Tension By jake davis

The Community

Marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Anyone raised in or around more conservative Christian circles knows the cultural weight of this statement. Its verbalization echoes through church buildings and town halls, but its true impact goes far, far deeper than public conversation.

My name is Jake Davis. I am a student at Harding University, a conservative-leaning private Christian college based in Searcy, Arkansas. It’s always easy to sum up an organization from the outside. To simplify something down to a caricature of its most predictable characteristics is human nature. As for Harding, some Searcy residents see it as a comforting, loving friend that helps keep the town’s morality in check. To others, however, Harding is seen as a breeding ground for closed-minded and intolerant worldviews. As I said, simplifying is easy. Having grown up in Searcy, I’ve personally seen Harding in many different lights and from multiple perspectives, but one topic seems to almost shadow Harding’s name in public conversation: sexuality.

They don’t allow gay people there.

Gay Harding students are required to go to conversion therapy.

Why would a gay student ever go to Harding in the first place?

Statements like these tend to linger in the air as pollen, constantly causing discomfort and spreading uncontrollably. Outsiders have to wonder, though, if there is truth in them. If there isn’t, why would these rumors have started in the first place? What are Harding’s thoughts on the matter? As a senior Harding student, I probably knew more than the average outsider when this project began, but I was still curious about Harding’s specific, fine print opinion on sexuality. So, like any decent investigative journalist, I went directly to the source of all things Harding policy: the current student handbook.

The Policy

Harding University holds to the biblical principle that God instituted marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman. Students are prohibited from being married to or dating a person of the same sex. Neither may students engage in behavior suggesting a romantic relationship with a person of the same sex. The University further holds to the biblical principle that sexual relationships are unacceptable to God outside the context of marriage and immoral. Sexual immorality in any form will result in suspension from the University.

So, on one hand, the statements contain truth. The handbook prohibits any homosexual relationships, marriages, or behavior that even hints at the possibility of a same-sex relationship. I’ve read nothing about conversion therapy, but I do know the university’s counseling center would openly speak about sexuality if the student desired to discuss it. Notice, though, how sexual orientation is never specifically mentioned. As this is a handbook consisting mainly of rules and regulations, I don’t expect it to give the full story on something as personal as sexual orientation, but from what I’ve read, students will not be directly punished for being attracted to the same sex. Things more easily measured, such as sexual relationships with someone of the same sex, are what can get a student suspended from the university.

To those with beliefs similar to those at the core of Harding’s doctrine, this may seem like a totally understandable policy. Heterosexual acts of the same level of “sexual immorality” will also get a student suspended, after all. It must be understood, though, that people with more liberal beliefs might see these rules as repressive at best and completely homophobic at worst. According to this text, homosexual students cannot even slightly display romantic interest in someone for fear of losing their education. This unavoidable clash of ideologies, of course, brings us to the real crux of our story. What does it mean to be gay? Is sexuality a choice? Could someone even bear to attend Harding if their sexual preference didn’t align with our school’s ideals? As these questions collided with each other in my head, I realized I was a terrible person to ask these questions to.

So I called a friend.

The Interview

We’ve been friends for a long while now. Through every project we’ve worked together on (and there have been quite a few), I’ve always appreciated his absolute honesty. This project was headed into much more vulnerable territory, though. How does one ask a good friend to speak so openly about something so raw?

The answer? Find a good friend with a lot to say and not a lot to hold back. He was more than willing to talk about the real-world effects of Harding’s handbook on his student experience. In fact, he went a step further by helping me better understand a group of people that I’ll never be able to fully relate to.

Some of it was heartbreaking to hear. We’d had similar conversations before, but giving him an opportunity to really let his thoughts loose opened doors I’d never thought to open. I was after a human element to pair with the rigidity of written law, and I’d definitely found what I was looking for.

In my ignorance, I never would’ve thought about how heavily the abundance of heterosexual relationships could weigh on the mind of a gay man. The “marriage factory” quips about universities like Harding suddenly felt even more unsettling.

After hearing his insights, I thought about how Harding as a whole could change itself to better accommodate people like my friend. Of course there was the issue of policy change first and foremost. Maybe it’s time to update a rule that, from my personal investigation, seems to lend itself to self-loathing and bitter confusion. It could also be time to help Harding’s staff members be more readily available to students of different sexualities. I know from personal experience just how debilitating it can feel to not know how best to help someone due to my own limited perspective. Maybe everyone enrolled at Harding could take a seminar on the subject? As I went down this rabbit hole of prospective legal action, I thought of another, possibly more plausible way to go about change.

Policy advancement is a great idea, but putting change into practice through slow years of school board decisions might not be the most practical next step in helping this community. One of the most reactive parts of any university was sitting right under my nose: the student body.

Students present their own difficulties to bringing positive change. Before anything major could commence, I wanted to get a feel for our current group of students’ opinions on this whole sexuality discussion. What if the entire campus held strong opinions against the LGBTQ+ community? What if they were already trying their best to help them? Both of those outcomes would require completely different responses on my part, so I needed to educate myself on Harding’s current stance as a whole somehow.

