Gay on God’s Campus is a book for the era of “the resistance,” that catch-all moniker of anti-Trump activism in its variegated forms. The resistance has broadened our definition of the activist to include individuals who heretofore would have eschewed such an identity, and perhaps eschew it still, as being only applicable to radicals and “political” types. Jonathan S. Coley’s book is not about Donald Trump, but it challenges us to think about activism and social change in broader and more flexible terms. Coley, a professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University, takes as his case study the remarkable rise in student activism for LGBT equality at Christian colleges and universities across the United States, primarily from the 1990s to the present. Through sociological—as well as historical and ethnographic—methods, he sets out to understand why students at these schools participate in LGBT groups, and what impact such groups have on participants and campuses. Coley’s central contention—and he does make a compelling case—is that you simply cannot understand the nature of these movements, or grasp the key to their effectiveness, by focusing solely on those students who participate out of what he calls their primary “politicized” identity—an identity type he contrasts with other primary identities such as religious, educational, moral, and relational. In short, Coley is advocating for an “inclusive understanding of activism,” which stands in contrast to the narrower emphasis of his field (8).
But Gay on God’s Campus is about much more than an argument pitched to fellow scholars of social movement studies (though at times—particularly in the framing of the project—Coley is beholden to the terminology of that sub-discipline). In this book, the reader receives at least four other novel gifts.
First, Gay on God’s Campus provides the most comprehensive historical accounting to date for the rise of LGBT activism at Christian colleges and universities (as far as I am aware). Coley observes the ways that such activism is informed by larger trends toward LGBT acceptance in the American public, while not collapsing these contexts. The majority of writing on LGBT activism on Christian campuses has thus far been journalistic and memoir driven, often focusing on one campus or one individual’s experience. For this reason, Coley’s contribution to this history is welcome, even if it is relatively brief. The historian will hope that he further documents this history in future writings.
Second, we should thank Coley for his painstaking statistical analysis of the 682 Christian colleges and universities in the United States. He crunches the numbers and gives to us—in easily digestible form—the relevant statistics for understanding the social structures within which LGBT activism emerges on these campuses. For example, he notes that as of 2013, 307 of the 682 schools “had approved officially recognized LGBT groups,” and 375 of the 682 “had adopted nondiscrimination statements inclusive of gender identity” (35).
Third, in addition to the big picture analysis of the 682 colleges, Coley goes into depth on four campuses: Goshen College (Mennonite), Catholic University of America (Roman Catholic), Loyola University Chicago (Roman Catholic), and Belmont University (non-denominational with Baptist roots). He conducted interviews with a total of 65 students who had been active members of LGBT student groups on these campuses. The result is a rich qualitative data set that grounds the abstract statistical analysis in the lived experience of student activists. It is precisely these in-depth interviews that make Coley’s re-definition of the activist most compelling.
Finally, and perhaps most enduringly, Gay on God’s Campus is a manual for achieving social change through activism on Christian college campuses, though of course, Coley refrains from describing his research in such terms. Chapter 4, “Creating Change,” is a thoughtful analysis of what forms of activism work on these campuses and why. He considers activist efforts to change campus policy, campus climate, and hearts and minds. He concludes that effective activist movements on these campuses are often those that repurpose the language in a school’s theology such that it supports LGBT causes, or at least generates dialogue. In an unforgettable example, Coley describes a student group called Bridge Builders at Belmont University. This well-organized group managed to convince the school’s leadership to adopt a nondiscrimination policy, in part, by reframing LGBT issues, not in political terms, but as a theological discourse on Christ’s love for all.
Gay on God’s Campus is for students of sociology, religious studies, gender and sexuality, and, surely, for the brave activists themselves.
Philip Salim Francis is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Maine, Farmington, and Director of Seguinnland Institute.
Philip Salim Francis
Date Of Review:
March 18, 2019
Jonathan S. Coley is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Monmouth College.
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