As both a postgraduate and undergraduate alumnus of Oxford University, it didn't surprise me to read of Balliol College's JCR's motion to ban the Christian Union from its Freshers Fair.
The bad faith and prejudice towards Christians that was expressed through this decision is the sign of a far more problematic culture at Oxford, about which I have decided to speak out.
The Balliol JCR justified its decision by saying it was to ensure a 'secular space'. But 'secular' should never mean you ban different religious perspectives. Secularism is an ideology that removes the difference of the 'other', whether it is the gay celibate Christian like me, or the atheist who defends the right of Christians to express their faith. Secularism in its ascendant form needs to be pulled up for what it is: anti- Christian bias and discrimination.
Secularity, on the other hand, does none of these things. Secularity involves striving for the greatest possible diversity.
I went to the Christian Union as a celibate gay man. The banning of such a community and the notion that my presence as a Christian makes others unsafe shows that unless you agree with every aspect of secular discourse, you are a threat to be deleted. Such a decision makes me feel deeply unsafe.
The generalisations made by the JCR president reveal the ignorance of the Christian faith and the place of CUs in the fabric of university life that lies at the heart of a viciously anti-Christian bias at Oxford.
Secularism, in which majority prejudices are enforced on minority groups, is replacing secularity. Discrimination on the grounds of religion is just as discriminatory as discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, the double standard of most university contexts will mean that cases of discrimination against Christians will not be treated with the same severe consequences as when one's sexual orientation is involved.
Universities will have to confront cultural power and make unpopular decisions if they want to retain an environment that is truly safe for all, including Christians, to share their faith respectfully.
Here is why. We now live in an age where there are new minorities in the wealthy, educated west, including at Oxford. The reality is that is that decisions like that of the Balliol JCR have made university in Britain an unsafe place for me as a gay/same sex attracted celibate Christian man. The secular culture of the university during my time there had little awareness of my situation. There are many gay men and women who are Christians, and many others who are celibate like me because we have a different view on sexuality. We receive no support, and our voices are not included in the LGBTQI policies of the university. By many in the gay community we are looked down upon for being Christian. We are simply not protected and often universities are blind to our existence.
When a JCR president or any figure attempts to apply the policies of the university and represent the student life at Oxford by banning groups like the Christian Union, it reminds me of why Oxford was often an unsafe and highly stressful space for me. In that decision, it felt like I was banned. The LGBTQI rights discourse is often employed to subtly persecute Christians, particularly LGBTQI Christians who agree with a more traditional or 'orthodox' view of our own sexuality or gender identity.
If I did not agree with the mainstream secular view of my own sexual orientation, and opted to live celibately, I often felt as if I was the target of an intolerance by other students. Homophobia of all kinds, whether it's towards celibates like me, or those who have a different vision of their sexuality, is plainly wrong. The reality is that LGBTQI rights are being used to persecute Christians. Christians are perceived as the enemy, when the reality is every single Christian I know in Oxford loves LGBTQI people. Not once in my time in Oxford did I encounter bona fide homophobia among Christians. Every evangelically-minded Christian loved the community.
A culture of fear and a culture war is sitting under the surface, and it is only doing further damage. The University must be a place where these prejudices and fears are broken down, not vindictively played out through policies and student union policies.
The logic employed privileges one kind of subjectivity over another and contradicts its own standard. In order to remove the other or the perspective you disagree with, you portray them as a threat and create the most uncharitable picture possible of them. This victimhood culture is what is threatening the intellectual and cultural health of universities and society at large. It is opposed to true diversity and for popular secular uniformity. This is nothing less than discrimination and the denial of the rights of Christians, and especially, celibate gay Christians like myself.
I am glad Oxford has done something to stop it. Just as we must stand against homophobia that discriminates against someone based on their sexual orientation, so we must stand against 'christophobia', that discriminates against Christians for their view of sexuality and its sacred meaning. We must create a space where we are all safe and respect difference lovingly. That is the ideal of a secular space, and it is, in fact, a deeply Christian idea. I pray that Oxford would be a safe place for all.
David Bennett is an adjunct speaker for the RZIM Zacharias Trust.