Christian Union perpetuates culture of homophobia at elite universities

The Christian Union was founded in 2002 by CEO Matt Bennet to fight what he saw as the secularization of top universities and to raise up a generation of global leaders with Christian values. Since it established its first ministry program at Princeton University in 2002, Christian Union has established chapters at all eight Ivy League Schools, as well as at Stanford University and Harvard Law School. 

To most onlookers, the Christian Union appears to be a relatively benign presence on these campuses. Christian Union’s Dartmouth College chapter, for example makes waffles late on Friday nights to give to students walking home from Frat Row, and these “Christian waffles” have made the group somewhat of a hit among the college’s partying community. However, behind the Christian Union’s friendly aesthetic and glossy promotional materials, there is a sinister and well documented history of homophobia, and queer student members have felt the consequences of the organization’s fundamentalist approach to sex and sexuality.

In the wake of the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, the Christian Union Magazine published an article titled “After Obergefell: What Can the Church do?”, describing the ruling as “egregious” and calling on the church to reach out to “those with same-sex attraction and gender identity confusion” and help them form a “Biblical view of themselves.” Under all of the coded religious language, this means, at worst, praying the gay away, and at best, celibacy. 

On July 21, 2016, the Christian Union Magazine published an article titled “Christianity Can’t Be Stretched to Endorse Homosexuality,” directly in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla. Instead of mourning this instance of extreme violence against the LGBTQ community, the article launched into a defense of the organization’s non-affirming theology, arguing that a true Christian could never accept “gay sexual practices” while remaining faithful to the Bible.

This article is one of many on the topic of what the Christian Union calls “same-sex attraction” — even that phrase robs queer people of humanity and minimizes what it means to be gay — and all are available on Christian Union’s website for the world to see. However, the Christian Union is first and foremost an organization that engages with college students, and to understand the human impact of their fundamentalist theology, the Washington Blade reached out to several current and former Christian Union members about their experiences with the group. 

Darby Aono, who graduated from Yale University in 2017, became involved in Yale Christian Union at the end of her freshman year. She was invited to the group by a friend from her dorm, and Aono’s interactions with the first ministry fellow she met were overwhelmingly positive. She continued to get involved with Christian Union, including joining a Bible study later that year.

“I was at Yale over the summer, and I was invited to their Bible study, so I started going to that. There were definitely suspicious things — not about queer stuff, yet — but at that time they did not have women in leadership roles, and it was understood that were would not be,” Aono said. 

Valentina Fernandez is a current sophomore at Dartmouth College, and she shared that her experience with Christian Union at Dartmouth has been generally positive. But, similarly to Aono’s initial experience at Yale, Dartmouth’s chapter had an off-putting approach to gender.

Fernandez shared that everyone in the group was very welcoming during her first year, and as someone who was raised Christian but wasn’t very knowledgeable about traditions or the Bible, she was mostly there to find community.

“The reason why a lot of [sophomores], particularly girls, are not as involved this year is because apparently a girl can’t be president by herself — she needs to be co-president with a guy. And a lot of us were like, what?! I wish I knew more about that,” Fernandez said.

While the Christian Union’s approach to women in leadership was concerning for both Fernandez and Aono, it was when Aono started to question her own sexuality that more contentious conversations about queer identities started to surface within Yale Christian Union.

“I think it was maybe during my sophomore year, when I was like, oh, like, maybe I’m not straight. And so I would sometimes talk to my friend in my dorm who was in Christian Union, who originally invited me, and we would get into arguments about homosexuality,” Aono said.

“The party line of Christian Union at that time was ‘love the sinner, hate the sin,’ where we all sin, so we aren’t going to excommunicate anyone for feeling same sex attraction, but just don’t act on it. Don’t sin. I would say that was generally how people seemed to feel about it.”

Then, Aono joined a Christian Union book club, where they read Wesley Hill’s book “Washed and Waiting,” in which Hill advocates for gay Christians to live celibate.

“I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I will say I personally joined the book club because I knew I was queer,” Aono said. “A large part of the discussion was about how to acknowledge the fact that you experience same-sex attraction without acting on it.”

Aono described reading Bible passages in the book club about being gay alongside other passages about being a drunkard or a thief, and feeling a sense of deep incongruity between the two.

