Duke University, Methodism & Discrimination

September 17, 2019

by Mark Tooley


The Student Government Senate of United Methodist related Duke University in North Carolina has refused to recognize Young Life, an evangelical young adult ministry, because it upholds traditional views on sex, which was deemed “discrimination.”


Young Life’s Statement of Faith affirms in sexual conduct only “intimate sexual activity between married heterosexual partners.” Their policy is identical to the United Methodist Church’s, whose Social Principles say “sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”


Adding to the contradiction, officially sanctioned campus ministry groups include not only United Methodists but also Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, whose official teachings in marriage and sexuality are the same. There is also a Muslim campus group, which presumably affirms Islamic teaching that sex is only for male/female marriage.

And there are several evangelical campus groups long established at Duke, like InterVarsity, which affirm the same orthodox teaching on sex.


In its unanimous vote against Young Life, the Duke student senate cited the by-laws for student organizations prohibiting “discrimination:”


Any group that engages in invidious discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sex, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or socioeconomic status shall be referred to the university administration under Section 2 of this Title. If and when adjudication by DSG is deemed appropriate, the group shall be punished on conviction for the major offense of Discrimination.


A religious group teaching that sex is only for male/female marriage was deemed discriminatory, but logically the concern should not end there. Understandably all of the campus ministry groups are led by persons who adhere to their respective faiths. The Muslim campus ministry won’t hire a Catholic to lead it, and the Catholic group won’t hire a Baptist or a Hindu. They, as they promote their respective religions, are discriminatory.


The Duke student senate presumably hasn’t yet tried to challenge or oust long existing campus ministries only because of their longevity. But its rejection of Young Life implies that any traditional religious group would have trouble gaining new access to Duke University in the current political environment.


Some traditional Christian groups are facing discrimination at university campuses because of their teachings of unique truth claims at odds with political correctness. In some cases they have successfully litigated against state schools. Duke University is private.


Of course, Duke is private because it was mostly founded and sustained by Methodism across 150 years. But as with nearly all of United Methodism’s 117 schools, the ties to church and Christian faith are increasingly remote.

Duke University is a large independent corporation that’s mostly indifferent to, if not increasingly embarrassed by, the United Methodist Church, despite Duke Divinity School, one of the denomination’s 13 official seminaries. In recent years the longtime policy that two-thirds of Duke’s trustees be nominated by North Carolina’s two United Methodist conferences was eliminated, in favor of a self-nominating board. The United Methodist bishop of North Carolina and one United Methodist minister currently are Duke trustees.


Earlier this year Duke University joined most other nominally United Methodist affiliated schools to denounce United Methodism’s traditional marriage teaching reaffirmed at the church’s governing General Conference in February. Across decades Duke has journeyed from meaningfully Methodist to generically Christian to religiously neutral to increasingly hostile to traditional religion.


As United Methodism globalizes and reconfigures, increasingly inconsequential affiliations with secularized schools likely will be amended or ended. And traditional United Methodists will need to create a new vision of meaningful Methodist higher education.


Mark Tooley became president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist committee (UMAction). He is also editor of IRD's foreign policy and national security journal, Providence.


Prior to joining the IRD, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and is a native of Arlington, Virginia. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988, when he wrote a study about denominational funding of pro-Marxist groups for his local congregation. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Virginia.

He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, published in 2008; Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, published in 2012; and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War, published in 2015. His articles about the political witness of America's churches have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The American Spectator, First Things, Patheos, World, Christianity Today, The Weekly Standard, National Review Online, Washington Examiner, Human Events, The Washington Times, The Review of Faith and International Affairs, Touchstone, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Post, and elsewhere. He is a frequent commentator on radio and television.

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