The Numbers

I began to form survey questions in my mind that could possibly tackle such a feat. If I wanted to create an accurate representation of our community’s ideological spectrum, the questions had to be pressing, uncomfortable even. It’s a ridiculous notion to grasp any part of a person’s worldview with a few multiple choice questions, let alone such a large chunk of their personal faith alongside it. To compensate a little, I offered a text box in the survey for anyone willing to voice their opinions more eloquently. Aside from personal opinions on sexuality, I also included questions on Harding’s current treatment of these situations. I was curious to see if anyone else knew bad experiences like my friend’s, or maybe even if someone had good experiences to share. After somehow convincing one hundred students to take my completed survey, the data finally became somewhat tangible.

I’m not sure what I expected from my conservative-leaning Christian college student body, but it definitely wasn’t the group of results I read after the survey closed. Only seven of one hundred people believed that suspension was Harding’s best answer to "sexual immorality" (as defined in the handbook). Seven people! Another tidbit that caught my interest was the fact that thirty-six students felt their personal beliefs aligned with Harding’s on marriage and sexual immorality, but less than half of that number thought Harding maintained a good relationship with its LGBTQ+ students. People from every side of the issue realize we’re not doing our best as a faith-based community to bring help to those who truly need it, and the data speaks for itself.

I believe these statistics help display the universality of wanting to mend burnt bridges no matter where someone’s personal convictions lie. It should be noted, however, that this is just a small sample of students when compared to the full-sized student body, but I think it might be more representative than people would assume. I, personally, was completely surprised by the results. Maybe the winds really were changing.

As I mentioned earlier, the survey didn’t end with the numbers.

The Response

In the text box I set aside for personal testimonies, more than thirty people sent me their very personal thoughts on these very personal matters. One thing the responses taught me was that confidentiality makes people feel a lot more liberated when they write. The majority of them didn’t leave their name or classification despite my request to do so, so I won’t be quoting those responses. I will just emphasize again that the confidential people had a lot to say, and they were extremely passionate about the subject at hand.

To start, senior Patrick Jones voiced his opinion on Harding’s policy loudly and clearly:

“By suspending a student because of their sexual choice is the worst possible decision we as Christians could make. By suspending them, we are not reaching out to them to change their ways. We are shunning them. That is not what the Bible calls us to do, the Bible calls us to minister to all, not to send them away because they have certain ways of life. Some of my best friends are of the homosexual community and I cannot tell you how many of them have felt shunned by the Christian community simply because of their choice. Should we make them change their minds? No, because that is their choice and God gave us free will for a reason. Should we offer our advice to them should they come to us for it? Absolutely. Just because we are Christians, doesn't mean we should force our beliefs down others throats… You're not perfect either. Be kind. Be godly. Cause the more we shun the LGBTQ community, the further away from God's example we get.”

Patrick makes some fair points while also alluding to the homosexual community my friend mentioned. It is reassuring to know that those students are not completely shrouded in secrecy.

Freshman Hannah Akridge also shared her thoughts on the subject:

“So, to me it's not Harding's job to suspend for homosexuality. I also don't like the idea of a college punishing sins that are not against the law, no matter what their beliefs are. Illegal acts like underage drinking or drugs makes perfect sense. In Bible class we were taught that yes it is a sin, but Paul in the NT is mostly talking about older men LUSTING after young boys. Not two grown men (or women) that are committed to each other in every way. Yes, you can be a devout Christ follower and be a homosexual. I have many dear friends who are a loving couple who desperately want to serve the Lord with a church but are condemned everywhere. Harding's attitude plays a big role in that around here. My Bible professor also said that Harding does not punish you for having the homosexual inclination, but for the act of being in a relationship. "One should never feel guilty for their inclination, Harding just asks that you don't engage in it while here." I appreciate the first part, but cringe at the second. I get that we should strive to be like Christ, but if we don't mess up, you miss the point of Jesus. Grace. We are ALL Christ followers who are living in sin. There is no difference.”

Hannah gives further insight into the sexual orientation versus sexual engagement issue brought up in the handbook discussion, and she re-emphasizes how this separation and repression can damage a person.

Without quoting too many of the responses, it should be understood that a lot of them were just as fervent as these. There is obviously a desire to be vocal about this topic coming from a lot of different directions, and I think these responses speak volumes about those that spent time organizing their thoughts for me. If they expended that much energy answering a no-name survey, I can’t imagine what good they could do for the future of Harding’s policy or public policy in general.

The Future

From what I’ve seen and heard, there is hope for reconciliation between two groups that have been at odds for far too long. At the end of the day, Harding University’s policy is only as relevant as its students and faculty make it. If my survey is any indication to what’s in store for Harding, I see a large majority of youthful, energetic people determined to rebuild bridges destroyed by generations of alienation. Wherever the convictions of their personal faiths land on the spectrum, they seem to want to connect with those they may not fully understand. I see a spirit of Jesus Christ drawing in the sand, replying to those readying their stones with the statement, “Let you who has no sin cast the first one.” I see hope in a place that outsiders might have written off as hopeless long ago. I see love for the misunderstood and the poor in spirit. I see a bright future, and while it won’t be free of bumps or bruises, at least there’s still time to correct its path.

Oh, and here’s a picture of my friend. His name is Adam Leasure, and he sees no point in hiding his face any longer.

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