“I remember being in the book club and being like: Being gay just is categorically different than stealing. I don’t understand why those two things are listed together,” Aono said.

However, one of the most pivotal conversations about being queer during Aono’s time with the Christian Union happened in the wake of the Obergefell ruling. After seeing the articles Christian Union was publishing about homosexuality after the ruling, Aono reached out to Christian Union via email, asking them to stop spreading incorrect and harmful messages. This email is what got her a meeting with Chris Matthews, the ministry director of Yale Christian Union at the time.

“Somehow, the ministry director figured out that I had sent this email. And so eventually we ended up deciding to have a meeting. At first, we were just arguing about whether you could change the fact that you were gay. At some point, I basically came out to him as queer,” Aono recalled. “And he said, ‘I understand how you’re feeling, because when I was a teenager, I used to have sexual feelings towards office supplies, but I grew out of that.’ I didn’t even know what to say in response to that. I didn’t fight him, because I think I was too shellshocked.”

“I remember walking out of there and then having to go to a ‘welcome the freshmen to Christian Union’ event. And I was like, I don’t know how I’m supposed to go welcome some fucking freshmen after this,” Aono said.

While comparing being queer to being attracted to office supplies is a truly unique instance, moments of casual — and non-casual — homophobia are all too common in the Christian Union. This doesn’t mean that students don’t find meaningful community in the group, or that all of its members are non-affirming of queer people, but the organization itself has a long track record of unsupportive and sometimes outright discriminatory practices.

Harvard University’s chapter of Christian Union, called Harvard College Faith and Action, ignited controversy in 2018 for forcing a student leader to step down after finding out that she was in a celibate same-sex relationship. This led to HCFA being put on probation for violating the university’s anti-discrimination policies for student organizations, only to be re-recognized a year later, despite failing to disaffiliate from Christian Union as the college had required.

A recent Harvard graduate and former member of HCFA, who asked to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns, recalled being caught off guard by how non-affirming the organization was.

“I became interested in HCFA because of some racial justice work that they were doing,” they said. “I didn’t expect them to be fully affirming. I didn’t realize quite how bad it would be.”

A few months after HCFA pressured the student leader to step down for being in a same sex relationship, they again stirred controversy by inviting writer and self-identifying former lesbian Jackie Hill-Perry to Harvard to speak with Christian Union in February 2018. While HCFA characterized this as an “internal” event, Hill-Perry’s presence on campus drew attention, and protesters bearing rainbow flags showed up to the event.

Princeton University’s chapter of Christian Union had also hosted Jackie Hill-Perry in February 2017, so the practice of Christian Union paying a self-identified “speaker to preach on the sins of homosexuality was nothing new.” 

The recent Harvard graduate, who attended Hill-Perry’s Harvard speech, recalled the event and HCFA’s efforts to re-characterize it as an internal, scriptural conversation instead of an anti-gay public forum.

“It was very much spun as, she’s going to talk about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before he decided to sacrifice himself,” the graduate said. “The HCFA kept pushing the idea that this was going to be about this particular Bible story, which is a very important Bible story amongst Christians. Now, she did preach on that — and there was no program given before — but she very much preached on the immorality of same-sex relationships and how you can overcome same-sex attraction.”

Unlike Aono, who ended up talking with Yale Christian Union leadership about her concerns, the anonymous Harvard graduate recalled generally being ignored by HCFA leadership.

“I never got any meeting with any leadership. No one was pulling me into their office — I think they were just hoping I’d shut up,” they said. 

Like this former Harvard student, the Blade also had trouble getting a meeting with Christian Union leadership. Almost everyone to whom the Blade reached out to for this article declined to comment.

Don Weiss and Noah Crane, ministry directors at Harvard and Dartmouth, respectively, both declined requests for an interview. Multiple Dartmouth students who are or were Christian Union student leaders, and neither the communications staff of Christian Union nor Tyler Parker ever responded to multiple requests for comment. 

“I imagine a lot of people don’t want to talk to you because they were so incredibly damaged. I have no regrets — I’m glad that I brought this up because I have no idea if other people would have,” said the Harvard graduate. “I’m glad that people know that HCFA can be so harmful.”