On Purdue’s rejection of donor’s reference to God, what changed in past 2 months?

Note: This article originally appeared in the jconline.com guest column on March 3, 2014.

Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe once quipped that balance is the illusive point we pass on the way to our next extreme.  We all struggle keeping life’s choices in between the goal posts.

This challenge was on bold display last week at Purdue.  The University asked a donor to Herrick Laboratories to suggest the wording on his dedicatory plaque and then summarily rejected it.  The outrageous quote that deserved this kind of censure?  “To those who seek to better the world through the understanding of God’s physical laws and innovation of practical solutions…”

Purdue found an allusion to God’s name so offensive that they are willing to model the very kind of intolerance we hope the students will not possess when they move on to work and live in a pluralistic culture.  They also potentially alienated untold donors who may share similar sentiments to Mr. McCraken and the faithful parents he sought to honor.  Let’s face it — Purdue’s position fails the balance test, badly.

It is out of balance academically.  The whole point of having a university is to promote the free exchange of ideas.  Academic diversity is the hallmark of great institutions.  Why does the promotion of tolerance stop the moment a religious idea enters the room?

It is out of balance intellectually.  Many great scientists grounded their thirst for knowledge and innovation on the desire to honor God.  Examples are everywhere, including Sir Isaac Newton who wrote that “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”  What’s wrong with encouraging students to openly discuss what motivates their quest for truth?

It is out of balance historically.  Less than 2 months ago the Fehsenfeld Soaring Center was dedicated with a beautiful plaque of a pilot and the poem “High Flight.”  The last line of the poem reads “put out my hand and touched the face of…God”.  Can someone explain why God is welcome at the Purdue Soaring Center but not at Herrick Laboratories?  Did the policy change from January to March?

It is out of balance legally.  Those suggesting this innocuous plaque would violate the first amendment seem to forget that there are two goalposts involved in this discussion — the government cannot establish religion but nor can it prohibit the free exercise thereof.  Anyone who believes the founders envisioned a public square washed clean of all things religious needs to explain why one of the first actions of Congress was to hire chaplains for both the House and Senate.

It is out of balance pedagogically.  Some say that allowing this expression might invite a lawsuit.  So is that the new standard we want to pass along to “makers all“?  Don’t take risks?  Don’t boldly stand for your ideals?  I hope not because the polar opposite is often required for innovation and progress.  Safe and success are close to one another only in the dictionary.

It is out of balance culturally.  Purdue students are being trained to function as global leaders.  That means possessing the kind of cultural sensitivity and openness that allows others to speak freely about their values and beliefs.  Do we want university graduates to infuse religious ideas where they do not belong?  Of course not.  But nor do we want them to be incapable of listening respectfully to others without becoming squeamish the first time God’s name is brought into the conversation.

It is out of balance financially.  It would be hard to picture a better way for the fundraising teams to shoot themselves in their collective feet.  Many donors to Purdue and elsewhere look to their personal relationship with God as the motivation for their generosity to others.  Why would the university needlessly offend a percentage of its donor base?

So what should Purdue do now?  I would suggest that the first step is for the school to evaluate their diversity training to see if religious tolerance is part of the curriculum.  It would appear to me that many leaders in our dear town would benefit from mandatory instruction on how to develop tolerance to the deeply held beliefs of others.

Then the administration should run not walk to the nearest phone and issue the most sincere apology possible to their donor and his family.  Blame it on this overly harsh weather freezing our brain cells.  Blame it on political correctness run amok.  Blame it on IU if you have to.  But by all means–back up the truck.

Lastly, let’s encourage the campus and our greater community to take a hard look at where this attempt to disinvite religious ideas from public discourse is taking us.  Because from where I sit, it appears that we are way out of balance.

Steve ViarsSteve Viars
Dr. Viars has served as a pastor and counselor at Faith since 1987. He is an author, national speaker, and Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Biblical Counseling Coalition.