Leave it Alone, Tabor College.

Dear Joel,

Thanks for the update from Tabor College this week, where Professor Del Gray’s explanation of why he won’t be standing for the national anthem or saying the pledge of allegiance is making a lot of news. His writing on the matter, which he shared with us recently, has been an encouraging reminder that Christians are to challenge injustices such as racism, not capitulate to it, even when performed by our own government. That includes opposing nationalism.

Not everyone agrees, of course, including the folks at College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri, near Branson.

Starting this semester, students are required to earn credits in “patriotic education.” The college’s goal in this is to “encourage an understanding of American heritage, civic responsibility, love of country, and willingness to defend it.” While the bookstore’s website doesn’t list books for IDS 103: Patriotic Education, it includes map reading, riflery, and flag protocol, as well as content about US government and history.  In interviews, the college president says that the goal isn’t to coerce patriotism, but… well, that just can’t be true. The course description says that the goal is to “encourage a love of country,” which is, definitonally, patriotism. The Higher Learning Commission accredits the College of the Ozarks, and one concern for accrediting is that the course description reflects the learning objectives in the course–and that students are reliability and validly assessed on how well they meet those objectives. So when a course is described as encouraging “love of country,” the professor better have some way of measuring if students are, in fact, leaving the class with a “love of country.” It’s hard to know how a college might choose to define that since “love” (and “willingness to defend”) is a rather mushy concept, not quite the same as “can recite the presidential line of succession” or “demonstrates and understanding of the balance of powers.” If you have to “love” America to do well in the course, that means that the college has decided what “love” looks like. And since there is a grade at the end, one that leads to a larger credential, this is absolutely coercive as the College has described it.

And love of country at College of the Ozarks takes one flavor: rightwing. Karl Rove visits campus later this month, and others listed as  “famous guests” are George W. Bush, Sarah Newt Gingrich, Margaret Thatcher, Benjamin Netanyahu. John Ashcroft, and Franklin Graham.

This is a 1,500 person college in a region of Missouri that is unincorporated. In other words: This isn’t just another little religious liberal arts school; this is a center for marrying conservative Republican politics with conservative Protestant religion.

It might not surprise you that the College of the Ozarks also has a “No Pledge No Play” rule. Not only are Bobcat athletes and coaches required to stand whenever the anthem is played or the pledge recited, so are the teams they are playing against. If you don’t, they pack up their ball and go home.

Tabor College, as you know, is having a conversation about whether to pursue a policy that would require athletes to stand for the anthem.

I don’t expect much better at the College of the Ozarks, where conformity to political conservatism is the norm, and conformity is stressed in the handbook: students must dress “modestly” both on and off campus; no “distracting” styles, including hair colors. Women may not have more than two ear piercings per ear, straps on shirts must be at least three inches wide, inseams in shorts must be at least five inches. Men must wear traditional hairstyles; hair should be kept off the top of the ear and not touch the collar. They can’t wear cosmetics or have any piercings at all. You get the idea.

To be clear, students are free to accept any limitations on their appearance that they choose.  My point is only that conformity to very explicit standards is expected at College of the Ozarks. And that conformity is conformity to a politically conservative ideal about gender. Indeed, engaging in OR encouraging others to engaging in “[g]ender expression inconsistent with sex assigned at birth” is a violation of the student handbook and reason for dismissal, as is “heterosexual misconduct” or “homosexual conduct” (which is, in this view, inherently sexual misconduct).

Again, students–even 18-year-olds who are fresh out of homeschool (or the College of the Ozarks’ K-12 academy, School of the Ozarks)–are free to enter private institutions where they are agreeing that their rights will be limited.

As a college professor, I question the pedagogy of setting up so many rules and of providing so many answers during a time when young people are eager to ask questions.

But more, as a Christian, I object to the lack of respect for individual conscience.

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Above, a sculpture of the cross, a dove flying near it, floats above the ground. White linen, is draped around it. The sculpture is part of Centennial Plaza at Tabor College’s campus. 

That might not matter much to College of the Ozarks, which calls itself “interdenominational” but is pretty fundamentalist in its outlook. But Tabor, which traces it history through those Anabaptists who were defined by their belief that individuals had the right to believe as they choose, should care a lot. As the early Hutterite baptismal instruction urged:

We do not put pressure on anyone who does not join [the church] of his own free will. We desire to persuade no one with smooth words. It is not a matter of human compulsion from without or within, for God wants voluntary service. Whoever cannot do this with joy and to the delight of his soul should therefore leave it alone.

Tabor is part of a tradition that respects individual freedom in religion; surely it can do the same for patriotism.


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