New York State. A school of about 1,000 students, it has been affiliated with the Wesleyan Church since its founding in 1883. For 140 years, Houghton has “been providing an academically challenging, Christ-centered education in the liberal arts and sciences to students.” As its website proclaims, Houghton remains “focused on preparing and equipping students to serve God fully and faithfully … as scholar-servants in a changing world.”
In recent days, this commitment has been put to a test, one that has drawn national attention. From The New York Times to Fox News, Houghton is now a hot media topic. The reason, as readers of The Washington Stand might well expect, has to do with the unyielding demands of sexual radicalism.
Residence Hall directors Raegan Zelaya and Shua Wilmot added “she/her” and “he/him” to their email signatures. When they refused to remove these needless qualifiers, the university fired them.
According to Michael Blankenship, a spokesman for the school, “Over the past years, we’ve required anything extraneous be removed from email signatures, including Scripture quotes.” My own school, Regent University, requires the same thing. The reason is pretty simple: a desire to ensure consistency and good taste in our public communications to all students, parents, staff, and alumni.
Of course, it goes deeper than this in the case of Zelaya and Wilmot. Their refusal to remove their “preferred” pronouns from their email signature blocs was more than an act of administrative defiance. Wilmot, for example, calls his stance a matter of upholding “truth and justice at the expense of a job” and implied that Houghton was trying to compel him “to do something unjust (and) unethical.”
Following the firings, more than 600 Houghton alumni wrote a letter to the school’s president, Dr. Wayne D. Lewis, Jr., arguing that “the employees’ firings [is] part of a seemingly broader turn against multiculturalism at the school.” In response, Dr. Lewis was courteous but did not back down. In a response addressing a number of matters raised in the alumni letter, he wrote that Houghton “require(s) as a condition of employment that all employees be respectful of the positions, doctrine, and beliefs of the university … Houghton unapologetically privileges an orthodox Christian worldview, rooted in the Wesleyan theological tradition. At the time of their appointment and again annually, every Houghton employee affirms his or her understanding of and agreement to these commitments.”
He continued his unbending stance with these telling words: “Students have many options to choose from for higher education. Very few of those options provide an educational experience through a decidedly orthodox Christian lens. Houghton is one of those institutions.”
As a side but significant note, Dr. Lewis is African American. I doubt he needs lectures about “multiculturalism.” Having previously served as commissioner of Education in Kentucky and as a black man who was born and raised in the deep South, he could speak eloquently about such things as racial justice and human dignity. However, he has made clear that his racial heritage does not define who he is. Upon his inauguration as Houghton’s president, Dr. Lewis commented, “There is nothing more fundamental to who I am and my identity than my Christian faith. It influences my worldview, how I live my life, my decision-making, and my leadership.”
On Houghton’s homepage, the school’s president has posted a moving essay on the necessity of moral courage. “For American Christians, this is a radically different time — not only different from the time of my youth but, frankly, radically different than even ten years ago. Being an American Christian demands a degree of boldness that was not necessary just a few years ago.” He continues that God’s “direction to us to be courageous is not based on his confidence in our abilities, regardless of how able we are. … When God directs us to be strong, to be courageous, to be fearless, it is because … He will never forsake us.”
It is not surprising that many Houghton alumni and, probably, other evangelicals are dismayed by Dr. Lewis’s commitment to truth. Never popular, the union of courage and truth (often simply called character) are under assault in the believing church. In the name of compassion, we affirm things the God we claim to serve will never countenance. This is arrogance masquerading as sensitivity, the elevation of human desire above the good commands of a gracious Redeemer.
It is mystifying to many in our time that there are those who will not let the culture dictate their conviction. It is also so very pleasing to God that there are those of His people for whom eternity matters a great deal more than man’s empty praise.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.